The book that made me look for the comedy in life was David Sedaris’ ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’. This was the first Sedaris collection I read, many years ago, and I’ve since lapped up every word of his affectionate satire of humankinds’ weird and wonderful ways. He has an eye for the absurd in the most mundane: the death of numerous family pets (“eulogies tended to be brief, our motto being another day, another collar”); working as an assistant to a Marxist removalist (“One look at his teeth, and you could understand his crusade for universal health care, both his glasses and his smile were held together with duct tape”); having speech therapy for a childhood lisp (“Did they hope that by eliminating our lisps, they might set us on a different path, or were they trying to prepare us for future stage and choral careers”?). Sedaris mines his daily life for material to fill his short observational pieces: nothing is sacred, family life is plundered unabashedly, and all the joy of unemployment, annoying houseguests, sibling antics and coupled tedium is explored. Sure, Sedaris’ family are barmy so are ripe for the material, but then who of us can say that our loved ones are completely sane? Oh, but if we could all make a living like Sedaris has from writing about Christmas dinner, family vacations and crazy fathers: “My father has always placed a great deal of importance on his daughters’ physical beauty. It is, to him, their greatest asset, and he monitors their appearance with the intensity of a pimp... I might wander freely through the house drinking pancake batter from a plastic bucket, but the moment one of my sisters overspilled her bikini, my father was right there to mix his metaphors. ‘Jesus Flossie, what are we running here, a dairy farm? Look at you, you’re the size of a house. Two more pounds, and you won’t be able to cross state lines without a trucking licence’”.
Before I read Sedaris, I thought that my life was so insignificant in the suburbs that nothing would be worth using in a short story. But through his works, I’ve been reminded that normal life can throw up the extraordinary (say for Sedaris, a midget guitar teacher called Mr Mancini, “a fastidious dresser stuck in a small unfashionable town, Mister Mancini wore clothing I recognised from the Young Squire department of Hudson Belk”). It has given me the licence to dredge my own hapless life for writing material - like the time a blind man walking alongside me whacked his white cane fiercely to the side, lacerating my shins and causing me to drop in agony to the ground (soundlessly lest I caused him distress). On the other hand, Sedaris has also taught me that a writer has to put him or herself in the path of new experiences in order to reap the best anecdotal gold. Sedaris has lived and travelled all over the world, observing the contrasts and universal truths between small town America and everywhere else. His piece from the collection titled ‘Naked’, describing his weekend visit to a nudist colony, is something I read to cheer myself up in times of despair and is mandatory Sedaris reading. Alas I haven’t stayed at a nudist colony (yet), but I’ve accidentally wrestled with a snow monkey in Japan, reluctantly taken part in a Medieval re-enactment joust, auditioned for a reality television show, had tarot card reading lessons from a wizard called Paris – and then there was that time I got on Deal or No Deal, won money and pinched Andrew O’Keefe on the bottom. I’ll do anything for a story. And while I’m picking my cases and squeezing O’Keefe, I’m thinking, ‘This is going to be awesome when I retell it’. Is this what David Sedaris was thinking while he played doubles tennis in the nude? I like to think so.
Sure, you get the feeling reading the best of the observational collections, comic memoirs – think Tina Fey ‘Bossypants’, Benjamin Law’s ‘The Family Law’, Judith Lucy’s ‘The Lucy Family Alphabet’, Nora Ephron’s ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck’, Caitlin Moran’s ‘How To Be A Woman’ – that some stuff may be a little bit exaggerated, a bit of dialogue switched about for comic effect. I don’t care. It’s hard to do funny on paper, and these people are masters at it. I only wish I could re-tell my life stories as well as they do. As writers, they’ve let me commiserate with their woes, empathise with their adolescence, laugh at those terrible dates and breakups. I’ll continue plundering my own life for material: as they say, truth is stranger (and funnier) than fiction.
Angie Holst is a Sydney based writer. Her novel 'Expectations' was published in 2013. She blogs about books at http://projectedhappiness.blogspot.com.au/ and you can follow her @awoo75.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.