“Understanding doesn’t mean that you can suddenly speak the language. Far from it. It’s a small step, nothing more, yet its rewards are intoxicating and deceptive. The teacher continued her diatribe and I settled back, bathing in the subtle beauty of each new curse and insult.
‘You exhaust me with your foolishness and reward my efforts with nothing but pain, do you understand me?’
The world opened up, and it was with great joy that I responded, ‘I know the thing that you speak exact now. Talk me more, you, plus, please, plus.'”
—Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
I just finished my first David Sedaris book. I enjoyed it – I love a good memoir. I especially love a good character within a good memoir. Sedaris is the main character within his stories, and he crafts the character carefully. The tone is sardonic and sarcastic, deprecatingly funny. Within that, David Sedaris the character is equally self-conscious and self-aware. His pride and laziness are rarely seen as flaws, instead just informing and shaping the character. Sedaris never apologizes for who he is, especially those traits that some would see as negative, namely his homosexuality, drug use, and smoking. This is most obvious in his essays about living in France – how he doesn’t really care to learn the language, see the sights, or experience much of the culture. Instead, he goes to movies. Again, Sedaris the character is not what others want him to be; he just is.
Note that I made a distinction between Sedaris the character and Sedaris the author. Perhaps they’re one and the same, but a reader should rarely assume that. Even within the realm of nonfiction, the speaker can tell the “truth” (let’s not get into that, okay?) and still paint himself a certain way. We as readers really have no way of knowing if Sedaris really does smoke that much or think a certain way. But he’s an interesting character, and this sort of extreme character 1) creates more humorous situations, and 2) can more clearly convey themes.
The quote above comes from the title essay of the book, describing a French class Sedaris took while living in France. The teacher insulted the class the entire session, but it was only near the end of the session that Sedaris began understanding what the teacher was saying. He clearly describes the effect of that understanding, and how it can change the meaning of words. If the focus is simply on the understanding and not on the connotations of the words, this was a great accomplishment instead of a great embarrassment. But instead of getting too serious, Sedaris pulls back. Understanding isn’t speaking. There is still a large gap between being able to formulate words and catching the meaning of others’ words. Even so, the understanding is a crucial piece of the road to fluency.
Apply this to writing as you wish.