Behind-the-Scenes Glimpses into the Mind of David Sedaris

Book review: Theft by Finding, by David Sedaris

“In order to record your life, you sort of need to live it. Not at your desk, but beyond it. Out in the world where it’s so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you just need to sit down and write about it.”

David Sedaris, beloved humorist and essayist known for his dry, witty takes on the absurdities of American culture, his big family, and expat life in France and England, allows readers to go behind the scenes with excerpts from forty years’ worth of his diaries. Forty years of journaling is no small feat and he explains, in his own special way, why it was meaningful to him:

If nothing else, a diary teaches you what you’re interested in. Perhaps at the beginning you restrict yourself to issues of social injustice or all the unfortunate people trapped beneath the rubble in Turkey or Italy or wherever the last great earthquake hit. You keep the diary you feel you should be keeping, the one that, if discovered by your mother or college roommate, would leave them thinking, If only I were as civic minded/bighearted/philosophical as Edward!

After a year, you realize it takes time to rail against injustice, time you might better spend questioning fondue or describing those ferrets you couldn’t afford. Unless, of course, social injustice is your thing, in which case – knock yourself out. The point is to find out who you are and to be true to that person. Because so often you can’t.

It often feels like reading through the source material for some of his popular material. The entries begin when he’s 20 years old and traveling around the country picking apples as work. Later his odd jobs include moving people’s furniture and doing home repairs, opening the door to a plethora of amusing anecdotes or simply glimpses into his thoughts.

“While picking today I thought about capital punishment, Alaska, Eudora Welty, and blindness.”

The early years reveal an aimlessness familiar in many artists as they begin to find themselves, and although I already knew the outline of his past, there was something so strangely compelling reading about it, knowing where he’s headed and what he’s capable of. Even in his minor jottings, he tells so much.

It’s hard to tell whether Sedaris himself has a magnetic attraction to strange people with amusing stories to tell, or if quirky people who like to tell their wild stories are naturally drawn to him, but one of the two is definitely happening. “This is a busy week with me and lunatics, whom I tend to see as either signs or messengers,” he writes from Chicago, during his studies at the Art Institute.

Some of his both funniest and most painful interactions are with people who pester him for cigarettes or money. I was crying laughing (much to my husband’s annoyance) at one passage of a creepy neighbor who watched him through a window while he was cuddling with and talking to cats, then tried to bum a cigarette and change.

I loved how often he recorded these kind of interactions, even the ugly ones – people throwing things at him when he rode his bike in Raleigh, or screaming obscenities or threats at him in the streets, parks, and subways of New York City. He’s often mistaken for a woman on the phone because of his high-pitched voice, and he writes in a matter-of-fact, raw tone about some of the discrimination he’s faced for his sexuality, and how some of the near-violent encounters haunt him in the aftermath.

It felt so relatable (and I’m not a gay man), I’m not sure why. Maybe the sudden anger strangers can flip on so quickly and inexplicably. He recounts these incidents, sometimes with l’esprit de l’escalier that comes to you after an interaction, when you know what you should have said. I liked that he included these, despite how tough they must be to remember.

And there’s plenty of light material and his typical acerbic observations or pithy descriptions that capture a place or personality so vividly, for example: “This town is the Greek Baltimore,” from a family vacation to Greece and his bus trip to Patras.

There’s less introspection and emotion than in his polished, published essays we’re used to. A lot of events familiar to his readers make appearances, obviously, since he’s culled so much from his life experiences. But they’re more raw here, more observationally-based. His struggles with alcohol and drug abuse, his mother’s death, his worries about his sister Tiffany, who would later commit suicide; they’re alluded to or briefly addressed but not deeply explored. He still manages to say so much in so few words, most entries only spanning half a page or so.

Seeing some of his wish lists come true (to see his name in print, or his admiration for NPR programming and Ira Glass, who later called him to read his work on-air) brought me a feeling of sheer joy, knowing the significance of those moments. Or when he mentions meeting a cute guy named Hugh at a Manhattan loft.

Some of those already-familiar moments are more dramatically fleshed-out, hilariously so, like scenes from his Parisian French class with the notorious chalk-throwing teacher from “Me Talk Pretty One Day”. Or a scene from his time working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s, the job that helped catapult him to literary and radio fame thanks to the essay it inspired, “SantaLand Diaries”. He angered SantaLand management after “hustling up visitors” with lines like, “Santa’s patience is beyond your comprehension. Come test it.”

As a bonus, I loved his notes about what he was reading, which included biographies of Tanya Tucker and his delight in her many oddly named acquaintances, and five books about serial killers read during one vacation in France. He gave me a new appreciation for note-taking, getting your thoughts written down, for holding onto the small things that delight you, and for not being embarrassed of the absurdities life will always throw at you.

“I crossed the street to the Metro station and experienced one of those moments of extreme joy, the kind that result from something small and make you grateful that you never committed suicide.”

His writing, whether quick and dirty here or refined and nuanced in essays, is spellbinding, hilarious, and poignant. Part two can’t come quickly enough.

Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002
by David Sedaris

published May 30, 2017 by Little, Brown (Hachette Group)

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