William L. Spencer–Interview

Describe your creative space. Do you work at home, in public spaces, etc.?

I have an office, I’ve always set things up so I have a space that is basically an office. This one contains a 6-foot table from Ikea, a 17” iMac and a fancy adjustable office chair I purchased (with the client’s money) for one of the industrial videos I wrote and directed. I’ve cobbled together a couple pieces so I can use the desk either seated or standing up.

What kind of materials do you use? Do you write by hand or type?

I touch type about 90 wpm, so that’s the usual. I have written fiction in bars, restaurants, Starbucks, and I sort of like to do that in a way, you can pick up so much when you look up: a gesture, an expression, the way her hair falls across her forehead and the sort of quizzical expression that sometimes flickers across her face. If I lived in New York or Paris or Barcelona I’d probably do it more often. On the other hand, it’s pretty damned convenient not to change out of your pajamas.

What is your routine for writing?

If I have something underway I’m serious about that I really want to get done, like the one (unpublishably pornographic) novel I’ve written, then I set a schedule: first thing in the morning, work for either three hours or 1,000 words, whichever comes first. Then that’s it. This allows the rest of the day to be remorse-free. I think if one doesn’t do something like this, then the free-floating guilt of never getting enough done seems to hover constantly overhead, like Pigpen’s cloud. And of course your sub-mind continues to mess with the story anyway, no matter what else you think you’re doing.

How long have you been writing? When did you start writing?

I’ve worked as a writer of one sort or another my whole life, so I figure I’ve probably written maybe four million words altogether. I discovered Joseph Conrad and Guy de Maupassant in the bound sets of books that came with the bookcase from my uncle’s furniture store when I was about 12, and that was probably the beginning of my downfall. I wrote for the high school paper and wrote a little in college, but I really began trying to figure out fiction when I was between jobs in the 1980s. My wife and I sold a weekly newspaper in Washington state, moved the family to San Diego, and I freelanced until I got a job writing promotional campaigns for television stations. I worked with a guy who went by Captain Buzzword, who called me Billy Blue Sky. The art director was Tommy Two Tone. A great many creative meetings took place at the Mexican restaurant we favored. (I should probably put this into a story, huh?)

Who is your intended, or ideal, audience? Who do you write for?

Not long ago I ran across what Jeffrey Eugenides told The Paris Review, and it works for me, too: “…when you write, you should pretend you’re writing the best letter you ever wrote to the smartest friend you have. That way, you’ll never dumb things down. You won’t have to explain things that don’t need explaining. You’ll assume an intimacy and a natural shorthand, which is good because readers are smart and don’t wish to be condescended to. I think about the reader. I care about the reader. Not ‘audience.’ Not ‘readership.’ Just the reader.”

What inspires you to write? If you are blocked, what do you do?

I get an idea, it just sort of bubbles up, maybe for a story, maybe for a beginning or an ending or a situation or a character and it feels like something drops into focus and I see a way into it or out of it. For example, with this story, “Schoolboy,” for some reason or other I was thinking about that particular time in my life, probably ruminating on regrets, which is a bad idea to start with unless you’re some sort of creative artist and doomed to this sort of stuff, and the feeling for the ending came to me, not all of it, just the very last last line that embodies it all. The beginning of the story, the crank calls, getting the unknown girl on the phone, all that is just as it happened at the time. The second part, going to meet the girl, that’s all fiction. I think the beginning of the story isn’t very strong, and it only picks up momentum when the narrator gets off the bus. Or to put it another way, my fiction is much more interesting than my life. Which strikes me as the way things should be.

If you Google “writer’s block” you get about five and a half million hits. A guy who knew a lot more about this stuff than I do once said to me, “There is a time of breathing in and a time of breathing out.” And, “It’s not a machine, it’s a fountain.”

What other things do you do besides writing? Do you dance or play golf, etc.?

I play golf once a week with my son, see as much of my grandchildren as I can. I try to get enough exercise, and of course I read. I participate at the online writing site Scribophile using another name identity.

What is your favorite part of the creative process?

It used to be (like I’ve heard so many others say) “having written.” Writing is so damn hard. In the last few years, though, I’ve come to enjoy the process, messing around down there in the engine room, tinkering with things, changing out the pipes and valves, which I think is probably a healthier approach, though the grease and the spider webs can be annoying.

What is your advice to aspiring writers?

Let me be specific: Master your tools. If you don’t already, learn to touch type. You can do it in a week if that’s all you do that week. If you don’t know Microsoft Word top to bottom and a lot of the keyboard shortcuts, stop bitching about it and learn it. Read “Techniques of the Selling Writer” by Dwight Swain, memorize Strunk & White. Watch all of Brandon Sanderson’s lectures on YouTube and Jordan B. Peterson’s lectures on YouTube no matter what genre you’re interested in.

Keep in mind that making up a story entails both making up an author and making up an audience. That’s an interesting question for a writer to ask oneself when writing a story (or an interview): who am I being as author? Isn’t this story, like every story, a masquerade? Why do you believe your disguise is working? These are John Edgar Wideman’s ideas.

If you’re still young, figure out what you’re going to do for a day job that’s not going to turn you into somebody you don’t want to be.

And that’s enough of that.


Check out William’s work in Volume 4, Issue 2, and upcoming in Volume 5, Issue 1.

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