Finding Yourself in Theft by Finding

Originally published July 2017

Do you keep a diary?

When it comes to writing, they’re the most curious combinations of introspection and social commentary to which we have access. Sometimes funny, sometimes cringe-worthy, I’ve kept my off-and-on journals in hopes that when I die, my kids will have a permanent record of how much I love them. And also exactly how many times I bitched about having to do the dishes.

David Sedaris has been a longtime favorite writer of mine. His sense of comic timing — which, if intentional, comes across as completely natural — is uncanny. In his first of two books compiled from diary entries, “Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977 – 2002,” readers are welcomed into the author’s psyche. It’s endearing and abrasive all at once.

It’s also a glimmer of hope for any parent that watches their child take a twisting, turning journey into and out of the abyss that is self-doubt, addiction, and lack of direction to a healthy, mature adulthood. As it turns out, even the wildly successful are capable of taking a wild ride on their way to the top.

Most Sedaris fans were introduced to his genius that was the SantaLand Diaries. Then, “Naked.” But to get there, Sedaris had to live it. Readers are long for the ride, as he spends his early 20s picking fruit to make enough money to pay rent and buy weed. It’s not easy to read raw entries, like:

“February 23, 1978: I am totally frustrated and can’t relieve it. Nothing to go back to and nothing to look forward to.”

and …

“? 1978: Last night Dad caught me off guard by asking me to leave and not come back. We can’t begin to reason with each other.”

…but they’re so critical to the collection if we want to really enjoy the relationships cultivated and dissected between the covers. The Sedaris family is a close-knit clan, but it’s a real family, with real issues. If you want to revel in the occasional glimpse into his sister Amy’s disturbing sense of humor, you also have to take on David’s complicated relationship with his father and sense of helplessness with his sister Tiffany.

In the world of memoir, “Theft by Finding” is one both revealing and easy to relate to. I’ll likely never meet the man, but knowing he shares (or shared) the occasional similar sense of fraudulent existence is the perfect reminder that as humans, we are all connected one way or another. Who hasn’t been dressed down by a stranger and wondered even for a nanosecond, “Are they right? Do I suck?” From 1989, when he was teaching at the Art Institute in Chicago:

“I’d taught and was wearing a tie and carrying my briefcase. When I was a student, I always felt better when the teacher dressed up. It suggested that his or her job was a real one. As for the briefcase, I look at it like a safe. Students see me putting their papers into it, and it makes them feel that their stories are valuable, though it is a drag to carry. As I passed the woman in front of the L station, she said, ‘Oh, look at him. The little man. Thinks he’s a big fucking deal because he’s carrying an attache case.’ I crossed the street with my head down, shattered because she could see right through me.”

This is an investment read — clocking in at 25 years and over 500 pages, you won’t finish it in a weekend, but the relationships laid bare are so worth it. From Barbara at IHOP and his New York neighbor Helen to his family and, of course, his longtime partner Hugh — it’s juicy. And for anyone that looks at authors and thinks they’re drowning in cash, I invite you to read David’s tales of housecleaning and handyman work well past his first successes. It’s humbling.

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