1 February 2012

How to Write like David Sedaris

Anyone who works in a bookshop is familiar with that sinking feeling of inferiority that strikes whenever someone asks you about a big-selling book that you haven't read.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris is one such book. It's one of the perennial sellers in the bookshop I worked in over Christmas. It was on special status at the warehouse, so that whenever anyone bought a copy from the shop another was sent in automatically so that there were always three copies available on the shelf. That's how popular this book is.

I even recommended it to a couple of customers despite never even having heard of Sedaris prior to selling his work.

So I thought it might be worth giving it a read, you know, what with its insane popularity and everything. I wasn't disappointed. It's a fine mass-market bio-comedy, and I do think you should read it.

The book consists of 28 column-length autobiographical essays. Although not all of the essays follow the same pattern, I noticed that a few of them fit a perfect four-act structure.

In particular, the first two chapters "Go Carolina" and "Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities" are pretty clearly of the same breed. I thought it would be interesting to look at the act structure of these chapters in order to see how one might apply narrative structure to autobiography.


1) An outside force arrives in David's life

In "Go Carolina", this is the speech therapist Miss Samson, who is determined to iron out David's lisp.

In "Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities" this is his father's desire for his children to appreciate jazz music as much as he does.

2) David reacts to the outside force, which comes back at him stronger

David loathes the outside force and takes some action to take it out. Naturally, this action only makes it worse or changes the nature of the inconvenience the outside force poses. In "Go Carolina", David's tactic is to avoid all words containing "s" using a thesaurus.

In "Giant Dreams", by agreeing to go to a jazz concert with their father, David and his sisters encourage him just enough for him to arrange music lessons for them. The resulting lessons with a midget guitar teacher are David's idea of hell, and now we have a personification of the evil force of music in the form of, um, a midget.

At this point, the outside force is discovered to effect other people too, or to be more serious than previously expected. The other students of Miss Samson provide this foil role in "Go Carolina". A suspicion that everyone forced to attend speech therapy was suspected of homosexuality is adds a conspiratorial element and makes Miss Samson seem even more darkly sinister.

In "Giant Dreams" David's two sisters are also forced to take music lessons. Although they are presumably as effected by Papa's annoying taste in music as much as David, it is only at this point of escalating antagonism that their inconvenience is mentioned.

3) Some disaster befalls the antagonist causes David to repent of his resentment and try to make the best of the situation in some way.

In "Go Carolina" the disaster is Miss Samson crying about being a bad teacher on the last day of term. David awkwardly attempts to console her, even though he secretly agrees she is dreadful.

In "Giant Dreams", David sees his midget music teacher taunted in a mall by some local rough types. He feels sorry for him, and decides to stop pretending to practise the guitar and ask the musical midget to accompany him while he sings advert jungles instead.

4) David's action backfires

I mean, of course David's action backfires. That's what actions are for.

It turns out Miss Sampson was only pretending to cry so that David would say "I'm thorry" and she would have evidence to consign him to more therapy. Once David has fallen into the trap, the chapter ends pretty sharpish, with just about enough time for a final in joke.

The midget musician meanwhile, is so horrified by Sedaris's artistic self-expression that he refuses to give him any more lessons. It's unclear whether this is simple homophobia or if David's raw singing ability is also a factor, but the end result is the same. This traumatising experience gives David the necessary courage to tell his dad where to go next time he tries to spin a record, his emotional growth is dramatised by David and his sisters refusing $5 for listening to a record.

Watch out for four-act structures in my next blog posts...

Me Talk Pretty Once Day
David Sedaris
Abacus, 2000

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