Rewriting the Rules of Success

For many, many, many years nothing I wrote was published. This was a very difficult period of writing in my life. I am a naturally happy person. I look for excuses to be happy. But I am also an ambitious person. An ex-athlete, I expected to be successful at whatever I applied myself to. Writing success, namely publication, felt every bit like those trophies I trained and ran for as a schoolboy, only more valuable. Publication seemed to carry not just the glittering public triumph of victory, but also a financial security tied to something beyond my dull, daily labor – the freedom of being paid for what I would do for free. Writing success was a portal to life as I wished to lead it.

But I could not open that portal. Or that portal would not open for me. Or I couldn’t find the portal. It was hard to tell which it was. All I knew is I was where I was and not where I thought I should be. And so I was unhappy. I had to be. That was the rule: to be happy I had to be successful. I could not imagine myself both happy and unsuccessful. Trying to imagine a happy life without success was like trying to imagine a happy life without food or shelter or friends. So I was unhappy. Unless I forgot the rule, and got interested something, which always makes me happy – until I’d remember that I wasn’t successful, and I’d be unhappy once more.

By and by, little successes began trickling in. I was glad for them, but I still felt more or less as I always had. Clearly, these successes were too small to open that portal. Then one day, I learned that a publisher had offered me a contract for a book. I stood for a moment after hearing this news, surrounded in a strange silence. It was like the fresh peacefulness after a thunderstorm. Thunderstorms don’t create that peacefulness, though they do remind me what it sounds like.

So this is what life feels like without the noise of failure, I thought. How easy it would have been at that moment to attribute the peace of success to my contract. Yet to do so would have merely assured the noise would return if I didn’t like how many copies my book sold, or if I didn’t sell my next book, or if I didn’t win some award. The rules of success can always be rewritten so that happiness remains something to be desired and attained rather than something I own and express.

I didn’t actually have to be unhappy during those long dry years. In fact, what brought me the most happiness was also my path toward those acceptance letters I so desired. But I couldn’t have been convinced of that then. The rules were the rules were the rules, and I was certain I hadn’t written them. I had just been following orders and dreaming of the freedom I already had.

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

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All Writing is Rewriting

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

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Rewriting

I was a member of a writing group for a short time. Like most writing groups, we shared our stories and some wine, and went around the room critiquing those stories. We all wanted to tell the best story we could possibly tell, and we were all there to help and support one another in this otherwise lonely endeavor.

These groups have become a staple of the ever-growing writing community. Sometimes these groups are helpful to the members, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes they help the writers better understand what they have created, and sometimes they become contentious ego-fests. Either way, the goal should be the same – to help the storytellers tell the best story possible. We may not agree on what a good story is or isn’t, but we all agree that we want the stories we read and write to be as interesting and funny and profound as they can possibly be.

I started Author and this column and now the Author’s Roundtable because I wanted to bring the same level of attention to the stories we tell about writing and publishing as we bring to the stories we offer to our critique groups. While writers can be meticulous in crafting the stories they send to magazines and agents and editors, they can be quite sloppy in the stories they tell about talent and intelligence and luck and rejection. These stories deserve the exact same scrutiny. These stories deserve just as much rewriting, and have just as many darlings that ought to be killed.

I would never walk into a bookstore and pull a book at random and read it cover-to-cover whether I liked it or not. To read that book is to live that book, to surrender my immeasurably powerful imagination to its reality. The stories I tell myself about writing and publishing are no different. To tell myself a story is to live it, to experience whatever limitations or cruelty or fairness or kindness it describes. My life is not some book pulled at random from the universe; it is a story I am telling myself moment by moment, a story I can write and rewrite as long as I remember that I am the one writing 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
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For the Townspeople and the Pigeons

There is a popular quote circulating about how fear is merely the absence of God the same dark is merely the absence of light. This quote is frequently attributed to Albert Einstein, and with good reason. He was a physicist and philosopher and this is the exactly the sort of big view for which he became famous. Unfortunately there is, at least to my knowledge, no record of Einstein ever having said this.

This is too bad because it’s fun to start a point in conversation with: “Well, like Einstein said . . .” This automatically makes whatever you’re about to say true. The fact that Einstein did not actually draw this exact comparison between darkness and fear doesn’t make it any less true, however. Its truth now is simply rooted in its own self-evidence, rather than its association with the theory of relativity.

And anyway, we rarely quote anyone exactly. Instead, we prefer to rewrite. I recently watched a video by John Green in which the YA author and Youtube personality listed history’s top 50 misquotes. Some were misattributed but many were simply altered from their original. In most cases, I found the altered versions better. Which is not surprising. That our collective mind could improve upon one soul’s first draft is the story of human invention and reinvention.

