“I think I peaked in 1988, and it’s all downhill now. How awful, to decline this way. What makes young people young is that they see themselves going up, up, up. Not me, though. I’m old now.”
David Sedaris, Jan. 13, 1992
The diary entry above was written when Sedaris was 35, 11 months before he ever appeared on National Public Radio. Two years before his first book, “Barrel Fever,” was published. Twenty-five years before the release of his 10th book, “Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002,” which will add to the more than 10 million he has sold.
Today, he is old, or at least, at 60, coming up on it. He has spent the past two years traversing the previous 40 to produce his latest work, “Theft by Finding.”
The process left him exhausted, exasperated and surprised at how little he has changed.
Take that 1992 entry, for example. Upon finding it, he reflected, “Well, that’s the first time I thought that. I think that all the time.”
Sedaris started keeping a diary while hitchhiking in 1977, at age 20. “It was on the back of a place mat. At a roadside diner,” he says. “It was all very cliché. I had a beret on.”
He had no return address, so he couldn’t receive mail. But he could write to himself — about sleeping on a golf course, cooking soft-boiled eggs, finding dead birds under an interstate bridge. Journaling his life grew into a compulsion that continues to this day.
“Not doing it is not possible,” he says. “The world would spin off its axis.”
This urge to catalog his observations fueled his success as a writer and satirist. The early entries in the new book are heavy on drugs, money woes and conversations overheard during his nightly visits to the International House of Pancakes, where he could read uninterrupted for hours. Even then his wry voice is present, finding humor in both the mundane and the absurd.
In 1986, he captured an encounter with a woman who approached him at a Chicago laundromat:
“‘What days do we eat meat?’ she asked.
“I thought it was a riddle at first. I mean, who’s the ‘we’ here? I told her we eat meat whenever we want to, or can afford to.
“‘Can we eat meat three times a day?’ she asked.
“‘Sure,’ I said. ‘If we feel up to it.’”
Sedaris devotees will love reading unfiltered accounts of his most familiar stories — his stint working as an elf at Macy’s, for example — and conversations with friends and relatives who have become beloved characters in the universe he has created.
“This spring I am, if I’m not mistaken, in love,” he wrote in March 1991, after meeting Hugh Hamrick, his longtime boyfriend. He writes of his love for his mother and of her death in 1991: “I can’t believe this has happened.”
Most of his time now is spent with Hamrick at their home in West Sussex, England. There he wakes up, writes in his diary, walks 15 to 20 miles picking up trash, writes some more and then, often, goes out to collect more trash. He has picked up so much litter that the town council named a garbage truck after him — the Pig Pen Sedaris — and he has been honored at Buckingham Palace.
The trash collection is a byproduct, though. The walking — and thinking and listening and absorbing — is the main thing.
“It’s not a choice that I’m making,” he says. It’s just part of what’s required to be a writer — time spent alone. “You can’t let anybody get in your way,” he says. “You just can’t.”
The hardest thing about editing more than 8 million words of diary entries down to two 500-plus-page books — this is the first of two volumes — was living simultaneously with his past and present selves. “It was just a bit too much of me for those years,” Sedaris says.
But it also was a reminder of how much of his life turned out even better than he’d ever hoped.
“It’s just as good as you thought it was gonna be when things work out,” he says. “It’s just exactly as good as you think it is.”