The Wheel of Life

March 30th, 2015

I heard recently about a video circulating in which a MFA teacher complains about many of her students. I chose not to seek it out for a number of reasons, but I thought of it again when I learned of an article published in the Seattle alternative newspaper, The Stranger, in which an ex-MFA teacher complains about his students as well. In both the video and the article, I am aware, the question of talent was raised. Talent, goes the story, cannot be taught. You either have it or you don’t.

Perhaps I’m a bit of a coward, but I chose to avoid that article as well, specifically because of that toxic word. I know why that word exists, and why it feels appropriate to apply to certain people and not to others. I am frequently tempted to use it when talking to students or describing writers I enjoy when I perceive the bright, effortless light of originality. It is the perception of effortless that is so attractive and magical and the source of what is misleading about that word.

Over my writing life I have worked deliberately and consistently to find the most effortless expression of whatever I am trying to share. The more I have found this effortless path, the more I have come to understand that effortlessness is our natural state of being. That most of us, including me, often live outside of this effortlessness does not alter this truth. Rather, the suffering I have known in my life and perceive around me merely proves the point, for what could be worse than struggling against what we are meant to be?

So sometimes a writer, whether young or old, new or experienced, finds that bright, alive, effortless current of a story. The writer didn’t make it, didn’t force it, and didn’t get in the way of it, the writer merely found it and let it come. No teacher alive could teach that current, and no amount of skill could imitate it. Either you are in the flow of that current or you are not. But to say that the current is available to some and not to others, that one either has talent or doesn’t, is to measure one life against another, to believe that one child is born capriciously with the capacity for happiness and another not, and all the while praying the wheel of life will turn 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.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Killing

March 26th, 2015

I was talking to a gentleman the other night who, in addition to being an executive at a large corporation and a former figure skater, is also a public speaker. We found ourselves agreeing about the power and the necessity of silence when speaking to hundreds of strangers. If you ask a question, you must allow a pause for your audience to consider their own answer; if you make a point, you must pause to allow your audience to absorb it.

How tempting to fill the room with your words, as if any pause is an opportunity for your audience to escape your thrall. There is, after all, a certain deadly kind of restless silence that any public speaker, including authors on a book tour, comes to dread. It is the silence of an audience waiting for something else, preferably the end of the lecture. I have known such silences, and at those moments I understand why comedians say that when a show goes well they’ve killed, and when it goes very poorly they have died.

It’s brutal-sounding language, but accurate, I think, because to succeed as a public speaker, or as a writer, I must allow something to die within me so that I can become transparent enough to allow through what wants to come through. I can’t stand guard at the gates of my mind screening every word or thought to protect some idea of my public image. The image must die, at least for that hour or two that I’m trying to share something.

And if I can succeed, the audience might experience their own gentle death as well. I have sat in darkened theaters and known that death. Some speaker or actor or singer took me to a place where I could forget what I was afraid of and what I needed to protect, where I could forget how old I was and how long I had left to live, where I could forget what I’ve done and what I haven’t done, where I could forget all that was wrong with the world and my life and remember who I was.

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

Love’s Success

March 25th, 2015

The simplest writing advice I could give someone is to write the book he or she would most love to read. Not like to read, but love to read. Nothing brings you back to the desk like love, nothing holds you at the page until you find the best word like love, and nothing brings you home when you have wandered out into the midnight of self-doubt like love.

It’s good advice because writers always need their own private source of motivation. Somewhere in all our minds is the knowledge that, even with a contract in hand, we could still choose to chuck it all and the world would continue to spin perfectly well without our finished book. Writers need a daily answer to the question, “Why am I doing this?” and the best answer is always love.

This can be a disorienting answer for a goal-oriented fellow like myself. For instance, when I think of the love I feel for my wife, that love has no goal other than expression. It doesn’t care about marriage or sex or conversation or who’s right or who’s wrong, it only wants expression. When I express it, I am comfortable; when I withhold it, deny it, avoid it or reject it, I am uncomfortable. When I express it, the world feels correct; when I do not, the world feels incorrect.

So too, I have to admit, for the books I write. My busy, ambitious mind is filled with goals – I will write this number of pages, I will publish this book, I will sell this number of copies and speak here and teach there – yet the love upon which I must draw to achieve all these supposed goals, the love without which I could never finish a single essay, doesn’t give one wit for what I think ought to happen with what I’ve written. Love clearly has its own idea of success, and no matter how much I plan, project, complain, or criticize, it remains the only success I will ever really know.

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 Necessary Mystery

March 24th, 2015

Perhaps because the nature of my work is inspirational, and because as of this writing I am far from being a household name, nearly all the responses I receive to my blogs and Write Within Yourself are positive. And, whether from someone I meet at a writer’s conference or a comment posted online, I am always glad to learn when something I’ve written has reached and been of use to someone else.

Yet the more I hear from readers, the more I am reminded that my experience of writing something is always different than their experience of reading it. This seems obvious enough intellectually, yet this difference in our experiences, no matter how positive for both parties, often leaves me feeling as though somehow I have been misunderstood. If I wrote it and loved it, and they read it and loved it, how can there be any difference? Was I not clear enough?

Clarity rarely has anything to do with this difference. Two friends can sit side by side in the same theater watching the same movie and leave feeling equally delighted or moved, but both will have in fact watched slightly different movies. Both will have felt the story within themselves, both will have longed for loved ones to be reunited or feared the killer’s wrath within their own sovereign heart. Once they have taken that story’s journey from beginning to end, its unique emotional form belongs to the individual and the individual alone.

Or in other words, once I have finished a piece, what anyone else thinks of it is really none of my business. Am I tempted to believe otherwise? Most definitely. The lure of the fresh Amazon review is mighty. But my job is not to be understood; my job is to understand what I wish share and then share it as authentically as possible. What is actually understood by others after this translation remains a necessary mystery to retain the freedom that remains at the heart of love.

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

Discovery

March 23rd, 2015

Though I write only non-fiction these days (personal essays and memoir) I spent a little over two decades writing only fiction. This background served me very well from a craft standpoint – the fiction writer learns very early that he must show at every turn rather than telling – but perhaps more importantly I learned that the foundation of all writing is discovery.

Again, this is sometimes easier for the fiction writer to perceive than the non-fiction writer. After all, fiction writing is all discovery. When I wrote fiction I began with the smallest seed of an idea and then set about to discover everything that would grow from it. Most of that was discovered during the actual writing. Typically, I would begin a scene with little more than this: Joe goes to go the hardware store and meets his ex-wife and gets into an argument with her. Then I would start writing and see what happens. Sometimes Joe wouldn’t even meet his wife. That was the pleasure of it all.

But the non-fiction writer, by definition, isn’t making anything up. The non-fiction writer writes about what is. Except we aren’t, really. I write essays and memoirs to discover why it is I know what I think I know. No matter how many times I’ve told a story before I write, no matter how thoroughly I’ve thought through an idea before I write an essay about it, I always leave room within my writer’s imagination for something new about this story or idea to come.

And almost always that something new is my role in the troubles my stories or essays are depicting. The temptation to lay all the blame for the problems of the world on others remains great. Let me tell you what’s been done to me, or let me tell you all how you should behave so that we might straighten out this mess. Such is my response when I believe the world I behold was made by others. That I must look within to find the world I perceive is more than a bumper sticker, it is the only direction my writing journeys have ever taken 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

A Valuable Lesson

March 19th, 2015

I’ve interviewed enough writers to have heard this story a number of times: A fledging writer, often a would-be genre writer, takes a creative writing class. The teacher – older, frustrated, grumpy, usually with strong literary leanings – informs the student, after reading a few stories, that he/she should give up, because he/she is not a writer. He’s sorry to be the one to break the news (he’s not), but there is no point in continuing with the charade.

There are three responses to this, all of them good:

The first is that the student thinks, “You are wrong. I love to write, but you and I apparently disagree on what constitutes ‘good writing.’ You are not my audience. I will find my voice, and then my audience, and that will be that.” This is the least likely response because a writer with this awareness rarely gets told that they are not a writer, and not just because of how they write. There is an immunity that comes with such self-awareness. A teacher such as the one in this story will find someone else to condemn.

The student might also feel relief. “Thank God!” thinks the student. “He’s absolutely right. Finally, I can give up on this dream and start dancing, or singing, or baking, or accounting, or whatever it is that really pleases me. At last I am done trying to force the square peg of my interests into the round of hole of writing.”

Most common, however, is the third response – despair. The student goes home feeling as if something has been taken from her. Up until this moment, she had looked forward to her time alone at the desk with her stories, and she had dreamed of a time when she might share those stories with other people. Now she is uncertain if she has the authority to know what she likes and does not like, and she does not really know how to live if she can’t know something so fundamental as what interests her.

And she can’t, really, which is why she feels so bad, and why despair is such good news. It means the teacher was wrong, and that this writer’s guidance, the very same silent and constant guidance that guides her from story to story, from word to word, that speaks only in feelings of correct and incorrect, of effortlessness and struggle, this same guidance is now speaking just as loudly as it possible can, saying, “He does not know that he claims to know! Only you can know that.”

Eventually the writer will listen to this guidance, and the despair will pass, and she will return to writing, and the teacher, though he will never know it, will have taught her valuable lesson indeed.

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

Inner Critic

March 18th, 2015

Some writers embrace criticism, and some do not. When I spoke to Wally Lamb, he shared with me that he is a member of three writing groups, all of whom read and critique his work. Meanwhile, Louis Sachar shares not one shred of what he is writing with anyone – except the title – until the book is completely finished. Last year I was on a panel with Deb Caletti, Megan Chance, and Jennie Shortridge, all of whom described the outrage they first experience upon receiving a red-gashed manuscript back from their beloved editors. Compare this to N. D. Wilson who craves the “resistance” an editor’s feedback provides, without which he feels his work grows soft.

It is easy for me to become disoriented when the horns of criticism begin blaring in my ear. I write to hear myself, after all; why am I listening to these other people? Yet what is writing but sifting through thoughts until I find one that serves the story I am trying to tell? And what is a criticism but a thought that comes from someone else? Regardless of where it comes from, every thought must in the end be put to the same test—namely, measured against the shape of the story to understand if it fits.

Which is why criticism is so much more useful than how it might or might not strengthen my story. I cannot be reminded often enough of the difference between the thoughts that blow ceaselessly through my mind, and me. How often I have mistaken one for the other, and in that instant my well being feels as transient as a word waiting beneath an uncertain eraser. I remember who I am the moment that word is gone and I awaken to find myself holding the pencil.

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

Love Story

March 17th, 2015

Never hate the story you are telling.

It will be tempting to do so. There’s what you want, and then there’s what you’ve got, and you know the difference. It can be an extremely uncomfortable difference. It is a difference that will keep you up at night and have you staring off in the middle of conversations. It is a difference that will have you questioning your intelligence and skill and on the worst days your value as a human being.

And the more you love the story, the more you love what the story is trying to share, the more aware you are of this difference. And because you love it, you can’t chuck it. You might try, but the difference between trying to tell the story and giving it up is even worse. This feels like death. So back you go, and though it is your love of the story that brings you back, the difference remains; and when you feel that difference again, how tempting it is to hate the story because you just want to feel good again.

Except the only way to tell the story is to love it. To love this story in its current, unacceptable form is a trick of sorts. The storyteller must look past what is, training his storytelling eye on what will be, a thing that will be the shape of what he loves. It isn’t hard if you remember you’ve only ever lived in your imagination anyway. Things change there as quickly as a new idea, and there is nothing to hate because nothing lasts longer than a thought.

Hating a thought, however, will keep it around for a very long time. It immortalizes it on pedestal of evil, lest we ever forget. In this way, good storytelling is some of the most productive forgetting I have ever practiced. It is the only way to clear room for what I want most, and having found it, remember who I am.

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

Adventures in Marketing

March 16th, 2015

I was twenty-two and had written a batch of poems in a brief creative dash. It had been years since I had finished so much as a short story, and the satisfaction of having something completed, even if it was only eight lines, was addictive. Plus most were like little monologues, and I loved the theater, so it was a happy discovery that I could marry these art forms.

My mother’s friend Tina also loved poetry, so much so that she had started her own literary journal. Word trickled down to me that Tina would be hosting a poetry reading at the University of Rhode Island, and if I wanted to I could read as well. I was quite nervous waiting my turn there in the classroom with all the other poets, but when the moment arrived, and I laid my poems on the lectern and started reading, it was just more theater, and it was great fun sharing these little pieces that had so pleased me with other people and seeing that these people seemed to be pleased as well.

A week after the poetry reading I got a call from Tina. What a success the reading had been! You were a hit, she said. The actor in me enjoyed that. I would do another poetry reading shortly thereafter and I enjoyed it every bit as much as the first. Then I got another call from Tina. She wanted to publish some of my poems in the upcoming edition of her journal. Would that be okay? I said it most certainly would be okay. And that was how my work was published for the first time.

Here is what I knew back then: I knew that I loved to read certain poets, and that I loved to write poetry. I loved both the freedom poetry afforded me, as well as the economy it required, and I loved the energy of performing. What I did not know was that those poetry readings were my first adventures in marketing. My poems were published because I had found a means to expose my work to other people such that opportunities that had not previously been available were now available.

Except it didn’t feel like marketing because I wasn’t trying to sell anything, or get published, or get exposure. I wasn’t trying to get anything. I just wanted to share something that felt good to share. That is all “marketing” needs to be. In fact, to call it anything else is a lie. To call it anything else is to say that I do not love what I love, and that I do not believe the world will be better off with more of what I love in it – which, though I have spent many years doubting this is so, remains the only truth to which I can reliably return.

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 Difference

March 10th, 2015

As I shared yesterday, everything I write and teach and talk about, from this blog, to No One Is Broken, to Write Within Yourself, could be summed up in one sentence: Everything is okay, even though everything appears to not be okay. Though the point of my writing and teaching and coaching is that everything is okay, the emphasis usually lands on how things – that is, life on planet earth – tend to appear. For me, the difference between appearance and reality, between what we believe and fear waits for us behind the closed door of the future and what we will always find, is the profound journey within every story ever told.

I have always thought of life in this way, although for years I viewed it in reverse. There is what I want, and then, alas, there is what I get. Being a grounded, learned, mature, rational, clear-eyed grownup was about accepting what you got with minimal complaint. This proved a grim and white-knuckled way of living, and my knuckles eventually grew weary and I had to let go. I was prepared then for a fall, and I got one. What I was not prepared for was what I began to discover on my way down.

That old view of reality as a thing I must accept reminds me of how I used to begin stories. I used to think I knew what the story was about and where it was going and how I would finish it. None of what I predicted ever came true. Only, what I got, I soon noticed – which is to say what the story actually wanted to be – was always better than what I had first imagined. I didn’t so much accept the difference, as adore it.

I had to tell many, many stories before I understood that it wasn’t my job to know what lay behind the closed door of what was to come. And I had to tell an equal number of stories before I began to trust that finding something I adored instead of something I had to accept was not some fluke; it was reality.

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