Giving Up

April 20th, 2015

If I am working with a client who has never attempted a book-length project before, one of the first challenges I must help this new writer overcome is the sudden and daunting awareness of how little she actually knows about this book she would like very much like to write through to its conclusion. The writer rarely sets out on her journey with this awareness. Instead, she is just excited by some idea that has become so bright in her imagination that she cannot seem to pull her attention from it.

And so one day she decides to sit down and actually begin writing the thing. The idea has been so bright and so interesting to her that it feels as though all she needs to do is set aside a little time everyday and the story should virtually write itself. Then she begins. Sometimes it takes no more than a couple pages for the writer to understand that this story is made of around 60,000 details called words, and that she must in fact choose each of those details, and that those details must fit together as effortlessly as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

This is often a disorienting moment. The writer’s interest in the story was complete. What’s more, the feeling the story is trying to convey is complete as well. If the author is writing a story about the difference between feeling unlovable and finding love, then that profound difference is complete within her mind. But the story that is meant to share that feeling, which is made of tens of thousands of details, is so incomplete that the writer doubts if she ever knew anything.

I can sometimes be of help to these writers simply by reminding them what it is their job to know and what it is not their job to know. It is not our job to know the details. It is only our job to know we would like to find them. It is a sometimes subtle difference, but what we call failure is usually the mistaken belief that our inability to know all the pieces ahead of time means we are incomplete.

How tempting it is in the moment of this mistaken awareness to give up. The feeling of personal incompleteness is in direct opposition to the direction of life and is commensurately wretched in its expression. It is appropriate to want to give up something at this moment, but it’s not the story. Give up believing you can finish what is already whole, or fix what was never broken, and return to the business of finding what you are actually looking for.

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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A Way Back

April 17th, 2015

For about four years in my early forties, I composed dozens of songs on my computer. What began as simple pop tunes quickly evolved into symphonic pieces. While I did have a rudimentary understanding of music theory, most of what I had to learn to compose the more complex pieces, I learned not from a book or a class, but from trial and error. As I look back at that time I am still surprised at how quickly an unschooled fellow like me went from composing for two instruments to fifteen instruments, a progression I attribute primarily to one factor: I never criticized myself.

I mention this because this was the polar opposite of the approach that I took for my writing. There I survived on a steady diet of self-criticism, which I felt served to keep me on the straight and narrow. Yet never – and I mean absolutely never – was it so with the music. I was just thrilled I could do it. I had dreamed all my life of being able to write symphonic music, and now I was.

At first, my wife, with whom I would share every song or sonata, felt the same way. “Wow,” she’d say. “That is so cool that you wrote that.” By and by, however, she got used the fact that I was writing music, and her responses changed. One day, after I played a new piece for her, she shrugged and commented, “That one really doesn’t come together.” Had she said this about a story I’d written, I’d have been furious or depressed. Yet with this sonata, I realized I didn’t actually care what she thought about it. I knew I’d learned something writing it, and that hadn’t changed because she couldn’t get into it.

This was an experience at once wholly foreign and intimately familiar. In the past, when opinions about something I had made arrived at my doorstep, I was used to viewing these messages as a command to head out in search of some treasure that would please everyone. Yet in this instance, I stayed home. That, after all, is where the music was being written and where all the pleasure I’d gained from it was known.

As an artist, I am still disoriented from time to time by this relationship between home and the world outside my door. What I create in here is meant to travel out there. I, however, am meant to stay home. It is tempting to try to follow those stories to ensure their safe travel, but I lose sight of them the moment I cross my threshold, and am left instead to search for a way back to where I belong.

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

Less Fortune

April 16th, 2015

I used to enjoy a roleplaying game called Heroes. To construct a character in this system, players were allotted a set number of points to spend on things like strength, intelligence, magic spells, and swordsmanship. However, a player could choose to give his character certain weaknesses (a limp, nearsightedness, paranoia, a dependant grandmother) for which the character would be awarded additional points. The greater the weakness, the more points the character received. My friends and I joked once that we could create a super hero by making our characters deaf, and dumb, blind schizophrenics.

Which reminds me of the characters we create in our stories. Often our characters’ most interesting traits are their weaknesses. Just as often, the story is about our protagonist’s weakness – their insecurity, hubris, poverty, or greed. A hero overcoming an outside force is certainly the stuff of drama, but it is when that same hero overcomes an inside force, when the fog of fear is cleared from the mirror, that the reader not only cheers the victory but feels that victory as her own.

It is fun to choose our roleplaying heroes’ strengths and weaknesses, just as it is interesting to chose our literary characters’ phobias and charms, but it is often hard to imagine this same creative process at work in ourselves. Who would want to be born without legs, or into staggering poverty, or to drunken parents? It is easy—compassionate even—to attribute the circumstances of such lives to uncaring fate. Just as talent seems unfairly distributed, some of us are just dealt a better life than others. It’s called reality, Jack.

But whose life would you trade yours for, knowing that to trade your life means to trade all of it – every kiss, every dream, every thought, every love? It’s all or nothing. Can you not feel the absurdity of it? Can you not feel how somewhere in the unique confluence of consciousness that is your life something necessary and valuable and useful and hopeful and kind is looking to take shape? If it is true for me it must be exactly as true for everyone, from every pauper to every president. Now that’s equality. From this view there is no such thing as more or less fortunate, there is only life in all its variety.

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

Free Time

April 14th, 2015

Most authors I know who are at the beginning of their writing journey struggle to find enough time to write. There are so many demands placed on an adult with a job and a house to keep up and maybe a spouse and some growing children that finding an hour or two five or six days a week seems destined to end in a Sophie’s choice between art and sleep. Writing, after all, is a tree that can take years to bear fruit, whereas dishes, and homework, and bills and all the daily business of being alive and a functioning member of society form an endless harvest from seeds already sown decades ago.

In fact, most of what we call our life has been growing around us for so long that it is hard to remember who sowed those seeds in the first place. It is easy to forget and call it reality, the way schools existed before we were fed into them, and our days soon became wed to the weekly rhythms of a song written long before we were born. When I look at life this way, my life feels like something that happened to me, a job handed me at birth that I am made to work until I retire into the grave.

But the writer must accept his freedom. The page is blank and only a conscious exercise of that freedom will fill it. The time to write can be found within the recognition of our inherent and persistent freedom. My days have always been a perfect portrait of what I believed about life. When I believed the world was divided into have and have-nots, into the servant and the served, my days were spent toiling to write books to set me free from a life of indentured servitude in a job for which I had willingly applied and willingly worked for seventeen years.

Somewhere in all that toiling I began to see my writing as in service to life, and the clear division between haves and have-nots became increasingly blurry. I eventually discovered I did not need that job anymore, and soon my days were no longer divided between what I wished for and what I had. Time was mine whether I wanted it or not, and I had exactly as much of it as everyone else on the planet.

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

Freedom

April 13th, 2015

We show rather than tell because we cannot expect our readers to take our word for it. For instance, if I begin a story declaring, “Springfield, WA was a terrible town to grow up in,” I’m going to have to back this up with some evidence. Was it terrible because it was poor or because it was dull? Was it terrible because it was very conservative or because it lacked a sense of community? And who thought it was terrible? Surely not everyone. In this way, the adjective “terrible” is the accusation, and the details are the evidence offered for our reader-jury to pass their judgment.

I find this often comes up when I’m teaching memoir. It is not unusual for a student to write that the church in which she was married was ugly and that her father was distant. When I ask the student what specifically made the church ugly and her father distant, she often can’t say at first. She can remember only the feeling of being in the church, and the feeling of missing her father, which is why she told us, her readers, what she perceived as a fact. But to her readers, the church’s ugliness and her father’s distance remain unsubstantiated rumors.

In this way, the reading and writing of stories is wholly democratic. The writer must trust and allow the reader to draw his own conclusions. This democratic awareness of the reader can be very liberating to the writer. It necessarily loosens our grip on the stories we tell. The stories don’t really belong to us. All that belongs to us is our feelings about the story.

Which is what we must remember to prevent the awareness of the reader from putting us back in a cage. The moment I begin to believe that every reader must understand my story exactly as I intend, I have thrown myself into a maze without an exit. A reader’s understanding does not belong to me, and I will never find it in all my writing and writing and writing. All that I can find is the understanding for which I am searching, a search that sets me free not upon its conclusion, but at its beginning.

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 Great Book Myth

April 10th, 2015

In A Moveable Feast Ernest Hemingway describes reading The Great Gatsby for the first time and concluding that F. Scott Fitzgerald had written “a great book.” By the time I read A Moveable Feast I’d attended enough undergraduate literature classes and seen enough lists of The Hundred Greatest Novels to believe that Hemingway was merely perceiving a fact that the rest of the world soon agreed upon.

Except Fitzgerald died believing The Great Gatsby was a commercial disappointment, which, to that point, it was. His best known novel did not sell as well as his earlier works, and the year he died the book sold only seven copies, five of which Fitzgerald bought to give as gifts. I do not know what unfolded in the following decades to see the book attain its current status as a regular occupant at the tippy-top of the literary canon. That evolution is as mysterious as the relationship between art and audience, and is the reason that The Great Book is a myth, a fish tale upon which millions have agreed.

The Great Book is a myth, an illusion, because it suggests that a story’s value to an individual can be measured in anything beyond his or her own unique experience of it. As it happens, I like The Great Gatsby, though it was at first difficult to discern this because I had already been told so many times exactly how good and important and nearly perfect it was. All this praise and critical genuflecting became noise that interfered with the relationship between the words on the page and that which gave those words life within me.

What is not an illusion is the experience of being moved by a story, or thrilled by a story, or amused by a story. What is not an illusion is the desire to keep reading when you should be starting dinner. What is not an illusion is what comes to life within us when we discover something we love. The Great Book will only exist in fact, in reality, the day that love can be quantified and measured and compared, the day that one life can be said to be more worth living 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.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Mysterious Treasures

April 9th, 2015

It is common for writers to feel that they write to discover what they know. This is certainly true for writers of fictional stories, where an idea comes to an author in its dim but interesting form. The writer then spends a month or a year or a decade discovering why that idea is so interesting, and in so doing, translating it into a form where another human being might find it interesting also.

But this discovery occurs at all levels of writing, from the largest stories to the smallest sentence. Though I have been doing it all my life, how and why this discovery occurs continues to elude me, even now as I am pursuing it. That is, discovery is always heightened perception. To discover something is to see it – to perceive it – for the first time. If I were searching through sand on a beach for lost coins, I would dig and sift until I perceived coins reflecting in the sun. Even if I unearthed the coins, if I did not see them, if the sun had temporarily blinded me or if the coins were so caked in sand as to be camouflaged, no discovery would have occurred, despite all my digging.

So it is with writing. To write is to turn our attention within so we might see the world more clearly. Here is where the mystery begins. On a beach I see the sand, I see my hand and my shovel and with luck the coins. But within me there is only the boundary-less expanse of thought. And just as the coin must be separated from the sand, so too must a thought be separated from all other thoughts to be perceived with enough clarity for translation.

Yet thought lacks the engines of shovels and hands. The only engine of thought is more thought. It is easy in this way to become lost in our efforts to discover what we seek. Now we are searching not for a coin within sand, but for a specific grain of sand in a world made of nothing but more sand. Despair not. That which compelled your search, your unique interest and curiosity, remains your truest and only compass. Collect those thoughts to make your interest whole, build it thought by thought. When you are done you will behold that which had lacked only the attention of a curious soul to be made real, and the world will be richer for 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

The Authors

April 7th, 2015

In most of the stories we tell, someone will have something and they will lose it, or they will be missing something and they will find it. Our characters will lose friends and lovers and they will find friends and lovers; they will lose money and homes and jewelry, and they will find money and homes and jewelry. All around our characters will be the things they can lose and they can find, and they will despair when these things are lost and rejoice when they are found.

We are wiser in many ways than our characters, however. We can see what they cannot. We giveth and taketh with impunity because what they have or don’t have means nothing to us. Only the story means anything to us. The props with which we surround our characters cost us nothing. We can give our characters a mansion as easily as we can give them shoebox. We can kill everyone they love in one chapter and repopulate their life with friends in the next. We can do whatever we want. We are the authors, and all that matters is the story.

And as authors, we know that our story moves forward through what our characters feel. We do not care that our characters live in a mansion, we only care what our characters feel like in that mansion. We do not care that our characters have found a new lover, we only care what they feel like when they are with that new lover. We are as delighted with our characters’ despair as we are with their joy as long as that despair or joy belongs in our story.

The story is never about anyone or anything. Often it is hard to say what the story is about. We write our little descriptions in query letters or pitches, but these are like the dry skeletons of the living thing we hope to share. This is why if you get us talking about our stories we sometimes cannot stop. It is because they are so interesting to us that we sat down and wrote them. It is because they are so interesting to us that we cannot say what they are about, for in our minds we see the whole of what we’ve made, a delightful and interesting thing from beginning to end, a love letter that came to us in the shape of a story.

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 Life is Lived

April 6th, 2015

For many years, while I was writing my novels and sending them out and getting them back, I would occasionally complain to my wife, “The problem with these query letters and sample chapters is I’m not there. It’s just these words on a page.” On the face of it, this complaint made no sense. I was a writer. My job was to put words on the page and sell them to people. Nonetheless, I was nagged for years by the feeling that I was leaving something out.

I eventually understood that something I was leaving out was talking to people. Whether it was teaching or lecturing or coaching, I wanted to talk to people about the words I was putting on the page. I understood this because while I went for walks and runs, while I stood in the shower or did the dishes, I often found myself dreaming of speaking to imaginary groups. This happened so often that I stopped myself one day in the middle of one of my imaginary lectures and thought, “You need to actually go do this now. You know there’s a difference between doing something and imagining it and you’ve got to learn if you like the difference.”

Writing taught me this. How often on one of those very same walks had I imagined a scene and been certain it would be perfect for whatever story I was writing, only to discover, upon actually writing it, that it was not as interesting on the page as in my mind. As bright and happy and curious as my mind may be, it cannot predict the future, it cannot know in advance every word of the stories it believes I will enjoy telling, and a single, innocent word can sometime reroute the entire direction of 400-page book.

As it turns out, I do enjoy talking to people, though the experience is in fact different than the dream. That difference is where my life is lived, where dream and experience meet. Sometimes it feels like a collision, other times like a union, but the result is always the same. I get to meet myself once again, both the intention and the result, both the dreamer and the dream.

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

Picking and Choosing

April 2nd, 2015

David Laskin’s breakout bestseller The Children’s Blizzard might never have sold over 100,000 copies or been described by the Washington Post as “a vital addition to the lore of Western immigrant pioneering” if either he or his agent had listened to a certain New York editor. The book tells the true story of an epic winter storm that hit the upper Midwest in 1888 and resulted in the deaths of several children surprised by the blizzard on their way home from school. Or, in the words of that particular editor:

“It’s just about a bunch of kids who got trapped in a snowstorm and died.”

Obviously David, and his agent, and his eventual publisher, and the 100,000-plus readers who bought and supported the book thought it was about a bit more than that. The great challenge of being an author, however, is that the editor who passed on the book and all those people who loved the book were both right. It is both a tragic portrait of luck and loss, and a brutal but meaningless anecdote. Depending on who you are, what you’ve lived, what you’re interested in, what you long for, and what you’re tired of, the Children’s Blizzard could be either.

This reality lives within every author. We tell the stories we tell and in the way we tell them because of what holds our curiosity and lights our imagination. But for every heads there is always a tails. No matter how perfectly a story is told, if we turn that story over and view it through the cruel lens of “what if?” we will behold a thing familiar in form but foreign in value.

Do not believe your story’s true value is a coin flip. It was not chance that led that one editor to pass, any more than it was chance that led David to tell his story – it was life. Life and its constant and unknowable movement toward love, a movement that is sometimes mistaken for rejection and acceptance, for praise and criticism, words we use to name the picking and choosing necessary to surround ourselves with the stories and people we love the 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