We are so proud and excited to release Uranus is Always Funny: Short Essays to Make You Laugh by Bill Spencer. We are all in dire need of serious laughter. This book delivers and is available on Amazon in Paperback and Kindle. Check out Bill’s work on HumorOutcasts as well.
Tell us about Bill Spencer.
I could say I grew up in Warner Robins Georgia, but, actually, I haven’t grown up yet. My father was a lawyer and judge with a sense of humor, and my mother was a teacher and the founder and director of a private school for handicapped children. I have 3 good-guy brothers. I went to a Catholic high school, majored in English at Mercer University, and earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Delivered newspapers on a bicycle for 5 years, sold Fuller Brush door-to-door, and worked for my oldest brother as a real estate title checker before becoming an English teacher. I taught at Delta State University—Home of the Fighting Okra—in Mississippi for 25 years and also dabbled part-time in administration there. After that, I taught for 6 years at Western Carolina University. Since retiring from lucrative employment in 2012, I’ve been a writer and a yard boy. For the first half of my life, I lived cautiously, conservatively, and carefully—and then I met Carolyn.
What inspired you to write this book?
“Inspired” might not be the right word here. I came to have the audacity to think I could write a humor book by stages over a long period of time.
I wrote scholarly essays (usually with a sense of humor) for about 10 years, presented them at conferences, and realized I most loved it when the audience laughed. After that, I began writing comic skits for a kind of Saturday Night Live show at the Wildacres Writers Workshop (which I attended as a “non-writing spouse”) and learned a lot about humor from that. Feedback was immediate. The audience either laughed, or they didn’t. It was more fun when they did.
I actually did feel inspired to write a screenplay several years ago. I was inspired by a book of my wife’s poetry entitled “Angel Pays a Visit,” which I find profound, moving, and often laugh-out-loud funny. I wrote the script and then failed miserably at marketing it. I couldn’t get anyone to read it. Out of this abject failure, I decided to try writing pieces that would take less time and would be possible to get an audience for. And that eventually led me to HumorOutcasts.com, which I think of as a big playground for people who enjoy fooling around with language. Having this place to share my humor essays gave me the incentive to write one more and then one more, and then one day I had 65 of those suckers—enough for a bona fide book.
As for the inspiration for the book’s title, Uranus Is Always Funny, it just came to me. I didn’t planet.
What do you see are the most difficult challenges to writing? Most difficult challenge to writing humor?
Some musical composer said that music has to have more delight in it than silence. Similarly, writing has to be interesting enough to be worth readers’ time and attention because there are a thousand other things they could be doing. So that’s one of the challenges, being interesting. Another challenge is that good writing, especially nonfiction, often requires authors to let their guard down. You pretty much have to let people get to know you in very intimate ways. After I started publishing my humor essays, I started having a lot of uncomfortable exposure dreams where I was walking around without any clothes on in public. In this book, I basically parade around naked for 200 pages.
As for the most difficult challenge to writing humor, that’s probably the work it takes to achieve comic distance. Some topics are naturally funny (like outhouse races on skis), but most are not. You have to make them funny. (For pointers on this, see the book How to Write and Share Humor: Techniques to Tickle Funny Bones & Win Fans.) One of the essays in my book that I’m proudest of is “When Students Grade the Teacher,” which proves convincingly that a number of my students didn’t think much of my pedagogical skills. I cared deeply about being a good teacher, and negative student evaluations always depressed me—a lot! Does that sound like a good start on a humor essay to you? When I reread the first draft of that essay, I realized that my tone was all defensive and self-justifying. It might have been persuasive, but it was not in the least bit funny. It took me 3 drafts to get to a place where I could present my failures in a way that invites readers to laugh at me—and that enabled me to laugh at myself.
As a former professor and teacher of writing, what do you think is the most important lesson for aspiring writers?
This question calls Dr. Spencer onstage and sends Bill to the exit, so the tone’s going to change.
I’d advise any writer to keep a firm focus on purpose and audience. As I indicated above, in the first draft of my essay on student evaluations, I forgot that my primary purpose was to find the funny. Be clear on what you want your writing to accomplish and on who your audience is. What are their interests and how can they best be reached?
As a humor writer, I envision my audience to be fun-loving people who don’t have a lot of time to spare, so I also try to keep the essays short.