Amy O’Neill Houck | Practice Makes Pages: David Sedaris and John Straley on Making a Habit of Writing

On Mother’s Day, David Sedaris made a sold-out appearance in the 900 seat house at Juneau Douglas High School. A humorist—a writer—filling the biggest house we have in our small town in Alaska was somehow reassuring. After reading for about an hour, mostly funny, some overtly political (he was in a friendly crowd), and a few poignant pieces, he turned to his newest work. It’s excerpts from his diaries. He has selected snippets and arranged them into a couple of chronological volumes. The first came out this year, and is called Theft by Finding: the diaries 1977-2002.

At the end of the reading, he left time for questions. He called on a woman who asked about how he goes about journaling. Sedaris held up his hands about 18 inches apart and said, “I write about this much each day. He then moved them about three inches apart and said, and maybe “this much” each week becomes usable. (His new book covers a 23-year span, so this math probably works out.) Notably, Sedaris said that his diaries are not places for interior self-examination. “I almost never write about feelings.” When it comes down to writing his essays, his diaries are a gold mine, not because he’s worked out a thought process, or examined his own mind. They are valuable because he recorded his memory of a very recent experience nearly in the moment. It’s his most reliable record. It must also be his way of practicing the curation of his funny way of seeing the world. He records dialog and things that happened with his family or in his daily life. Later, he has the raw ingredients to cook up something hilarious, as in this scene from Me Talk Pretty One Day, where Sedaris tries to explain Easter to some non-Christian students in his beginning French class in Paris.

I knew the word, so I raised my hand, saying, “The rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate.”

“A rabbit?” The teacher, assuming I’d used the wrong word, positioned her index fingers on top of her head, wriggling them as though they were ears. “You mean one of these? A rabbit rabbit?”

“Well, sure,” I said. “He come in the night when one sleep on bed. Which a hand he have a basket and foods.”

The teacher sighed and shook her head. As far as she was concerned, I had just explained everything wrong with my country. “No, no,” she said. “Here in France the chocolate is brought by a big bell that flies in from Rome.”

I called for a time-out. “But how do the bell know where you live?”

“Well,” she said, “how does a rabbit?”

I’ve rarely considered my journals anything more than a place to clear cobwebs and get down things that might get in the way of writing projects. It’s like stretching before a run, I guess—I’m not a runner. And I stink at doing the same thing every day. But after seeing Sedaris, I thought again about that practice, and the possibility of giving it more intention. Practice seeing, remembering, and making good sentences, practice remembering moments and things that people say. In this way, writing practice is more like practicing the violin than like preparing for strenuous exercise.

This June, at the North Words Writers Symposium in Skagway, John Straley gave a workshop. He has just released a book of haiku: 100 Poems of Spring. It’s the first of four volumes, one for each of the four seasons. The book includes illustrations by Norm Campbell, but the art complements rather than actually illustrating the poetry. It’s a lovely visual rest between words. The whole book is as much exhale as inhale, with lots of pages to breathe between small poems like:

Above rounded hips
Aurora Borealis
Like satin sheets

The workshop was about haiku, and Straley included some practical advice about the form. (Haiku should place itself within a season, have a sense of wonder.) John also spoke about the genesis of his new book. Haiku is part of his daily writing practice. He said coming to the page can be a struggle, and his daily practice is carefully prescribed, that way he never approaches a blank page wondering what he’s going to do. Before he starts work on his novels or other writing, he begins the day in his journal, and he always does it the same way. He starts by writing out the whole date, the place where he is at that moment, the weather, “Why am I here?” some “Dear Diary crap,” he lets himself go on a little, and includes something that sets the entry in time like a current event. He ends with a haiku. He’s been doing this for decades. At the end of each year, he reviews the haiku, and pulls out his favorites, recopying them into a small chapbook that he gives to his wife as a Christmas gift. Eventually, he realized he had the makings of a book.

John Straley’s haiku practice takes on the “practice” of writing very directly in an Eastern philosophical way. The prescribed form—both in the journal writing, and in the subject matter and restricted syllables of haiku—allow for the creative freedom that comes from self-imposed limitations. He says haiku captures “everything on both sides of the poet’s eyes,” because the poet’s mind is open to the moment. He says though there are “no fancy words in haiku,” the poet is opening both eyes and senses, “letting the world in and your expression out.” Straley says that even though he’s been creating haiku for decades, he rarely strays from a 5-7-5 syllable form. Acknowledging that it’s an Americanized translation of the form, he notes that the strict, tiny structure works for him.

Summer is not exactly the best time for new habits in my world. The kids are out of school, we’re leaving town whenever we can, and trying to get outside whenever the sun makes an appearance, but on the days I make time to write, I try now to look back at my memories of the last twenty-four hours, to practice remembering a moment or two as vividly as possible. And sometimes, I end my entries with a haiku. The verbal puzzle wakes the part of my brain that loves wordplay.

There are as many kinds of writer’s habits as there are writers, and one of my favorite forms of procrastination is reading about them (The Paris Review’s decades and decades of interviews with writers are free on their web site, and it is a rabbit hole perfect to save for when you have a writing deadline). Like David Sedaris, John Straley’s daily writing is a practice in seeing. His daily, intentional crafting of a tiny poem is one way of setting his brain towards good writing. For both writers, their habits bore fruit beyond the benefits of practice in haiku and journal snippets ripe and ready to harvest for their new books.

Amy O’Neill Houck lives in Douglas, Alaska and serves on the 49 Writers Board of Directors.

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