The Marginalia of David Sedaris’s “Repeat After Me”

I usually try to buy all of my marginaliabooks new. It isn’t because I necessarily like the crispness of the pages (which I do), or because I am a supporter of the publishing industry (which I am). These are admittedly added bonuses, but the main reason why I purchase books new is to escape the insidious chattering of the book’s former readers, namely through marginalia. I do not want mystery Reader One’s thoughts on what the dog food is a metaphor for, nor do I care that mystery Reader Two felt the man with a limp was “scary!!!” These are discoveries I prefer to find—or not—on my own.

As such, I was extremely disappointed when I was unable to locate a reasonably priced new copy of the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction for my online writing class. In truth, I could find some new copies, but none that matched the ISBN that the university indicated on their “Required Reading” list. I took a chance and ordered a “Used – Very Good” copy through the university bookstore website, believing—erroneously—that “Very Good” meant the pages would not be littered with the comments, thoughts, highlights, musings, speculations, and condescending judgments of former readers. Unless the university bookstore believes it is “very good” for its students to know that one of the book’s previous owners felt a character “spends sooo much time talking about Henry,” I have to wonder if the bookstore even bothered to flip through the pages of the book before declaring it “Very Good.”

This is how I began reading David Sedaris’s essay “Repeat After Me.” Sedaris’s humorous essay explores his visit to Winston-Salem to tell his sister, Lisa, that one of his books had been optioned for a movie. Sedaris’s book (the potential movie) is a memoir piece that features his family—including Lisa—so Sedaris wanted to tell his sister in person that an actress may play her on the big screen. While traveling to his sister’s place in the essay, Sedaris reminisces about the “roles” he and his sister had been assigned growing up that—in Sedaris’s words— “effectively told us who we were.” As children, Lisa played the role as the one in the family with the most potential, while Sedaris was viewed with much lowered expectations. Later in life, as they grew and matured, Sedaris and his sister found themselves playing nearly the opposite roles.

As I settled into my sofa to begin reading Sedaris’s essay, I felt my excitement begin to grow. This was the first thing I had read by Sedaris and, as of late, I had been hearing his name quite often since he was in my city for another (different) book signing. I opened the anthology to the beginning of the essay “Repeat After Me.” I immediately tried to immerse myself with Sedaris’s brief bio and the start of his essay, but the word “ALLUSION” was printed in pencil over the top word in the first sentence, as if calling out in a neon-blinking sign that said “LOOK HERE!” I did my best to ignore the “allusion,” but I soon found myself flipping through the pages for a marginalia preview.

As far as I can tell, based on the pencil/pen type, handwriting and diction, there were at least three distinct former owners who felt obligated to critique the grammar, make snarky comments about the characters, bullet themes, and incessantly underline text (in ink, no less). While I did get into the rhythm and the humor of Sedaris’s essay, I ended up finding the marginalia equally humorous. I normally consider marginalia to be simply irritating, but perhaps I was primed to find their comments funny because the essay itself was categorized as “humor.” Thus, I began to read the marginalia as its own kind of “text”—a text that is superimposed on Sedaris’s text and full of meta-cognitive awareness.

Reader One was so exasperated by Sedaris’s choice of grammar and consumed with his/her judgments about Sedaris that she failed—in my humble opinion—to take note of the truly funny moments in the essay. Reader One chastised Sedaris “Why is his superlative in lower case?!?!” when Sedaris wrote that “to this day, as far as my family is concerned, I’m still the one most likely to set your house on fire.” Given that superlatives—as a general rule—aren’t supposed to be upper case, Reader One’s comment had me wondering whether or not she is the one “most likely to set your house on fire” in her family. In the same paragraph, when Sedaris wrote that while he accepted “ lowered expectations, Lisa fought hard to regain her former title,” Reader One snipped as if she had known Sedaris’s family her entire life, “Easier for him – always been that way.”

Yet, for some mysterious reason (that I, personally, find incredibly funny), all of the Readers who came before me failed to comment on the part of essay where Sedaris’s sister “land[ed] a job in the photo department of a large international drug company, where she took pictures of germs, viruses, and people reacting to germs and viruses.” Sedaris was telling the reader about his sister’s varied—and seemingly unrelated—series of jobs. At that line, “people reacting to germs and viruses,” I imagine people reacting with mock horror at the sight of an enlarged squiggly Ebola virus, and doubling over with their hands clutching their stomach at the sight of salmonella bacteria. I imagine people “reacting” by running in slow motion, yelling “Nooooooo….” for the benefit of the photography camera, pushing everyone else away to escape the horror they saw through the microscope in the Petri dish. Alternately, to take a more somber view of the line “people reacting to germs and viruses,” I imagine people laying in a hospital bed or dry heaving over a toilet. There is so much imagery—so much potential “funny”—bound up in that one tiny line, yet the book’s former Readers chose to ignore that line and, instead, underline the fact Sedaris’s sister earned “an English degree.” Reader One later noted in a space between paragraphs, “Lisa throws herself into things she really isn’t passionate about.” Yes, Reader One, I agree—that part is very clear.

After initially looking at marginalia with disdain, I now have to admit there is more to it than irritating spoiler alerts and banal judgments. It is like a two, three, or (in my case) four-way conversation about an author’s work. It is the benefit of a book club without having to get out of your car. I no longer view marginalia with complete disdain—but I still prefer to read a “clean” copy first. Moreover, I am sure it is only matter of time before someone will mock my marginalia as well, and wonder why in the world I drew a smiley face next to the line about people reacting to germs and viruses.

The Power of the (Famous) Muses

Until I was asked to write a blog on famous muses, I really never gave the idea much thought. I’ve always used my surroundings or circumstances to rev up my creative juices. But it didn’t take me long to recall those who held my hand as I began my love affair with the written word, as well as the ones who paved the way for me on this journey of self-exploration. Or, my life as a writer.

Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, is the first author whose words challenged me to break free of the excuses and “take it bird by bird.” In her book, she speaks about her older brother who procrastinated on a book report about birds which was now due the following day. The task ahead of him appeared insurmountable when Lamott’s father “sat down beside him, put his arm around [her] brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

Currently, I’m in a season where my writing revolves around blogs and articles. I haven’t sat down and written my novel just yet. So for me, I’m taking it blog by blog. And I’m also avidly following guidance from another one of my muses: Stephen King. In his book On Writing, he reminds writers to read a lot and write a lot. I tend to go in spurts — right now I’ve been reading a lot. My muse was recently rediscovered in between the pages of Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain and Blake Crouch’s Snowbound. Consequently, I’m feeling one step closer to sitting down and tackling the writing a lot part of King’s advice.

Another writer, Lee Gutkind, ASU professor and managing editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine, also incites me to explore life’s next adventure. In his essay, “The Five Rs of Creative Nonfiction,” he encourages writers to seize our sense of wonder by immersion, or the “real life” aspect of the writing experience. The four remaining Rs include reflection, research, read (this cannot be stressed enough!) and “writing.” Simple but sage counsel.

With his sardonic, humble wit, David Sedaris inspires me with his edgier pieces, touching on off-the-wall topics that both entertain and challenge. My daughter and I once waited six hours in line to meet the man in person and receive an autographed copy of his book Squirrel Meets Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary. He did not disappoint; neither did the book.

But I’ve also discovered that even the underdogs may rise up among the famous. One such muse of mine is a close friend incarcerated for the next few years. He tutors other inmates in math, takes college courses while serving his sentence and studies the craft of memoir writing late into the evening hours. And then he pounds out his daily observations on a typewriter, the kind with ribbons, platen and correction tape. He motivates me as he devours book after book, doing what each of the successful writers who have gone before us have done and continue to do.

I read because I love it. I write because I cannot help it. So I grab onto the shirt tails of those who make it look easy and hope a little of their spunk (and a whole lot of talent) rubs off on me. They are the ones who have paved the way and carved a niche in the literary world. The guiding spirit(s) for my truth.

Do you have a famous — or not so famous — muse that inspires?

Meet the Review Crew: Victoria Fouts

Victoria Fouts is a Social Networker at Superstition Review. She is currently a senior at Arizona State University who is majoring in English Literature. Victoria joined the Superstition Review team for the fall semester of 2012 in order to learn more about the world of publishing and literary magazines. She is very excited to expand her knowledge and become more familiar with the in’s and out’s of editing, publishing, and literature in the modern world. Victoria looks forward to becoming more aware of different writers and art styles, becoming more cultured and growing in her networking abilities through her internship at Superstition Review.

Originally, Victoria was born in Pasadena, Texas and raised in Scottsdale, Arizona after being adopted when she was 3 ½ years old with her little sister. Both girls were taken in by a loving family which had already adopted two other children, a son and a baby girl. Victoria showed a talent for reading at an early age and quickly fell in love with books. Her parents encouraged her to read anything she could get her hands on and turned her into a voracious reader. Growing up, her parents had to ground her by taking her books away rather than television privileges. Over the years she has expanded her collection of favorite authors, books, and styles of literature. Ranging from the hilarious works of David Sedaris to the dark gothic horrors of Edgar Allen Poe and (of course) Clive Barker, she enjoys trying every genre of literature at least once. During her time at ASU, Victoria has focused her English studies on writings produced in the Victorian Era, one of her favorite time periods in history.

No matter where she lives, Victoria always brings books from her “favorite collection” to line her bookshelves (a required piece of furniture in any home). Unfortunately, the collection has grown so large that she has had to leave some of these treasured novels at her childhood home due to lack of shelving space in her apartment! Given her wide variety of books, friends often come to her to borrow books and ask for reading suggestions.

After graduation, Victoria and her boyfriend plan to get married and quickly move to Oregon to escape the Arizona heat. Once there she wants to find a job in the publishing market and to become deeply involved in the literary scene of the northwest coast. If she ever has the time or energy, Victoria dreams of writing and publishing a book of her own.

Meet the Review Crew: Daniel Redding

Each week we feature one of our many talented interns here at Superstition Review.

Finally completing a journey that began in January of 2008, Daniel Redding will be graduating this May with a B.A. in English from Arizona State University. Upon graduating, Daniel will pursue a Master’s Degree in English with an emphasis that will be determined by the location of his future graduate school.

A veteran of the United States Marine Corps, Daniel is 26 years old and has been married for over three years to his wife, Leanne. They recently welcomed their baby daughter, Emma Jane, into the world on November 9, 2011. While in the Marine Corps, Daniel served as a combat correspondent, with responsibilities ranging from journalism, photography, videography, layout and design editing, media relations, and much more. In 2006, Daniel deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He also served as head Marine layout and design editor for the Camp Pendleton Scout Newspaper on two separate occasions.

Daniel currently serves as Advertising Coordinator with Superstition Review. Working with SR has been an invaluable experience for him; combined with his military background, his understanding of how newspapers and literary magazines similarly work has grown.

Daniel is serving as an English tutor at the ASU affiliate, Metro Tech High School Writing Center, which is helping prepare him for what he will experience when he begins his career as an English professor.

A native of San Diego, California, Daniel is an avid sports fan. He stubbornly wears his San Diego Padres baseball cap regardless of what enemy territory he is in. As a diehard follower of David Sedaris, Daniel will laugh out loud when reading a good piece of satirical lampooning.

Meet the Interns: Scott Sivinski, Development Coordinator

Scott Sivinski is a Senior at Arizona State University majoring in Literature, Writing and Film.

Superstition Review: What do you do for SR?

Scott Sivinski: I am formatting the work we have to be sent out to Amazon to use on Kindle.

SR: How did you hear about or get involved with Superstition Review?

SS: I heard about the Review in an email, probably from the English department.

SR: Who is your dream contributor to the journal? Talk about him/her.

SS: David Sedaris who is one of my favorite authors and memoirists would be a great contributor. He has stories for everything.

SR: What job, other than your own, would you like to try out in the journal?

SS: I would like to be involved with the nonfiction group, probably as editor.

SR: What are you most excited for in the upcoming issue?

SS: I just can’t wait to read all of the submissions and just see the issue in its entirety since it is something I helped produce.

SR: What was the first book you remember falling in love with and what made it so special?

SS: Weekend by Christopher Pike was the first book I remember loving. It was a mystery and involved people just a little older than me and it really kick-started my reading habit. I still mostly read mysteries or thrillers along with the occasional memoir.

SR: What are you currently reading?

SS: I am currently reading the new memoir by Kathy Griffin who I find to be hilarious.

SR: What are some of your favorite websites to waste time on or distract you from homework?

SS: I like Entertainment Weekly’s website because it covers all aspects of entertainment including music, film and book reviews. I also like a site called dlisted because it makes fun of our cultures obsession with celebrities and his blogs are always hilarious.

SR: Do you write? Tell us about a project you’re working on.

SS: I do write on my own and keep a journal, but right now all I am writing is papers for other classes. I have six classes and five of them are English courses so I’m doing a lot of drafts and stuff right now and working on my applied project for graduation.