Useful Forgetting

January 29th, 2015

I received a Google alert recently that someone had written a blog about my book Write Within Yourself. Curious, I loaded the page into my browser, but decided to put off reading it until I’d finished my work. Though it looked like a positive review, one can never be sure, and I didn’t want that day’s writing infected. There is nothing worse when asking, “What do I most want to say?” than remembering that there will always be someone somewhere who doesn’t like the answer.

So I dove down the well of the story I was telling, and I forgot about blogs, and about readers, and about the books I’d written, and the books I’d read, and the arguments I’d had, and the games I’d lost and won, and the news, and unfinished chores, and taxes, and even my family and friends. I forgot about all of that because it wasn’t in the room with me that morning nor in the story I was following. This was the best forgetting possible, a forgetting that was really remembering, and when I finished I remained suspended for a moment in the awareness that there was no reason to hurry and nothing to regret.

Then I remembered the blog. Again, it looked positive, but I approached it warily all the same, not wanting to spoil where writing had left me. The blog’s author had indeed enjoyed the book, and recognizing this I began to read it with a kind of growing hunger, feeding something I felt storytelling alone could not. The more I read, the hungrier I felt, until I’d reached the end of the blog starving for more.

It wasn’t until I closed the browser that I realized that reading a good review was not significantly different than reading a bad review. Though good and bad reviews took me in opposite directions, they both led me away from myself. Travel far enough in either direction, and I will be led to the same place – a land where all that matters is other people’s opinions.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Unreal Journey

January 27th, 2015

I quit college when I was twenty-one to become a writer. That was the plan, anyway. I didn’t need to spend tens of thousands of dollars at a university to write; I could do it for free at my desk. The problem was that although I loved to write and had a naturally diligent work ethic, the plan to become a writer felt entirely like a fantasy. I could not feel the sequential connection between the reality of sitting at my desk typing words onto a blank page and the reality of those words being read by strangers in a published book.

It made the supposed job of writer confusing. The job of writer felt nothing like the other job I took to earn money. Nothing about the job of waiting tables at a café and then a BBQ joint felt anything like a fantasy. That was reality, baby. That was a time card, and cash in my hands, and actual living people to laugh with and complain about. The job of waiting tables felt like life as I already understood it.

The fantasy of the job called writing did not. The act of writing felt like reality because I’d been doing that all my life. But the job of writing, of author, felt as unreal as a city I had never visited. Post cards and guidebooks and movies cannot begin to simulate the experience of living in the city itself. And so it was as if I was on a journey, but because I could not see my destination, every step I took felt as unreal as my imagination’s rendering of the city to which I believed as I was headed.

Strange, but I needed to look to no further than the very stories I was telling to know how to get where I wanted to go. A book is written one word at a time, each word the best the writer can choose at that moment. There is no other way. So too that unreal journey. I never needed to know what the city looked like or what I would do when I got there. The only one question I have ever needed ask is, “What is the best step I can take at this very moment?” The answer is reality; the rest is a dream.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Voice

January 26th, 2015

I was watching “The Voice” the other day with my wife. If you’re unfamiliar, this is a reality/game show where a panel of four celebrity judges selects teams of would-be pop stars to coach and help compete for the title of The Voice. Before we began watching, however, my wife and I had a familiar debate. I told her how much I hated artistic competition shows because art isn’t a competition. She countered that win or lose the show provided the singers with a fantastic opportunity, both for exposure and professional guidance. Back and forth we went until I said, “Fine. We’ll just watch the thing.”

This was the episode where the judges selected their teams. The judges sit in tall chairs with their backs to the stage as the performer begins to sing. If a judge likes what he or she hears, they hit a large red button and swivel around to see whom they’ve selected. But more than one judge can hit the button, in which case each judge begins pleading his or her case as to why they are the best coach for that singer. Sometimes, none of the judges hit their button. Usually, one or two like what they hear.

On this evening, a young man stepped on stage and began his song. Right away, I noticed something unusual about his voice. All the performers could sing. Like all the performers, he could hit the right notes, and sustain his vibrato, and vary his pitch. Yet this wasn’t what I heard. Nor did I hear an outrageously clear voice, or an unusually powerful voice. I did not hear him hit a crazy high note, or a luscious low note. And yet I heard something. So did the judges. Within a few measures – Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! – each had hit their button.

The writer in me took notice. A writer’s voice is his most important tool for it is present in every word just a singer’s is present in every note. So what was I hearing? As the singer finished his song, I understood that all I was hearing was a perspective. The quality of his voice I enjoyed was the depth of his agreement with his own unique perspective. He found agreement with himself, and like magic, the judges were in agreement as well.

My wife and I had seen enough for that night, and began to get ready for bed. I was glad to have heard this young man sing, but I still didn’t like these competition shows. For a moment, I felt a familiar impulse to sway my wife to my view of things. I thought of that singer, however, and that impulse quickly passed. I would not find the agreement I was seeking in her, but in that stage within myself where judgment does not exist.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Slow Down

January 22nd, 2015

Why are writers so found of specific details? Because details amplify emotions. There is very little emotional momentum in the sentence: John was angry. Nor: John was really angry. Nor even: John was really, really, really super angry. On the other hand: John came home, slammed the door, took one look around the living room and said, “Does anyone clean up anything in this house besides me?

The final example has the most emotional momentum, yet the word angry is never mentioned. This is what we call showing and not telling. The author is a like a lawyer, his readers the jury, and his details the evidence. A storyteller’s only currency is feeling, and specific details focus the reader’s imagination on specific feelings. The more specific the details, the greater the focus of feeling, the more likely I will receive the verdict I was seeking.

This works when we aren’t writing as well. Perhaps I am sitting at my desk and I cannot find a scene. I try one way and then another, yet neither works. I know these approaches don’t work because of how forced they feel. I do not like this forced feeling, and I recall that I have felt this way before. I begin remembering the stories I’d written that also felt forced yet I sent out anyway, and then the women I dated because I didn’t want to be lonely, and the jobs I took because I was afraid of being poor. I remember these stories, and girlfriends, and jobs in increasingly specific detail, and soon I feel like a fake, a man who has never said or written or done one genuine thing.

It is not so easy to dismiss this story of Bill the Fake because is it feels absolutely true. I am truly feeling like a fake. Yet in simply thinking, “I feel like a fake,” without any further evidence to back it up, I have already slowed my own emotional momentum. Now I might be able to think, “I want to feel genuine. To feel genuine is to feel interested. To feel interested is to feel curious. What about this scene makes me curious?”

And I am back where I belong, ready to write again.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Journey Back

January 20th, 2015

I’ve written in this space several times about reading a passage from one of my novels to a creative writing class. The story was based on the summer after my senior year in high school, a time of tumultuous change for me, in large part because the girl I loved had just moved 3,000 miles away. I would eventually find and marry this girl, but I did not know that then, and I was very unhappy.

The chapter I read to the class depicted the evening after the narrator, Tom, said goodbye to his girlfriend. Tom is end-of-the-world distraught, and there is little his friends can do that night to cheer him up. The class was evenly divided in their response to the chapter. Half the class didn’t understand what Tom was so upset about. She’s just a girlfriend; he’s just eighteen. Life goes on and there are more fish in the sea. The other half of the class knew exactly why Tom was so upset. The girl he loved was gone. What’s not to be upset about?

I knew it was possible to help the first half of the class understand why his girlfriend leaving was a Big Problem. This would be the focus of my rewriting: to help certain people see problems where they did not previously believe they existed. Yet what a strangely diabolical job. Why must a storyteller upset his reader? If someone has a balanced view of something like love and loss, why not leave them be?

