Reflections on writing

I generally have three or four books going at the same time and my use of a tablet and electronic books has only heightened that tendency. I’m reading at least three books at the same time right now, one of which is a real book with paper and covers and some heft in my hands. One of the books that I have on my e-reader is “Theft by Finding” by David Sedaris. It is a great book for times when my attention is short or when I know I will be distracted. I keep it on my phone and can read a bit here or there while waiting for a meeting or appointment. It contains well-edited excerpts from diaries kept between 1977 and 2002. Since I’ve been a fan of Sedaris for some time, it makes reference to events and projects with which I am already familiar.

What Sedaris does well is satire. I know that not everyone appreciates satire and he uses some course language from time to time, so his writing isn’t for everyone, but I find it to be funny and a refreshing take on cultural norms.

What was striking me yesterday as I was reading, however, is how very different his writing is from my own. Here is a wildly successful author with a dozen best-selling books under his belt, who, like me, keeps journals. But unlike me, he appears not to have anywhere near the same discipline. He doesn’t make journal entries every day. Some of his entries are as short as three or four sentences. None of them are as long as the essays I post. It isn’t that Sedaris doesn’t write essays - many of his books are collections of essays. He just doesn’t write essays in his daily journal.

I realize that this book and other books of his journals, such as his Santa Diaries, are heavily edited. I suspect that he is a very good editor of his own work to begin. He seems to be able to endure the hard work of writing and re-writing. He also has an agent and a publisher and editors who are devoted to his work, which is something that only shows up after a writer has achieved economic success with the books written.

It isn’t hard to see the difference between Sedaris and myself. I’m not even sure that it is a fair comparison. It is just that I am intrigued by how others think and how they write. I have no aspirations to become Sedaris, either. Just the amount of alcohol and marijuana reported in the book I’m currently reading would result in grief for me. I know I couldn’t handle that amount of self abuse.

What I would like to emulate is his capacity for observation. Many of his journal entries are keen observations of the behavior and even verbatim records of things that others have done and said. He pays attention not only to his friends and acquaintances, but also to strangers met on the train or bus or walking down the street. He remembers the things that checkout clerks say to him and recalls conversations with his neighbors. I was surprised yesterday, when I read his essay on the death of one of his neighbors, that it made me feel a little sad. I had gotten to know the woman only by one and two sentence reports of conversations that she had with Sedaris and yet she seemed familiar to me and her death was kind of sad. That is a tribute to the kind of writer Sedaris is.

Good writing can’t be measured by volume or word counts. In fact it may be the sparseness of Sedaris’ language that makes it so interesting. He doesn’t use too many words to describe a simple event and he leaves a lot unsaid, which is another way of saying he leaves a lot to the imagination. My mental image of his neighbor may be very different from that of another reader of the sam words. Both of us may have different images than the reality that Sedaris describes. He takes language and elevates it to the level of art.

Some of us spend a lifetime wrestling with words.

I once had a vision of becoming an author with many books with my name on the spine. I’ve come to the conclusion that such a vision is unrealistic. I have earned a few dollars as a free-lance writer over the years and I have written a lot of words in my journals that I publish on the internet. I started publishing my journals as a discipline. I built an expectation of myself that I would write. That is how one becomes a writer - by writing. Now that years have passed, I don’t worry about whether or not I am a writer any more. I have simply made writing one of the things that I do. Some days I write a bit of humor. Some days I have an insight. Some days (and yesterday is a good example) I just whine about the conditions of this life.

I have probably produced enough essays to comprise a volume, and, with proper editing and revisions, might even have something that would interest a few people. But I know very little about publishing and although I keep thinking I will pull together those essays, I have yet to do so. For now, at this phase of my life, I’m content to get up each morning and spend a little while writing before I get on with the rest of my day. I would probably be no better at promoting a book than I am at promoting my web site. Big markets and lots of fans require a type of dedication and single-mindedness that I don’t possess.

Sedaris was cleaning houses, painting and living day to day on odd jobs as he built up his career. I have a job that I love and I have no intention of leaving. Writing is something I do on the side.

On the other hand, Sedaris’ books can be purchased for less than $20 on Amazon. My one book listed on Amazon, “Giving and Receiving Hospitality” which is out of print lists used on Amazon for $2,398.90 Plus $3.99 shipping. Trust me, none will sell at that price.

I’ve still got a stack of them available for the taking in my office.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!