For more than 25 years, the holiday season has brought to the radio not just Christmas carols but a diaristic monologue by a writer with, in every sense, a distinctive voice. When it first aired on Morning Edition, “Santaland Diaries” made David Sedaris’ name, not that he holds the piece in esteem as high as some of his fans do. “People will say, ‘Oh, I loved that Santaland thing,’ ” Sedaris said in a recent interview, but “that thing is so clunkily written. I mean, it’s just horribly written, and people can’t even see it.” Most are “listening to the story, but they’re not paying attention to how it’s constructed, or they’re not paying attention to the words that you used. They’re not hearing the craft of it.” Sedaris fans who do hear the craft of it may well be in the target audience for a new Masterclass taught by the man himself.
Here on Open Culture we’ve previously featured Masterclasses by writers as intellectually and stylistically various as Joyce Carol Oates, Malcolm Gladwell, Margaret Atwood, and Dan Brown. But we’ve never conducted investigations into any of their writing processes in the same way we have into Sedaris’ writing process, his own view of which constitutes the core of his Masterclass’ content. “If you write about people, you have to be interested in people,” he says in the trailer above. For him that means asking unexpected questions, like “Do your children shower?” or “Who’s the drunkest customer you’ve had today?” It also means keeping a diary in which to record the answers, and with which, even more importantly, to maintain a daily writing habit.
Even now, with a full schedule of readings to give around the world, Sedaris writes every day without fail. But he also did it for fifteen years before “The Santaland Diaries” brought him the attention that got his first book published. “I meet a lot of young writers and I say, ‘Do you write every day?’ ” he mentions in one lesson. “They say, ‘No, but just — you know, I write when it strikes me.’ I don’t know. I suppose that might work for some people.” But it certainly wouldn’t work for him, nor would doing fewer than his customary twelve to eighteen rewrites of each piece. In other lessons he covers such aspects of the craft as “observing the world,” “connecting with the reader,” “ending with weight,” and “writing about loved ones.”
For that last lesson Sedaris brings in a special guest: his sister Lisa, there to talk about what it feels like to be written about by her famously observant brother. That will come as a special treat for anyone who recognizes her from all her appearances in Sedaris’ family stories, but each lesson seems to play to Sedaris’ strengths as a writer as well as a performer: he gives readings of diary entries and published pieces, but also gives his students advice on how to handle readings of their own in the future. Sedaris makes no promises that the course will bestow upon all who take it a worldview as distinctive as his, to say nothing of a fan base as lucrative as his, but it will surely make them better at “hearing the craft of it,” a skill as worthy of cultivation as it is rare. You can sign up for Sedaris’ course here.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, and the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.