Write What You Really Know

August 25th, 2016

Contrast is a storyteller’s best friend. It helps us show what it is we want our readers to see. Just as a flashlight’s beam is clearly visible on a starless night, but virtually invisible on a bright sunny day, so too peace is easier to perceive when contrasted against war. So, if you are writing a love story, you will likely have your heroine feeling alone and unlovable for the majority of the story. That way, when she finally does find love, the reader will hopefully experience the same release of tension she feels when she finally believes she is worth of love.

I must remember the power and simplicity of contrast whenever I find myself trying to “figure out a story.” I hate figuring out stories. Whenever I start figuring out a story, I feel as if I’m in math class and someone has handed me a 70,000-word equation for which there is only one right answer, which is known only by acquisitions editors in New York. Unlike a lot of writers I know, I was pretty good in math, and it was fun to find the right answer, but I became a writer because I wanted to make a living asking question to which only I knew the answer.

Which is why I must remember contrast. Stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, can start seeming pretty complicated when I think they’re about what happens. That means I’m trying to untangle a knot of plot points and characters and settings. But stories aren’t about what happens. Stories about what it feels like when something is happening. Your readers won’t remember ninety percent of what took place in the stories you tell. But they will remember how that story left them feeling, because that is all that matters to any of us ever. We all want to feel good. Whether we believe it’s possible or not, we still want it. We arrange all the details of our lives with the sole intention of creating a life, like a story, that leaves us feeling as good as we can feel.

I know that because I’m human. I know that, because I know I would always rather feel good than bad. I would always rather feel curious than bored; I would always rather feel happy than unhappy; inspired rather than depressed. This never, ever changes. It is the one absolute, unending, never-dimming constant in my life. It’s so constant, I take it for granted. It’s so constant, I can start to believe life and all the people in it are far more complicated than they actually are.

If I can remember the simplicity of contrast, life and stories begin to make sense again. In the end a story is about the difference between one feeling and another. Stories are about the difference between feeling like I have no voice and knowing that I have a voice; or the difference between feeling weak and feeling strong; or feeling powerless and powerful. When I tell a story, I choose a difference I have known and experienced. Once I have known the difference between weakness and strength, between fear and love, between violence and peace, that knowledge is unquestionable; it is the resting place for my restless mind.

Write your stories about the feelings you know. If you have lived, you have learned the difference between one feeling and another. Your questions about your stories are usually questions about what you already know to be true. When you accept the simplicity of the difference between fear and love or hate and compassion, your stories will come together on their own, finding their form the way you find yourself when you cease to doubt what you have always known.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

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Finding Your Readers

August 23rd, 2016

I was giving a reading once, talking about writing the way I like to – which is to say encouraging everyone just to do it and ignore all the noise about how hard it is to get published and the shrinking markets and rejections and snappy openings and so on – when a woman raised her hand and said, “This is such a relief.”

Which I share not to brag but because I had found a like soul. This column has been a relief to me. For years I worked against the current of a story that went thus: Writing and publishing are hard. You have to be lucky or talented or preferably both, and don’t forget it’s a business, and be original but make sure your work fits into a category, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I hated this story, but I believed it was reality.

The more I wrote while believing this story, however, the more I felt the mounting discomfort of working against what I secretly felt to be true and useful. The discomfort – which I sometimes called failure, or writers block, or a bad day’s work – was actually a form of asking. The discomfort was saying, “Not this. It isn’t working. Go find something better.” And so the discomfort grew and grew until at last I started a magazine and allowed myself to tell a different story, and in the answering of my own question the strain and weight of working against myself were relieved.

It is important as a writer to remember that out there in the reading wilderness are strangers looking for what you have written. I suppose this woman was. Whatever suffering had been relieved that night had been her asking. I am sure she did not recognize it as such. I am sure she called it a bitter pill of reality she must swallow if she wanted to pursue this dream. In this way, my answer was her answer, my relief was her relief, and my story was her story.

And that, I believe, is what we call finding your readers.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Everyone Has What It Takes

August 19th, 2016

Several weeks ago I published an essay in the New York Times about how my son, who’d been diagnosed on the autism spectrum when he was seven, taught me that no one is broken. The premise of the piece was that the only way I could be of any use to my son at all was if I stopped trying to fix him. The only way to stop trying to fix him was if I stopped seeing him as broken. But the only way I could stop seeing him as broken was if I stopped seeing anyone as broken, including me.

I recently interviewed the romance writer Sheila Roberts. We were discussing the importance of writers trusting their own curiosity, knowing that their solitary interest in a story idea was enough to warrant turning that idea into a novel to share with the reading world. For Sheila, the inherent value of her curiosity was natural to accept because she believed that “In God’s eyes we’re all important, and everyone has something to say that will help and encourage someone.”

Or, if you’re a secular type: everyone’s talented, everyone’s smart, and everyone has something to say. Much of the suffering I experienced as a young writer grew out of this single thought: Some have what it takes, and some don’t. The evidence that there were writing haves and have-nots seemed overwhelming. There were those books I read that I loved, and those books I read that I couldn’t stand. There were the notoriously depressing rejection rates at magazines and publishing houses. And of course there were those rejection letters I found in the mailbox and the inbox week after week. If everyone in the world was really talented, why this conspicuous division of publishing spoils?

The division of those spoils has nothing to do with talent or intelligence, but is rather a reflection of a person’s willingness to accept that they have always been talented and intelligent. By the time those rejection letters turned into acceptance letters, I began to understand that the only way I could be absolutely certain I had something worth sharing with the world was if everyone had something worth sharing with world. If I believed for a moment that certain people were special and certain people were ordinary, that certain people were talented and certain people were talentless, I ceased to be able to answer the question, “What would I love to share with the world?” Instead, I only became lost in the question, “Am I have or a have-not?”

You will never answer that question to your satisfaction, no matter how many novels you publish, or awards you win. No trophy or publishing contract will confirm once and for all that your voice matters, that your curiosity matters, that you matter. The question that hovered over my son for years was always, “Will he be all right?” The answer, of course, was that he already was all right because everyone was all right, whether they were young or old, sick or thriving, published or unpublished. Our wholeness cannot be perceived in what we’ve done or said or accomplished. It is the light beneath the veil of behavior and circumstance.

So too with my writing. Like most artists I know, I have dreamed of recognition, to be singled out as unique among the many. When that finally happened, I understood that the many who were singling me out were merely recognizing in me what they were resisting in themselves, just as I had done with all those artists I had grown up admiring. My writer’s brittle ego was a tad disappointed, but the rest of me was greatly relieved. I no longer had to answer the unanswerable. Instead, I could return to my curiosity, which is all my creative self has ever had or needed.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Rewriting the Rules of Success

August 18th, 2016

For many, many, many years nothing I wrote was published. This was a very difficult period of writing in my life. I am a naturally happy person. I look for excuses to be happy. But I am also an ambitious person. An ex-athlete, I expected to be successful at whatever I applied myself to. Writing success, namely publication, felt every bit like those trophies I trained and ran for as a schoolboy, only more valuable. Publication seemed to carry not just the glittering public triumph of victory, but also a financial security tied to something beyond my dull, daily labor – the freedom of being paid for what I would do for free. Writing success was a portal to life as I wished to lead it.

But I could not open that portal. Or that portal would not open for me. Or I couldn’t find the portal. It was hard to tell which it was. All I knew is I was where I was and not where I thought I should be. And so I was unhappy. I had to be. That was the rule: to be happy I had to be successful. I could not imagine myself both happy and unsuccessful. Trying to imagine a happy life without success was like trying to imagine a happy life without food or shelter or friends. So I was unhappy. Unless I forgot the rule, and got interested something, which always makes me happy – until I’d remember that I wasn’t successful, and I’d be unhappy once more.

By and by, little successes began trickling in. I was glad for them, but I still felt more or less as I always had. Clearly, these successes were too small to open that portal. Then one day, I learned that a publisher had offered me a contract for a book. I stood for a moment after hearing this news, surrounded in a strange silence. It was like the fresh peacefulness after a thunderstorm. Thunderstorms don’t create that peacefulness, though they do remind me what it sounds like.

So this is what life feels like without the noise of failure, I thought. How easy it would have been at that moment to attribute the peace of success to my contract. Yet to do so would have merely assured the noise would return if I didn’t like how many copies my book sold, or if I didn’t sell my next book, or if I didn’t win some award. The rules of success can always be rewritten so that happiness remains something to be desired and attained rather than something I own and express.

I didn’t actually have to be unhappy during those long dry years. In fact, what brought me the most happiness was also my path toward those acceptance letters I so desired. But I couldn’t have been convinced of that then. The rules were the rules were the rules, and I was certain I hadn’t written them. I had just been following orders and dreaming of the freedom I already had.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Common Mistake

August 16th, 2016

I have always written, but for many years I also wanted to be a Writer. It was as important to me as the writing itself. The writing, after all, took place in private, but the Writer was the one who had to get about the world. If I could be a Writer, I believed, then I could feel as free in public as I sometimes felt in private.

I desperately wanted to be free. As a Writer, I would have no job. A job was something I had to do to feed and clothe and house myself. This wasn’t freedom. This was paid slavery. No, to be free I had to be paid for something I would have gladly done whether I was paid for it not. Being free meant no one could tell me what to do or when to do it. Being free meant I would listen only to that same voice that guided me through what I wrote.

What’s more, I only wanted to think and talk and do what mattered. To write a story or a poem or an essay is to focus on what matters most about life. In the solitude of writing, I was free to look beneath the dull surface of things, to see clearly what was so often obscured to me in the bright lights and hubbub of the world away from my desk. If I were a Writer, somehow such stuff would be left to other people. If I were a Writer, people would only turn to me for Very Important Things.

I never spoke of this to anyone, including myself. It seemed too narcissistic. Yet even such fantasies, summoned by the ego in moments when it was uncertain of its worth, have served as some kind of beacon for my life. I still want nothing more than to be free, to live my life as I want to live it, and I still seek to turn my attention to what I believe matters most. I had just mistaken being a Writer for being me.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Storyteller’s Dream

August 12th, 2016

My dreams often float in and out lucidity, where, as when I am writing a story at my desk, one moment I am living in the dream as I would in life, and the next I am observing that dream and am aware of my manipulation of it—until I reenter it and am living it again.

I had perhaps the best dream of my life two years ago. I was with my youngest son Sawyer, and we were in a terrible place. It was a warzone of a city filled with armed men hunting down their enemies. In this dream, the armed men found us, and lined Sawyer and me up against a wall. The leader began drawing X’s on the wall behind us, to better help the executioners’ in aim. “We don’t have much time,” I thought, and became lucid, my eye a camera now swooping over the scene looking for my way out or how to disarm the men, when I heard Sawyer say, “Don’t worry. I know what to do.”

I was back living the dream, and the men aimed, cocked their rifles, and I understood the moment before it happened that it was Sawyer’s plan to let them kill us. The order was given, and the muzzles flared, and I felt the bullets strike me, and Sawyer and I were not in our bodies anymore. As I moved further from my body, what I was became nothing but a darker and darker shade of blue, which I now saw was the same color as everything else in the world. Soon the world and I had no form at all, only color. “We’re going into the blue, Sawyer,” I said.

And as my own shade reached its darkest, deepest blue, as there at last was no difference between Sawyer and me and everything that was, I heard, “This is the world without any stories.” You would think a storyteller like me would believe he was looking on hell, but it was exactly the opposite. No sooner was I given this glimpse of perfection than Sawyer and I were fading into lighter and lighter blue until we were back in our bodies and walking together in a world made friendly 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.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Protector

August 10th, 2016

It doesn’t matter what I’m writing, whether it’s a memoir or an essay or a poem or novel, in order to write honestly and sincerely I must forget myself. I must forget the Bill who looks in the mirror, who checks his followers on Twitter, who squints at the scale in the morning, who replays past conversations in his mind, who gloats over praise and agonizes over criticism. This Bill has many opinions, particularly about what I’ve written. He believes most of what I’ve written is brilliant or horrible. There is very little in between.

I have to forget about him, though it’s not always so easy at first, because he believes he’s looking out for my well-being. He’s a protector of sorts. He’s just not exactly clear what he’s protecting me from. No matter, his vigilance is one of his most endearing qualities. He knows a threat when he sees it, so he keeps his eyes outward, hoping to find trouble before it finds us.

Which is why I like writing in the isolation of my workroom. There’s nothing to see here, just the same four walls, the same windows and clock, the same blank screen. I know immediately when my protector has gone off duty. The room grows immediately quieter. Now I can hear the answers to the questions the steady hum of vigilance had distorted. I cannot hear those answers until I forget to care how anyone else would answer them.

Now I’m writing. And now I experience a lovely transparency. I am not worried about what the protector was protecting because it doesn’t exist. Forgotten are all requirements, all bills and arguments and comparisons and grievances. Now light just passes through. I can only write for so long, however, before I realize I can hear the clock ticking and the cars on the street outside my window. I’m back in the world, and I remember I can be seen again.

It’s not long before I meet my protector again, but the more I write, the less I seem to need him. The older I get, the closer he gets to retirement. I won’t throw him a party or buy him a gift when he’s done. In fact, I doubt I’ll recognize his passing until I look in the mirror and realize I am actually looking back at myself.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

How Writing Saved My Marriage

August 8th, 2016

I married a writer. Even though she and I approach our writing differently, I have often said that I could not imagine being married to anyone who didn’t write. On one occasion, however, those differences were nearly our undoing.

Jen and I were planning a trip to La Jolla for her uncle and aunt’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. We would be there for four days, and Jen went into planning motion. She researched things to do in La Jolla and San Diego; she read reviews of those things; she found out how much each thing would cost and how long it took to get there. Then she wanted my feedback. Read all this stuff I’ve found, she said, and tell me what you think so we can decide what we’ll do.

I hated all the stuff she showed me. I hated reading it and I hated thinking about it. It’s not that I didn’t want to do any of it, I just hated thinking about it ahead of time. It made no sense to me. I didn’t know now what I would want to do then. Plans change. I wanted to handle this vacation the way I handled the stories I wrote: I’d figure it out when I got there.

A week before we were scheduled to leave we got into a horrible argument. She was beyond irritated with me for dragging my feet and I wanted her just to make her list of possibilities and leave it at that. It got ugly. If you did not know us well, you might have thought this was the end of a twenty-year marriage.

And then, right in the middle of this blowup, in one of the few pauses in the yelling, I thought: Wait. Jen’s an outliner. I’m not an outliner. That’s all this is about. Like all outliners, she needed her plan for the future, even though she knew that plan would change. I confessed to her that I never like to make plans, the same way I didn’t like to outline. I don’t understand how to make it work, but if she would sit with me now we could look at all the stuff together. Neither of us, it turned out, was wrong, and once we remembered that, we could be friends 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.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Writing as Love Letters to Your Readers

August 5th, 2016

The summer after I turned eighteen, the girl I had fallen in love with six months earlier moved with her family from Providence, RI to Seattle, WA. In 1983, before Skype and text messages and emails, that might as well have been the other side of the planet. I was devastated. I dreamed about her night after night, and spent my muggy, Providence afternoons wondering what exactly the point to life was if circumstance could arbitrarily pluck someone you loved from your world.

I went to college on Long Island while she went to school in Olympia. We started writing long letters. I wanted to feel close to her. I wanted to feel the immediacy of her company as I had known it while talking to her on her couch in her living room or when I’d walked her home after we’d gone to see The Graduate. I already knew I wanted to be a writer. Perhaps I could close that 3,000-mile gap through the power of the written word.

Being a young writer, I was also an impatient writer. I wanted my letters to travel what seemed like the fastest and easiest route between my heart and hers. To do this I would need to feel something immediately and acutely. And so I complained. I complained about how few friends I had, about how flat the stories I was writing seemed to me, about the weather on Long Island. Yet no matter how many adjectives I poured onto the page, no matter how detailed I was in chronicling my misery, I could not find again what lit in me every time she answered my knock on her front door.

Twenty-five years later I found myself writing letters of a different kind. These were called blogs, but they really were love letters to strangers. By this time, that girl and I had found each other again and married and had two boys. Circumstance, I began to understand, could not actually pluck anything of value from my world. I just needed to learn where to look for it.

I wanted the little essays and stories I wrote in my blog to inspire writers, to remind them why the very act of writing was always worthy of their time and attention regardless of rejection letters or the market or advances. I knew how easy it was for writers to bond with one other through complaint. We all dislike rejection, and we’d all like to sell more, and we’d all like the stories to come easier.

But I also knew how it felt to open the door to my imagination and find a story I loved to tell waiting for me. I knew how good it felt to spend time in the company of that story, to hear what it had to say and learn where it wanted to go. I decided to write as a kind of invitation to other writers to join me in a place where the enduring value of having a story we loved to tell was more important than the passing disappointment of rejection letters or sagging sales.

There is a kind of vulnerability and naïveté to optimism; it is not interested in fixing problems. I know how easy it is to see problems all around me, to believe that what I desire most has left my world. What a strange thing for a writer to believe. I can find what I love most while alone at my desk facing a perfectly blank page. There I remember again where to look for what I want, and remember what it feels like to find it, and that the bond of friendship is always love and never fear.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Why Every Writer is a Visionary

August 2nd, 2016

I have a friend who was deeply involved in education in the early ‘70s. He had started two alternative high schools, and he described to me how, in the months leading up to the first school’s opening, he would lay in bed and picture how the school would look, and which classes would go where, and where the kids would eat lunch and where they’d hang out. He could see it all, he said, as if it were already finished and he was merely retracing in his imagination steps he’d already taken in the physical world.

My friend is what I would call a visionary, meaning he had a vision for schools and for education that was different than what a person could see with their eyes at that time. He had been able to see the school long before it existed. In fact, without his vision, the schools would never have been. Yet, as with all new projects, once the schools were created – once the first draft had been written, so to speak – there remained the long journey of seeing them through to their full potential. This required the help of other people, other teachers and bureaucrats and politicians, and this where the trouble started.

Those other people couldn’t yet see what he could see. All they could see was what their eyes showed them, which was something very different than what they were used to seeing and which was not yet expressing its full potential. These other people were dubious and critical and my friend became frustrated and soon left the schools to those other people.

I think of my friend often when I listen to writers talk about their latest idea for a new book. Every writer is a visionary in their own way. Our stories, like my friend’s schools, begin in a place where only we can see them. It is so exciting, it is so life-affirming, to perceive something tangibly before it exists. At such times we are in touch with life’s complete creative potential. It is as if we can perceive, not just the apple tree, but also all the apples it will produce.

The problem are all those other people who can’t yet see the apples we can see, those other people with whom we would very much like to share the fruits of our vision. It is easy to become frustrated and depressed when those other people say, whether in critique groups or rejection letters, that they cannot see what we can see. In fact, some of them might even suggest that what we see does not actually exist, that our story’s value isn’t real, that it’s “all in our imagination.”

How right they are. The profound frustration I often felt when people could not see what I believed I was showing them was merely my own fear that what I had believed was real, was not. If I could not believe in what my imagination showed me, how could I do what I loved to do? It took me a very long time, but I eventually learned that writing’s true pleasure was not just the vision, but the practice of translating that vision so other people could perceive it. That translation required my complete belief despite other people’s doubt, which was just their way of saying, “I can’t see it . . . I can’t see it . . . Now I can see it!”

I still feel a little sigh of relief when readers tell me they can see what I was trying to show them. This relief passes quickly, however. Soon enough, I return to my natural state, the constant in and out of imagining and translating. To doubt my own imagination is to doubt life’s full creative potential, to doubt the summer’s harvest, simply because my eyes behold an apple tree’s barren limbs in winter.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter