The Memoir All-Stars
It’s pretty easy to notice that “Memoirama” has been consistently peppered with both the “S” and the “B” words. Reviewers are always comparing them to new talent, writers are always trying to write like them, and readers are, as we speak, waiting for a new release by them. The new wave of true essays and memoirs wouldn’t have been possible without them. What both David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs have popularized is the ability to make the most sense you can make out of a wacky childhood. They accomplished this by pointing and laughing at it, even when, at the time, it didn’t seem so funny.
The first David Sedaris story I ever heard was read to me by my progressive high-school English teacher. “I just got this new book,” she said, barely able to stop giggling. “It’s a story about poop, but I have to read it to you.”
“Big Boy,” located in Sedaris’ 2001 collection of essays, Me Talk Pretty One Day, illustrates a common situation that most Americans will experience at one time or another. Sedaris attempts to use the bathroom at a dinner party, but when he opens the door, he realizes the toilet has a piece of poop in it that is so large, it cannot be flushed. Now, the person who uses the bathroom next will think the poop belonged to Sedaris. He considers every option he can think of, including throwing the poop out the window. Sedaris then realizes he is at an outdoor party. As someone knocks on the bathroom door, the pressure is on. Finally, Sedaris breaks the poop into smaller pieces with the handle of the plunger and breathes a sigh of relief as it flushes down the toilet.
The story, which is less than 800 words long, had my class falling on the floor in seconds, barely able to breathe. The shy girl who never spoke up in class was pounding on her desk. The bully was crying. For one brief moment, every member of my high school English class had shared something meaningful: A complete breakdown of the social cliques and barriers we had all kept up since the first day of class. We had shared a story about poop.
Immediately after hearing the story, I purchased both Me Talk Pretty One Day and Naked, a similarly hysterical group of essays released in 1998. I read both books cover to cover in three days, and David Sedaris had soon become my favorite cigarette-smoking, non-driving, North Carolina-raised, former-house-cleaner, homosexual man of all time. In fact, he may have become my favorite person, period, and I’m not alone in this opinion. I’ve never heard Sedaris’ name come up without an “I LOVE him!” directly following it.
I think I have pinpointed why I, and everyone else for that matter, loves Sedaris so much. First of all, he lacks any sense of shame. He is self-deprecating, unabashedly honest, and unapologetically human, even in his most embarrassing and cringe-worthy experiences. When Sedaris writes stories about his wacky family life, which is often, he does so with a giant hug wrapped around the story. His mother smokes and drops cigarette ash onto her dinner plate while she eats, but his love for her peeks through her huffing and puffing. And for every story that revolves around his family’s eccentricities, there are two stories about the writer himself that are even wackier. For starters, Sedaris didn’t have a “real” job until he became a best-selling author in his forties. Although most people wouldn’t be willing to admit this, Sedaris embraces it and shares all of it with an astoundingly humorous lens.
I borrowed Running with Scissors, Augusten Burroughs’ first memoir, from my mother who recommended I read it. Severe mental illness runs in my family, and I think my mother appreciated the memoir because it made her own life seem not so wacky by comparison. I identified with Running with Scissors because I was the child of a mentally-ill mother who sometimes acted crazy and I was never quite sure why. Burroughs captures perfectly the sheer terror of a child who has no control of how his life is lived or where he will live it. At the same time, the writer has an undeniable love for both his parents as well as the family of his mother’s psychiatrist, with whom he is forced to live.
Running with Scissors, like Sedaris in Me Talk Pretty One Day, showed Burroughs finally accepting the strange situations he was placed in as a child, and even loving them a little bit. From the perspective of a child, even an unconventional upbringing is the only one you know. By looking back on the crazy situations and writing about them, he is not judging them. In Burroughs’ teenage years, for example, he describes cutting a jagged hole in the ceiling of his adopted family’s kitchen because he felt the room was stuffy. Although Burroughs would never have done anything like this in his mother’s home, his new and unconventional upbringing became freeing. Like Sedaris, Burroughs throws his life out there into the open with no judgments as if to say, “I was there, it was crazy, but it’s a part of me and it’s everything I stand for.”
Unfortunately, as both Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris have become household names, their once-interesting writing topics have become humdrum. This may be the plight of the memoir or true essay writer, as they are pressured by fans, publishers, and paychecks to release more and more books. Possible Side Effects, a book of true essays released by Burroughs in 2006, is nothing more than a laundry list of things Burroughs does during the day instead of writing. Compulsively buying junk on eBay and compulsively checking his e-mail have both become topics for stories. Going on book tours is also a popular essay topic for both Burroughs in Possible Side Effects and Sedaris in his 2008 release, When You Are Engulfed in Flames. Both authors write drab story after drab story about going on book tours, riding first class, and staying in hotels in their post-fame releases. Unfortunately, it seems that the best way to kill a true essayist is to hand them a royalty check. Suddenly, their lives become scheduled. I doubt Sedaris has to work as a Macy’s Christmas elf to make ends meet anymore, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Burroughs has dropped all ties with the psychiatrist’s family after they sued him for fraud and defamation after the release of Running with Scissors. The case was settled out of court, and Burroughs did not have to change any words in his memoir, although the family disputed many incidents Burroughs described (including that the teenage Augusten ever cut a hole in the kitchen ceiling to begin with). I am a firm believer in freedom of speech, and would encourage the psychiatrist’s family to write a memoir of their portrayal of the events if they feel Burroughs was incorrect in narrating them. Needless to say, I can’t see Burroughs writing any stories about this chapter in his life again.
The staleness of Sedaris’ and Burroughs’ new stories may be due to the fact that these writers have wracked their brains for every possible anecdotal story they’ve ever experienced. Maybe friends and family members are too aware of the writer’s intentions to provide new ones. Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to take a picture of someone who knows they’re being photographed? The person is constantly adjusting her hair, flinching, or making that stupid face she never makes when she thinks she’s alone. In Sedaris’ 2004 release, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, he relays a conversation he had with his sister Lisa about keeping her privacy. “She’s afraid to tell me anything important,” Sedaris says, “knowing I’ll only turn around and write about it.”
Most likely, Sedaris and Burroughs, who became famous for writing about their crazy childhoods, were able to accurately express the eccentricities that they lived through as children. The stories revolving around their adult lives, especially in the case of Burroughs, are not as interesting. If Augusten Burroughs had chosen, as an adult, to live with a psychiatrist, the story would not have been nearly as compelling. Alternately, if Burroughs had sent his own child to live with a doctor, the story would be one of “look how crazy I am,” versus “look what I, an innocent child, was subjected to, and look at how I came out on top.” No subject could ever compare to the childhood that Burroughs wrote about in Running with Scissors. Are stories about the adult Augusten doomed for failure, simply because they aren’t about a child?
David Sedaris has found a loophole by writing stories about professions he has had over the past few decades while waiting for his writing career to take off. Some jobs he has written about include painting, teaching, and a self-indulgent stint as a performance artist. These fascinating stories seem to bridge the gap between the childhood Sedaris that audiences have grown to love, and the New York Times best-selling Sedaris that seems to never venture outside the four walls of his hotel room.
I’m hoping that this doesn’t mean two of my favorite writers have burned out due to success. But maybe the business model of a successful memoirist doesn’t quite work. As soon as a writer becomes successful, his stories become too banal. Readers want to hear about the plight of the underdog, not the plight of the successful author. Whether my frustration is due to lack of new stories, a lack of unsuspecting subjects, or simply my own lack of interest in the tales of a professional author, I’ll have to settle for reading my old favorites, like Running with Scissors and Me Talk Pretty One Day again and again. Hopefully these masterpieces will tide me over until another David Sedaris comes along with a poop story that redefines social boundaries.
Books mentioned in this column:
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (Little, Brown and Company, 2000)
Naked by David Sedaris (Little, Brown and Company, 1997)
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs (Picador, 2002)
Possible Side Effects by Augusten Burroughs (St. Martin’s Press, 2006)
When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris (Little, Brown and Company, 2008)
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris (Little, Brown and Company, 2004)
Lindsay Champion’s short stories and personal narratives have been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney’s, Fray Quarterly, SMITH Magazine and Common Ties. She has written hundreds of articles for numerous internet publications. She earned her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. She lives in Los Angeles with an albino goldfish named Betty White. Contact Lindsay at her web site, New York Words.