The Inspiration

If possible, try to have at least one retired parent with just enough free time to buy a subscription to Masterclass. The online bank of coursework prepared by people of every profession has something for everyone, including free bonus subscriptions when you purchase a full year of streaming, which your parents should absolutely pass on to you. My mother is such a retired parent, lucky for me.

Mom offered me a free year of Masterclass and I thanked her, but didn’t investigate right away. It’s like those free language-learning apps — I kind of want to learn French but obviously I should study Spanish because I live on the border, so I compromise by deleting the app altogether. I kind of wanted to take Simone Bile’s classes, but I’ve never really done gymnastics and don’t intend to start at thirty-five. After a while I loosened up and took some classes just for fun, like How to Choreograph Music Videos, and Thomas Keller’s exhaustive cooking course to feed my dreams of going back in time and attending le Cordon Bleu. Not long after, I got a notification that David Sedaris had a course on writing and humor, and immediately pulled up his videos. Sedaris is the author I admire most and his books are the few that won’t be purged in the wave of minimalism overtaking my house. Cookbooks and reference books are always purchased in a tangible paperback so I can flip through and refer back to important sections, which is hard to do on a Kindle. David Sedaris’ books are invaluable references for me, and I need them accessible all the time.

The thing that strikes me about his writing is that his essays often seem like stream-of-consciousness spontaneously formed stories, but he actually works hard choosing his words to make that sort of impact on his readers. There is no ambiguous Miss Havisham’s white clothing and belongings are a metaphor that Dickens weaves to blah blah blah… No, Sedaris is cutting and funny because he knows how to tell a story in an engaging and relatable way. He is endlessly quirky and unfiltered, but when he’s writing about buying a taxidermized owl for his boyfriend you’re caught thinking, “yeah, I totally know what that’s like,” when you in fact think stuffed dead animals are grotesque. He talks about extraordinary things in a matter-of-fact way.

For me, one of the most memorable essays he published was about his neighbor in New York. She was crass and awful and always asking David to do chores for her. The whole essay you’re in on the joke, that this woman is mean and relentless and abused a deaf mute child, so we are disgusted by her. But then, with a handful of words, we’re clotheslined by a thoughtful reassessment of this woman and how she has connected with the author, and ashamed we ever hated her. Good writing lingers, and though I read this essay years ago, I think about how he did it — how did he spin me around and make me regret disdaining a stranger who I assumed was fair game, based on the initial depiction of her character? The essay ends shortly thereafter, and you’re left hanging waiting for him to absolve you of your sins, but he doesn’t. You’re alone with the bitter aftertaste of your own judgement.

After reading several of his books, I learned that Sedaris workshops his ideas in front of a crowd to see how people respond to his writing. What gets a laugh? What did he think would get a laugh but didn’t? What seemed to resonate? In a very small way, I do the same thing. If I’m chatting with my family and they laugh, I try to remember what I said and use it somewhere in my writing. The laugher is also important. Where my mom is more generous with her laughter, Dad is fairly reserved, so if I get a big guffaw from him I know what I said must have been truly funny. If he retells my story, I am over the moon. To me, that’s better than the non-specific, “I’m proud of you.” Dad is a straight-laced guy who thought majoring in psychology was too frivolous, so those laughs are hard won.

I’ve taken a few of Steve Martin’s classes on Masterclass, and he says much the same thing. You start with a bit that you think is funny, play it in front of a crowd, and edit each time. The classes from every instructor I’ve watched so far do a really great job of making content that is useful no matter what you do with your life. Sedaris has a class on the importance of being nice to people, for example. Am I going to choreograph the next Beyoncé video? Absolutely not, but Parris Goebel also talks about knowing your worth, pursuing your dreams, and taking risks. Some classes are very specific, like Wolfgang Puck’s class on tuna sashimi with fennel salad, but most are an in depth interview with a person famous for their work in a variety of fields, from Tony Hawk to Malcom Gladwell, that you can draw from and relate to even if you would absolutely fall off a skateboard. So if you like Steve Martin but don’t plan to be a comic, or you share Doris Kearns Goodwin’s love of history but don’t want to write about it, it’s still worthwhile to listen to their stories of success or failure, and the universal lessons a driven or ambitious person can impart.

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