As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, two things I truly appreciate are comedy and stories that express the human condition, even better when both intersect. There is one writer who, to me, is an absolute master of storytelling who can take you from laughing to crying in the span of a sentence. His ability to turn everyday moments into profound life lessons is matched only by his comedic genius. Who? You might ask. Or not, because I put his name in the title of this post . . . anyway, it’s David Sedaris!
The other major aspect I love about David (I feel like I should use his full name or Mr. Sedaris or sir or something to reflect my esteem for him). Yeah, let me redo that one.
The other major aspect I love about David Sedaris is that he is openly gay, in life and in his writing, which is about his life:) While I’ve never seen any commentary to this point (though I’m sure it exists somewhere), the fact that he is such a well-known and successful writer and he is open in his writing about being gay, I believe, has helped bring awareness and maybe even acceptance of members of the LGBTQ+ community by people who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to get to know someone in our community.
Fans of David Sedaris adore him. I know I do. And it’s not just because of his mastery of storytelling and his writing craft in general, it’s because he shares himself with readers. All of his personal quirks and isms. Sure, he might expose a lot about his family members, but he does so for himself as well. He is a truly unique, one might even say peculiar, individual. But he is unabashed by that aspect of himself.
But he is only one part of an ensemble. A very unique, hilarious, and endearing ensemble. His family. As I’ve read his stories through the years, I feel like I know him, as well as the other members of his family. I’ve felt the sadness of the loss of his mother because he took me there in his writing, but also because all of the stories about her prior to her passing made me adore her. There are people we never meet and yet through hearing about them through the words of someone who did love them, we feel as if we did too, and thus share the pain of their loss. It’s how I feel about Sandra Moran, a woman I unfortunately never got the chance to meet prior to her passing but feel her presence in the love and sadness of many people I am fortunate to call friends now who loved her deeply. Sandra, like Sedaris’ mom, were larger than life people, not in swagger or bravado, but in their ability to share their warmth and kindness with everyone, so people left feeling better for having known them. So much so, that even people like me who never did meet them, still feel better for having known of them. Pretty remarkable. There is one story Sedaris wrote where a teacher comes to the house to speak with his mom about David’s tics and behavior in class. The warmth, grace, and humor his mom exudes makes the teacher instantly enamored with her, completely forgetting the complaints that were on the agenda and thus the whole reason for the visit.
[Editorial comment: I go off on an L Word tangent for the next three paragraphs, so feel free to skip ahead for the unbroken David Sedaris storyline.]
The feeling of loss for someone we never knew is the same with fictional characters. We sadly can never meet them in person. Only in our imagination, aided by the power of the writer’s words and imagery. When I wrote Day 3’s post about The L Word and The Planet Podcast, I felt a sense of grief when I tried to write about Dana. I get choked up about it even now. Fans of the show loved her, and she died in a way that many of us have known personally either through our own experience or that of a loved one, fighting cancer. There was criticism by fans about the rapidity of the disease’s progression and that the writers should have dealt with it differently, but unfortunately, as some of us know too well, sometimes cancer does move that swiftly, and it is heartbreaking to watch, made that much more devastating by the helplessness of not being able to do anything about it for those we love.
I think with Dana, many of us saw ourselves in her. This goofy, super, super gay athlete who wasn’t fooling anyone with her ‘boyfriend’ at events, but finding the courage to come out at the risk of losing her career and her conservative parents because she wanted to live an authentic life and not be suffocated by all of the lying about this crucial part of her being, and also because she fell in love with a woman, and didn’t want to lose that. For someone so talented (pro tennis player . . . I mean, yeah) to yet be so truly without game when it came to dating was endearing to watch. I mean, personally, I can’t relate at all to that. I’ve certainly never once choked on my words when chatting with a girl and quickly left the room. But I can imagine that if someone were to revert to the interpersonal and communication abilities of a kindergartener when interacting with an impressive, beautiful woman, that it would probably be really embarrassing. I guess I’ll just have to rewatch episodes of The L Word to gain insight into that type of person . . . for writing purposes of course;)
After Dana came out to the public as well as her parents, reignited the relationship with Lara, and declared her love for Lara to the world, she had just won. At life. So, for her then to be diagnosed with breast cancer and have it progress so rapidly, lose that relationship, and then lose her life, was just such a tragic fate to watch. Not to mention what Alice went through. I think the reason it still resonates so deeply with me is because I was doing my research in Madagascar for most of Season 3 and when I came back, having dealt with a lot myself during that period of time, my friend filled me in on the show including that Dana had died. I think my reaction to Dana’s death will forever be intertwined with everything else I was dealing with personally at that point in my life. But this is all to say that, as any reader and book lover knows, a well-written character can be as real to us as someone we actually know, and the mark of a good book is one that stays with you. For me, endearing characters that I can relate to or see myself in on some level, or that beautifully portray quintessential truths about the human condition are the ones who remain with me long after the book ends. And the ability to make someone feel that way about characters you write, real or imagined, is the mark of a truly gifted writer.
