This interview was originally broadcast on Sept. 21, 2010. This week, David Rakoff received the 2011 Thurber Prize for American Humor for his essay collection Half Empty, which is now available in paperback.
Writer David Rakoff worries a lot: about Sept. 11, about cancer, about epidemics and fame and religious devotion — not to mention sex, money, his childhood and the value of therapy.
The regular contributor to This American Life even worries about writing about himself, which he does in his latest collection of essays, Half Empty.
"That was the big problem for me in terms of this book," Rakoff says. "I've always bridled at the term 'memoirist' because I always wanted to be known for the quality of my writing as opposed to the particulars of my biography — so that's a huge worry for me."
While writing Half Empty, Rakoff was diagnosed with cancer. His doctors told him that the cancer — a sarcoma in his neck — was caused by earlier radiation treatments he received for a bout with lymphoma in his 20s. His cancer is being treated as a chronic disease, and he is receiving regular, long-term chemotherapy.
Rakoff, who has previously written about subjects ranging from the torments of low-thread count sheets to visiting a New Age retreat hosted by Steven Seagal, turns his signature witty style to the value of pessimism in his latest collection — but, he warns, it's a very specific kind of negative thinking called "defensive pessimism."
"The 'defensive pessimist' looks at everything and thinks [that] this is going to be a disaster," he explains to Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "They lower their expectations ... and they go through all of the negative capacities and the negative capabilities of a given event. You imagine the worst-case scenario you can and you go through it step by step, and you dismantle those things and you manage your anxiety about it."
On how research about negative thinking affected Rakoff's own negative thinking
"I do tend to be an anxious fellow and I do tend to see the world as a little darker than perhaps it genuinely is, but I also do appreciate much more than a rosy scenario, I appreciate straight news. I appreciate honesty. I appreciate confronting something head on and being given all the details first — and then responding to them in whatever way I might. At best, it simply confirmed who I am to myself. It helps me. For me, it works."
"Writer Melissa Bank said it best: 'The only proper answer to 'Why me?' is 'Why not you?' The universe is anarchic and doesn't care about us and unfortunately, there's no greater rhyme or reason as to why it would be me. And since there is no answer as to why me, it's not a question I feel really entitled to ask. And in so many other ways, I'm so far ahead of the game. I have access to great medical care. My general baseline health, aside from the general unpleasantness of the cancer, is great. And it's great because I'm privileged to have great health. And I live in a country where I'm not making sneakers for a living and I don't live near a toxic waste dump. You can't win all the contests and then lose at one contest and say 'Why am I not winning this contest as well?' It's random. So truthfully, again, do I wish it weren't me? Absolutely. I still can't make that logistic jump to thinking there's a reason why it shouldn't be me."
On seeing friends die young during the AIDS epidemic
"Seeing so many friends who were truly young and friends of friends — you know, I'm a gay guy, living in New York City during the '80s and '90s during the height of the pandemic — it was like living in wartime but a very specific kind of war ... it [affected] a very limited sector of the population and there were other people beside you everywhere who were not fighting it, who were not even conscious of it. It was very strange to feel so in the trenches and to be going from hospital to hospital — more than one a day sometimes — to visit people who were dying.
"It did cross my mind that my fervent will to live — and it is fervent, and it is still in operation, and it is still, in fact, the area of my life of which I'm most optimistic, and I think that people really do tend to be hugely optimistic about their own chances of survival going from day to day — but it did cross my mind and it remains in my mind that all of the people that I know who did die, they didn't die because they want to live less than I do. They didn't die because their desire to continue existing was found wanting in ways that my own is somehow better. And that is tremendously instructive to me."