The second interview on this blog is with Elizabeth Spencer, whom I know through a writer's group in Philly. I respect her thorough and thoughtful feedback and enjoy reading her short stories and chapters from her longer work. I'm so glad she's agreed to share her insights about writing (and teaching writing).
Elizabeth Spencer is an English teacher, fiction writer, and cat foster mom. She graduated from Temple University's MFA program in 2011 and lives in South Philadelphia with her husband and their quirky cats. In her spare time she loves to practice yoga and make photographs. You can meet her foster kittens here and read a short piece of her fiction at this site. One of her short stories, The Permanence of Objects, was recently published in the third issue of C4, and she has launched a new reading series in South Philly featuring prose and poetry writers.
HK: Why do you write?
ES: I've always thought of writing as a compulsion, as something one has to do, or why wouldn't you spend that time doing any number of easier and more enjoyable things? But with that said, the act of writing (when I'm in the middle of it and it's going well) brings me a lot of pleasure and it's also one of the rare times in a day that I'm completely focused on one thing, in an almost meditative state. Most of the "pain" I experience about writing is from letting too many days slip by without working or worrying about what the "result" (i.e. publication) of all this writing will be.
HK: What do you think your strengths are as a writer, and what do you hope to improve on?
ES: I'm observant; people always love the details in my work. The main thing I've been trying to improve on the last few years is plot. My stories and my first attempt at a novel tended to meander without a strong sense of conflict or character motivation.
HK: Share with us some of the most important writing lessons or advice you impart to your students.
ES: Last semester I really stressed dialogue, as in how to make it advance the plot and how to break it up with physical details. I tend to focus on whatever I'm trying to improve in my own work at the time. I also tell them that stories don't need to end with some catastrophe like suicide or 9/11 or a cancer diagnosis. What's helped me the most is the mantra, "work, don't worry." I don't remember who said that. Just put your butt in the chair and stay there for one hour, two hours, three, no matter how you feel or what else is going on in your life. Which makes me remember a favorite piece of advice from one of my professors, Samuel R. Delany, who told us that as writers we'd have to be thieves; we'd have to steal time in order to write regularly.
HK: There are people who say that good writing isn't something that can be taught in a classroom or workshop environment. To what extent do you agree/disagree? What do you think makes for a good writing teacher or mentor?
ES: I think there is some measure of innate talent and/or interest in a person for a certain subject, but no matter how talented you are you still have to practice your ass off to become great at anything. Thus, a writing class can teach you the tools you'll need to produce a great story and can sharpen your sensibilities to recognize what's working and what's not. This is what I feel I got out of graduate school and I think I'm a much stronger writer for it. I recommend yoga for teaching yourself discipline, which is something else you need to become great at anything. As for inspiration, just look around and listen.
What kind of student you are determines what kind of teacher/mentor you need, I think. For me, it's someone encouraging and patient, who is honest with criticism and generous with suggestions, and says over and over, "you can do this."
HK: If you could assemble a panel of any three authors (dead or alive) to give you feedback on your work and discuss writing with you, who would they be and why?
ES: I would have to include my husband Clint Smith, a poet and fiction writer, because he reads everything first and is always brutally honest yet extremely encouraging. He probably knows my work even better than I do. Then I would invite my aforementioned professor Chip because I learned such a lot from him in a short period of time and I want to learn more. Finally, I would love to discuss writing with Joan Didion, but I'd be pretty terrified to receive her feedback. There are many other writers I admire, though. However, I don't think that the best writers always make the best teachers/feedback givers.
HK: What are some of your current writing projects?
ES: A novel that I started in January, two stories that I recently wrote first drafts of in a rare fury of inspiration and productivity, and a third story I just started last week. This isn't typical--I usually only have one or at most two projects going on at any one time.
Thank you, Elizabeth!