The Saint Within

July 22nd, 2016

Every writer I know began as a young reader. Most read hungrily once they’d discovered the intimate pleasure of the written word. It feels like escape, this travelling through imaginary worlds. It does not matter what world you are reading about – whether it is the once-real world of Czarist Russia or the unreal world of Narnia – it is all imaginary, for your body is one place while your mind is in another.

But reading is actually the opposite of escape. No story can live without the reader’s emotional participation. The writer’s words are but directions to a place within the reader where sadness and joy and grief and curiosity and boredom and hope and despair reside. The words alone are a skeleton; the reader’s felt responses to those words are the flesh and blood of every story ever told.

What’s more, every story ever told grows from the same fertile thought: Life matters. It matters that someone fell in love or someone was crowned queen. It matters that a father and son were reunited. It matters that the killer was caught. Life is not just a bunch of meaningless crap that happens to us between birth and death. The story guides us to that place within us where we know life matters, where we know that we are interested for a reason, where we know that we matter and are living on purpose.

This is why stories and poems and songs were my church and my state growing up. I turned to them to remind me of what I so often forgot, what I so often lost track of in the hurly-burly of life’s circus. I had thought that I would need to make these heroes who’d saved me from myself less saintly, so that I could take my place beside them on the shelf. Instead, I found again the saint within me, the unblemished self who remains unaffected by my woeful stories of meaninglessness, who finishes the stories others had started, and who now begins my stories that others might finish.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Realists

July 20th, 2016

When I was younger and of the opinion that love was something one could find in the same manner in which a food enthusiast discovers new delights at exotic banquets, I dated an artist named Fishy. This was not her real name, but one she had adopted herself. This was a clue I ignored because I was in the habit of ignoring clues back then as they consistently interfered with my sampling of the female buffet.

Fishy was like a reverse superhero. By day she was an artist and an intellectual, who wore John Lennon glasses, spoke with a dry affect, and divided the world into those things worthy of her approval and those things that were not. By night she became just Lilly, a very wounded young woman, who was so fragile I thought she would crack in my arms. I had dated her because I was drawn to Fishy’s intellectual strength, only to discover I was actually dating Lilly’s frailty.

Before it ended, she asked me if I was an optimist or a pessimist. I told her I was an optimist, an identity a young intellectual like Fishy was not allowed to embrace, but which Lilly secretly yearned for. In retrospect, however, I was neither. I am actually a realist. I believe in reality, which in its fullness is better than the optimist’s best-case scenario. Reality, which is the whole of life, is beyond judgment, beyond suffering, beyond tragedy.

But it is also beyond my ability to perceive. Had I been able to, I would have seen past Fishy to Lilly, and would have seen past Lilly to that part of her that was incapable of being wounded. I came to understand that Lilly perceived me as someone immune to hurt. I wasn’t, of course; the little me stumbling around the world could feel just as wounded as Fishy. But Lilly must have sensed in me that which runs through all of us, that which perceives the pain but does not live it. She wanted to draw it from me for herself, but I could not give her what she already had.

Which is why I encourage writers to go toward their pain in their work, but not to write about their pain. Rather, learn in your work to see through your pain, to see beyond the veil of suffering, for it is in that space you will meet yourself, the reality you have always been seeking.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Gift and Challenge of Writers’ Conferences

July 19th, 2016

In a couple weeks I’ll be teaching at the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference. If you write and you live in the Northwest, I highly recommend it. If you write and you live elsewhere, I recommend you find a conference near you and attend it. Though be warned: the very thing that makes writers’ conferences so inspiring, grounding, and rewarding is also what makes them so very terrifying to most of the writers I meet there – namely, other people.

First, it’s great to learn or remember that there are other people like you, other writers who must find time between work and children and husbands and wives and girlfriends and boyfriends to write; other writers who would rather write than market what they’ve written; other writers who feel blocked sometimes; other writers who feel strangely alone when they try to talk to non-writers about the characters who talk to them when they’re alone at their desk.

And you’ll meet writers who are maybe more established than you, who have seen their books climb to the tippy-top of bestseller lists, or have won prestigious awards, and you will discover you have more in common with these writers than you imagined. They too worry that no one will be interested in what they’ve written; they too find themselves in the middle of a story with no idea how to reach its end; they too freak out when a manuscript comes back from their editor slashed with red ink.

And you’ll meet editors and agents, those otherwise faceless gatekeepers, and you will learn that they are more like you than you imagined. If you listen closely, you will notice that the publishing world, the world of acceptance and rejection, of advances and sales, is a world run on preference and intuition and hunches. You will learn that an agent or editor can’t predict the future (though they might claim they can), and that their choices are guided by taste and desire the same as your book was written through the pursuit of your taste and desire.

All of which will be tremendously helpful in putting this writing business into its proper human perspective, if you can resist the temptation to compare yourself to any of those people. In my experience, the temptation to do so is immense. The writing world is filled with comparison. We compare ourselves when we give awards, when we glance at our Amazon ranking, when we learn what another writer received as an advance. We compare ourselves when we edit other writers in our imaginations, thinking what we would have done and wondering why they did what they did.

This comparison is always as frightful as it is useless. Everything wonderful you have ever written or created or thought or loved or hoped for has flowed from a place within you, where the only comparison that occurs is the understanding of the difference between that which is in service to your story and that which is not. Writing’s dreamlike pleasure is freedom from that other comparison, within which lurks the quiet thought that when your score is tallied, you’ll come up short. This is the assassin of fears: What if I’m not good enough? To even ask the question is to kill your desire to create anything.

Fortunately, the question is unanswerable, so it need never have been asked. In fact, you can stop asking it anytime you want, and you’ll find its death grip on your imagination is instantly loosed. I know it is less dramatic to have always been good enough, to see victory and loss as just scenes in a drama of our invention, but it remains the only understanding from which you can create. And in truth, it is not so hard to look around a writers’ conference at all the other people worrying and rejoicing, arguing and agreeing, and see writers whose stories are varied, but whose love of storytelling shines equally bright.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Look At It

July 18th, 2016

We often say that seeing is believing. Good advice, that. It’s one the thing to be told that the Louvre is amazing, it’s another thing to behold it yourself. And by the way, don’t be a sucker, don’t believe every story every fool tells you. Go see for yourself. Let experience be your teacher, and so make your own decisions about what is and isn’t true.

All of this is true in its way, but the reverse is true also: believing is seeing. You cannot see what you do not believe exists. For instance, perhaps you would like to make a living publishing ebooks on CreateSpace. If you believe such a thing is possible, you will begin to see evidence to support this belief even before you write your first ebook. The evidence will all be circumstantial, of course. You will notice stories about this first-time author who sold 100,000 books, or that midlist writer who abandoned traditional publishing in favor of doing it herself and is selling more than ever before. The evidence will accumulate to support the belief until you try your hand at it and now you are maybe one more success story to support someone else’s belief.

Or maybe you don’t believe it. It’s all luck and you aren’t lucky. You’ve got a long list of evidence of your unluck – the rejection letters, the cheating boyfriend, the alcoholic mother. Life’s a crapshoot whose rewards are given to the deserving and undeserving equally. Look at all the lousy books on the bestseller list. You’ve done better and yet look at your rejection letters. You won’t be a sucker and believe in what you cannot see. Look at life—look at it! Look at that mess. How can anyone not see what a mess it is?

I used to take this last question for an accusation, but maybe it is just the opposite. To see something lovely I must first believe in loveliness. Otherwise, I will see only ugliness and ugliness cynically masquerading as beauty. I waited a long time for the world to tell me what it was, all the while it was only listening to me, echoing everything I thought in what I saw.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

It’s Happening

July 13th, 2016

Something is always happening.

How much time does a writer spend in a day where nothing appears to be happening? How many cumulative hours idle and un-writing before the keyboard? How many days with no word from editors or agents or contest judges? Nothing is happening. We wander our homes and apartments, surrounded by the exact same books and furniture as the day before. We turn on the TV, and isn’t that another rerun of Law and Order? Why isn’t anything happening? What must I do to get things to finally start happening?

Nothing. Because something is always happening. Movement is the only constant of the universe. You were not idle at the computer, you were waiting. Waiting is the silent awareness of movement and change. You cannot make anything happen, because something is always happening. You can only choose what happening you will join.

Life in this way is one endless playground, but how often has the writer wandered its periphery? How often has he stood by the fence watching the games in progress? Something is happening for them, he thinks, but not for me. Lonely me. Now an idea comes to the writer, as ideas do, and he wanders with it along the fence, and it is an interesting idea, and for a time he has forgotten to tell the story of how nothing is happening and he is not wanted.

