How did you become a writer? My sister, Miriam Hill, is a journalist. Way back in the late nineties, I lived at her house in Cleveland. She had just gotten the Internet and for some reason we failed to understand that you could have more than one e-mail address—we figured an e-mail address was kind of like a landline telephone where you just had one for the whole house and everyone shared it. As a result, she regularly saw my e-mails and began reading them for entertainment (It didn’t feel like snooping because I didn’t have nearly as many secrets back then as I do now). Eventually, she suggested I try freelancing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where she was working at the time. I began writing human interest pieces, reporting on neighborhood bars and stuff like that. Once I got a few articles under my belt, I began approaching other places about doing some writing and started writing pieces for Salon, the New York Times, and whatever magazines would have me. I even wrote a few pieces for XXL, a hip-hop magazine, even though I haven’t paid much attention to hip-hop since the early nineties, when I was still street.
Also—backing things up a bit—I am proud to report that I totally have my very own e-mail address now. I’ve come a long way.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). As far as teachers go, I learned a lot from my sister, who read a lot of my early writing and really encouraged and pushed me to get it right (or at least as close to right as I was capable). Two of my high school English teachers, James Toman and Art Thomas at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, were really great too. I learned the basics of composition from them and it’s been a huge help to this day.
Whenever possible, I try to avoid thinking about other writers when I write because otherwise I’m afraid I would just quit altogether. That said, I’ve probably tried to steal from people like Calvin Trillin, Oscar Wilde, David Rakoff, Joan Didion, Gore Vidal, Woody Allen, David Sedaris, Truman Capote, and Jack Handey the most. Most of the time, though, I find reading stuff that I enjoy pushes me to try to be myself as much as I can. For example, someone like David Rakoff, who was a close friend, was such a linguistic acrobat and so unique in his perspective that I knew I could never approach the kind of stuff he did. I’m a bit of a knucklehead in comparison, so I instead of fighting that I try to just embrace it and be the best Dave I can be, profanity-laced tirades and all.
As for books, I enjoy writing essays and shorter form pieces (at least so far, anyway) the most so those sorts of books, especially by the people mentioned above, probably influenced me the most. I tend to like writing that feels like conversation. Once something veers into elaborate descriptions of clouds and things, stuff no one would ever say out loud, I tend to lose interest.
When and where do you write? I write at home usually, though occasionally I’ll go sit in a coffee shop if it’s not too loud or crowded, just to mix things up a bit. I prefer quiet and isolation, though. If Coldplay or some other music I don’t like comes on at the coffee shop, my concentration is completely shattered and I just spend the whole time thinking about giving the finger to whomever I perceive to be in charge of the iPod. I write in the late morning the most but pretty much any time before about 7pm is fair game. After that, my head gets too blurry.
I used to lock myself in my apartment all day and try to get as much writing done as possible only to find most of the time was spent checking e-mail, screwing around on the Internet, playing the guitar, or fighting the urge to go back to sleep. Then one day I asked (Warning: namedropping alert) Malcolm Gladwell, who is a friend and lives in the neighborhood, how much time he spends writing each day. I would see him writing in coffee shops and restaurants all the time so I just assumed he wrote twelve hours a day or something. But then he told me he writes just two hours a day because it forces him to really focus and make the most of that two hours. Hearing that was a relief and let me off the hook a bit. I started doing that pretty strictly—two hours of writing with no Internet, no phone, no guitar, no anything- and found that I got a lot more done in those two focused hours than when I would sit there all day mostly just pretending to write. I started to feel like I was achieving something each day that way too—like if I got my two hours in I had done my job for the day and didn’t need to feel so guilty and worthless. It made me stress out less, which, of course, also helped me write more and better. If I’m feeling good, sometimes I’ll go longer than two hours, but I try to stick to just two as it seems to really work for me.
Getting back to the namedropping, Malcolm also told me about another writer whose name I can’t remember who writes exactly 1500 words a day. As a result, he usually found himself finishing in mid-sentence each day. This might sound a bit stressful, but the reality (for him anyway) is that he can just pick up where he left off the day before, kind of like stopping a ball in mid-air and then just taking a swing at it right where you left it the next day.
What are you working on now? There has been some interest from the show business types in developing my book, Tasteful Nudes, into a television show, so I’ve been noodling with that a bit. We’ll see. I’m also finishing a screenplay that’d been gathering virtual dust, and trying to get in the swing of writing some new essays. Also, my book comes out in the UK in October, so I’m gearing up to go over there and tour/beg everyone to buy it. I’m excited because the cover for the UK version will be a bit different, something special for just over there. Also, I had to add the letter “u” to some words. It feels exotic. I’m hoping my book comes out in Germany some day. That way I can get crazy with the umlauts, which would be great for me.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? Not too much. I might have a bad day or two here and there, but nothing too crippling. About nine years ago, I got into the practice of filling at least a page in Word each morning as a sort of exercise to just get me writing. I’ll write about anything—what I had for breakfast, something I watched on TV the night before, those damn cops, or whatever else comes to mind. I found once I got into the habit of doing that, it took away the stress and anxiety of writing since I didn’t worry about what I was writing—it was the act of writing itself that mattered. And I often find that just sitting down to write whatever comes to mind can lead to new ideas that I am excited to explore a bit further.
What’s your advice to new writers? I’m guessing this is what everyone says, but I think writing every day—or at least close to every day—is a great thing to do. It keeps you in good writing shape and lessens the stress of staring at a blank page. And, of course, reading a lot is good too. It keeps your brain working and reminds you of some of the other words out there that you might not have in your arsenal yet, like dystopian, for example. I’ve yet to use that one, but dammit I can feel it coming on strong. It could be any day now, really.
Other than that, I think it’s important to just be yourself, “find your voice,” and just say what you want to say. It’s easy early on to get caught up in just imitating other things you’ve read, but the more you write, the more quickly you can get away from that. It’s kind of like drawing—if you want to draw your hand, for example, it’s easy to make the mistake of just drawing what you think a hand is supposed to look like instead of drawing what’s really in front of you. Over time, you learn to draw what you are really seeing—your hand instead of a hand.
And about the whole “finding your voice” thing—the truth, I find, is that your voice is staring right at you. It can just take a while sometimes to clear out all the weeds and all that so you can finally make use of what’s been there all along. You just gotta keep at it, as they say, and get in touch with your inner weed whacker. Or something like that anyway.
Dave Hill is a comedian, writer, and musician. His first book, Tasteful Nudes, was published by St. Martin’s Press on May 22, 2012. Dave has written for The New York Times, Salon, and The Huffington Post among others and is a regular contributor to public radio’s This American Life. He has also appeared on Comedy Central, BBC America, MTV and is a regular host on HBO and Cinemax. Dave has his own variety show, The Dave Hill Explosion, at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatres in NY and Los Angeles, and London. Dave plays in several rock bands and is so good at the guitar that most people can’t even handle it. He also smells really nice. Ask anyone.