No Sacrifice

When I was a teenager, a teacher suggested I consider a life in politics. I was deeply offended. To me it was as if she had told me she thought I’d make a good gigolo. Years on now, and having spent the last eight or so months marinating in political coverage as never before, I think that teacher recognized something in me that I did not. Namely, the creative writer and the politician are not so very different in their struggles and desires.

After all, both writers and politicians must be ambitious. We must be driven from within to expand the scope of our professional lives – whether it’s the better contract or the higher office. There is absolutely nothing wrong with ambition, with obeying my inherent impulse to grow. To resist that growth is to invite a quiet suffering into my life.

However, ambition is not an end in itself. Service, the desire to share something of value with others, whether that something is a poem, suspense novel, or fairer tax plan, is the only end worth pursuing. For a time, I was far more interested in ambition than service. Like a politician who will say whatever he must to garner the most votes, I spent many of my days wondering what I should write to finally get that contract. This was movement without direction, and it led me nowhere.

The moment I began to see my work as service, as sharing what I value most with other people, I was moving with direction. I have more compassion now for politicians than I used to. It’s easy to think that if you can just get as many people as possible to like you, you’ll be happy, that winning the election or contract are meaningful destinations in themselves. But the contract or the election are merely the platforms from which service can occur.

Do not mistake service for sacrifice, however. I give up nothing, I expect not one fraction less for my own life as I look to serve others. After all, I am only sharing what it is I value most, and I cannot share what I do not have. In this, I do not think about how much I can get from life, but how much I can give, and the more I give, the more I have.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Good Questions

My most recent book, Fearless Writing, is based on the idea that your best days of writing – the days where you sink so deeply into the story you’re telling that you lose track of time and the weather and politics, where you’re surprised by what your characters do, and where ideas come to you so quickly you have to keep up with them – these wonderful writing days always begin the moment you forget to care what anyone thinks about what you write.

I’ve had a lot of these days since I became more disciplined about what I do and do not focus on when I sit down to write. My mind, like my stories, can go absolutely anywhere. The mind is so free, is so quick and unrestrained by the limitations my slow and earthbound body must abide, that it requires some firm boundaries only I can impose on it. I must be disciplined in the questions I ask my imagination to answer. I cannot ask it about the future, or about what other people like or don’t like. I must ask it questions only about the story I’m telling. When I limit my questions in this way, I always have a good day of writing.

The problem, I’ve learned, is that the experience of a good day of writing often stands in noticeable contrast to the rest of my day. I am not, you see, nearly as disciplined in the questions I ask as I wander about the world. It is one thing to sit in the solitude of my workroom and forget to care about other people’s preferences and taste, and it is quite another to be face to face with those people and ignore the thought, “What do they think of me?”

Oh, the misery that question has sown in my life, regardless of the answer. It is almost as unpleasant as when I ask myself, “What do I think of them?” This is my retribution question, payback for all the hurt that other question has inflicted. It’s enough to keep me bound to my desk, if it weren’t for those moments in my day when I forget to ask those useless questions and I find myself once again amongst friends. This is the exact same freedom writing has shown me, the peace that love provides when I follow it rather than demand it.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Suffering For Your Art

I don’t recommend suffering for your art. In fact, I don’t recommend suffering for anything – though you almost certainly will suffer for your art or anything else you want to pursue. I don’t know how to get anywhere without a little suffering. It’s the only way to know I’m headed in the wrong direction. All directions are possible, after all. The page of life is quite blank. And so I head out, picking what looks like the best route. My first choices are almost always wrong.

Or at least not completely right. There is a difference, I’ve learned. Wrong is simply too complete a word to assign to any of these kinds of choices. Within every sentence I delete is a portion of what I eventually choose to share, just as within every romantic relationship I pursued and ended there had been some aspect of what I found in the whole of my marriage. The key, I have learned, is to be kind. This is not always so easy for me. The boy who feared criticism grew into a man striving for perfection.

That was an empty and impossible pursuit, and oh, how I suffered as I sought it. I believed it was possible to achieve, because I perceived perfection in others. Not all the time, of course. People did all sorts of goofy and useless things, made all sorts of mistakes – but that wasn’t who they really were. That was just them trying too hard, or trying to solve problems that didn’t exist. When you dusted away the chaff of these choices, looked through the veil of a moment’s behavior, it was easy to see someone whole, unique, and in need of nothing but an awareness of their own inherent perfection.

Then there is me. I can look at other people, but I can feel only myself. The mirror tells me nothing. Sometimes I am suffering, and sometimes I am not. I don’t want to suffer. I used to think it was romantic, but not anymore. Suffering itself is a kind of veil I must look beyond, with the same vision I use to tell my stories. Suffering does not ask me to share it, dwell and writhe in it – suffering asks only that I recognize it so that I might return to myself.

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If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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A Crash Course in Fearless Writing

If you’ve ever written and actually enjoyed the experience, if you’ve ever allowed yourself to become lost in the dream of the story you are telling so much that you temporarily forget what time it is, then you have written fearlessly. In fact, writing doesn’t really begin until we forget to be afraid. So the question isn’t whether you can write fearlessly, but whether you can do it on purpose. Here are the three best tools I know for writing fearlessly every day.

The only questions you should ever ask are: “What do I most want to say?” and “Have I said it?”

I ask these questions because I can actually answer them. I will never know anything better than I know what I am most interested in. I will never be able to pay attention to something for longer than that about which I am most curious. My curiosity is the engine that drives my creative vehicle. It is the source of all my excitement, my intelligence, and my surprise. It is also entirely unique to me. There is no one on earth who knows what I most want to say other than me.

And once I know what I want to say, once I know which story I want to tell, or which scene I want to write, only I can know if I have translated it accurately into words on the page. Whatever I most want to say exists in a realm knowable only to me. There isn’t one editor or teacher or critique group member who can tell me if I have accurately translated what I wanted to share because only I know what that is; these other people, however well-intentioned, can only tell me if they like or understand what I’ve written. That is all they actually know.

If I am ever asking some question other than these two, I am not really writing. I am trying to read other people’s minds. If I am asking, “Is it any good?” I am really asking, “Will anyone else like it?” Or if I’m asking, “Is there market for it?” I am really asking, “Will anyone else like it?” And if I am asking, “Is it too literary? Is it not literary enough?” I am really just asking, “Will anyone else like it?”

What anyone else thinks of what I’m writing is none of my business – at least not while I’m writing. While I’m writing, what I think of what I’m writing is my business. I am always afraid when I believe I must answer questions that are unanswerable. And I am always fearless the moment I return to my curiosity to see where it is headed next.

Have Faith

I am defining “faith” as believing in something for which there is no evidence. This shouldn’t be so hard for a writer, really. Every day we sit at our desks and believe in something no one but us can see. In fact, while we’re writing, we believe more in the story we are telling than the chair in which we are sitting. We have to. We have to believe that our hero wants to save the world even though our hero doesn’t exist anywhere but our imagination. We must believe a daughter yearns for her father’s attention even though neither the father nor the daughter is any more real than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. That’s our job – to believe in what only we can see.

The problem is that we would also like to share these stories with other people, and we have absolutely no evidence that this story – which only we can see – will be of interest to anyone. No one knows how many copies of a book will be sold or if it will win any awards. No one knows which reviewers will like it and which will not. It is a mystery to be answered within the sovereign imaginations of our readers.

The only evidence a writer has that his story is worth telling is that he’s interested in telling it. That’s it. That’s all Shakespeare got and that’s all Hemingway got and that’s all Amy Tan and Stephen King get. Your evidence that your story is worth your attention and worth sharing with others is that you think it’s cool, or funny, or scary, or profound. If that’s reason enough for you to write, if that’s reason enough to commit an hour or two a day to the same story for six months or a year or six years, then you have found the simple secret to all faith – that feeling good is evidence enough that something is worth doing and that life is worth living.

Contrast Is Your Friend

From a pure craft standpoint, contrast is invaluable. Just as a flashlight’s beam is distinct in a dark room and nearly invisible in a brightly lit room, so too is whatever we are trying to share with our readers most perceptible against its opposite. So if you want to write about peace, you must show war; if you want to show forgiveness, you must show judgment; if you want show acceptance, you must show rejection.

Likewise, often the best way to know what we like is when we encounter something we don’t like. If you read a novel and you hate the ending, instead of griping to your husband or writing group about what poor choices the author made, think about how you would have ended it. Your frustration is pointing you toward something you wish to explore, but which has remained unexplored. That discomfort will only grow until it is released on the page.

Finally, the guidance system upon which you so depend to write from day to day speaks entirely in the contrast between the effortlessness of the right word, and the effort of the almost-right word. It speaks in the contrast between the fearlessness of asking yourself what you are most interested in, and the discomfort we have named fear that always comes when we wonder what other people will think of what we write. We must have both experiences for our guidance system to work. Without what we call fear, we would have nothing to guide us back to what we love.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Third Eye

For many years I was a writer obsessed with the form my stories and sentences took. This is also called style. I had loved certain writers whose style was so distinctive and evocative and exciting to me that I believed if I paid very close attention to the form my stories and sentences took, I would be able to write the kind of stories I loved to read. I was less aware of my stories’ content at that time. I felt that if I started writing, something cool would come out.

It didn’t work that way. Obsessing over a story’s form is a little like fussing with your hair in the mirror. There is only so much a hairstyle can communicate. But it is something I can control. I can cut it, wash it, gel it, comb it, comb it again, mess it up and comb it one more time. What I cannot do is control what anyone will think of that hair. And so I stare into the mirror, aware of this uncomfortable fact, knowing that for all my grooming, people are just going to go ahead and think whatever they want to think.

My stories became a kind of mirror I was staring into, with me fussing and fussing before the big date that was submission. I sent them out aware of some nameless deficiency, and they were predictably rejected. Had I not fussed long enough in the mirror? What was missing? What had I overlooked?

Eventually I began to focus more on my stories’ content rather than their form. It was a very different way of thinking, because the content, which was a felt awareness of life, had no form whatsoever. Love, after all, can take any form, as can grief, and joy, and doubt. My time at the desk now was spent trying to see with my writer’s third eye what love and joy and grief really looked like, without any idea of what other people thought love and joy and grief looked like. Once I felt I could see it clearly, I tried to make what I could see with words.

I love language and sentences as much as I ever did, but I spend very little time now thinking about either. It’s a relief, frankly. I look in the mirror about twice a day, and that’s enough. The rest of my time is spent living within what it feels like to be alive. That is the reality of which I am most aware. This reality is not always comfortable, but the comfort I seek does not exist in the mirror or on the page. That comfort can only be perceived with my third eye, for that is where everything I want to share resides.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Looking For Something Where It Isn’t

Sometimes I am like a man who needs his keys, looks for them on his bureau, doesn’t find them, and declares his keys lost. My keys might be on the mantle, they might be on the kitchen table, they might even be jangling in my pocket, but because I don’t see them at that very moment, I believe they have been swallowed into the void of all lost things.

When I lose something physical, I always tell myself the same thing: “I know it has to be somewhere.” Such is the nature of the physical world. Everything is somewhere; it’s just that that somewhere often changes. When I despair, however, when I worry about my future, I have lost track of something that never moves. I look for what I always need where it doesn’t exist, don’t find it, and believe that all hope is lost.

Writing is a great practice in remembering where to look for what I actually need. The stories I wish to tell are not in any newspaper, or on Facebook, or on television, or even in the eyes and minds of people I love. The fount from which those stories flow exists where only I can perceive it. What comes from that fount changes every moment, but its location is constant. Despite this unerring reliability, I find the quiet and dull surroundings of my workroom an ideal environment for locating that fount.

I am, I have learned, easily distracted. When I leave my workroom there are just so many things to look at. How easy it is to look for my confidence and my value in what I see – in my sales, or reviews, or visits to my website. How quickly I despair when I don’t find what I’m looking for. When I’ve misplaced my keys, I’ll sometimes replay my day to remember if I might have left them someplace unusual, like the studio or my coat pocket. This same approach sort of works when I have misplaced my well-being. The difference is that instead of remembering when I felt good, I simply remind myself what confidence and value feels like, and the moment I do, I find what I’m looking for.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Valuable Experience

Many years ago, Jen, my girlfriend at that time, visited me for a week in California. She was an art student and so I decided to take her to an art gallery. As it happens, the Getty Museum was not far from where I lived, and I’d heard there was a special exhibit currently on display. I was glad there was a special exhibit because I was not an art fan – which is to say, going to museums had not yet been added to my mental list of things I enjoyed doing. What did appear on this list was the vague concept of Special Things, and so we headed straight for the exhibit once we’d paid for our tickets.

The Getty had acquired a Van Gogh. A very small Van Gogh: it was about the size of a square dinner plate. It was, however, so incredibly valuable that the museum had cordoned off a 20-foot perimeter in front of the painting so that the viewing public wouldn’t be tempted to touch it or breathe on it. The distance made it difficult to appreciate the painting for its aesthetic value, but it certainly reinforced the painting’s specialness. It was like being in the presence of a celebrity. Leaning over the rope with the crowd, I had the sense that the painting was somehow worth more than the throng that had come to see it.

I didn’t enjoy the experience. It was easier once Jen and I moved on to the other exhibits. Now we could get close and look at the brush strokes and decide for ourselves whether we liked a painting or not. I didn’t really think I had that option with the Van Gogh. Plus, we could talk freely with one another, now that we weren’t in the hushed presence of greatness. None of these other paintings seemed more important than our relationship.

Driving home we talked some about the Van Gogh. It was more fun to talk about it than to see it. It was fun to learn what she experienced while she looked at it and it was fun to share what I experienced when I looked at it. I realized I valued fun above all other experiences. This seemed like a child’s view of life, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t choose what I valued any more than I could choose who I loved – which is how I knew I wanted to write about what I experienced, and why I knew I would marry Jen.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Understanding What I Know

For the last few years I’ve worked as a writing coach. A coach, as I explain to all my prospective clients, is not an editor. I am not interested in fixing anyone’s book, but rather in helping them strengthen their writing and, most importantly, their relationship to writing, which is really a relationship to themselves. It’s interesting and challenging work for which I have absolutely no professional training other than having written for many years. This, coupled with an inherent interest in people’s lives and personal struggles, seems to be enough.

But it took me a while to understand what a writing coach was. As with the stories I tell, I was interested in the idea before I understood the reality. I’ve never let a total lack of experience stop from me doing anything. I hung a virtual shingle on my website, and eventually someone contacted me about coaching. She wanted to know what it was I did. I said, “Let’s meet and discuss it.”

This gave me some time to see whether I could come up with an answer. I couldn’t. We met anyway, and I started talking about writing and its challenges and she listened politely. “What is it you write about?” she asked, once I ran out of things to say.

“I write about writing, mostly.”

She rolled her eyes. “Boring.”

She did not end up being my first client. She was very helpful, however. First, she taught me that I needed to figure out what a writing coach was. More importantly, she taught me that writing about writing is not boring – at least not for me. The instant she said, “Boring,” I thought, “No, it’s not,” and then, as writers often do, I thought, “Why isn’t it boring?”

I always know something before I know how or why I know it. That’s why I write and why I coach and, really, why I do anything – to understand what I know. I don’t write about writing, you see; I write about life. To me, writing is just an experience I choose to have while I’m alive. It’s the being alive part that’s really interesting to me – endlessly interesting. Anytime I do something on purpose, whether it’s writing, or coaching, or cooking, I’m living on purpose, and I immediately understand something that seemed mysterious when I lived accidentally or habitually.

What a glorious understanding that is. Glorious, that is, until I forget it, and I find myself back on the hamster wheel of getting things done, and wondering what to do next and why exactly I’m on this planet. I could have sworn I just knew why I was on this planet. How frustrating to forget, how satisfying to remember, and how endlessly interesting this cycle remains.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Giving Up

If I am working with a client who has never attempted a book-length project before, one of the first challenges I must help this new writer overcome is the sudden and daunting awareness of how little she actually knows about this book she would like very much like to write through to its conclusion. The writer rarely sets out on her journey with this awareness. Instead, she is just excited by some idea that has become so bright in her imagination that she cannot seem to pull her attention from it.

And so one day she decides to sit down and actually begin writing the thing. The idea has been so bright and so interesting to her that it feels as though all she needs to do is set aside a little time everyday and the story should virtually write itself. Then she begins. Sometimes it takes no more than a couple pages for the writer to understand that this story is made of around 60,000 details called words, and that she must in fact choose each of those details, and that those details must fit together as effortlessly as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

This is often a disorienting moment. The writer’s interest in the story was complete. What’s more, the feeling the story is trying to convey is complete as well. If the author is writing a story about the difference between feeling unlovable and finding love, then that profound difference is complete within her mind. But the story that is meant to share that feeling, which is made of tens of thousands of details, is so incomplete that the writer doubts if she ever knew anything.

I can sometimes be of help to these writers simply by reminding them what it is their job to know and what it is not their job to know. It is not our job to know the details. It is only our job to know we would like to find them. It is a sometimes subtle difference, but what we call failure is usually the mistaken belief that our inability to know all the pieces ahead of time means we are incomplete.

How tempting it is in the moment of this mistaken awareness to give up. The feeling of personal incompleteness is in direct opposition to the direction of life and is commensurately wretched in its expression. It is appropriate to want to give up something at this moment, but it’s not the story. Give up believing you can finish what is already whole, or fix what was never broken, and return to the business of finding what you are actually looking for.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Discovering Stories

Every writer is a teacher of some kind, though most do not see themselves that way. Most writers see themselves as entertainers – meaning it is not their job to instruct their readers, but rather to engage them, amuse them, frighten them, or inspire them. To do so, writer and reader go on a journey together, and though the writer may be the guide for this journey, may have mapped its route and chosen its destination, the discoveries the reader makes along the way belong entirely to him. If a reader says he loves a story, it is those discoveries he loves, discoveries he may attribute to the writer, but for which he is ultimately responsible.

Yet that journey begins where only the writer can perceive it. Its value and potential are known only to the writer. The writer has made a discovery, you see. The writer has discovered a new love story, or a new adventure, or a new poem. The writer made this discovery in the idle dreaming of his days – picked up a magazine, or looked out the window, or overheard a conversation; and where one moment the writer was looking at the world, the next he was seeing the beginning of a story. A seed has found its soil.

A writer may experience the full pleasure of discovery before putting a single word to a page. As satisfying as this can be, the writer must be willing to transform his discovery to share it. The story must take a form everyone can see, so that everyone can have can have the opportunity to perceive its value. Sometimes it feels as if something is lost in this transformation, that the form our story takes is a pale shade of the rich discovery we made.

This is a trick of our eyes. That story began where even our eyes could not see it. Teachers help their students see what they have not yet seen, whether it is a mathematical formula, or a mother’s and daughter’s reconciliation. It is always a little mysterious why some students easily see what others do not, but what we writers discover is mysterious as well. The best discoveries always feel as if they were right in front of us our whole lives. How, we wonder, could we not have seen them? It does not matter. Life, everyone’s first teacher, showed us, and now can’t stop looking at it until it is a story everyone can see.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter