Away from the Mirror

I was visiting my mother a few years ago when I noticed a photo of my brother and me she’d framed. I remembered the night it had been taken. We were in our early twenties, and were relaxing in a restaurant, having just finished a show. I was rarely more relaxed in those days than just after I’d left the stage.

“Look at that,” I told my mom when she found me studying it. “I was a pretty good-looking guy back then. How come I didn’t know it?”

“Oh, I think you knew it,” she said.

She was right, of course, but there was more to this particular story. Sometimes, when I was a young man and still very single, I’d look in the mirror and think, “That’s all right.” In many ways, looking in the mirror reminded me of reading what I’d written once I was done editing a scene. It was good enough for me.

Then I’d leave the mirror, or I’d show what I’d written to someone else, and then I was reminded that what was good enough for me might not be good enough for someone else. The difference was that people didn’t tend to tell you if your looks weren’t good enough for them the way they would with something you’d written. It didn’t matter. As soon as you experience the surprise of other people shrugging at what made you laugh or cry, you learn the limitation of your own perception.

Which is why I told my mother that I didn’t really think of myself as good-looking at that time. Walking about in the world, my face on display for anyone to read, I felt sometimes as if I were in a constant workshop on my appearance. How I craved the security of just knowing, so that I might be set free, and no longer care what anyone else thought about me – or about anything.

I know why I liked how I looked in that photo. It’s not the people in the crowd who laugh at your jokes that help you relax, it’s the ones who don’t. You hear that happy sound, and even as you feel that instant connection with these strangers, you look out at the faces and notice the ones not smiling, and realize you don’t care. It was never about getting everyone to agree. It was only ever about finding something I agreed with, knowing that that was all right.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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In My Life

When you are pursuing a dream, such as publishing a book, it is very easy to believe that success, however you describe it, will change something about you and your life. I certainly believed it. Actually, I didn’t believe that success would change something about my life, I needed it to change something about my life. I needed it to change not just how I made money, and how I spent so many of my waking hours, but the quality of those hours, whether I was working or not.

The quality of those hours, in my opinion, was not ideal. A quiet and steady despair had settled over me, one that had begun, as all despair does, in the soil of my childhood, but which had spread like a tangle of vines in the busy garden of adulthood. I experienced it so often, there were days I wondered if this was simply what it felt like to be alive. I was an optimist at heart, however, and just as I could dream stories to write, I could also dream a life free of despair. Dreaming that better life was easy. It was so easy I escaped there as often as I could.

There came a day, when I had begun to experience the smallest glimmers of what I considered to be success, that I thought, “I want to be in my life.” I had lived so long swinging from despair to escape that I had lost track of the resting comfort of existence. Strangely, I was not entirely clear what was keeping me out of my life. My life seemed like something I ought to be able to step into as easily as those dreams I summoned for escape. And yet here I was, circling around the center of where I wanted to be, like a player unready to join the game.

Which was exactly the problem. The moment I truly understood success was the moment I stopped asking the question, “What if I’m not good enough?” The instant I stopped asking that useless, brutal, suffocating question, the despair lifted as effortlessly as dreams ended. That is the question that will keep the player from playing, the writer from writing. It is a question that can’t actually be answered by acceptance letters or reviews. It is a question that cannot be answered, because it never should have been asked. It can only be released, and what remains in its absence is life as you know it can be lived.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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What’s the Point?

My wife and I have been homeschooling our youngest son Sawyer since he was thirteen because he could not cope with the traditional classroom. Neither Jen or I had any regrets about choosing to homeschool him, but as he got older Sawyer became increasingly worried that his education was not preparing him to lead a normal, independent, successful life. Now that he is 18, he voices those concerns nearly everyday.

I must point out that Sawyer’s worries are not totally unfounded. Even by homeschooling standards his education has been very unorthodox, a situation for which he is almost entirely responsible. Sawyer, you see, simply cannot make himself do something if he doesn’t want to do it. We would start many a lesson only to have him abandon it mid-class from lack of interest. This is why traditional school was impossible. In school, we are always asking children to do something whether they feel like doing it or not. My wife and I, like a lot of people, could manage this. Sawyer could not, and so here we are.

I happen to know there is nothing wrong with where we are, but it is hard for Sawyer to see what I see. These days, in the middle of our class, he’ll bury his face in the couch cushion and moan, “What’s the point? I’ll never go to college. I’ll never be able to sit through a GED test.” The other day, instead of bucking him up, I suggested we just start our music class. “What’s the point?” he asked again.