And as the writer wanders, some player spies him by the fence. What is happening there? the player wonders. Why does it look like he’s doing something when he’s doing nothing? How wonderful that must be to live without the knowledge that this game must end, and then begins the dull, uncertain nothingness between games. How nice it would be if the game never ended, if something were always happening.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Storytelling Magic

July 11th, 2016

All storytellers must convince their readers that there is a problem. Without problems there would be no stories. But conditions are not seen universally as problems. For instance, my oldest son, Max, attended public schools and thrived. My youngest son, Sawyer, so hated public schools—well, all schools—that we pulled him out and are now schooling him at home. The problem for Sawyer was not school, but the combination of school and Sawyer.

So if Sawyer were to write a story about his time in school, he would have to do so in such a way that the Maxes of the world understood why school seen through Sawyer’s eyes was a problem. For the story to be moving and compelling, the Maxes of the world would absolutely have to believe that this whole school thing stinks. Ideally, the Maxes of the world would begin to question why they ever liked school in the first place.

Then Sawyer, like all storytellers, would have to pull a little storytelling magic: he would solve the problem. The problem, however, would have to appear to solve itself. That is, in the very best stories, the resolution is, as Aristotle said, surprising but inevitable. Like the best mystery writer, the clues should have been present all the time. Or, to put it another way, the problem arrived already containing its own solution.

Or, to put it yet another way, there was never any problem to begin with. The only true problem was one of perception. Once the truth is perceived, the problem no longer exists the same as a dream no longer exists; the same as the dream never existed. This is the storyteller’s magic – to trick us into believing what isn’t real so that we might remember what is.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Saint Within

July 8th, 2016

Every writer I know began as a young reader. Most read hungrily once they’d discovered the intimate pleasure of the written word. It feels like escape, this travelling through imaginary worlds. It does not matter what world you are reading about – whether it is the once-real world of Czarist Russia or the unreal world of Narnia – it is all imaginary, for your body is one place while your mind is in another.

But reading is actually the opposite of escape. No story can live without the reader’s emotional participation. The writer’s words are but directions to a place within the reader where sadness and joy and grief and curiosity and boredom and hope and despair reside. The words alone are a skeleton; the reader’s felt responses to those words are the flesh and blood of every story ever told.

What’s more, every story ever told grows from the same fertile thought: Life matters. It matters that someone fell in love or someone was crowned queen. It matters that a father and son were reunited. It matters that the killer was caught. Life is not just a bunch of meaningless crap that happens to us between birth and death. The story guides us to that place within us where we know life matters, where we know that we are interested for a reason, where we know that we matter and are living on purpose.

This is why stories and poems and songs were my church and my state growing up. I turned to them to remind me of what I so often forgot, what I so often lost track of in the hurly-burly of life’s circus. I had thought that I would need to make these heroes who’d saved me from myself less saintly, so that I could take my place beside them on the shelf. Instead, I found again the saint within me, the unblemished self who remains unaffected by my woeful stories of meaninglessness, who finishes the stories others had started, and who now begins my stories that others might finish.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Why You Don’t Have To Fear The Writing Game

July 6th, 2016

The first time I interviewed the author Richard Bach, he described an evening he spent with Kurt Vonnegut, Truman Capote, and Leon Uris. “It was so disappointing,” he said. “Here I was sitting with these three great minds, and all they wanted to talk about was agents and advances and sales.”

In the other writers’ defense, Bach had recently published Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which was in the process of setting sales records. Moreover, though I am sure he enjoyed the fruits of that success, no writer I’ve interviewed has ever shown less interest in the business side of this business. For instance, when he sold Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the editor who bought it had to convince him to accept an advance. He didn’t care; he just wanted people to be able to read it. “If I don’t give you an advance, they won’t market it,” she explained. “Fine,” he said. “Give me whatever you want.”

I think of Bach’s story of his disappointing evening with famous writers sometimes as I’ve watched Donald Trump wage his bizarre campaign for President. I understand that all politicians are saddled with a problematic relationship to honesty. I don’t know if it would be possible to get elected and say exactly what you believe all the time. It’s like trying to write a story that would please readers of science fiction, romance, and literary fiction. That said, I can’t remember a politician who seemed so transparently willing to say whatever needs to be said to win. I have no real idea what Trump actually believes. For all I know, he doesn’t want to build a wall and his best friend’s a Muslim.

It’s easy to judge Trump, especially if you share my political views. But judgment assumes we have nothing in common with the one we’re judging, and everyone I know has something in common with Trump. Trump is above all a survivor. Winning is his way of surviving. I would like to say I’ve never been preoccupied with my own survival, that I’ve never descended into grisly conversations about sales and advances and marketing, that I’ve never viewed other writers as my competition, that I’ve never been jealous, or looked upon writing as a game I must win and win and win and win. Unfortunately, I have found myself swimming for my life in this shallow end of the writing pool from time to time.

But I cannot begin to write until I forget about the fearful and uninspiring business of survival. To write I have to forget about winning and losing, success and failure, and even dying and living. The creative flow to which we all have equal access doesn’t care about survival because it knows no end. It just keeps flowing and flowing and flowing the way the earth keeps turning and turning and turning. To listen to that flow, I must speak its language, which is the language of life itself.

Whatever happens this November, that flow will keep flowing. Yes, I’ll be unhappy if things turn out differently than I hope, but I doubt the entire world will instantly go up in flames. To fear even that outcome is to join those chanting the song of doom against which we must build walls, as if we could ever stem the flow of life, as if life is a game to be won or lost.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

No Modifiers

July 5th, 2016

Writing is built on nouns and verbs. Adjectives and adverbs color, pass judgment on, and celebrate those nouns and verbs, but left on their own, adjectives and adverbs would be nothing but a collection of opinions about nothing. You could write an entire book without a single adjective and adverb, and probably someone already has.

Maybe this is why love is my favorite word. It is both a noun and a verb. Love is both an experience and expression. You can be aware of love as a feeling within you, and you can actively love someone or something. In this way, it is both things at once. It is both some thing and something you do. It is really a sentence all by itself.

Which is exactly like every living thing. Every living thing is a complete sentence. Every living thing is both a noun and a verb, for everything is doing something, even if that something is growing or dying, even if that something is nothing, for not acting is still a choice, which means it is an action. Nouns and verbs, I think, belong to God, while adjectives and adverbs belong to people. We invented every one of them and can become enormously attached to them.

It is hard to see the world without adjectives or adverbs. I’m not really used to it. Things are good or bad, ugly or beautiful, or done perfectly or imperfectly. Everything seems to require my modification, my stamp upon it. The stamp is in my mind alone. What I call beautiful another calls ugly. The stamp does not exist, only the thing it would pretend to label, which I can see truly only when I call it 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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Life Ought To Be As It Is

June 30th, 2016

A number of authors I have interviewed, particularly writers of commercial fiction, will in the course of discussing their maturation as writers mention a “first, horrible, autobiographical novel.” One writer described this first effort as the “worst novel ever written by anyone.” I thought nothing of it until I noticed that all these writers would go on to create works set in places, times, or professions (a magical land of wizards and dwarves, the Revolutionary War, international spy) with which they themselves had no personal acquaintance.

Most likely those first novels were fantasies. I do not mean the genre. Many of the best fantasy novels are not fantasies, which, to borrow from one of my favorite books, is “the attempt to correct in the mind a problem that does not exist.” And so a man remembers being a shy teenager, and remembers the boys that bullied him and the girls that wouldn’t date him, and writes a first novel in which a boy looking and sounding very much as he had exacts vengeance on his enemies and gets the girl.

The man had perceived a problem where one did not exist. He perceived the bullies as a problem and the girls not dating him as a problem. Within this perception of a problem he felt inadequate and incomplete, quite literally lacking, for if he had been enough the boys would not have bullied him and the girls would have desired him. And yet there was no problem. Everything that occurred with him, with the boys, and with the girls, occurred within the integrity of life. Everything that happened happened because of who he was and who the boys and girls were and where they were and when they were. To correct this is to attempt to correct life itself, and such attempts will always feel disingenuous.

If a writer wishes to write about his own past, he has must do so to remember, which is perhaps the opposite of dismember. He must see as whole what he had seen as broken. Or, he might take a version of himself, one free of the unhappy story he had once told himself in his unhappy past, and place this avatar in some foreign land so as not to be tempted to correct that with which he is too familiar, and call this avatar his hero, for that is what he is. Now this new story feels more real than the stories of what he had really known. And so he might say, “I write about life as it ought to be,” even as he is finally writing about life as it actually is.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter