If You Were Born To Write

February 5th, 2016

If you were born to write, you were born with curiosity and an imagination. You did not know you were born with these things because, unlike your fingers and toes, you could not see them, you could only use them. But just like your fingers and toes, you often used them even when you didn’t realize you were using them. Still, whatever your curiosity asked, your imagination answered; and whatever your imagination answered led to more interesting questions for your curiosity.

If you were born to write. you probably liked to daydream. You probably didn’t call it daydreaming. One moment you were watching television or listening to your teacher, and the next you had thought of some question, and when the answer came it was more interesting to you than what was happening in the world around. In fact, the distinction between the world inside you and the world outside of you was not so clear, because so often what happened inside was triggered by what happened outside. One fed the other, and each, you understood very early, was as important as the other.

If you were born to write you probably liked to read. Reading engaged your imagination in much the same way as play and daydreaming. You could see what you were reading as you read it, and you could feel the hero’s fear and jubilation, and you worried for his safety as if he were your friend. Sometimes you even imagined he was your friend, he felt so real to you. After all, someone else had dreamed him first, and so he was like those people you called friends who lived in that world outside of you, the world that so often sent you dreaming. What was called real, and what was called imagined, blended easily sometimes.

And if you were born to write, at some point a separation of sorts occurred. You decided to try writing a story of your own. This was even more exciting than reading a story, because now the questions, and the answers, and the daydreaming, and the heroes of stories all came together into one activity. It was hard to imagine a better activity, and yet you noticed not everyone was this interested in writing. Some people even called it boring.

You also noticed that not everyone liked to read the same stories, just as not everyone liked to watch the same movies or loved the same person. You noticed people in this way because other people were the ones with whom you wanted to share your stories. It was impossible to know who would be curious about your stories and who would not. But if you were born to write, you wanted to share what you had written, often for reasons you didn’t fully understand. There was money, and there was praise and attention, but then there was something else.

If you were born to write you knew that the something else had to do with the inseparable and ceaselessly creative link between curiosity and imagination. It was the one thing you could not see, and yet it was the one thing upon which so much depended. It was the one thing you could never touch in another, and yet the one thing you would always have in common with a stranger. It was what you thought of when you thought of yourself, and what you hoped to reach in others through your stories. Still, you don’t fully know why you write, other than you were born to, and that it feels like the easiest way to keep being you.

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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My Only Problem

February 4th, 2016

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 the 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.

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 to Beautiful Writing: Your Reader’s Imagination

February 3rd, 2016

Every writer I know would like to write beautifully. I can’t think of single writer who would like to write an ugly sentence or an ugly story. All of these writers are also readers, and they will occasionally talk about having read a beautiful book, or a book that was beautifully written. Writers and readers agree universally that we like beautiful writing, though there is not universal agreement as to which writing is beautiful and which is not – a disagreement that is the true source of writing’s beauty.

When we talk about beautiful writing, we sometimes describe it as poetic. This makes sense, though not because poetic language is fancier or more elaborate, but because it requires such economy. After all, the poet simply doesn’t have as much time as the novelist to get the job done. The poet must say what he wants to say in as few words as possible. And so, instead of explaining everything in great detail, the poet uses suggestive detail to point toward what he would like to say, allowing the readers to fill in that distance with their own imagination and thereby experience the joy of discovery when they perceive it.

This why readers will sometimes say of a poem, “I don’t get it.” The poet pointed toward something, but the reader could not see it. So it goes. Every reader comes equipped with their own imagination, their own memories and desires. Every imagination is as useful and capable as every other imagination, but not every imagination has been looking, so to speak, in the same direction. Just as some people will not get certain jokes, some readers simply will not be able to perceive what the writer is trying to show them.

All of which is meant to remind you, dear writer, that there is only so much you can do. No matter how thoroughly you rewrite a passage, no matter how many writing books you read, no matter which MFA program you attended, at some point the reader will get to decide whether they find what you’ve written beautiful or not. Of course I would like to believe that I am capable of writing something so beautiful, something so exquisitely evocative, that every reader of the English language would stand up and agree that I have hit the descriptive bull’s eye. I am not immune to the dream of creative perfection.

But I am also fiercely protective of my own choices. No one else gets to tell me what is beautiful and what is not. No one gets to tell me what I should or shouldn’t read, what I should or shouldn’t write, whom I should or shouldn’t love. My choices are my life and my sovereign right, and if that means Shakespeare doesn’t float my boat, so be it. And so I must grant my readers their sovereignty as well. I must grant them the right to be bored or confused by what I’ve written, or to be entertained and inspired by what I’ve written. I must be willing to give to others whatever I want for myself.

Because in the end, more than to be called a beautiful writer, or to sell a lot of books, or to win a lot of awards – in the end what I want most is to be free. Other people can call my writing beautiful or ugly, can buy my books or give me awards, but only I can grant myself freedom. The blank page is perfect for this reason. The blank page is a perfect space in which to answer the question, “What do I find most beautiful?” To listen honestly for that answer is to be instantly free, to instantly reacquaint myself with what I have always been.

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

Why Not To Judge Your Writing

February 2nd, 2016

It’s that time of year when I’ll begin judging submissions for the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association’s yearly writing contest. I’m happy to lend a hand because I know the contest often serves as a valuable career steppingstone for the winners, and that all the writers value the feedback they receive on their submissions. However, the nature of contests is such that I am required to assign numerical scores to every story I read. This is always the most difficult part of my assignment. I am a writer myself before I am a judge, and the writer in me must close his eyes when the judge ranks one story as quantifiably better than the other.

The worst thing I can do as a writer is to believe in good writing and bad writing. Actually, the worst thing I can do as a writer is to believe in good and bad period. The concept of good and bad, of right and wrong, is anathema to creativity. Once I have entered the creative flow of the story I want to tell, my only concern is what belongs in that story and what does not. This requires selectivity. That is, I must select one word or sentence or character over another. Yet this does not mean that one word is actually better than another word, just as a shovel is not better than a hammer unless I want to dig a hole.

No one is capable of making these choices, these selections, but me, for I am the only who knows the story I want to tell. For this reason, I must forget about the idea of good and bad while in that creative flow. I must forget about the idea that any thought, any story, any person is better than another person. I must see the world as neutrally as the eighty-eight keys on the piano – each one necessarily different from the other, but each equally valuable, useful, and deliciously responsive to the artist’s choice as any other.

I understand this neutrality, this absolute equality, largely contradicts my experience away from the desk. I inadvertently judge things as good or bad as I go about my day. But this is only because the creative selection process does not end when I stop writing. The difference is that instead of looking at a blank page, I am looking at the world of other people and the things they say and do and write. I cannot help but notice things that I enjoy and things I do not. I cannot help but want to read one book over another or to notice that I prefer peace to violence and agreement to argument.

But that does not mean I must judge these things. To judge is to determine that something that does exist should not exist. If this is true of something I see, then why should this not be true of me? I exist, after all, how do I know if I am good or bad? When I write, I cannot fear writing something that is bad, that should not exist. There is no right answer to the question, “Is this any good?” I can only answer the question, “Is this the story I want to tell?”

Which is why, though I take the job of reading and critiquing the story submissions seriously, I know the numbers I assign say nothing of that story’s actual value. Every story has served that writer equally, whether that writer wins or loses. It has been true of every story I have ever written, whether they were published or not. Every story brought me closer to myself, to the one who knows that only good can come of what sharing what I love with other people.

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 1st, 2016

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

Every Writer Is Their Own Lawyer

January 28th, 2016

I interview writers of all genres for Author magazine and Author2Author. If I wanted to, however, I could devote an entire magazine to interviews with writers who are or who have been lawyers. More lawyers migrate from their profession to book-writing than from any other profession – more than doctors, or teachers, or even journalists, strangely. I admit that I found this a little irritating at first. Must these life-long A Students be good at absolutely everything? Gradually, however, I understood that the overlap between writers and lawyers had less to do with achievement and far more to do with stories.

Lawyers are storytellers. One lawyer looks at the facts and says, “These facts show that the accused is innocent.” Another lawyer looks at those same facts and says, “These facts show that the accused is guilty.” Same facts, different story. Of course, depending on the story the lawyer is telling, they will choose to focus on some facts more than others; they might even choose to omit certain facts altogether. Such is storytelling.

It is useful sometimes to think of myself as a lawyer and my readers as the jury. You have perhaps heard that a writer should “show and not tell.” It’s true. I build my case, so to speak, by showing my hero saving a cat stranded in a tree so that my readers might reach the verdict that he’s a good guy. If I were to simply tell them the hero’s a good guy, they would have to trust me. By showing them and allowing them to make their own conclusions, I am asking my readers to trust themselves.

Once I am done telling my story, I remain a lawyer of sorts. Lawyers are hired to tell the story the client wants them to tell. If I were accused of some crime, I would hire a lawyer to look at the facts and tell the story of my innocence. To share a story I have written with the reading world is to subject myself to a snowstorm of facts: acceptance and rejection letters, advances, reviews, Amazon rankings, and bestseller lists. At such times I require my inner lawyer to maintain a story of my innocence.

Facts, after all, can tell many different stories, including the story of my guilt. It is possible to look at the facts and find myself accused of the crime of having written a boring book, or an irrelevant book, or simply a bad book. Judgment for such crimes is often swift and severe. The guilty are condemned to a life sentence without parole, for the talentless have no place in creative society.

I have started many such prison terms in my writing life, but my inner lawyer has always come to my rescue. He’s so reassuring. He has absolutely no doubt whatsoever of my innocence. Strangely, he doesn’t even want to talk to me about facts. He tells me to forget about the facts until I remember my innocence. He reminds me that a writer must tell the story he most wants to tell. The writer cannot let himself be imprisoned by convention, or the market, or some unwritten law about what is good and what is bad. He cannot write a single word until he is free. The page is blank for a reason.

I do love this lawyer of mine. Once I’m out of prison, he says, “Leave the facts to me, will you. Just get back to work.” Which I always do. Now that my conscience is clean I can return to the page, ready to trust my readers with a story of an innocent world.

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

How To Get The Best Results

January 27th, 2016

One afternoon many years ago I was driving through Seattle to pick up a friend who was visiting from Los Angeles. I was looking forward to seeing him, and so as I drove I found myself imagining our happy hello, and going out for drinks, and laughing at the funny stories he always told. In fact, his stories were always so interesting and funny I wondered if I would have any interesting and funny stories to tell him, and began planning what I might share—

Until I looked up and noticed that I was still driving and that I was about to run a red light. I slammed on the brakes, took a breath, and thought to myself, “I absolutely live my life for results.”

You couldn’t really blame me for doing so. I wanted a career as a writer. At that point the books I sent out always came back. Those were not the results I was hoping for. If the results didn’t change, I wouldn’t have a career. Caring about those results was just practical, and I have always wanted to make the most practical choice.

The problem with focusing and focusing and focusing on results is that they don’t yet exist. That’s the nature of results. When I spend all my time thinking about something I don’t have, it can seem as if I have nothing because that’s all I see. It’s dispiriting and, as any writer ought to know, highly impractical.

Because every time I begin a story, whether long or short, I have the same result in mind: to finish that story. But I will never finish a story by sitting down at my desk and thinking, “I need to finish this story. I need to finish this story. Oh, my God, the story isn’t finished yet. When is it going to be finished? What’s wrong with me?” No, the only way to finish a story to is to sit down at my desk, open a blank page, and ask, “What would I most like to say at this moment? What is one interesting sentence?”

Books are finished one interesting sentence at a time. There’s simply no other way to do it. The most practical question I can ask, whether I’m writing a book or building a career, is, “What is the most interesting choice I can make at this moment?” This simple question can feel a little reckless, I know. To ask it is to forget about the future, where all those very important results are waiting for me. To ask it sincerely is to believe that where I am is always more important than where I’m going.

I managed to make it to my friend safely that afternoon, and we did in fact have drinks, and tell each other stories, though I did not tell any of the ones I had planned. Somehow better ones came to me once we were together. There’s just no way to plan a successful conversation. The best I can do is show up and enjoy myself. It’s much easier to enjoy myself where I am, where all the traffic lights and streets signs actually exist to guide me where I want to go.

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

How To Accept Your Readers

January 26th, 2016

I wrote in this space recently about the relationship between self-acceptance and publishing acceptance. There is an immediate and almost tangible practicality to the practice of accepting myself – choosing to share the words and scenes and stories in which I am interested, for no other reason than I am interested in those words, scenes, and stories. There is, however, another less tangible and immediate group of people I must also practice accepting, just as regularly, if I hope to have any publishing success – namely, everyone else.

I am an author, meaning that unless I am writing in my journal, everything I write is written to be read by other people. While those other people are, thankfully, not in the room with me while I’m writing, I have occasionally gotten out of the house over the last fifty years, and whenever I do, I meet some of these folks and notice that each of them has their own idea about what is funny and what is not, and what is cool and what is not, and what is sexy and what is not. In other words, everyone has their own imagination, which is the final destination of everything conceived within my imagination.

As soon as I shared one thing I’d written with one other person, even someone I knew very well, I noticed this strange phenomenon: what I wrote and what they read were not precisely the same thing. Within the sanctity of their own imaginations, my readers ignored details I considered important while focusing on those I considered trivial. Readers would hate characters I loved and love characters I hated. No matter how carefully I crafted my story, no matter how many drafts I wrote or editors I hired, readers continued committing the unfortunate mistake of making up their own minds about what my story meant.

I had not understood, until I began sharing my work regularly, how much this difference between what I thought I had written and what my readers read had served as a quiet impediment to getting published. As a writer, I considered being misunderstood a kind of failure. Strangely, my job is not to be understood. My job is to write as clearly and honestly as I can, and then allow the reader to take whatever they need most from what I have written.

But to do so I must accept that everyone is on an equally important journey, and that everyone is their own best guide toward where they are going. This is not always so easy for me to accept. Sometimes as I go about my day, I see or meet people doing or saying things that make no sense to me. It is tempting at such times to think, “What is wrong with them that they would do that?” or, “What is wrong with me that I don’t understand them?”

The answer in both cases is always “Nothing,” but to accept that answer I must trust in something I cannot immediately perceive. Fortunately, I do this all the time. I cannot perceive the success of a story while I am writing it. All I know is that I want to write it. On most days, that is enough. I trust that what I want for that story will come. It will come in the form of other people finding it, guided to the story by precisely the same means I wrote it.

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 Your Will Go

January 25th, 2016

Having a successful day of writing never comes from having a great story to tell; it doesn’t come from reading a hundred books on writing; it doesn’t come from a knowledge of craft; it doesn’t come from the encouragement of acceptance letters or in retaliation to rejection letters. A successful day of writing occurs when and only when you allow yourself to enter your true writing state of mind.

Some writers get there by sitting down and typing as quickly as possible. The first page or two will be thrown away but by page three they’re in it. Some writers get there with a ritual cup of tea and a prayer. Some writers reread what they wrote the day before. Other writers cross their fingers and hope.

It doesn’t matter how you get there. You’ll know when you’ve arrived. You’ve stopped thinking and you’ve started listening. You’ve stopped watching the clock because time is a measure of what’s come before and what will happen next and the story you’re telling is being told in the right here and now. You’ve stopped going to get ideas and are letting them come to you. You’ve stopped worrying and started becoming curious. You’ve stopped trying to answer and you’ve started asking.

And suddenly all the classes and seminars and books and blogs and magazines are so immensely beside the point. There is nothing but this place and you know there isn’t one human on earth who could show you how to get there because this place belongs exclusively to you because in fact it is you. It is you without the story of why you shouldn’t or can’t or won’t or aren’t, it is you free of everything that has never been you, it is you not just alive but aware at last exactly how alive you have always been.

That is where every successful day of writing has ever come from. There is no other place it can come from. If you get there today, wonderful, and if you don’t, that’s okay too, because where you need to go will follow you everywhere from now until you are done telling stories.

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

How To Accept Rejection

January 22nd, 2016

Most writers view rejection as their professional enemy. A writing career requires acceptance, after all. If a writer received nothing but rejection, that writer wouldn’t have a career at all. Except writers cannot hate rejection. And no, not just because it is often a part of the submission cycle. Rejection is actually a crucial aspect the writing process itself.

For instance, here’s a typical storyteller’s brainstorming session: What should my hero do for a living? A lawyer? No, he’s not that successful. But he is in front of people. How about a teacher? No, too altruistic. Also, he enjoys the spotlight. Ah, he’s an actor! An unemployed actor. No – not totally unemployed. He got one gig in a commercial playing a guy with hemorrhoids. Perfect.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. This is how writers find their stories. And it really doesn’t matter whether we are writing fiction or non-fiction. Even the memoirist sifts through the past and decides what to put in and what to leave out. And yet, if you look again you will notice that the above example is filled with rejection. Our author could not arrive at his final Yes without the guidance of a great many No’s.

Writing is all about learning to say, “Yes.” Every word on the page is a word to which I’ve said, “Yes.” But I cannot find the words and sentences and scenes and stories I wish to share unless I also know what I do not wish to share. It would be impossible to say yes if I couldn’t say no. No is like the feeling of imbalance the gymnast experiences as she seeks the Yes of balance. These opposites are actually the allied yin and yang of my creative life.

It just never felt that way to me when the rejection letters came in. Whereas I called the comfort and discomfort that guides me in the choice of words and sentences and so on information, those rejections letters felt every bit like unwanted, unhelpful, discouraging, depressing closed and barred doors to what I wanted most. What’s so useful about that?

Everything, if I listen to what those rejections are telling me. When I write, the worst thing I can try to do is force a word or sentence in where it’s not wanted. The best thing to do when I feel this resistance is pull back and try something else. This is what the resistance is telling me. Many times, however, I felt this resistance and soldiered on. Yet what I thought of as writing by force of will was actually self-rejection. It was uncomfortable, but such is adulthood – or so I’d heard. The sting I felt when the stories I’d written in this fashion were rejected was merely an echo of the pain of self-rejection I’d inflicted on myself by ignoring my own inherent guidance.

That’s right, to find acceptance in the publishing world you must first accept yourself. I take that back – you need only practice accepting yourself. You practice this every single time you sit down to write, every single time you choose a word that feels right or wrong for no other reason than you like it or don’t like it. That’s self-acceptance. You don’t need to climb a mountain and meditate for the rest your life to find it. You find it as you find your balance, with every step and every choice.

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