Beloved essayist and radio contributor David Sedaris returned to the stage of the old Arlington Theater in downtown Santa Barbara Tuesday evening to delight a full house with readings from his newest book, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, as well as excerpts from his journal, which he has been keeping since 1977.
Sedaris has published eight books, including Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day. His work has appeared in Esquire, The New Yorker and many other publications. With a voice at once honest, dark, compassionate and funny, he writes about family, middle-class America, society, homosexuality, obsessive behaviors, drug use, odd jobs and the spectacle of bizarre and wonderful people who come and go along the way.
The evening began with “The Happy Place,” an essay from the new book, which tells the hilarious story of his first colonoscopy. Every cringe-worthy detail, from bending over in a backless gown with a nurse telling him to “go to [his] happy place,” to waking up drugged out and euphoric in the “farting room,” where patients are sent after the procedure, were read with his usual charisma.
Next, he read a recent article for Travel & Leisure, a publication he’d “never read before,” that asked him to write about his favorite place in the United States. “The first time I went to Santa Barbara, I said no.” He recalled, “Everyone I passed was engaged in some sort of exercise, skin slightly bronzed … Every day is a perfect 67 degrees … at night it cools down just so you can wear cashmere … there are other similar places like La Jolla and Carmel, but none seem as satisfied with themselves.”
My personal favorite was his description of the Santa Barbara airport, how it “smells like primrose mulched with shredded money.” Whenever he visits, he stays at the “horribly magnificent” Biltmore Four Seasons Hotel, located in Montecito — “an enclave of wealth and privilege that makes Santa Barbara look like East St. Louis.” But, alas, Sedaris admits to being seduced by the natural beauty and serenity of Santa Barbara, and for his upcoming four day break from touring, he will be treating himself to a stay at the Biltmore.
Sedaris will make you fall over in laughter, especially hearing the writing aloud, but there is more to it than just a good laugh — delicately interwoven is a sense of regret, nostalgia and tenderness. For instance, in the essay “Company Man,” he contemplates in a more serious and cynical tone, the feeling of growing old: “Yes, the washer in my penis is broken leaving urine to dribble long after I’ve zipped up my pants — but I have two guest rooms!” Similarly, “The Happy Place” ends up unexpectedly as a reflection on his relationship with his father (the one who nagged him to get the colonoscopy), who seems to increasingly appear in his recent writing and not usually in a positive light.
What is it that draws readers and audiences to Sedaris again and again? As a writing teacher once told me, memoir must be a balance between the “raw” and the “cooked.” In other words, you take the real, spontaneous experiences in your life and make them relevant and meaningful to the audience through literary devices, technique and artistry developed through painstaking practice and effort.
An audience member asked how Sedaris is able to recollect so vividly so much of his childhood. He replied, “You don’t have control over what sticks in [your] mind … a lot of the time what sticks in my mind are completely banal moments … when the nurse was telling me to go to my happy place … the first time Sesame Street came on and we [his siblings] raked all the leaves in the backyard and piled onto it … I just work with what I have.”
In a recent NPR interview with Terry Gross, he explains, “It’s not that I think my life is important or that future generations might care to know that on June 6, 2009, a woman with a deaf, drug-addicted mother-in-law taught me to say ‘I need you to stop being a (bleep)’ in sign language.”
It is not that Sedaris’s life just happens to be full of great stories and experiences, it is that he has mastered the art of story-telling so that audiences can relate, and are, by the end, both uplifted and moved.