Form and Substance

One of my favorite writing stories is one Gary Zukav told me about the first time he tried to write. Zukav decided he wanted to be a writer. So he bought a book on How To Be A Writer, read it, sat down at the typewriter one day, rolled up his sleeves – and realized he had nothing he wanted to write about. That was the end of his first attempt.

A few years later he met some physicists who were discussing quantum physics. He thought it was fascinating. So fascinating, he kept hanging around with them, even though he was not a scientist and had never liked math. Eventually, he wrote The Dancing Wu Li Masters, which became a bestseller and won the American Book Award for Science, and his life as a writer and spiritual teacher was born.

It’s a great story, but in a way, it’s every writer’s story. Writing is only a form of expression. Like a lot of writers, Zukav recognized it as a form that would serve some greater need for him. But like some writers, he at first mistook the servant for the master, he mistook form for substance. The act of writing itself has no substance whatsoever. It has no inherent direction. Go wander a library and notice all the books there. Each is its own direction. The directions writing can take us are literally limitless – a fact that requires us to make some rather definite choices.

It is not always easy to make these choices. If you are an adult person, you have probably spent a lot time navigating the world of form – the form of jobs, the form of relationships, and the form of books themselves, these objects you can hold in your hand, and on whose cover you might one day like to see the form that is your name. This world of form seems to be where you live and love and succeed.

But to make the choice a writer must make, you must eventually direct your attention elsewhere, away entirely from the world of form and toward that which desires to be given form. It is a blessedly happy moment when you at last perceive writing and life’s true substance, but if you are like me, this choice comes with some trepidation. It can feel as if I am asking myself to walk blindly, to take my eyes off the hard edges of the world that so wounded me when I become distracted. In truth, it was the world that distracted me in the first place, and to seek writing’s source is to teach myself to see.

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

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Discovery

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 it, 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.

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

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Little Altars

When I was twenty, I tried reading James Joyce’s Ulysses for the first time. Ulysses is a big book where not a lot happens. I didn’t get very far that first time because I mistook it for a novel, when really, it is a 600-page poem. Still, I liked what I did manage to read. In fact I liked what I read because not a lot happened. In Joyce’s fictional world, nothing was inconsequential; everything, from pear soap to shaving cream to a daydream, was worthy of being rendered in complete and loving detail.

I found this inspiring. Not a lot seemed to be happening in my life then. I drank coffee, I hung out with my friends, I took walks, I tended bar. The parts of one day seemed interchangeable with the parts of the next. And yet, even within these quiet days, if my attention settled completely on the coffee or the conversation or the street I was crossing, I could feel the value and poignancy of life as completely as when I won a race or when then the girl I loved said goodbye.

But because I was still a young writer, I had put Joyce on a kind of artistic altar. He had done what only a chosen few could manage. While any moment in any city at any time could serve as a portal through which to glimpse life’s inherent beauty, not anyone could render what they viewed through that portal. Sometimes when I tried and failed to do so, I despaired, not just because I might lack that which was called talent, but because I feared that what I hoped to share didn’t actually exist. I’d imagined it. What Joyce showed me was just his genius, which belonged to him alone and could not be shared.

I would eventually reread Ulysses, and quite enjoy it, until I reached a particularly experimental chapter and had to give up. I felt as if I were translating a foreign text, and I lost interest. I did not, however, lose interest in writing about all those little moments that felt so valuable to me. In fact, Ulysses still served as a kind of inspiration. It was, after all, a story about the heroic in the everyday. I had to take Joyce off the altar on which I’d placed him, and put life on that altar instead. Now I could see more clearly what I was trying to render, and now it belonged to everyone, including me.

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

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Enough Experience

Writers are often advised to “write what you know,” which can be tricky advice if what you want to write is, say, steampunk vampire romance. You are not a vampire in love and you do not live in 1890 and fly a steam-powered helicopter. You do, however, love vampires, steampunk, and romance – in fact, you know you love these things – which is why you can write about them with authority.

But even if you are writing in a genre set in another time and place, you must still make the characters that inhabit these faraway and fantastic lands realistic – meaning they must respond to trouble and temptation and triumph the way people do. It doesn’t matter whether your characters are elves, barons, pirates, or cavemen, the universal human impulses that guide us all must guide them as well. Believability is paramount to all stories, and the moment your reader thinks, “That wouldn’t happen,” you’ve lost them.

Of course, humans are dizzyingly varied in their behavior – so varied that it can seem at times as if we are each a species of one. Which is why I have found my own experiences so invaluable. I will never know suffering, joy, confusion, or clarity better than through my own experience. Since my target audience is other people, I have come to depend on my own experiences to make what I write about seem believable to them, wherever and whoever they are.

Everything your characters feel, you have felt, and so has everyone else. I know this intellectually, but each time I sit down to write, I must remember that what I have experienced in my rather limited and quiet life is enough. It is enough to reach anyone if I can write about it clearly and honestly. It is enough to create far-off worlds, or to write essays about creativity. Because whether I’m writing about the past or some distant future, I am really writing about what it is to be alive.

We are all exactly as alive as each other, a simple fact that connects us in ways we cannot perceive as we stumble about crashing into one another and arguing and falling in and out of love. No matter. To write is to go deeply into my own experience and harvest what belongs to us all, share it, and then live some more.

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

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

On the Wave

When people ask, I say I write about writing, but this is not completely true. Mostly I write about and teach how to get into the frame of mind in which writing is possible. This is step one for every writer, whether they are writing poetry, steampunk romance, or memoire. Of course many a story, poem, or essay has been written from a different frame of mind. I know, because I’ve done it. When people talk about writing being “hard,” this is what they mean. When I am in the wrong frame of mind, writing is like trying to get to shore by paddling and paddling, just me on my little surfboard and an ocean full of antagonistic currents.

Most of the time I couldn’t even get where I wanted to go. If I did manage to drag myself to the beach, everything I created along the way was full of the struggle and frustration and confusion I experienced on my journey. In short, I had shared a view of life I myself would not want to live. But I’d done it. I’d put words on the page. I’d acted like a writer.

On the other hand, to be in the correct frame of mind is to wait for a wave of curiosity and interest to carry me to shore. If one comes along, and if it is strong, I will need what we call craft to stay with it and not fall off. But the wave itself does most of the work. It’s bigger than me, and has more energy than me, and is going where it’s going whether I want to come along or not.

I have fallen off these sorts of waves many, many times. How disappointing it was. I had such hope for it! Yet the correct writing frame of mind has everything to do with knowing that more waves are coming. They will not — and indeed cannot — stop. It is not in their nature. But I must remember this and trust that it is true. On the ocean of creativity, waves are not perceivable until I believe they exist. Until I can believe in what will come rather than what I currently see, my world will appear flat, and all movement will be meaningless and random.

So I let my mind be still and my thoughts go quiet, and wait for what I know must come when I have cleared away the clutter and noise of doubt and worry and impatience. It is not long before I feel that slow build of energy that says a wave is coming, and then I see an image, a memory, and now words themselves, and I am on my way.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Mastery

Most writers begin understanding certain parts of writing better than other parts. For instance, when I was a teenager I had an instinctive understand of dialogue. I understood it well enough that when I was sixteen I explained to my younger brother that characters rarely say exactly what they mean, that it is always better when they talk about one thing – like the weather – but really mean another – like how uncertain life is. That’s advice I’d still give thirty yeas later.

What did not come so naturally to me was what we call “description.” When I encountered it in the books I read, I often found it boring, something I might skip to get to the cool parts. I knew you needed a certain amount of it so your characters weren’t wandering in a bald moonscape, but the only value I could find in writing a good description as opposed to a boring description is that the former proved what a good writer I was. It felt like a necessary showing off, as if writers were all figure skaters required to hit a certain number of triple axles.

Then shortly before I started college I picked up a collection of T. S. Eliot’s poems, and after reading them one afternoon actually said aloud, “Oh. I get it.” What I got was that “description” was actually an attempt to recreate the emotional experience of being alive and in the world. Now that was cool. What does it feel like to stand in a crowded bus station? What does it feel like to see someone you find beautiful? What does it feel like to watch a clock when you’re waiting for school to end? The words I chose to render the world were, hopefully, portals into my most intimate understanding of life.

Now I got it, meaning I understood that describing something was an act of love rather than of fear. Now I could write toward the sharing of life as I felt it rather than away from the fear that I wasn’t clever enough to stick some literary landing. I spent the ensuing years learning to master this by the exact same means I have used to master anything: by learning again and again that fear is only the belief that there is ever an answer other than 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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

No Modifiers

Writing is built on nouns and verbs. Adjectives and adverbs color, pass judgment on, and celebrate those nouns and verbs. Left on their own, adjectives and adverbs would be a collection of opinions about nothing. You could write an entire book without a single adjective and adverb, and probably someone already has.

Maybe this is why love is my favorite word. It is both a noun and a verb. Love is both an experience and expression. You can be aware of love as a feeling within you, and you can actively love someone or something. In this way, it is both things at once. It is both some thing and something you do. It is really a sentence all by itself.

Which is exactly like every living thing. Every living thing is a complete sentence. Every living thing is both a noun and a verb, for everything is doing something, even if that something is growing or dying, even if that something is nothing, for not acting is still a choice, which means it is an action. Nouns and verbs, I think, belong to God, while adjectives and adverbs belong to people. We invented every one of them and can become enormously attached to them.

It is hard to see the world without adjectives or adverbs. I’m not really used to it. Things are good or bad, ugly or beautiful, or done perfectly or imperfectly. Everything seems to require my modification, my stamp upon it. The stamp is in my mind alone. What I call beautiful another calls ugly. The stamp does not exist, only the thing it would pretend to label, which I can see truly only when I call it 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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Life Story

If you wanted to learn how to lead a successful middle class American life, it would be tempting to observe from a scientific distance the form most of these lives take. With a little research, you would find that the majority of people go to school, where they do as well as they can so that they can get into the best college that they can where they study something more or less of interest to them. After college people usually get married and get a job doing this thing that interests them, and probably have children who in turn have children of their own and so the older middle class Americans now have grandchildren whom they dote upon between vacations until they– the grandparents, that is – die. The end.

