The Demolition Critic

September 1st, 2015

A friend of mine published her eleventh novel last year, and in so doing, surrendered her work to the critics, both professional and casual. One of those casual critics did not care for her book. In lieu of a written review on Amazon, he simply posted a video of him blowing up the book.

I have not seen the video, and I have no idea if the author saw it either. A mutual friend brought it to my attention. Whether she sees the video or not, I am sure she will be okay. The fellow who blew up her book, however, has a longer road to travel back to okay. I fully understand the temptation to blow up a book. When I was nineteen I read a 700-page novel whose ending I found so profoundly unsatisfying – the author left me wondering whether the man and the woman would get together, and the last sentence was an untranslated Latin phrase – that I threw it across the room.

The book did not care that I threw it. It wouldn’t have cared if I had burned it. A book is just a giant thought, and you cannot kill a thought. A thought cannot be sent to the electric chair or develop cancer. You can march and march against a thought until your feet are swollen, you can shout until your voice is gone, but the thought will live on. A thought is a road, and you either travel it or not. If you don’t like where it’s going, then turn around and find another one.

It is both that simple and that complicated. My friend loved her book, and love has no opposite, not even a bomb. What the Demolition Critic wanted would not appear magically out of the ashes of my friend’s book. The Demolition Critic would have to look in precisely the same place my friend looked when she found her book. In this place, nothing burns and nothing is rejected. It is all acceptance until the moment you wonder what anyone else would think of what you’ve found. That is the moment you understand the true meaning of rejection: that listening too closely to your critics is suicide, and forgetting them is life.

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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

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The Common Good

August 31st, 2015

My father had a very satisfying epiphany recently. It was fifty years in the making, but well worth the wait. He had studied a little philosophy as an undergraduate, where he had read about Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative.” In case you’re not familiar with it, this was an attempt to establish a rational foundation for morality. Kant eventually decided that the only way to measure – rationally, mind you – whether an act was moral or immoral was to ask oneself whether the world would be a better place or a worse place if everybody did this one thing. So the world would be a worse place if everyone fired guns in theaters, say; it would be a better place if everyone gave to charity.

This theory bugged my father, and for fifty years he had periodic arguments with Immanuel Kant (Manny, in his imagination), always without satisfaction. Then, one day, while driving to buy some eggs and muffins, he hit on it. “Manny,” he thought, “if everyone spent all day sitting around writing philosophy, the world wouldn’t be a better place. No houses would get built, and there would be no one to sell me eggs and muffins. And yet it is not immoral for you to spend all day writing philosophy.”

I have no idea what Manny would have actually said in response to this, but the writer in me loved my father’s epiphany. I don’t blame Immanuel Kant for wanting to construct a rational moral code. We have laws in this land, after all, laws written for the common good, laws we hammered out in argument and debate, laws most of us actually choose to follow. This is the world everyone, writer and non-writer, lives in – a world with clocks and property lines and contracts and traffic lights. If not for all these rules and clocks and traffic lights, our days would be spent in chaos.

Yet every day when I sit down to write I must forget all of these laws and rules. When I sit down to write, there can be but one rule I follow: Thou shall write only what pleases you most, and thou shall not give a damn what anyone else thinks of it or thou will be lost in a forest of misery and doubt. It’s a great rule, but one that has not always been so easy for me to follow. I’m not an anarchist, nor do I like to piss other people off. I’m a good citizen, you could say, and I generally prefer the company of other good citizens. It’s easier.

Easy, that is, until I try to write. It is quite hard to be a good citizen and a good writer simultaneously. To be a good writer, I must exercise extreme selfishness. I must indulge my curiosity. I must amuse myself, excite myself, move myself, and surprise myself. While writing, I am a little nation – no, a world of one. When the writing is going well, the world is united and at peace.

It’s a very satisfying experience, perhaps the most satisfying I know. I have known it since I was a boy, since I first began writing and at the same time I was learning to follow all the rules I needed to follow to be a good citizen. In those early days, I didn’t have the opportunity to share what I wrote, and so these two worlds felt separate. Now, I do share it, and what I find most pleasing, though not really surprising, is that the worlds were never separate. The common good, it turns out, is always love. Love defies rational thought, because it asks for nothing and yet receives everything. I will never understand love as I have come to understand traffic laws, but every time I sink into that dream of writing, every time I forget the laws of the world outside my window and remember the single rule of writing, I know love again exactly as I know myself.

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

Useful Obscurity

August 27th, 2015

About a year before I started Author, before I began interviewing writers and, most importantly, before I began writing this column, I started my own blog. I had just left the restaurant where I had worked for seventeen years, and I hadn’t yet found any meaningful work to replace it. And so, about three times a week, I would take my laptop to a nearby coffee shop, order a non-fat latte, and write a blog.

It is the only time in my life I’ve written in a café. I wrote there so I could get out of the house. I enjoyed my time with my latte and my blog. The blog was about creativity and spirituality. I had never written about the intersection of these two subjects, and I discovered I quite liked doing so. Perhaps my favorite part about that first blog, however, was the fact no one was reading it.

This was immeasurably helpful. I could technically publish it – that is, put it out there where anyone who wanted to could find it – without worrying about what anyone thought about it because, as far as I could tell, the blog remained an undiscovered treasure. I’m sure someone was reading it, but I didn’t concern myself with these phantoms. Real readers would have only gummed up the works.

Just about the time I was ready to let someone read what I was writing, I founded Author and wrote my first of many essays for the magazine. I prefer having my work read, but I remain ever grateful for that year of Internet obscurity. In many ways, I am still writing the first blog, still pretending I am alone so that I might hear what it is I actually want to share with others.

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

Carried Forward

August 25th, 2015

Perhaps you have heard that authors, particularly newer authors, are increasingly responsible for their own promotion. Some writers have embraced this more than others. Some writers love playing the game of social media, love the book giveaways, the shotgun communication of Twitter, the visual immediacy of Tumblr. Some writers love to blog, and look upon an author website as a work of art. These writers would in all likelihood be tweeting, posting, tumbling, and blogging whether they had a book to promote or not.

Some writers do not love any of this, but they do it anyway. They dutifully acquire as many Twitter and Facebook followers as they can, and they remember occasionally to post a blog on their website. These writers have no idea if what they’re doing is having any effect whatsoever, but as long as they are chopping some promotional wood every day, they can rest easier at night, believing their efforts have staved off the creeping threat of obscurity.

And then there are those authors who hate the whole promotion business. The very act of promoting their book depresses them. They would rather just write books and let someone else try to sell them. They sometimes make themselves attend a Market Your Book Now! workshop at a writers’ conference, only to leave more depressed and hopeless than ever, because the workshop leader no doubt reminded them that if they did not embrace self-promotion, their writing career would be dead in the water.

No matter which category you fall into, your writing career need never be dead in the water. The water, after all, is your best friend. The creative stream you entered to write your story, that current that carried you from beginning to end, that brought you ideas you hadn’t predicted, that sent your characters in surprising directions: that stream is still flowing, whether you are writing or not. It doesn’t know how to turn off. The only question is whether you will swim against it, or flow with it.

Writers who hate promotion do not see promotion as a creative act. These writers are highly attuned to the experience of swimming against that current, and they know to avoid it. For many of those writers, writing is the one place they consistently don’t swim against the current. Unfortunately, the publishing world seems to be telling them they must swim against it. And so now, it turns out, to succeed at this thing they love, they must, as always, do this thing they hate.

When in doubt, remember the book you wrote. Remember, above all, how much you love it. You wouldn’t have written it if you didn’t love it. I know you’re grumpy about it sometimes, but that’s only because you think you’re not sure how many copies you must sell to prove that story is worthy of the love you already feel for it. So remember how much you loved writing it, and then ask the book, which you love, “How can I best share you?”

If you ask the question honestly, you will find yourself back in the same stream in which the book was written. It’s possible the stream will say, “Do nothing.” In which case, do nothing. It might also say write a blog, or tweet like you’ve never tweeted before, or give a reading. I don’t know what it will say, anymore than I know what you should write next. But I do know that stream is there for you, that it never ceases to flow, and that its job and pleasure is to carry you forward where life is interesting 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

Know Your Job

August 20th, 2015

Up until the end of his fourth grade in school, getting my eldest son Max to do his homework was an exhausting exercise in parenting gymnastics. My wife invented games and songs and stories to make his work seem as friendly as possible. We created rules and rewards. We took his Gameboy away and we gave his Gameboy back. None of it worked. Every night was a competition between what he needed to do for school and what he wanted to do for himself.

One night I helped him write a report on John Adams. There was the blank page. His page was exactly as blank as mine when I sat at my desk every morning. Only he could fill it. I offered him prompts. I asked him questions about John Adams. I even suggested outlining his one page paper. By the end, I did everything but stick the pen between his fingers and move pen and fist across the page.

Then, one evening, Max took his homework into his room and did it without our help. When my wife asked if he needed help, he shooed her away. That was that. He eventually told us that he came to understand that school was a game he needed to play if he wanted to do certain things later in life. Now he and school were aligned, and we were no longer necessary.

Sometimes when I am trying very hard to write a book, I feel as if I am back in Max’s bedroom working on that John Adams paper. No matter how creative I was, no matter how supportive I was, I couldn’t do Max’s job. Likewise with the stories I would like to tell. My job is to be curious and open and keep asking questions; my imagination’s job is to do every thing else. I’ve tried to do both jobs and I am left feeling like a failure. No wonder. I’ve given myself an impossible task.

But when I remember my job and how simple it is, I feel like a success again. I know how to be curious, I know how to be open, and I know how to ask questions. That’s easy. In fact, it’s so easy I have to remind myself every day what my job is and what my job isn’t. And when our work is done, and if I have been disciplined about doing only my job, I leave my desk aligned with an ambition that knows only success.

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

Miraculous Cure

August 18th, 2015

I don’t go to doctors often, but there are days I would gladly ask a doctor to cut out my eyes, if it would keep me from ever looking to anyone else to tell me if what I what I’ve written was worth writing. I’m sure there’d be some residual pain from the surgery, but nothing compared to the death feeling of trying to live for other people’s approval. Unlike the current of creation I enjoy when I forget to listen to my inner critic or care about the world of acceptance and rejection, this swamp promises a journey where every step I take leads me further from the very peace I so crave.

Fortunately, no scalpel can remove this cancer. In fact, the disease’s cause and the means of its cure are one and the same. When I am deep in the swamp, this truth feels like a fairytale fiction. Save me your platitudes and good intentions. I need results! I need to know if what I’ve done is any good. At the very least, show me a target that I might hit it.

When I am deep in the swamp, I am sure I see the very target – until I aim, and then it is gone. This is what failure feels like. This is precisely what failure feels like, and if I believe in it, if I believe in the swamp and the target, it is as if I lose the same game every moment of every day. It is unlivable.

But the gymnast’s success on the balance beam depends as much on the discomfort of imbalance as the comfort of balance. How else does she know where her attention should lie? To make a friend of my disease is to hear what it is telling me. Move my attention to balance, back into the current, and I am instantly cured. You could call it miraculous, for gone are all the symptoms, all the pain and uncertainty, having left no scar, only a brief exhalation of relief as I find myself 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

Choosing Games

August 17th, 2015

It is not unusual when I am teaching a workshop at a conference or interviewing a writer to find myself talking about money. These conversations always remind me of the squabbles my wife and I have over money, because those squabbles are never actually about money. Usually we’re squabbling about safety, or our own creative potential, but there’s the money, so tangible and measureable and necessary, that it seems simpler just to argue about whether we should buy that new sofa than where safety does or does not exist.

Money also reminds me of a race I ran in second grade. Our teacher lined every student up at one end of the playground and told us to run as fast we could to the wall at the other end of the playground. First one there was the winner. She yelled go and I ran. I loved running. I loved harnessing all my body’s energy, and I even loved the race, as it provided a reason to do so. On that day, I was the first to reach the wall.

But as I touched the wall, and looked down the line at all the other boys and girls finishing after me, I had an unusual thought for an eight year-old: The only reason I won, it occurred to me, wasn’t that I was faster than the rest of them, but that I was the most fully committed to the race. All my energy had been focused in one place and for one purpose, but from where I stood, I could feel how the other children’s had been split, and that made all the difference.

The problem with that race was that everyone had to run it whether they wanted to or not. In this way, though we all started and ended in the same place, it was not a fair race. Yet once it was run, everyone had to contend with the questions that always arise within us when we compare ourselves to others. Some would remember their indifference to the race and dismiss these questions; others, I am sure, did not.

Making money is a lot like a game we are all made to play. As we line ourselves up at the starting line of adulthood, money can seem to be a universal measurement upon which everyone’s value is based. After all, everyone wants it, and everyone would like more of it, and some succeed in making lots and lots of it and some do not. I was one of those who did not.

I did not because my energy was split. I am a writer. I do not write to make money. I write because I love to write. I had written stories since I was a boy. In this way, writing was like play. Earning money, meanwhile, seemed like the most adult thing I could do. And so I played a game I didn’t want to play: the game of making money for money’s sake. I thought it was a stupid game, but I was still unhappy when I lost at it.

I lost and lost and lost at it until I decided to play a different game: I would see how much money I could make doing something I would happily do for free. I knew when I began playing this game that I did not really understand the rules, nor was I very good at it. No matter. The key to any game is the wanting to play it, and I wanted to. By and by, I got better at it, and I am still playing it today.

Games are great, but it is important to remember that they’re make-believe. We create the starting line and finishing line; we make the rules and choose the prize. And no one has to play. I can quit anytime I want, and look around the playground, and see what interests me most. That interest, that ceaseless creative impulse that has traveled with me my entire life, remains the only authority to which I must listen. Only it knows which races are worth my running, and which ones can be left to others.

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 Protector

August 13th, 2015

It doesn’t matter what I’m writing, whether it’s a memoir or an essay or a poem or novel, in order to write honestly and sincerely I must forget myself. I must forget the Bill who looks in the mirror, who checks his followers on Twitter, who squints at the scale in the morning, who replays past conversations in his mind, who gloats over praise and agonizes over criticism. This Bill has many opinions, particularly about what I’ve written. He believes most of what I’ve written is brilliant or horrible. There is very little in between.

I have to forget about him, though it’s not always so easy at first, because he believes he’s looking out for my well-being. He’s a protector of sorts. He’s just not exactly clear what he’s protecting me from. No matter, his vigilance is one of his most endearing qualities. He knows a threat when he sees it, so he keeps his eyes outward, hoping to find trouble before it finds us.

Which is why I like writing in the isolation of my workroom. There’s nothing to see here, just the same four walls, the same windows and clock, the same blank screen. I know immediately when my protector has gone off duty. The room grows immediately quieter. Now I can hear the answers to the questions the steady hum of vigilance had distorted. I cannot hear those answers until I forget to care how anyone else would answer them.

Now I’m writing. And now I experience a lovely transparency. I am not worried about what the protector was protecting because it doesn’t exist. Forgotten are all requirements, all bills and arguments and comparisons and grievances. Now light just passes through. I can only write for so long, however, before I realize I can hear the clock ticking and the cars on the street outside my window. I’m back in the world, and I remember I can be seen again.

It’s not long before I meet my protector again, but the more I write, the less I seem to need him. The older I get, the closer he gets to retirement. I won’t throw him a party or buy him a gift when he’s done. In fact, I doubt I’ll recognize his passing until I look in the mirror and realize I am actually looking back at myself.

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

Effortless Acceptance

August 11th, 2015

For the first twenty years or so of my writing life, I experienced mostly rejection. For the last five or so years, I’ve experienced mostly acceptance. In the midst of all that rejection, why something was or was not accepted seemed very complicated to me. I have since reduced rejection and acceptance down to this: rejection is always an expression of effort, and acceptance is always an expression of effortlessness.

It takes great effort to force a story to be what I want it to be instead of what it wants to be. Characters must be corralled and directed. Some characters want to be heard while I want to silence them; other character want to die while I want to keep them alive; some characters want break up while I want them to stay together. A story’s effortless path is always its most honest, compelling, surprising, and satisfying. To follow this path is to accept that the story always knows more than I do. What a relief when I stop trying to build a flower and instead help it grow.

It also takes great effort to tell a story I am not thoroughly interested in telling. Every story is a question and an answer. It takes effort to train my attention on questions that do not interest me. It takes no effort to leave my attention on interesting questions. I don’t know why some questions interest me more than others. I don’t know why people aren’t always interested in the questions I find so very, very interesting. But I do know that I need to trust my curiosity. I must accept that it always leads me someplace interesting and alive, and that is always reason enough to follow it.

It also takes effort to withhold a story. Once I’ve written a story I love, that story wants to be shared. All its energy is pulling away from me. But I know that to share the story is to give it away, to let the readers make it their own. Tempting to keep what I deem valuable to myself. Too late for that. The story is like a child craving to get out of the house. Our relationship can remain intact even as it forms new relationships out in the world.

It also takes effort to believe you are not good enough when you were born good enough. It takes effort to believe you are not talented when you are exactly as talented as you need to be to tell the story you want to tell. It takes effort to believe you aren’t smart enough, clever enough, lucky enough, or connected enough. It always takes effort to reject yourself, to believe you are broken, that you were somehow born without the equipment necessary to complete the journey you most want to make.

If you’ve lived a lot of rejection, that first experience of acceptance might feel ecstatic, the way simply breathing is so pleasing in those first moments after a fever breaks. Soon, however, the effortlessness of acceptance becomes the norm. There is no effort required to be myself, there is only the determination necessary to remember that nothing else has ever been required of me.

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

A Friendly World

August 10th, 2015

If you are a writer then you are also probably a reader, and somewhere in your reading past you probably discovered a writer who inspired you, not only to pursue writing, but reconnected you to life in a way you found both surprising and necessary. You love this writer and you are vaguely in awe of this writer. You describe the author as a “great writer”; you might even call this author a genius.

It is understandable. To be inspired and reconnected to life is a holy experience – by which I mean an experience that offers a transcendent glimpse of life beyond our daily, physical struggles. It is a great relief to glimpse life from this vantage. I am always grateful and feel mildly in debt to anyone who can help me do so. I feel as though I owe them something, and because most are dead, it is tempting to worship them, to honor them as one would a saint.

But if I truly want to honor those writers who most inspire me, I must acknowledge our equality. To create a hierarchy of humanity is, in my mind, to fall from that transcendent perch, back to earth where this one makes more than that one, and some are stronger and some are weaker, and some are smarter and some are more talented. We call this Hell on Earth – or what pessimists refer to as “reality.”

Everything inspiring ever written was born from the awareness of our inescapable equality. This equality so contradicts the laws of the world we believe we live in, that it is often difficult to perceive. The stillness and quiet of the workroom is a great place to practice finding it again and again. If I can find it a hundred times when I am alone, perhaps I’ll find it once in the company of others – and in that holy moment, find the friendly world in which I have always lived.

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