How to Write With Honesty: David Sedaris’s Tips

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Dec 17, 2019 • 5 min read

For a nonfiction writer, connecting to your reader hinges on your ability to be honest with them. Emotional honesty, embracing who you are, and admitting what you don’t always want to admit are a few things that distinguish a great essay from a good one. A reader knows when a writer is being fake or dishonest. It takes practice to let go of the urge to paint yourself in a good light.

For best-selling author and humorist David Sedaris, capturing all the little mortifications of life with unflinching honesty—down to every humiliating detail—is what makes his essays and one-off observations so effective.



David Sedaris Teaches Storytelling and HumorDavid Sedaris Teaches Storytelling and Humor

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About David Sedaris

David debuted on National Public Radio in 1992 when he read “Santaland Diaries” on Morning Edition. Barrel Fever, his first book, followed in 1994. Since then, he has continued to publish books, penned a play, “The Book of Liz,” co-written with his sister Amy Sedaris; edited an anthology of short stories; and created four audio collections. He has contributed more than 40 essays to The New Yorker and completed five series on BBC Radio Extra 4.

In addition to receiving an honorary doctorate from Binghamton University in 2008, David was awarded the Terry Southern Prize for Humor in 2018 as well as the Medal for Spoken Language from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In May 2019, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. David’s books combined have sold more than 12 million copies and have been translated into 27 languages. His 2018 collection of essays, Calypso, is a New York Times bestseller and a Washington Post Best Book of the Year. The audiobook of Calypso was nominated for the Spoken Word Album at the Grammy awards in 2018.

David has written Barrel Fever (the very first collection); Naked (a collection of essays addressing David’s upbringing, his mother’s death, his college years, and the time he spent hitchhiking as a young adult); Holidays on Ice (Christmas-themed essays); Me Talk Pretty One Day (a bestselling collection and winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor, divided into two parts: the first including essays about his childhood in Raleigh and his time living in New York, and the second composed of essays about his move to Normandy, France, with his boyfriend, Hugh); Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (a collection of personal essays centered around David’s family, whose title came from a dream that Hugh had in which he saw someone reading a book with the same title in French); Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (a book of modern-day fables with animals for characters); Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls (narrative essays which debuted in the number one spot on the bestseller list. The title is an inscription David wrote in the book of a fan who wanted him to write “explore your inner feelings.” David kept the “explore” part); Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977–2002 (an edited compilation of David’s diary entries); and his new book, Calypso, was named Amazon’s Best Book of the Year in 2018.

David Sedaris’s 5 Tips on Writing With Honesty

  1. Don’t build an essay around a laugh. All writers become intimately familiar with the phrase “kill your darlings” sooner or later. The idea is that we all have to sacrifice particularly self-indulgent lines or passages for the greater good of the piece. For a humorist, this means that you’ll inevitably have to let a laugh go. You might have crafted a really good line that makes people laugh, but that line alone isn’t enough to carry an entire essay. If you try to work around that one laugh, you will lose the audience before you even get to that line.
  2. Portray yourself with honesty. When you’re writing a scene in which you’re a main character, deploy one of David’s most trusty humor tools: being harder on yourself than any other character in the story. When you make yourself a relatable character, your reader will feel connected to you. Let go of thinking about how you come across and just try to be honest—learning how to laugh at yourself is crucial.
  3. Give up on controlling the reader’s reaction. It may seem like you can micromanage what your reader thinks of what you write, but you can’t. Writing isn’t about trying to manipulate what your readers think of you—it’s about relating to your readers or eliciting an emotion—joy, sorrow, excitement, anger—from them.
  4. Don’t get lazy. After many years of reading on a stage, David has a sense of who his audience is, which makes it easier for him to connect with them. But he never goes for the low-hanging fruit by making a joke that appeals to a particular audience’s sensibility. Sacrificing cleverness for something people will applaud and agree with will never be the most satisfying laugh.
  5. Use your judgment when it comes to real people. One of the stickiest situations you’ll encounter as a nonfiction writer is using your very real (and, often, very alive) friends, family, and acquaintances as characters in your essays. But what if one of those people—whom you haven’t spoken to in, say, a decade—doesn’t want to be in your essay? Are you allowed to write about them? The short answer is yes. Personal essays are snapshots of your memory. If your memory includes ancillary players (and those players genuinely serve the narrative), then they should appear on the page. There’s a way to write about the people in your life that honestly portrays who they are but still respects their privacy. You can include them in your writing in a way that makes them your coconspirator—in on the joke. You can portray them with real flaws and depth without betraying them. And you can honor their final say over what you put in print about them.
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