One Question

May 26th, 2016

Michael was by all measure the best student in my oldest son’s kindergarten. Thanks to some aggressive preschool tutoring, by age five he was already doing long division. By first grade, he had a wall of chess trophies in his bedroom. As my son explained to me one day, “Michael knows all the answers.”

All, it turns, except one.

I volunteered to be his class’s computer docent, which meant I was to help the kids learn how to use the computer they all appeared to have been born knowing how to use. So I decided to have them write a story together instead. I summoned the students one-by-one to the computer. The first student began the story (There’s a unicorn named Cherry and she’s at a park). I typed this up and then read it to the next student and asked, “What should happen next?” (Cherry climbs a tree and makes friends with a squirrel.) And so on. Student after student after student listened to the story and then told me what would happen next.

And then came Michael. I read him our story thus far, and asked, “So what should happen next?”

Michael looked back at me blankly. “I don’t know.”

Somehow I recognized the look in Michael’s eyes. He was fantastic at giving correct answers. He was also as sweet as you could want a boy to be. He wanted to do everything asked of him by adults as well as he could.

“It’s okay,” I said. “It can be anything at all. What do you want to have happen next?”

Michael just shook his head. “I don’t know.”

Michael would soon enter a school for gifted children, where I assume he thrived. But I will never forget that look in his young face. Life, it turns out, is not a game of Jeopardy! There remains no right answer to the question, “What I do want?” There are also no questions more important.

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

Meeting Royalty

May 25th, 2016

I watched the excellent biopic, The Queen the other night and was struck by the exacting rules of behavior one is to follow when in the presence of the queen of England: bow or curtsey when you meet her; never turn your back to her; she offers your hand, you never offer yours. A little War of Independence waged in me every time the characters marched through these formalities. I imagined myself meeting Her Highness with my hand audaciously outstretched. I’m just that much of a rebel.

In actuality, I’m sure I’d follow every behavioral rule because I want people to like me. Or maybe I wouldn’t. In truth, sometimes I don’t care one whit what anyone thinks of me, and sometimes I seem to care about nothing else. It’s a natural consequence of being human, I think, whether you’re a prince or a peasant. It must be very confusing and unnatural to treat someone as above you in every way, which is why the English have these rules. Fortunately, as a non-celebrity American, I doubt I’ll ever meet royalty – though I did come close once.

Caroline Kennedy had just edited and published a book of her favorite poems. On a lark, I shot her publicist a request for an interview and thought a mistake might have been made when I heard back five minutes later with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” I was tempted to remind the publicist that Caroline was A Kennedy, and I was but a humble editor of an online magazine for writers.

By the silent osmosis of history and television and movies, the Kennedys were like royalty in my mind. I had set them apart from everyone else, had made them just a little bit more than human. So, I could not, in the three weeks before the shoot, undo nearly fifty years of myth making. I had by this time grown pretty comfortable around other humans, but I could not picture that same comfort with A Kennedy.

On the day of the shoot, I greeted Caroline Kennedy outside the bookstore as she stepped out of her car. The very first thing I noticed was that she was dressed in a tailored grey suit and pink running shoes. I was struck more by her pink running shoes than the fact that I was shaking hands with A Kennedy. The shoes seemed at once practical and a little geeky. I couldn’t stop thinking about them until we were seated for the interview. She was starting to feel like the other humans I knew. Still, I couldn’t shake the awkwardness I’d hoped wouldn’t visit me during our conversation – laughing a little too loud, agreeing a little too immediately.

That changed, though, once we got to the subject of the interview itself. Poetry had meant a lot to me as a young man. Reading poetry was what taught me how to write. It also taught me I wasn’t as alone as I sometimes felt because someone I had never met could speak to me in what felt like the language of my inner world. Caroline Kennedy loved poetry too. When I asked her about how she had discovered poetry and what it meant to her, I left the world of kings and queens and was speaking instead from that place within me reserved for the things I loved.

The interview went much better after this, and I started sounding like myself again. The world of books and writers is filled with royalty in its own way, those lords and ladies who occupy the bestseller lists or who have contributed to The Canon. Unfortunately, I do not know how to write like a king. On my best days, I can write like myself. On my very best days, I know this has always been enough.

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

Creative Irresponsibility

May 23rd, 2016

The human mind thinks entirely in the positive. That is, if my wife were headed to the store, and I called out, “Don’t forget the milk!” she would actually hear, “Forget the milk!” Better then to say, “Remember the milk.”

Which is why writers must only focus on what we want to create, not what we don’t want to create. Though it is perfectly natural for me to think, “I don’t want to write a boring book,” if I continue to think this, it would be as if I am watering dandelions and hoping they will grow into roses. Or, to put it in writerly terms: if I want to write a scene about love, I cannot think about fear, hatred, and violence. If I want to write about love, I must think about love.

I know all of this intellectually, yet I still find myself from time to time thinking about the things I don’t want to create. I do so out of the misguided belief that the only way to stay safe from the threat of What Might Be is to remember all the things that I don’t want to exist – as if, but for my diligence, I might trip and accidentally write a book I don’t want to write. This is an exhausting and uncomfortable way to live and write. I feel as if I am navigating a minefield of disastrous possibility, with only capricious luck and joyless concentration to keep me safe.

When I think too long in this way, I quickly find myself in conversation with other people complaining about the state of the world. Look what a mess we’ve made. To not recognize the mess we’ve made would be irresponsible. How else will we correct the problems?

Fortunately, I have lived long enough to learn what creative irresponsibility looks like. By and by, I choose to ignore my problems. I ignore the problem of forgetting the milk and remember my desire to have milk in my cereal. I forget the problem of a boring book and remember my desire for an interesting book. In so doing I become responsible once again for the life I’m leading, rather than the life I’m afraid I might lead.

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 True Source of a Writer’s Insecurity

May 20th, 2016

I’m currently working on a book about writing fearlessly, a subject about which I have written for the last eight years, and which I have begun teaching in the last two or three. This has provided me with an unusual creative launching pad. Normally I start a book knowing very little other than something looks interesting and I would like to find out why. I felt I knew exactly why I was interested in this book when I started it. I have written and talked and written and talked about this subject so much that when my proposal was accepted I thought that all I would have to do is transcribe what I already knew into book form.

What a relief, I thought as I settled into Chapter One. So many questions that crowd around a new project already felt answered. I did not need to ask myself, “What’s this book really about?” or, “Where’s this book going?” How nice, I thought, to write one book without the quiet insecurity that hovers over a blank page.

Then I started writing. No, writing is not quite the word – typing would be more accurate. For instance, the book is filled with small, illustrative stories, many of which I’ve told dozens of times. I could type them as an actor would his lines from a play, which is just what I began doing – until I noticed I was cranky at the end of my workday. This has happened plenty of times, but only when I’ve had a crap writing session, when the story went nowhere, when nothing felt answered and I pushed myself back from the desk filled with doubt and a creeping sense of self-loathing.

Except it wasn’t a crap writing session. I’d written five perfectly good pages. I had no doubt whatsoever that I’d use them. You’re just bored, I thought as I went for a brisk walk. No matter how well you know the subject, you’ve got to leave room for discovery. You’ve got to find something new. There’s always something new.

Having bucked myself up, I returned to work the following day ready to improvise. Improvise I did, and I finished my day’s work as I always hoped to: feeling calm, rejuvenated, and interested in life. In truth, if I feel this way after a session it doesn’t matter if I’ve written five sentences or fives pages, it was a good day’s work. That wasn’t boredom I felt yesterday, I realized as I got up from the desk – that was insecurity.

I’ve heard writing described as leaping off a cliff and learning to fly on the way down. How easy it is to mistake the blank page as the source of my writer’s insecurity. Yet to simply type words onto the page requires no connection to that which answers my creative questions. My security does not come from my craft, or my readership, or my publishing contract, or my reviews, or even the surprising pleasure of discovery. My security comes entirely from what I am connected to while discovering. Everything else is a happy product of that connection but not a replacement. Contracts, reviews, and even lovely words on the page could no more replace that connection than could wings replace a desire to fly.

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

By Myself

May 19th, 2016

I may crave the moment I can finally close the door to my workroom and sit quietly at my desk and enter once again the dream of the story I have been telling, but I must never mistake this experience for loneliness. Storytellers are never alone, although we are by ourselves.

While I write I am by myself in the same way I might say I sat by a stranger on plane, or I was held by my mother as child. To write is to sit by myself, with myself, and continue a conversation I often lose track of while I bounce around the world, occasionally colliding with other storytellers, or arguing with other storytellers, or becoming envious of other storytellers. There are just so many storytellers telling so many stories.

I like some of these stories; many, I admit, I do not. I do not like the story that goes: Something is wrong and someone needs to fix it! I hear that story a lot. Some days it feels like the only story I am hearing. I admit, I sometimes tell this story myself. Whenever I tell it, I feel very alone. I know, somehow, that although I have seen the problem, I am incapable of fixing this problem. It is always too big of a problem; it is a systemic problem, a global problem, a human problem. Should I rally everyone together, form a committee, a focus group, a non-profit with a website and a mission statement?

I choose instead my workroom. At last I am by myself, and I can ask myself honestly what I think of all these problems. The question is never answered because it is not even heard. The one I sit with at my desk is deaf to problems. He is only interested in the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. And so, because I am tired of all these problems I cannot fix, and because I am tired of feeling alone, I wonder what the next thing might be, and no sooner do I ask than I hear my first answer, and the conversation continues.

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

Real Genius

May 17th, 2016

I was having coffee with Frank, a childhood friend. We hadn’t seen each other in many, many years, and so there was a lot to catch up on. For instance, since the last time we spoke he’d become a tenured American History professor and I’d written a few novels. One of those novels was set in the antebellum South on the eve of the Civil War. Frank’s area of expertise, the focus of his life’s study and the subject of several academic books he’d written, just so happened to be the antebellum South.

I mentioned that I was surprised to discover, during my research, that historians weren’t in one hundred percent agreement that slavery was the fundamental cause for the Civil War. It seemed pretty obviously the case.

“Well, actually,” said Frank, sitting up in his chair with fresh enthusiasm, “there were also a number of economic factors that played just as large a role—”

Frank paused, cleared his throat, and leaned across the table seriously. “Now we have to be careful, Bill. We’re getting ready to cross the bridge to Boring Town.”

I laughed and assured him I was willing to risk that journey. I thought about the bridge to Boring Town long after Frank and I said goodbye. I had led my friends across that very bridge in conversation a few times. It often happened accidentally. We’d be chatting along about this and that and then we would stumble on some subject about which I had a long and abiding passion, and the next thing I knew I was in the middle of a dissertation about the imagination or unconditional love.

It is a problem, I think, common for many writers – or for anyone who has allowed himself to get interested in something. I’ve come to understand that what we call intelligence is just a function of curiosity, and what we call genius is an expression of our curiosity indulged. And by indulged I mean pursuing my curiosity without any thought of whether anyone else shares that curiosity; pursuing it without any thought of where it’s leading me or if it’s practical; pursuing it simply because it feels good to do so.

Indulging my curiosity is not generally considered polite behavior, a fact that becomes strangely relevant if, as a writer, I wish to share the fruits of my passion with other people. Being an author is a form of socializing, albeit at a distance. The last thing I want to do as a writer is bore my readers, as I have sometimes bored my friends.

Yet for much of my life my number one complaint about my days was that they were boring. Why, I wanted to know, wasn’t there anything interesting to do? That was before I began really indulging my curiosity. Once I began indulging it, I found I was rarely bored. My curiosity, after all, followed me everywhere. My curiosity was a friend who was always interesting and interested.

The nice thing about being an author is that people can simply stop reading what I’ve written without one thought of whether it’s impolite to do so. This freedom allows readers to indulge their curiosity. What an ideal relationship. Now we can meet somewhere we both very much want to be, having freely crossed a bridge to our shared genius.

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

Nobody Cares

May 16th, 2016

A few years ago I had the pleasure to interview Dennis Lehane, who told the story of how, in his early years of writing, he posted a note to himself above his desk where he worked that read, “Nobody Cares.” This meant both the hardboiled truth that the world was largely indifferent to his little joys and struggles, but also the emancipating understanding that whether he failed or succeeded would not actually affect anyone else. Since nobody cared, he needn’t waste any energy worrying about what anyone thought about what he was doing.

I thought of this when my creative work began to draw exclusively from my own life, whether in memoir or in this space. I could be a slippery and uncooperative protagonist, stiffening suddenly as the Bill on the page seemed to become aware of the literary camera. Ironically, this only made Protagonist Bill less sympathetic, an outcome that only further heightened his awareness of my narrative eye.

Until, that is, I remembered that nobody cared – or more specifically, nobody cared about me. If I have done my job as a writer correctly, the reader will care about my story’s protagonist – me, in this case – but not the me I am so often trying to protect. This is the me to whom I was referring when, as a young man, I sometimes complained, “Nobody cares about me.” Meaning, nobody cared that I was sad; nobody cared that I was frightened. And it was true. To care about my sadness in the way I believed others should would be to ask another to care about an illusion I had believed. To care about this illusion would only strengthen my belief in it, which in turn would only strengthen my sadness.

The opposite of an illusion is the truth, and this is what readers really care about. Stories, at their best, are dreams through which a reader can awaken from an illusion into the truth. Nothing matters but that awakening. The moment I believe that I matter more than the awakening, I begin protecting myself, and the story disappears into the nightmare I have spent my life trying to disbelieve.

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

No Offense

May 13th, 2016

I’m going to begin this essay by breaking creative writing’s most fundamental rule. I’m going to tell and not show. Here goes: It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about you. It only matters what you think about you.

Perhaps you’ve heard it before. I certainly have, though I thought of it again the other night when I was interviewing author and illustrator Nick Bantock. When Nick was leaving high school to study art at the university level, his English instructor had some advice for him. “Do humanity a favor,” he said, “and never write.” Thirty-five years later, in the middle of a comfortable career as an artist and illustrator, Nick got an idea for an illustrated epistolary novel. That book would eventually be titled Griffin and Sabine and would go on sell over a million copies. At one point, Nick had three books on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously.

