Be You: and Other Lessons Learned from David Sedaris

April 27, 2018 § 17 Comments

Pink BioBy 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.

Be You

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.
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Jennifer Cramer-Miller is a marketing communication consultant in the Twin Cities custom home industry and a freelance writer. She has contributed essays to Mamalode, The Sunlight Press, The Kindness Blog, The Emily Program Foundation, and is the author of Live Happy (…damnit).

 

Sedaris Gets “Realish”

May 17, 2012 § 12 Comments

Back when Mike Daisey’s stretching of the truth on “This American Life” was all over the blogs and airwaves, more than a few of us raised our eyebrows and asked, “What about Sedaris?”  Even without investigation, it seemed obvious that David Sedaris stretches his truth regularly, not to deceive so much as to amuse. This is what humorists have done, of course, as far back as Twain, and no doubt further.

But if “This American Life” is “journalism,” then how does humor writing fit?  The New Yorker manages to make the distinction nicely enough.  Is it just another question of “truth in labeling.”

Here’s an excerpt from the recent Washington Post article on the subject:

The immediate question is whether Sedaris’s stories are, strictly speaking, true — an important consideration for journalistic organizations such as NPR and programs such as “This American Life.” A secondary consideration is what, if any, kind of disclosure such programs owe their listeners when broadcasting Sedaris’s brand of humor.

Then there’s this: Does it matter whether a humorous writer, working on a news or nonfiction program, makes stuff up?

Unlike a stand-up comedian or a comic literary stylist such as James Thurber, who engaged in obviously implausible situations, Sedaris’s stories fall into a gray area. They are rooted in real events and populated by presumably real people, with their humor derived from Sedaris’s comic “voice.” These exaggerations and comic interjections are evident to a listener or reader, and Sedaris has attested that they are essentially autobiographical. His best-selling books, such as “Naked” and “Barrel Fever,” have been sold as nonfiction.

Except it’s not that simple.

In a lengthy investigative article for New Republic magazine in 2007, writer Alex Heard fact-checked Sedaris’s output and found that he had invented characters and concocted important scenes in some pieces. In one story, for example, Sedaris described working as an orderly in a mental hospital with a co-worker named Clarence. Although Sedaris had once volunteered in the hospital, he told Heard that he hadn’t been an orderly and that Clarence was imaginary. The magazine titled Heard’s article “This American Lie.”

According to Heard, Sedaris also invented parts of a story called “SantaLand Diaries,” about his Christmastime experiences working at Macy’s. The story has become one of NPR’s most requested features and has been replayed on the daily “Morning Edition” program every year around Christmas since 2004.

The Last Word (We Hope)

March 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

Tired of Daisey and D’Agata? So are we. With any luck, this will be our last post on the fact-shifting argument for a good long while. We promise, at least to try. In any case, the folks at Slate have made the parameters crystal clear with this handy chart:

To make life easier for would-be liars everywhere, we have attempted to answer that question with a handy visual guide. Some of our conclusions are obvious: If you’re a journalist, making stuff up is not a good career move. If you’re a fantasy writer, on the other hand, you’d better make stuff up by the chapter-load, or you’ll be out of a gig. But what if you fall somewhere in the middle?

Well, if you want to make stuff up, it helps to be funny. While David Sedaris’s books are classified as nonfiction, for example, no one seems to mind that they’re not all true. Likewise, stand-up comedians can tell you about the hilarious thing that happened to them last week, and no one will check to see if that hilarious thing really happened last week. Even if you’re writing a reported piece for a fact-checked magazine like Harper’s orRolling Stone, you might be able to throw in a few whoppers if you’re as funny as David Foster Wallace. (Try to write prose as memorable as his, too—that seems to have helped Truman Capote.)

You may also want to consider putting your story on film. While biographers get a hard time for documentable inaccuracies, biopics don’t get the same degree of scrutiny. If you write a true story, it should probably be true; if you make a movie “based on a true story,” people will assume you made a bunch of stuff up.


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