Be You: and Other Lessons Learned from David Sedaris
April 27, 2018 § 17 Comments
By Jennifer Cramer-Miller
My daughter and I are both writers, and David Sedaris is one of our favorites. He’s a master. So when he booked a tour in my daughter’s college town, we jumped at the chance to see him. We expected to love his writing performance; we didn’t expect to learn lessons from that performance about writing.
This is what I learned from an evening with David Sedaris.
As he walked onstage, the theater filled with hoots, hollers, and applause. There was a waddle to his walk, likely explained by his clown shoes. Yes, I said clown shoes. He pointed out the oddly shaped, clomping footwear with pride. The shoes were tame, however, compared to his shirt—a white collared button down, traditional on top, yet the length reached his ankles like a tailored toga. I think it looks great, he exclaimed.
Lesson: Just be you. No apologies.
The art of revision requires persistence
Mr. Sedaris stood at a podium and read an essay. He made jots with a pencil while he spoke. My daughter elbowed me and whispered. He makes a note when people laugh. During the question/answer portion of the evening to follow, a woman inquired about the notes. He explained he makes a mark if a section seems to sag or sing, if he wonders who cares, or tighten this up. Even during a polished performance, David Sedaris perfects his craft.
Lesson: Revision is as necessary to vibrant composition as water is to flowers.
Take the pulse of a piece
I was impressed at how genuinely Mr. Sedaris embraced his audience. His pieces live beyond the page, and the audience response informs his writing. A theater full of fans offered feedback, and he heard it.
Lesson: Take your pieces for a test run. Feedback makes your work better.
Know your audience
Mr. Sedaris prefaced one of his essays with a disclaimer prompted by his partner. “Hugh told me to take this one out of my recent book. He thought it brought the whole book down. With that, I knew I was on to something good.”
He read a summary of varied international drivers’ expressions of frustration to other drivers on the road—the multinational equivalents of the American middle finger.
His recounts started with a humorous dissection of the Netherlands “cancer whore” taunt and progressed to Romania, where he discovered a graphic and inventive phrase that is too much for me to repeat. The audience howled all the way through his piece.
After the lingering laughter settled, he punctuated the end with Hugh’s commentary, “People don’t want to hear that filth.” Apparently, we did, and the laughter erupted once more.
Lesson: Not everyone will like what you write. That’s okay. Write for those who do.
Observation makes your writing rich.
The latest book published by David Sedaris, Theft by Finding, is an edited compilation of diary entries from 1977-2002. In the second half of his performance, Mr. Sedaris read a series of short, funny journal entries prompted by the question, what made me feel most alive yesterday? His recitals of everyday encounters comprised a humor-filled glimpse at being open to life.
Lesson: Pay attention at the dentist’s office, the grocery store, and at the airport. Don’t let the constant swirl of mundane moments go unnoticed.
Writers are readers
To finish the evening, Mr. Sedaris gushed over a little-known author and highly recommended we buy her book (available in the lobby) before we considered any of his. He read from her work and relished her character development and finessed writing style. In doing so, he underscored the dual joys of writing and reading.
Lesson: Enjoying the written word is an equal opportunity endeavor. How refreshing it is that even the one-of-a-kind talent of David Sedaris can inspire the process of writing for the wannabe, emerging, and most seasoned amongst us.