An Evening with David Sedaris

Six months ago we bought tickets to a David Sedaris reading and then promptly forgot about them. Which, actually, kind of nice! When the evening came around, it was a surprise. Even BIGGER surprise? Since I’d purchased the tickets pre-sale, we were in the SECOND ROW! We’ve never been in the second row for anything before! That’s, like, where the fancy people sit! SO CLOSE TO FAME!

That close! We were THAT CLOSE!
That close! We were THAT CLOSE!

Did you know that when you’re in the second row you can actually see the speaker? Somewhat of a novel concept. We were close enough to see every fidget, every nose blow, every grin. This closeness brought an unexpected joy: my favorite part of the night was watching David Sedaris’ facial expressions as he read. When a joke landed well, you could see him trying to hide a self-satisfied smirk as the audience gasped with laughter. When he read a sentence he particularly liked, you could see it on his face. It was so charming — so refreshing. This author, who has been writing professionally for some twenty odd years, still gets so much joy from his craft.

One thing Sedaris is somewhat infamous for is reading unpublished work — and then consequently making notes on that work, based on the audience’s reaction. Several times throughout the night, Sedaris took the goldenrod mechanical pencil out of his pink dress-shirt pocket and jotted something down on the papers in front of him. He’d make notes when a joke didn’t land quite right, when it landed exceptionally well, or most often when he stumbled ever-so-slightly over a phrase. “This needs work,” you could almost hear him think.

This made me think of a subject I often ponder — the point at which creative folk let the outside world in on their work. It seems pretty clear that when Sedaris reads an unpublished piece to an audience, it’s still pretty well buttoned-up — no gaping holes, no horribly awkward sentences. But at what point does he first show family, friends? Austin Kleon has an upcoming book on the subject, Show Your Work, a book which encourages artists and other creative types to share their works-in-progress. We writers are so often taught to work with the door closed — and I think there’s merit in that. But there’s also merit in opening the conversation, seeing how the audience reacts. It helps you hone your work — it helps you write a better story.

In response to an audience question, Sedaris ended the evening with advice to high school students enrolled in creative writing courses:

Now’s your chance to be a really bad writer.

Truer words, never spoken. We all have to get through the bad writing before we can get to the good.

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Opening the Door

Today I was going to write about outlining, and how that process hurts my brain in ways I didn’t think possible — but then I started typing and went in a different direction. So, switching gears! Outlining process TBD. Right now, let’s talk about the creative process — specifically, whether you let “outsiders” in or not.

I mentioned last week that I was stuck, writing-wise. And to help move me along, I met with  two writer-friends who sort of forced me to get UN-stuck. We sat down in a coffee shop and they asked me questions. A lot of questions. Both these writers are part of my regular writing group, so they’ve read most of my current work-in-progress. They asked questions about the characters. About the plot. About the overall theme. About character arcs. About protagonists and antagonists. And as they kept asking and I did my best to answer, it dawned on me — I didn’t know the answer to a lot of these questions.

Which… you know, not a FANTASTIC thing. Some things are ok not to know when you’re writing a book (I think theme is one of them). But character growth, motivations, plot developments? Yeah, you kind of NEED to know these things. No wonder I felt stuck — I’d been plodding along, writing as best as I could, without any real idea of the overall structure of my book.

In the end, it ended up being a great meeting — we stumbled upon what I think is going to be “the key” to the book, the one (now obvious) element that brings all the other pieces together. And while I’d like to say that this stroke of brilliance was mine — nope, no it was not. It was a suggestion from one of the other writers, after we’d all been talking for probably an hour and a half.

Now, I know a lot of creative types are probably going to gasp in horror at this. I let someone else into my process! Worse than that, I let them dictate my story — come up with a vital plot element. But I don’t think of it that way. Honestly, I don’t think I would have stumbled upon this revelation on my own. I needed the collaboration to get things moving. I don’t think this makes the story any less “mine” — I am, after all, still the one writing it. Still the one developing the characters and the plot. But the story will now be much, MUCH better as a result of this collaboration.

During all this, we had an interesting discussion about “the myth of the writer” — this idea that writers (and other creative folk) should only work in solitude, and that it’s EASY work, that the muses grant us these pieces of genius and we just type them out like obedient puppets. Can we all just laugh at that for a moment? In what other profession is this expected to be the case? Yet I think we in the creative fields are often seen this way — and more so, we often help build this stereotype ourselves.

never used to show works-in-progress. I would never discuss a story’s plot. And yet, that’s exactly what I needed to move forward with this book. It’s that whole Open Door, Closed Door thing — do you “open the door” and let people in on the creative process? Or do you keep it closed until the big reveal? TADA!

Austin Kleon posted this quote on his Tumblr the other day:

We must strike down the insidious lie that a book is the creation of an individual soul labouring in isolation. –John Green

Now, granted — Green is talking about self-publishing here. But I think this quote applies to the whole process. We CAN’T work in a vacuum. There are others who influence our work, who make it better than it would otherwise have been. Whether we acknowledge and welcome these influences or not — that’s the sticking point.

More and more I’m becoming an advocate of an Open Door policy. Not with everything, mind you — and certainly not with everyone. You need to choose your confidants wisely. But writing can be an incredibly isolating act. Why do we make it more than it needs to be?

The Writer’s Door

Fun fact! I attend a writing group that meets once a month. Monthly deadlines are a useful weapon in combating sloth-like tendencies. It’s a rather ragamuffin group of experienced writers and amateurs, men and women, poets and prose writers. An odd mix, perhaps, but I find that mix provides interesting feedback.

I’m currently working on a story (book? novel?) that is proving to be MUCH longer than originally anticipated. Or perhaps more accurately — it’s taking me much longer to write than anticipated. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is somewhat maddening when you’re in the middle of it, slouching towards Bethlehem.

Overall, I’m pretty shy about my writing — which translates to never letting people read it. Which, you know, doesn’t work if you’re a writer. Being in a writing group helps me get over that hangup since, you know, the whole point is to have other people read your work.

This means that my group has read my current work-in-progress, section by section, over the past…ugh, almost two years. I’m embarrassed to admit it’s been that long. They’ve been along on the journey, seen the plot develop, the characters come into their own. They’re seeing the guts of the beast, as it were.

Some writers are FIRM believers in the “closed door” policy. I’m calling it this based on Stephen King’s advice in On Writing:

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.

The idea being that you need to get through the entire first draft — the initial creative process — without any input or adulteration from the outside world.

There’s merit there. I’m normally a fan of the “closed door” policy. You can let out the crazy and let that freak flag fly. In fact, this is the first book that I’ve allowed people to read as it’s being written.

And the result of my “open door” policy? Too early to tell. I can see how it would be distracting for some — if your story doesn’t have firm footing, having other writers chime in could probably sway your original intent. But it is useful to have someone point out a sticky plot point early on, the various inconsistencies that come with any first draft. I feel like I’m able to correct some things earlier on in the game. I guess the only way I’ll know for sure if this “open door” policy has worked out is after the whole damn thing is written.

Fellow writers — and, hey, other creative types, too, as I’m sure this applies — what’s your policy? Do you like that door open or shut? Do you think outsiders can derail the creative process, or is it guided by some internal source that can’t be swayed?