Writing with the Masters 2: David Sedaris
By: Jennifer Fiorile
Do you remember the details of what you did yesterday--who you saw, what you ate, a funny or poignant thought you had, a fascinating person you saw on the subway or at the grocery store? You can probably remember a good chunk of the day. What about Sunday of last week? Last month? Six years ago? You get the picture. As time goes on, your mind only saves those memories that are significant and important to you. Though you may remember random experiences many years later, your immediate reaction and thoughts on those things are lost, somewhere in the caverns of your mind. So much of our inner world, what makes us who we really are, can be forgotten. What a shame, especially so when it comes to our writing.
It’s in our thoughts, reactions, and feelings to our daily experiences that we get to see how we interpret what it’s like to live in the world and if we lose all those gems through time, we lose the chance to see how we really tick. This applies to your writing because what you think is what you write. If you don’t have an intimate and healthy relationship with your mind and how it works, your writing will never be authentic to who you really are. David Sedaris, a fantastic and prolific humorist, has a key trick that can help you as a person and as a writer: keeping a diary.
Diary keeping is a solid tip given to all aspiring writers with many benefits but it’s often viewed as a hobby for tweenage girls. Keeping a daily diary actually sounds simpler than it is. One issue is that it can feel time consuming and maybe even boring, since you’re recording things that you saw, felt, and thought that very day. You already know what happened, so rehashing it in the moment or later that day will feel unnecessary to your busy mind. Because of this, even if you sat down at the end of each day and recorded everything you remembered, you might still skip over things or sum up your reaction rather than having the rush of immediacy you experienced in the moment. That’s why Sedaris keeps a notepad and a pen with him at all times.
Another issue is that when you begin writing daily, your voice might not really sound like you. There’s often a performative tone that we use when we haven’t quite figured out what we really sound like in our true, inner voice. If you’ve ever kept a diary, then you know the worst part: going back and reading what you wrote months or years later. For me, at least, I tend to either wholly agree with what I thought at the time or I’m dying of embarrassment at how forced, cliche, and inauthentic I sound.
Since the 1970s, Sedaris has been an avid diary writer. Part of his inspiration to develop this habit came after hearing about it from a wonderful, soulful book called If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland (a book I’d recommend for every human being on earth). The concept is that with enough time and practice, you’ll lose the performative voice that you might use in the early years of writing and begin to write from your true inner voice. You become less self-conscious about how your diary would sound to others and more interested in communicating your truthful opinion to and for yourself. As this becomes a habit, it becomes a way for you to see yourself and your mind from a new perspective, an outside perspective of your inner perspective. As Sedaris puts it in an interview with The New Yorker, “I started writing one afternoon when I was twenty, and ever since then I have written every day. At first I had to force myself. Then it became part of my identity, and I did it without thinking.”
Developing this habit, like any habit that’s good for you, often takes determination and perseverance through your worst days. Like going to the gym or learning to cook instead of ordering out, the benefit is two-fold. You’ll reap the reward of having logged another day of getting better at being yourself and additionally, it just feels damn good to actually do what you said you were going to do. Daily diary keeping may not always feel as satisfying as creative writing but what it gives you is the voice of authenticity that you seek when working on creative projects. The two types of writing work to build each other up and create a fuller sound: the genuine sound of you.