The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A little morality tale from David Sedaris

Author and humorist David Sedaris shares the story of one of his most memorable—and humbling—flights, and explains why he's grateful for his longtime boyfriend's good conscience. Watch his story come to life. (Video: Kate M. Tobey/The Washington Post)

David Sedaris doesn't like going on camera. So when he joined our On Leadership video series, we decided to do something a little different.

We sat down in our audio studio with the American humorist and the author of story collections including Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Me Talk Pretty One Day and, most recently, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls. That (funny) conversation with Sedaris became a recording to launch our new weekly On Leadership podcast series. You can listen to him talk with us about leadership, character and writing here:

PODCAST | David Sedaris on leadership

In the spirit of our video series, we also took one of the great stories Sedaris shared with us and turned it into an animated video with his narration. In the video above, he talks about how useful — and irritating —  it is to live with your conscience.

Here are some of the other highlights from our conversation, though it's best to listen to the podcast to hear him tell the stories in full:

When asked who had the biggest influence on Sedaris's own character

I think my father. One thing you can say about my father is that he’s not a hypocrite. My father didn’t want us to smoke, so he quit smoking. My father is the most disciplined person probably I’ve ever known. He would get up in the morning — we would laugh at him — he would get up and do these little exercises in the living room in his underpants. Every single morning. I don’t know if you can inherit discipline, but I never expected things to happen if you didn’t work every single day at them.

I think too, perhaps, from going to art school and being around artsy people before then, you start noticing how many people talk about being an artist of one sort or another but you never see them actually doing anything. All they do is talk about it. I think those people made me think more about my dad — that it was better not to talk about it, but just to go into a room and do it.

On what influenced his well-known habit of taking a lot of time with readers at book signings and events

When I first moved to Chicago, there was a bookstore near me called the Unabridged Bookstore. I remember I went and saw this author and I bought her book — it was a hardcover book, and it was a lot of money at the time. I waited in line and when I got up there she didn’t look at me, she didn’t talk to me. She was talking to her publicist about what she was going to do for dinner. And I felt so betrayed. I just thought, I believed in you. And this was a lot of money. If it’s ever me at that table, things are going to be different.

So I was at Harvard’s bookstore the night before last and I signed books for eight hours and 45 minutes. People were like, “Well, let me let you go.” I keep them so long at the table that they’re just desperate to get away from me. I mean, it took that long because I talk to everybody. I would never, ever say to anybody, ”Well, there are a lot of people here,” or, “Thanks for coming.” There have been a few times the bookstore has come in and said something to that effect, and I get upset. I say, Don’t! That person is probably burning with shame now. I don’t ever want to make someone feel that way. That’s not how I want to be doing this.

People always come and they’ll say, “This must be exhausting.” And I think, what would possibly make you think that? It’s people standing in line to say how much they love you. It’s, like, all I ever dreamed of.

What Sedaris believes

One of the ways in which I’m really an American — and it took living overseas to realize — is that I really do believe that hard work pays off and that you can do whatever you want to do. Because if it worked for me, it can really work for anybody.

There’s a kind of optimism I exhibit. Now I live in England and I get made fun of a lot for it. But I am a pretty optimistic person, and I think it has to do with being raised to believe you can do what you want. And if it doesn’t work out, you just have yourself to blame. I mean, luck has a lot to do with it, but work has a lot to do with it as well.

I also believe that shorts — those cargo shorts — are a huge mistake. For anyone.

When asked if he thinks his humor has gotten better with age

If I look at books I wrote a long time ago, I can see myself trying too hard. It just fills me with shame. You should never let people see you trying. Quite often young people will give me their writing, and I see them doing it. And they’re kids — they’ll grow out of it. I grew out of it too. The only problem is I had some books that were written before I grew out of it.

On what writing does for Sedaris

It defines my mood, it defines my day. I don’t know that it’s cathartic. But I write in my diary every morning and nothing quite makes sense to me until I put it on paper. I’m often ashamed of myself. That’s the beauty of a diary, though. It’s not for anyone else, so you’re not being a phony in it.

I said to someone the other day — I don’t know who I was trying to kid — I said, “It’s not that hard being nice to people.” Which makes me sound like such a good guy. Then I thought about it later. And I thought, “No, it’s not that hard to be nice to nice people. It’s really hard to be nice to people who aren’t nice.” That’s work right there.

The best piece of advice he received

When the time is right, things will happen. People will come to you.

Everybody is so pushy. Everybody says, "Well, it's all who you know." I don't believe that. I think that if you just work really hard, somehow it shows. It makes you a certain kind of person. And there are other people who are a magnet for the kind of person you are if you're truly creative.

Listen to the full conversation.