On Tuesday night at UCLA I went to see David Sedaris read drafts for his new book of essays, which is due in a month and is coming out in June. He's only doing a few nights at UCLA and did a few nights at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. I found it fascinating that he's trying out how his material works in front of a crowd — similar to a standup comic trying out material at small comedy clubs leading up to his HBO special, or a Broadway musical doing a workshop or an out-of-town tryout — since Sedaris's final product is a book, which is typically experienced on the page, as opposed to a live event.
I had seen Sedaris read once before, in a huge auditorium in Pittsburgh. Afterwards my family and I stood in line for the signing of his then-new book, "Dress Your Family in Cordoroy and Denim," and I asked him how he remembers everything. He said he tries to keep everything as accurate as possible, though sometimes he'll insert something, for instance, that his dad might have said, or tended to say, even if he's not sure he said it right then. That made me feel good, since I keep a journal, but don't write very frequently, and I'm worried that not having a day-to-day record of my entire life will somehow disqualify me from being a writer. I do have detailed journals I kept during my childhood vacations, though they contain extremely small details, things like "We went to the Mesa Verde National Park gift shop, where Nathaniel bought a t-shirt."
On Tuesday Sedaris chose a more intimate setting, and the theater seated only about 250 or so. He read a few very funny essays — the main one was about smoking and his experiences as a smoker. For most of the reading, it seemed that each time people laughed, he made a mark with a pencil.
Afterwards, during a Q&A, he confessed that he was having trouble shaping the smoking essay, which had several sections, as he's been a smoker much of his life, but has since quit. "It just goes on and on and on and on for 75 pages," he said.
He said that his success has created somewhat of a problem when it came to writing comic essays about his life. When he talks about staying at the Four Seasons, for instance, he's worried people might "say 'Well, fuck you.'" Referring to a story he read earlier, he added, "I thought well, maybe if I cut the cake with a credit card, it'll be ok."
He also said that since the age of 20 he's kept a journal, and because of his obsessive nature he's only missed about 60 days in the last 30 years. My heart sank -- I thought you just remembered everything, David! Time for me to write in my journal more. Or blog more.
For the final question, I raised my hand and asked him how these readings informed his writing process in this last month before the book was due. He said that even though people are going to be reading the book, he didn't want them to get to what was supposed to be a joke and not think it's funny. He admitted he marked down what got laughs, though sometimes, he said, "I'd write 'death.'"
At other times, it's not the laughs he's concerned with. Sometimes, when he reads things aloud, he said, "I think, 'That absolutely doesn't have to be there,' or 'it's true but it sounds like a lie'" — a fascinating issue that Sedaris probably has to deal with a lot, though the lay reader might never realize that it's even a potential problem.