The heart is a hunter

Posted in Duff 'n Stuff

Duff ’n Stuff, Aug. 21, 2012

When I find myself at a loss as to what to write, what to post in this blog or what to bloog, or bloop, or whatever this is, I refer back to that line my friend “Sky” gave me.

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”

But perhaps that won’t be enough, I worry.

“Just get it down,” Sky would say. (That’s not really her name, but I think she would appreciate the symbolic poetry of such a name so I christen her with it now.)

So I listen to some good, semi schmaltzy music that makes me cry so I can drum up some deep feelings, and see what happens next.

Deep feeling is what good writing begins with, and if anybody tells you otherwise they’re lying. You could call it “honesty.” In fact, that’s what all art is about, as far as I’m concerned; art that’s worth its weight, anyway. It should be somewhat frightening to create something if you are honest about what feelings you’re trying to get on the page, the canvas, the stage, or whatever it is that you do.  If you’ve got a few butterflies in your gut, you’re on the right track.

It came to me that I wanted to write about this past weekend’s edition of “This American Life,” the radio show hosted by Ira Glass, which was devoted to writer David Rakoff, mainly because my heart jumped a beat for this guy I didn’t even know when I heard him read.

Rakoff, a frequent contributor to “This American Life,”  died Aug. 9.

Writer David Rakoff/Times Square Gossip photo

I could tell Glass was sad, and that he really respected Rakoff; that his writing was significant to him. Glass played a series of pieces Rakoff had recorded for the show through the two decades since he had been diagnosed and been treated for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at age 22. While writing his latest book, “Half Empty,” Rakoff was diagnosed with cancer again. His doctors told him that the cancer — a sarcoma in his neck — was caused by earlier radiation treatments he received for the lymphoma, and could cause him to eventually lose his arm. He was 47 when he died.

Rakoff was totally honest in in his writing and about who he was ‑ a gay, Canadian Jew transplanted to New York, who whined about not getting published (or getting laid) through most of his 20s, until he realized you have to actually write something if you want to be a writer, and get laid.

He became prolific.

Here he writes about being Canadian in “White Like Me.”

Whether he was clobbering the musical “Rent” for its saccharine depiction of AIDS or rendering his personal tragedies in comic color, his sharp observations and humorist’s flair for the absurd exemplified his tried-and-true belief in the power of negativity, or what he liked to call “defensive pessimism.”

He eventually became one of the wittiest humorists of his generation, on par with his contemporaries, such as the equally acerbic and hilarious writers David Sedaris and Jonathan Goldstein, who often appeared with him on “This American Life.”

Glass played a recording of a piece Rakoff read called “Sheetcakes in the Conference Room, Whiskey after Dark,”  in which he makes fun of the days when he worked as a low-level assistant in the New York publishing world. In it is the particularly hilarious deconstruction of the Broadway musical, “Rent,” which I love for its no-holds-barred approach to writing about that thing that nobody else will admit; exposing the emperor in his tacky, see-through robe.

In “The Meaning of a Bird,” Rakoff writes about one of the most significant moments in his young life, which happened on a kibbutz surrounded by 5,000 chickens.

Sometimes what we write, or say, or create is a surprise. Sometimes how other artists affect us to cause us to create is also a surprise.

I can’t say that I ever paid a lot of attention to Rakoff’s books; I only ever heard him on that radio show, though now I know I will reach for his books. But, hearing about his death through one of his friends and hearing him read from his last work, “Love Dishonor, Marry, Die; Cherish, Perish…A Novel by David Rakoff,” less than two weeks before he died made me want to do something, say something, write something.

Rest in peace, David Rakoff.

From the heart,

Patricia Duff

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