Three Lessons I Learned About Writing From Going To See David Sedaris

Thursday night I got to hear David Sedaris enchant a nearly sold-out theater. One that holds a thousand people. That’s a lot of readers in one place for a writer. It’s a good thing we all loved him. I wonder if James Patterson or George R. R. Martin could get a horde of fans to shuck out $50 to hear them read? I was amazed by so many people coming to hear a guy read a couple New Yorker essays and banter for a couple hours. I considered it $50 well spent of my wife’s money—thanks Susan. But, is David Sedaris a standup comedian that publishes his routines, or a humorist that’s constantly on tour?

david sedaris

Sedaris is the funniest guy I know, and his skill with words is impressive, but I can’t just read his essays. I have to hear Sedaris speak his words, otherwise those words aren’t nearly as funny. I’ve always bought David Sedaris’ books on audio. Seeing him on stage was exactly like listening to his audiobooks, but with an extra sensory dimension. Strangely, the 3D visuals didn’t add much to his jokes—he’s kind of ordinary looking. He did wear a white shirt and tie, but with culottes, and even that outfit looked conservative on him. No, what makes you love the dude is his voice—and words.

Because Sedaris is so successful, I have to consider him as a role model for writing. I wish I could write blog essays that are as entertaining and funny as those I’ve discovered in the six books of his I’ve listened to so far. Even though I have to hear Sedaris, I’ve bought a number of his books in hardback to study. If I was a young person hoping to make it big putting words together for sale, I’d deconstruct David Sedaris’ career carefully. Strangely though, Sedaris reminds me of two 19th century authors who made piles of dough touring and telling funny stories based on their printed work: Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.

The number one Sedaris lesson, is write funny stuff, a hard task, but also write funny stuff that matches your voice. Woody Allen was always great at doing this too. And thinking back, I can remember a lifetime of standup comedians that did just that too. As a kid I can remember reading Bob Hope books, and it was impossible to read them without hearing Hope’s voice and delivery in my head. Which makes me wonder, did P. G. Wodehouse or James Thurber ever go around entertaining people live? This makes me wonder all the more if Sedaris is a comic or humorist. It’s probably easier to break in through print than performing. Jenny Lawson has done a wonderful job as The Bloggess, but will we ever see her on stage like Sedaris? Do all funny writers eventually go live? But I could also ask, do all comedians eventually publish humor books?

As much as I’d love having the skill of writing funny essays, I’d never want the task of reading them in public.  Of course, lesson number two for becoming a successful writer like David Sedaris, is learning to speak in public, a scary concept for me. Evidently, Sedaris has spent countless nights in hotels, interacting with thousands of strange people personally before and after going on stage in front of millions. Sedaris seemed extremely at ease hanging out with us, even though we outnumbered him 1,000 to 1. Sedaris is so engaging, it’s hard not to feel like you know the guy, and even want to hang out with him. What kind of mental abilities are required to talk to people for two hours and not bore them? Does he have an overwhelming need to be liked, or has he learned that with selling books he must sell himself? Is this a requirement for all would-be writers? I assume most would-be writers are like me, introverts. Does a successful literary career require extroversion?

The third writing lesson I took away from seeing David Sedaris the other night is: Pay attention to other people. Sedaris read from his diary, making it obvious he’s a keen observer and collector good anecdotes. Funny stuff is everywhere. I’m surprised by how many jokes he just picked up off the ground. Having long lines of people queue up to get their book signed is a great resource of story ideas. Just be patient and let them talk. Sedaris’ early books were all about his family and himself, but as time passed more of his material came from observations of strangers he met in his travels. This is why Dickens and Twain were so popular. They were great people observers. Just look at the list of named characters Dickens created. Often they were based on real people. Dickens and Twain ended up their lives by touring the world enthralling audiences acting out their most famous characters and scenes. How much of great writing is witnessing those scenes and how much is imagining them? Did David Sedaris really feed his tumor to an old snapping turtle?

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4 thoughts on “Three Lessons I Learned About Writing From Going To See David Sedaris”

  1. These days, it certainly seems that one has to be an extrovert to have a successful career. I’d like to give that third lesson a try. I pay attention but a lot of times I tune out of my surroundings by reading or daydreaming. I agree that funny stuff, and inspiration is everywhere, and it would be good for me to tap into that. Thanks for sharing your experience and for reminding me that I need to read one of Sedaris’s books.

  2. I’ve seen David Sedaris 4 times. He’s a delight. I’ve successfully written humor a handful of times ( success defined as making someone laugh), but it’s a challenge. I have no qualms about speaking in public even though I am an introvert, but reading my writing in public is different.

    I, too, will pay attention to the third lesson. We all talk about people ( admit it!). If standing in queue at the DMV, what would you say to someone you were with?

    Now, if I can take this and the other advice I’ve read/heard and apply it. There in lies the challenge.

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