By Myself

May 21st, 2015

I may crave the moment I can finally close the door to my workroom and sit quietly at my desk and enter once again the dream of the story I have been telling, but I must never mistake this experience for loneliness. Storytellers are never alone, although we are by ourselves.

While I write I am by myself in the same way I might say I sat by a stranger on plane, or I was held by my mother as child. To write is to sit by myself, with myself, and continue a conversation I often lose track of while I bounce around the world, occasionally colliding with other storytellers, or arguing with other storytellers, or becoming envious of other storytellers. There are just so many storytellers telling so many stories.

I like some of these stories; many, I admit, I do not. I do not like the story that goes: Something is wrong and someone needs to fix it! I hear that story a lot. Some days it feels like the only story I am hearing. I admit, I sometimes tell this story myself. Whenever I tell it, I feel very alone. I know, somehow, that although I have seen the problem, I am incapable of fixing this problem. It is always too big of a problem; it is a systemic problem, a global problem, a human problem. Should I rally everyone together, form a committee, a focus group, a non-profit with a website and a mission statement?

I choose instead my workroom. At last I am by myself, and I can ask myself honestly what I think of all these problems. The question is never answered because it is not even heard. The one I sit with at my desk is deaf to problems. He is only interested in the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. And so, because I am tired of all these problems I cannot fix, and because I am tired of feeling alone, I wonder what the next thing might be, and no sooner do I ask than I hear my first answer, and the conversation continues.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Creative Irresponsibility

May 18th, 2015

The human mind thinks entirely in the positive. That is, if my wife were headed to the store, and I called out, “Don’t forget the milk!” she would actually hear, “Forget the milk!” Better then to say, “Remember the milk.”

Which is why writers must only focus on what we want to create, not what we don’t want to create. Though it is perfectly natural for me to think, “I don’t want to write a boring book,” if I continue to think this, it would be as if I am watering dandelions and hoping they will grow into roses. Or, to put it in writerly terms: if I want to write a scene about love, I cannot think about fear, hatred, and violence. If I want to write about love, I must think about love.

I know all of this intellectually, yet I still find myself from time to time thinking about the things I don’t want to create. I do so out of the misguided belief that the only way to stay safe from the threat of What Might Be is to remember all the things that I don’t want to exist – as if, but for my diligence, I might trip and accidentally write a book I don’t want to write. This is an exhausting and uncomfortable way to live and write. I feel as if I am navigating a minefield of disastrous possibility, with only capricious luck and joyless concentration to keep me safe.

When I think too long in this way, I quickly find myself in conversation with other people complaining about the state of the world. Look what a mess we’ve made. To not recognize the mess we’ve made would be irresponsible. How else will we correct the problems?

Fortunately, I have lived long enough to learn creative irresponsibility. By and by, I choose to ignore my problems. I ignore the problem of forgetting the milk and remember my desire to have milk in my cereal. I forget the problem of a boring book and remember my desire for an interesting book. In so doing I become responsible once again for the life I’m leading, rather than the life I’m afraid I might lead.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Instant Success

May 15th, 2015

During my conversation with Patricia Park this past Tuesday, the debut author of Re Jane described an all too familiar experience for many a young author. As the bright, hardworking, college-educated daughter of Korean immigrants, she was an expectation and desired to have some kind of tangible success in her burgeoning professional life. Unfortunately, Patricia wanted to be a writer – specifically, a novelist. There are few tangible successes for beginning novelist.

Except there are. As she said in our conversation, when asked, “How is it going?” she often wanted to answer, “Great!” because she had just found a new character or gotten rid of an unnecessary scene. For a novelist in the thick of a story, these little discoveries are success. In fact, any time a writer finds the right character, or the right scene, or even the right word she experiences the unmistakable, effortless pleasure of success. She just can’t share it yet with anyone else.

It is important for me to periodically remind myself that success doesn’t actually exist outside of my imagination. That is, success is not like a publishing contract or a game of Yahtzee! You cannot measure it or hold it in your hands or accumulate it. Despite all my glittering goals and dreams and ambitions, all I actually desire is the feeling I believe I will experience when those goals, dreams, and ambitions are known.

Which is why an author can experience success with a single word. What we call success is the alignment of action with authentic desire. The right word is an action that expresses our authentic desire to tell a story. The moment this happens, inside and outside are one and there is nothing to want except more alignment. All those things I believe I want will come by and by, but I needn’t worry myself with them. Just as I do when I tell my stories, I need only seek the next most aligned word, or aligned story, or aligned anything and won’t have to wait another moment for the success I already have.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Unfolding

May 14th, 2015

A writer can be as practical as she wants to be. She can talk about Facebook, and Twitter, and blog tours, and strong female leads, and compelling characters. She can sit in a restaurant with her best friends and discuss agents and advances and the pros and cons of indie publishing versus traditional publishing. She can have a great website and a publicist she trusts.

It’s good perhaps to be this practical, to look upon her work like so much ketchup she must sell. It’s good to go to bed at night as her body lays down for sleep in the bed she owns, covered by a roof she keeps in place by selling those books that might as well be ketchup. Because come the morning she must go to her workroom and enter a dream. If she is to keep that roof over her head, if she is to have something to tweet about and FB about, she must believe that dream. She must treat that dream as though it is as real as the chair in which she sits.

Because her readers will. Her readers will go to bookstores or Amazon or B&N and spend real money on real books so they can enter a dream and have it feel as real as the chair in which they are sitting. The writer knows this. She knows these strangers will become some kind of friends when reached by that infinite bridge of the imagination. She knows all her practical commerce is based up on a belief in dreams.

So it is good she thinks so practically. It is good to remember from time to time that she has an actual body she must feed and clothe and house. That’s sometimes easy to forget in her world of dreams. Easy to confuse realities. Easy to look up from her desk and out her window and see a story already told, instead of one unfolding.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Friendliest Part of Me

May 12th, 2015

Here’s a secret: you don’t actually care what anyone else thinks about your work. I know you think you do. I know your day has been ruined by what one person said or wrote about your stories or poems, and I know that another day brightened the moment you learned that someone liked what you’d written. I know you share your work with your writing group, or your editor, or beta readers to find out what they think of it. I know how anxiously you read your Amazon reviews or your New York Times reviews. I know all the time and energy you’ve spent wondering and worrying about what other people think of your work – but the truth, the final truth, the only truth is that you don’t actually care and never have.

You don’t care because you know it doesn’t matter. It can’t matter. Those other people don’t live where your writing occurs, which is a friendly place within you accessible only to you. You want to share what you find there. Because others can’t see or hear or know this place, you have to translate what you find there into words. Sometimes people understand the translation. Sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, you can try to retranslate it. Or not. It’s up to you.

So it can be a little helpful to know whether other people understand your translation; translation is imprecise, to say the least. But it is not even slightly helpful to know what other people think about it. It is not helpful to know how your story reminds them of their ex-husband, or that they prefer it when characters use smaller words. It is not helpful to know how they would have written it, or what they believe your story says about the human condition. It is not helpful to know any of the thousands of thoughts that cross another person’s mind when they read your story. Those are none of your business and they cannot help you tell your stories.

It is very uncomfortable to try to make myself care about something I don’t really care about. It seems as though the only way to control what another person thinks about what I have written is to care what they think; that if I take very seriously what another person thinks, the next time I write something I will write it in such a way that I will already know what everyone – I mean absolutely everyone – already thinks about it and thereby not suffer the misery of waiting to learn and having to make myself care all over again. It is as exhausting as it is distressing. Because I don’t care and never have and neither do you, and remembering this is the friendliest way I know to share something I found in the friendliest part of 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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

All Is Well

May 11th, 2015

Many of the writers I work with complain of a similar problem: they sit down to write but they can’t write. They want to write, they need to write, they should write, and yet they don’t write. This experience is just about the most pain one can feel while sitting and doing nothing. And yet the pain, the discomfort, is both necessary and a clear indicator to the writer that all is well.

Writing is very much like a prayer. The writer is asking for something that is not currently clear within his consciousness. When the clarity comes, whether it is in the form of a rhyme to a poem or an epiphany at the end of an essay or a plot twist in a thriller, the writer experiences both discovery and relief, for what he has found feels both new and familiar. He is seeking something new, the authentic evolution of his story, and it is the familiarity that signals to him that what he has found belongs in the story he is telling.

I have experienced this discovery and relief thousands of times in my writing life. It remains the pleasure against which all other pleasures in my life are measured. Yet the more I have this experience, the more I understand that it cannot be replicated. Each prayer is wholly different than the one before, because what I asked for yesterday has already been given. Once it has been given there is no need for it to be given a second time because I already have it – and so it is not.

If I doubt my new prayer will be answered, I will feel discomfort. The more profound my doubt, the more profound the discomfort. Yet it is the pain of doubting that tells me I needn’t doubt. This is the doubt that can disbelieve spring in winter, whose eyes are hypnotized by what has already been made and has lost the vision to see what might be. It is the doubt that sees life as nothing but a giant waiting room within a slaughterhouse, where the dream of death is more real than the endless discovery 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.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Dragon In The Garden

May 8th, 2015

I sometimes wonder if the worst misfortune that could befall a writer is to be cursed with a life of excitement and adventure. How easy, even with your own life, to become transfixed by the glitter and drama of events and lose sight of the heart that beats steadily and hopefully beneath every moment. Life may dress itself in a tuxedo, but within that coat and tie is the same naked truth to which we are all beholden.

It is the only truth toward which anyone would write, and the only truth toward which anyone would live. And yet how tempting it is to discard life like one of our own aborted ideas. Not all of life, of course – only the dull bits, the hours spent waiting, the idle hours in front of the TV, the after-dinner conversations with a spouse, the drive to work.

I have felt at times as if I am drowning in life’s dull bits. How the dirty daily business of not-dying consumes my attention. If the dull bits are discardable, why then so am I, for hasn’t my life seemed to have descended into little else? Now I look out and see nothing but empty survival, now I look out and would crave a killer at my door, if only to make that same survival worthy of a movie or at least a mention on the evening news.

How the dull bits summon the specter of meaninglessness. Now a dragon has appeared in my garden, and I am running for my life. Slay me if you can, he’ll whisper, but death has always been my friend, filling your quiet hours as he does with the haunted fantasy of an end as meaningless as the beginning and middle.

I write this column for anyone who has ever felt the pain of his own discarded life. Perhaps you did not even recognize the dragon as you looked at him. Perhaps you called him boredom, loneliness, poverty, loss, bad luck, or abuse. The dragon has many names. To live as a saint, you needn’t renounce your earthly ways, tend the children in Calcutta, or hang yourself on a cross. To live as a saint you need only see what a saint sees, to look out at the garden where the dragon breathes and know that serpent has come to save you.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

An Unconditional Home

May 7th, 2015

I’ve always felt that a writer’s confidence is more important than his knowledge of craft. I can have all the craft in the world – and by this time, I have accumulated my share of it – but once I lose my confidence, the craft is more or less useless. What’s more, I can lose my confidence at any moment, but once I’ve learned my craft – once I’ve learned to show and not tell, to rely on verbs and nouns more than adjectives and adverbs – I am unlikely to forget it the same way I am unlikely to forget my times tables if am willing to forgo the calculator now and again.

My confidence is my unconditional love for the story I am telling. I must love that story as I would love my child. I cannot wait for it to show me that it is worthy of my love from praise, nor reject it when it has been criticized. I must love it from its first, vague seedling of an idea. I must love it as it struggles into shape, forming and reforming, expanding and contracting. And I must love it as I set it free into the world, where it will be loved and probably hated, understood and misunderstood, bought and returned.

I must love it without any thought of what anyone thinks about it. That is a writer’s unconditional love. That is our resting place, the home where we are loved as a family is loved, the home where our confidence is known, not in achievement or wealth or status, but in the awareness of the value that we were born to express.

It’s complete freedom, of course, but how easy it is to leave that home in search of some phantom certainty. That is a journey into Hell, the maze of a million equal opinions, which can end only in despair, and then eventually, mercifully, surrender. The surrender will feel like quitting at first, but it is just the opposite. It is another beginning, because soon afterward, I look up and there I am – home again, and nothing has been lost, and no one is wounded, and all stories are poised to be told.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

What Might Be

May 5th, 2015

I had the pleasure of talking a high school senior in Missouri who’d recently completed and was hoping to publish a book for middle grade readers. This young woman was a big chemistry fan, and the book was intended to introduce middle school girls to the pleasures of science. She had a lot of questions about the publishing process, to which I mostly answered, “It’s hard to say, but if you really love this book, you’re in good shape.”

The scientist-artist is an interesting combination. Science is largely an examination of what is, whereas the artist must focus on what might be. There are times I envy the scientist. Some days I wish I could pick up a rock, crack it open, look at it very, very, very closely and find in its crevasses that day’s essay.

But there is nothing to pick up or crack open. In fact, it is that very nothingness that is the source of all the pleasure and terror that comes with the arts. This thing wasn’t there before and now it is, all because I laid my attention upon it for a period of time. How real all of life feels in that moment, both what is and what could be, the line between what we call dream and reality narrowing to a thought.

But oh, the terror that can come from looking at what is, while what holds my interest is yet to be. Now my dream feels like fantasy because I can’t touch it. Now all of life is reduced to the rubble I suddenly mistake for reality, a heap of old ideas through which I find myself sorting for some evidence of what might be. There is nothing there. Only the imagination could resurrect these bones, only that spark could light the fire we all know as 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.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

No Problem

April 30th, 2015

I used to turn my writing into a problem. There I would be, writing along, enjoying myself, translating scene after scene and thought after thought into words, lost in the dream of the story, the blank page a friendly, fertile field for whatever I wished to grow – until I came to a point where the way ahead was unclear. Such is the nature of writing. Discovery remains the writer’s first reward, and clarity is always most satisfying when found within the fog of uncertainty.

So I would sit, still happy to be on this journey, considering my many, many options. This is the moment where discipline is required. It feels good to be moving swiftly within the momentum of the story. How effortless creation feels within that current, and how aware I am of the support the current provides, buoying and sustaining me with the next thought and the next thought and the next thought. What a relief compared to the hurly-burly of my workaday life.

It is easy then to mistake the necessary stillness of a creative mind for inaction, and inaction for abandonment, and abandonment for failure. Now, my story has gone from a journey I wish to take to a problem I must solve. It is a problem because I have put myself in jeopardy. Until I begin moving again I am living under the threat of failure, which to the writer’s mind is like living under the threat of death. How tempting to leap on the first thought that comes along simply to escape the quicksand of failure.

Yet stillness is the only state from which I can perceive the movement of my story. Stillness is both my invitation to my imagination and my acceptance of its reply. It has taken me many years and many false escapes from a false death to understand that problems do not exist within the garden of creation. If I can remember this simple and enduring fact then no way is ever blocked to me. But if I forget, then my garden appears full of dragons and thorns, and my choices are like a game of Russian roulette where every loser is forgotten.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter