David Sedaris Breaks Down His Writing Process: Keep a Diary, Carry a Notebook, Read Out Loud, Abandon Hope

When did you first hear David Sedaris? Nor­mal­ly in the case of a writer, let alone one of the most famous and suc­cess­ful writ­ers alive, the ques­tion would be when you first read him, but Sedaris’ writ­ing voice has nev­er real­ly exist­ed apart from his actu­al voice. He first became famous in 1992 when Nation­al Pub­lic Radio aired his read­ing of the “San­ta­land Diaries,” a piece lit­er­al­ly con­struct­ed from diaries kept while he worked in San­ta­land, the Christ­mas vil­lage at Macy’s, as an elf. Though that break illus­trates the impor­tance of what we might call two pil­lars of Sedaris’ writ­ing process, nobody in his enor­mous fan­base-to-be gave it much thought at the time — they just want­ed to hear more of his hilar­i­ous sto­ry­telling.

A quar­ter-cen­tu­ry lat­er, Sedaris has released more diaries — many more diaries — to his ador­ing pub­lic in the form of Theft by Find­ing, a hefty vol­ume of select­ed entries writ­ten between 1977 and 2002. They give addi­tion­al insight into not just the events and char­ac­ters involved in the per­son­al essays com­piled in best­selling books like NakedMe Talk Pret­ty One Day, and Dress Your Fam­i­ly in Cor­duroy and Den­im, but also into his writ­ing process itself. “A woman on All Things Con­sid­ered wrote a book of advice called If You Want to Write and men­tioned the impor­tance of keep­ing a diary,” a 26-year-old Sedaris writes in an entry from 1983. “After a while you’d stop being forced and pre­ten­tious and become hon­est and unafraid of your thoughts.”

Obvi­ous­ly he did­n’t need that advice at the time, since even then keep­ing a diary had already become the first pil­lar of the David Sedaris writ­ing process. “I start­ed writ­ing one after­noon when I was twen­ty, and ever since then I have writ­ten every day,” he once told the New York­er, also a pub­lish­er of his sto­ries. “At first I had to force myself. Then it became part of my iden­ti­ty, and I did it with­out think­ing.” Most of what he writes in his diary each and every morn­ing he describes as “just whin­ing,” but “every so often there’ll be some­thing I can use lat­er: a joke, a descrip­tion, a quote.”

The entries lat­er cohere, along with oth­er ideas and expe­ri­ences, into his wide­ly read sto­ries. One such piece began, Sedaris told Fast Com­pa­ny’s Kristin Hohenadel, as “a diary entry from a trip to Ams­ter­dam. He met a col­lege kid who told him he’d learned that the first per­son to reach the age of 200 had already been born.” Then, Sedaris said, “I spec­u­lat­ed that the first per­son to reach the age of 200 would be my father. And then I attached it to some­thing else that had been in my diary, that all my dad talks about is me get­ting a colonoscopy. So I con­nect­ed the 200-year-old man to my father want­i­ng me to get a colonoscopy, and that became the sto­ry.”

Only con­nect, as E.M. Forster said, but you do need mate­r­i­al to con­nect in the first place. Hence the sec­ond pil­lar of the process: car­ry­ing a note­book. To the Mis­souri Review Sedaris described him­self as less fun­ny than obser­vant, adding that “everybody’s got an eye for some­thing. The only dif­fer­ence is that I car­ry around a note­book in my front pock­et. I write every­thing down, and it helps me recall things,” espe­cial­ly for lat­er inclu­sion in his diary. When he pub­licly opened his note­book at the request of a red­di­tor while doing an AMA a few years ago, he found the words, “Ille­gal met­al sharks… white skin classy… dri­ver’s name is free Time… rats eat coconuts… beau­ti­ful place city, not beau­ti­ful…”

These cryp­tic lines, he explained, were “notes I wrote in the Mekong delta a few weeks ago. A Viet­namese woman was giv­ing me a lit­tle tour, and this is what I jot­ted down in my note­book.” For instance, “I was ask­ing about all the women whom I saw on motor scoot­ers wear­ing opera gloves, and masks that cov­ered every­thing but their eyes. And the dri­ver told me they were try­ing to keep their skin white, because it’s just classier. Tan skin means you’re a farmer. So that’s some­thing I remem­bered from our con­ver­sa­tion, so when I tran­scribe my note­book into my diary, I added all of that.” And one day his read­ers may well see this frag­ment of life that caught his atten­tion appear again, but as part of a coher­ent, pol­ished nar­ra­tive whole.

