Communists of the Heart

August 28th, 2014

My friend Laura Munson recently published an article in The Week about her choice to step back from a familial leaning toward hoarding. It’s a funny and touching piece in which she describes a frank conversation with her daughter about the habit to keep everything from a 50-year-old pair of socks to bottles that can someday be reused as vases. I don’t believe it gives too much away to tell you that the article ends with Laura and her daughter taking a long overdue trip to Goodwill to give away all that had been stored in crawl spaces, closets, and forgotten corners of her garage.

The piece deals with physical things, of course, but it reminded me of another story she had told me years before. Laura is the author of This Is Not the Story You Think It Is, a memoir she published after having written and not published fourteen novels. In one of our many interviews, she confessed that she didn’t even submit all the novels she wrote. She worked and worked on them, loved them, and then kept them to herself.

This is a more common impulse for a creative person than you might think. Eventually, every writer learns that the story doesn’t really belong to her. The moment another person reads our story, they make it their own, using their own imaginations to complete the scenes we painted with only a few strokes. Moreover, it is the reader feeling the heroine’s fear and loss and love and joy. What is more personal to us than what we feel? It doesn’t matter that what we feel grows from a story someone else wrote: that experience is ours, and so that story is ours as well.

Which is why an author gives away every story he or she writes. You may get paid, but you are still giving it away, casting it from the nest to a world where anyone who wants it can make it their own. In this way, we are all Communists of the heart. When an author gives away her story, she remembers that just as what had seemed like hers now belongs to everyone, what had also appeared to belong to others now belongs to her. There is always enough, because everything that matters already belongs to everyone.

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 Demolition Critic

August 26th, 2014

A friend of mine published her eleventh novel last year, and in so doing, surrendered her work to the critics, both professional and casual. One of those casual critics did not care for her book. In lieu of a written review on Amazon, he simply posted a video of him blowing up the book.

I have not seen the video, and I have no idea if the author saw it either. A mutual friend brought it to my attention. Whether she sees the video or not, I am sure she will be okay. The fellow who blew up her book, however, has a longer road to travel back to okay. I fully understand the temptation to blow up a book. When I was nineteen I read a 700-page novel whose ending I found so profoundly unsatisfying – the author left me wondering whether the man and the woman would get together, and the last sentence was an untranslated Latin phrase – that I threw it across the room.

The book did not care that I threw it. It wouldn’t have cared if I had burned it. A book is just a giant thought, and you cannot kill a thought. A thought cannot be sent to the electric chair or develop cancer. You can march and march against a thought until your feet are swollen, you can shout until your voice is gone, but the thought will live on. A thought is a road, and you either travel it or not. If you don’t like where it’s going, then turn around and find another one.

It is both that simple and that complicated. My friend loved her book, and love has no opposite, not even a bomb. What the Demolition Critic wanted would not appear magically out of the ashes of my friend’s book. The Demolition Critic would have to look in precisely the same place my friend looked when she found her book. In this place, nothing burns and nothing is rejected. It is all acceptance until the moment you wonder what anyone else would think of what you’ve found. That is the moment you understand the true meaning of rejection: that the death feeling that comes from listening too closely to your critics is always suicide.

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

Valuable Attention

August 25th, 2014

Students and clients frequently complain about “not having time to write.” It’s odd phrasing in reality because it’s impossible to not have time. The only way to not have time is to be dead. What these writers mean, of course, is that they do not know how to focus their attention on writing instead of all the other things they believe they most focus their attention on. These other things require all their attention. There is none, or virtually none, left for writing.

Yet even virtually none is more than none, so if you have found yourself complaining that you do not have enough time, the first question you must ask yourself is: Is it true that it is impossible to focus my attention on writing? If the answer is yes, then you’re done. You can no more focus your attention on writing than you could jump to the moon. But if the answer is no, if it is possible, then it is only a question of how long you will choose to focus your attention on writing.

And what is writing? Writing is asking the question, “What do I value most? What is most interesting to me and me alone?” It is not asking the question, “How can I survive in this world? How can I not die?” Nor is it asking the question, “How can I please this other person?” No, it is only focusing your attention on the question, “What do I value most and how can I express it?”

Is that question worthy of your attention? Can you think of anything more worthy of your attention? I cannot, though I frequently allow my attention to drift elsewhere, to other people and what I believe they want. Fortunately, all anyone actually wants is to know and express their full value. In this way, the more I express my value, the more valuable I become to others, for in the sharing, author and reader alike are reminded of what we are meant to do.

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

Something of Value

August 22nd, 2014

Stories are never really about what happens but about what it feels like when something happens. We don’t really care that our heroine is being chased by a killer, we care what it feels like when she is being chased. If she is an off-duty police officer, she will feel one way; if she is a cheerleader, she will probably feel another. In this way, all stories are really a trace of emotion conveyed through characters in conflict.

And nothing amplifies a feeling more than specific details. There is no heat in the sentence: Holly was angry. In many ways, it is as emotionally neutral a sentence as: Holly was a mother of two. There is much more heat if I write: Holly came home and dropped her purse on the floor and sighed. Even from the front door she could see a sink full of dishes. Two sons home from school for the summer and a husband out of work, and cleaning every square foot of the house still fell to her.

This is why writing teachers implore their students to fill their stories with specific details. This is why it is usually better to say a character arrived at the meeting with one shirttail untucked and a pear-shaped stain on his pocket, than looking disheveled. Writer and reader alike want to feel this imaginary world as completely as if they were living in it, which, for the duration of the telling, they might as well be.

All of this detail-choosing and showing-and-not-telling is done not the name of good writing, but in the name sharing something of value. As it happens, all that humans actually value is what they feel. Everything humans think they value, they value only because of how that thing seems to make them feel. This is good news for storytellers. We have nothing whatsoever to offer the world but pages filled with feelings caged in words, feelings loosed when opened by reader’s imagination.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Perfect Companion

August 21st, 2014

Every story, play, poem or essay is a journey home. Only the author knows where home is. He knew where home was the moment he set out, though in finding it again, he will know it better than before he left.

Along the way, the author will become lost in details and the endless choices open to him. At such times it will seem as though he has forgotten what home looks and feels like. In this dream of forgetting he might believe he does not actually know where he is going or how to get there. He will look to the world to tell him. The world is fantastically accurate at telling you where you are. There are landmarks and road signs; there are friends and even strangers who will tell you also. But if you ask those friends or strangers, “How do I get home?” they will begin describing the route they know to the home they know. To follow these directions is to become more lost than before.

Now the author might begin to hate the world. It and all its people are useless to him, and have abandoned him in this hour of need. He sees that the world is devoid of meaning and purpose, a giant rock where life is born just to die, and every road bends back on itself. He’s through with the world. He is done looking to it for anything.

Yet even in what he calls giving up, he discovers that he is not done looking. In fact, with his mind at rest and his attention with nowhere else to go, he soon finds the trail he’d left. Suddenly the world is useful again, telling him in one glimpse where he is in relation to where he wants to go. The world is a perfect companion, he thinks as he sets off again. It leaves him alone, but never leaves him, until he has found again his garden gate, and his wandering for the day is done.

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 Fool

August 19th, 2014

The archetype of The Fool begins an adventure with a sack over his shoulder filled with everything he is looking for on his journey. In this way, we are all fools. Everything we want, we already have.

For instance, for years I very much wanted success. If I want something, then I must not have it, and so it must be something outside of me that I must learn how to acquire. Because of who I am, success meant being paid to communicate with other people, in writing and in person. But how do I make this happen? I often wondered. What is the path to this magical place? I looked and looked and looked, but could not find it.

And then one day I was asked to speak to a group of people about creativity, for which I was paid a nice little sum. It was a two-hour lecture, and I had prepared more or les what I would say. At one point, however, I discovered that what I had prepared was not sufficient, and so I began telling a story. It was one of many stories I knew and had told before – to my friends, to my wife, to coworkers – and I told it exactly as I had always told it, only now I was telling it to a group of strangers who had paid to hear me tell this story.

That’s when it hit me: This is all I’ve ever done. Telling people stories is what I do. And now I am being paid to tell people stories. That’s what is actually happening here. This is success. It felt so ordinary. And no wonder I couldn’t find it, I thought on the plane ride home. I already had it. All I wanted was more of it. That’s what I was actually looking for: more of what of I had that I loved. I did feel like a bit of fool then, but it was a relief just the same to finally stop wandering, put the bag down, and look inside.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Storyteller’s Dream

August 18th, 2014

My dreams often float in and out of 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 nights 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 in their 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.

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

How Writing Saved My Marriage

August 15th, 2014

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 wasn’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 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.

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

Greatest Clarity

August 14th, 2014

When I was a waiter there was often the challenge of being heard as the restaurant got busy. One did not want to have to repeat the specials or ask again how the gentleman would like his porterhouse prepared. Fortunately, I could bellow with the best of them, and so for years, when the decibels around me began to rise, so did my own volume.

By and by I grew tired of all the shouting over more shouting and I began a little experiment. What if, I wondered, there was a way to be heard through the noise without raising my voice? Speaking more slowly and enunciating helped, but it wasn’t enough. That was when I learned to imagine my words like a razor, sharp and precise and bright, and my voice seemed to cut through the hum and clamor of the restaurant. I cannot tell you how I did this, only that it worked, and I never shouted again. I had found my waiter’s voice.

Much is made of a writer’s voice, and many hours of sleep have been lost wondering if ours will ever be heard within the din of other voices clamoring to be heard. How tempting it is to shout. How tempting to break out bigger plots, bigger action, bigger words, bigger technical risks. But all of this noise assumes a competition where none exists. Clarity has no opponent. Once a thing has become perfectly clear it has emerged into itself where it stands intact and complete.

Such clarity reminds us of ourselves, or at least the selves we have forgotten and instead of remembering try to improve. No improvement is necessary, only greater clarity. To learn to see yourself clearly and as you actually are is to discover beauty again and again and again, and to know that ugliness is only life seen through the fog of forgetting.

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 Known World

August 11th, 2014

Writers are said to need a thick skin. It’s a tough world out there, after all. First there are all the rejections, and then, once your work is getting published, the reviews. You can’t please all the people, and those unpleased people will be sure to let you know, in the New York Times, on Amazon, maybe even in an email. A writer’s thick skin protects him from these arrows of opinion, defending a vulnerable interior that must continue to write and share his work with a world that seems partly determined to silence him.

I never wanted a thick skin. I had felt plenty wounded by the arrows of opinion and rejection, but to build a layer between myself and that world I believed could harm me would be to retreat from life, the very thing I wished to celebrate in my work. And so I suffered on, a wounded bird of a writer, skin as papery as a chick’s.

Until I ceased to find my own suffering noble. This is how all change seems to come to my life: I fatigue of some constant discomfort and so begin to question what I had been calling reality. I saw that I had two options: either I could give myself an alligator’s hide—and with it, no doubt, his teeth and temper—or admit that the arrows weren’t real. The first option seemed easier than the second. The first option seemed to grow out of the known world, a land of disease and wounds and death, of wars and enemies and governments and races and religions. That was the world I had lived in.

Or was it? I chose the second, and the world itself changed with that choice. The arrows weren’t real, because what I actually was needed neither protection nor repair. The arrows were all as harmless and transparent as thoughts. As long, that is, as I remember to see myself thus. When I forget, which I frequently do, the sky grows black with arrows, and I stand ready to take my last breath, impaled by a world I invented, or saved by a world I remembered.

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