My Week with David Rakoff

David Rakoff

Much like David Rakoff’s starry fantasy of befriending Bette Midler on a film set, returning to “her rambling apartment.  It will be the maid’s night off and we’ll eat leftovers from the icebox: cold chicken and pie.  Milk from a glass bottle….” (“The Satisfying Crunch of Dreams Underfoot,” Half Empty), I harbored a similar fancy last summer.

I had applied for and in April been accepted into the Stony Brook Southampton Writers Conference, a week wherein aspiring authors and essayists are immersed in workshops and lectures given by esteemed literary faculty — Susan Cheever, Jules Feiffer, Mary Karr, Roger Rosenblatt, Meg Wolitzer … David Rakoff’s name popped out at me.  He was teaching a personal essay workshop for a week in July and while the cost was in the thousands, seven days with Rakoff would be heaven, I thought. 

Workshops were touted as smallish and intimate, so naturally, all of May and June my daydreams revolved around elaborate scenarios wherein on the first day of class, David took immediate note of my pithy comments and wry observations. Following his first class assignment — to write an essay about our earliest memory — David would scour the room, then point in my direction and ask me to read my piece out loud. Pleasantly surprised by my skill, he’d laugh heartily at my witty phrasings but would also nod in approval at the depth behind my cleverly chosen verbiage.

Then he’d pull me over after class and whisper, “What are you even doing here? This workshop is for amateurs!”

“I really just wanted to meet you,” I’d confess sheepishly.

Then we’d go to lunch on campus every day, but sit huddled together, just the two of us, sharing tunafish sandwiches while we exchanged gossip about David Sedaris and Ira Glass. Really he had all the gossip; I’d listen raptly, enthralled by his hilarious stories; stuff he’d never shared with his friends but knew instinctively that he could trust with me — only me.

After that week, because he was notoriously generous and kind, David Rakoff would offer to be my mentor and introduce me to his agent and editors, as his protegé.  We’d have weekly lunches at the Stork Club and I’d be the envy of every single nonfiction writer in New York City. And beyond.

But none of this was to take place.  And not only because it was a ludicrous flight of my imagination.  In early July of last summer, I received an email from Stony Brook stating that due to advanced illness, David Rakoff had to pull back from my workshop.   They found a substitute teacher.   I asked for a refund and scolded myself for entertaining pointless notions about us.

Still, I thought, as I unpacked my suitcase with a heavy heart, I had been this close to being in his presence…and that would have to suffice.


Have Ink, Will Travel! My Essay Reading Tour is About to Commence…

I’m producing a series of essay readings, a la David Sedaris, with a group of talented writers.  For details, take a look at the press release below and check out the sidebar here for upcoming event dates and locations.   And away, we go!


“Living, Out Loud: Writers Riff on Love, Sweat & Fears”

New York, NY (January, 2013) – A group of accomplished New York-based writers is banding together for a year-long original essay reading series that  kicks off on February 5th with an event at Guild Hall in East Hampton.

Themed, “Living, Out Loud: Writers Riff on Love, Sweat & Fears,” the reading series brings together a diverse group of professional writers who will read their works to literary audiences throughout venues in New York, Brooklyn and Long Island.

Taking a page from book readings, which usually involve an author reciting directly from a published chapter, this unique series features writers taking turns at the microphone, each reading an original essay.

Jerry Seinfeld, who still does stand-up comedy, was recently quoted in The New York Times Magazine about the need to perform for live audiences,” said the event organizer and writer, Claudia Gryvatz Copquin.  “He said, ‘We’re craving the non-digital even more these days, the authentically human interactions,’ a statement that is extremely on-point, particularly for writers who typically work in isolation.”

In addition to Copquin, a New York Times and Newsday contributor and the author of three books, participating writers in rotation include New York Times “Modern Love” writer and memoirist Paula Ganzi Licata, award-winning NPR humor essayist David Bouchier, two-time New York Emmy award-winning writer Iyna Bort Caruso, speechwriter and essayist Robin Bernstein, and Friars Club historian and head writer Barry Dougherty.

Some essays have been previously published in magazines and newspapers while others are never-before-seen.  “The topics run the gamut of the human experience — humor, relationships, love, death…And all offer a unique point of view that we know audiences will relate to,” Copquin added.

The group’s first reading event is on Tuesday, February 5 at 7:30 pm at Guild Hall’s Naked Stage, in East Hampton, NY.  Admission is free (  Upcoming readings will be held at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor (April 6), The Half King in New York City (April 29), Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington (April 14), The Nassau County Museum of Art (June 2) in Roslyn, and other venues.

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Fifty Shades of Write — A Sadistic New App

I just learned about a new app for writers.  It’s designed to combat that horrid p-word … procrastination.  Say it with me, kids.  Pro-cras-ti-nation.

Every single writer I know suffers from this condition, and often.  But some brilliant techies came up with a solution — a sadistic app called Write or Die.  The tagline:  Putting the Prod in Productivity.   Here’s their app description:

“Write or Die is a new kind of writing productivity application that forces you to write by providing consequences for distraction and procrastination.  As long as you keep typing, you’re fine, but if you become distracted, punishment will ensue. Everything is configurable, name your word goal, time goal and preferred punishment, then start writing!”

Among this taskmaster’s punishments?  When the app is set to “kamikaze” mode and you stop writing for a certain amount of time THE WORDS START TO ERASE THEMSELVES.  This is their idea of motivation.

I have a much better antidote to procrastination, and this one doesn’t involve perverse masochistic technology.  It’s called a “calendar.”   All I have to do when my attention span is elsewhere is glimpse at the looming deadline. Oh, and also at my bank balance.  Works every time.

A, O, Way to Go, Ohio

My recap of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in Dayton —

I squeezed in a few workshop sessions in between a pill-popping frenzy that would have made Judy Garland gasp.  (Although I doubt she ever took aspirin recreationally.)  Now before you get your knickers in a knot (don’t they say that in Ohio?) let me explain: no sooner did I land at the Dayton airport than my brain began throbbing, building steadily to a feverish pitch over the next two days.  For those of you about to travel to Ohio, here’s a tip — Excedrin Migraine has no potency in that part of the country.  Still, I ingested the capsules feverishly, along with evening mouthfuls of Advil PM.  (Note: While I am not being paid to endorse these brands, I’m open to negotiations).  But enough about that…

The Writers Workshop was broken down into three days of sessions, most of which were very informative, although one presenter stressed repeatedly that while much of the alphabet isn’t funny, k-words are hysterical (see “knickers” and knot” above).  But I and most of the attendees k-new that already.

Every lunch and dinner featured keynote speakers.  My favorite was Alan Zweibel, who told us stories about meeting and then working closely with Gilda Radner in the earliest days of Saturday Night Live, where he was hired at 21 as a writer.  (Zweibel was not ready for prime time lawyering – prior to SNL, he’d scored terribly on his LSAT, he said, resulting in his parents applying black fabric over all the mirrors in the house, an ethnic joke that fell flat on the goyish majority in attendance.  Speaking of, each meal was preceded by a formal invocation complete with Jesus references — blessings that fell flat on the Jewish minority in attendance).

Ilene Beckerman, who’s had her first taste of success at 60 from “Love, Loss and What I Wore” spoke about how she came to write her charming little book. Also her not-so-charming experience with the Ephron sisters (producers of the performance show), whom she indicated snapped up the rights, although Beckerman had little to no legal representation to speak of.

And highly entertaining – humorist Gina Barreca, who did over an hour of stand-up on the last night. After her set I hugged her so fiercely she had to pry me off her torso.  This was not only because she had me in stitches (they do say that in Ohio) but also like Zweibel, she was raised on Long Island and by then I was shamefully homesick.

You see, my Dayton, Ohio conference goals were met, but ultimately…what Dorothy said.

User Names for Facebook SEO

Social media is constantly changing — and Facebook seems to be leading the pack, with “new and improved” functionality to keep track of almost daily.  For instance, a writing colleague just pointed out that we can now choose a “user name” for our Facebook pages.  This seems like a smart way to increase SEO  for our overall Facebook presence.  Now, I’m no techie, so I’m going to take her word for it.

To get your own user name, go to and just create your new name. The best (succinct) ones have already been snagged, but I just changed mine to  Give it a whirl.

And if you change yours, please leave a comment here…

Applying the Seat of the Pants…

I’ve been really lucky to have a few mentors throughout my career.  So I want my first entry to my writing blog to be a big shout out to one of those special people that has influenced my work directly.

So first and foremost, Michael Dorman, Boy Reporter.  Mike was working as a longtime editor at Newsday’s editorial department when we first met via email.   Somehow I found his name and sent him a note and some writing samples, as I’d been interested in writing op-eds at the time.  He must have checked my website immediately, because his first response to me was something like, “You’re a real looker.”  Which in turn, led me to google him to find out exactly who I was dealing with.  I mean, who does that in the 21st Century?

Turns out, this was Mike’s style.   In his late 70s,  Mike was an old-school reporter, one who had covered the civil rights movement in the deep South—had been there, in the trenches–written books about it and was pretty well-known by that generation of journalists. He enjoyed answering the phone by singing out, “Mike Dorman, boy reporter.”  Doesn’t that pretty much tell you everything about this man?

In person, he was a sight for sore eyes.   By the time we met, his overall health had been slowly deteriorating for years. Frail and thin, he was just about five feet and walked with a cane. Still, he was a terrible flirt.  We’d get together for lunch, which for him consisted of chocolate milkshakes and stories about the old days.

Mike told me I was a good writer — an accolade that meant the world to me, because it came from him, a seasoned journalist who had seen it all and written it all.  He introduced me to Newsday’s editorial department, which allowed me the opportunity to write op-eds on a regular basis.  He got a kick out of telling people that he “discovered me for Newsday.”   I’d been writing for other departments for years, but I let him brag because it made both of happy to hear those words out loud.

I only had the privilege of knowing Mike for just a few years.  He passed away on August 6, 2008.  I keep his Newsday obituary on my bulletin board in my office, so I can see him smiling down at me every day.   As I do so, I hear his favorite quotation, which he would repeat to me endlessly when I’d moan and complain about lack of motivation.  “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” (Mary Heaton Vorse)

I’m sitting, Mike.  I’m sitting…