On Making Art: David Rakoff Had It Nailed

February 27, 2013 — 41 Comments

With his irreverent book Half Empty, David Rakoff made me laugh. Out loud and lots. But he also explained, succinctly and in his unique way (here insert adult content warning), what being an artist is really about (the italics are mine):

… hanging out can be marvellous. But hanging out does not make one an artist. And secondhand wardrobe does not make one an artist. Neither do a hair-trigger temper, melancholic nature, propensity for tears, hating your parents, nor even HIV—I hate to say it—none of these make one an artist. They can help, but just as being gay does not make one witty (you can suck a mile of cock, as my friend Sarah Thyre puts it, it still won’t make you Oscar Wilde, believe me), the only thing that makes one an artist is making art. And that requires the precise opposite of hanging out; a deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating yourself long enough to push something out.


The Myth of the Bohemian persists with good reason. Given the choice between a day spent giving oneself over to oil painting, or one spent in the confining grid of office cubicles, most folks would opt for the old fantasy of the carnal chaos of drop cloths, easels, turpentine, raffia wrapped Chianti bottles holding drippy candle ends, and cavorting nude models, forgetting momentarily the lack of financial security and the necessary hours and hours of solitude spent fucking up over and over again.

I never met David Rakoff in person but we did exchange a few emails after I wrote to tell him how much I enjoyed his book. In that note, I also sent him my hopes and best wishes for recovery from his cancer that he talked about in Half Empty. (Yes, he could be funny about that too.) He wrote back, which I didn’t expect. He even called me a mensch for writing him and saying what I did, and the memory of that can still make me feel good. But it also makes me feel sad because David Rakoff died not long after, on August 9th, 2012. He was 48 years old.

There’s lots of good stuff in Half Empty but what I remember most are those passages about making art. Rakoff reminded us that being an artist is a lot less about being something than it is about doing a bunch of things. If you really want to make this thing called art—and you don’t have to want that, there are plenty of other things worth wanting, but if you do—don’t be seduced by the metric tons of bullshit and distraction that befoul the path.

Work hard. Fuck up. Then fuck up again. Stay as still as you can in the face of confusion and failure and discouragement, and work some more. Occasionally you might try going away for a little while—not too long though—but then you get back to work, and do it all over again. And one day, after you’ve emptied your trash bin for the gazillionth time and learned how to curse in seven languages, it’s possible, just possible, that you step back and look at this thing—this thing you made, a picture, a paragraph, a lyric—and you hear a voice in your head saying, wow, I made this.

And, by the way, if you come across some fellow traveler also doing the art grind and they happen to have pushed out something pretty cool, why not give them a shout and let them know how much you like it. It breaks the solitude (theirs, yours, who knows?). For a little while anyway. And it might mean more than you think.


41 responses to On Making Art: David Rakoff Had It Nailed


    “a deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating yourself long enough to push something out”
    You nailed it. Love this!


    After the first off key note, the first missed brush stroke, the first stumble in dance, the world tells people to stop trying to create. Artist’s, I love them, they find the freedom, the burn that forces the artist to ignore the world and add the beauty of their souls for all to love.


    so true. awesome piece of writing – thanks.


    So sad that Rakoff died of cancer in Manhattan on August 9, 2012! One interesting fact about Rakoff is that he has written that almost every generation of his family fled from one place to another.


    “Stay as still as you can in the face of confusion and failure and discouragement, and work some more.” — Maybe because this place will be like rain for your creative soul, just maybe. Good luck with your art! //mm


    Brilliant post, thanks for sharing! And some great advice for artists too- “Work hard. Fuck up. Then fuck up again.”



    Very true. Thanks for a great post.

    Richard Brooks March 17, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    From the outside looking in, I’ve come to appreciate to some extent the role of discipline in the artist’s life. Why I would think it could be otherwise, I do not know.


    I love this, because I am not a fan of bohemians, hipsters, or any other faux artist. The few artists I’ve known, who I would consider artists, are very solitude driven people, spending hours, even days, working on a piece, then they have this beautiful thing they made that came completely out of their own mind. It’s a window to the inside of their head.
    “you can suck a mile of cock, as my friend Sarah Thyre puts it, it still won’t make you Oscar Wilde, believe me” This is also a great line.


    Splendid! The commitment of the true artist, the discipline, the craft, the solitude. Almost monastic in its simplicity, difficulty, and the joys that can be found. Reblogged. Thank you!


    It’s possible to feel lonely in a home full of people that you love.. o.0

    There are many things I don’t understand, and haven’t put much thought into yet, and one of those things is that image you put in my head of the nut-bar artist with streaks of greyish-red paint on their face, hair flailing, eyes wild… I’ve been called an artist, and I HOPE I don’t look like that.

    Otherwise, I’m not yet sure about what I’ve just read. However, I want to read this book now…


    thanks for the great post. the drive to create against the terrifying procrastination of knowing this primal thing of being truly creative takes work and being cold and solitude is tough stuff. It’s telling that artists ‘get better with age’ I think because they can rub off the views of others, take the cold and solitude, while when we’re younger we naturally want to be a ‘person of the world’. We probably shouldn’t be too hard on the (young) bohemians – they are finding the relationships, experiences and the ways of being they are going to need – like the lag phase a bacteria goes through as it collects its resources together before it makes its leap in growth. (Not saying bohemians are bacteria here – it’s just the best analogy I can come up with!)


    I love this part..”Work hard. Fuck up. Then fuck up again. “.. I always find it amazing for myself and friends to work hours and days on a piece to have one thing screw it up.. Then determination kicks in and you find some way to tie that screw up in and the picture turns out better than it could have been without it..


    Just gone 5 am. Monday morning. The place where I work is the street. Saturday was wet, cold, windy and dirty. Not many sunny days these last few weeks. You touched on what drives us.


    God bless you


    Right on. I just heard a rerun of Rakoff on This American Life where he so humorously & casually references the ugly lonely humbling thankless chores he had to do one-armed after chemo, reminds me of what you’re saying here, true artistry is in the non glamorous bits, in the doing & going & innovating – even if its writing for 2 hrs and coming up with 2 good sentences… or just to single-handedly grate some cheese.


    Great read! It really hits the nail on the head!


    Thanks Frank. Enjoyed your piece very much. Dogged persistence. And joy when it works…even if it’s accidental. That’s what it’s all about.


    So true and inspiring. Thanks for sharing this. It’s inspired me today that my failing failings are just a step stone to pride over having finished something.


    Fantastic any and hilarious read. Luv the Oscar Wilde quote, haha. This has reminded me of the things that I have forgotten about making art and it’s the things I need to be reintroduced to again. Thank you so much for this post. I remember now.


    Dead on… fabulous post!


    Thank you for honoring David, (a fellow Canadian in NY), with this post. And reminding everyone what f–ing hard work it is to produce *anything* creative of lasting value. I spent 5.5 hours Friday revising a NYT story I’m working on and I am still not done with the damn thing — and that’s after weeks of reporting and writing and revising already. And that’s “just” a newspaper story soon to be quickly forgotten by most readers, because that’s the nature of the medium. It’s not “art.” But it is still hard work I do alone all day with no one telling me how.

    I love your point about telling others when they have made something that touched you; I wrote to both Ray Bradbury (when I was 12) and John Cheever (when I was 22) and was blown away when both men — legends! — wrote back promptly, personally and gratefully. It is such a privilege to hear from those who like what we have done, to know we/you have touched someone else that deeply.


    David’s piece on last year’s live-to-theaters broadcast of This American Life remains one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen/heard. He really was an incredible guy.


    Reblogged this on The Ashy Pint and commented:
    Grand article about an artist’s comments on being an artist (David Rakoff). It’s about the doing, the making of art, not just Being An Artist. The discipline and solitude involved is almost monastic in its intensity. This falcon seems able to hear his falconer to a certain extent. Thanks to Frank Roddick for this post.


    Loved and hated this quote: ‘the only thing that makes one an artist is making art. And that requires the precise opposite of hanging out; a deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating yourself long enough to push something out.’.

    It’s so stupidly true…

    And the same time, I refuse to believe in it. Actually, I think our experiences as human beings, in society, help us a lot to create. It’s true that the process is always something you do alone and very aware of yourself and what you are making and thinking… But there’re still glimpses which point out different ways. Creation in teams, internet era’s relationships, sharing points of view and connections…

    I think and hope that other not-as-lonely way to creation is possible.


    Reblogged this on The UrbanStoat.


    You just made my day and my fucked up work I did this morning a whole lot better. That book sound like a must read. Cheers


    This piece spoke to me! Going to look for the Rakoff book now. Thank you!


    Your post kicks ass. I loved your description of work hard and fuck up and keep doing it. Because I have fucked up many times and long ago given up any goal of trying to strive for perfection and instead deal with making lots of mistakes and realizing that some of those mistakes will lead to something surprising and should be included in the work. And you hit it just right by sometimes you sit back and the realization widens your eyes: “wow, I made this.” I need to check out this Half Empty book. Thanks for writing about it.


    Very interesting. I love stories abour real creative people!


    This is perfect. Thank you for this!


    Great post! So very true. I particularly liked the bit about supporting “fellow travelers”.

    I, too, was very taken with David Rakoff. Part of his genius was the way in which he could describe the most heart-wrenching situations (mostly his own) and have you laughing out loud by turn of phrase. The other part of his genius, at least for me, was how his stories often began with kvetching and ended with hope.

    The day he died, I wrote a post about him. I had never before been moved to write about someone I did not know personally. It didn’t get any glamorous number of hits, which was fine because I really wrote it for myself, anyway. Oddly enough, I think he would have been fine with that.

    On any number of occasions I had thought to try to get a hold of him, to try to actually meet him for a cup of coffee. Of course, I didn’t. Partly because I’m a waitress and he was a famous writer. Partly because I didn’t want to seem like a stalker. I regret never having contacted him to at least tell him what his work meant to me. I’m so glad you got the chance to correspond with him. Lovely.


      Thanks for sharing this with me…. It’s been very moving to hear about how David touched the lives of others through his work, and how much affection he inspired. That alone is a fine legacy for an artist, or anybody. It leaves me feeling good that you remember him the way you do. I think he’d be moved. Thanks again.


    Excellent quotes to pull; I’ll have to read the book now. Thanks for bringing them up.

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