ARTIST PROFILE: DAVID SEDARIS
Author David Sedaris is known as
one of the world's best humor writers. He’s published seven collections of short stories and has five audio books. He’s been nominated for three Grammy Awards (for Best Spoken Word and Best Comedy Album). He is a frequent contributor to the show This American Life (Ira Glass, whom we profiled a few weeks ago
, is the one who discovered Sedaris–more on that later). Much of his work is autobiographical, and listening to it, you might assume it all comes effortlessly–just a guy talking about his life.
But you’d be wrong.
As Whitney Pastorek of Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Sedaris ain’t the preeminent humorist of his generation by accident.” No accident at all. Like most of the artists we’ve profiled, our research on David Sedaris revealed that his creative genius is the result of lots and lots of hard work and, well, writing. Sedaris’ schedule is grueling, his work ethic is steadfast, and his consistency is admirable: he’s written in a journal daily since 1977. Is it really any surprise that he’s an inspiration to us here at Miro?
Sedaris didn’t always know he wanted to be a writer, but he always felt the need to express himself creatively. During his teens, he explored many forms of visual and performance art, resulting in very little success (his self-described “failure” is detailed in several of his essays). Sedaris realized he wanted to be a writer during his twenties, when he read a collection of Bobbie Ann Mason stories. He remembers his first literary attempts:
“I wrote a story when I was 22, and it sucked so much – so much! – that I didn’t even try again for another five years.” He eventually resumed writing, but ten years would pass before it would make him the celebrity he is today. In the meantime, he led a particularly un-glamorous life. He dropped out of two colleges, developed a drug habit, and made some semblance of a living by doing (extremely) odd jobs like cleaning people’s houses and working as a Christmas elf in a department store.
All the while, he kept an immaculately detailed diary. He carried (and still carries) a notebook with him everywhere, recording notes and then transcribing them into his journal each night. “For the most part, it's just garbage,” he says,
“In the summer of 1984, I've got on June 23 that I saw a drunk woman drop her baby. And then an episode of Oprah that was particularly good on July 3.” But that “garbage” is what ultimately brought Sedaris success: he was reading that very diary in a Chicago club when Ira Glass discovered him. Glass invited Sedaris to read his work on the radio; he suggested a memoir piece but something longer than a diary entry. Sedaris read an essay called SantaLand Diaries about his days as a department store elf. (Here’s a treat: listen to it here!
It’s not the original recording, but a reading from 2011.) What happened next could be described as overnight success: "I went from having 50 listeners to 50 million listeners,” he says.
His journal's role in that initial success is perhaps the reason he is still an avid journalist, 35 years after his first entry. At the end of each season, he types the whole thing, prints it, and makes a “seasonal” cover for it. “It's a lot of work for something no one's ever going to see,” he says.
Although nobody’s ever read the diaries themselves, they serve as an important tool in his writing. “I go back to the diaries all the time. If I’m working on a story, it really helps. I can go back and look things up and look up names and details,” he explains.
Still, he doesn’t see his diary as work. “It’s just for me,” he insists.
“None of this really exists until I write it down.”
Sedaris recently launched "David's Diary"
, an iPhone and iPad app with illustrated versions of six short stories inspired by his diary entries. Here's a short preview:
When you read Sedaris’s work, most of which is wildly hilarious, you might get the impression that the life of a humor writer is all fun and games. And even though he says
there’s no secret to it–“all you really have to do is be alive and be observant,” he insists–when he talks about the way he works, it’s clear that writing good humor is hard work. During one interview, he told a reporter,
“Yesterday, my wakeup call didn’t come. It was for 5:30 and I was going to write in my diary but I didn’t get the chance. It disturbed me all day. So this morning I got up an hour and 45 minutes early and wrote because I had some catching up to do. I can’t get behind on that. I just can’t.” He writes every single day, at the same time each day. He sets lofty goals for himself and gives himself assignments. When he is on book tours or doing live readings, he takes detailed notes as he’s performing so that he can improve for the next night. “I make notes on the page when I'm reading, and I put big check marks next to what gets a big laugh, and if there's something that I thought was going to be funny and nobody responds to it at all, then I draw a quick skull and crossbones in the margin,” he explains.
“The difference between the first time I read something and the tenth time I read something is generally pretty profound.” The difference being, we guess, that his performances go from nights where nobody laughs at all (which we find hard to believe, but he claims it’s happened) to nights where his live recordings are nominated for Grammy Awards.
When he was writing his book Me Talk Pretty One Day, he gave himse
lf the requirement of writing one publishable page every single day. It sometimes turned into many more: “I tried to write one publishable page a day,” he said.
“I don’t mean you write one page of a story and say: Well that will work; that’s my day’s work. I would write a seven-page story and then try to rewrite it five or six times over the course of a week. Or, if I had ten days it would be a ten-page story. At the end of the month I had to have 30 pages that could go into a book.” It should come as no surprise that the book was written in only seven months.
We confess we are delighted to learn that Sedaris’ seemingly effortless writing requires such assiduous attention. It just wouldn’t seem fair to earn this kind of praise without really working for it:
“Sedaris has hit upon the narrative equivalent of Pepsi, or the PlayStation, or oxygen, or the haircut: something that others in the world might actually want and find useful.” - Bill Richardson, Toronto Globe and Mail
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