So, this post is about David Sedaris and yet I clearly went off on The L Word, again. See, everything does relate back to The L Word, and lesbians, always lesbians. It’s just like Alice’s chart. Not that David Sedaris will ever read this post, but if he did, I can see him being like um, where is the part about me? Ha. No, he is way too gracious to be like that.
So . . . back to David Sedaris, you know, the entire point of this post. I’m going to tell the story of how his writing came into my life and how it has been the backdrop for several important events in my life, as well as some stories I’ve loved (and highly recommend) and reasons why he is such a master at his craft. Let’s do this!
Back in 2004, I was doing some research in Puerto Rico, and there was a shelf of books that previous researchers had left behind for people to borrow from and add to the collection (think free libraries of today). One of the books was Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. Little did I know what I was getting into when I opened that book, a collection of essays that covered topics from the demise of each of the family’s childhood pets to his kind but F-bomb fueled brother to living in Normandy with his partner Hugh, learning French, and using it very roughly to explain a Christian holiday to a Moroccan woman (a story entitled “Jesus Shaves”). The one that I just can’t shake, even all of these years later, is “Big Boy” which describes the trials and tribulations of finding himself in the bathroom at a party where someone has not flushed their ‘business’. There’s also a story involving a lesbian (just keeping my audience in mind). The humor, the story arcs, and the heartfelt moments amidst absurdity hooked me.
Thankfully, probably the same kind soul who had left Me Talk Pretty also left Holidays on Ice. Aptly titled, it is a collection of stories about Christmas, which was a nice reprieve from the heat of Puerto Rico (not complaining at all, but it was a bit toasty). The popular “Santaland Diaries” chronicled his experience working as an elf at Macy’s during Christmas. Interestingly enough, his sister Amy Sedaris, another comedic genius, played the secretary, Deb, in the movie Elf a few years later. My favorite story though was “Dinah, the Christmas Whore,” in which he and his mom help his older sister Lisa’s friend Dinah, who happens to be a prostitute, escape an unsafe situation. That was one of the first stories where I realized the brilliance and kindness of the family’s matriarch, and all of the stories to follow would only further cement those truths.
When I got back to Chicago, I tried to read everything Sedaris had published, which included Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, which included some essays about homosexuality, particularly one about being kicked out of the house by his father for being gay. His mother, coincidentally, also kicked the kids out of the house in the story entitled “Let It Snow”, when she had ‘a little breakdown’ on the fifth snow day from school after a heavy snowstorm. David and his four sisters go sledding, but when they return home to find the door locked and their mother still unwilling to let them in, things take a turn. To teach her a lesson, they decide that one of them should get hit by a car. Here is the full story in The New Yorker, as well as this excerpt:
“Gretchen, go lie in the street.”
“Make Amy do it,” she said.
Amy, in turn, pushed it off on Tiffany, who was the youngest and had no concept of death. “It’s like sleeping,” we told her. “Only you get a canopy bed.”
Poor Tiffany. She’d do just about anything in return for a little affection. All you had to do was call her Tiff, and whatever you wanted was yours: her allowance, her dinner, the contents of her Easter basket. Her eagerness to please was absolute and naked. When we asked her to lie in the middle of the street, her only question was “Where?”
In 2009, my mom came to Chicago to see me defend my dissertation research. The dissertation defense is a pretty monumental deal wherein you give a public talk (but mostly just scientists show up) on your research as a succinct and more palatable version, hopefully, of the written dissertation comprising all of your findings and blood, sweat, and tears from the last 5-6, or sometimes 10, years. My PhD committee had already read the 200-page dissertation I had written, and after my talk, I would sit down with them so they could provide feedback and ask questions on anything they deemed appropriate for me to know prior to me leaving the room and waiting while they decided if I had in fact earned the title of PhD. As you might imagine, it’s a bit stressful. Prior to my defense, one of my committee members shared that the day before her own defense, she had been up all night with explosive diarrhea from the level of stress. It wasn’t as comforting at the time as I think she meant it to be.
As you also might imagine, the research talk wasn’t really something you finished a week or more in advance and thus could relax and focus on practicing prior to defense day (there probably are some people who did just that, and frankly, I don’t care to know them;) ). But most people I know worked until the final second to make sure it was perfect, that nothing was forgotten or overlooked because this was not the time for ‘good enough’. So, when my mom arrived to be there for me, I really just needed to focus and finish the talk. Because she is a lover of books as well, I gave her Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim to read and got her settled in the living room, hoping she would understand. It started out small, but soon enough, my mom’s wholehearted laughter filled the entire apartment. After a couple of internal sighs, I stopped for a moment, recognizing the distinct emotional realities we were experiencing merely 15 ft from one another, and despite my stomach churning and entire body buzzing with the adrenaline of everything I had been through for the past few years coming down to this one final talk, hearing her unbridled laughter, knowing everything she had traversed in her own life, reassured me that it was all worth it. I was grateful she was there and that I had a mom who not only loved the power of words, but also had enough of a warped sense of humor to truly enjoy them.
One of my all-time favorite David Sedaris stories is “Repeat After Me”. In characteristic fashion, it takes the reader on a journey from amusement to full-body laughter with moments of resonance leading to sheer poetic beauty in the expression of gripping and heartfelt truths. It involves a visit to his sister Lisa’s house where he explores eternally fixed childhood roles and sibling rivalries, unique pets trained as emotional cheerleaders, and his morally ambiguous role as a writer who shares private family moments with the rest of the world.
Here is David Sedaris reading “Repeat After Me” (in three parts).
Every story David Sedaris writes is hilarious, largely due to the cast and crew of a very unique family. In a more recent interview, he talks about how his mom appreciated humor, and so in many ways, the pursuit of careers based in comedy by Amy and David stems from a desire to make their mom laugh. For more insight into the relationship and humor that Amy and David share, here is an article David wrote for Elle. It has a great family photo of all of the siblings when they were kids, as well as a photo of Amy with her male rabbit, Tina. Enough said:) What’s really interesting though is that they used to pretend they had a hospitality show when they were kids. Cut to several decades later and Amy wrote I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, which is a hilarious and effective guide to entertaining. In the introduction to the book, images of Amy progress from sitting in a chair to succumbing to sleep from boredom and sliding off the chair as the introduction drags on from one page to the next. She followed that book with Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People! So yeah, humor runs in the family, and I’m a fan (notice anything interesting in the background of the photo below?).
For interested writers (and interested readers, too), David teaches the craft he has become an expert at, storytelling and humor. In the short video below, he provides some advice to writers, such as learning to trust yourself as a writer and that writing is rewriting. He rewrites his stories between 12-18 times, sound advice, which I’m sure you can tell I did not do in writing this blog post. He also wrote every day for 15 years before his first book was published, so don’t give up.
If you’re ever fortunate enough to hear him give a reading, grab the chance. He came to my city years ago and I was shocked to see a long line of people already getting him to sign books before the show started. When asked in an interview why he does this, he mentioned an actor who had greeted everyone at the theater door prior to the show, and that it is hard to be critical of someone’s performance when you feel like you know them and they’ve already offered such goodwill. So, he took the lesson and began signing books both before and after his readings. He takes the time to actually speak to each person, asking unique questions to learn about them, and making it an experience rather than just an impersonal conveyor belt of people seeking his autograph.
When I heard his voice for the first time, it didn’t match initially with what I imagined his voice might sound like as I read his many stories. But it quickly became a voice I adore. He and his partner Hugh were featured in the 2014 documentary Do I Sound Gay?, an interesting exploration of the stereotypes surrounding the speech patterns of gay men. Here is a clip.
Though I’ve included a couple of favorite stories in this post, there is a plethora of pieces of stories that I’ve loved and that stay with me. For example, when David lived in Paris and felt like he was observing the dissolution of a marriage as he listened to a couple outside his window argue over their sightseeing itinerary, which quickly devolved into personal attacks on each other’s character and all-around faults as humans. Or the Stadium Pal, a bag that can be used as a portable urinal, so that he could survive long flights (or if he were a different human, a sports game) without needing to visit the restroom. “Thank you, Stadium Pal.” Or the joy Amy gets when someone decides they do in fact deserve to make an impulse buy, and her encouragement of David to buy women’s slacks with an ill-placed zipper, because, no one will notice. Or the Great Danes their parents got after all of the children had moved out and how it enlivened a streak of absolute parental adoration and generosity of gifts that they had never bestowed on their actual human children.
David’s most recent book, The Best of Me, is a collection of his favorite stories. It’s a title I am a fan of because it was originally the title of my book, Other Girls, before Ann McMan kindly suggested a title more fitting to the final version of the novel and thus raised the bar, as with everything she lends her brilliance to.
I hope that this incredibly long blog post provided some humor and insight into one of the most skillful writers of our time, and that the next time you are looking for exceptional writing, endearing characters, and a good laugh, along with LGBTQ-affirming content, you’ll settle in with one of David Sedaris’ collections of stories and essays.