The bet­ter part of that pol­ish­ing hap­pens through the prac­tice of read­ing, and revis­ing, in front of an audi­ence. “Dur­ing his bian­nu­al mul­ti­c­i­ty lec­ture tours, Sedaris says he rou­tine­ly notices imper­fec­tions in the text sim­ply through the act of read­ing aloud to oth­er peo­ple,” writes Hohenadel. “He cir­cles acci­den­tal rhymes or close­ly repeat­ed words, or words that sound alike — like night and nightlife — in the same sen­tence, rewrit­ing after each read­ing and try­ing out revi­sions dur­ing the next stop on his tour.” When a pas­sage gets laughs from the audi­ence, he pen­cils in a check mark beside it; when one gets coughs (which he likens to “a ham­mer dri­ving a nail into your cof­fin”), he draws a skull. “On the page it seems like I’m try­ing too hard, and that’s one of the things I can usu­al­ly catch when I’m read­ing out loud,” he says, whether his writ­ing “sounds a lit­tle too obvi­ous” or “like some­body who’s just strain­ing for a laugh.”

And the pres­ence of live human beings can’t but improve your sto­ry­telling skills. It helps to be able to fill Carnegie Hall like Sedaris can, but all of us can find, and learn from, some kind of audi­ence some­where, no mat­ter how mod­est. He told Jun­kee that he began read­ing out loud back in his art-school days: “I was in a paint­ing class and we had a cri­tique, and you put your work up and talk about it, and most peo­ple would talk as if they were alone with a psy­chi­a­trist.” He real­ized that “they don’t have any sense of an audi­ence. For some rea­son, maybe it’s because I have so many broth­ers and sis­ters, I was always very acute­ly aware of an audi­ence,” and so for his cri­tiques he pre­pared in-char­ac­ter mono­logues from the point of view of invent­ed artists. “Peo­ple laughed, and it felt amaz­ing to me,” which brought about an even big­ger real­iza­tion: “This is what I’m sup­posed to do. Write my own stuff and read it out loud.”

What­ev­er fears so many of us have about speak­ing in pub­lic, the fourth pil­lar of the Sedaris process may prove the most dif­fi­cult to incor­po­rate into your own work meth­ods: aban­don­ing hope. “If I sit at my com­put­er, deter­mined to write a New York­er sto­ry I won’t get beyond the first sen­tence,” he told the New York­er. “It’s bet­ter to put no pres­sure on it. What would hap­pen if I fol­lowed the pre­vi­ous sen­tence with this one, I’ll think. If the eighth draft is tor­ture, the first should be fun.” And any­body who gets stuck can use the writer’s-block-break­ing strat­e­gy he revealed on Red­dit: “There are a lot of col­lege writ­ing text­books that will include essays and short sto­ries, and after read­ing the sto­ry or essay, there will be ques­tions such as ‘Have YOU Had any expe­ri­ence with a pedophile in YOUR fam­i­ly?’ or ‘When was the last time you saw YOUR moth­er drunk?’ and they’re just real­ly good at prompt­ing sto­ries.”

And though it might seem obvi­ous, the activ­i­ty that con­sti­tutes Sedaris’ fifth pil­lar gets all too much neglect from aspir­ing writ­ers: con­stant read­ing, the active pur­suit of which he con­sid­ers “one of those things that changes your life.” At the same time he began writ­ing his diary, he told the Mis­souri Review, “I start­ed read­ing vora­cious­ly. They go hand in hand, espe­cial­ly for a young per­son who’s try­ing to write.” Today, when peo­ple ask him to have a look at what they’ve writ­ten, “I often want to say to them, ‘This doesn’t look like how things in books look.’ Read­ing is impor­tant when you’re try­ing to write because then you can look at what’s in a book and remind your­self, ‘Hey, I’m young; I just start­ed, and it’s gonna take me a long time, but boy, look at the dif­fer­ence between this and that.’ ”

He should know, giv­en the vicious­ness with which he crit­i­cizes his own work. Even now his sto­ries require more than twen­ty drafts to get right, as he men­tions in the PBS New­sHour clip at the top of the post, but when he re-read his first diaries, “it was real­ly painful. Real­ly painful.” These ear­ly entries revealed that “no one was a worse writer than me. No one was more false. No one was more pre­ten­tious. It was just absolute garbage.” But some of them hint at things to come. “I stayed up all night and worked on my new sto­ry,” a 28-year-old Sedaris writes in 1985. “Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I write like I paint: one cor­ner at a time. I can nev­er step back and see the full pic­ture. Instead, I con­cen­trate on a lit­tle square and real­ize lat­er that it looks noth­ing like the real live object. Maybe it’s my strength, and I’m the only one who can’t see it.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

20 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Sedaris: A Sam­pling of His Inim­itable Humor

Be His Guest: David Sedaris at Home in Rur­al West Sus­sex, Eng­land

Ray Brad­bury on Zen and the Art of Writ­ing (1973)

Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writ­ers

Sev­en Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion

John Updike’s Advice to Young Writ­ers: ‘Reserve an Hour a Day’

The Dai­ly Habits of Famous Writ­ers: Franz Kaf­ka, Haru­ki Muraka­mi, Stephen King & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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