Friday, September 1, 2017

The Sedaris Diaries

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.)


John Going Gently said...

Sedaris is a joy, deadpan, witty, and adorable

Yorkshire Pudding said...

I must confess that I had never heard of Sedaris but the book sounds fascinating. Back in the day you say you weren't "on meth" Steve so what were you "on"?

crafty cat corner said...

This is what is so wonderful about blogging, you get to find out things you would otherwise never have heard of. I've never heard of Sedaris but through reading your post I am now going to google and read about him.

Vivian said...

I read Seadaris's book in two days. I couldn't stop -- he and I are the same age so I remember the New York he describes in the 1980s and, more important, I remember what it was like being 20-something and hoping to do something "interesting" with my life. His diaries chart his progress towards success and then, when he's achieved so much, the entries report how life does or doesn't change when you have acclaim and money and options. It's fascinating. And, oh yeah: it is my dream of dreams to one day be able to charge admission to my author events. NO ONE does that except David Seders and Nick Hornby.

I've paid to see Nick Hornby (in Washington DC at the Shakespeare Library) and he was fabulous. He had the musician Ben Folds with him, so it was a two-fer. Lucky you! To see David Sedaris in his adopted homeland! I'm sure it will be a wonderful night.

I use my journals as fodder for my travel memoirs and yes, editing is the most important thing you can do. When it comes to every day life I have found that it takes ten years of journal entries to put together one year of worthwhile, eventful reading material. I'm more self conscious when I travel, knowing that I might need this info later, but there's never enough really meaty stuff in the immediate experience.

And isn't it amazing how we write down names with no introduction or descriptors so that 5, 10 years later we re-read the pages and can't remember who the hell we were writing about? I once read that I was flying out of the country from Dulles airport in DC c. 1982 and I stood in line behind Muhammed Ali. I have zero memory of that. But I wrote it, and I'm not a fan of Ali so I can't imagine that I would have made it up, but still. How can you forget Muhammed Ali?

Ms. Moon said...

Oh dang. You just reminded me that I have to read that. Thank you!
I find other people's journals intensely interesting. I remember reading Andy Warhol's diaries and it was a terrific window into a completely unknown (to me) world.

Sharon said...

I've read one of his books but not that one. I think I would enjoy seeing him in person. I love to listen to his stories when they are played on the radio. I love the way he tells a story with a sort of matter-of-fact tone.

robin andrea said...

I haven't read Sedaris, but I loved listening to him on public radio. You definitely make me want to read his book. I'm looking forward to what you write after you see him on Saturday. I'm sure it's going to be fantastic!

Red said...

I change names on the blog all the time . The story will be accurate enough for people to recognize themselves.

jenny_o said...

Oh lord please let Steve finally make it to Sedaris's performance this time ! (third time lucky?) Have fun!

My diaries (which, yes, had a lock and key) would fell an elephant from sheer boredom. I destroyed them when I was in my late teens. "Today I wore my red shorts, red and white striped shirt and red socks." Yes. It WAS that bad. Granted, I was only twelve.

Anonymous said...

I was lucky enough to see him in April. If you get there early there may be a book signing line. He took the time to ask everyone who got a book signed a question that showed genuine interest and his show is great!

Elizabeth said...

I love Sedaris -- I've seen him live many, many times, and he always read from his diaries. It was the funniest part of the show, generally. Actually, nearly everything is funny about his show to me except for when he tells this Monica Lewinsky joke. I haven't read his new collection but will pick it up soon --

Lorianne said...

I'm reading Theft By Finding as we speak (and I read your post on my phone when you first wrote it, but am only now getting around to commenting on my laptop). I keep wondering whether readers who don't keep journals would enjoy it as much as I am. I enjoy the random nature of the genre, but maybe it just seems too weird and rambling to other, "normal" people?