Howard’s Gift

February 26th, 2015

I knew Howard in 8th grade, but we became friends my freshman year in high school. Howard lived with his mother and younger brother in a small apartment on Thayer Street, which struck me as unusual because Thayer Street was a merchant strip that ran through Brown University where my friends and I all hung out – it wasn’t some place you lived.

Unless you were Howard. It was in his little bedroom that he played Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” for me, which freaked me out at the time. Howard thought it was hilarious that the song so terrified me.

I liked Howard. There was simply no social circle into which Howard would naturally fit. The other friends I was collecting at this time were mostly actors and artists and musicians and the sons and daughters of academics. Though I had the arrow of my ambition trained on being a writer, I was also an athlete and generally a wholesome sort of fellow. I felt hopelessly traditional compared to my new friends. If you had looked up “American Boy” in an encyclopedia you would have likely found my picture. My friends, meanwhile, tended to dress in long black coats, pierced their ears, and listened to a lot of New Wave, which, frankly, I thought sucked.

I don’t know what Howard was. He was fidgety and excitable and eager. While walking home with me once he said, “I just learned the word decay, Bill. Don’t you love that word?” That was Howard. One evening, I decided to join my artist friends in a giant game of Manhunt, which was sort of like tag. It was weird playing this child’s game as a teenager, but it was fun anyway. Howard was there. Right as we were getting ready to play, he handed me a bracelet.

“This is for you,” he said. “It’s got something in Latin written on it. I can’t read it but it means, ‘Unlike any other.’ That’s you.”

I didn’t know what to say. I thanked him, but at fourteen I did not have the words express my true gratitude. How easy it is to become lost in your own boring story about yourself, and what a relief to be reminded of what we all are.

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

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Clever Cannibalism

February 24th, 2015

I watched Rebel Without A Cause a couple times in my early twenties and not again until last week. I had a few clear memories from the movie: James Dean crying at the end, “I had the bullets”; James Dean crying at the beginning, “You’re tearing me apart!”; and then this scene:

Dean has been pulled into the office of the guy who played The Chief in Get Smart. The Chief is playing a cop who specializes in juvenile delinquency. He’s tough but with a good heart. I remembered that Dean was drunk and a little belligerent, and at one point The Chief pulls back his jacket to expose his own midsection. “You want to hit something,” he tells Dean. “Hit me.” Dean does, and hurts his hand. That’s exactly what I remembered. I remembered it very clearly. It made a big impression on me at the time.

Here’s what actually happened in the scene: Dean is pulled into The Chief’s office. He’s drunk and belligerent. The Chief is egging him on a little and so Dean takes a swing at him. The Chief easily avoids the wild hook and throws Dean into a chair by his desk. He, The Chief, then removes his jacket. There is a mild threat in how he removes the jacket, puffing up his midsection as if to say, “I’m a man, remember – not just some authority figure.” Then he says to Dean, “You want to hit something, hit the desk.” Dean does, and hurts his hand.

The memoirist in me took note. That I turned the desk into The Chief’s body is precisely the sort of dreamlike cannibalism for which the imagination is notorious. How resourceful it is, and how undaunted by something as trivial as factual truth. All the facts of my life will be devoured by time, leaving within me with their rich nutrients, the actual truth from which all stories grow.

If you have a question, concern, or quibble you’d like addressed in this space, please, feel free to contact me. Answering other people’s question is one of those things that pleases me most.

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

Rejecting Stories

February 23rd, 2015

My wife and I have been homeschooling our youngest son for the last few years. In September we mentioned to him that the woman from the state who evaluates him thought that with a little work he’d be ready to take the G. E. D. in another year. He was very excited to hear this, and for the first time since we pulled him out of public school embraced the math, science, and social studies work we gave him.

Soon, however, his enthusiasm for this sort of formal study began to wane. He would cut off his math class after fifteen minutes, complaining he’d never use algebra in his daily life. He said the documentaries we found on American History and biology, no matter how well produced, were dull. I reminded him of his desire to pass the G. E. D., but this was ineffectual. Boring is boring, he said, and within a couple months our preparations for the G. E. D. had come to a standstill.

Then, a few weeks ago, my wife and I had a little conversation with him about the G. E. D. “What’s the point in preparing for it?” he asked. “I’m just going to fail it.” And then I understood. Of course his procrastination had nothing to do with the practicality of algebra or boring documentaries. It was that story he was telling himself. Why would anyone do anything if they “knew” they were going to fail? It makes no sense.

He has since returned to his G. E. D. studies for reasons that I will save for another day. But for that stretch when he was not studying for the test he very much wanted to pass, he reminded me of all the writers I knew who were not writing books they wanted to write. Usually these writers will complain about needy children or exhausting jobs, but they will rarely talk about the real reason: the stories they are telling about the stories they want to tell.

Having talked to and worked with hundreds of writers over the last few years, I have concluded that if a person sincerely wants to do something, the only reason they are not doing it is because of the story they are telling themselves. These are stories of impending failure, of lack of talent or of the world not being ready for their genius. We need to reject these stories as if we were editors in a journal of our own. Reject them, and tell only the stories we want to share with the world.

If you have a question, concern, or quibble you’d like addressed in this space, please, feel free to contact me. Answering other people’s question is one of those things that pleases me most.

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

Preacher

February 17th, 2015

A student asked me an unusual question recently. I was teaching a class addressing only the emotional mastery required to be an author instead of the mastery of craft. I can get pretty animated when I teach, particularly around this subject. Confidence, after all, is not something that can be taught in the way story structure and query letters can be taught. Confidence must be found every workday within every author. As a teacher of this discipline, I can but remind my students that they have it if they choose to look for it.

After class the student asked if I had been an evangelical minister before teaching writing. We had a good laugh at this, but there was something serious beneath her question that I did not know how to answer at the time. I have lived my life as a secular man, but I have always understood the value of a good sermon. The minister, like the singer, like the poet, like the teacher, says, “Let my joy become your joy; let my belief become your belief.” This cannot be done mechanically. This transference, if it occurs, is shared only through the artistry of love.

I suppose the classroom is a kind of church to me. There is nothing holier than creation itself, whether creation takes the form of a baby, or a flower, or a memoir. In the classroom we gather to ask ourselves how we can create something on purpose, how we can look within ourselves to find something to add to whole of creation. I know it is easy to look at what we write and think, “It’s just a little story.” But it is just as easy to look at a flower and think how it is merely one of trillions, just as one can look at a newborn and think how, despite its fresh little body, that child, like seven billion other bodies, is headed inevitably for the grave.

Numbers always fail us in this way; their values are too easily compared. Creation assigns no such hierarchy, nor does it acknowledge subtraction. Which is why the poet and the preacher and the teacher can say, “What’s mine is yours if you want it.” There’s the miracle of life – what can be given without being lost, what can evolve as it remains the same, what can be learned while it is already known.

If you have a question, concern, or quibble you’d like addressed in this space, please, feel free to contact me. Answering other people’s question is one of those things that pleases me most.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Natural Light

February 16th, 2015

In my day-to-day life I want only ease and happiness. I want to begin every project with enthusiasm and finish it promptly and confidently. Unfortunately, things do not always go as effortlessly as I intend. Rarely a day goes by where I do not struggle, or doubt, or become bored, or procrastinate. I am human. Still, my aim remains trained on ease and happiness, no matter how the arrow of my day may eventually fly.

On the other hand, while I enjoy my students’ and clients’ triumphs and confidence, I remain most interested in their fear and hopelessness and disappointment. It is selfish in a way. The only remedy for fear is fearlessness, just as hope is the only remedy for hopelessness, and contentment the only remedy for disappointment. Explanations, and techniques, and advice will only take you so far. In the end, there remains only the choice between one thing and another.

Which is why I so look forward to those moments when my students and clients can perceive only one choice. Now I get to choose the other. I do so for them, ostensibly, so that they can see they have another choice and then make it of their own freewill – but how could this choice not be for me as well? When is it a bad time to choose fearlessness, hope, or contentment?

I can think of none, and yet there I am from time to time choosing fear, choosing jealousy, choosing regret. I never enjoy my own darkness, and I often bitch about the inadequate light by which I must find my way. But find my way I do, and once I’ve returned I am always happy to have discovered another path back to a world where choices are mine again.

If you have a question, concern, or quibble you’d like addressed in this space, please, feel free to contact me. Answering other people’s question is one of those things that pleases me most.

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

My Only Problem

February 12th, 2015

In every story we tell there is always a problem our hero must overcome. Sometimes the problem is a killer that needs to be caught; sometimes it is a lover who cannot be won; sometimes it is a terrible storm that must be survived; sometimes it is a dragon that must be slain. In almost every case the hero must do something, must solve a puzzle, or climb a mountain, or win a race, or learn a skill. Problems, after all, aren’t going to solve themselves.

On the other hand, the challenges we face while writing our stories are a little different. Yes, I must figure out my story, must find a plausible and entertaining beginning, middle, and end, must write and rewrite until the pieces come together. But a story isn’t a problem; nothing appeared in my way to keep me from where I wanted to go. I was one who chose to head off into the dark of my imagination until I’d found a way. That’s not a problem; that’s called life.

But sometimes while I am finding my way problems do appear to arise in my path. They often come in the form of questions, such as, “What if this story stinks?” or, “What if I never finish it?” or, “What if it’s unoriginal?” As soon as I ask such a question it is answered in my imagination, and I perceive a future in which my story stinks, or is forever unfinished, or is unoriginal. I do not like this future at all. And yet in the moment I am imagining it, this future feels more real than the present. Now, this future is a problem that needs to be fixed. I want to dismantle it and build another one.

Unfortunately, there is nothing to dismantle. The only way to solve the problem of the future is to ignore it. This is the opposite of the stories we tell, where problems are ignored at the hero’s peril. I must not mistake myself for a storybook hero. Unlike these paper kings and knights, my future remains unwritten, and my only problem remains the belief that what might happen is more important than what is.

If you have a question, concern, or quibble you’d like addressed in this space, please, feel free to contact me. Answering other people’s question is one of those things that pleases me most.

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 Key

February 10th, 2015

A reader wrote to me recently with a challenge. She’d been given an assignment by an editor but was having trouble finishing it, was worried that she wouldn’t get it right, was finding herself procrastinating when she should be writing. How, she wanted to know, does a writer deal with such pressures?

It was a good question, and one I’d confronted recently myself. I rarely write for an editor other than myself, but an opportunity had come along to write a piece for Edible Seattle (the Jan/Feb issue – on shelves now!). Even though I knew and liked the editor, and even though the editor was familiar with my work, when I sat down to actually write my essay I felt the shadow of an old hobgoblin. For whom was I writing, the editor or me? She was the one, after all, who would ultimately accept or reject the piece. How could I write it to ensure it pleased her?

The answer, of course, was I couldn’t. So I wrote for the only person whom I could please: me. I wrote it by asking the only question I could answer, “Is this what I most want to say?” It is a kind of trick, admittedly. I enter the dream of the story I am telling, a silent bubble within which I am temporarily shielded from other people’s preferences and opinions. What a pleasant place. I go there as often as I can. And on that day I went there long enough that when I emerged from the dream and realized I hadn’t once thought of the editor, I knew she’d accept it. And she did.

I do not blame my reader friend for procrastinating. Who would want the job of trying to figure out what will please someone else? There are as many right answers to that question as there are people on the planet, and each answer sealed within the vault of their imagination. Fortunately, what pleases us is readily available, is ready to be unlocked if we but apply the key of our unique curiosity.

By the way: If YOU have a question, concern, or quibble you’d like addressed in this space, please, feel free to contact me. Answering other people’s question is one of those things that pleases me most.

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 Level Field

February 9th, 2015

Everything I have ever done that has been singled out, that has received the attention of others, that has for one moment been called “special,” grew out of my trust in humanity’s absolute equality. For much of my life I had neither faith nor interest in absolute equality. That is, I wanted everyone to have a fair chance, I wanted society to level the playing field as much as possible, but let’s face it – life appeared neither fair nor equal. There were winners and losers, and that being the case, I would very much prefer to be a winner.

Yet the more I saw the world filled with have and have-nots, with the talented and talentless, with the lucky and the unlucky, the harder it became for me to create anything I wanted to share, or achieve anything I wanted to remember. Instead, my attention increasingly circled around this one question: Which am I? If life is unfair and unequal, if we are not all born with the identical potential, then where do I land? Is that rejection letter a message from my upper limit? Do I or do I not have what it takes?

Then I remembered the first race I ever ran. It was in second grade, and the teacher lined up the entire class and told us to run until we reached the far wall. One, two, three, Go! And away we went. I was the first to touch that wall, but as I looked down at the row of children arriving a stride or two later than I, I understood – somehow – that I wasn’t actually faster than anyone, I was simply the one who was most completely invested in the race on that day. The result that singled me out was the consequence of my attention, and nothing else.

I cannot prove this, of course. I don’t really know about fast twitch muscles and slow twitch muscles and genetics and the rest. What I do know is that this understanding has served me well every since. If I can but remember to see the field as utterly level, ignore the great disparity in human achievement and experience, ignore awards and sales and money and age and disease, ignore everything but what I wish to create and where I wish to go, then I do not need to ask, “Which am I?” I only need to ask, “What do I want?”

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Where I Am

February 5th, 2015

I have dedicated my last two blogs in Author (February 2 and February 3) and yesterday’s blog on No One Is Broken to the concept of unconditional love. And by love I don’t mean only one person’s love for another person, I mean love in all its manifestations – passion, curiosity, peace, forgiveness, joy, enthusiasm, humor, confidence, calm. In short, every good feeling we would ever want to experience.

If anyone ought to know that love – or, more simply, what we feel – is unconditional, it is a writer. When I write I sit at my desk where, except for the sweep of the clock’s hand or the sound of traffic on the street outside my window, the conditions of my world remain essentially unchanged. And yet I can feel anything. I can feel excited or I can feel frightened; I can feel abandoned or supported; I can feel tragic or elated. I can feel the entire spectrum of human emotions, and all that changes is what I think, where I direct the light beam of my attention.

But oh, the rejection letters! Oh, the sales! Oh, my bank account! It’s all very well and good to sit alone at your desk, away from the bright lights and noises and opinions of the world and feel whatever you want to feel, but reality and all its jostling and requirements and disappointments is out there waiting. Writing happens in the sovereign kingdom of the imagination. Meanwhile, the sun will rise and set, markets will climb and fall, people will live and die no matter where we point our attention.

So true. But even though I prefer to write in the peace and stability of my office, I could write at a café, or a train station, or even the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. It wouldn’t be as easy as at my desk, but I could still do it. I could still pull my attention from two strangers’ conversation, from the train’s piercing whistle, from the shouts and urgency of commerce, and direct it toward the story I wish to tell. And once I had, I wouldn’t be at home, or in a café, or a train station or stock exchange, I would feel where the story was taking me, and that’s where I would be.

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

My Only Job

February 3rd, 2015

I wrote yesterday about how we already have everything we want. However, as a friend pointed out to me, feeling good by itself, which is all I believe anyone really wants, won’t buy you groceries. This is quite true. And it is also true that it is hard to feel good when you’re starving, or living on the streets, or in the middle of a war. So maybe feeling good is actually what comes after we’ve secured groceries, and put a roof over our heads, and the cannons have ceased their thunder. Maybe feeling good is only the payoff once we have dealt with the necessary business, not of living, but simply surviving, of not-dying.

Maybe. Except that while it is hard to feel good while starving, or living on the streets, or in the middle of the war, it is not impossible, and that makes all the difference. Somewhere someone has found peace in a warzone, has found safety while homeless, has found strength while starving, the same as somewhere someone can find their balance while standing on a tightrope strung between skyscrapers. Conditions cannot control how we feel, though they can challenge us. When we surrender what we feel to our conditions, when we make our wellbeing conditional rather than unconditional, we surrender the very life we are supposedly trying to maintain in our struggle for survival.

Which is why I love the arts. What if, I asked myself many years ago, I could feed myself and keep a roof over my head simply by doing what felt good? What if my job was to feel good? What if telling stories and inspiring writers and creative people would be all I needed to do to survive? What if this story – that feeling good is only what comes after the dirty business of survival has been dealt with – is a myth we’ve been feeding ourselves since the days in the caves?

I have to answer and answer and answer this question every moment of every day, the same as I must find my balance whenever I stand. Mostly, I live on level ground, but high ledges and balances beams and even tightropes present themselves from time to time. I’m going to fall; I have accepted this. No matter. My balance remains within me, there for me to find whatever the conditions.

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