Arts & Entertainment, Writing

Breaking Into a Story

David Sedaris

Lesson time 11:01 min

The opening line is everything. David talks through multiple failed openings to his essay “Understanding Owls” and discusses how he landed on the final, published version.

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Topics include: Find a Way In • Connect Incidents to Something Bigger


[MUSIC PLAYING] - My boyfriend, he's the most talented painter I've ever known. But he'll go to a museum, and go to an exhibit, and come home, and say, I can't paint. And it's like, well, you can't paint like that person, but you paint like yourself. I think a lot of that has to do with needing to be perfect. And that's a real curse, needing to be perfect. I mean, you need to do the best that you can do. And then you need to take the best that you can do, and you need to rewrite it, and rewrite it, and rewrite it, and rewrite it. Feeling the need to be perfect doesn't make you perfect. It just makes you paralyzed. So let go of that, because you're not going to be perfect. And if you're very lucky, you'll learn to be yourself. [MUSIC PLAYING] When you're in school, you're taught to have a topic sentence. So a topic sentence for a story like "Understanding Understanding Owls" might be, I don't know if you've ever tried to buy an owl, or, it's not as easy as you might think to buy an owl. But I can't bear openings like that, and so I had to unlearn everything that I had been taught, right? Another thing you're taught, especially it was on the radio a lot was like, let's get to it. Let's get to the story. But I preferred to go over here for a while, and then to go over here for a while. And eventually, I'm going to get to the story. It's sort of like "The Simpsons" to me. Most television shows, you watch the first three minutes and you say, oh, she's going to get her finger stuck in that bowling ball. But "The Simpsons," I defy you watching the first two minutes of an episode where it's going to wind up. I mean, if you've never seen it before. So sometimes, I kind of knock over here, and that doesn't let me in. And I knock over here, and that doesn't let me in. And I knock here, and that doesn't. And I can not proceed with an essay unless I have an opening line that I feel confident to some degree with. I mean, it'll often change. But I can't get to the second sentence unless I feel sort of steady with the first sentence. And it can take days. It can take weeks. Because your opening is going to determine your entire essay. An example from an essay I wrote called "Understanding Understanding Owls." And this was my original opening to the essay. On a high shelf in our Paris bedroom, there's an illustrated book with a catchy title, "Understanding Owls." Hugh bought it maybe 10 years ago. And though I rarely open the thing, I refer to it constantly. You know, I'll say, there's something about ours that I just don't get. I wish there was somewhere I could join me for a little help. What kind of help, Hugh will ask. And a few minutes later, after I've considered everything from the Audubon Society to a National Geographic video, he'll say, actually, if it's an understanding you're after, I have a book, you might want to look at. As part of the joke, he'll pull it from the shelf. Then, because he is who he is, he'll spend...

About the Instructor

With essays in The New Yorker, bestselling books like Calypso, tours, and readings on NPR, David Sedaris is one of the most recognizable essayists alive. Now he teaches you the art of personal storytelling. Learn how David crafts attention-grabbing openings, satisfying endings, and meaning from the mundane—and how he uses humor to connect with others and process the difficult and sometimes dark aspects of everyday life.

Featured MasterClass Instructor

David Sedaris

NYT–bestselling author David Sedaris teaches you how to turn everyday moments into seriously funny stories that connect with audiences.

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