David Sedaris on Finding and Keeping Stories

Renowned Author Returns to the Arlington Theatre with 'Theft by Finding'

'Theft by Finding,' by David Sedaris

In what is almost a yearly tradition now, the much-beloved writer, humorist, essayist, and orator David Sedaris will come back to Santa Barbara in an Arts & Lectures–hosted evening at the Arlington Theatre on Wednesday, May 3 — and we couldn’t be more grateful. After all, the man who has made his life’s work of recounting his life in piercingly thoughtful, gently sweet, wryly wise, and outright hilarious memoirs and essays, after all these years, does not stop being great at what he does, and he’s found quite the connection in Santa Barbara audiences. You might say he’s stolen our hearts.

Speaking of thievery, his newest work takes the title Theft by Finding. In his new book and in his upcoming talk, Sedaris will take us back in time by recounting pieces pulled from his own journals over the years, sharing with us snippets of a life rich with unique experiences and observations. Sedaris learned the phrase “theft by finding,” a British term, while traveling in England. “I found a five-pound note on the street, and my friend Pam said it was theft by finding: If you find something, you don’t bother to figure out if it’s lost or stolen,” he said. In his new collection, whether it’s “the things I found, the stories people told me, or the jokes I heard — it just made sense as a title.”

The book documents 25 years of Sedaris’s life, spun from the pages of the diaries he began keeping when he was 20. “My boyfriend calls it David Copperfield Sedaris,” he said. A great deal of Sedaris’s work comes from his own observations of life, and he’s renowned for raising the potency of the mundane to reveal its profundity.

When he looks back on the days that were, he sees, much like a character in a story, a person propelled by his wants, motivations, and needs. “When I look back, I can see somebody who wanted certain things, and I saw that person getting those things, which is really what a story is,” he said. If you want to be a storyteller, Sedaris says, don’t forget to make your characters want something, too. “At [storytelling] clubs, people would be reading, and the character in their story would have no name, or they were so blasé they just didn’t want anything. They didn’t care if they lived or died, and I didn’t care if they lived or died, either.”

Sedaris says he’s gotten a lot of the things he’s wanted, albeit not always in the way, shape, or form he planned. Getting what he wanted has been a mixture of luck, choices, and circumstances, but Sedaris says the first step to getting what you want is admitting you want it. “When you announce what you want, it’s scary because [you feel] if you don’t get it, you’re a failure,” he said.

Not all of Sedaris’s stories have such high stakes, though, as he so often finds funny material in fractions of fractions of moments. “I had dinner with a writer friend who teaches, and one assignment she gives is to write about something that happened that day, or over the past hour, and, wow, that’s a really good assignment: if you make them look back over the past hour and say, ‘What happened then?’ and ‘How can I make that compelling?’” he said.

But whether we’re living our lives or fleshing out the characters in the stories we tell of our own lives, in the end, we’re all just human, he said. “For one moment in the story, I have to make them realize that we’re the same,” he said. “If people can relate to these stories on some level, they say, ‘Oh my god. He’s a human; I am, too.’” — my job is to make that connection.” 

David Sedaris will give a talk at the Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.) on Wednesday, May 3, at 8 p.m. For more information, visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.


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