Because sometimes we do not know we have something until we are deprived of it, just as sometimes we do not know we are carrying something heavy until we are allowed to set it down. A story is not a punishment, but a reward, and the hero’s suffering is an expression of life lived without that story’s gift. It is a relief to come to the end, to return to ourselves, glad for the journey back and for what we might have found along the way.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Natural Beauty

January 19th, 2015

Two weeks ago I was asked to give some lectures at the Northwest Institute for Literary Arts’ (NILA) winter residency program. The residency is held at the Captain Whidbey Inn on Whidbey Island (Washington), a spectacularly scenic locale complete with green fields, tall pines, and an unimpeded view of Penn Cove.

In fact, directly outside my little cabin’s front door was a gravel path that wound left to a tall wood and stone gazebo that could have comfortably housed a small wedding party. Beyond the path was a lawn of spotless emerald running down to a duck pond fed by a narrow inlet. A wooden bridge spanned the inlet, and beyond the bridge Penn Cove’s gray tide, and then Puget Sound, and finally the Pacific Ocean. I had packed only my black dress shoes, but the scene was so picturesque I decided to risk them for a stroll.

As I crossed the bridge it struck me that this was exactly the sort of landscape that would send a water colorist running for her canvas or poets scrambling for their pens. It has sometimes seemed to me an artist’s duty to render nature’s beauty. The ocean, the sunset, the mountain, the lake – life’s given perfection to which all human creation is aspires. Yet standing there amidst all that natural beauty, my writer’s mind drifted to the students I’d met and would soon be teaching, to their struggles with voice and confidence, and their love of language and story.

There was the landscape that moved me most – that line where the human mind and heart meet, where each of us chooses moment to moment between fear and love. The artist never paints what he sees; only what he feels when he is seeing. And in this way, aren’t I the same as any landscape artist? At my best I see within everyone I meet life without the story of suffering and worthlessness and comparison and rejection, life without good and bad, life as a beautiful as any ocean or sunset.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Lighten

January 15th, 2015

I sometimes got a little bored in high school. I liked the teachers, but it seemed like they repeated themselves a lot. Once this repetition began I saw no harm in picking up a novel and doing a little reading until I gleaned that they had moved on to a new subject.

I was mildly mortified during a parent-teacher meeting when my Algebra II instructor told my mom, “He’s a good kid. I see him sitting there reading someone else’s book during my class – but he’s a good kid.”

Strange as it sounds, I realized I had been operating with the vague idea that if I took my attention away from someone that person could no longer see me, as if I literally disappeared into my book. Turns out, I was still visible. Turns out, other people were actually as interested in my attention as they were in what I said or did.

Why this surprised me, I don’t know, because I was certainly interested in other people’s attention. In fact, other people’s attention was their most interesting commodity. It was one thing to see or hear a person from a distance, but when that person directed their attention at me, that’s when I met them, that’s when I felt the heat from their unique light.

It is easy to take our own attention for granted, to forget about the light we give as we are drawn to the light we receive. I suppose it is the artist in me that still believes that I will disappear when my spotlight darkens. It is easy to forget that we are invited to this stage not to be seen, but to offer what we see.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Mastery

January 13th, 2015

Most writers begin understanding certain parts of writing better than other parts. For instance, when I was a teenager I had an instinctive understanding of dialogue. I understood it well enough that when I was sixteen I explained to my younger brother that characters rarely say exactly what they mean, that it is always better when they talk about one thing – like the weather – but really mean another – like how uncertain life is. That’s advice I’d still give thirty yeas later.

What did not come so naturally to me was what we call “description.” When I encountered it in the books I read, I often found it boring, something I might skip to get to the cool parts. I knew you needed a certain amount of it so your characters weren’t wandering in a bald moonscape, but the only value I could find in writing a good description as opposed to a boring description is that the former proved what a good writer I was. It felt like a necessary showing off, as if writers were all figure skaters required to hit a certain number of triple axles.

Then shortly before I started college I picked up a collection of T. S. Eliot’s poems, and after reading them one afternoon actually said aloud, “Oh. I get it.” What I got was that “description” was actually an attempt to recreate the emotional experience of being alive and in the world. Now that was cool. What does it feel like to stand in a crowded bus station? What does it feel like to see someone you find beautiful? What does it feel like to watch a clock when you’re waiting for school to end? The words I chose to render the world were, hopefully, portals into my most intimate understanding of life.

