David Sedaris, Acclaimed Author and 2023 Convocation Speaker, Talks Writing, Working, and Discipline

Carlos Barragán
May 10, 2023

The celebrated author David Sedaris once said that artists are privileged because when something terrible happens to ordinary people, “there’s nothing they can do with it except feel bad or complain or press charges.” Artists, meanwhile, go to work. Sedaris is the graduation speaker at this year's School of the Arts convocation ceremony on May 17, 2023. In advance of that celebration, we asked Sedaris to share his advice for the graduating class, and he doubled down on his idea of finding art in the painful and mundane. 

“I’ve never been in war, never lost a limb or been tortured,” he said in a recent interview with the School of the Arts. “Anything less than that can be funny if you sit on it long enough, so I basically just wait until I can see something negative in a different light.”

Born in Johnson City, New York, and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, Sedaris' middle-class upbringing and intricate family dynamics offered a fertile foundation for his storytelling. Through various odd jobs, from apple picking to cleaning apartments, Sedaris had a lot to draw from. His humor, largely autobiographical and self-deprecating, frequently focuses on family life, work experiences, and education.

Sedaris first gained recognition in 1992 thanks to "SantaLand Diaries," a humor essay about his experience working as a Christmas elf at Macy's, on NPR's Morning Edition. This exposure led to writing opportunities with The New Yorker, Harper's, GQ, and other prestigious magazines. His storytelling abilities have also earned him multiple Grammy Award nominations for Best Spoken Word Album and Best Comedy Album. In 2001, Sedaris won the prestigious Thurber Prize for American Humor, solidifying his status as one of the most influential humorists of his time.

When it comes to discipline, Sedaris revealed that his secret is more about obsession than anything else. "I’ve always been good at doing the exact same thing at the exact same time every day. It’s more of a compulsion thing than a discipline thing,” he said. This commitment to routine seems to work; it has allowed him to produce consistently high-quality work throughout his career. His debut book, Barrel Fever (Little, Brown and Company, 1994), a collection of essays and short stories, established him as a distinctive voice in the literary world. Since then, he has written thirteen books, including bestsellers like Me Talk Pretty One Day (Little, Brown and Company, 2000), Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (Little, Brown and Company, 2004), and Calypso (Little, Brown and Company, 2018), which have been translated into more than 25 languages. 

David Sedaris' diaries have also been an integral part of his creative process and an enduring source of inspiration for his work. He has been diligently recording his thoughts, observations, and experiences in his diaries for decades, often drawing from them when crafting his essays and stories. In 2017, Sedaris published Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977–2002) (Little, Brown and Company), a curated collection of diary entries that provides a look into his method of finding inspiration. "If something is good, by which I mean either horrible or funny, I take it. I don’t pass it off as my own, rather I weave it into whatever story I’m writing and credit the source."

To the graduating class of 2023, Sedaris had this to say: "After graduating I had a number of jobs—teaching, moving furniture, apartment cleaning, house painting. If I were a recent graduate, I’d go straight to the house cleaning. In Manhattan, you can make $50 an hour, which is great money for vacuuming. Then you can come home and do your own stuff—playwriting, filmmaking, whatever. Your movies will just have to take place at night."

Join us here at 7 pm ET on Wednesday, May 17, 2023 to watch David Sedaris address our 2023 graduating class.