Rakoff Gives Honest, Candid Twain Lecture

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David Rakoff is very anxious. As a defensive pessimist, he’s always expecting and preparing for the worst. For example, as he joked in the writer’s craft talk he gave Friday, April 27 as part of the Twain Lecture Series, he always knows where the fire exits in the room are and how much oxygen per person the area can withstand. “Defensive pessimism [is] a presentiment of doom,” Rakoff explained. If you lower your expectations and believe everything is going to be a disaster, you can effectively manage your anxiety. Despite Rakoff’s lowered expectations, he spoke eloquently and at-length about the writing process, his pessimism and anxiety, and humor at the writer’s craft talk and later in the evening, when he read insightful and witty essays from his books as part of his main lecture.

The Mark Twain Lecture Series on American Humor and Culture was started in 2007 by Ben Click, professor and head of the English Department. Since its beginning, there have been over 40 Twain Lecture Series events, with speakers like comedians Mo Rocca and Larry Wilmore and authors Firoozeh Dumas and Peter Sagal.

This year, the featured speaker was David Rakoff, a critically acclaimed humor writer. He is a winner of the Thurber Prize for Humor for his book of essays Half Empty, a two-time recipient of the Lambda Book Award for Humor, and he has been shortlisted for the Whiting Award as well as the Stephen Leacock Medal. He is a regular contributer to Public Radio International’s “This American Life” and his writing has also appeared in “The New York Times Magazine” and numerous collections including The Best American Travel Writing, The Best American Non-Required Reading, and Outside 25: The Best of Outside Magazine’s 25 Years.

 His work will also appear in the forthcoming The Fifty Funniest American Writers from the Library of America. He is also an actor who has worked in theater with humorists David and Amy Sedaris on their plays “Stitches,” “The Little Freida Mysteries,” “The Book of Liz,” and “One Woman Shoe.” He adapted the screenplay and starred in the 2010 Academy Award-winning “The New Tenants.”

At the writer’s craft talk, Click introduced Rakoff as the “best writer we’ve had so far,” explaining that “you can see the craft in his work.” Beginning first by briefly discussing his thoughts on writing and humor, Rakoff explained that writing “never gets easier–it only gets harder.” Writing, Rakoff said, is a dreadful experience for him in the most literal way. He dreads sitting down and writing anything and explained that his writing always starts out badly and he just hopes for the confidence to improve what he’s written.

Rakoff believes that humor writing especially is contingent upon an ineherent feeling of outsider-hood since, according to Rakoff, “you have to feel somewhat out of the mainstream.” Other than that characteristic of humor-writing, however, Rakoff insisted that being comical is a value-neutral trait. Having a sense of humor is vital, because without it “you’re kind of a bad person,” but even though being funny can be socially helpful, it’s neither a positive or negative characteristic.

But Rakoff is funny–bitingly so–and he derives his humor mostly from his melancholy and his frustrations.  “You don’t make stuff up,” Rakoff explained. “You take things that you have witnessed… and the hope is that [you can write] something that is pretty, vivid, specific, and true.”

Rakoff had no shortage of melancholy material to use, he said, during the Reagan and the elder Bush years, but the younger Bush years were especially “bruising” for him. When asked about his desire to effect change, however, Rakoff has no illusions. “I’d be surprised if I could change a mind; things seem so intractable [that] those Augustine moments of deep conversion seem entirely random – as random as lighting strikes…There are scented candles that contribute more to society than me.”

Similarly, Rakoff described his feelings on offending people: he tries to be extremely careful as to whom he’s offending. For example, he warned against offending or attacking someone because they lack privilege. “If you’re very careful about why you’re saying something–if you tell the truth–you never have to worry about what you said…similarly, be vigilant about your target.” He cited referring to Barbara Bush as an “[expletive] cow” and feeling the insult was warranted because she’d said something that was, according to his standards, equally offensive. However, Rakoff said he mostly takes a “[politically correct] and NPR” approach to humor, and tries not to offend.

After discussing his belief in delayed gratification as an indispensable convention in humor and revealing that he simply pushes through his dread to keep writing, hoping that the revisions will be better than the usually disappointing first drafts, Rakoff attempted to explain how he believes he can be both anxious and happy at the same time. “Anxiety and happiness can coexist–you’re just sort of keyed up,” Rakoff explained.

