A Love Story

September 16th, 2014

Before an author can find her readers, she must first find her story. She finds her story by asking herself, what is the best story I can tell? What is so interesting to me that I cannot take my attention from it? What killer must I see brought to justice, or what woman must find love with what man? The writer asks and answers these questions, and asks answers these questions, until the story is told.

Now the author the needs an audience. She wrote this story to satisfy her own curiosity and then share what she found with others. The story is really not complete until someone else has read it, has filled in the blank spaces between the author’s brush strokes with their own imagination. So the author tweets about her story, blogs her story, Instagrams about her story, and travels from bookstore to bookstore talking about her story. By and by she discovers she has a readership.

And perhaps she does a little market research and asks those readers, “How did you find my story?” Some report stumbling over her book in a bookstore, others heard about it from a friend, still others from Facebook or Twitter or The New York Times. Yet all these answers are misleading. These answers say little more about how the reader really found a story than a wedding says about a marriage.

The way the reader really found the story was by asking, “What do I most want to read? What kind of story would be so interesting to me that I couldn’t put it down?” As she asks and answers this question, the reader by and by finds the story, and finishes in her own imagination what the author began in hers. The author-audience connection is in this way a love relationship, two strangers guided together by the single organizing principal of the universe.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
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Big Endings

September 15th, 2014

If ever you’re going to employ that old Creative Writing 101 saw Show Don’t Tell, apply it at the end of your story. Here is where you give your reader your greatest gift. Here is also where your story is most like a joke. A comedian’s joke does not end with a punch line; it ends with the audience’s laughter. The laughter is where the audience thinks what the comedian did not say but only suggested.

So, when the comedian tells the joke: “A priest, a rabbi, and a mullah walk into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘What is this, some kind of joke?’” the audience thinks, “Oh, because that’s just how most jokes start and this is a joke.” And then the laughter. Only the laughter happens faster than all of that could be thought word-for-word.

Suppose you are writing a love story. Suppose you want the story to say, in one way or another: “Yes we all die, yes people cheat on one another and are mean to one another, but in the end love matters because we cannot live without it.” You would not end your story with this statement. To do so would be telling. Instead, you would want your story to point the reader toward this idea and let that idea come to them through their own imagination.

For just as the comedian’s audience laughs faster than the thought compelling the laughter can be spoken, so too your reader will feel something bigger than you could compose in one statement. If you could help your reader feel why love matters by pointing to it within them, they will, in an instant, know more than you could ever say. Now that ending is belongs to them, now you have allowed them to connect to life for themselves. All you did was show them the door, and they walked through 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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Fearless Writing

September 12th, 2014

I’ll be speaking tonight at The Writers’ Workshoppe in Port Townsend, WA on the subject of Fearless Writing. (If you’re in the neighborhood, the event is from 7:00 – 8:00; a splendid time is guaranteed for all.) The title is a bit misleading, however, because writing doesn’t really begin until I have forgotten to be afraid. The question is: Can I forget on purpose, or must I wait until I have somehow managed to distract myself with the bright lights of an interesting story?

I write this column in part because I have come to understand that with practice it is quite possible to forget fear on purpose. But practice I must. The moment my attention drifts even one step into the maze of what other people might think about what I have written, I am lost and afraid. It is an easy enough mistake to make. I write to communicate with other people. Other people’s imaginations are the final destinations for everything I write. Why not think about it?

Because I do not actually care what other people think of what I have written. I am only afraid that what I think of what I have written matters less than what other people think about it. It feels a little selfish not to care what other people think about my writing, narcissistic even. Yet it remains the only way to write something worth sharing with anyone else.

After all, what better gift is there to give someone than the knowledge that they are complete as they are? And how might I share this gift unless I receive it first myself? This is how I practice forgetting to be afraid, by returning my attention again and again and again to the gift I wish to share and away from how I dream it will be received. No dream can live without my attention; they soon become nothing more than exits passed on the highway on my journey home.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
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Victory Smoke

September 11th, 2014

I smoked cigarettes for a while. I disliked their taste at first, but I got over that when I replaced my awareness of the smoke-taste with the relief and escape each drag provided. Even after I officially quit, I allowed myself one cigarette at the end of every shift I worked as a waiter. A coworker called it the Victory Smoke.

One day, I was driving into work and trying to find one good thing about the coming shift. I didn’t think of the friends I worked with, or the jokes I would tell and be told, or even the money I would make—all I thought about was that Victory Smoke. “That’s no good,” I thought. That one cigarette had all my attention. If I didn’t give it up, how would I see what else was available to me? For a time I missed that Victory Smoke, but before too long I forgot why I had so looked forward to it. When I accepted one from a friend a year later it tasted exactly as bad as the first cigarette I’d ever tried.

Meanwhile, my attention had wandered elsewhere. I had only started smoking, after all, because I’d been looking for an easy way to feel good. I looked and found cigarettes as well as a few other things and more or less stopped looking. Now I was looking again, and by and by I started writing in a way I had not written in many years. I had completely forgotten how I could focus on something that felt good and then find a way to put that feeling onto the page, instead of putting something skillfully and without much feeling onto the page and then hoping that other people would like and then I would feel good.

That was how I mostly wrote while I smoked, and the praise I hoped to receive pleased me as long as one draw on a cigarette pleased me. Unlike the cigarettes, the pleasure of writing from the inside out was exactly as delicious as the last time I’d tried it. Though I’d forgotten it, that feeling hadn’t moved, or abandoned me, or dimmed – it remained perfectly and patiently in one place, burning bright the moment I lit it with my attention.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Storyteller’s Patience

September 8th, 2014

To wander a bookstore is to choose a world I would like to live in for a time. It is a temporary exchange of this world for another, but if I choose well the exchange will be nearly complete. I will suffer and rejoice with the characters, I will want what they want, and I will be glad when they have found what they were looking for as if it was I who had found it. All that will be missing is to see these new friends with my eyes, and touch them with my hands. This is a minor difference. When I close this book, it will be as if these friends have left my house, and what remains within me is exactly what remains when any friend has said goodbye.

And when I tell a story I am also choosing the world I would like to live in for a time. It does not matter if that story is something I have lived or something wholly invented. Choosing this world is a process of trial and error. I have chosen so many different worlds over the years that I have learned to recognize rather quickly the many worlds I know I do not want to visit. This is where what we call originality occurs. I say to myself, “I know I don’t want to go there, or there, or there. So where do I want to go?” This is the most creative question I can ask myself.

A conversation is like choosing a world too. My wife and I love to talk. After twenty-plus years of talking and talking to each other, we realized that as much as we loved to talk and we loved each other, we were not always happy after our conversations. It was as if a topic had chosen us and not the other way around, as if we were dropped into a world we would never have chosen to live in.

You would think for a couple people who choose worlds all the time at their desks choosing one together would be a simple matter. It was not. Even in the relatively tranquil and steady environment of our living room or kitchen, our world can feel like a story already written that we have been assigned to read. To see a different world requires a storyteller’s patience. We had to agree to put the old story down, and ask, “Where do we want to go?” and then wait together for that answer.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
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The Storyteller

September 5th, 2014

Sometimes I wander about the world as a storyteller, and sometimes as someone having a story told to him by the world. I look to the world for the story it is telling me only when I forget I am a storyteller, but this forgetting happens quietly, quickly, and frequently. I do not always mind the story I believe the world is telling me. It can be funny or exciting or even flattering. I particularly enjoy the flattering stories the world is telling about me. How nice that the entire world holds me in such high regard!

But often I do not like the story the world is telling me at all. It is such a depressing story, a story of happiness being something known only when the pieces of the world arrange themselves for brief trembling moments that can be enjoyed until chance, or inertia, or gravity, or evolution pull them apart. It is a story of greed, and violence, and lust, and vengeance. I must grab and cling to all the happiness I can before my time runs out.

I soon become a critic. If the world is bent on telling me these crappy stories, and if I am forced to listen to these stories—and how can I not be, since I am only one man and the world is huge and loud, and while I must rest, it talks on and on and on?—then by God I will do what I can to change that story. So I criticize and reject and complain. Then I do it some more. Yet still the world tells its depressing story, and I can but listen and watch.

It is nice at such times to retreat to my desk where the page is blank and I can ask, “What is the best story I can tell myself today?” How quickly my mood changes with that simple question. How optimistic and curious I become. And how I love that blank page, how it erases all the stories I told myself about the world and returns me to my natural state—a storyteller choosing a happy ending for the world he makes.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
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Valuable Advice

September 4th, 2014

Imagine you travel back in time to 1994 England. You stumble on a young woman scribbling away in a notebook in a pub. She looks familiar somehow, and so you say hello, introducing yourself as a writer. “I’m a writer, too,” she says.

“What are you working on? You look very engrossed.”

“Oh, I am. I just love this story. It came to me in a flash. It’s about this boy wizard who has to go to this wizarding school. Only it’s not set in a magical kingdom. It’s set in modern-day England.”

Not wanting to create a time paradox, you limit your response to: “Wow. Sounds great.”

“I know,” she said, but begins chewing on a fingernail. “The thing is, it’s a children’s book – which, of course, never make money, my agent said so – and I’m dead broke. On the dole, as a matter of fact. And it’s long. It’s as long as an adult novel, and children’s books should be shorter. So I’m wondering if should switch it around. Make it shorter, and also maybe set it in a proper magical kingdom, and maybe even take out the school part, because that’s not how fantasy books are written. I love the story, but I really want some kind of success. I’m a broke, single mum who failed at journalism. I just don’t know what to do.”

What would you tell her? Would you tell her she is at this moment sitting on a treasure beyond her gaudiest dreams of avarice? Would you tell her that all she needs to do is render as accurately as possible what she sees within herself and the results will astound her? Or would you tell her to look outside herself, at the market and what other writers have written?

It’s an easy answer in hindsight. It’s easy to name something’s value once a price tag has been put on it. It is not so easy maybe when you are alone at your desk, and a story has come to you, and it is similar to other stories but also different enough to both truly interest you and leave you worried that no one else will recognize its value. Yet I would never curse a writer with a time traveling advisor. Why deprive her of the chance to learn who really decides what something is worth?

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
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Preference

September 2nd, 2014

Buddhists believe that happiness is the absence of want. This has always made sense to me. If you have everything you want, what is there to be unhappy about? But this is not really what they mean, of course. The absence of want refers to the perception that there is nothing you require, that you want, in order to be happy. That is the absence of want.

Except I have lived my entire life with a continuous creative impulse that I have always called want or desire. An idea forms in my mind of something I would like to experience, a book I would like to write, a meal I would like to eat, a relationship I would like to have. Immediately, I experience a kind of delicious discomfort – a desire in want of fulfillment. Such impulses have been the source of my most satisfying creative experiences. How is this not want? And how is it not a good thing?

It is only recently that I have come to understand that what I called want was actually preference. Imagine you walk into a bookstore and begin reading one novel after another: suspense, women’s fiction, science fiction, memoir. And then you pick up a cozy mystery. Those other novels were nice, but this is just delicious. This is just so cozy and mysterious. You want more. Fortunately, you are in a bookstore, and you can have more. All you have to do is pick out another one, and then another one, and then another one.

And then perhaps one day you feel a new itch. As you drive to the bookstore to buy another cozy mystery, you begin imagining one of your own. The feeling of creating your own cozy mystery is similar to the feeling of reading a cozy mystery, only more intense, because to summon the new story you must steep your attention all the more in the coziness and mysteriousness. You realize you would prefer to read these stories and write these stories.

Now comes the moment where an author must choose to see this evolving impulse as preference or want. It is easy to call choosing one book over another preference, for most of the creative work was done for us ahead of time. It is another thing to call the writing of that book preference because the author’s book is still unwritten. It appears not to exist. And so perhaps she believes she must want it, want what she does not have, even while the very seed of what she claims she does not have is planted in her heart.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Communists of the Heart

August 28th, 2014

My friend Laura Munson recently published an article in The Week about her choice to step back from a familial leaning toward hoarding. It’s a funny and touching piece in which she describes a frank conversation with her daughter about the habit to keep everything from a 50-year-old pair of socks to bottles that can someday be reused as vases. I don’t believe it gives too much away to tell you that the article ends with Laura and her daughter taking a long overdue trip to Goodwill to give away all that had been stored in crawl spaces, closets, and forgotten corners of her garage.

The piece deals with physical things, of course, but it reminded me of another story she had told me years before. Laura is the author of This Is Not the Story You Think It Is, a memoir she published after having written and not published fourteen novels. In one of our many interviews, she confessed that she didn’t even submit all the novels she wrote. She worked and worked on them, loved them, and then kept them to herself.

This is a more common impulse for a creative person than you might think. Eventually, every writer learns that the story doesn’t really belong to her. The moment another person reads our story, they make it their own, using their own imaginations to complete the scenes we painted with only a few strokes. Moreover, it is the reader feeling the heroine’s fear and loss and love and joy. What is more personal to us than what we feel? It doesn’t matter that what we feel grows from a story someone else wrote: that experience is ours, and so that story is ours as well.

Which is why an author gives away every story he or she writes. You may get paid, but you are still giving it away, casting it from the nest to a world where anyone who wants it can make it their own. In this way, we are all Communists of the heart. When an author gives away her story, she remembers that just as what had seemed like hers now belongs to everyone, what had also appeared to belong to others now belongs to her. There is always enough, because everything that matters already belongs to everyone.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Demolition Critic

August 26th, 2014

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 the death feeling that comes from listening too closely to your critics is always suicide.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter