Sunday, November 1, 2009

warm words from david sedaris

i went to the david sedaris reading last night at the morrison center. i think it was the best reading i’ve ever been to. i’m used to poetry and fiction readings, which involve such a different environment and different crowd...i’m more convinced than ever that creative nonfiction is the friendliest writing field.

when i walked into the lobby, a theater group was performing michael jackson’s “thriller,” in costume--they weren’t supposed to start until 7:11 but they started before 7, so i only caught the last minute or so. it was pretty fantastic though.

i was lucky enough to get a free seat in the fourth row. i didn’t decide for sure if i wanted to go to the reading until the morning-of, but my mom set aside two tickets “in case of emergency” so i took one of those. to my left sat bruce ballenger, who was my advanced nonfiction writing professor last semester, and his wife; and to my right was nicole lefavour and her partner carol.

nicole was doing the introduction. it speaks to the smallness of boise, and boise’s liberal community, and the further subset of boise’s liberal lgbt community that we have this sort of token lesbian...not that nicole isn’t awesome and deserving of a lot of speaking engagements and things, but when i thought about it a bit more it seemed quite odd that she was introducing sedaris--an author to whom she has no personal or business-related connection as a senator. in her introduction she mentioned that she might be kind of a strange choice because she had done his introduction before, when he visited in 2003, at which time he was a smoker and she was pushing some anti-smoking legislation. i honestly don’t know of any reason that she would be picked to do his intro, other than the fact that she’s a prominent community member who happens to prefer the company of ladies.

when sedaris took the stage, the first thing out of his mouth was, “what would we do without our lesbians?”

it was great getting to catch up with bruce. he’s on sabbatical this semester, working on (another!) text book and writing a long and difficult essay. he asked me if i still get school-related nightmares, now that i’ve graduated; i told him i have a recurring anxiety dream that i’m signed up for a certain class but i’ve forgotten to attend it all semester. he and his wife both laughed and exclaimed that that’s the classic dream, they both still get it years after graduating, and that it will probably be with me for the rest of my life. i asked bruce if he, as a professor, ever dreams that he’s teaching a class that he’s never attended (which i think would be an even worse nightmare), but he said he hasn’t.

sedaris’s reading sent the whole audience into hysterics. he opened with a story called “healthcare freedoms and why i want my country back,” written from the perspective of a “teabagger” woman, whose gay, liberal son had played on her ignorance and duped her into wearing kkk headwear and a tshirt that says “big proud dyke,” then put her on a bus to seattle, washington, instead of DC.

he then read a story from a book he’s working on, which should be coming out in about a year. the theme of the book is going to be sort of like animal fairy tales, only he has “questionable morals” so it’s more like animal sounds like he’s taking some experiences from his life and turning all the players into animals. the one he read was about an incident in an airport involving a squabble with some airport employee (a black snake) over ID; the duck, toad and (i can’t remember the third animal) joke around about gruesomely creative ways to torture and kill the snake.

he also read a longer, more serious piece about capturing animals as a child and feeding them raw hamburger, regardless of what animal he’d caught (even a luna moth). he and his friend caught newly-hatched sea turtles and kept them in aquariums, and the turtles never stopped trying to escape the glass walls...he turned that experience of creatures being trapped, prevented from doing the only one thing they ever wanted, into a metaphor about growing up as an unusual, gay child, and essentially being trapped in the closet.

there was a line from that story that i think elicited a sort of collective, mostly-silent “wow” from the audience. he said he walked into a room where his friend’s parents left books open on the couch, “the words still warm from being read.” there were a lot of great moments, but that line was downright awe-inspiring.

then he read a piece of his that was printed in the new yorker, which (through an email typo where he placed a question mark inside rather than outside of quotation marks) was called “author, author?”. this was my favorite story. i can’t find a text copy of it online, but here’s a link to an abstract provided by the magazine.

sedaris then read a few excerpts from the journal he’s kept every day for 28 years. i don’t think this man ever writes poorly. that was one of the things i loved about bruce’s class--he encouraged us to allow ourselves to do a lot of bad writing so we could get to the good stuff. i consider most of my journal-y, blog-y writing to be my “bad writing,” which lets me off the hook from challenging myself to write well all the time, but still keeps me practicing.

sedaris’s journal entries sounded like they could be published just the way they were. in one of them, he talked about how jesus is always portrayed as being beautiful, with big, doe-like eyes and a washboard stomach. he suggested that jesus should be a grotesque, ron-jeremy-like creature, morbidly obese, with cold sores, freakish body hair, shoulder acne and a combover.

the next part of the reading was a book recommendation. in the past he’s recommended “talking heads” by alan bennett, and the next book he plans to recommend is “everything ravaged, everything burned” by wells towers (once it’s out in paperback). for now he’s recommending “our dumb world,” an atlas from the writers of the onion. he read a few hilarious excerpts and kept repeating, “it’s so naughty.”

finally, after a random plug for downtown boise's YMCA (especially in praise of its swimming pool), he took a few questions from the audience. his answers were great; he's so quick-witted and well-spoken. someone asked him what his journal entry for november first would read, and he talked about stinker stations, something about seeing a guy carrying an eight-pack of dr. pepper and how that related to a story he'd read that featured a mouse walking out from behind a refrigerator chewing on a coupon. someone else asked what was the craziest city he’s ever been to, and he talked about manila, and how everyone there is freaked out about security, and how he did a reading in a dilapidated mall, not in any book store but right in front of a mall fountain. he also mentioned that he didn’t know what people were connecting to in his writing there, because there’s no middle class, and the only people who can afford books are pretty rich. for some reason i've forgotten a lot of the other questions and answers, but i know he talked about halloween, and a story about one book signing where he asked one woman "when was the last time you touched a monkey?" and the woman responded "oh no, can you smell it on me?" it turns out she worked training those helper monkeys that serve people with disabilities--"slaves to the disabled," sedaris called them.

at the end sedaris stuck around to sell and sign more books. my mom asked him to sign the cabin’s visiting writers book, an impressive collection of writers’ notes and signatures that goes back quite a few years. sedaris drew a little structure and labeled it “log dog house,” explaining that’s where you’re sent if you behave badly at the cabin.

i got the impression that aside from being a great writer, sedaris is also a very nice guy; he’s so open to experience, and so genuinely interested in (and amused by) people. he's also very confident in his eccentricity, which is quite admirable.

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