Which is why I don’t really care exactly who said exactly what. Quotes serve me – and you, and John Green – not the one who may or may not have first said them. At best, they are quick reminders of where our attention belongs, of what is true and what is fantasy. The rest is just us believing the statues of ourselves we might leave behind in the town square mean something. No matter how beautiful that statue, looking at it you would know it is only a thought held in marble, there to serve the townspeople and the pigeons long after you are gone.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite 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
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Making Whole

I just finished rereading a draft of my book this morning, and was overall pleased with it. Of course, there were those chapters with which I was not so pleased. Not pleased at all, truthfully. It was sort of painful to read them, all those words so thoughtfully chosen doing absolutely nothing to help the book.

You might think reading those chapters that I had somehow forgotten how to write. In fact, I had not. In fact, if you were to look closely at these chapters you would see that all the skill deployed in the chapters that did work was deployed here as well. Why then, would it be so unpleasant to read?

It reminded me of watching, say, Hamlet, staged by a skilled troupe of actors. What would happen if another skilled actor stepped onto the stage in an old T-shirt portraying Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire? What if it was Marlon Brando himself come back from the dead to insert Stanley into this Shakespearean tragedy? Would all Brando’s skill make his appearance any less irritating and bizarre?

Indeed it would not. Skill is only useful when in service to what belongs. Hard to remember sometimes as we fret over words and scenes and rising tension. In another book those un-working chapters might be quite lovely, but not in the one I had written. This, then, becomes what we call rewriting, finding the parts to make whole what it is not incorrect, but merely incomplete.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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See It

Sometimes I will read a sentence by another writer that doesn’t ring completely true. Depending on how far from the mark the writer landed, such a sentence might get labeled “bad writing,” a term that is itself as inaccurate as the writing it claims to describe. The writing wasn’t bad, it was just unfinished and the writer didn’t know it.

I have written many, many such sentences in my life, and always a part of me knew at the time of the writing that there was something closer to what I had meant. I could not understand why some lines were spot on, while others strayed again and again from their mark. It felt like luck – or worse yet, talent, as if my only bad luck was being born slightly less talented than my literary ambitions required.

All of that changed when I learned that most of the best writing has nothing to do with words and everything to do with patience. And I don’t just mean the patience to rewrite. I mean the patience to wait until you can see or hear or smell or feel what you are trying render. You must have the patience to allow the lens of your imagination to focus completely on what you are trying to translate into language. How can you possibly render it accurately if it is not clear? How can you write what you cannot see? Such writing is luck, and you have about as much chance of winning that game as you do the slots in Vegas.

Before you put one word on the page, ask yourself, “Can I see it? Can I feel it?” If you can’t see it clearly, feel it clearly, put all words aside and wait. It is critical you not dwell in words in this moment; they will only confuse you. Wait until you have focused that lens as tightly as possible on your target. Then open your mind to words, and if your focus is tight and clear they will come effortlessly. There is no luck to it. There is only the willingness to believe that if you can see it, you were meant to write it.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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A Useful Rewrite

I rarely write about the novel I published some six or seven years ago. In fact, until very recently, I would have preferred if it had never been published. This was the third novel I had written, and I got an agent for it very quickly. In fact, this agent called me a week after I put it in the mail, called and told me that she had read it on only three hours sleep and despite being exhausted could not put it down.

I was thrilled. She was a good agent with contacts at all the major publishing houses. She represented a number of bestsellers. And almost as soon as I hung up the phone with her, I decided that she didn’t count. I would only know if the book was really any good, and therefore if I was any good, when a publisher said, “Yes.” Unfortunately, even as she was sending emails explaining to whom she would be submitting, I could not imagine the book selling. It felt no more real than me winning the lottery.

And so it didn’t sell. Editor after editor said, “Good, but not for us.” This made perfect sense to me. This is what I felt I deserved. Finally, she was out of editors to send to and I found a tiny, tiny publisher whom I convinced to publish it. It was a terrible experience. They were a year late publishing, the final product was filled with typos, I had to beg for my two author copies, and I was only paid half of the pittance I was owed. And yet this matched exactly how I felt about the book. I didn’t believe it was really any good, and so the book received the treatment I felt it deserved.

However, at this time, if I read anything at all I read only The Greats. I did not read my peers, the other men and women doing their best to write and publish books that were not perfect or canonized but were worthy of being read. Recently my wife pulled that book of mine from our bookshelf and said, “Hey. Look at this.”

So I did. I had not read a word of it since it had been published. But on this day I sat down with this old thing and read a chapter or two and discovered that I had been wrong: if that book had come across my desk now I would have wanted to interview its writer. I returned the book to its spot on the shelf feeling relieved. How nice to rewrite an ugly chapter of my publishing history. And how reassuring to see once again that the world gives you exactly what you ask for.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Open Ended

This afternoon I was watching an episode Spectacle, Elvis Costello’s excellent interview/music program. Costello was interviewing one of my old R&R heroes, Lou Reed. Reed is a rather literary guy.  He explained in his interview that he wanted to bring the subject matter and sensibilities of the Beat Poets to popular music, and I suppose he did.

He doesn’t rewrite, however. Lyrics come to him in one shot and if he tries to go back and improve on what came initially, he feels he will only ruin it. What’s more, he writes in bursts. There will be long stretches where nothing is coming, and, as he eloquently explained, during those fallow periods he could no more build a car than write a song – he doesn’t know how.

Costello asked if he was ever troubled during such stretches, and Reed confessed that yes, it wasn’t always easy. At this point in the interview, Reed looked heavenward and said, “You know, it’s like—is that it?  Is that all I’m getting?”

Costello asked. “Is that where you think it comes from?”

“I don’t know,” said Reed. “But it certainly doesn’t come from me. I just have to get out of the way.  You know, I don’t want to sound too new age or woo-woo, but that’s how it is.”

And I thought, “Too late.  And by the way, so what?”

At some point, like it or not, every artist of every stripe—if he’s honest—winds up sounding like a mystic when discussing his work. This can be unsettling for some, as many artists – particularly writers, for some reason – want to be taken seriously, and it is very easy to disregard mystical-sounding talk as so much mumbo-jumbo. And yet there we are, talking about letting something through that is not us, coming from somewhere beyond us.

It’s all right. Let it be mystical. There isn’t one writer I’ve interviewed – from literary to romance – who hasn’t admitted that the real joy of writing are the surprises, the characters who did what they wanted to do, the phrase that arrived fully formed in the imagination as if discovered under a rock. How is it we’re surprised if we’re the ones in charge? Why, if humans can’t tickle themselves, can they make themselves laugh or cry by what they write?

No—don’t answer that question. Let the answer remain as open as your heart must stay to hear the answer the question you ask every time you sit down to write.

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

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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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The Formless Pleasure

Of all the dreams mankind has dreamed, perhaps none is bigger than the dream of flight. We have dreamt of flight since we first glimpsed birds and found we could not follow them into the sky. Yet consider how our attempts to realize this dream have progressed. What did we do first? We imitated what we already knew—the birds. Failure. Giant flapping feathered wings that sent us plummeting back to earth. Even our first tepid attempts at aircraft included mechanical flapping wings.

Had our imagination remained on bird instead of flight, Charles Lindbergh would never have crossed the Atlantic and Neil Armstrong would never have walked on the moon. What was needed was a shift in focus—or to be precise, a narrowing of focus. Though birds surrounded us, inspired us, moved us, they could not help us, because they did not have propellers. Once we narrowed our focus to the pure concept of flight, sweeping aside what had been dreamed already in nature, we arrived at our unique solution.

When you are holding a dream like writing and selling a book, it is important to reduce this dream to its essence. While other writers’ work and career can inspire you, the dream is never to replicate what anyone has done but to share what you most want to share with the most number of people possible. Sweep aside what you think this sharing will look like. Perhaps it will be published in a glamorous hardback; perhaps it will go straight to mass-market paperback; perhaps it will be shared in a daily blog in an online writing magazine.

Do not become hypnotized by form. The dream is looking for its form. If you impose some form on it, the dream will never grow fully, stuffed as it is in some beautiful box. A dream is only a feeling anyway, a formless pleasure looking for expression. If that dream finds its true form, you will only rejoice that it looks different than all the forms that have come before—you will find that it is the shape and size of you.

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

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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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Work In Progress

I have always had trouble watching videos of myself. Because I normally only view life one way – from inside of me looking out – it is too easy for me to become alarmed when my perspective is reversed. For this reason I was mildly dreading having to edit a taped, hour-long presentation I gave recently. If watching myself for five minutes could stir confusion and self-loathing, what would an hour do to me?

I was somewhat aided by my own self-awareness. That is, I knew going in that the editing could be a problem, so I was prepared for the worse. Yet a strange thing happened. After twenty or thirty minutes of editing, of watching and listening to nothing but me, I became so used to the sound of my voice and the look of my face and the energy of my gestures that this person called Bill Kenower on my screen no longer seemed like me.

I knew he was me, of course, because I remembered being there and saying all those things, and yet while editing the video I felt very much as I do when I am editing something I have written. What’s on the page isn’t me, after all, it’s merely ideas I had and translated into written words. But the words aren’t me. Likewise, that person speaking wasn’t me, and not merely because the lecture existed only in the past. Rather, that person speaking was like something I had written – just an idea made real through gesture, word, and also flesh, bone, and blood. Yet it was not me, not the complete me, the me through which all those ideas spring, the me that must choose the words and gestures that the rest of the world sees and hears.

I am happy to report that I was content with what I saw. “I can work with this,” I thought – and I didn’t mean the video. A novel cannot be everything; it can only be one story, headed in one direction. So too a person cannot be everything. I don’t feel like that person on the video. I feel both tall and short, fat and skinny, old and young, man and woman, but I have chosen this form for this life, and it will do. Meanwhile, I will go back inside where I belong, back where the completeness of life can be known.

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

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