Body and Soul

It doesn’t matter whether I am interviewing an award-winning literary writer on Author2Author or talking to a group of beginning writers at a writer’s conference, by and by the subject of money will likely come up. The established writer might wonder if he will “sell through” on his latest advance, while the beginning writer will ask if it is really possible to make a living at this and at what point can one quit one’s day job.

I think all the questions around writing and money really come down to this: Can I make a living doing something I would happily do for free? By the time a writer sits down to write, and then to try to publish that first book, he has likely been earning a living in some job or another. He often – though certainly not always – wouldn’t do that job unless he was paid to do so. This was certainly true of me. I made a living as a waiter for twenty years. It was good work, it fit my writing schedule nicely, but I wouldn’t have done it for one minute without the promise of payment.

I had to train myself to live like this, a training that began in school. I liked school well enough, the teachers were nice, I had friends, the work wasn’t hard – but if a foot of snow dropped and school was cancelled, I was overjoyed. Now I was free to do what I wanted, not what I had to. But this is life. You do what you have to do. You chop wood and carry the wood because you need a fire and if you don’t, it won’t get done. It’s called being an adult.

To write for a living, we must forget this training. Writing for a living contradicts the story most adults learn to accept. To write for a living, I must be willing to admit that the story I told to keep me safe and fed in the world, the story whose acceptance defined my manhood and maturity, was never more than that – a story. To write for a living means to create no separation between love and money, between joy and survival. Every time I am paid for what I would gladly do for free, I close that unfriendly gap between body and soul, and can forget that the world ever wanted anything from me other than exactly what I am.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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My Whole Life

I like to remind my memoir students that the first personal essay I published in a larger magazine told the story of the only time I ate an oyster. I had been quite the picky eater for the first twenty-five years of my life, so this was no small decision on my part – but still, it was just an oyster. No one put a gun to my head to make me eat it, nor did I eat it while stranded an island. I had just gotten a job at a fancy restaurant and I had to try it as part of my training.

I share this story because while some students come to me to help them tell their tale of loss or abuse or sickness, some come with less dramatic stories. In fact, sometimes students aren’t sure what story they’d like to tell – they just know they want to write about their lives. These students are sometimes intimidated by those students who have survived cancer, or who grew up in religious cults or biked across the country. Their lives, by comparison, seem uneventful.

You would be hard pressed to find a more uneventful life than mine – at least as I’m living it now. I write, I teach, I interview people, and I talk to my wife, and occasionally to people who aren’t my wife. That’s pretty much it. Yet I write about my life to the exclusion of all other subjects. I find my life endlessly interesting. Though it’s really not my life I find interesting, but rather life itself. What I call my life is just my intimate, personal experience of life.

This may sound like semantics, but it’s not. Life, to me, is never what is happening, in the same way a story is not about what’s happening. A story is about how a character feels while something is happening, and how that character changes, and what that change reveals about all of us. A story is a current of events moving toward an inevitable conclusion, the current stronger and more meaningful than any of the events which comprise it.

Life is also a current, not a fractured collection of events, and certainly not a static object to be studied and dismantled. If I allow myself to look deeply at any event, I can perceive the current of life flowing through it. In fact, I can perceive the whole of life, though I will never be able to render this in language. It is beyond rendering. It is not, however, beyond perception nor beyond feeling, and somewhere in the exchange between writer and reader, the whole of life is shared.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Time to Remember

Having written well over a thousand of these things in the last nine years, I have come to the conclusion that the personal essay is the form with which I am most artistically comfortable. It took me a while to admit this because for the first thirty or so years of my writing life I saw myself as a fiction writer, poet, or playwright – that is to say, an entertainer. While personal essays can and should be entertaining, their success depends on the depth of the lesson they provide. In the end, every essay looks at something I’ve learned that I think someone else might find useful as well.

Back when I saw myself as an entertainer, the idea of offering lessons in my work not only seemed to contradict the First Law of Writing – show don’t tell – but was personally repulsive to me. I did not want anyone to teach me anything. I’ll figure it out my life, you figure out yours, and in the meantime let’s amuse one another. Though in truth, the stories and poems I loved and valued the most always did more than merely amuse me: they reminded me of something I had forgotten. In fact, no sooner was I reminded of it I would forget it and have to go looking for it again in another story, poem, song, or movie.

I suppose I finally let myself start writing the essays out of desperation. My cyclical amnesia was fatiguing, and writing required me to remember on purpose. Turns out, I could! Turns out the very best way to memorize something is through repetition. Though not, in this case, rote repetition. Every time I return to the desk, the lesson, what I’m remembering, has changed – or at least it looks different to me, like a child who grew slightly while we were apart.

You may be wondering what “it” is I’m remembering. I’m sorry, that’s private. Actually, there’s nothing private about it because it’s the only thing anyone remembers. It’s just that you’ll remember it in your own way, and I wouldn’t want to interfere with that by defining that something that can only be felt. After all, I can’t write all the time, and some day I might be wandering around the world, having once again forgotten, and you and I will meet in person or on the page, and in your own way, in your own words, you’ll remind me why life is worth living.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Saint Within

Every writer I know began as a young reader. Most read hungrily once they’d discovered the intimate pleasure of the written word. It feels like escape, this travelling through imaginary worlds. It does not matter what world you are reading about – whether it is the once-real world of Czarist Russia or the unreal world of Narnia – it is all imaginary, for your body is one place while your mind is in another.

But reading is actually the opposite of escape. No story can live without the reader’s emotional participation. The writer’s words are but directions to a place within the reader where sadness and joy and grief and curiosity and boredom and hope and despair reside. The words alone are a skeleton; the reader’s felt responses to those words are the flesh and blood of every story ever told.

What’s more, every story ever told grows from the same fertile thought: Life matters. It matters that someone fell in love or someone was crowned queen. It matters that a father and son were reunited. It matters that the killer was caught. Life is not just a bunch of meaningless crap that happens to us between birth and death. The story guides us to that place within us where we know life matters, where we know that we are interested for a reason, where we know that we matter and are living on purpose.

This is why stories and poems and songs were my church and my state growing up. I turned to them to remind me of what I so often forgot, what I so often lost track of in the hurly-burly of life’s circus. I had thought that I would need to make these heroes who’d saved me from myself less saintly, so that I could take my place beside them on the shelf. Instead, I found again the saint within me, the unblemished self who remains unaffected by my woeful stories of meaninglessness, who finishes the stories others had started, and who now begins my stories that others might finish.

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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

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No, Not Everyone Has a Blog

I was a teaching a class recently when a student asked me, “Why should I bother starting a blog? Everyone has one?” It was a good question. As someone who spends more than the average person on writers’ websites (I interview these people, you see), it does sometime appear that nearly every writer in the world – published or otherwise – has a blog. They’re free to start, and operate with no gatekeeper other than the writer’s willingness to plunk him or herself down and tap out a few hundred words.

Which is exactly why everyone does not actually have a blog. It’s one thing to start a blog, and to post an entry or two or three or twelve, but it is another thing altogether to keep that blog alive with regular posts every week. Most of the blogs I visit on author’s websites begin with a rush of entries that soon dwindle to one every two months – if that.

This is not a criticism. Most blogs are begun, I think, because the author believes she should have a blog. Either some publicist indicated as much or the author looked around and said to herself, “What is wrong with me that I don’t have one of these? Better get going. They’re free after all. Why not?”

Because humans by and large quit doing things they have to do or are supposed to do. It takes a long time to write a book. Writers don’t write books because they should; they write books because they want to, or because they know they wouldn’t be happy if they didn’t. So if starting a blog interests you – if you think you might love plunking yourself down a couple times a week and writing something for free to share with other people – go for it. There’s always room in the world for one more person to do one more thing they love.

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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 Third Emotion

Some days it seems as if there are three basic emotional experiences, and two of them aren’t good. The first is despair. This we feel when we believe that which is responsible for our happiness has been denied us or has been taken from us. Oh, the loneliness of these hours waiting for its return or mourning its loss.

The second is what we might call exhilaration. Now that which brings us happiness is here. Part of the thrill of such moments is the uncertainty of it all. Life’s roulette wheel spins . . . spins . . . and we win! That our exhilaration is merely one more spin from despair is part of the romance of life. Such ups and downs are the stuff of fiction and the therapy room.

Finally there is that third emotional experience. It hasn’t nearly the drama of despair and exhilaration and as such makes for much less interesting fiction, but it is where we must all rest by and by. This we can call peace. At such moments we are not following the roulette wheel of life because there is nothing that wheel can win for us. We already have what we need.

This peace, this contentment, can look from certain angles like life’s sweet conclusion, but it is in fact just the opposite. This contentment always says, “You have all you need. And now lets find more.” It makes no sense to the hungry and yearning mind that there could be anything more beyond all that we need, but this contentment has no interest in acquisition. This contentment knows only creation, the expansion of that which both sustains and compels us.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Dragon In The Garden

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

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

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

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

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

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Big Time

I was twenty-four and in the middle of writing my first screenplay with my brother. We were writing it as quickly as we could so that when we arrived in Los Angeles, we’d have something to show to the agents and producers we were hoping to somehow manage to meet. I wanted to write it in the same way I’d written the sketch comedy show he and I had been performing for the last few years, which was to tap into the funny, tap into the cool, tap into the interesting I felt within me and let the funny, cool, and interesting find its way onto the page.

But I couldn’t write this screenplay like that. It had to be able to impress agents and producers who, as I understood it, thought in terms millions of viewers and tens of millions of dollars, whereas my sketch comedy show on a good night performed to around 80 people and earned us slightly more than nothing. I had to write for The Big Time, and I wasn’t sure what that meant. I was not sure if my funny, cool and interesting was funny, cool, and interesting enough. So I smoked a lot of cigarettes plus a few other things, and didn’t sleep much, and caught a cold, and began to hear a great clock in the sky ticking its way down to the end of my creatively viable youth.

Then one evening my brother was at work and I wasn’t, and instead of writing more of the screenplay, I decided to describe what it felt like to catch a pass from my father. In one longish paragraph I wrote about the pleasure of running flat out down an open field, tracing the path of the ball in the sky and timing my run and my extended arms so that the ball and I would meet. I wrote about how I couldn’t do this often enough, and that even though I was technically practicing for our Sunday touch football games, was technically getting better so our team could win, the pleasure was all in the running and finding how my father and I were connected through that ball.

I spent an hour writing that paragraph, and when I’d finished, I sat back in my chair and felt something I hadn’t in quite some time. I didn’t want to leave the chair, in fact, because as soon as I did, I knew I’d be caught up once again in the momentum of my day, of which that screenplay was now a part. I wished for a moment that that this was the momentum of my day – the quiet, profitless knowing after writing something just to write it, of catching a ball just to catch it, of living a life just to live 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

The Vessel

When I began writing this blog on a daily basis five years ago, I quickly found myself wanting to write not just little essays about writing and creativity but to tell stories from my writing and creative life. Prior to that, all the stories I had written had been fiction. As a fiction writer, the ongoing question driving my stories was: What’s the most interesting thing that could happen next?

I could not ask this exact question when telling stories about my life. First, I already knew what was going to happen. Second, my whole life is interesting – at least to me. It’s true. To me, even those moments I had found dull in the living are interesting in retrospect, if for no other reason than to understand why I found one moment dull and another moment fun. And so instead the question I asked about these stories was: Why would someone who isn’t me or my family be interested in this story?

To answer this question honestly I had to find within my story what belonged to everyone. The stories could not simply be about what I learned, about how I went from feeling one way about myself to another way, but about how life expressed itself through me. Life, after all, guides and moves and supports everyone equally and continuously, the same as the ocean supports all boats of every size equally.

As I told more and more of these stories, I began to see my life as not belonging to me at all. My life was not some delicate treasure I kept safe and showed to friends and strangers like a ship in a bottle. My life was a vessel on the ocean, but it was the ocean I’d come for. Without the ocean, the vessel need never have existed, but give it some wind and water and meaning immediately fills its sails.

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 Caring God

When I was a teenager I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons. I was usually the Dungeon Master, meaning I designed the adventures – the goblin-infested castles, the dragon lairs, the haunted swamps – in which my friends played. The Dungeon Master is part referee, part storyteller, and part host, and if all goes well the game feels like a party with Doritos and polyhedron dice.

I was one of two principal Dungeon Masters in my little teenage gaming community in Providence, the other being my friend Evan. We were sort of rivals in that our games were often being compared. In my games, none of the players’ characters ever died. They were challenged, they were tested, but they were like heroes in a series whom the readers knew would always make it through to be challenged and tested in the next story.

In Evan’s world, characters died. He was an indifferent God. When the dice spoke, he and all the players listened, and if those dice spoke death, so be it. I played in his world once and I admired his indifference. The game was more exciting. Things seemed to matter more when the ultimate outcome wasn’t predetermined.

I would eventually adopt some of Evan’s indifference. Except it wasn’t indifference at all. I only wanted things to matter, whether it was a game of Dungeons & Dragons or a romantic relationship or a story I was writing. Life was better when you felt your decisions mattered, and so I would let the occasional character die for the betterment of all. Death in this way became the threat that was a gift, a focusing tool for the living, reminding them that the story is more alive when you know that it will 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.

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