I was driving home last week listening to Fresh Air on NPR when I heard what I thought was an older woman talking about owls and diabetes. I caught just enough to wonder if there had been some sort of medical breakthrough involving feathered wildlife and Our National Blood Sugar Epidemic when the author began talking about writing dedications during book tours and I figured out it was David Sedaris.
Sedaris’ career was virtually invented on NPR with the airing of his hilarious reading of his SantaLand Diaries a few days before Christmas 1992, one of the funniest moments I’ve ever heard. Now 21 years and a half dozen books later, Sedaris once again was on NPR, this time talking about his new book, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, a book I knew I’d be holding in my hands very shortly, but how and in what format was still up in the air.
In the old days, buying a book was a rudimentary thing — you walked into Walden Books or Borders or Barnes & Noble or whatever local bookstore you frequented and — if the book was a recent release or bestseller — you drove home with it. These days you have more choices. There’s Amazon, which always seems to have the lowest prices, and now there’s “digital books” to read on your “e reader” or i-device.
My buying decision relates directly to how I write this column. Like everything else in life, the biggest hurdle to writing a column (or anything) is getting started. You’ve heard the old story about the freezing anxiety writers face when staring at a blank sheet of paper? That anxiety is tenfold when staring at a blank computer screen, especially when you have no idea what you’re going to write about.
Add to that knowing in the back of your mind how easy it would be to simply click on a web browser and do a little surfing before you get started. Just a little. Maybe check out the news headlines or what your pals posted on Facebook overnight or, gee, this looks like a funny cat video, and the next thing you know you’ve wasted two hours, and your computer screen is as blank as it was before you started.
The mental barrier that prevents someone from beginning to type — from beginning to write — is likely the main reason people never become writers in the first place. My trick to getting started is to first close my web browser, and then spend about an hour reading from a book by one of a handful of authors whose writing voice is so unique, so dominating, that it inspires my own creativity.
On top of that authors list is Harlan Ellison.
Known primarily as the guy who wrote the best episode of Star Trek (“City on the Edge of Forever”) and for penning the material that became the 1976 Don Johnson bomb A Boy and His Dog, I’d read Ellison’s short stories for years before picking up his collection of essays and criticism called Sleepless Night in the Procrustean Bed in 1984. That was followed a year later by An Edge in My Voice (in fact, this column’s title is a play on that book’s title). It is impossible to read Ellison’s essays and not absorb his rhythm, syntax and style. His is a voice of measured anger bordered by reason, sarcasm, intelligence and wit. I spent a good chunk of my college years emulating Ellison’s writing style before figuring out one of my own.
Other authors on my pre-writing reading list:
Douglas Coupland. Best known for his 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, Coupland has penned about a dozen books, including novels Microserfs and Shampoo Planet, as well as collections Polaroids from the Dead, Souvenirs of Canada and Life After God. Coupland’s wry observations can be both witty and dour at the same time, written from the cynical vantage point of a disillusioned generation — my generation.
Hunter S. Thompson. Every young journalist had a copy of Fear of Loathing in Las Vegas wedged in his/her milk-crate bookcase, or better yet, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. More enticing than Hunter’s exploits was his writing voice — chopped and to the point, it was Thompson’s matter-of-fact descriptions that made his writing so deeply funny and affecting. We all wanted to be Hunter in J school.
Robert Christgau. The dean of rock journalists, Christgau wrote his Consumer Guide column in the Village Voice from the late ‘60s through the ‘00s and is still blogging at age 70. A typical Christgau album review reads like free-verse poetry, all style and rhythm like the music he’s critiquing. They’ve been collected into three volumnes that span the ’70s through the ’90s.
And, of course, David Sedaris. SantaLand Diaries was only the beginning. He has since written six collections of essays, starting with 1994’s Barrel Fever up to 2010’s fake children’s book Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, each collection of observations rooted in self-deprecating humor, like a gay Woody Allen.
If you perused the bookshelves in my home office, you’d find well-worn copies of books by all these writers always just arm’s reach from my keyboard, some with edges gnawed off by my long gone cairn terrier Sam, who liked to pass the time chewing on books left on the floor next to my desk.
So when it comes to buying the new Sedaris book an electronic version is out of the question. I actually enjoy reading e-books when it comes to disposable stuff I’ll never read again, like Game of Thrones or the latest Stephen King potbolier. Sedaris’ books — like books from the rest of the authors on my list — are keepers written to be dog-eared, or dog-chewed.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.