Theft by Finding and Stealing Ideas During Quarantine

Book Review Image

I finished reading Theft by Finding by David Sedaris recently. This book of the famous writer’s diary entries from 1977 – 2002, was exactly what my brain could handle during coronavirus isolation time. I didn’t have to carry plot along with me from page to page. If I grew tired of reading, I could quit in the middle of page. Also, since I’m not writing much, reading the diary of a famous writer during the quarantine is perfect since it reminds me of all the things I can’t write, right now and how famous writers struggle sometimes too.

I have read most of Sedaris’ work, which features his family and boyfriend, so I knew most of the recurring characters appearing in his diary and didn’t have to get to know a new cast. Plus, as a humorist who is known to plumb his everyday life for the subject matter of his essays, his entries were often quite funny in that wry and peculiar way he often writes. That was especially needed during this time when the news can be quite bleak.

Stealing Ideas from Everyone

The title comes from a British phrase he learns after he finds a 5-pound note while cleaning up trash and keeps it. His friend tells him that in the U.K. when you discover something of value and keep it, it is known as theft by finding.

Hand with pen and notebook
Photo by Polina Zimmerman on

He calls the book Theft by Finding since what he records are not his feelings, but rather what he calls “the remarkable events” he has observed throughout the day, “bits of overheard conversation, and startling things people have told [him]. Theses could be friends, but just as easily barbers, strangers on a plane, or cashiers.” For Sedaris, these things all become fodder for eventual essays.

One of the most interesting parts of reading his diaries is to see the entries related to essays I now know. You are able to see how these bits of overheard conversation and interactions, for example in a French class with other students and a teacher, play out before they were formed into longer essays. He did so with the interactions in his French class first with his essay Jesus Shaves and later still with a full book of essays titled Me Talk Pretty One Day.

Many writers, including myself, do as Sedaris does, recording bits of conversations in diners and watching others throughout the day, only to have them appear on the page later. I am not as regular as Sedaris. My bits of conversation and notes appear in many notebooks, on computer files, and even on Twitter rants.

Seeing Him Make it Big

The diary follows Sedaris from a time of obscurity to when he is becoming quite famous for his writing. Because we know what will happen to him, it is endearing to see him try for that success early on. In 1988, he includes a list of ten reasons to live.

The list includes three that would be familiar to many writers, myself included: “3. Writing a published book 4. Seeing my name in a magazine 10. Being interviewed by Terry Gross of Fresh Air.”

He sees his name in a magazine only a few months later, when a story of his is published by New American Writing. He also gets a job teaching and wins $1000 for a story and moves to New York, where he takes a job at Christmas as an elf at Macy’s.

Four years later, in January 1992, we see this entry:

“Looking into the future lately, I see nothing but a mess. I think I peaked in 1988 and it is all downhill now.”

David Sedaris
January 13, 1992

Of course, this is not true. He would go on, in December of that year to read his story Santaland Diaries, about his time as a Macy’s elf on NPR’s Morning Edition. This was a success with listeners, is still an annual tradition on NPR, and garnered him a monthly segment based on his diary entries. It also led to a contract for a two-book deal and the rest is history.

For most writers, we could only hope in our darkest moments, when we feel as if all hope is lost and that we have peaked, that success would look so rosy and be so close within reach. Perhaps it’s time to write it all down in one place. It worked for Sedaris.

What Have I Stolen During the Time of Coronavirus?

Because of safer at home, I haven’t been doing much eavesdropping in diners. Lately, the only human interaction with others outside my house is at the grocery store or waving across the street as we pass on walks throughout the neighborhood.

Still, I’ve been trying to keep track of what’s been going on during this #lifeduringapandemic. Below are a few of my latest “diary entries” from Twitter.

Catherine Lanser on Twitter

The increase in foot and bike traffic since lockdown makes my street look like I’m living in a different era. We could go anywhere we wanted as long as we could hear the bell when my mom rang it before dinner. #cnftweet #lifeduringpandemic

Catherine Lanser on Twitter

In a dream I was stuck In a room with others. We could leave when our name was called. An announcer kept messing up names so no one was able to leave. Every time a name was called we all were so hopeful and then let down. Subtle, subconscious. Real subtle.

Catherine Lanser on Twitter

At the grocery store I saw a man wearing a mask made of boxer briefs. Only an unmasked woman who was barefoot laughed out loud with a friend, calling it unsanitary. It seemed to me they had no room for judgement. #Lifeduringcorona #cnftweet

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