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When You Are Engulfed in Greatness

November 22, 2010

In my junior year of high school, I took  back-to-back journalism and creative writing classes. They weren’t related classes; I just wanted to take them both. The same young woman taught both classes, a recent college graduate. She was stylish, sweet, not much older than us, and loved writing of all kinds. She helped establish a school paper, which we sold for 25 cents during lunchtime, and encouraged her students to read whatever they could get their hands on.

She was the one who lent me When You Are Engulfed in Flames, which was David Sedaris’s most recent book at the time. I read it in less than 24 hours and loved every word. This was the book that taught me how engaging and funny non-fiction could be. I would come to read it dozens of times, return it to her, then read it a dozen more after my best friend gave it to me for Christmas. I reviewed it for The Towerlight and recommended it to almost everyone I talked to.

This is a book of memoirs, stories from David Sedaris’s childhood in North Carolina and adult years spent traveling the world with his partner Hugh. What interested me most was, as a teenager interested in film and book critique, the engaging and personal tone of a telling of a real event. Non-fiction didn’t have to be like reading a textbook. People reading about real events could be amused by clever descriptions and good dialogue. These are real stories about being a homosexual in America, about recovering from addiction, about competing with siblings. Naturally, journalism isn’t the same–one is expected to be neutral, rather than put their own spin on things. But if there was a place for one’s opinion in a newspaper or news blog, it’s in a critique.

Not only that, as a writer, it made me want to improve in all ways. I write fiction, non-fiction, dorky little screenplays of this fake soap opera that my friend and I have been working on since we were thirteen. I write the way other people smoke. It calms me down. When I see really good writing, it drives me to want to practice, to get better. Every time I pick it up, it urges me on.

 And last, but certainly not least, it’s a funny book. A really, really funny book. Sedaris isn’t afraid to look bad, which I think is the problem with a lot of memoirs. The narrators always cast themselves as the victim or the hero, but Sedaris isn’t afraid to be the bad guy, or, more often, the dope. The reality of it makes you like him more, not less. It’s the book that has caused me to follow my family and friends around while reading aloud, even as they’re trying to do other things. It’s a supremely enjoyable, smart, dark and hilarious collection. It’s worth every minute you spend on it.

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