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.