More Than Talking Pretty

Last week, I, and what seemed to be about half of Columbia, had the pleasure of seeing David Sedaris live at Jesse Hall.  I had never seen him before and though I only started reading him recently—Me Talk Pretty One Day this summer on my lunch breaks—I knew I was in for a great night when I saw the posters hanging around campus last month. 

As the lights dimmed and Sedaris emerged, bobbing towards the podium and glancing timidly at the anxious gallery awaiting him, I leaned back and prepared for that pleasant belly ache like everyone else.

And, in case you had any doubt, he did deliver. 

After starting off with a piece from his latest collection, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, Sedaris jumped from earlier stories, to unpublished journal entries, and lastly, to jokes he’d been told on earlier readings.  Also interspersed was more general oration that proved as entertaining as his writings, including a reading of a book title in what was to Sedaris an unknown language.  When he asked the audience if anyone knew the language, and someone yelled “Croatian,” Sedaris replied, “Come see me after the show.  The book’s yours.” Needless to say, it was a great show; but it was what followed the show that most impressed me. 

The moment Sedaris said, “I’ll be in the lobby afterwards if any of you would like me to sign a book,” I began to make my move.  I was clapping as I did so, sure, but I was more so concentrating on limiting was sure to be a significant wait.   As I rose, made my way out of the row, I saw masses of people flooding towards the exits like there was a fire. 

After standing in line for twenty minutes, two friends approached me with signed books.  On one, Sedaris had sharpied a crying Jesus with the words “Why did you kill me?” above his signature.  On the other, were the words, “I’m glad you can joke.”  My friend had told her best one, upon Sedaris’ earlier request. I guess it hadn’t landed so well, as he’d also crossed out the word “joke” and underneath written “walk.”  I laughed, impressed that Sedaris had taken the time to personalize their signings.  My friends left, and I resigned myself to the long wait ahead. 

Almost two hours later, a story for my fiction class as well as the university concert series pamphlet read, I was next in line to get my book signed.  At this point, I thought, stealing glances at a slumped David Sedaris, I’m sure he’s just signing them.  No way he’s still personalizing each signing.  The person in front of me cleared out, and I stepped forward.

“Hello,” Sedaris said, smiling wide-eyed, as if I was first person to ever ask him for an autograph. 

I said hello and thanked him for coming.  “And thanks for your patience,” I said, “You must be exhausted.”

He paused, pen poised above the title, and looked up.

“I like signing books,” he said, and smiled.

After a moment, “It’s Owen, is it?  O-W-E-N.  Are you a student here, Owen?” Then, following a nod, “What are you studying?”

I told him English-Creative Writing with a fiction emphasis, and he perked up. 

“Do you write short stories?”

A couple minutes and a couple questions later, he handed me my book.  “Thank you for waiting,” he said, still smiling. 

While he talked with my girlfriend, and asked her to tell him about her latest non-fiction piece, I flipped to the title page of Me Talk Pretty One Day.

“It was about my love for Bruce Springsteen,” she said.

He laughed.  “Have you ever met him?”

She told him about the time she touched his sweaty arm and vest at a concert in Chicago. 

“Oh wow,” he said. “Was it everything you’d imagined?”   

As a young writer, I often feel intimated by the literary world.  It is a place of grim prospect.  Spend your whole life in front a computer or notebook, working to communicate something worthwhile and original in a worthwhile and original way.  Sure, there are literary journals to strive towards, as well as grants and fellowships and other awards, but who cares about these things besides other writers?  It’s even worse if you write primarily literary prose or poetry.  Romance or crime, you’ve got a chance, but if you plan on writing anything else for a living, you better start playing the lottery. 

Because of these truths, it’s easy to grow bitter. Many writers work and struggle and eventually prosper while this bitterness consumes them.  I’m sure David Sedaris wouldn’t say he’s never had a bitter moment, but last night I saw no evidence of one.   For at least three hours –we weren’t even close to the end— he made an effort to connect with every single person in that line.  And he’s going to do the same thing every night for the next month.  How does a writer, especially a well-respected literary writer, do this?  Maybe if this was his first book tour, then maybe I could understand his insatiable desire to engage fans, but he’s been publishing books for over fifteen years.  And not only that, but he reads his work, over and over again, with a zeal as noteworthy as his actual prose. 

            This baffles and inspires me.  If David Sedaris can work and struggle and prosper with such an impressive character intact, I have to believe that so too can anyone.  I hope I always will. 

We thanked him and left.  Outside Jesse, we opened our books to the title page.  On mine, he’d drawn an owl perched on the publisher’s name. It looked at me, wide-eyed, patient, still.  And on hers, he’d written “Your story has touched my heart.”