David Rakoff—a writer whose essays combined generosity for other people with deep pessimism about our general lot in a wholly original and very funny way—died last night after a long bout with cancer. He was 47.
Rakoff’s humor was dark and honest; in the video below, from 2011, he explains to an interviewer that not only is writing, for him, incredibly hard—it’s not getting any easier. “Writing only ever begins badly,” he says. “And you have to sit and tolerate yourself long enough to grind out a shitty draft.”
Rakoff was one of the earliest and most frequent contributors to This American Life, and his radio essays were notable not only for their elegant sentences and black comedy but for Rakoff’s memorable delivery. Rakoff had experience acting and directing—in 2010, a short film he adapted and appears in, The New Tenants, won an Oscar for best live-action short.
Last year, Rakoff wrote a short essay for The New York Times Magazine that was about the awkward things people say to someone who might be dying. Today, the essay reads like an explanation—a moving, intelligent, and funny explanation—of his own approach to writing. “With so much muddy logic crowding out reason,” he writes, “it’s best when news, good or bad, is delivered quickly and clearly.”
Here’s a paragraph from near the end:
We like to think that the empathy broadcast with the swooping, downward intonation of the “aaawwww” is an evolutionary comfort; something we are programmed to welcome and offer freely ourselves. As a comment on something that has already happened, it probably works. But as an anticipatory tool, it does not soften the blow, indeed it does the opposite. It leaves you exposed, like grabbing onto the trunk of a tree for support in a storm only to find the wood soaked through and punky and coming apart in your hands. The sweetest bedtime-story delivery is no help when the words it delivers are a version of “…and behind this door is a tiger. Brace yourself.”
Rest in peace, Mr. Rakoff. We miss you already.