Anxiety, he said, is often misattributed in a national sense as a lack of patriotism or as unwarranted pessimism (though Rakoff is admittedly a pessimist). But this concept is flawed, Rakoff explained. “People who are anxious really aren’t ruining it for anybody – it’s just the way they are,” as value-neutral as having a sense of humor. Though he briefly discussed this during the talk, he expanded upon this opinion later at the lecture.

The audience seemed to thoroughly enjoy Rakoff, even giving him a standing ovation as he finished. “I thought it was really helpful [and] funny,” said junior Katie Brown. “He gave a lot of really good advice but in a casually funny way.”

Tobias Franzen, a junior, agreed with Brown, saying, “He sure likes to swear. It was good – it was wonderful.”

Then, before his wildly popular talk at 7:00 p.m. later that day in the gym of the Michael P. O’Brien Athletics and Recreation Center, the first 150 students with a student I.D. received a free t-shirt starting at 6:30. The t-shirts ran out in less than 15 minutes, with a completely full gym by the time the talk started with another introduction by Click, describing Rakoff’s work as “the best comment on humor I’ve read in a long time.”

Rakoff took the stage by bringing in some of his own local humor, saying, “Sorry I’m late. I was trying to get my sneakers into the shoe tree.” He didn’t have a planned program; instead he flipped through his books at random to choose what he would read. His first essay was from his most recent work, Half Empty. It was written in 1999 in response to a new column in the New York Times called “Writers on Writing” that is a scathing tongue-in-cheek commentary on the pretension associated with writing.

Rakoff’s next essay was his reaction to the “unwarranted optimism” in the post-9/11 world from his most recent book Half Empty that explained his policy of defensive pessimism to manage his anxiety when the Bush administration decided to invade the Middle East. He ended by explaining his pessimism by saying, “I am a kill-joy in many many ways.”

His third piece was from State By State: A Panoramic Portrait of America about Utah and “The Insane Optimism of Westward Expansion.” He said that the goal of the book was to send 50 writers to 50 states and have them write about the state, but they ran out of good states by the time he got to Rakoff so he was matched with Utah, whose beauty he likened to bologna.

As he stood at the “squat commemorative obelisk” at the Golden Spike where the transcontinental railroad was first formed in 1869, he tried to get into the mindset of the early settlers, but he couldn’t do it. “How does one take all of this in and still think,” Rakoff read, “Yes, I will go ever gaily forward…How did they do it?…it seems frankly remarkable that anyone anywhere ever attempted anything.”

At this point in the talk, Rakoff admitted that he brought the wrong folder, but he would try to read a different copy of the text than he had planned, although it was dangerous for the enjoyment of the audience. “Writing in page and in performance is so different; you can be more boring on the page,” he said. “I’m leading you on a string in the dark and if I get too tangential, I am lost to you and you are lost to me and then we’re both in the soup.”

Despite the unforeseen difficulty, his subsequent essay was the most successful of the evening. “Isn’t It Romantic” is a criticism of the musical Rent, making the argument that the characters are not the true artists that they claim to be. He said, “You can [perform an unprintable sexual act], but it won’t turn you into Oscar Wilde.”

The only thing that makes you an artist, he continued to explain, is making art. After apologizing for making a quip about the quality of Rent’s undergraduate work, he rhetorically asked, “Were others left leaving the theater rooting for the landlords?” He told a hilarious story about his living situation in the beginnings of his career, ending with “Lying against a tile floor listening to someone else having sex is basically my early 20s…but I still paid my damn rent!”

His final essay of the night was called “Shrimp,” about his childhood growing up as a 47-52 year-old child in Canada who was “worryingly diminutive, [and] freakishly small.” Rakoff’s childhood self thought he was just like Stuart Little, but scared of everything. “It dawned on me recently,” he read, “that I must have been very unpleasant to be around.”

The essay described his difficulty with his size through adolescence and how a cruel drama teacher once forbade him from auditioning for a play because she was looking for actors that were “more substantial,” but he eventually overcame his insecurity because “after all, I had grown.”

After Rakoff answered a few questions about his favorite works, his writing, and his defensive pessimism philosophy, Dr. Click announced the winners of the “Assault of Laughter” writing contest. First place went to junior Julie Durbin for her essay “The Defecation of the Reputation of the Great Blue Heron,” second place went to junior Thor Peterson for his piece, “The All Student Email,” and third place went to St. Mary’s ’03 alumnus Benjamin Stoehr for his essay, “You Buy?” All three essays are available online at www.smcm.edu/twain/contest.html.

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