David Rakoff: On College, Writing, and Sleeping Around

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I was very honored this week to interview one of my favorite writers – David Rakoff.

Rakoff is a regular contributor to NPRs This American Life, and writes for New York Times Magazine, Outside, GQ, Vogue, Salon, Seed, The New York Observer, Wired, et al. Hes also received the Lambda Book Award twice.

His books Fraud and Dont Get Too Comfortable have been my companions for many years, and I highly recommend you check them out when you get a chance.

The interview follows . . .

[About College]

Q. What type of student were you at Columbia University?

A: Its very hard to remember. I wasnt super academically distinguished. No Greek letters follow my degree. I was an East Asian Studies major, which meant learning Japanese (for someone of European extraction, learning an Asian language is a great exercise in being very, very bad at and unfamiliar with something. Its been an invaluable lesson for me as a writer, where every new piece puts me right back in that spot). What elseI did fun theater, wore a long black thrift store coat, and smoked like a dream of adolescent alienation. It was an urban paradise.

Q. What did you like/dislike about college?

A: The entire process of picking a major was more about putting aside many things that interested me as opposed to choosing one true and great love. I had tried to design a major wherein I might learn four or five languages, but it was the early 80s, before students were customers, before universities catered in that way, and before Igreen Canadianknew the ropes. I regret not having really good French, Italian, Spanish, and German under my belt, for example.

If you could redo college, would you do anything differently?

A: See above. Id also exercise more and sleep around a lot.

What advice do you have for current college students?

A: Exercise and sleep around a lot. And remember two things: youth is the least interesting thing you have to bring to the table, namely, dont concentrate so much on being a prodigy. And There Is No Map (this is just a sidebar to the first rule. Its largely unimportant what age by which you achieve most things. Try not to measure yourself against the inevitable hot shots. Theres no profit in it).

[About Writing]

What is your writing process like?

A: Oy vey. The writings not going great right now. I do make it a point to stay home all day every day, but it feels like I manage about ten minutes of writing a day, if that. There are some snacks and naps and e-mails and phone calls thrown in there, too. Plus art projects. Lots of duct tape wallets of late.

Do you have any strategies for staying productive and making your deadlines?

A: The perceived disapproval and disappointment of others in me is the most effective goad for my productivity.

You describe writing as pulling teeth out of your dick. What drives you to keep going?

A: I love having written. In the almost boozy afterglow of retrospect, I almost dont remember the jagged molars journey up my urethra.

When do you know/feel your essay is finished for publication?

A: A lot of it has to do with deadline. The actual time when something is due and necessarily has to leave my desk. But theres also a point where youve written rewritten, walked away to let the gluten rest and then done yet another pass when you know something is finished. Or as finished as you can make it in that time. It turns out to be not quite as mysterious a moment as you might think.

Can you tell us about your next book?

A: To reiterate, Oy Vey. Well, its ostensible arc is a defense of melancholy, pessimism, anxiety, and all of the emotions that have been tarred with the brush of negativity and therefore stricken from the larger cultural conversation. I hope to argue (in a highly discursive, collage-like and possibly unintelligent manner) that, while these emotions may well be hedonically less pleasant, they remain necessary and even beautiful at times.

Learn more about David Rakoff: