MAKING THE WORK // David Sedaris’s Letter
This is the story of the time I wrote to David Sedaris and how he replied and I... did nothing.
It was 2003 and I’d signed up for a fiction workshop with Sarah Selecky, which was a big deal because I wanted to write so badly that I’d become expert at avoiding it. One of our assignments was to write to an author we admired. I chose David Sedaris. I'd been reading Me Talk Pretty One Day and it made me laugh like a pig, snorting out loud while reading it (even in public). It was also the first time the personal essay form—which was something I'd formerly associated with misery lit, for whatever weird reason—really made me take notice.
My letter was absolutely sincere—I told David Sedaris that he made me want to be a better writer. I also wanted to make him laugh, which meant my words were a little too forced because my writing wasn't that skilled. Plus, I made up names that I said my brother and I called our parents when we were teenagers (we didn't, but we could have).
I sent my letter to David Sedaris via his agent. The agent’s website warned that responses were rare due to the sheer volume of mail. It made me feel safer to think my letter might never get opened.
Fast forward two or three months. I’m standing with a glass of wine at the art gallery I work at, near a gigantic illustration of men’s underpants, nodding along to some pretentious, artistic thing someone is saying. I'm exhausted because we've just opened the show and am only upright because of the hooch. Finally, the opening ends and I trudge home to the man who I’ve been with for almost seven years, but who—well, most kindly put, isn’t a good fit. In fact, most of my life fits me about as well as those illustrated underpants would fit a real person.
I check the mail before going in, cautiously, because there's a deranged tenant living in the building who sometimes stands on the front porch by the mailboxes with no clothes on. As I climb the steps to the porch, I can see a puffy yellow envelope sticking out. The package is too thick to be the latest Watchtower magazine sent to me from my Jehovah Witness mother-in-common-law, with a note reminding me that there is no special place in heaven for people who have nose piercings, like those in sadomasochistic, homosexual motorcycle gangs.
When I pull the package out of the box, I look for a return address: it says “David R. Sedaris” above a Parisian address. I stumble inside with the package as fast as I can so I can open it ceremoniously, struggling not to ruin the mood when I get a random asthma attack (something I’ve since cured myself of—the asthma, I mean, not my need for ceremony).
David Sedaris tells me in his letter that he’d been away on a month-long lecture tour, thanks me for the compliments, and says the last letter he received from Canada was from a Pakistani immigrant who accused him of making fun of foreigners.
He then talks about teaching creative writing in the late eighties and how, like my teacher, he instructed his students to write a letter to an author they admired. He wrote to Jincy Willet and was the only one to get a response. His letter ended with her:
“She wrote that her husband had died, and that she and her infant son had recently moved to California. I think I was the only person who brought her book, or at least I was the only one to write her a letter saying how much I liked it. It was just recently issued in paperback. I wrote the introduction and am enclosing a copy, not for my lame essay, but for her stories, which I think are wonderful. She makes me want to be a better writer.”
Inside Jincy Willett’s book—Jenny & the Jaws of Life—he’d written: “I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did.” (I did.)
I told lots of people about my letter from David Sedaris. They saw it as a golden opportunity—there was David & Jincy and now there could be Jill & David. I thought he’d already been generous enough, plus, in the unlikely event that he actually offered to look at my writing, I’d have nothing that was good enough to show him. 'Just in case, I’ll wait and write back when I have something,' I thought.
Within two months of receiving David Sedaris’ letter, I began climbing out of the life I hadn’t meant to lead. Two years later, I became serious about writing. It was a few more years still before I thought, 'Maybe this story about the sex-addicted dwarf who works as a human dumbbell is good enough to show David Sedaris if he asks...'
But still, I didn't reply. Aside from a potentially missed opportunity, I’m ashamed that I didn’t—and haven’t yet—said thank you. I have better manners than that.
David Sedaris' letter has been with me through the roughest times of my life and through six moves, one across the country by train. It's now with me in the happiest part of my life—the part in which I actually write and am getting the hang of it, so maybe it’s time to actually write him back.
Dear David: Got your letter the other day, by which I mean about twelve years ago. You know how time flies...
HOW-TO // Emailing a Big Shot
I admit that the word “networking” makes me think of those “Hello My Name Is _______” lapel stickers, which makes me want to stick a finger down my throat so I can make a little cat-gack noise. Who’s with me?
Right. Networking is for fakes and flakes. But you—you big-hearted, creative, and cultured person—wouldn’t mind making more friends in your industry, would you? Me either. Turns out, networking and making friends in your industry are THE SAME THING. This is what I’ve learned from Marsha Shandur of Yes Yes Marsha whose tagline is “Networking That’s Actually FUN.”
I didn’t actively go looking for Yes Yes Marsha, but she kept popping up on a couple of my social media pages, so, during a bout of procrastination, I decided to check out her website instead of dusting my baseboards. I got weirdly sucked in by the YYM videos (three words: wigs, British accent). Then it happened. I began thinking about networking as a non-icky way to connect with like-minded people.
I signed up for the Yes Yes Marsha newsletter, as well as for a free challenge to email a big shot. I got such a charge out of it that I’ve become a bit obsessed wanting to send love notes to all the big shots I admire.
Want to email your own big shot? Here’s how you do it, according to Yes Yes Marsha:
1. Research your big shot and find common links between you and them.
2. Figure out what you have to add value to your big shot. Watch this video (that’s a screen grab of Marsha up there in the header image) and read this post. While you’re at it, read this one and this one too.
3. Send your big shot an email that opens with a specific and genuine compliment about something they’ve done and how it impacted you. Add value to your big shot. Thank them again and cheerily sign off.
What I love about the Yes Yes Marsha method is that it’s not only a form of networking, but also an exercise in gratitude. You get to say thanks to your big shot and give a little something back.
Also, FYI, I emailed Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay last Thursday. She wrote back and said I brightened her week. Now, go spread some love to your own big shot!
LISTS // Things To Include In My Backstage Rider If I Ever Become a Big Shot
1. I prefer a 260-square foot, climate-controlled tent to a dressing room. The tent should be constructed of natural canvas and placed in a pastoral setting, free of insects. The tent’s decor should be New Victorian Gothic Farmhouse.
2. I have transition anxiety, so I will need at least two hours to unwind in my tent. I will need an additional hour to psych myself up for the event at hand before your hair & makeup people do what they can to volumize my hair and give me cheekbones.
3. I want John Goodman oiled and brought to my tent, but not until I say: “I want Goodman oiled and brought to my tent.” He is to read me poetry in his soothing voice and generally provide encouragement.
4. I would also like a fawn-coloured giant Flemish rabbit that enjoys being cuddled brought to my tent. And a stack of faux fur throws. Extra soft ones.
5. I will want cake. I prefer white cake with pink frosting. The cake should contain no wheat, no animal milk, and no refined sugar. Free-range eggs and butter made from grass-fed cows are acceptable. The frosting colour should be obtained by using no more than two teaspoons of organic beet juice. A modest slice of the cake should be served to me on a white plate with an antique silver fork and on a lovely tray. The tray should also have a simple vase with a single flower stem. Acceptable flower choices include: peonies, delphiniums, ranunculus, or country roses in full bloom. The preferred palette is white, pink, apricot, or mellow yellows.
6. I will also want a decent-sized flask of premium rye whiskey. The flask should be inscribed with the following Muhammad Ali quote: “I’m a bad man and I’m pretty.”