David Sedaris called me an amateur. OK, let’s discuss the obvious:
- David Sedaris doesn’t know me;
- Although I have earned money writing, I’d hardly call myself a professional;
- Really, he only called one of my writing habits ‘amateur.’ Not me personally.
Still, it hurt.
Who’s David Sedaris? You’re kidding, right? In this gigantic WordPress world of creative nonfiction, Sedaris should be mandatory reading for all. Like many people, I first heard David Sedaris on NPR. Each Christmas season, NPR replays his ‘This American Life’ recording of the Santaland Diaries—a ten-thousand-word creative nonfiction essay about Sedaris’ gig working as a Christmas elf in Macy’s. It’s possibly the second funniest thing ever written… right behind either of his essays Six to Eight Black Men or Dinah, the Christmas Whore.*
Once NPR put him on my radar, I slowly, over time, consumed everything he’s ever written.
My favorite Christmas gift this year was an online master class featuring David Sedaris as the instructor. Do you get those Facebook ads for MasterClass? Some clever people have gathered a few dozen experts—really people who have reached cult-status in their respective craft or field—to teach a how-to class. Annie Leibovitz teaches photography. Garry Kasparov teaches chess. Serena Williams teaches tennis. And David Sedaris teaches storytelling.
The obvious question you might ask is ‘if it was a Christmas gift, why are you taking the class in late February.’ Many of the gifts in my house are more an idea than an actual gift. Or more specifically, the promise of a gift. My two principal gifts this year were an online subscription to the Washington Post and the Sedaris class. Each of them was just a handwritten note card shoved in the low branches of the tree. It was up to me to redeem them. I activated the Post subscription immediately, but then our credit card balance got the better of me. Of course, there was Christmas—always a small bump in spending—and then: a car repair, new tires, Eli’s quarterly orthodontist bill, a rough dentist appointment, college application fees, and pre-paying Sophie’s band-trip to Nashville in March. I thought maybe I should wait a couple of months to pay for my class.
A class on storytelling? Not writing? Do you find that curious? I want to be the best writer I can be, but without an engaging story, it’s just a jumble of words. When I started blogging in 2013, I looked to David Sedaris as my guide. I wouldn’t say I tried to emulate his style, but when I thought about how to tell a story, his approach jumped to mind. Usually, his point is fairly simple, and short. It’s the vignettes, the backstory, the asides he expertly steers off into that makes his essays so engaging.
LOTS of readers (and writers) don’t appreciate this. I brought a rambling story about running, mental health and sobriety to a writers’ workshop for feedback a few years ago. Crest the Hill told a tale of redemption through running and applauded the coach who helped me find my way in life. It was full of backstory and vignettes. The workshop instructor barely contained his contempt. Cut this. This is unnecessary. You don’t need this part. Unrelated. Why are you mashing these stories together? I stammered around that question without ever offering an answer. So here it is: Because if I can’t put these stories together, if I can’t spin and weave a story from a box of loose strands, I don’t want to be a writer. If I can’t tell my stories in this way, full of stops and starts, and bits that paint me as a human being—which happens to be how David Sedaris tells his stories—I see no point in writing them.
As a blogger, as a writer, I walk a wobbly rope. I want my stories to reach as many readers as possible, but I don’t want to sacrifice my voice. If I made changes to my style, strove for more economy, cut out the asides I include to offer richness but don’t reinforce the point, would more people read my blog? Would magazines and journals be more inclined to publish a story? It’s entirely possible. I don’t think I’ll ever know.
In the second lesson I watched in the series, David reads a passage where he directly engages the reader in a conversational manner. I’ve done this a dozen times in this post, and I probably use this convention in about a quarter of what I write. He points out that it only worked in his story because it’s dripping with irony. “This isn’t something you want to do,” he told me, “it’s amateurish.”
* All three of these stories can be found in the 2008 rerelease of Sedaris’ essay collection Holidays on Ice.