Why David Sedaris Hates “The Santaland Diaries,” the NPR Piece that Made Him Famous

This past fall David Sedaris pub­lished his first full-fledged anthol­o­gy, The Best of Me. It includes “Six to Eight Black Men,” his sto­ry about bewil­der­ing encoun­ters with Euro­pean Christ­mas folk­tales, but not “The San­ta­land Diaries,” which launched him straight into pop­u­lar cul­ture when he read it aloud on Nation­al Pub­lic Radio’s Morn­ing Edi­tion in 1992. True to its title, that piece is drawn from entries in his diary (the rig­or­ous keep­ing of which is the core of his writ­ing process) made while employed as one of San­ta’s elves at Macy’s Her­ald Square in New York. Not only was the sub­ject sea­son­al­ly appro­pri­ate, Sedaris cap­tured the vari­eties of seething resent­ment felt at one time or anoth­er — not least around Christ­mas — by cus­tomer-ser­vice work­ers in Amer­i­ca.

Accord­ing to a Macy’s exec­u­tive who worked at Her­ald Square at the time, Sedaris made an “out­stand­ing elf.” (So the New Repub­lic’s Alex Heard dis­cov­ered when attempt­ing to fact-check Sedaris’ work.) Whether or not he has fond mem­o­ries of his time in “green vel­vet knick­ers, a for­est-green vel­vet smock and a perky lit­tle hat dec­o­rat­ed with span­gles,” he holds “The San­ta­land Diaries” itself in no regard what­so­ev­er. “I’m grate­ful that I wrote some­thing that peo­ple enjoyed, but because it was my choice what went into this book, I was so hap­py to exclude it,” he says in an inter­view with WBUR about The Best of Me. “I want­ed its feel­ings to be hurt.”

Over the past 28 years he has seized numer­ous oppor­tu­ni­ties to dis­par­age the piece that made him  famous.“I have no idea why that went over the way that it did,” Sedaris once admit­ted to Pub­lish­er’s Week­ly. “There are about two ear­ly things I’ve writ­ten that I could go back and read again, and that’s not one of them.” And by the time of that first Morn­ing Edi­tion broad­cast, he had already been keep­ing his diary every day for fif­teen years. “When you first start writ­ing, you’re going to suck,” he says in the Atlantic video just below. In his first years writ­ing, he says, “I was sit­ting at the Inter­na­tion­al House of Pan­cakes in Raleigh, North Car­oli­na with a beret screwed to my head,” and the result was “the writ­ing you would expect from that per­son.”

Since then Sedaris’ dress has become more eccen­tric, but his writ­ing has improved immea­sur­ably. “I want to be bet­ter at what I do,” said Sedaris in a recent inter­view with the Col­orado Springs Inde­pen­dent. “It’s just some­thing that I per­son­al­ly strive for. Which is sil­ly, because most peo­ple can’t even rec­og­nize that. Peo­ple will say, ‘Oh, I loved that San­ta­land thing.’ And that thing is so clunki­ly writ­ten. I mean, it’s just hor­ri­bly writ­ten, and peo­ple can’t even see it.” Much of the audi­ence may be “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.” But if you lis­ten to “The San­ta­land Diaries” today, you may well hear what Ira Glass did when he and Sedaris orig­i­nal­ly record­ed it.

As a young free­lance radio pro­duc­er who had yet to cre­ate This Amer­i­can Life, Glass first saw the thor­ough­ly non-famous Sedaris when he read from his diary onstage at a Chica­go club. Glass knew instinc­tive­ly that Sedaris’ dis­tinc­tive voice as both writer and read­er would play well on the radio, as would his even more dis­tinc­tive sense of humor. But it was­n’t until a few years lat­er, when he called on Sedaris to record a hol­i­day-themed seg­ment for Morn­ing Edi­tion, that Glass under­stood just what kind of tal­ent he’d dis­cov­ered. “I remem­ber we got to the part where you sing like Bil­lie Hol­i­day,” Glass told Sedaris in an inter­view mark­ing the 25th anniver­sary of “The San­ta­land Diaries.” “I was a pret­ty expe­ri­enced radio pro­duc­er at that point, and I was like, ‘This is a good one.’ ”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

David Sedaris Cre­ates a List of His 10 Favorite Jazz Tracks: Stream Them Online

Why David Sedaris Hates America’s Favorite Word, “Awe­some”

David Sedaris Spends 3–8 Hours Per Day Pick­ing Up Trash in the UK; Tes­ti­fies on the Lit­ter Prob­lem

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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