Support

October 23rd, 2014

I’ve been athletic since I was a boy. I ran track in high school and college and continued to run through my adult life even when there were no more races to win. I eventually added pushups and pull-ups to my workout, as well as crunches, though my wife would periodically peer in on me and comment, “I don’t think you’re doing those crunches right.”

She was correct. This past summer, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I bought T25, a “total body workout.” Like a lot of workouts, Sean T., my indefatigable virtual trainer, focuses much of the training on my core, that band of muscles between my chest and waist. No, I do not have a “six pack,” but after four months of side planks and leg lifts and sitting Vs I feel as though I am living with a kind of permanent back brace that snaps into form the moment I bend to lift anything. It’s awesome.

It is such a new feeling that it seems sometimes as if I’ve created muscles through my core that simply didn’t exist before. It’s not true, of course. Those muscles have always been there; I’ve just never paid such close attention to them. Now that I have, they have awakened and are eager to help, and I always appreciate help.

This is true of storytelling as well. When I teach I begin by reminding my students that nothing new will be learned in our classes. Stories are the muscles and sinews and bones of our consciousness. Everyone knows stories and tells stories and lives within a story called their life. Not everyone pays attention to those stories, however. When I do not pay attention to these muscles, life appears to me not as a story but as a thing already made to be endured and accepted.

But to tell stories deliberately is to awaken to what I am, to see life as something that supports me as I direct the focus of my attention toward what interests me and excites me and moves me. Life always responds to this attention as the body responds to my desire for movement. The only thing to be endured are the stories I do not want to tell, and the only thing to be accepted is my role as sole author, editor, and publisher of my 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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Ending The Story

October 21st, 2014

Sometimes it is as hard to end a story as to begin one. And I don’t mean find the ending; I mean acknowledge that it is over. It is not just that you must surrender that story to the rest of the world, where by the magical combination of language and imagination it will belong as completely to anyone who reads it as it ever belonged to you. This is difficult enough in its own way because hopefully you loved that story. Hopefully you were delighted to find it and looked forward to joining it every day at your desk no matter how often it seemed that you and this story were incompatible.

It was love that brought you to the story and love that helped you tell it. There was nothing else to keep you there. Everything you might hope to gain from it—all the money and accolades and platform-building—all of that would come later if it came at all. Love, meanwhile, would be there for you in every moment of the telling, if you but turned your attention to it. There is no better, or really, other companion.

But the story must end. No matter how much you love it, it must end. And you end it not because there is absolutely nothing more that could be done with the story. You could always do more. All endings are in their own way artificial. Instead, you end it because it is no longer in service to you. There is nowhere else for you to go within this story. In fact, you have already begun thinking about the next story.

It is a little hard to believe as you close that book that it is over. It consumed your thoughts, both waking and sleeping, while you were in the middle of writing it. Your moods rose and fell with each day’s work. Sometimes removing or replacing a single word felt as weighty as picking a president. Now, it is a little hard to remember why it felt so important. Now, you feel something prickling in you, and it’s got your attention in such a way that you’re not sure if you’re actually forgetting that other story, or remembering the pleasure of discovery.

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

October 20th, 2014

I was a member of a writing group for a short time. Like most writing groups, we shared our stories and some wine, and went around the room critiquing those stories. We all wanted to tell the best story we could possibly tell, and we were all there to help and support one another in this otherwise lonely endeavor.

These groups have become a staple of the ever-growing writing community. Sometimes these groups are helpful to the members, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes they help the writers better understand what they have created, and sometimes they become contentious ego-fests. Either way, the goal should be the same – to help the storytellers tell the best story possible. We may not agree on what a good story is or isn’t, but we all agree that we want the stories we read and write to be as interesting and funny and profound as they can possibly be.

I started Author and this column and now the Author’s Roundtable because I wanted to bring the same level of attention to the stories we tell about writing and publishing as we bring to the stories we offer to our critique groups. While writers can be meticulous in crafting the stories they send to magazines and agents and editors, they can be quite sloppy in the stories they tell about talent and intelligence and luck and rejection. These stories deserve the exact same scrutiny. These stories deserve just as much rewriting, and have just as many darlings that ought to be killed.

I would never walk into a bookstore and pull a book at random and read it cover-to-cover whether I liked it or not. To read that book is to live that book, to surrender my immeasurably powerful imagination to its reality. The stories I tell myself about writing and publishing are no different. To tell myself a story is to live it, to experience whatever limitations or cruelty or fairness or kindness it describes. My life is not some book pulled at random from the universe; it is a story I am telling myself moment by moment, a story I can write and rewrite as long as I remember that I am the one writing 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

War Stories

October 17th, 2014

In the course of our homeschooling, my son and I decided we should learn a bit about World War I. I knew very little about World War II’s less popular younger brother except that men still road horses into combat and fought in trenches and started using machine guns. I also knew about the Red Barron, gas warfare, artillery, and someplace called Verdun. I was always very unclear about why it started. I knew there was someone called Arch Duke Ferdinand, but I never believed his assassination was actually the reason the war started.

Turns out it was. Or it wasn’t, actually. My son and I concluded World War I was a very stupid war, which could be said of all wars, in a way, except this was the one where we in the West first understood this. From the sound of it (and you History Majors please stand down) the reason the war really started was a story, which went like this: Countries fight each other.

That was the story. The Arch Duke was killed and word went around that it was time to fight again. Everyone was ready to do it – the French were ready to fight, the English were ready to fight, the Germans, the Austrians, the Russians – everyone. Britain needed 100,000 more men for their rather small army. When they put out the call, one million signed up. Because countries fought each other. Everyone knew that. War was a part of being a human who lived in a country. That was the story and everyone told it and everyone knew it and so off to war we went. And then we fought this horrible, unromantic, muddy, bloody, ugly war and many of us did not like this story anymore. Not quite enough of us, but quite a few anyway, and so gradually the story began to change.

You may think the stories you write are of no real consequence. You may think you are only trying to help people escape reality for a plane ride, or pass an evening pleasantly in the company of a new literary friend, but we are all the accumulation of the stories we tell and are being told. While it is unlikely your stories will start or stop a war, they might bring peace to one person for one moment and serve as a reminder of what we actually are, and where we are actually going.

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

Bridge Builders

October 16th, 2014

I was at a writer’s conference this weekend when I fell into a conversation with an engineer husband of one of the attendees. While an avid reader, he was not a writer himself, though he considered himself creative. In fact, he had made a point of this when a writer-friend of his wife had expressed surprise that he had scored high the creative end of some personality test.

“Of course I’m creative!” he’d explained. “I’m an engineer. My page starts out just as blank as yours.”

He couldn’t have been more right. It is easy sometimes for the artist to overlook the creativity of the scientist or the mathematician or the engineer. As he said, their pages begin more or less as blank as the writer’s. Each problem the engineer solves has never been solved before. How is that anything but creativity?

There is an important difference between the artist and the engineer, however, a difference the artist must never forget. The engineer solves problems entirely intellectually. Emotion plays no active role in the putting together of jigsaw puzzles or building bridges or solving mathematical equations. I have sometimes sought relief from my own emotional life in the puzzles of the world, the Sudoku’s and video games and even the tax forms—anything to occupy a restless mind in search of a focus.

The creative writer, meanwhile, designs bridges from fear to love again and again and again. The intellect becomes the heart’s loyal servant, hefting the stones of logic and language and placing them in an orderly fashion. The intellect has no idea where the bridge began or where it will end. In fact, the intellect doesn’t even know why the bridge exists. Nothing you can hold in your hand or eat or measure is gained from it, yet look at everyone on earth crossing that expanse, look at every soul rushing through the gate only the heart can open.

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

Unknown

October 14th, 2014

In the middle of the Dark Years, when nothing I was writing was being read, I would occasionally threaten to quit writing altogether. “I will just quit it if things don’t turn around,” I told my wife.

“Really?” she asked. “And then what would you do?”

“I don’t know, but this ridiculous. I mean what’s the fricking point?”

“I get it, but what else would you do?”

It was a maddeningly unanswerable question. I was suffering. I knew this as certainly as I knew I was tired at the end of my day or thirsty after a run. But while I could sleep when tired or drink when thirsty, the power to end this suffering appeared to rest in other people’s hands. It was an unacceptable arrangement, a slave and slave master arrangement. More than to have my work read, I wanted to be free. I wanted my life to be my own.

Which is why I would threaten to quit from time to time. It was a suicidal choice, but sometimes it’s necessary to march yourself to that cliff if only ask, “Who’s making you do anything? Who’s making you breath and eat?” To take that leap is to remember the truth at last, as you fall freely into the unknown.

I’ll never be free from the unknown anymore than I can be free from blank pages. Those blank pages are my dependably unwritten future. They were also the answer to my wife’s question. When I wondered what else I would do, I perceived only a blank page, an unknown awaiting my attention, and the moment I stepped willingly into it, my life was my own again.

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 Innocent

October 13th, 2014

I often ask the lawyer-writers I interview why there are so many lawyer-writers, but it has occurred to me recently that all writers are lawyers of a kind. Who are our readers but a jury of our peers whom we must convince of our character’s guilt or innocence by showing the facts we call events, dialogue, and action? After all, no lawyer would stand up in court and merely tell the jury, “Look at my client. I’ve seen a lot of guilty people in my life, and you can trust me – she is not one of them. I rest my case.”

The difference is you have no opponent, and the jury wants very much to believe you. They want to believe you because it is not your characters’ innocence on trial, but your reader’s. Your reader will become every character as you became those characters, and to show your reader guilt or innocence is to allow her to go within herself and feel her own guilt and innocence so that she might put a name and feeling to what she has beheld.

And your reader desires guilt every bit as much as she desires innocence. The guilty in your stories will eventually suffer and maybe even die. All the guilt within your reader is a story she has forgotten to stop telling. When your guilty character perishes, for a moment the story of your reader’s guilt will perish as well, and she will perceive within herself the reality of life without the story of her imaginary guilt. For a moment, she will be free.

Free to become your innocent hero. Innocence cannot be taken from us by mere actions. Only the story we tell about those actions deprives us of our innocence. We put our stories on trial and condemn the worst stories to prison where we hope they will never be told again. Meanwhile, the hero within us is always free because only the hero believes he is free. His freedom is the only story he can tell – freedom to choose any book, any career, any city – a freedom so complete he will occasionally put himself in prison so he might once again seek himself.

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

Inspiring Stories

October 7th, 2014

I had an opportunity to teach a class in memoir and personal essay at the Write on the Sound Writers Conference this past weekend. A tweet came through the tweetosphere afterward by one the attendees complimenting the class. “Informational, yes,” it read, “but even more inspiring.”

Yes, I have an ego, and that ego enjoys being praised. But there is another part of me that was glad to read this message for other reasons. I’ve been writing for a long time and I’ve learned a bunch of stuff. I’ve learned about the importance of contrast and what I’ve come to call The Intentional Arc of a story. I’ve learned a lot about showing instead of telling and about using more nouns and verbs and fewer adjectives and adverbs. I’m happy to share all of what I’ve learned if I can figure out how.

I’m just not sure how much all that stuff I’ve learned will help if the student doesn’t believe she can tell the story she wants to tell. I don’t know how remembering to use contrast will be of use if the writer thinks that her story is like every other story out there, so why bother starting? If the student believes that no one wants to hear from her, that her story doesn’t matter, that in fact she doesn’t matter, then nothing I have to say on the dry business of nouns and verbs is going mean anything to her. A woman dying of hunger does not need a recipe for chocolate cake.

Which is why my real job as a teacher is simply to inspire the students, to tell them a story that goes like this: Your story matters because you want to tell it. That’s all you need to know. I happen to love this story. I can’t hear it often enough. I sometimes forget that it’s true. But when I’m really telling a story and not simply repeating it, it is more like listening than talking, and so I get to hear it too, and so I get to believe it, and maybe so do these people called students, and then storyteller and audience are one.

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 Author of Your Life

October 6th, 2014

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose, if you forget why you’re writing, it will feel as if you’ve forgotten how to write. It is true for me every time I sit down to write. Technically, I write to share perspectives and tell stories, but that is not really why I write. These are just excuses to do what it is I really want to do.

For instance, I’m currently writing a book about how we are all storytellers and we are all the authors of our own lives. You may recognize the phrase “authors of our own lives” from Author’s Home Page. There it is, right at the top. I mention this because the idea that we are all the authors of our own lives has been kicking around in my head since before I started Author. As such, I’ve been thinking about it, and talking about it, and, since starting this column, writing about it for many years. It is not like other books that begin as a seed of an idea. This is a flower already growing.

It is tempting, then, to believe that all I need to do is describe the flower. Specifically, there are stories in the book that I often tell when I teach or lecture. Having already told them and told them, writing them should be easy. In fact it wouldn’t really be writing, it would be transcribing. The problem is, I don’t want to transcribe; I want to write. I want to ask for an original thought, receive it, and translate it. That’s where the actual pleasure is. Not in the outcome, not in the act of putting words on the page, but the asking, the receiving, and the translating.

So no matter how many times I might have told a story, I remind myself that this time I can tell it differently. I remind myself that if I seek it as if it were new it will feel new and I will experience that same pleasure of discovery and connection, that meeting of mind and intention, that is the destination of every day’s work.

This is the friendliest view of life I know. I will leave my desk and return to the same house, the same rooms and furniture, the same wife and child, and be offered the same choice as when I tell my stories. Do I want to transcribe this life or write it? Do I want to recognize this moment as different from any other and seek that same meeting of mind and intention within it, or see it as a story that is forever repeating itself? Am I the author of my life, or only the audience?

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 Friendly Canvas

October 3rd, 2014

When I started telling stories, I quickly realized I had to know why I was telling a story before I began it. It wasn’t enough to know simply that I wanted to tell a story, that I wanted the attention that came from having my turn on stage, because once my turn came my mission was accomplished, so to speak, and there remained the unanswered question of what exactly I planned to do with that attention.

So I thought I should share a good feeling. The first good feeling that came to mind was accomplishment. These stories usually went something like this: “I won! Not the other guys – me!” If you were my mother or father you might have enjoyed this story, but only because – as I have learned in the last nineteen years – parents can fool themselves into believing their child’s accomplishments are their own. For the rest of humanity, however, this was a boring story. Bragging kept the audience at a distance where they were not allowed to join me in my triumph, only admire and applaud me.

So I endeavored to find stories that would invite my audience to join me. I noticed that tales of woe usually attracted a commiserative band of sympathizers. In these stories I was the innocent victim of someone else’s lousiness. There is a kind of brotherhood in outrage, but these stories left me feeling as lousy as the person who’d wronged me. A good story, it seemed to me, should leave everyone in a better place than when it started.

I eventually found stories that began with a problem to which I had contributed. Usually I didn’t realize I had contributed to the problem until the end, the delicious end, where the problem was corrected not through action but perception. In this way, every story brought me back to that moment before I’d begun telling stories, a world without good guys or bad guys, a friendly canvas waiting to be filled.

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