Catching Up With David Sedaris
By Joseph Hassan
What strikes me is that some of the most talented people -- the ones who have the most to offer -- are often also the most insecure and sometimes even unwilling to accept the fact that they are talented. So to put yourself out there on a platform these days with Twitter and YouTube -- where you can get a lot of negative feedback -- could be a detriment.
When I first moved to New York, I remember I went and saw somebody's show at [Manhattan theater] La MaMa. And I thought this show was so good. I'd never seen anything like it. And I remember there was an intermission and it seemed like half the people in the lobby had fliers for their show. I had just moved to New York and I remember thinking, Is that the way it is here? There's something about that that really switched me off. And I think it turns a lot of people off and I think sometimes people like to feel' instead of you pushing yourself on them, I think people like to find people.
One of my favorite essays is from Me Talk Pretty One Day and deals with the war you waged against your speech therapist -- and the letter s -- at the time. I was wondering if your lisp -- a handicap in some respects -- could actually have helped you become a better writer because it kind of forced you to develop a more expansive vocabulary.
I didn't start writing until so much later than that. I guess it would have made sense if I'd started right then. But, you know, I just wrote when I had to. Like if I had a paper due. Sometimes when I go on tour I meet kids who are 13 or 14 and they've started writing and I just kind of envy them. I always think, 'Oh that's nice to start early. Because then you can stop sucking sooner.' [Laughs]
So writing was an ordeal then when you were younger?
You know, when I started writing, I didn't know that I was going to do it. I didn't plan on it. My best friend and I had picked apples in Oregon and then we were hitchhiking through the Northwest. And I was writing letters to people but I didn't have an address so there was no place for them to write back to me. So I just started writing to myself. We were in a coffee shop and I turned a place mat over and I started keeping a diary on the back of the place mat. And the next day I did it again. And the day after that. And the day after that.
When exactly did you start doing that?
I was 20 when I started keeping the diary. And I've been gradually taking them to Paris. The earliest ones, I just brought them to Paris last week. And they are so bad. They're worse than a 12-year-old girl's diary. Because they're pretentious. Twelve-year-old girls' diaries usually aren't pretentious. They're like, 'I saw Mark in the hallway. He's so cute.' But at least they're being honest, you know. But I felt like it would be too obvious to say that. So it's like the poetry of someone who's never read poetry. [Laughs] So, it's just awful. I would've thought, Well, to say that I went to the grocery store, that's too' anyone could go to the grocery store. That's not special in any way. So I'd just write this bullshit. Luckily it didn't last very long. Then it moved into a different kind of bad writing.
And what was that phase?
The next phase of bad writing was stuff that I didn't even care about. You know, like it was everything. It was unedited everything. Like everything. Like every moment of the day. It was writing without any form of internal editing. I mean, I wrote in my diary this morning and I guarantee that nobody would want to read that. And a year from now, I probably won't. Maybe when I'm old I'll read it and I'll remember being only 53 years old and maybe it will make me feel something. Or if my boyfriend is dead and I'll think, Oh! If only I could have those veal chops that he made that night. [Laughs]
It's pretty amazing that you've been capturing that level of detail ever since you were 20 years old. Because it's almost impossible to know what will be important in 10 years.
I write a diary every season. So it's four a year. And at the end of the season I go through it and I think, Oh, that's interesting, or Oh, that's kind of funny -- maybe I can use that later. I've just been keeping a diary for so long, and I didn't know how to stop. I just feel compelled to do it. I've just been looking over this diary that I wrote 10 years ago. In hindsight, looking back 10 years, there's stuff that I find interesting that I didn't find interesting then.
Back to what you were saying earlier about the diaries -- that they sucked at the beginning because of bad writing and then they sucked for being completely unedited. So, when did your writing become good?
Actually, and I never thought I would hear myself say this, but I think, when I finally started working on a laptop, that made a big difference. When you're just writing something, you're typing something [on a typewriter], then you can realize 'Oh, I just started two sentences with the word 'He.'' Or -- 'Oh, I just used the word 'coin purse' twice in one sentence. But with the computer you can say 'Oh, I'll just change that,' or 'I'll just clean that up a little bit.' So it was not more interesting, but it was cleaner. The writing was cleaner. And I discovered paragraphs. [Laughs] For years I just didn't believe in them. And that's just so uninviting -- when you look at a solid page of words. And there's no little place to rest.
One of the things that I enjoy most about your work is that the stories you write often deal with the hilarious outcomes of miscommunication. I'm specifically thinking of When You Are Engulfed in Flames and your trip to Japan. I was in China with a good friend recently and there was this sign that said, 'Make no nuisance' and --
Make no nuisance?
Yeah. We were preparing to head up the Great Wall. But we saw this sign and obviously, after that, we had to find a way to make as much trouble as possible --
I just had four teeth pulled by my periodontist [in France]. What you said about miscommunication, it's like, I think he said he's giving me implants. I think he said something about temporary. Really? Are these teeth just temporary? [Laughs] And I heard my periodontist call for a screwdriver and' it's like, did he just say screwdriver? Most people are like, "Are you insane? Those are your teeth you're talking about. How could you submit to something and not understand what he's saying?" [Laughs] And I'm like, "I think he means well." Especially how people now will look everything up and get a second opinion and third opinion. I'm like, Eh, no. He seems friendly...
I hope you write about that.
Yeah, I am. There are a couple things that you try to write about and the audience gets hung up. And if they're hung up then you're wasting your time up there.