Last night, my friend Kathy took me to see David Sedaris. It was a birthday gift, and one that I really enjoyed, and needed on some level.
First, if you don’t know Sedaris’ work, you should probably start reading/listening now so that you can catch up. Here’s a list of his work on NPR. You can find a list of his books here. And if you’re a visual person, here’s what he looks like on Letterman.
So now that we’re all caught up (because you did “step away” to read or listen a bit, right?), let me tell you that hearing Sedaris read live was one of the best book tour events that I’ve ever been to.
First, the reading took place in Baltimore’s Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, which was almost sold out for the event. There’s something amazing, first, about so many people coming to hear someone read but also, then, about so many people laughing together. What an atmosphere.
Secondly, Sedaris is naturally funny. He was even funny when answering questions, even those questions that sounded like the questioner simply wanted to have Sedaris directly address words that had come out of their mouth rather than addressing a genuine question. The most humorous part of the night was when he defended his choice to name the rabbits that invade his garden with any part of speech he’d like. He could have a rabbit named “Screened-In Porch” if he wanted. Boy, I felt my ribs ache with that one. And I need to laugh that hard often – as we all do.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly for me, I loved the evening simply because someone asked a question that I would have asked if Kathy and I – both working in the academy – could have afforded seats below the absolutely last row of the Hall (Sedaris is short, but from where we were sitting he looked like he was the size of a Liliputian). A man asked, “What percentage of your writing would you say is true?” I found both the phrasing of this question – kind but direct – and the question itself absolutely perfect because, after all, as a nonfiction writer who is living in the age of James Frey (can you believe that guy had another book published? If my estimation of the publishing industry could have gotten any lower, it would have when that new novel came out – perhaps I should just take solace in the fact that Frey actually called it a novel this time), I find this question gripping, if only because I have to answer it so often myself.
Sedaris’ answer – 97%. Perhaps he made up dialogue here or there, recreating the sentiment if not the words. And perhaps he adds another beat into a story that wasn’t there originally. But 97% true. He said everything he read that night – in a new essay he’s constructing about his book tour – was true; it actually happened. And here I took great heart for this reason – it is possible to be hilarious without lying, without fictionalizing. If it’s true for humor, it must be true for other styles of writing as well. I am comforted by that.
Oh, and I also enjoyed the evening because he made his political views known as only he can, in a hypothetical story about a flight attendant who asks him if he would prefer the chicken or the “human shit” entree? Ah! humor!!