A few months ago, I went to a live taping of the radio program This American Life. The show was taped in New York and beamed across theatres in the United States, Canada and Australia. A revelation, displaying a hunger from audiences to participate in a show devoted to storytelling. With crashes and explosions from the soundtrack of the neighbouring Avengers, our packed house watched modern dancers, performed interactively with a band of bells through our smart phones and listened to people read stories on screen. One of those storytellers was David Rakoff. He walked on stage with his left hand tucked into his pocket. I thought his unmoving arm was part of the performance as he told a story about an operation that severed the tendons in his shoulder. You can watch his reading from This American Life here:
Three months later, Rakoff died from cancer. Strangely, I was quite taken with this news, as though I heard of a death of a family member. Strangely, I say, because I remembered his distinctive voice on This American Life, but was not that familiar with any of his work.
I tracked down some interviews and immediately became intrigued with this man and his writing. It saddens me that it took his death to discover his writing as there remains a finite amount to burn through. And burning through it I am, trying to tell myself to slow down, but I can’t, my obsessive nature overcoming me, devouring this new discovery of a person’s work that is truly inspiring. Not inspiring in some kind of Oprah 'A-Ha' thing. Rakoff was almost the opposite, his work unsheathing the need to be precious and gentle with the world. He told it like it was.
This is why the novel will never die. This is why the need for authentic voices will always be.
Sometimes you feel alone, your thinking patterns wrong. Out of synch with society. Anxieties unfound. I am not a person with many friends, many of my friends are found in books. Every once in a while, you come across a writer whose work you’re not simply reading, but having some kind of secret and silent dialogue with internally. In Rakoff's book Fraud, I found an entire book filled with essays about feeling disjointed, about not belonging. He wrote about being a Canadian in America, climbing a mountain on Christmas day and working at jobs that questioned his integrity. Integrity, and the fight for it, can be lost in today's world. When I've left jobs because of integrity, I felt ostracized and like I was doing something wrong. My decisions were not only right, but the only thing I could do in order to retain my individualism, my integrity. It's somewhat comforting to know that my feelings of not fitting in, of feeling lost and wondering where I belong, are not only shared by someone like Rakoff, who could communicate his melancholic thoughts through an exquisite use of language, but also through an audience of readers that collectively connect to his work, and in turn, connects us all as readers to each other.
Some called Rakoff a pessimist, but to me this word carries a negative connotation and is often wrongly associated with cynicism. His was not cynical, just grounded in realism. Within that realism there was a hope that perhaps he, and in turn us, could do better. A reality to authentically look at things the way they actually are and not blindingly accept the standard answer. Excavating for authenticity. He praised melancholy and wasn’t afraid to admit to it. Seems like a small thing when written here, but for some reason, in this day and age, it takes guts to be true to your feelings, even if they are not pleasant.
Rakoff had a fear of putting his writing out there for others to see. He worked menial jobs in publishing companies handling the manuscripts of others while struggling secretly with his own work. After discussing with my own therapist my desire to fully commit myself to my writing in a way I haven’t before, I left that session, started my car, and on my ipod the continuation of a Rakoff interview picked up. He was explaining how his own therapist helped his confidence to quit his day job and focus on writing. How he regretted many things and was fine with that, but this writing thing, even if he failed miserably, was one regret he didn’t want. Sometimes it feels like people you never knew are speaking to you. Sometimes the universe conspires to tell you something.
In my day-to-day life, I just want people to stop lying to me. They’re not big lies, just where I'm treated as a child or imbecile. Those ‘everything is great’ lies, those ‘the ship is sinking but doesn’t the water look nice’ lies. Rakoff didn’t lie. I realize this is trite to be speaking of this writer like I knew him. Many people who have read his work probably feel the same way.
When someone in the public eye dies, I generally loathe that everyone talks about their own experiences, telling stories that really seem more about them. There’s something selfish about it. I didn’t even know David Rakoff, and I intended to write about his writing, but this has all been about me. So, I'm a hypocrite, but I'm admitting it. I learned from Rakoff that it's okay to have these contradictory feelings. You just have to admit it, admit to the authenticity of your feelings in that moment and realize that it's okay and nothing bad is going to happen. And sometimes, these admittances can be the breakthrough you needed. This is why writing has such power. It can make you forget your own failings, your own judgments and prejudices. It can make you feel things you forgot.
I don't usually do this, but I highly recommend you buy his books: Fraud, Don't Get Too Comfortable and Half-Empty. Trust me, you'll like them if you're into funny and insightful stuff.