Wednesday, April 11, 2012

David Sedaris on writing: ‘Write every day ... with a pen that’s shaped like a candy cane’

Bestselling author David Sedaris is coming to York Tuesday, April 17. He’ll read and talk about his writing at 7:30 p.m. After the program, he’ll sign books and chat with fans. Get details and tickets.

Sedaris got his big break in 1992 when he read his funny holiday essay "SantaLand Diaries" on NPR. Since then, he’s written seven books and short story collections. If you’re a writer or possess a sense of humor, you should read some Sedaris, if only to study his style.

During an April 3 phone interview, I chatted with Sedaris about his career and experience living abroad. Read the interview. But the conversation inevitably turned to writing. (You can’t fault me for trying to get some free advice!) Here is some of his (serious and playful) advice:

On voice:

Sedaris started writing when he was 20, mostly through diary entries. He said it was where he developed his voice. His humorous observations became the subject of many of his stories. Sedaris said he tries to maintain his voice regardless if he’s writing a book that millions will read or just jotting down something in his diary, which, for now, only he will view.

"I would die if anyone read it," he said of his diary. "I said to (my boyfriend) Hugh, ‘If I die, you can read it. There is nothing in there I haven’t said to your face at one point or another.’ "

On self-editing:

Like many writers, I sometimes spend way too much time analyzing a word or sentence. Sedaris said he’s even more meticulous. His pet peeve is repeating words. He tries to vary his phrases. He said that during his speaking tour this spring, he’ll probably spend a lot of time reading his new stories aloud in his hotel room.

"My editor says I’m being too hard on myself," Sedaris said. "I want to perfect these stories."


On giving advice to aspiring "writers":

Sedaris said he meets a lot of people who "decide one day that they’re going to be writers." He gets letters and clips from college and high school students. Sometimes, they claim to be in the Sedaris style.

"I’ve never written the word ‘gonna,’ " Sedaris pointed out. "(With) beginning writers, it’s so clunky ... and unbalanced. That’s normal. One thing that beginners don’t understand is that there is a rhythm to it."

Sedaris said that his biographical stories are probably not any funnier or weirder or better than anyone else's.

"There are 35 years of writing behind it," he said. "I think maybe that’s one of the differences."

Everyone starts somewhere, Sedaris said. He added that if he goes back to read his early writing he would "never stop throwing up."

Sedaris encounters even more people who want to pump him on information about how to become a famous, published author. That, too, makes him queasy.

"There is such a difference between wanting to write and wanting to get books published," he said.

Read, read, read:
"People who write have to read other people’s writing," Sedaris said. If not, he added, "you can’t grow. You need to know what else is out there."

His recommendation: "Write every day and read everything you can get your hands on. Write everyday ... with a pen that’s shaped like a candy cane."

Sedaris said that if you find a voice you like, experiment with that style. But don’t try to be a carbon copy. He said that he loved Raymond Carver’s use of short, simple sentences.

"I got his book in the library and I thought, ‘I can do this,’ " he said. "Oh, God. It’s so much harder."

Sedaris said that when he edits early drafts of stories, he can tell if he’s been reading a strong stylist like Joan Didion.

"(I became) aware of how good I wasn’t," Sedaris said of his writing. "I had things to compare it to."

On realizing his passion:

In his late 20s, Sedaris attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

"I met people who were actually profoundly talented at visual art," he said. "I realized ... I’m a hard worker, but I’m not really talented. These people think about art every moment they’re awake. And I think about art for 45 minutes every day. I thought about writing the rest of the time."