If the title of David Rakoff's new book, Half Empty, seems to portend a celebration of pessimism, you're only half right. Yes, in these essays hopes are raised only to be dashed. Rakoff's Big Acting Break ends in failure; the sunny sky's-the-limit optimism of the dot-com boom proves a chimera; the promisingly named Exotic Erotic Ball and Expo proves a bore... Hell, even the Jews in Rakoff's world are pork-obsessed.
But Rakoff is no Eeyore. Eeyore was not nearly this observant. Or incisive. Or witty. Or let's face it, this much fun to read. As a writer and performer, Rakoff is sought after by some of the top publications and productions in the country — This American Life, Salon, the New York Times Magazine, and, that Holy of Holies, The Daily Show — for a reason.
Emily Gordon may have overdone it when she described Rakoff as "a delectable Cole Porter, Nicholson Baker, and Sarah Vowell smoothie," but you get the idea. Rakoff has the rare ability to do cynical, world-weary, and playful at the same time. He's also a world-class wit. It was David Rakoff, after all, who spawned a thousand protest T-shirts when he made the classic rejoinder to the homophobic Religious Right: "Well, of course not Adam and Steve. Never Adam and Steve. It's Adam and Steven."
Rakoff's world may not be coming up roses. But, let's face it, who the hell really wants roses?
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Chris Farley: You've talked about how much fun acting is and how relaxing you find crafts projects. But you describe writing as being "like pulling teeth — out of your dick." I'm curious how it's different, and why you do it.
David Rakoff: Well, writing is completely different in that it is tremendously difficult and it never gets easier. There's a long part of a long piece in the book called "Isn't It Romantic," which is about the myth of Bohemianism. You know, the myth of that kind of heady, raffia-wrapped, Chianti-bottled, carnal-mayhem kind of fantasy. And how, in fact, sitting down with oneself to make art is the very opposite of that kind of fun cavorting . It's literally about sitting alone with yourself and seeking out the work and tolerating yourself long enough to do it.
I can really only speak to writing, because the acting is done as a lark. I don't particularly consider myself an actor. I have no training. I love doing it, but I would never consider myself to be a colleague of an actual actor. That would be stepping way up in class on my part.
But, writing, it always begins poorly. It can only begin poorly. As I describe in the book, it's more like trying to reverse engineer something edible from rotten food than assembling a meal out of palatable ingredients. It goes on the page poorly, and then you have to live with the fact that you create bad work the first time around. Because that's what one does in writing. You have to live with that — and with yourself — long enough to then dial it back and work on it and make it better. That is tremendously difficult. Yet, in the end, it's incredibly sustaining.
It's the difference between refined sugar and complex carbohydrates. They're not as fun to eat in the short run, but are more sustaining in the long run. Arts and crafts, or getting to be in a play with people, or making a little short film, that's pure sugar, because the stakes are so low. At least they are for me.
Farley: Do you think if the stakes weren't so low, you would still do those things? Say you made arts and crafts for a living. Would it become less fun?
Rakoff: It's funny. I did a story about exactly about that in my last book, about working at Martha Stewart, and, in fact, doing crafts for money. Yes, I think it would become immediately less fun. I mused on the fact that even before I wrote for a living, when I was just writing for the love of it (oh, let's be honest; when I was still writing for the hate of it — and for no money) I still found it incredibly difficult. I guess that's why I respect it so much. It doesn't come easily.