I've just started "Theft by Finding," the first volume of David Sedaris' diaries. I'm only about 60 pages in and it's already fascinating -- set in the late '70s and early '80s, when Sedaris was hitchhiking cross-country to annual jobs as an itinerant apple picker, doing acid and meth, and hanging around with people who seemed to have a habit of storing dead wild animals in their freezers.
As we know from his essays, Sedaris' genius stems from his ability to observe absurd, peculiar and funny things going on around him. In his diaries, he records overheard conversations between strangers, and the frankly filthy language used by his coworkers. He paints someone's living room and she pays him in turkey legs -- he gives one to his sister's cat and reports that "it wheezed with delight."
I thought the book would be interesting partly because I'm involved in my own (seemingly endless) journal transcribing project. (I've always preferred the word "journal" to "diary," which makes me think of those prissy little books with locks and keys -- although I had one of those too, when I was about 10. "Journal" sounds much more straightforward.)
I've kept a journal since elementary school, and in transcribing and editing them online in recent years, I've found some vexing problems. For example, characters pop in and out with no introduction. (When you're writing for yourself, you don't need to introduce people you know to your own narrative, do you?) Stories begin and never end, or they end without much of a beginning. Some entries just drone on and on and make me want to stab myself in the eye.
I've also been unsure what to do about named individuals. Do I use their real names? My edited journals are still private, but if I ever do decide to make them public, I would want to be respectful of people's privacy. (I've been using real first names, but only last initials.)
Sedaris says in his introduction that he changed some names and also shortened and clarified some entries. His early diaries, which he calls the "bleakest," were hand-written. "The letters were small and, fueled by meth, a typical entry would go on for pages -- solid walls of words, and every one of them complete bullshit," he writes. "I've included very little of that time in this book. It's like listening to a crazy person. The gist is all you need, really."
So that makes me feel better about editing my own journals. I've struggled with whether doing so is sanitizing the past, or being untrue to my earlier self. It's good to have professional confirmation that sometimes editing is needed. (Granted, I wasn't on meth, but I'm also not David Sedaris, so my journals are about 100 times more boring and probably need even more excised.)
Have I mentioned that Dave and I are going to see Sedaris in an appearance at Royal Festival Hall on Saturday night? Another reason to read the book now! (Barring any unforeseen disasters, I'm actually going this time.)
(Photo: An industrial estate in Rainham, East London.)