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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