“You like it,” I said.

“Fine” he replied, and trudged over to the piano.

One of the things I’ve seen is that Sawyer has an intuitive musical understanding. I’ve seen this since he was three, when he drummed along to Hey Jude and his rhythm was spot on. This afternoon we were working on composition, for which he also has a knack. “Don’t modulate,” I told him as he started playing. “Just for this exercise, stay in the same key.”

He agreed, and began a chord progression. In the middle of the song he stopped and looked up at me conspiratorially. “You see what I did there? I skipped over C Major. I hate C Major. It’s such a boring, vanilla chord.”

I quite like C Major, and so we began to have little debate about its value. I suspected that Sawyer, a natural contrarian, didn’t like C Major because it’s sort of the mother of all chords, making it too mainstream. I had an idea. I told him to sit on the couch while I played a series of major chords. I was so certain that his objections weren’t based on the sound of C Major, but the idea of C Major. If he didn’t know a C Major was being played, he’d have a different idea of it. So I started. A Flat Major, D Major, G Major, E Flat Major, C Major—”

“See what I mean? It’s just so boring.”

I looked at my son. He was not even mildly impressed that he could easily identify a C Major chord by ear. His attitude suggested he believed anyone could. Anyone could not. I thought of how often, when I was 18 – and 28, and 38 – I found myself asking, “What’s the point?” I just wanted some certainty that the seeds I was planting would grow into something meaningful and interesting. Yet all my plans and ideas could offer me no guarantees other than my interest in them.

I’m in my own garden now, and everything that bloomed tallest and strongest grew out of what came most easily to me, what I often assumed everyone knew and everyone could do. The point, I continue learn, is always right in front of me – in the next most interesting step, the next most interesting word.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Making Something

I have always thought of myself as ambitious, which, if pressed, I’d have once admitted was the steady and quiet desire to make something of myself. I would not be some idle passenger in my own life, twiddling my thumbs until they dumped me in the ground; I would grab the wheel and captain this ship to some port of my own choosing. I would go somewhere.

The problem with wanting to go somewhere and make something of myself is that I am always somewhere and I am always something. I have tried calling some places nowhere and I have looked in the mirror from time to time and thought maybe I was nothing, but these perceptions had the same unreality of the stories a writer cannot make himself write. Just as when I have found myself forcing a story somewhere it didn’t want to go, I learned eventually to step back from the mirror and let my mind return to stillness, a quiet space removed from the din of doubt and comparison.

I cannot fear this stillness. I cannot mistake it for the catastrophic termination of a shipwreck. As a writer, I have had to make a friend of that stillness as I have the blank page. That is where I must go to understand my role in my own life. I have come to see writing as my decision to join a conversation already in progress. It is a conversation that began long before I was born and will continue long after I have died. It is a conversation that only gets better and richer and more interesting as it evolves and draws in more and more participants.

Writing in this way taught me that what I call ambition is merely the decision to participate in my own inevitable evolution. The stillness of the blank page reminds me that my choices are my role in that evolution. No one can make those choices for me; stories do not write themselves. Whether I choose to write or not, however, does not stop the desire to write, that ceaseless call from life to join in the conversation. The moment I choose to heed that call, I am exactly where I want to be, and I remember again exactly what I am.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Creative Energy

I was teaching at the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference recently. I love teaching, particularly at conferences, where I get to meet so many new writers, and there’s such a condensed, creative energy in one place. But I’m a man of routines, and those routines involve a lot of solitude. All those people, and all that teaching, and all the hustling from one session to another, and all the late-night gatherings with wine and earnest conversation can wear a fellow out.

It was 2:00 in the afternoon on day three and I was slotted to moderate a session on making picture book dummies. I asked the Powers That Be if I could get out of it. I could not. I considered pouring a fourth of cup of coffee but decided against it. I knew the author teaching the class, and it was nice to say hello and learn how busy she’d been recently, but once I’d passed out her materials to the students, and told everyone to silence their cell phones, I felt like curling up in my chair and taking a nap.

My friend began explaining how one makes a dummy. It was sort of interesting, but I don’t write picture books. My mind wandered and I felt more tired still. The students were folding paper into book-shaped stacks, when my friend turned to me. “Bill, you want to make one?” I chuckled and shook my head. “No, I don’t think so.”

The class booed me. I was going to explain how tired I was, but I decided to make a book dummy instead. The point of the exercise was to learn how to lay out a picture book, to understand which pages a story can start on, and how one decides how much text to put on a given page. The other students had come with stories they’d already written and were busy choosing what text should go where. Once I’d folded and stapled and numbered my pages I wondered if I should copy off someone else. “Nah,” I thought. “I’ll just make something up.”

So I heard the first line of a story and wrote it down. It was pretty good. Then I heard a second line and it was even better, because it told me something about my protagonist and what his challenge was going to be. Now a third line came, which I quickly rewrote, and then a fourth and fifth line, and then nothing. But not nothing, of course. I was just waiting. I was interested now and I could feel another line coming and I was curious to learn what it would be when it did. Then I had it and I felt good writing it down.

As I raised my hand to call my friend over to show her what I’d written, I realized something had changed. It had changed without me noticing or caring, without coffee or naps or television.

I wasn’t tired anymore.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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No Illusions

A writer must have no illusions.

A writing life cannot be supported by fantasies of genius. Our little fantasies are at best shadows of our actual genius, which, when freed from doubt, feels as normal to us as breathing. Our fantasies, meanwhile, are like the dreams of breathing that a man has while he is drowning.

A writer must have no illusions about talent. The illusion that some are talented and some are not, that some have it what takes and some do not, turns the page into an unfriendly proving ground where the writer must inevitably fail. The writer must accept that talent is an expression of our curiosity unfettered by judgment, not the result of some cosmic game of genetic roulette.

A writer must have no illusions about the value of what’s been written. Any number we assign, high or low, is a fantasy of speculation, a long, hard look in a fun house mirror. What number would we assign to that holy instant a reader becomes lost in the same dream we dreamed while writing?

For what is a writer but a hypnotist, and what is the reader but a willing subject? Both surrender to a reality beyond the world they can see and touch, a reality given life in a realm as limitless as it is private. The more complete the surrender, the more satisfying the journey. It is a journey where author and reader meet regardless of the dull and tiny specifics of time and space. It is a journey where we forget our name, and we forget our past, and we forget all the stories we tell ourselves as we tramp around the world we can see and touch.

It is a journey, finally, to a life without end. We close the book, we finish the story, but nothing is over. Reader and writer are always left with something both complete and still growing. To see it otherwise is to believe too fully in the world we can see and touch, a world where things fall apart, and have price tags, and are argued over. The writer must have no illusions about that world. It is no more real than the words on the page, empty marks brought to life where all reality is born.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Waiting For Life

I was twenty-four and had recently relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a career in screenwriting. I didn’t have an idea for a movie I wanted to write, nor was I much interested in the screenplay format, but I wanted to be successful, and Hollywood seemed like the success Mecca. One of the many benefits I believed success granted was plentiful money. I was not the sort of fellow who wanted many things, but I knew didn’t want to worry about money. I hated worrying about money. It drained all the fun out of life.

So I answered a want ad for waiters for a new restaurant opening in Torrance. I drove the hour from Venice where I was crashing with a friend. My commute in Providence, where I’d grown up, had been a ten-minute walk; in LA, an hour was the norm. I found the restaurant in a pleasant, shady outdoor mall, and sat for the initial interview with the head chef at a patio table on the sidewalk beneath an awning. He told me he liked me and that he would hire me on the spot, but that I needed to interview with the owner first, who would be back from lunch soon. Could I hang around for an hour? I told him I could.

I went for a walk. Torrance, which I had never heard of until that afternoon, was a clean, orderly, coastal suburb. Though the mall was somewhat inland, as I strolled the tree-lined streets I could smell the ocean’s salty tang when a breeze stirred. I found a park and wandered along past benches and picnic tables. I was working up a little sweat, and so I found a tall tree across from a playground and lay down in its shade.

I closed my eyes, but I wasn’t remotely tired. I opened them again and stared up through the branches and leaves at the perfectly blue California sky. I could hear the children calling to one another in the playground, and the surrounding white hum of traffic, and the singular, nearing roar of a jet, and even, when I closed my eyes once more, the ocean’s empty, endless hush.

