Walking a Wobbly Rope

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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.

27 thoughts on “Walking a Wobbly Rope

  1. Oh, wow! I just listened to Calypso and recognized right away – Sedaris writes like me (and you). I mean, he writes way better than I do, of course, but I was so surprised how he pretty much just wrote stories about his life. He was the main character in his stories with his family filling in the rest, Pulling those strands along to get to the point and then back to a single strand again. I have the writing workshop starred – but like you – am battling a lot of extra bills right now and even though I still have my Christmas money stashed it may have to go to help with family bills. And the last few things I have written I have broken one on my cardinal rules for the same reason. I always try to keep my posts around 600 words – what I guess is what the blogging books recommend. But I wanted MY story out, so I didn’t edit way down like I normally do. I wouldn’t listen to David about the amateurish piece though. I think it can work and does for you – if I am understanding the concept right. Like asking a question of the reader, right? I did it once today – maybe that’s the blogger in me coming out…..Anyway, I am anxious to hear how the rest of the workshop goes, so keep us posted!

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    • The class seems like a lot of money for what you get, but I guess compared to the one I traveled for where the instructor gave me a hard time, it’s a real bargain. I’m about a third of the way through and it’s already spontaneously spurred an afternoon of writing, so that’s a good sign. I think in general, these things are good because they get your brain churning, He has a recent book called theft by finding that I loved. It’s one to read though, not listen to. It clearly shows his growth as an author and gives a lot of his story as well.

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  2. I come across different posts related to the blogging experience and writing; how to do both better. They’ve never interested me. I guess I’m just a reader first and a writer after that. I comment more than I post. I guess it’s my introverted way of socializing.😆

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  3. I get the email blasts on Masterclass and have always wanted to do one. I like David Sedaris too but I know my style is different. Don’t lose confidence in the style you’ve developed. I love reading what you write. (P.S. I used to work with a guy that now works at Masterclass. When I saw that on LinkedIn a very large part of me was jealous and making snarky comments.)

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    • I don’t think I’ll lose confidence. It’s more like writing about it helps me solidify my understanding of what I do an why I do it. When you get past all the celebrities, I’m sure masterclass is just as fun and just as annoying as any other job. My wife used to have a job where she hobnobbed with some big names in entertainment. After a while the allure passed and they just seemed like any other self-absorbed person.

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  4. As Captain Barbossa would say, “they’re really more like guidelines than actual rules.” Ha. I haven’t done any writing classes since college, but i’d always pick and choose what to take to heart to be honest. I enjoy your writing style.

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  5. I am a big Sedaris fan as well. I’ve taken another writing master class, the one taught by Neil Gaiman. I signed up as soon as I could when I learned about it. I recently saw Sedaris’s class and am equally tempted. Since you’ve taken it, at least the beginning couple classes, would you recommend it? That is, should I get on it right away or can I let it go until I’ve got some more free time/extra scratch?

    Liked by 1 person

    • So far, my overall impression is it’s not going to magically turn you into a great storyteller (not that you aren’t already). Let me finish the class and I’ll tell you what I think. For me, $90 is definitely beyond the chump-change category. I really thought hard about whether I should take this class. Jury’s still out.

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  6. Yep. I honestly don’t have any idea about what is “supposed” to make writing good, but there are the few blogs I always look forward to reading and this is one. Glad it doesn’t cause you to lose confidence in your style.

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  7. I love the bobbing and weaving, the backstories and vignettes, of your writing. It makes reading them more human and personal. For the most part, I love David Sedaris’ stories too, but at times they feel a little too smug and staged in spite of his sharp humor.

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    • Thanks Mark! I agree with your assessment of Sedaris on his recent work. But the last thing I read was Theft by Finding and because it’s old stuff, and real diary entries there’s none of those concerns. If you haven’t read it, I say – do.

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  8. Hm.. Master Class – have they been worth your while? I’ve been doing various lecture series from CreativeLive, in their writing section. It’s been hit and miss. It’s also very passive learning, so I’m looking for more, without having to register for an online degree program…
    Love Sedaris, upon discovery of him (via a geocities blog!) in the mid 90s.

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    • Even though an annual ‘all-access’ pass was only an extra $90, I just purchased the Sedaris class alone. The jury is still out on my final impression. Really what I want is a program with feedback, but I don’t think David Sedaris is going to offer me any except in his recorded class. At some point in this lifetime, I’d like to take a class with a peer review component. It’s what I’d like to get out of blogging, but I only get comments on the content. Can you imagine if someone left a comment like: Hey Jeff, that second paragraph didn’t work at all. Consider swapping it with the fifth paragraph. I’ve actually done this before but only in situations where I feel the writer is likely to republish an essay somewhere.

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  9. Peer review is often the best part of my writing class. But of course it really matters who the peers are! I find generic “how to” classes useless because they seem so one size fits all and the writers I like the most have unique voices. If it works, it works! Part of the draw is the content, but part is also being transported by the language, the pace, the elements of humor or insight or surprise.

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