In Dress Your Family in Courduroy and Denim, Sedaris writes vignettes of his own experiences. That is, while his reflection likely helps him, he performs for his audience (we know we can always slightly embellish in solo performance and creative writing). Yet had he merely told his stories without reflecting on them, the audience would not benefit. Therefore, his prior reflection is crucial to the effective telling of the story.
If we look at “Consider the Stars,” the story about Thad and the rock and the dentist, we note that Sedaris walks us through the whole anecdote, beginning with a description of just how important the popular crowd was. After the anecdote, Sedaris tells us, “I thought about Thad a lot over the coming years…” (Sedaris 52). He imagines many possibilities for Thad’s future, and finally hopes to run into him living in the same city he lives in. “It doesn’t have to happen today, but it does have to happen. I’ve kept a space waiting for him, and if he doesn’t show up, I’m going to have to forgive my father” (Sedaris 52). Here we see a sweet, almost nostalgic sadness. This only comes from Sedaris putting the story into perspective, having thought about his mentality at the time of the incident, what his struggles were around that time, and what Thad, an infectious popular boy meant to him.
Yet we feel as though he is just remembering it and telling as he remembers. This air of spontaneity is certainly cultivated. Just as Mark Twain in “How to Tell a Story” and Descartes in his work say that one must not laugh at one’s own joke, Sedaris does not. The fact that his stories about his own experiences aid this skill, for this means he has fully experienced them and has viscerally experienced more than just the “funny” parts.
As implied in Twain’s “How to Tell a Story,” and as is a common practice of all storytellers, the goal is truth. Sedaris’s reflection is able to bring the stories back to a place of truth at the end, for he either puts them in perspective. Oftentimes in Sedaris’s vignettes, I found the ends to make me a bit sad. For example, the last line of “Full House” (the sleepover story), Sedaris reads: “For now I would savor this poor imitation of tenderness, mapping Scott’s shoulders, the small of his back, as he shuddered beneath my winning hand” (Sedaris 41). This last line reveals the true painfulness of this incident for Sedaris. How hard must it be for a closeted gay adolescent boy to attend an all-male sleepover in a society that assumes (and at that point, demands) heterosexuality?
And although he tells the story from a place of humor (and with good humor), I did not find myself laughing as much during this particular story as in some of the others, but rather felt sympathy. Yet if Sedaris did not tell the story from a place of humor, we the readers might have complained in response to his morose, self-pitying tone. Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, tells us that to receive sympathy, a person must lower their emotional state enough for us—who haven’t experienced the pain—to reach. Here, there is a useful link between sympathy and humor, as both are at the center of good storytelling, and thereby truth. Thus, Sedaris, in writing this book of stories, works with the juxtaposition between reflection (past/future) and spontaneity (present), and comedy and pain (two parts of the truthful whole) in order to get to some truth.