Where you see just a slice of pizza on the ground, David Sedaris sees an essay in the making.
The best-selling author has perfected his craft of spinning the seemingly mundane into humorist gold in essay collections including Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and his latest, Calypso. Sedaris has, of course, a natural gift for the written word that he has built on over the years, but another essential part to his creative output is what he takes in from the world around him–including a forgotten piece of pizza on a driveway in Wisconsin.
In Fast Company‘s new podcast Creative Conversation, Sedaris explores not just how he mines his everyday life for material, but also the challenges of being a humorist in the P.C. age; why, even at his caliber, he finds criticism so hard to process; and what he wishes he could have told his younger self.
Read snippets of the conversation below:
Finding the funny with the P.C. police on your tail
“Sometimes you feel the audience getting snagged on something. And I feel like audiences snag on race when you mention anything with another culture. Like, I mentioned a dress that a Mexican baby would wear. I’ve moved on but [the audience is] still there thinking, ‘Is that racist? Can you say that? Can you say a dress on a Mexican baby?’ . . .
“I don’t have a zero-tolerance policy towards any words, but you can’t even guess anymore what people will be bothered by. Sometimes I do wonder: Did you come in here tonight determined to be offended by something and this is what we settled on? Or people will say, ‘I can’t believe the things you say on stage,’ and I think, ‘What did I say?'”
The neverending story
“A number of years ago, I bought a taxidermied owl in London for my boyfriend, Hugh. And so I went to this taxidermy store and events unfolded. This guy started pulling things out, human things—human parts to show me. It’s like he looked into my soul and said, ‘I know what you want.’ And if I’d pulled my notebook out, it would have ended. If I had asked questions like, ‘Where did you get this?’ it would have ended. So when something like that happens, I so often think of surfers when you see them riding this wave and you don’t want it to end. I wrote an essay years ago of this guy on the metro in Paris who thought I was a pickpocket. And people have said, ‘Why didn’t you tell them you weren’t?’ And I said I didn’t want the story to end. I heard him talking about me because he thought I was French and I didn’t speak English, so he’s saying horrible things about me to his friend and I’m just right there listening to it–but I’m not going to end it.”
Some emotional distance may be required
“There’s an essay in [Calypso] called ‘Why Aren’t You Laughing?’ and it was about my mother’s drinking. And I tried to write about that when I was younger and I just didn’t have the level of understanding that I needed. I needed to be the age my mother was when she died in order to write that essay. I was just missing something and I needed to get exactly this distance away from it.”
Learn from the best and make it your own
“When I was going through my old diaries for [Theft by Finding], there were pages and pages and pages of other people’s books that I would just transcribe in my diary because I wanted my fingers to know what excellence felt like. There are things I have in my head memorized, whole pages and endings from different short stories that I’ve read over the years that I can call forth when I’m walking. I can’t necessarily write like those people. And I think when you’re younger, you begin by imitating other people. But I think as you get older, you think, ‘That’s amazing, what that person can do. And in the meantime, this is who I am and this is what I do.’ Not that you can’t try to stretch and grow, but you kind of accept your place, I suppose.”