You Can Handle the Truth

June 24th, 2016

I’ve been a fan of situation comedies my entire life. I love to laugh and I like that whatever trouble the characters get themselves into always resolves itself by the end of the story. I have, however, become sensitive over the years to the types of troubles sit-com writers sometimes dream up for their characters – in particular, the trouble that would end if only the character would tell the truth.

It’s a fairly common story trope. The son dents his father’s new sports car and spends the episode keeping the father occupied while he tries to get it fixed. Or the girlfriend forgets to pick up the tickets to the Knicks game and must spend the episode desperately trying to secure seats to that night’s game. No matter how outlandish the characters’ schemes to hide their mistakes may be, these stories always lack a certain dramatic tension. As a viewer I know from word one that in the episode’s final scene the truth will be revealed and all will be forgiven.

In the writers’ defense, this is perhaps the most realistic situation in situation comedies. I speak from experience. Several years ago I thought I might self-publish a little collection of essays about writing. To do so, I would need an ISBN, a thirteen-digit code used by booksellers and publishers to identify the book. It is, in many ways, the book’s real title. ISBNs are not free. I learned this when I went on Bowker’s website. Bowker is to the ISBN what Ingram is to books. I was stunned to learn how much ISBNs cost. They cost so much I considered checking with my wife first to see if this was really such a good idea. But I didn’t. This was my book, after all. In a rush, I grabbed my credit card and hit “Purchase.”

An hour later I was chatting with customer service at Amazon’s Createspace. “Oh, ISBNs are free,” he told me, “if you just want to publish on Amazon.” I’d intended from the start to just publish on Amazon. I hung up the phone and moaned. I’d done it again. In my marriage, the knock on Bill is that he doesn’t shop around enough. If my wife, Jen, doesn’t like one store’s price she always looks elsewhere first before buying. I don’t like this approach. I find it tedious. Yet here was proof, it seemed to me, of just how very wrong my approach was.

“I won’t tell her,” I thought. “No. I can’t tell her. I pay all the bills. She never has to know.” I do not keep secrets from Jen. There’s no need. Jen and I have both made our mistakes, lost our tempers, blamed the other for what wasn’t their fault, and all these transgressions have been forgiven. Forgiveness was the really the foundation of our marriage. Or it had been, at least. In my mind, it was as if I’d had an affair.

As it turned out, I found a small publisher for the book. I asked the publisher about ISBNs. “I got lots of ‘em!” he said. The book was published and I forgot about the purchase. Years went by and, as sometimes happens, the publisher folded. The rights reverted back to me, and I decided to self-publish it. “What a hassle,” I thought. “Now I’m going to need an ISBN.” It was at that moment that I remembered that I already had one waiting for me on Bowker. It had been so long since I’d bought it that it felt free.

That night after dinner I told Jen that I had a story I needed to tell her. She thought it was a very funny story. Jen, by the way, is also a fan of situation comedies.

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 Stories We Tell

June 22nd, 2016

The gas station nearest my house happens to face a strip club. It is apparently a very successful strip club, as they could afford to install a LCD screen on their roof that might be visible from the Space Station. It’s certainly visible from the gas station. At some point my eyes will drift up while pumping gas, and there will be a one-story image of a young woman in some stage of near-undress.

I’ve been getting my gas here for over a decade, however, so by now the sign does not have what I am sure is the strip club owner’s desired effect on me. For instance, as I was getting some gas this morning I again noticed the screen and its image. I wondered for the first time what a woman pumping gas thought when she looked at that screen. Though it would depend on the woman, I thought. A woman who had once been an exotic dancer herself would certainly look at that image differently than a Catholic nun. For that matter, a twenty-eight year-old single mom would probably look at it differently than a sixty-eight year-old widowed grandmother. Or, an eighteen year-old deciding if she wants to become a dancer would look at it differently than an eighteen year-old college freshman deciding between majoring in biology or comparative literature.

Then again, the men who work at the gas station would look at it differently than the boys who go to the nearby high school. Same goes for the teachers who teach at that school, just as the same goes for me. The image would look different to each of us. And when I say look different, I mean we would be seeing what amounts to a different image. For while the young woman’s pose and attire that I see are identical to the pose and attire that every other man, woman, and child sees, the story that image tells me is told uniquely by me, by my own ideas about sex and women and advertising and maybe even gas stations.

The image is nothing; the story is everything. Good to remember if you’re a writer. Writers don’t report the facts. The fact that there is a strip club with a giant LCD screen blazing near-nudity for all to see means nothing in reality. All that ever matters is what a person believes when they look upon it. What a person believes is the terrain of the storyteller.

And by the way, it is the only terrain of the storyteller. Storytellers, whether they are conscious of it or not, wish to alter reality. We are not so interested in changing the image that flashes on the great LCD screen of the world. Mostly that’s beyond our control. We could march, or protest, or fill out petitions to get the screen changed, but it’s faster, ultimately, to tell ourselves a story about what we see there.

I sometimes forget I have to power to change that story. My mind drifts as idly from thought to thought as my eyes drift from gas pump to pinup. What occurs in this exchange between the world I look upon and the story I tell can happen so fast, can be so habitual, that I can lose track of who is telling the story I am hearing. The moment I remember, the moment I see my mind as a blank page on which to write my life, I am the author once more, and my life is mine 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

Lessons in Disappointment

June 20th, 2016

Mrs. Katzman was renowned throughout Summit Elementary School for her strict rules and her impatient old-lady temper. I had come to believe that the student’s first job was to please the teacher, but I did not always understand the rules of Mrs. Katzman’s temper, and so pleasing her seemed like a game of chance.

For instance, my classmates and I were each assigned a different country for which we were to write a report. As a part of this report, we were to draw a picture of its flag on a large piece of construction paper. I drew a black bar down one side of the page (the pole) from which extended a perfect rectangle in which I drew Canada’s (my country) maple leaf and colors. I showed my masterpiece to Mrs. Katzman.

She took one short, shocked look and declared, “This isn’t a flag. A flag has waves. Where are the waves?” She turned and held the drawing up to the class. “Class, look at this. Where are the waves? Why didn’t he draw any waves?”

I returned to my desk and drew a flag with waves.

So it went with Mrs. Katzman. I wanted to be liked, but I gave up trying to solve the riddle of being liked by this woman. And though it was agreed on the playground she was nothing but a mean old teacher, a part of me felt responsible for her meanness, as if my un-waving flag was the final piece of evidence needed to condemn her world to a place guaranteed to disappoint. After my parents divorced and my father moved to Florida, I did not wish to contribute to anyone’s disappointment.

Then the evening came that I accompanied my mother to Parent Teacher Night. I had decided it would be acceptable to endure Mrs. Katzman’s capricious temper from behind the shelter of my mother’s unconditional acceptance. But when we marched into the room together – my mother having been fully prepared for what was to come – Mrs. Katzman turned from her desk, saw me, and her face broke into a grandmother’s joyous smile.

“He’s so wonderful!” she cooed. “He’s just a delight to have in class.” She was beaming down at me as if I were the hero of her favorite story. All my offenses flashed through my mind, and yet I could not find them in her eyes. How mysterious. You might even say disappointing. I returned home that night with the strangest feeling that she’d been smiling at me thus the entire year, and now I would never be able to tell tale of the cruel schoolmarm unless I was willing to lie about the end.

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

Free Time

June 17th, 2016

It is officially summer in the Kenower/Paros household, meaning our homeschooling – such as it was – is over. Meaning, I have a lot more free time. Free time is always great in theory, but not always in practice. It is every bit the blank page of my day, except that I have far less practice filling it.

I remember the summer conversation I would have with my younger brother more or less every morning. “What do you want to do?” I’d ask. “I don’t know,” he’d reply. “What do you want to do?” “I don’t know,” I’d say. We’d spent our school year waiting for this, talking about this, filling this in our imaginations, only to be confronted with the long, muggy emptiness of it. This was our emptiness, of course, which made it better than school, but sometimes only a little.

Time has a way filling itself if you let it, which is what I usually did as a boy. I am a man now, and I have trained myself to place different expectations on my time. This is one of the great reliefs of writing. When it’s going well, I forget all about time. While I am writing, I am as unaware of time as I am the chair in which I sit. But then I am done writing, and I hear again the wall clock announcing every new second, and the chair tilts as I lean back from the desk, and I have free time to fill.

My brother has a full-time job now, so I can’t bother him. I wander to the window, and notice that the bush by the gate is looking mangy, and the clovers have begun their yearly creep. I am uninspired. Not surprising. I am looking in the wrong place for inspiration. The blank page offers no advice or direction. That the world looks like a page already written is a trick of memory, mistaking what has already been for what is possible, mistaking time for measurement rather than an invitation.

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

All Writing is Rewriting

June 15th, 2016

Whether we write fiction or memoir, we are usually drawn to tell stories from our painful past. Everyone I know has some painful past. Some people’s painful pasts are more dramatic than others. Some involve physical our emotional abuse, some involve incredible poverty or isolation. The circumstances that seemed to bring about the pain, however, are strangely irrelevant. The pain could stem from something as simple as losing a race or getting a D in algebra. As soon as we begin telling a story about the event that is out of alignment with the truth of who we are and have always been and always will be, we are in pain.

The pain, of course, is not punishment but information. The pain is life telling us in the only language available that our story sucks, that it is untrue, that it is a nightmare we invented in an attempt to understand what at one time appeared unacceptable. No matter. It is so easy to conflate the pain we feel remembering our story with the past itself and declare that our past is painful, and that life itself is often painful, that crap happens and it’s crappy and there’s nothing anyone can do about it except deal with it and not complain too much.

In this way, all writing is rewriting, from the very first word of the first draft of every story. We are summoned, consciously or unconsciously, to rewrite those stories. It is as if there is a pebble in our shoe, and we have been walking and walking for miles, having grown gradually accustomed to the discomfort. This, we believe, is just what it feels like to travel through life. Until we rest, and we notice how much better this feels, and we don’t want to get up and keep moving if it means enduring that same discomfort which has grown, we now realize, into a blistering pain.

Some of us decide at such times that we are done with all shoes and walking. That is okay, but most of us would like to continue the journey. This is when rewriting is required, a search, you could say, for that pebble. It is astounding, when we find it, how small a thing it is for how much trouble it has caused. Don’t look at it for too long, however. Cast it aside. It has no value or meaning. It was an accident of perception that slipped under your feet and now that it is gone you may remember who you are and what life is.

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

Experience: The True Source of Originality

June 14th, 2016

When my younger brother was eight he arrived home after a day out with my mother and announced that he was changing his name from Tommy to John. I didn’t like it. He was born John Thomas Kenower, but he’d been assigned Tommy to limit confusion because my father was also a John. This seemed practical to me, and besides, you don’t just get to change your name like a shirt. Apparently, I was wrong about that. He’s been John ever since.

A couple years after John pulled it off, I tried this trick myself. I was named after my grandfather, William Douglas Bryant, but he’d gone by Doug. I liked Doug (that’s we called him, not Grandpa but Doug, because that’s what my mom called him instead of Dad), and so I told my best friend Palmer I was thinking of changing my name. Except the very next day, during a Little League game when I was moving from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box, Palmer called out, “Crush it, Doug,” and I thought, “I am not a Doug.” I have not been a Doug ever since.

I think of these name changes sometimes when I’m having trouble describing something. Everything my imagination gives me is a cliché or something I’ve written before. If this goes on long enough, I consider the possibility that I’ve been at this writing game so long that I have run out of new things to say about falling in love or curiosity or loneliness. At that moment I feel like a botanist who has just learned that every plant on earth has been found and named.

Except I could no more run out of ways to describe love, fear, joy, or despair than the world could run out of faces for newborns. The trick at these moments is to forget about language altogether. I have to forget about the names we have given experiences. Love is just a word; the experience we have named “love” is the reality. The experience is beyond the word. The experience doesn’t know the word exists in the same way a tree doesn’t know it is a tree.

As soon as my attention has moved from language to experience, as soon as I am resting my attention on the feeling we have named love or sadness, I can begin to describe what I perceive as if it has never been described before – which it hasn’t. In the same way a tree has changed from day to day and season to season, in the same way a person changes from day to day and year to year, so too, how I experience what we have named love or sadness varies from day to day – from moment to moment, even. No two moments are ever the same, and neither are my experiences.

If I am feeling a little full of myself, I might call myself “original.” But this is inaccurate. Life itself is ceaselessly, relentlessly original. When I’m stuck on a description, it is only because I am resisting this originality. Today feels like yesterday and so will tomorrow. There’s no real comfort in this false predictability, and certainly no writing. The only comfort I have known in my creative life is the certainty that every day, I must learn again what it feels like to be alive.

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

Leaving Room

June 10th, 2016

The suspense novelist G. M. Ford is an outliner. He’s a practical man, and he believes in plotting a journey before you begin. However, during our conversation several years ago, he described his process this way: “Yeah, you got to plot it out. You got to know where you’re going, and what your beginning and end are. But you don’t want to plot too much. You want to leave room for the magic!”

The magic is the only real reason I write. Even in these little essays, which are always about one small idea and often an idea I’ve thought about and talked about and thought about some more, I leave room for the magic. And leaving room is exactly what I must do. The magic – the unplanned, inspired, original, alive thought – needs space. It cannot coexist with my old thoughts, no matter how inspired they were once upon a time.

But leaving room requires trust. The empty space I clear in my imagination, which is the invitation to the new and inspired thought, cannot be perceived as a threat to my self-worth. I’m a man of action, after all. I like to do stuff and get stuff done and then do some more. Oh, the satisfaction I feel after a productive day, and how grumpy I can become after a day spent drifting and not creating, my mind sent spinning into circular stories of the nothing my life is in danger of becoming.

So the empty space I must allow to invite the magic is not the natural impulse for a fellow like me. Yet it is as essential to creation as the blank page is to writing. What’s more, it is the true peace for which I am searching in all my doing. There is no anxiety in the room I leave for the magic, nor is there doubt or indecision or comparison. There is only love and the asking for more love, a garden that will grow itself as long as there is room to grow.

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

What You Have

June 8th, 2016

Ninety percent of what you need to tell the story you most want to tell you already have. It does not matter if you are eight or eighty, you already have everything you need except that other ten percent, which we have come to call craft. Many writers are taught the exact opposite – that they are born with ten percent and learn the ninety. This is not surprising; humans are forever teaching each other that we have nothing until we acquire it.

Your imagination will provide you with every idea you will ever need. It is a ceaseless and loyal servant. Your desire to communicate summons this imagination and focuses it. The clearer your desire, the more useful the ideas your imagination provides. Nothing is required of you other than to train your attention steadily on what you desire to share with other people.

Nothing, that is, except trust. This is what most writers are really learning – not character development or strong verbs or showing and not telling. Do not underestimate how quickly you can halt the flow of ideas from your imagination. Trust is the open channel through which these ideas flow. To clamp this hose is to cut ourselves off from creation, from life’s source, and the pain that accumulates from this one choice grows commensurately acute.

Until released. There is a kind of ecstasy that accompanies the return to trust. It can be addictive in its own way, and the artist must resist the temptation to recreate this artificial pleasure. The artist must accept his pleasure as the constant flow of focused thought as he must also accept himself. You were not born a blank slate. You are not clay to be molded by time and circumstance and the sharp edges of experience. You are a conduit for creation itself, ninety percent light, and ten percent shadow so the world will have some form.

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

My New Best Friend

June 6th, 2016

I have never seen much value in this mantra: I don’t like to write, but I like having written. If you don’t like to write, you should probably find something do you like to do. While it’s true that I too like having written, and I too have slogged through some profitless sessions, have trashed tens of thousands of words, have spent days feeling utterly disconnected from everything I have ever written, in the end I like to write. Eventually I get connected, and something begins to flow, and I find myself lost in the dream of whatever I’m writing, and I can’t imagine giving up that experience anytime between now and the day I die.

A couple years ago, however, I had begun to view exercise as something I simply liked having done. I had stopped running because my knees had become cranky, and the little regimen of pushups and chin-ups and sit-ups I was doing was boring. I began to skip it more and more. I put on weight. Then I came across something called T25, a series of DVDs featuring the happily fit Sean T., who became my new best friend. Sean T. told me I must focus, and I did. Sean T. ran me through a rapid series of exercises for exactly 25 minutes and shouted encouraging aphorisms. Sometimes I shouted back.

I loved it. I loved it for much the same reason I love writing – because I must focus on the moment. In fact, Sean T. gave me this very advice. “Focus on the moment!” he called from T25 Land, and I did. If I did not remain focused on the moment I would lose track of where Sean T. was telling me to go, and he and I would be in very different places, and he was my new best friend and I wanted to lunge, squat, sprint, and burpee right along with him.

And when I was done focusing on the moment for 25 minutes I was tired and I sweaty, but I had that lovely cleaned-out feeling that comes from intense exercise—and, now that I think of it, intense writing, too. It’s as if I’ve cleaned out the past with the present. There I am, having exercised or written, feeling finished and empty and ready for something new to focus on.

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

How to Happily Write a Query Letter

June 3rd, 2016

If you’ve written a book, and you’d like to publish it traditionally, then you will probably want to find an agent. The best way to find an agent is by recommendations from writers who already have representation. Chances are, you don’t know a writer, and so your next best option is to attend writers’ conferences where you can pitch your book to an agent in person. But if conferences aren’t an option, or are an option you have already exhausted, you will have to write a query you can send to prospective agents – and if you are like ninety percent of the writers I know, you will dislike this experience profoundly.

I was one such writer. I loved writing books; I loved talking to people about the books I’d written, but I found the query letter an awkward and unnatural form of communication. How can I possibly condense the rich tapestry of my novel into two paragraphs that could excite a complete stranger? I griped about the query letters I had to write, I doubted their efficacy, and was never surprised when sample chapters were not requested. What was most frustrating was that when I met agents at conferences and shared my enthusiasm for my book like a human being, rather than some ad in a catalogue, they always requested sample chapters. The problem, I told myself, was the letters. They were just too short.

The problem was not the letters. The problem was that I believed my job was to know what other people liked. That was the whole point of the letters, wasn’t it – to excite enthusiasm in an agent? Yet I had no idea what anyone else liked. I never have. I know what I like; I know what excites me and what holds my attention. Everyone else’s desires and curiosities, my friends and family included, remain necessarily mysterious to me. What other people like, ultimately, is none of my business.

Eventually I decided to write my query letters exactly the way I wrote my stories. I would write the letters to please me. I would write two paragraphs about why I loved my book, about why I spent two or three years of my creative life working on it. To do so, I would have to forget the agents and remember why the book had been so interesting to me. When I wrote from this place, I found confidence I had only previously believed was possible while writing stories.

The results were immediate – by which I mean I immediately enjoyed writing the letters. In fact, I enjoyed writing the letters enough that I had to remind myself why I had written them. By and by I sent them out and got those other results. But by then I understood the order of things and so was as unsurprised when the agents asked for chapters as I had once been when they had not.

We writers like to be alone for good reasons. To do this work we must turn our attention toward what we know best: ourselves. As much as we love to share our work with other people, those other people can become debilitating distractions if we let them. It’s not their fault, of course; it’s ours. To believe we must know more than what it is we love makes us lose sight of the story life delivered us here to tell.

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