Now I got it, meaning I understood that describing something was an act of love rather than of fear. Now I could write toward the sharing of life as I felt it rather than away from the fear that I wasn’t clever enough to stick some literary landing. I spent the ensuing years learning to master this by the exact same means I have used to master anything: by learning again and again that fear is only the belief that there is ever an answer other than love.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Turbulence

January 8th, 2015

When I left the restaurant business in 2007, I had published one novel with a very small press, a few roleplaying adventures, and little else. Yet I had become very interested in the imagination, and free will, and the Law of Attraction, and perception, and how all of these ideas related to writing – or, as I began to see it, making something on purpose. I wanted very much write about this and, perhaps even more, to talk to people about it.

It was easy to write about – that I could do without anyone else’s cooperation – but how exactly would I find anyone who would want me to talk to them about it? It seemed impossible. I was a barely-published writer who’d spent the last seventeen years waiting tables. Yet the impossibility of it could not stop me from wanting to do it, could not stop me from thinking and thinking about it, could not stop me from imagining what I might say if there were someone to say it to.

By and by I found myself talking to my wife about these things, and also my brother, and my good friend Chris, and then my new friend Brian, and then sometimes people who weren’t even my friends exactly but merely acquaintances with similar interests. I was not getting paid to do this, of course, I was simply incorporating it into conversation, and so the idea being specifically asked to speak to strangers seemed impossible still. Such was the nature of my doubt. There was very little physical evidence to support my desire. Anyone can want something; reality is when you actually see it and have it and live it.

Even when the day came that someone wrote me an email asking me to come speak to her writing organization, my doubts followed me onto the airplane and into the classroom where all these strangers were gathered to listen to my talk. What evidence had I that this would go well? None. All I had, all I possessed, all I could see and feel and know, was my desire to do it. This, it turns out, was sufficient.

Flying back that night after the talk, I glanced out the window at the lights of the world below. The plane shook and jumped as we struck turbulence, and I was made suddenly aware of the frailty of flight. With a little work, I could doubt this plane’s ability make it safely home, the same as I could doubt the next talk would go well – if there even were a next talk. Yet I could just as easily not doubt it, could remember instead that I was headed home, where I knew I would continue to dream of what I’d like to say next.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Where You Will Go

January 6th, 2015

Having a successful day of writing never comes from having a great story to tell; it doesn’t come from reading a hundred books on writing; it doesn’t come from a knowledge of craft; it doesn’t come from the encouragement of acceptance letters or in retaliation to rejection letters. A successful day of writing occurs when and only when you allow yourself to enter your true writing state of mind.

Some writers get there by sitting down and typing as quickly as possible. The first page or two will be thrown away but by page three they’re in it. Some writers get there with a ritual cup of tea and a prayer. Some writers reread what they wrote the day before. Other writers cross their fingers and hope.

It doesn’t matter how you get there. You’ll know when you’ve arrived. You’ve stopped thinking and you’ve started listening. You’ve stopped watching the clock because time is what’s come before and what will happen next and the story you’re telling is being told in the right here and now. You’ve stopped going to get ideas and are letting them come to you. You’ve stopped worrying and started becoming curious. You’ve stopped trying to answer and you’ve started asking.

And suddenly all the classes and seminars and books and blogs and magazines are so immensely beside the point. There is nothing but this place and you know there isn’t one human on earth who could show you how to get there because this place belongs exclusively to you because in fact it is you. It is you without the story of why you shouldn’t or can’t or won’t or aren’t, it is you free of everything that has never been you, it is you not just alive but aware at last exactly how alive you have always been.

That is where every successful day of writing has ever come from. There is no other place it can come from. If you get there today, wonderful, and if you don’t, that’s okay too, because where you need to go will follow you everywhere from now until you are done telling stories.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter