Storytelling Magic

July 29th, 2014

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 as 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 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 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.

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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It’s All Fiction

July 28th, 2014

I had the good fortune to sit on a panel a few weeks ago with the memoirist Claire Dederer who told the story of meeting with her editor over drinks one evening when she was fully in the throes of book anxiety. Claire was worried she wouldn’t be able to flesh out her memoir. Many of her memories were too vague to make compelling narrative, and she knew that to include them she would have engage in a little invention. Was this okay? Was she breaking some rules?

The editor, who had worked on numerous celebrated memoirs in her long career, put down her drink and leaned across the table. “It’s all fiction.”

The more I write about my own past, the more I understand just how correct the editor was. All of my past as I have come to know it is a fiction, by which I mean not the truth. I am not a liar, however, I am simply incapable of remembering the truth. The truth would be every single thing that was done and said and, most importantly, thought at a given moment in the entire universe. Oh, and also every single that was done and said and thought before that given moment because, as every writer well knows, the present grows ineluctably out of the past.

What I remember is an interpretation of a necessarily narrow slice of reality, or to put it another way, a story. Yet these stories I tell about the past are useful to me in precisely the same way films and novels are useful to me: they frame reality to give it meaning. It is not my job to know everything. My job is to live meaningfully within what I can know. That is enough.

And that meaning is lived through what I feel. A story’s destination is always a feeling – the feeling of love or of despair, of peace or of conflict. The author chooses the destination just as he chooses every character and scene and word. In the same way, I choose my own past, this world of my own invention, to give meaning to my life as I am actually living 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
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Ask Away

July 25th, 2014

Do you think the imagination can tell the difference between writing a story and planning your vacation? Do you think the imagination can tell the difference between composing a pop tune and talking to your boyfriend? Fortunately, it cannot it. Your imagination is a tireless, loyal, and non-judgmental servant. It will provide answers to any and all questions you ask of it.

The difference between, say, writing a story and talking to your boyfriend is focus. To write is to devote your complete attention to one idea for an extended period of time. As you focus, and as the clarity of your desire sharpens, the quality and volume of answers your imagination provides heightens. It is harder for the imagination when your attention wanders from thing to thing to thing, as it does throughout your day. But when you plant yourself at your desk, when you quiet the mind, when you forget all the stray possibilities growing around your life and ask only, “What do I most want to say today?” – to focus in this way is to understand the true power of this partnership between you and your imagination.

Look at all we’ve done. The human imagination has brought us everything from Auschwitz to the Ode to Joy. It did as it was asked. To hear us gnashing our brains over whether or not we are free is absurd. We are so free we can build our own jails. We are so free we can create nightmares to keep us up at night.

I suppose this is why humans are so fond of rules. Why, left to our own devices we might create anything. Indeed. The pain we call waste, or sloth, or apathy, is not a failure of talent or desire, but is either a failure to ask, “What is it I most want?” or an unwillingness to believe we deserve the 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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Look At It

July 24th, 2014

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 every 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. Look at Donald Trump, for that matter. Need we look any further? 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.

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

We Are All Authors Now

July 22nd, 2014

I spent this past weekend at the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference. As is custom, on Friday night there was a book-signing event for all the authors, both those invited to teach and speak as well as attendees whose work had been published. This was a tipping point year. For the first time, the number of authors sitting behind a pile of their books outnumbered the number of people looking to have those books signed.

Such is the inevitable consequence of holding a book-signing at a writer’s conference in the age of self-publishing. It would be tempting to lament this imbalance, except that this imbalance is anything but. Rather, it is the recognition of what has always been the truth – that everyone has a story they want to tell and share with other people. With the rise of self-publishing, and blogs, and YouTube, and programs like Garage Band, we’re all authors and filmmakers and musicians now.

Fortunately, we are all readers as well. My boys often claim they aren’t interested in reading, though they spend most of their days doing just that, only on blogs and forums and wikis. The books I sold at the reading were sold to other writers who took a moment to climb out from behind their own stack. YouTube celebrities watch YouTube. Musicians listen to music. Entertainers, it turns out, want to be entertained.

I do not know how all this will shake down. Amazon currently boasts two million titles for sale, with more being added every day. With everyone promoting their latest $.99 title, social media can seem cacophonous with self-promotion. But I cannot believe that anything but good will come of people understanding that they have a voice and that it is worth using, that there is no true barrier to expression but the willingness to express. The gatekeepers were never real. They were servants of our own self-imposed silence, boogiemen born out of the secret hope and secret terror that one story or one life could ever matter more than another.

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

True Equality

July 21st, 2014

I was talking the other evening to a young woman about the concept of talent. She had heard me say that I didn’t really believe in it, that talent was just another word for love. This woman had just begun playing an organized sport for the first time in her life. It seemed quite clear to her that some people were conspicuously more talented than others. She loved to play this sport, and yet no matter how hard she worked she could not play it as well as certain women on her team.

Such is the trap we can fall into when we pit ourselves against one another on the field – a field we ourselves invented, a field that would have been nothing but a featureless expanse until we drew lines on it and said you must get here before everyone else. There is no doubt that if you tell a crowd of people to run, someone will run the fastest, and so we will call that person more talented than the others, and maybe – just maybe – infer that such talent raises that person’s value above the others.

But now imagine these people running were simply characters in a story you were writing. In the world of fiction, a loss is as valuable as a win, narratively speaking. Does the character need to learn humility? Perhaps a loss is just the thing, or maybe a close second. The outcome means nothing; the story means everything.

Why do we think life is any different? Do we really think true equality means lining up everyone, young and old, at some arbitrary starting line and then having everyone reach some arbitrary finish line at precisely the same time? Life cares nothing for your wins and losses; it cares only for you. How you will savor the story of your defeats when the time comes, relish in the meaninglessness of what you once called loss, for here you are still standing, having found more in defeat than you might have gained in victory.

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

Your Invitation

July 17th, 2014

Know your value. Know your job.

If you look for your value, you will not find it. If you look for your value, and if you believe you have found it, you will soon feel betrayed and valueless. You cannot find your value, you can only know it, the same as you must know the value of the story you will tell before you have told it. To seek your value is to question its immovable and immeasurable permanence, and this mere questioning is an intolerable grief against what you are, and your searching will be filled with anxiety and despair.

You are not some statue of gold, nor of stone, nor of assembled dust. You are not a thing separate from others, cluttering the way for those of greater value, in whom you have bestowed the treasure of perfection you now seek. You are an equal part of the whole, neither separate from, nor greater than, nor lesser than. You are not in anyone’s way, for no one could do anything without you, and you could do nothing without them. The world would collapse in an instant if the bond that connected us could ever be severed.

Your only job is to know your value. It is from this knowing that the stories you wish to tell will spring. It is in this knowing that you will draw readers to you, for as you know your value, so do they. Your value is their value, there is no difference, and so you can teach others what you know, which is what they already are.

Life simplifies immensely the instant you know your value and your job. Know your value, and you will not have to spend your days arranging proof of what cannot be proven. Know your value, and life will come to you, for you will have removed the obstacles to its arrival, the evidence you assembled to protect that which needed no protecting. This moment where you ask nothing of anyone is what you once mistook for loneliness. And yet it is the very opposite. This is an invitation to the whole of life, an invitation life can but accept, for accepting is all life ever does.

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

No Modifiers

July 15th, 2014

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.

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 Truth

July 14th, 2014

I love to teach as much as I love to write, and I teach and write for precisely the same reason. The reason I teach is not to share secrets of craft, though I am a bit of craft geek and I enjoy talking to people about narrative arcs, and showing and not telling, without watching their eyes roll up into the back of their heads. Nor is the reason I teach to offer insider information on the publishing world, though I am happy to do so, if only to eradicate the idea of insiders and outsiders.

In fact, I am not really interested in teaching writing, though it serves as a handy excuse to do what I love to do, which is tell the truth. That’s why I teach and that’s why I write. To tell the truth, my words must match my feelings. If I say I am happy but I feel worried, I am not telling the truth. If I say writing is at its core effortless, but I believe and feel that it is like working in a salt mine, I am not telling the truth. To tell the truth, whether in the class or on the page, I must first feel what I wish to say.

Fortunately, most of what I teach and most of what I write boils down to this: Everything is okay. That’s it. You can all go home now. Everything is okay. Everything is okay and always has been okay. You would think that three words would not be enough to inspire the 1,000-plus blogs I’ve written nor fill a four-hour master class, but they most certainly can and have. Everything, you see, does not appear to be okay. Quite the opposite, really. And so I need constant reminding.

And what better way to remember than to tell someone else that everything is okay. To tell someone else the truth I must first find that place within me where I know that everything is okay. I lose track of it constantly. And then I find it again. And then I lose it. And then I find it again. Every time I find it, whether on the page or in the class or even watering my lawn, the world tells me the truth right back. Every time I find it, what I feel, and then what I say, and finally what I see are the same. To find that balance is the only reason I do anything.

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 Saint Within

July 11th, 2014

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.

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