David Sedaris on Tobias Wolf: Writers on Writing


A few weeks ago I went to see David Sedaris read some of his work at The Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale. I’m a huge fan of personal essays (Sedaris and Bailey White are favorites) and listening to the radio programs “The Moth” and “This American Life.” I don’t consider myself an auditory learner by any stretch, but I have a habit of reading my work to my family or whomever is around the house before I publish it. As a reader, I was enthusiastic about attending the event, but as a writer it turned out to be even better.


There’s something so deeply personal and intimate about watching a writer read his own work. In her collection of essays called Sight Unseen, legally blind author and creative writing professor Georgina Kleege describes the experience of listening to her students read their compositions on tape:

“….I also think there is something about having just read aloud for an extended time that makes them drop their guard. I sense they are not so much speaking to me as thinking aloud. I feel myself briefly invited into the mysterious space between the writer and the text.”

When writers read their own work aloud they give themselves away. They can’t hide their thoughts about the work as it unfolds. As I listened to Sedaris read I had the sense that I was reading with him, that we were experiencing the work together. Kleege comments on that type of experience, too:

“I have a sense of continuous back-and-forth commentary, where I bounce my ideas of the reader’s ideas, or what I perceive as their ideas from their intonations, mistakes, involuntary grunts, and sighs.”

This is all to serve as a reminder that writing is a process, a careful orchestration of ideas and language, not simply the activity of getting words down on paper. Good writing exudes its connection to its writer and the writer senses those moments when something has gone wrong when he reads his work aloud.It speaks to the beauty of editing.


What turned out to be that much more lovely at the Sedaris reading was his recommendation of The Barrack’s Thief by Tobias Wolf. The incredible craftsman and creative that he is, Sedaris didn’t say, “Oh man, this story is really gripping. You’re totally gonna love the main character.”Of course he said plenty about the content of the book and, amusingly, joked about its length, noting that we’d be able to tell people when they ask what we did last night, “Oh, you know, I read an entire book.”But if you’re a writer or you teach writing, you’ll know why one particular comment of Sedaris’ about The Barracks Thief jumped out at me.

“If you write yourself, the structure of this thing is just incredible.”

He might have said “terrific,” but I’m ninety-nine percent sure he said “incredible.”Either way, my inner grammarian, fundamentalist, and disciplinarian rejoiced.He’d already probably unwittingly given away the attention to which he paid each word choice, each turn of phrase, each joke he’d woven into the story with those “involuntary grunts and sighs,” to which Kleege refers. But, with that one observation, Sedaris gave away the craft.Writing is not “putting down whatever it is you’d say out loud on the page.” Writing is not transcription. The act of writing is the practice of clarifying thought. Storytelling isn’t “getting the point across.” It’s building a skeleton of meaning on which each word is carefully hung.As a writing teacher and as a writer myself, I was inspired to know that at the end of the day, one of my contemporary literary heroes pays an incredible compliment to his own literary hero with a nod to discipline: “the structure of this thing is just incredible.”