Monday, November 15, 2010

Typing Does Not Equal Writing, and other not-so-funny advice via David Sedaris

As I mentioned last week, I'm working my way through the book And Here's the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on their Craft. I found much of what David Sedaris had to say in his interview answers went beyond humor writing, right to the heart of writing craft and process.

Here are a few insights I especially liked:

"Q: How long does it generally take for you to write a story?

A: It can take years. With the first draft, I just write everything. With the second draft, it becomes so depressing for me, because
I realize that I was fooled into thinking I'd written the story. I hadn't – I had just typed for a long time. So I then have to carve out a story from the 25 or so pages. It's in there somewhere – but I have to find it. I'll then write a third, fourth, and fifth draft, and so on."

When asked about how he sometimes edits his existing essays for reading to an audience, Sedaris described his preparation process, which also applies to the essay when it's still in revision. I believe this is good advice whether or not you will ever read your work aloud (although most writers will at some point read to a group). I read everything out loud, when I'm home alone, always standing up:

"When I hear myself reading out loud, I hear things I don't hear when I read (silently) to myself. When I read aloud, I always have a pencil in hand. If I feel I'm trying too hard, or I'm being repetitive, I make a mark. An editor can tell you those same things, but you don't necessarily believe the editor. So it's good to just learn those things on your own, and then to fix them as much as you can before you turn in the piece to the editor."

About how reading and writing intersect, a favorite topic of mine, he says, in part:

"…On the other hand, I also became a reader around this time (when he was studying art), which is so important for a writer. If I read a story in The Atlantic, I would be in a daze afterward. It just meant so much to me. When I later taught at the Art Institute (of Chicago), I could very easily spot the students who never read. Their stories would be shit. I would point to their work and then to a published work. I'd ask, 'Do you see a difference between these two things?' A lot of student couldn't see the difference. For them, there was no hope."

And, within a much longer answer to a question about the empirical truth, exaggeration and re-creation in nonfiction, he notes: "Memoir is the last place you should ever look for the truth."

I agree with that statement, in this way: My interpretation of his implication is that the only "truth" a writer can infuse into memoir is not centered on accuracy, factualness, or provable history; but only the writer's "truth" which is more about meaning, perception, recollection, and an honest personal and emotional exactness.

I highly recommend this book as so many of the other interviews are wonderful, too. By the way, I don't know this book's editor and haven't been asked by anyone to write something nice about it. Just passing on what I find useful, and hoping you find it of interest, too.


Anonymous said...

Ooo. This sounds like a good one! Thanks for the recommendation!

-Michelle O.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Lisa. My students love Sedaris and need this link!

Cindy Fey said...

My husband is reading this book right now! I'll have to grab it when he's done.

kario said...

I knew I loved David Sedaris! Thanks for bringing these words of wisdom to us.

CarmenSisson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carmen Sisson said...

I adore David Sedaris with a white-hot passion, so it was exciting to see that he practices my own trick of reading his work aloud to edit. I used to think it was amateur - the literary equivalent of counting on your fingers to add. But I couldn't dispute the fact that the final product was always better. Way better.

This sounds like a great collection, and this post reminds me that I need to subscribe to your RSS feed, because I often miss your tweets in my overstuffed Twitter stream.

(Sorry for the double comment. I first posted from the wrong account.)