Who: David Sedaris
Where: Mayo Performing Arts Center, Morristown, NJ
When: Thursday, October 13, 2011
Why: David Sedaris is like a gateway drug into the world of creative nonfiction. I was sucked in by Holidays on Ice, a collection of essays about the joys of the holiday season. For how could you not love the grown man who works as a Macy’s elf, and, bored with his job, makes up lies like “Step on the Magic Star and you can see Cher!”? Or that bad children no longer get coal; no, Santa “comes to your house and steals things.” While Holidays got me hooked, my favorite collection is Me Talk Pretty One Day, with stories focusing on communication. And learning how to say things in French like “you now need to deliver the afterbirth.”
Naturally, when Mr. Sedaris was speaking in Morristown, I jumped at the chance to see him.
If you’re interested in the craft of writing, seeing Sedaris speak is a really cool thing. The only published essay he read was “The Squirrel and the Chipmunk” from the similarly titled collection Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk (more on that later!). The rest of the essays are all unpublished, unknown by the audience. He marks down the reactions and constantly rewrites the piece as he moves from city to city. In theory, the east coast audience may have a completely different experience than the west coast. Assuming these stories will one day be published, I am excited to see how he changed things over time. In a way, the reactions help him mold the piece.
Okay – back to “The Squirrel and The Chipmunk.” I read it in the aforementioned collection, and laughed through it. A squirrel and a chipmunk are dating, and (as one can imagine) their respective families are disapproving. At first the relationship is exciting, but then the squirrel asks the chipmunk if she likes jazz. She has no idea what it is, but responds affirmatively so as not to look stupid. She starts to overthink things, “what if jazz was squirrel slang for something terrible, like anal intercourse?” This jazz business was the beginning of the end, and they soon break up. I had never really given a lot of thought to the ending, as the chipmunk ages and it wasn’t as funny. But when Sedaris read it aloud, a whole new layer of meaning was added. The story became tinged with melancholy, as the chipmunk looked back on her life. Jazz became “every beautiful thing she had ever failed to appreciate.” It took hearing it for me to catch the sentiment and the complex act our mind plays with memories. With a writer like David Sedaris, I sometimes forge past the nuances and beauty he creates to look for the wry humor.
The new essays were hilarious, sometimes angry and always clever, with his laser-focus carving the best (or worst) parts out of his life. Because that’s one thing David Sedaris is never afraid to talk about – people can be really absurd and awful. He never shies away from this behavior, especially when it comes to himself. It’s like he lacks all sense of self preservation, which is good for us – it makes for excellent essays. In one story, he writes about wanting to cause a scene at his grandmother’s birthday party by bringing his “girlfriend,” the 300 pound Hermia. He very bluntly stated that even then, he knew no one else wanted her. There is no lying about his intentions, or trying to make himself sound noble. He was rotten, but we all do rotten things. Boldly laying this fact before an audience is one of the aspects which makes Sedaris’ work so compelling.
Now – I just said there was no lying. This is not to say there is no embellishment. There is plenty of that. But he is a humor writer, so it’s not really lying. It’s part of the experience. For example, the funniest essay of the evening was “Atta Boy.” It began with Sedaris bemoaning the state of childhood today – these little bastards are catered to in ways he never could imagine. If he had tried to do some of these things, he spoke of the way his parents would beat him mercilessly – and this was just in public. Wait until they get home, when the real punishment would start. Or some kids today will only eat white food, and their parents accommodate them willingly. Sedaris imagines himself telling his parents this, and the food he would’ve been given: “a bowl of paste, or the ground up joints of animals, or, if I was lucky, – semen.” At this point, the audience lost it. There were howls of laughter and I was crying, the laughter was so intense. After he was finished reading, he sheepishly said, “I was trying to think of white things.”
Then – it was question and answer time. I know I shouldn’t be shocked that some people have the gall to ask such stupid questions, but Jesus H. Christ. Someone asked what he thought about botox use among actors. REALLY? What the hell does that have to do with anything? David Sedaris was gracious and answered the question, despite the complete irrelevance. Then someone else asked about being an American in France, and I just wanted to yell “he wrote a book about that!” Again, he was able to take the question and turn it into an insightful story about people littering in the English country side and how he likes to be an outsider. The best answer was when some young kid asked “what motivates you?” (perhaps expecting a heartfelt outpouring) and Sedaris replied “a deadline.” Never missed a beat, that man.
My aversion to Q&A aside, I was still sad when the night came to an end. He thanked us and we yelled and clapped for him. He’s the type of author you could listen to for hours more, regaling you with endless tales of biting wit. Then we had to decide: do we stay and talk to him? Wait in line and clutch his books to our chests, thinking of what to say or ask or do? After seeing the people winding up the staircase into the mezzanine level, with the line ending all the way down in the orchestra, we decided: next time. Who knows how slowly the line moved, as I imagine people want to talk to Mr. Sedaris. Try to make him laugh or ask for more details about one of his stories or teach him some gruesome medical term in another language. When someone isn’t afraid to lay out all the crazy shit he’s done, to write so wonderfully and hilariously about the banalities of the human existence, we want to thank that person for enunciating life in such a way that makes said banalities easier to bear. Or more simply put – maybe they just want to say thanks for the laughs.
*A special “thank-you-times-a-million” to Cassia-la’s wonderful mom who took us to see the show!*