Likewise, if you were to observe a typical story from a scientific distance you would also discover that most follow a familiar pattern: a hero wants something; the hero cannot have this something because of a weakness/fear/villain; the hero goes on a journey, either emotionally or physically, to learn what he or she must learn to get this thing. There will be a moment when the hero somehow faces death. Then the hero either gets the thing or doesn’t. The end.

If your life has followed the standard pattern – maybe exactly, maybe only vaguely – then you know that these connected events are not your life. No matter how closely your life resembles your neighbors’, you know that your life and your neighbors’ lives are wholly separate. You know, either consciously or unconsciously, that you must rise every day and ask the question, “Why am I leading this life?” And you know, either consciously or unconsciously, that the answer is entirely your own, and that the answer is your life.

I feel precisely the same about stories. I do not care that stories resemble one another in form. This pattern of a hero’s journey is not the story. The writer must ask himself, “Why am I telling this story?” The answer is the story – not the plot, not even the characters. Every day you sit down to write you must remember why you are writing your story, why it matters to you to tell it, and why it would matter to someone else to read it. The answer comes mysteriously every day, and we need not know why or from where, only that the story we are telling would have no life without 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.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

New Life

For several years in a row we grew sunflowers in our backyard. The sunflower is an impressive plant in full bloom, and from time to time I would wonder how I would render into words what I felt when I beheld them. We eventually bought a print of “Sunflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh and hung it in our living room. It seemed to me that Van Gogh had rendered with paint what I would have liked to render with words.

As I understand it, there are painters who replicate the works of The Masters, sometimes to be sold as expensive forgeries. Their technique is so refined that it generally takes an expert in the imitated artist’s work to tell whether a painting is a forgery or the real thing.

Whenever I hear artists, whether painters or writers or composers, discussing craft or technique I think of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and these highly skilled replicators. If a work of art were only a work of craft, of technique, why would anyone with such skill bother imitating what someone has already painted? Since you have the same skill as the masters, why bother with forgery?

The answer, of course, is that Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” was not a product of technique. Van Gogh perceived the beauty of the sunflowers within himself and translated this perception to the canvas. The technique aided greatly in this translation, but first and foremost came the perception. Moreover, after the perception and before the translation came the willingness to share what was neither Van Gogh’s nor the flowers’ but a marriage of the two.

This is not such a simple choice. The forger already knows how the world will receive what he is replicating. Van Gogh did not have this luxury before he dipped his brush. Such is the price you pay when creating something new. Technique without original perception is as dead as a hammer. Technique in service to perception can bring anything to life.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Learning From What We Already Know

One of the biggest differences between the established writers I know and many of the writers I teach or work with as clients is that the established writers don’t worry that much about what they don’t yet know. The beginning writers, meanwhile, worry constantly about what they don’t know, believing it is symptomatic of some shortcoming. A better writer, a smarter writer, a more talented writer, would not be so hamstrung by this swarm of unanswered questions that are keeping the new writers up at night.

In these writers’ defense, there’s an awful lot you start out not knowing, whether you’re writing a book, or selling a book, or marketing a book you’ve sold. Books themselves begin as the smallest of ideas: A lonely guy spots a young woman at a coffee shop; a serial killer visits a shopping mall; a girl pirate. From these small but fertile seeds grow the tree that is a complete story, full of characters, settings, plots and subplots, none of which the author knew when the idea first arrived. All the author knew was that she wanted to tell this story.

And yet that seed of an idea was enough. Now the author has a book. But how will she sell it? She doesn’t know which agent wants it, or which publisher, or which readers. Where to go next? I have learned that the answer to every such question always resides in exactly the same place. Without exception, what I already know teaches me what I need to know.

If I know I want to write about a girl pirate, then that knowledge – which I also call interest or excitement – will teach me, show me, guide me to what I need to know. It will teach me how to write and to how to sell it and how to market it. My job is always to focus on why I know the story is worth telling and worth sharing and from there discover the next step.

But if I move my attention to what I don’t yet know, if I dwell on the ending I haven’t found, or the agent I don’t have, I will feel as lost a student arriving to class without having read the previous day’s assignment. It is the very embodiment of insecurity, believing I am required to know what I don’t. It’s like trying to build a house without hammer or nails.

This insecurity is a failing only of trust, not intelligence or ability. It is hard to believe sometimes that from something so small as an interesting idea can grow something so big a book or a career. Yet it can. What’s more, on a good day I remember how lucky I am not to know something I would like to know. All these questions I haven’t answered become delicious excuses to return to what I know I interests me, to what I know I want spend more time thinking about writing and talking about. What I don’t know sends me back to the source, and the tree keeps growing and growing.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter