A More Important Question

September 30th, 2014

When I was twenty-two, I began hearing a melody in my head. The more I heard it, the clearer it became, until finally I thought it might be a good idea to write it down somehow. I already knew how to read music from years of playing the flute, but I knew absolutely nothing about music theory—I knew nothing about half-steps or whole-steps or chords or why it would matter what key a song was written in.

So I bought a keyboard, hoping somehow the song would move from my head to my fingers to keys. This did not happen. Trying to find my song on that keyboard was like trying to learn to write by randomly striking letters on a typewriter. I am a very stubborn student. I will waste hours of my time figuring out how to do something myself rather that allow someone else show me. But not being able to write my song was such a profoundly frustrating and unsatisfying experience that I did something I had never done before and have not done since: I bought a How To book.

It was a slim volume, a kind of Music Theory for Dummies before there was such a thing. But it was enough. After an hour or so I’d gotten the gist of it and was at the keyboard finding my song. That first day was rather magical. All at once I was literate, and the order of the black keys and the white keys transformed almost before my eyes from something opaque and meaningless to an elegantly simple system to write anything I should wish.

Given this experience, you might think I’d be a bigger proponent of How To books. I am not. I quietly and stubbornly maintain that with a little more time I could have figured it out myself. No matter. How to write a song has never been nearly as interesting a question to me as which song I want to write. No such book exists that can answer that question. Only silence can answer that question—that empty space that asks everyone equally: What will your life be next?

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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Remembering Fluency

September 29th, 2014

Writing instruction is not like teaching, say, a foreign language. When I arrived at my first French class in seventh grade I knew absolutely nothing about the language except that one needed a beret and a small dose of existential angst to speak it authentically. Everything I learned there was new to me except this: the purpose of French was the same as my native English, to communicate with other people.

That purpose was often lost in a class that focused so much on conjugating verbs and memorizing vocabulary. It seemed sometimes as if French had been invented simply to provide new and vaguely romantic hoops for young English-speaking children to jump through. I received the first bad grade of my schooling career in that class.

Strange that I could not learn in a classroom at thirteen what a three year-old child learns effortlessly simply by being alive around other French-speaking people. Which brings me back to writing instruction. Unlike French, or English, or Russian, stories are a universal human language. They are how we talk to one another. The only real difference between the teacher and the student in a writing class is that the teacher is more aware of this.

Yet sometimes there is a temptation to teach writing as we teach a foreign language. This is understandable because it sometimes appears as if certain students have no more familiarity with stories than I do with calculus. These students, however, have simply forgotten that the only purpose of stories is to communicate. When they remember this, when they stop trying to be impressive or to get it right, their writing changes. They have remembered their native fluency.

Now, instead of asking, “What will other people think of this?” or, “Is this correct?” the student only asks, “How can I best express what I most want to express?” Sometimes a teacher can help answer this question and sometimes not. The teacher’s real job is to remind the student that this is the only question he or she need ever ask. They are already fluent in the language of life.

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 End of Tyranny

September 25th, 2014

For the last week I’ve been playing the classic puzzle-solving video game Myst with my youngest son, Sawyer. I played Myst to its conclusion almost 20 years ago, so I could remember little of the game and its many ingenious puzzles except this: all the puzzles are indeed solvable. I had to remind myself of this on the several occasions Sawyer and I appeared to have reached a dead-end. Sawyer had not played the game through, however, and so when we reached these impasses he did what most people normally do when confronted with what looks like an insurmountable obstacle—he complained.

“This game is flawed!” he concluded. “It’s poorly designed.”

To be clear, I would have complained as well had I not known, empirically, that the problem was not the game’s design but the players’ perception. It was a kind of foggy hindsight, which, while obscuring the solutions, revealed complaint in all its uselessness. The complainer says, “There are no solutions!” and so none are perceived. His complaints actually prevent him from seeing the very thing he complains does not exist.

It was a rare treat in my life as a father. I was able to say, “Trust me, we’ll figure it out,” with a time-traveler’s authority. But I do not need to replay my trials every decade or so to know the roles of trust and complaint in my life. What can feel like a declaration of independence from the tyranny of an unjust world is actually a sentence to a prison of my own design. Fortunately, I can leave as soon as I remember that the key to that cell is not the solution to some problem but only the belief that one exists.

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 Instructions

September 23rd, 2014

I was visiting my brother a few years ago in Los Angeles and decided to watch some TV while he was working out. I didn’t have cable in my own home at the time and was unfamiliar with Comcast’s immense, standard-issue remote. I looked for instructions, but could find none. I began pushing buttons. Nothing happened. I pushed more buttons. Still nothing. I became angry and pushed the same buttons again. More nothing. I gave up, and awaited my brother’s return, whereupon I explained my dilemma.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “You’ve just got to . . .” He pushed one button, and the screen came to life.

“Give me that stupid thing,” I said, and began surfing for something to watch. It was a relief to be flipping through the channels, even though I couldn’t find anything I liked. It was easy to answer the question, “Does this look interesting?” Much easier, in this case, than, “How does this work?”

Sometimes figuring out how something works is simpler than knowing what you want to do with it. It’s just a puzzle. Plus, if you lose interesting in figuring it out yourself, you can find someone else who has figured it out. People love to help one another—sometimes, maybe, a little too much.

Life is not some vast, immensely complex remote control. At some very critical point, no matter how much others would like to help us, we are all on our own. We are all looking at a blank screen and wondering what we would like to see across it. Thankfully, no authentic instructions exist for such moments, including the advice in this column. At best I can remind you of what it feels like to enjoy that moment of choosing, of remembering that you cannot be wrong when you find what you 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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Accepting Your Role

September 22nd, 2014

The author appears to be seeking acceptance from others. It is, in fact, our business model. Until we have received acceptance from others in the form of a publishing contract or book sales, we earn no money, nor can the story we told live in the imagination of others at it was meant to live. In this way, the author is not merely seeking acceptance but actually requires it to be an author. Without this acceptance, the author is nothing but a diarist.

For years I resented this requirement. It meant I had no power. What I thought of what I’d written seemed to mean nothing at all until someone else approved of it. During these bitter years I dreamed of my freedom, a day when I had received enough acceptance that I was no longer required to seek it. These dreams were often filled with the brief and shallow pleasure of praise and applause that was like the pleasure of drugs.

Yet even within these dreams I would also conjure an image of myself that felt both familiar and foreign. Here was a man who was done worrying about what other people thought him. If I were an actor I could have played him convincingly, could have found within myself the knowledge from which this stranger lived. But like an actor, what I had come to call reality waited for me beyond the curtain, a story of pure improvisation in which I’d taken a minor role.

I suppose I am still an actor today, except I have decided to play the role in which my dreams had cast me. If you do so long enough, it doesn’t feel like acting anymore. There are still days in which my life feels more like a performance than I would like, but this is a natural consequence of peeking at the audience. For a moment, my wandering attention disrupts the dream we had all come to the theater to believe, until I call it back, and return to the role I was born to play.

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

Rewriting History

September 19th, 2014

Most memoirists are drawn to write about the most painful moments in their lives. The neglect, the abuse, the disease, the death, the poverty, or some combination of all of these serves as the dark backdrop against which the light that is memoirist’s life can shine brightest. But it is not so easy to revisit these moments. The imagination is so powerful and so immediate that it cannot differentiate between past and present. Merely remembering being told you are stupid cuts as deeply as the moment you first heard these words. How then to approach what is painful without suffering fully with it again?

The answer lies in stories. What we call pain is only a story we still believe about the past. To be called stupid, for instance, is nothing but a story. Perhaps the memoirist didn’t pass a test and someone took this to mean she was stupid. They could have as easily taken it to mean she wasn’t interested in the test. The stories the memoirist is told, then, are nothing until she believes them.

Meanwhile, having lived many years believing this old story, the memoirist has begun to tell herself another story. In this story, her intelligence is an expression of her curiosity. By this definition, everyone is intelligent. She much prefers this story, though it directly contradicts the story about intelligence she was once told and believed. She so prefers this new story that she decides to write a book describing her journey from one story to another.

Yet despite her desire to live from this new story, that old story still lives within her. She had believed it quietly for so many years, it had infected her choices and perceptions continuously and insidiously. When she returns to retell that moment she first believed she was stupid, her faith is shattered. Her new story feels as light as a fairy tale against the hard, measurable truth of the old story.

No matter. Writers write to teach themselves to believe in what they know. The memoirist returns again and again to that moment, and each time the sting lessens until finally there is no sting at all. Her belief in the new story has finally eclipsed her belief in the old. This is sometimes called “rewriting,” which it is. History exists to be rewritten until it suits our present lives, so that what was once seen as faith becomes knowledge.

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

Instant Gratification

September 18th, 2014

If there is one quality a writer must either have or acquire it’s patience. Writing a book – or even an essay or story or poem – can take a long time. Sometimes writing a single sentence can take a long time. Then, once a story is finished, finding the right agent or publisher could take months or even years. Even in the age of eBooks, there is still the production process, which is far from instantaneous. So a writer must be patient. This is not a career for anyone seeking instant gratification.

Or is it? What exactly is a writer doing while finding her story, or scene, or sentence? Optimally, the writer is resting in the feeling she wishes to share in words with her reader. If it is a story she truly wishes to tell, then that feeling, whether jealousy or desire or hope or surrender, should be interesting to her. And if it is interesting to her, it should be gratifying to rest in it. Or in other words, there is no wait at all. To write as well as she can possible write, the writer must remain as interested as she possibly can, no matter how long it takes that interest to turn into a story, scene, or sentence.

This is true even of the publication process. The impatient author is anticipating a future pleasure, comparing her current life unfavorably with what she believes awaits her when strangers begin reading her story. As gratifying as that experience can be, it is merely a reflection of the pleasure that grew within her until it took the form of her book.

I say this as a man who has lived most of his life impatiently. The world brought pleasure to me at an infuriating and unpredictable pace. At some point I threw up my hands and decided the world simply could not be counted on for something so important as my happiness. It was about this time that my writing improved dramatically. It is nice to share what I have written, to observe what had once pleased only me pleasing someone else, but that same pleasure still exists within me, available instantly should I choose to lay my attention upon 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

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter