With social networking tools and access to e-reader data, 21st-century authors have unlimited opportunities for feedback before a book is indelibly inked. But best-selling, award-winning humorist David Sedaris, whose new essay collection Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls will be published by Little, Brown and Company this month, prefers a more low-tech approach. He tests pre-publication material by regularly reading works in progress to live audiences, a practice that has become an integral part of his writing process.
Sedaris got his first taste of reading to an audience in college. He was later discovered by This American Life radio producer Ira Glass while reading his work in a Chicago club and has since read to sold-out audiences at Carnegie Hall and across the country as well as live on the Late Show with David Letterman. Sedaris believes there are lessons for all writers in performing their work in front of an audience and shares how he uses readings as an indispensable tool to help fine-tune his prose even before his editors see it.
During his biannual multicity lecture tours, Sedaris says he routinely notices imperfections in the text simply through the act of reading aloud to other people.
"I used to hate it when a book came out or a story was published and I would be like ‘damn, how did I not catch that?’ " he says. "But you pretty much always catch it when you’re reading out loud."
He circles accidental rhymes or closely repeated words, or words that sound alike—like night and nightlife—in the same sentence, rewriting after each reading and trying out revisions during the next stop on his tour.
Taking the collective temperature of an actual room helps Sedaris gauge how well a joke is working or if a story has gone on too long or has a satisfying ending. "There is no substitute for a live audience," he says.
When he looks back on books like Naked (1997), which he wrote before he began reading his work on the road several weeks a year, Sedaris says his reaction tends to be: " ‘Oh my God, what was I thinking?’ I wish I could go back in time and work those in front of an audience."
Had he done so, he says, many of the stories would have been shorter. "Also, on the page it seems like I’m trying too hard, and that’s one of the things I can usually catch when I’m reading out loud," he says. " ‘Oh, that sounds a little too obvious,’ or, ‘that sounds like somebody who’s just straining for a laugh.’ "
Sedaris has developed a kind of shorthand for note-taking during readings that helps him later when he sits down to revise. He makes a check mark in the margin when something gets a laugh.
Anyone who has attended one of his live performances knows that Sedaris is a highly entertaining performer of his own work, and it sometimes seems as if fans arrive primed to laugh at virtually anything he says. "I usually notice that at the very beginning of a show," he says. "Because I say ‘Thank you so much for coming’ and they laugh. When people laugh at that, I have to disabuse them of that—that everything I say is going to be funny.
"When I’m in the theater it’s my job to be as entertaining as a person can be just sitting behind a podium and reading out loud," he continues. "I mean it’s the laziest form of show business that there is. But if a laugh feels cheap to me or it feels like it’s going to date really quickly, I try to take it out as soon as possible and replace it. I don’t want to come to depend on it, to think ‘well that’s my only laugh at the end of page four so I have to keep it.’ "
Sedaris is vigilant about trying to make sure that every last laugh is earned, and he takes pains to try and ensure that the live show laughs play just as well on the page.
"Reading something out loud, you can cheat; sometimes your biggest laugh you can get from looking up or pausing," he says. "You don’t want to try and imitate that on the page because it looks cheap, like four double spaces or 17 periods on the page and then the word ‘Huh?’ It just looks gimmicky."
When audience members start coughing (or audibly clearing their throats or shifting in their seats), Sedaris draws a little skull in the margin.
"Sometimes you have to convey information, you have to get that out there in order for the story to work," Sedaris says. "And I notice that the audience will start coughing. And that means that on the page they’re gonna be skimming."
A skull in the margin means it’s time to break up long expository passages with dialogue, or flip a sentence around to nail the timing of a joke.
"It sounds really "Kumbaya," but you can feel people drifting away from you," he says. "There could be silence or even like medium laughter, but you can still feel people slipping away. I love to go off topic, but you can’t do it for so long that people forget what the story is about, or that they lose faith that anyone is driving the story, or you can feel them thinking ‘Oh my God, we could be here for days.’ "
"Sometimes the first time you read a story, you think, ‘Oh, shit, I’m in Death Valley,’ " Sedaris says. "I mean you hadn’t realized it on the page but it’s really clear reading it out loud on tour. I’m grateful because I have a chance to fix it. It’s not like the story’s in print and I’m reading it aloud and realizing I’m in Death Valley."
Sedaris says that he has usually rewritten a story about eight times before he tries it in front of an audience, where he ends up reading it and making tweaks up to 40 times before it is published. What he learns during those readings accounts for about 20% of the changes he makes in his text.
"If something is on its feet, I can make it stronger by reading it out loud," he says. "When I’m reading things on stage, I try to be a little bit different every night. It takes you a week just to learn how to read it. But if you read it only once? That’s why all those stories in Barrel Fever [his 1994 book] seem so crude to me now." These days, he says, by the time he records an audio book, he has a well-rehearsed tape in his head.
Before a final book deadline, Sedaris does an intensive week of readings at 200-seat theaters in cities like Boston and Denver to put the final polish on material before it goes to press.
"Sometimes if you get in front of a 2,000-seat audience and it’s a sold-out show and a Friday or Saturday night, you’re not gonna take chances," he says. "I don’t play it safe, but sometimes you fall into a rut and you think ‘okay, my job is to get these people to come back the next time I come to town, so I’m gonna read the stronger story.’ But the stories that aren’t quite there yet are never gonna get stronger unless I read them out loud and make a point to work on them. So the good thing about going to a 200-seat theater for a week is that it’s advertised as a work in progress and the audience is gonna understand."
Another note that Sedaris makes frequently on his drafts is "end," to signify that he has yet to find the perfect ending for a story.
Many of Sedaris’s stories begin as a snippet from his faithfully kept diary, excerpts of which he reads at the end of each show as a "palate cleanser," he says. One story in the new book, "The Happy Place," started out as a diary entry from a trip to Amsterdam. He met a college kid who told him he’d learned that the first person to reach the age of 200 had already been born.
"I read [the diary entry] out loud and it seemed okay, but it kind of needed something more," Sedaris says. "So I speculated that the first person to reach the age of 200 would be my father. And then I attached it to something else that had been in my diary, that all my dad talks about is me getting a colonoscopy. So I connected the 200-year-old man to my father to my father wanting me to get a colonoscopy, and that became the story."
He says he read the story aloud about 30 times, noticing that the audience never seemed to realize when he had gotten to the end. "Every night I had to say thank you to the audience and that means that my ending didn’t work," he says. "You shouldn’t have to tell people that the story is over."
The best way to find a better ending, he decided, was to go visit his father and have a colonoscopy. "I don’t usually do things in order to write about them but I’m glad I did in this case," he says. Once he had his new ending, he was impatient to try it out on the self-selected focus group that he has come to rely upon more than any single critical voice.
"I didn’t send it to my editor because I wanted to read it out loud first," he says. "If somebody were to say to me ‘Oh that’s not going to work because of such and such,’ then I’d lose all faith in it. I wanted to read it in front of an audience myself and see if it works or not. Sometimes you wonder if you’re kind of forcing it, especially when there’s not an action for the end of your story, and it’s more an ending made of words. You don’t want to just end up doing. That. Thing. Where. You. Slow. Down. So. People. Will. Know. It’s. The. End."