Spencer Wise

How did you become a writer?

Getting dumped a lot. Reading sad books. My sister making me listen to The Jesus and Mary Chain, Morrissey, and The Cure, when all I wanted to do was go outside and practice shooting free-throws for my inevitable tryout for the Boston Celtics. My sister holding me hostage in her room turned out to be prescient. I guess she knew, somehow, that a 5’9” Jewish kid wearing Rec-Specs was never going to play basketball at any level. So she probably did me a big favor. At the time it was torture. But I always loved to read and that’s something that my mother, a former English teacher, got me into at a really young age. According to her, I could read when I was 3 weeks old. It gets younger every time she tells the story. Then I started to write. Terribly. So bad. It’s unconscionable really how bad I was but you have to start somewhere. And there aren’t a lot of writing prodigies. You need to practice. A lot. Like to the point where Depeche Mode doesn’t even sound that sad anymore. And you need experiences with other humans, for better or worse. The worse the better. So then I started taking creative writing classes in college, but I went into journalism after school for a while, living in New York. I guess I didn’t realize that when people kept saying you could be anything, you have to actually pick something. So I went all in on writing. I went to grad school at University of Texas at Austin. They let me in for some reason and I didn’t have much success but I kept going. I’m a late bloomer. I was an early bloomer when it came to doing anything dumb and dangerous but late for everything else. I went to get my PhD at FSU in creative writing. So that’s the traditional academic route of writing I guess. But I grew up around some amazing storytellers. My father is terrific. My old friend, Jake Kheel, told amazing stories. You could listen to him all night. Anyhow, I kept at it. I asked a lot of questions. I had a great mentor in Bob who showed me how to get to the stuff that really mattered in my writing. I don’t have a glamorous answer for you. A lot of hard work. Luck. A bit of talent. All three, probably. And honestly, here’s the real answer, I became a writer when I published a book and people started calling me a writer. Before the book, nobody called me a writer, which is too bad. I was writing. Only nobody cared. I hope people reading this will think of themselves--published or not--as writers so long as they’re writing and enjoying it.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

I love Salinger. Raise High the Roof Beam. Franny and Zooey. Nine Stories. I read all of those over and over again. I love the dialogue. Sarcasm. Loneliness. Humor. Jonathan Wilson, a great writer himself, and my mentor at Tufts, got me reading some of the Jewish authors whom I read obsessively: Leonard Michaels, Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, Roth, Bellow, Mamet, Singer. Issac Babel is one of my all-time favorites. Bruno Schultz. Bohamil Hrabel, Robert Olen Butler. Bob really helped me write about the things that were close to the bone, the things I was sort of dancing around for years. He made me look straight at them and write. But I had amazing teachers and supporters along the way. Elizabeth Harris at Texas. Julianna Baggott and Elizabeth Stuckey French at Florida State University. 

When and where do you write? 

I can only write in an isolation chamber. I wrote the whole book in my office, windowless, wearing noise cancelling headphones. Sometimes I’d put on music between scenes to hype myself up or establish a mood. But I really can’t have any ambient noise or I get distracted. It was also like 110 degrees in the office, which mirrored the conditions of the Chinese shoe factory where I’d lived to research my novel, so it was a bit like method acting. I chewed on toothpicks and the hours dripped away. Sometimes I’d go in on Saturday or after I taught my classes and I’d write for 10 hours. Usually it was dreck. After 8pm, my brain is mush. But it’s a matter of persistence. Of writing everyday. 

What are you working on now? 

A new novel that I’m totally excited about, but I don’t talk about writing projects until they’re done. Before they’re done, I want to leave myself open to anything happening in the narrative. I don’t know where it will go. That’s the fun part. You go along for the ride with the characters and see what they’ll do.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I think I’m having it right now. I just moved to a new city, started a new job, and I’m finishing the book tour--so it’s hard to get my writing routine established again. For me, a routine really helps. I admire those folks who can write in any kind of conditions. Jean Genet wrote his whole book, that gorgeous masterpiece, Our Lady of the Flowers, in prison on a roll of toliet paper. Then the guard found it and threw it out. So Genet rewrote it! That’s all you need to know. That’s commitment.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Write on toilet paper. No, let me give you one piece of advice that jumps to mind and it’s so startlingly simple and obvious that it’s almost like a Buddhist koan: Writers write. Butler says that. It sounds silly, I know. He means this: it’s a lot easier to think about writing or talk about it than it is to sit down every day, rain or shine, and actually do it. The only way around is through. Some people make it look easy--write a great book in a few months when they’re 25--but we all hate those people behind their backs. The rest of us have to dig straight through. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Practice the habit of writing every day no matter what. You can come up with a million compelling reasons not to write today. There’s so much quotidian bullshit in life (excuse my language) it could fill up your whole day. You could spend all your time at your job and then handling all those very real, very tedious adult things piling up on your desk. Those need to get done. But put aside an hour or two. Even a half hour, done the right way--meaning without self-recrimination or self-analysis--can be hugely productive. I’m trying to lose myself in the narrative voice, go so deep into a character that I’m essentially living in his or her shoes. To get into that trance or fugue state or the zone, whatever you want to call it, could take me 10 minutes or 10 hours. Sometimes I write for 10 hours but only the last half hour produces anything worth keeping. I mean, it could take that long for my critical functioning to shutdown and for my creative side to take over. I wait my brain out. I let my mind spin until I’m exhausted and then the writing gets good because I’m too damn tired to overthink and second-guess everything I’ve written. So you got to find whatever tricks you need to let yourself create. 

Spencer Wise is the author of the novel, The Emperor of Shoes (HarperCollins, 2018). His work has appeared in journals such as Narrative Magazine, Cincinnati Review, The Literary Review, and New Ohio Review. He has been awarded the Gulf CoastPrize in nonfiction and a Vermont Studio Center fellowship. Wise is an Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at Augusta University.