“When will I be able to enjoy this again?” I wondered. I knew the correct answer was Right Now, but Right Now was just a place where I waited until my real, successful, happy, worry-free life arrived. I got up and brushed off my interview pants and looked around at the park and the children and the surrounding hills and the canopy of sky – all of life, right there in Torrance, waiting for nothing.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Sharing Stories

I was giving a talk in Spokane shortly after the release of Write Within Yourself. In many ways, that book and this column constitute an ongoing story about writing. I’d heard a lot stories about writing over years, stories about how hard it is, and how you have to be lucky to have success at it, and how some people have talent and some just don’t. I did not like any of these stories, nor did I find them helpful.

So I started telling a different story, which led to the book and which brought me to Spokane. During the question and answer part of my talk a woman at the back the room raised her hand and stood up. “I don’t have a question,” she said. I leaned forward. She seemed to be on the verge of tears. “I just want to say what a relief it is to hear all this!”

She sat back down. I thanked her and told her how glad I was that something I wrote to help me had also helped someone else. But I’ve thought often of that woman since I met her. It is possible she will remember me as someone who changed her relationship to writing. Yet all I did was offer her permission to stop telling a story she had never wanted to tell in the first place. She was the one who decided that night to stop telling it. I was merely a convenient excuse to do so.

And what a relief it is when we stop telling crappy stories to ourselves. What a relief to stop bending our minds into some shape we decided at some weak moment was more acceptable than the shape it wants to take. What a relief to stop believing what makes us miserable to believe. The fever of self-loathing breaks, and when the sweat dries and we feel ourselves again in our natural form, we move in the direction we were meant to move, toward a story worth sharing with others.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Body and Soul

It doesn’t matter whether I am interviewing an award-winning literary writer on Author2Author or talking to a group of beginning writers at a writer’s conference, by and by the subject of money will likely come up. The established writer might wonder if he will “sell through” on his latest advance, while the beginning writer will ask if it is really possible to make a living at this and at what point can one quit one’s day job.

I think all the questions around writing and money really come down to this: Can I make a living doing something I would happily do for free? By the time a writer sits down to write, and then to try to publish that first book, he has likely been earning a living in some job or another. He often – though certainly not always – wouldn’t do that job unless he was paid to do so. This was certainly true of me. I made a living as a waiter for twenty years. It was good work, it fit my writing schedule nicely, but I wouldn’t have done it for one minute without the promise of payment.

I had to train myself to live like this, a training that began in school. I liked school well enough, the teachers were nice, I had friends, the work wasn’t hard – but if a foot of snow dropped and school was cancelled, I was overjoyed. Now I was free to do what I wanted, not what I had to. But this is life. You do what you have to do. You chop wood and carry the wood because you need a fire and if you don’t, it won’t get done. It’s called being an adult.

To write for a living, we must forget this training. Writing for a living contradicts the story most adults learn to accept. To write for a living, I must be willing to admit that the story I told to keep me safe and fed in the world, the story whose acceptance defined my manhood and maturity, was never more than that – a story. To write for a living means to create no separation between love and money, between joy and survival. Every time I am paid for what I would gladly do for free, I close that unfriendly gap between body and soul, and can forget that the world ever wanted anything from me other than exactly what I am.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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It’s Happening

Something is always happening.

How much time does a writer spend in a day where nothing appears to be happening? How many cumulative hours idle and un-writing before the keyboard? How many days with no word from editors or agents or contest judges? Nothing is happening. We wander our homes and apartments, surrounded by the exact same books and furniture as the day before. We turn on the TV, and isn’t that another rerun of Law and Order? Why isn’t anything happening? What must I do to get things to finally start happening?

Nothing. Because something is always happening. Movement is the only constant of the universe. You were not idle at the computer, you were waiting. Waiting is the silent awareness of movement and change. You cannot make anything happen, because something is always happening. You can only choose what happening you will join.

Life in this way is one endless playground, but how often has the writer wandered its periphery? How often has he stood by the fence watching the games in progress? Something is happening for them, he thinks, but not for me. Lonely me. Now an idea comes to the writer, as ideas do, and he wanders with it along the fence, and it is an interesting idea, and for a time he has forgotten to tell the story of how nothing is happening and he is not wanted.

And as the writer wanders, some player spies him by the fence. What is happening there? the player wonders. Why does it look like he’s doing something when he’s doing nothing? How wonderful that must be to live without the knowledge that this game must end, and then begins the dull, uncertain nothingness between games. How nice it would be if the game never ended, if something were always happening.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter