Nothing

April 18th, 2014

I have come to the conclusion that nothing is wrong. That would be nothing as in absolutely nothing. This is not to say that I do not frequently feel that things are wrong. At some point everyday I feel that something is wrong with my wife or with my son or with my computer or with my work or with the politics or football or, of course, with me. On some days, most of what I see looks wrong.

Yet there is a difference between something looking wrong and something being wrong. The understanding or lack of understanding of that difference has been the source of all my suffering and all my ease, all my failure and all my success. I will always suffer when I perceive the world as incorrect, the way I will always suffer when I bend my fingers backwards. And I will always fail when I try to fix that world, the same as I would fail to fix my apple tree when it doesn’t bloom in winter.

For this reason much of my day is spent remembering that nothing is wrong. Writing has been one of my best teachers for learning to see the world as it is instead of how I have imagined it in my frustration and fear. I cannot write what I cannot see. Most of my work time is spent focusing the lens of my imagination until the world I am trying to write is clear enough in my mind that I can render it completely and accurately in words.

This focusing is always a process of remembering, of looking past the stories I have told about the world and to the story the world is trying to tell me. Because if the world could actually speak to me, it would tell me that nothing is wrong with it, the same as I would say that nothing is wrong with 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.

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

Not Normal

April 17th, 2014

I was watching a Ken Burns documentary last night about a special school in Vermont designed for children who, for a number of reasons, could not flourish is a typical public school. At one point, the school’s therapist talked about the parents’ desire for their children to be “normal.” He would remind the parents that it wasn’t their child’s job to be normal; it was their child’s job to be themselves.

Of course, what the parents really meant was that they wanted to know that their child would succeed in some recognizable way, whether socially or professionally or romantically. It is easy to imagine how something will thrive if we feel we have seen that thing before. As writers, our success often depends upon our willingness to create something that hasn’t been seen before. While some of our stories will look and sound and walk like other stories, a piece of work’s true value always lies in the qualities that seem to belong to it alone.

And what is true of our work is always true of ourselves. You would be hard pressed to find a more normal-looking fellow than myself. If you passed me on the street you might mistake me for a TV news anchor. Yet I can feel out of place in my own living room. When I am out of sorts with myself, the world appears hostile and un-accepting, a symphony where nothing I can sing or say belongs.

It is not my job, nor anyone’s job, to belong anywhere. It is only my job to speak for myself. Oddly, every time I permit myself to do so, every time I ask what is the most honest thing I can say and then say it, every time I speak from the most personal truth I know, I find myself belonging where I had previously felt unwanted. There is nothing in the world more normal, more universal, than acceptance of oneself. What else is there for anyone? There is only the choice between a lifetime failing to be someone you are not, or succeeding in being someone you are.

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 Husk

April 15th, 2014

I have just finished judging ten short memoir entries in the PNWA’s yearly writing contest. In general, the entries I’ve received over the last few years have been getting better and better, and this year was no exception. Unfortunately, I don’t think I had the pleasure of reading what will be this year’s winner. Though some pieces were quite strong, none of them sufficiently answered one critical question: why is this story being told?

This question is usually harder to answer in memoir and personal essay than fiction. The writer knows she has a story to tell. She already knows all the events in this story and that in living them something meaningful was revealed to her. It is likely that in her mind that meaning is tied up in the events themselves, the way a soup’s flavor is contained in the combination of its ingredients. If she could but feed us the events we would know that meaning too.

But of course a writer cannot feed her reader all the events – that is, every thought, every word, every gesture. Memoir and personal essay is in this way the art of highly selective inclusion. And what gets included and what does not depends completely on the answer to the question: why is this story being told? Until the writer understands this clearly, the soup will be unfocussed, for there will be either too many of one kind of ingredient, or not enough of another.

And usually the one ingredient there needs to be less of is the writer herself. Though she was the one who lived these events, though she was the one who suffered and rejoiced, though she was the one who learned to see where she had been blind – the story is not about her. She is the husk the butterfly of perception leaves behind when it flies. The butterfly will be about everyone, and belong to everyone, and when she really learns why the story is being told, what she thought she was and had will seem so small and dull compared to what she found and gave.

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

Helmets Off

April 14th, 2014

I sometimes wonder if Lord of the Rings would get published if it were written today. For instance, it is peopled with almost nothing but guys from top to bottom, an omission few publishers would be willing to overlook given our current understanding of readership demographics—which is to say, 80% of all books are bought by women. That said, perhaps my favorite moment from the film version involves Éowyn, one of the story’s few female characters.

Éowyn is a “shieldmaiden”, and the niece of the Théoden King of Rohan. Against her father’s wishes, she suits up to help defend Minas Tirith against an onslaught of orcs, donning a full helm to disguise her identity. Leading the siege is the Witch King, who, it is said, cannot be killed by any man. In the middle of the battle, the Witch King knocks Théoden from his horse. Éowyn leaps to her uncle’s defense, and the Witch King laughs, “You fool. No man can kill me.”

Éowyn then pulls off her helmet, her long blond hair tumbles out, and she says, “I am no man.” And kills him.

It is tempting to view this moment through the lens of gender and our concepts of strength and so on, but this, for me, actually diminishes its meaning. That Éowyn’s greatest contribution to the struggle of good versus evil was what lay beneath her mask is everyone’s story. It is everyone’s story to hide their true strength because if that true strength is different, if it is unique, then perhaps it doesn’t belong, or perhaps it will be unwanted, or perhaps it is not a strength at all but merely a deformity.

It is every bit like your writing voice. There comes a moment in most writer’s lives when they remove the helmet and speak as themselves. It can be both freeing and terrifying, for the Witch King of failure and irrelevance and mediocrity is surely laughing somewhere in our minds. If he were real, then it would be death for us all, since you cannot protect what you have always been anymore than you can stop being what you already are.

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

Know It All

April 10th, 2014

Life knows everything that I do not. It knows what is in the heart of every reader and every editor and every agent and critic. It knows who is reading what and who is watching what, and who is sleeping and who is eating, and who is talking and what they are talking about. It knows who is lonely and who is afraid, who is comforting and who is being comforted. It knows who has died and who is born. It knows both sides of every argument, what has been stolen and returned, what has been forgotten and remembered.

On a good day I feel like I know what is in my own heart. On even better days I know that this is enough. It is enough to write what I want to write, say what I want to say, and be where I want to be, which is always where I am. On these days I think I will never leave where I am, and I will never make the mistake again of believing I must know more than this.

Until my attention drifts, and there I am wondering what other people think, or wanting to know the end before I have arrived. On these days I do not even know what is in my own heart. On these days I know only that I had once oversimplified things and now I must untie the immense knot of the world’s complexity. But there is just so much to know, and how do you take even a single step until you know it all?

I ask this question in confusion and despair until I am led back to the blank page of not knowing and, if I am quiet enough, to my own heart again. For a time it had seemed like a fickle lover, abandoning me over the smallest misstep, stranding me in a world of right and wrong answers. Yet here it is, exactly where I left it, the only correct to that question called 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.

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

April 8th, 2014

Every memoirist will be drawn to write about the wounds they have received. No matter how scarred I may feel, there can be no villains in my story. And so first I must forgive my enemies, the ones who struck the blow or said the unkind word. Then I have to forgive my friends, the ones who tried and failed to heal the wound they could not perceive. Finally, and most difficult of all, I must forgive myself for believing the wound was ever real.

The last is always the hardest. I begin most stories full of bluster and defense, the hero who rides his horse through the mud and blood of battle pointing out the criminals and the fools. This feels boring and flat, and so I tell it again, and this time I prostrate myself on the page, confessing every sin, every venal weakness, every lust and lie. This usually goes on for quite a while. It feels honest and raw and cathartic. At last the secret is out, and I am free.

And yet I’m not. When I write these drafts I feel as if I am waiting for final word of my innocence, and no matter how honest and revealing I may be, the story seems incomplete. I usually puzzle over this for a bit and consider abandoning the project. Maybe it’s just a not a story worth telling. Maybe it was just therapy and now that I’ve gotten it out I can move on to something better.

By and by I am drawn back to the story with nothing left to confess. Now I am ready finish it, because now I am no longer the one giving the confession, now I am the one hearing it. It is an easy position to fill once you’ve got it because there is no sin to forgive. There is only the one who forgot who he was, and now the one writing about 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

Knowing Everything

April 7th, 2014

I watched a recent episode of Hollywood Game Night (where six celebrities and two non-celebrities team up to play a series of pop-culture themed parlor games) that included Henry Winkler among its panel of famous people. I had the opportunity to interview Winkler in 2009 after he had published book seventeen in his Hank Zipster series, an easy reader collection about a boy with dyslexia, and seeing him perched on the set-couch I thought, “This may not go so well.”

Most of the games involve remembering the names of movies, songs, television shows, or actors, and, due to his dyslexia, remembering stuff is not Winkler’s strongest mental muscle. The longer the show went on, the more I started worrying for him. He’s such a sweet man, and when it was his turn to guess who sang that or who played this and he once again got that innocent, vaguely lost look in his eye, I wanted to bust through the television and cry, “He’s dyslexic! Why don’t you all leave him alone?”

I don’t think he got one answer correct, and yet, if his performance bothered him at all, he never betrayed it. I admired his steady demeanor in the face of constant failure. I am a little bit rabid when it comes to winning. I kept picturing myself in his place and thinking how I’d want to crawl under that couch until the show was over. But he didn’t crawl under the couch. He smiled and joked and seemed interested to learn who did sing “That’s the Night When Lights Went Out in Georgia.” (It was Vicky Lawrence, by the way).

Then yesterday I decided to include his interview on my new website, and watched it again for the first time in several years. In the middle of the conversation Winkler talked about his intuition. “Your mind knows a few things,” he said. “Your instinct knows everything.” Perhaps that was why his demeanor was so steady. The student’s job is to answer the teacher’s questions. The artist’s job is to ask a question and let his instinct, intuition, and imagination bring him the answer. With this arrangement, you can only fail if you are unwilling to wait for the answer to come.

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

One Enemy

April 4th, 2014

Writing your first story could be disorienting if you came to it a little later in life. After all, much of the stuff that concerns or alarms or annoys us seems to be outside of us. Sometimes a politician we don’t like is in power, or a war we disagree with is being fought, or a stock we own is going down, or a friend won’t call back, or a child won’t behave. If only all these things would work themselves out we might be happy.

Then you sit down to write a story, to create something that has never existed before, to say, “This is what I think is exciting, or funny, or profound, or clever.” Now the world is yours. Now there are no other people to clutter things up with their misguided plans and wrong politics and greed and selfishness. Now there is only you and your world.

How disorienting when you find yourself just as concerned and alarmed and annoyed as if there were a whole crowd of people in your office offering you lousy story advice. There is no one to point to or to blame. There is only what you believe is lovely and valuable and interesting and your willingness to share it. Who could have predicted that this simple transference from thought to page would have the power to summon the same host of woes as the front page of any newspaper?

I can blame with the best of them. At least once a day I feel certain that I would be ceaselessly happy if only other people weren’t so ceaselessly unhappy. Then I sit down to write and I quickly run out of excuses for my mood. Doubt is the only enemy standing at the gates of my imagination. He can see the end of everything before it has begun, and has come to warn me of what I might have overlooked. He’s right in a way—every story is written by looking past what could be and toward what we still believe is possible.

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

What is Given

April 3rd, 2014

You may be familiar with the expression, “Ask and it is given.” I did not understand until recently how directly this applied to writing, that most of what writing has become for me is learning to ask the best and most useful questions and listen carefully to the answer.

Always writing begins with the simple question, “What should we write about today?” or, “What should happen in this scene or chapter?” An answer begins to arrive, but exactly as inchoate as the question. In today’s case I heard, “Asking.” And so the questions continue as we narrow the focus of our desire. If you are writing a scene in which characters argue, you must learn what they will argue about, and where these separate points of view originated, and how long they have been held, and how dearly they are held. Within every answer more questions arise, and so a book or story or essay or poem is written, as we ask and are given answers, ask and are given answers.

Yet the job of the writer is twofold. The power and depth of the story we tell depends upon the depth of the questions we ask, and our willingness to allow room for the answer. We cannot fill ourselves with what we already believe the answer to be. Nor can we fill ourselves with worry, or judgment of what we have not written, or comparison to others. All of these thoughts will take the place of the answer we desire. If we ask, we must remain open to receive the answer.

The creative questions we ask, however, are not demands. When I have asked, ”What is the point of all this?” or, “Why aren’t things happening faster?” I do not expect answers as they arrive in creation. I have become a boss of the universe, and am looking only for an explanation and an apology. The universe, I have noticed, does not apologize. Moreover, I am the boss of nothing, nor do I wish to be. I wish only to share the answers to the questions I have asked.

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

New Work

April 2nd, 2014

When I heard John Lennon sing, there are no problems, only solutions, I thought to myself, “I think he’s right, but you better be careful when and to whom you say that or you could get punched in the mouth.” When something feels like a problem, being asked to see it as anything other than a problem feels like being asked to feel glad for the thorn stuck in your foot. A man cannot wish his problems away, he can only fix them, and only in admitting a problem is a problem can the fixing begin.

While homeschooling my youngest son I frequently find lots of problems – mostly with him, of course, but occasionally with me also. He’s bored and not paying attention, and I’m frustrated and wondering why we didn’t just leave him in school and pray for the best because surely there’s a better use of our time than this. Problem upon problem upon problem.

Yet it would be just as easy to view a book I choose to write as one problem after another. After all, when the book begins I have a bunch of pages that need to be filled. If they aren’t filled with words, preferably interesting and entertaining words, then I have problem called an unfinished book. You could say each empty page is a problem that needs to be fixed. In fact, you could say the whole book is nothing but a problem that needs to be fixed.

Or an opportunity to do something I want to do. Oh, it’s grating when you’re in the thick of what feels exactly like a problem to be told it is really an opportunity, yet that moment when what had been working no longer works, whether in a story or a relationship, is like the end of a job you never really wanted. You are surprised to find that you no longer require the security you believed it had once offered, and now that silence, that emptiness called not knowing, is the blank page waiting for 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.

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