Things David Sedaris must do before bed, if he wants a good night’s sleep: pick up litter from the streets near his home in West Sussex, England (where the local council named a garbage truck after him in appreciation), clear the sink of dirty dishes and write in his diary. Since his first entry at age 20, in 1977, Sedaris has composed 165 volumes of private commentary, which he mined for his latest work, Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002).
Have you ever read a diary you weren’t supposed to?
In Chicago I found this woman’s diary in a trash can. She was one of those people searching for meaning in her life, going from one religion to another, having sex with guys she met. It was one of the best books I ever read.
Why are you such a diary devotee?
If you told me I couldn’t write in my diary anymore, my life would be torture and I’d have to get on some kind of medication. Stranded on a desert island, I’d just write my diary in the sand with a stick. The tide would wash it away, but I’d know that I’d written it down and that would at least be something.
Re-reading your own writing, did you make any discoveries?
I don’t like, especially in the early years, how pretentious I was. That was hard to take. Then again, you’re 20 years old, you’re an art student, you’re going to be obnoxious. It comes with the territory.
You once said you’d die if anyone got their hands on your diary.
Well, I would — Theft by Finding is my edit. But if you were to just go and take my diary off the shelf, I would have to kill you.
And upon your death?
If they said, “O.K., look, you have pancreatic cancer and you’ve got three weeks,” well, when I was reading through my diaries, I made a note on my computer of which ones I might burn.
This appears in the June 12, 2017 issue of TIME.
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