David Sedaris Wants You to Read His Diary
Your new book, ‘‘Theft by Finding,’’ is a compendium of your diary entries from 1977 to 2002. I take the title to mean that you ‘‘find’’ things of value that other people have discarded: their observations about themselves, their thoughts, their dialogue? The other night, somebody told me a story — oh, it was this woman who was driving me. She was talking about her mother, who lives in eastern North Carolina, and she had to get up really early, and her mother said, ‘‘I hain’t even rolled over good.’’ I just thought: I’ll take that! It was so beautiful and so unexpected, and of course, I put it in my diary. I’m not going to pretend I invented it, but I am definitely not forgetting that.
You’ve also made a mini-career out of picking up trash in your neighborhood. Where do you find more interesting stuff: your diaries or trash? I think my diary, but then, like the trash, my diary is a lot of the same stuff over and over. Writing that I went somewhere and every single person in the room was on their cellphone — that’s the equivalent of a Red Bull can, an empty potato-chip bag. It’s like: ‘‘I’ve seen this before. How many times have I seen this?’’ But still, I write it in my diary. That wouldn’t mean I’d put it in a book over and over again.
How did you figure out what would be interesting, then? There were a lot of things that I put in the diary that my editor kindly informed me weren’t as interesting as I thought they were, which is great, because that’s what she’s there for. To me, every turd that’s not in a toilet is interesting. Every single one of them. It’s interesting if it’s in the dressing room of Banana Republic. It’s interesting if it’s on the ground outside of a Starbucks. But somebody else might think, Oh, my God, that’s disgusting, we don’t want to hear about that.
You’re remarkably candid in your diary — not just in your observations of other people, but also about yourself. What’s the most unflattering detail or revelation about yourself? I’m usually not afraid to make myself look bad. Somebody came up to me recently and said — I wrote it down exactly because I’d never heard anybody say it, and I wasn’t hurt when she said it, I just thought, Oh, that’s interesting — ‘‘I think part of your charm is that you’re kind of a [expletive]. You’re not a complete [expletive], but you’re kind of one.’’ I think you would take that stuff out if you were that concerned with your image, but when you leave it in, then most people will think, Oh — he’s like me.
Do people know you well from your published, public writing? I just give the illusion of exposing myself. I mean, you have no evidence that I have ever sat on a toilet. I haven’t given everything away.
Do you worry that there’s a limit to how much you can strip away? Oh, yeah. People get sick of you — well, not sick of you, but somebody comes along to replace you, and I always thought that would be horrible. What I didn’t realize is that you get to be a certain age, and then it makes sense.
Has knowing that you’re going to eventually publish your diaries changed the way you keep diaries now? In 1986, I read something out loud from my diary in my painting class, and people laughed, and it was validating. That’s what changed the way I kept my diary, because then I really started taking care of things that seemed remarkable to me, because I would think, Oh, this could work in front of an audience.
What surprised you the most about rereading your old diary entries? I’m always surprised by things I’d been telling myself for years had been other people’s fault, but then I would look in my diary and realize it was completely my fault! But I think that’s a really good aspect of a diary — your life is just written down and on paper, and sometimes you read it, and you’re just appalled by your judgment or by your jealousy or your pettiness. It’s O.K. to be reminded of it every now and then and think, Oh, right, I need to keep that in check. Usually you keep it in check for, like, 15 minutes. But I’ll take 15 minutes.