The world of writers is filled with stories like this. Being a professional artist of any kind can seem like a big dream, and there’s usually someone around willing to tell you it’s too big for you. Sometimes that person is a parent or a high school English teacher, or sometimes that person is an editor or agent or MFA professor. It doesn’t matter. The moment I am told I shouldn’t do something I want to do is the moment I must decide whom I plan to spend my life listening to.

It’s a decision I must keep making throughout my writing life. Even now, after I’ve decided that this dream isn’t too big, people are still willing to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do. Sometimes people will tell me I shouldn’t have written what I wrote because either they don’t think what I’ve written is any good, and therefore shouldn’t be out there polluting the reading world, or because what I’ve written is offensive.

Which brings me back to creative writing’s fundamental rule. All readers, whether they’re aware of it or not, make up their own minds about what I’ve written. If I simply tell them something is funny or profound, they’ll have to take my word for it. But if I show them something funny or profound and they are able to perceive it without me calling what I’m showing them funny or profound, then the readers will have discovered something for themselves. What they found will belong to them, not me.

But this showing and not telling is an inexact exchange. It must be, so that enough room is left for the readers to make up their minds. That means that some readers will not see what I’m trying to show them. In fact, sometimes they will see the very opposite. I will try to show them that they have all the power to create any life they want, and they might instead see that all their suffering is their fault, that I am “blaming the victim.”

I am always partly responsible for this misunderstanding. I try to show as directly as I can, but sometimes I leave too much room for the reader. So it goes. I cannot worry about a reader being offended by what they saw in my work, any more than I should worry about the stories other people want to tell. I cannot know what is in another person’s mind; I can only know what I am trying to share. I do the best I can, and let it go.

People have said plenty of unkind things to me in my life, particularly about my work. Yet the things these people said only “hurt” when I believed them. I’ve come to trust that particular pain. It is guidance. Just as I find the right story, sentence, or word by what feels best to me, so too the pain that comes when I believe I am not good enough or smart enough or talented enough is guiding me back to the truth from which my life is meant to be led.

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 Rotten Kingdom

May 11th, 2016

Once we leave school, we only read what we want. Our reading life is a sovereign kingdom, with us as the benign but sole authority. We people this kingdom with the stories that please us. It is not always clear which stories will please us and which will not. We wander bookstores and Amazon, we listen to recommendations from friends, we wait for the next release from our favorite authors—but not until we meet the book in person, until we hear its voice and glean its narrative intentions can we decide if this is a story that belongs in our kingdom.

After all, we are building this kingdom based on our own desire, on our own idea of good and bad, our own idea of right and wrong, of funny, of generous, of wise, of true, of hopeful, of scary, of sexy, of surprising. Why would we build our kingdom from what someone else calls wise, funny, profound, or interesting? For this reason, some stories must be set aside and left unfinished. To follow that story to the end is to live with it longer than it took to read.

I wish sometimes I was as disciplined with the stories I do and do not tell myself as I am with the stories I read and don’t read. I have a quick hook for the stories I read, not so much the ones I tell. I will tell a story for years and years without ever liking it. I will tell it to myself at night like the worst bedtime story ever written, a story without heroes, a story where nothing changes, a story where hope is a weak and comical candle against an indifferent wind.

I tell it, and the kingdom becomes muddy from rain. Now it is all clouds and wet winter and stalled busses and empty cupboards and boarded windows. Who rules this lousy place? This was never my kingdom. This is the world I built while I was pretending to be someone else, the one I left happily to rot after I found the stories I was meant to tell.

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

Teacher and Student

May 9th, 2016

I was talking to a novelist recently who, like a lot writers, teaches to help make ends meet. He likes teaching, but I know he prefers writing. Teaching writing, after all, can come with some unexpected challenges that have nothing to do with the craft of storytelling. As the novelist pointed out, there are some days he isn’t sure whether he’s a writing instructor or a social worker.

I don’t know how to teach writing and not be a part-time therapist or life coach. Because here is the truth every professional writer should already know: we’re born with everything we need to tell any story we will ever want to tell. As long as you possess curiosity and an imagination, you can tell a story. The rest is just refinement.

What most students are looking for has nothing whatsoever to do with craft. The student wants to believe it is possible that they can tell the story they wish to tell. Sometimes learning a few craft tricks helps us believe this. Sometimes it does not. Which is why as a teacher or coach I will spend more time telling my students and clients, in every way I can think to – yes, yes, yes, you can do this.

Fortunately, I never tire of telling people this. I can never tire of it because in order to say it convincingly I must believe it myself. And in order to believe it myself, I must go that place within myself where that delicious, friendly, hopeful, creative truth always resides. How I love to go there. I’d live there if I knew how, but I don’t yet, so I continue to teach it in the hope that one day I will learn.

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