Like the great philosophers of our time, Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat, once said, “Opposites attract.” So as much as I love writing horror and absurdist fiction for The Prompt, when it comes to reading Prompt pieces, I downright devour my fellow writers’ personal essays. It motivates me in my creativity, but also gives me the opportunity to learn more about people, the majority of whom I’ve only met virtually. And Sam Hedenberg is a guy who writes some pretty banger personal essays. I’d also totally grab a beer with (but NEVER ask him for a freebie or a discount), so it makes sense he was the first Prompter that came to mind when I was tagged “it” for our newest Q+A series. Please enjoy the incomparable Sam Hedenberg.
Usually I’ll start with a premise and then brainstorm every funny or interesting thing that’s happened to me on that topic. Take the tattoo story I just wrote, for example. I went all the way back to childhood and thought about my feelings on tattoos throughout the years. I remembered hiding the temporary tattoos I got as party favors because I didn’t want to get in trouble, and I remembered the struggle of wanting to fit in and feel cool but also to make my parents proud of me. As you start to explore some of those feelings, more stuff pops up. Like my friend Tony’s badass demon tattoo, which I’d totally forgotten about until I started writing.
I always tell people I have a poor memory, but it’s really not true. My brain is like a flea market. I just keep rummaging around until I find cool shit.
Once I collect these anecdotes—my “bits of string,” as Joan Didion calls them—I dump them into a notes doc and start arranging them like puzzle pieces to find the flow. I put that outline on one side of my screen and start banging out a draft on the other.
I feel like my process is always evolving, though. For example, I—just in the last few months—started doing heavier revisions on my work. I’d read these interviews with writers and they’d be like “I wrote 20 drafts of this.” And I’d think, really? I’m done in two. What am I doing wrong?
It took me a while to realize that my essays were too long. I’d write these 3,000 or 4,000-word pieces. I’d include every detail and every joke I could think of, on and on, and I’d be so pleased with myself. Then I started reading my drafts out loud to my wife, and I realized that at certain points she’d look down at her phone or get a drink, which meant she was bored. It became less about look how clever I am and more about holding my wife’s attention.
Now, I’m at the point where I cut almost as much as I keep. It feels wasteful sometimes, like if I could just write the good words the first time, I’d be done faster. But that’s not how it works.
Usually it’s once I feel like I’ve collected enough bits of string to make a story. I’m constantly collecting bits of string. I carry a notebook around and write down anything funny or interesting that happens. So like, as I’m writing this, I’m at McDonald’s, and the cashier just came out of the bathroom and tried to wait on this customer, but the customer refused. “You just came out of the bathroom,” she said. “I’m not letting you touch my food.” One of the cooks—whose hands I’m sure are WAY cleaner—had to take her order. I wrote McDs cashier dirty hands in my notebook, and tomorrow morning, when I write in my diary, I’ll write out the whole interaction.
I have no idea if I’ll ever use that bit in an essay, but if I do end up writing a story about McDonald’s or customer service or something, it’ll be there in my diary waiting for me. That’s basically how I wrote my entire last book, You Can’t Stay Here. I went through my diary and found all the bits of string about crazy customers I served at the bar and weaved them together into essays.
I will say that one of the reasons I love The Prompt so much is that the weekly prompts jog my memory about stories I never even thought about. One example was a piece I wrote last year about all-you-can eat buffets. I’d NEVER think about writing an essay on that, but once I started digging through my memories, I was like oh shit, there are some funny things that’ve happened to me at buffets.
Definitely more the latter. There have been a couple of times where I’ve recycled a prewritten story that fits a particular prompt, but the fun for me comes in challenging myself to make something meaningful and funny that’s tailored to the prompt. It gives me a shiny new thing to play with and work on.
And I feel like “pretty consistent” is kind. I’ve not been nearly as prolific this year as I want to be, and it’s killing me. I took a new job where I’m writing every day for clients, so sometimes I want to sit down and write for myself and the well is just empty. I keep trying to give myself grace about it, but it’s hard. I’m happier when I’m working on a piece every day.
Fun fact: before I started writing nonfiction humor, I spent five or six years writing fiction. I have 50 or 60 short stories and two novels. One novel’s kind of a Finding Forrester ripoff where an aspiring young writer meets a washed up author and they both teach each other about life, and the other’s about a semi-famous musician who gets kicked out of his band and has to live at home with his parents. I worked on both for like, two years each, and no one will ever see them, because they’re not good.
When I started playing with nonfiction, my wife confessed to me that I was not good at fiction. “You do a better job when you don’t have to make up what happens,” she said.
Oh, I didn’t really answer that question, did I? I really like coming-of-age stories, the tension that results when angst and immaturity meets suburban banality. It’s a theme that I think comes through in my nonfiction, too.
I call bullshit on anyone who writes but doesn’t read. They absolutely go hand in hand. I always have at least one book going—right now it’s Judd Apatow’s Sicker in the Head. I used to read a lot more, but my reading time has been significantly reduced since my wife and I had a kid. They’re apparently a huge time-suck. I was not prepared.
I know a lot of writers like to read outside of their genre, but I find the opposite to be true. Pretty much everything I read is nonfiction humor—essay collections, memoirs from comedians. I find myself constantly analyzing, searching for the seams of a story to see how it’s constructed. It’s absolutely made me a better writer.
I also subscribe to The New Yorker, which I mostly read out of guilt, because it’s so fucking expensive, and I begged my wife to get it. But like, it’s hard to get excited about a 10,000 word piece on the history of genealogy.
I think everyone experiences writer’s block now and again, though I’m not as convinced it has anything to do with the muse or whatever. I think of my writing as a sink, and the longer I’m away, the more hair that clogs the drain. Those first few sessions back, I’m just grabbing handfuls of gross hair, hating life, but eventually, the water starts to trickle through, and I clear the clog. If I write every day, the sink stays clear.
The big takeaway here is that I give myself permission to suck for a little bit, knowing I’ve got to clear the drain first.
It’s less a direct quote and more a concept that I’ve heard numerous writers and comedians express in different ways: comedy = pain + time.
It’s this idea that humorists are the luckiest people in the world, because when something shitty happens to them, it becomes material. People spend thousands of dollars so therapists will listen to their problems or complaints about life, whereas I can turn mine into an essay. When someone buys my book, they’re paying ME for my therapy.
This mindset helps me reframe a lot of stuff that bums me out. It might not be funny right away, but everything’s funny eventually. I have a bad day at work or I’m stuck in traffic and I think well, at least I can write about it.
That’s actually a part of my tattoo essay that got left on the cutting room floor. After college, I got it in my head that I wanted a tattoo for one of my favorite bands, The Bouncing Souls. I never pulled the trigger on it for a lot of the reasons I put in the story, but now that my thinking has evolved on tattoos, it’s back on the table.
The cool part is that The Bouncing Souls’ bassist, Bryan, has his own tattoo shop in New Jersey, so if I do ever decide to get it, I’d love to have him do it. That would feel cathartic to me, I think.