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Who's In David Sedaris's Diary? Mostly Other People

Ingrid Christie

Would you read your diary aloud in public? David Sedaris has been doing it for years as part of his live shows.

The award-winning essayist and humorist will perform at Rockford's Coronado Theater on April 24. During this show, he'll share some of the entries from his forthcoming book, Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002).

But don't expect juicy details about his past, private life or dreams. "Nobody cares about anyone's dreams," he says.

Sedaris is always searching for funny stories but prefers to look outward for source material. "I was just never that interested in my own feelings," he says.

In an interview with WNIJ, the author says he became a keen observer while attending the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Every semester, students would gather to critique each others' paintings.

"I noticed that my fellow students weren't thinking of the other people in the room as an audience," he says. "They were talking more the way you might talk to a therapist. And really, not even a therapist wants to hear that kind of talk."

The first time Sedaris read to a group of people as a performer, he delivered fictional monologues in which he played his fellow students explaining how their work could've been better.

"And the class responded, in part, because the monologues were so short," he says. Sedaris remembers a teacher asking if he'd parody himself talking about his own work; he replied that he was finished. "And then people liked me even more, because it meant they could talk about themselves sooner," he says.

Sedaris also learned by watching other people perform. "They'd be unprepared, or they would read something in which the character didn't have any kind of want, and the story would be flat without anything at stake," he says. "That might be okay on a page, but not when you've got people sitting in chairs."

After graduating in 1987, Sedaris performed in clubs where he met future radio star Ira Glass. A few years later, Sedaris gained national attention when he read from his Santaland Diaries on NPR's Morning Edition. In the audio link below, he explains how Glass helped make that happen.

Like many humorists, Sedaris captures memorable moments each day in his notebook -- moments he'll later share with audiences. He points to a recent encounter in London.

"I went to a grocery store, came out, and saw a man eating a sandwich with his eyes closed," he says. The man, wearing a trench coat, looked like a typical businessman. People ignored him as they walked by, but Sedaris was transfixed. He notes it wasn't a savor-the-flavor commercial ad moment.

"The sandwich he was eating wasn't special," Sedaris says, "I just think he wanted to shut the world out. And I thought 'Nothing's going to top that,' " he laughs. "I could be completely wrong -- his doctor could've said 'Put these drops in and keep your eyes closed for five minutes,' and he thought 'Well, I might as well eat a sandwich while doing it.' "

Sedaris might share this story during his Rockford show. Whatever he shares, each story evolves from one show to the next.

"That's what I want to use a tour for," he says. "To read new work and go back to the room and rewrite it." Quite often, Sedaris says, a story he reads at the beginning of a tour will be substantially different at the end.

The audience plays a big part, too. "Sometimes people laugh and I think 'God, that was a really cheap laugh -- I'm going to get rid of that,' " he says. "Sometimes people don't laugh, and I think 'Oh, I'm not making myself clear.' " Sedaris says he can feel if people drift away and makes note of that too.

WNIJ interview with David Sedaris (April, 2017).

As an observer, Sedaris is troubled by life's increasing distractions. He cites mobile phones as a key obstacle to appreciating the real world.

"I don't have any relationship with my phone," he says. "So when I'm in public I'm not staring into a phone and texting people, and often I'm the only person who's not doing that. I think that has a lot to do with observing -- not having your eyes on a phone."

Sedaris admits he's less likely to judge someone reading an e-book. Still: "How can that be more important than that guy eating a sandwich with his eyes closed?"

David Sedaris is the author of ten books and several magazine articles. Theft by Finding publishes May 30.

Good morning, Early Riser! Since 1997 I've been waking WNIJ listeners with the latest news, weather, and program information with the goal of seamlessly weaving this content into NPR's Morning Edition.
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