Natural Boundaries

There are certain rules of craft that seem to apply to all writers. For instance, nouns and verbs will always carry more power and immediacy than adjective and adverbs. This is true in literary fiction, urban fantasy, and memoir. Every writer, no matter what they write, will have to learn these universal truths. And you will learn them the only way anyone can learn anything: through experience. I can tell you and tell you to use more nouns and verbs than adjectives and adverbs, but nothing will teach you that like the experience of writing a clear, honest sentence without one single descriptor.

But every writer must also find her own craft. What works in your stories or poems may not work in mine. These little essays I write have a craft all their own. Having written a bunch of them, I’ve learned what works in them and, probably more importantly, what doesn’t work. Knowing from experience what doesn’t work saves me a lot of time. The page always begins blank, after all; I could, theoretically, write anything. Knowing what doesn’t work narrows my focus considerably, and as I find my way through an essay I can more easily spot that path of thought that is heading nowhere.

I do not mean to suggest that success is all about what we don’t do. Success is always about what we say yes to. This is true for the whole of life. I can only live, I can only experience, what I say yes to. I’ve said yes to a bunch of things that wasted my time, that drained me of my enthusiasm and optimism. I have said yes to so many of these things that I published a whole book recently about not caring what other people think of your work. That’s something I spent a lot of time saying yes to until experience finally taught me not to bother.

Except even that book really isn’t about not doing something; it is about what’s available to us when we choose not to worry about whether other people will like our work. Just as a writer uses her craft to leave room for the reader’s imagination, so too learning not to care about what other people will think of your work leaves room for your own genius. Your genius requires complete freedom; it cannot be confined by the artificial boundaries of shame, the fear that what you have to offer might not be worth offering. The only boundaries you should honor are those imposed by your own aesthetic, the path to which life has taught you again and again to say yes.

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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Universal Stories

When I wrote Fearless Writing, I often had in mind two pivotal experiences in my life: trying to make myself write fiction, and allowing myself to write personal essays. The personal essays were easy to write; the fiction was often hard to write. In the personal essay I found the most natural vessel for both my voice and the sorts of things I wanted to write about; in fiction, I often felt as if I was putting on a voice and forcing ideas into stories.

So that’s my story: The guy who tried and tried to write fiction until he finally let himself write creative non-fiction. But that’s not what I’m really writing about when I tell this story. I would never bother telling a story about how to stop writing fiction and start writing personal essays. Rather, I would tell a story about how to stop doing something you don’t really want to do and start doing what you love to do.

This is the job of every storyteller, whether the stories we tell are fiction or non-fiction: we are looking for the universal in the particular. It’s a good business decision, of course. There’s not much of a market for people looking to move from fiction to non-fiction, but there’s a very big market for people who want do what they love to do instead of what they don’t love to do. But that’s not why we tell our stories the way we do. It’s never been for the money. It’s because we love each other.

I forget this sometimes when I’m scrounging around the world fretting about platforms and proposals. These are the sorts of things with which I’m preoccupied now that I’m a non-fiction writer. Is my platform big enough? Is my proposal jazzy enough? These questions fatigue me because I feel like I should care about the answers but I really don’t. The more I try to answer them, the smaller and grubbier I feel.

So I quit trying. I sometimes wonder if this quitting means I’m lazy, until in my idleness an interesting an idea comes floating along. Because I only spotted it, and didn’t make it, I know that idea doesn’t actually belong to me. But my interest in it does. Now I’m fully awake, and not idle at all, and the idea grows and grows as I give all my particular attention to it.

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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Mastery

Most writers begin understanding certain parts of writing better than other parts. For instance, when I was a teenager I had an instinctive understanding 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.

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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Useful Villains

Every story, like every life, requires contrast. If you want to write about love, you must write about loneliness. If you want to write about triumph, you must write about defeat. Everything is always seen more clearly against its opposite. A flashlight’s beam does not register in the middle of a sunny day, but it is a swath of clarity at midnight.

This is useful in a very practical, crafty kind of way. If you know the gift your story is trying to give in its end, then you also know the suffering through which you must first take the reader so that this gift will mean something. You must remind the reader of suffering so she can appreciate and celebrate the relief that comes when the suffering ends. In this way, the darkness of our stories is as much a gift as the light, and most writers learn to relish their stories’ darkness, as an actor often relishes playing a villain.

We do not always apply this reality to our own lives. Darkness is darkness, and in it we cannot see and are lost. Villains are villains, and their villainy is expressed in their desire to harm or obstruct us, not help us. But who better to teach you what you know than someone who disagrees with you and who requires your greatest clarity to bridge the gap of misunderstanding? And where better to perceive your own light than in your own darkness? It was there, after all, you first recognized that which you had always been shining.

And who better than a villain to teach us that we are safe? To perceive a threat where none exists and then to find the truth is to awaken to your inherent safety. It is not always so simple. After all, it is our belief in our frailty that summons a villain to us, and their arrival feels like proof of the nightmare we are dreaming. But with this villain, there is no victory or defeat; there is only the contrast between a dream and reality.

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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The Connecting Thread

My son Sawyer spent the better part of the first eleven years of his life talking almost exclusively to himself. He could talk to others; he just usually chose not to, a choice that led to a diagnosis of autism. It was always somewhat of a mystery to us why he mostly talked to himself – though, as a writer, I had my suspicions. These were confirmed recently when Sawyer, now eighteen, confessed, “When I was a kid I loved you and Mom, but I just didn’t want to deal with you.”

He was like every author I know in this way, which I’ll get back to in a moment. Sawyer is now very concerned about his future. Because he’s been homeschooled for the last six years, he’s not sure he’s adequately prepared for a successful adult life. Plus, there’s still the autism thing. The other day he asked, “Is there something wrong with my brain? Sometimes I just can’t seem to put my words together.”

“There’s nothing wrong with your brain,” I said. “Your only problem is you hardly talked to other people for your first ten or eleven years. You really don’t learn how to communicate until you have to figure out how to help someone else understand what you understand. It’s never as simple as you think. You just need more practice, that’s all.”

Sawyer continues to teach me why authors become authors. I’ve kept a journal on and off for most of my adult life, and in it I talk to myself. While I often learn something in doing so, it is never as satisfying as when I write for publication. The problem is those other people who will read what I’ve published. I love them, but I don’t want to deal with their myriad likes and dislikes. Everyone is so goddamned unique. How easy it is to be misunderstood, and how frustrating when it happens. Sometimes Emily Dickenson’s choice to publish nothing at all seems like the best.

I think every author’s a little autistic in this way. To a bunch of eager introverts, comfortable being alone, the great ocean of other people can seem a tad unfriendly. Yet to this day the greatest comfort I have known has come from learning how to share what I love with those other people, whether they are my family or complete strangers. It takes a lot of practice, but to find the connecting thread of language is more than a gymnast’s triumph of mere skill – it is a reminder that to retreat from others is to retreat from myself.

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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Know Your Job

Up until the end of his fourth grade in school, getting my eldest son Max to do his homework was an exhausting exercise in parenting gymnastics. My wife invented games and songs and stories to make his work seem as friendly as possible. We created rules and rewards. We took his Gameboy away and we gave his Gameboy back. None of it worked. Every night was a competition between what he needed to do for school and what he wanted to do for himself.

One night I helped him write a report on John Adams. There was the blank page. His page was exactly as blank as mine when I sat at my desk every morning. Only he could fill it. I offered him prompts. I asked him questions about John Adams. I even suggested outlining his one page paper. By the end, I did everything but stick the pen between his fingers and move pen and fist across the page.

Then, one evening, Max took his homework into his room and did it without our assistance. When my wife asked if he needed help, he shooed her away. That was that. He eventually told us that he came to understand that school was a game he needed to play if he wanted to do certain things later in life. Now he and school were aligned, and we were no longer necessary.

Sometimes when I am trying very hard to write a book, I feel as if I am back in Max’s bedroom working on that John Adams paper. No matter how creative I was, no matter how supportive I was, I couldn’t do Max’s job. Likewise with the stories I would like to tell. My job is to be curious and open and keep asking questions; my imagination’s job is to do every thing else. I’ve tried to do both jobs and I am left feeling like a failure. No wonder. I’ve given myself an impossible task.

But when I remember my job and how simple it is, I feel like a success again. I know how to be curious, I know how to be open, and I know how to ask questions. That’s easy. In fact, it’s so easy I have to remind myself every day what my job is and what my job isn’t. And when our work is done, and if I have been disciplined about doing only my job, I leave my desk aligned with an ambition that knows only success.

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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The Truth

I love to teach as much as I love to write, and I teach and write for precisely the same reason. The reason I teach is not to share secrets of craft, though I am a bit of craft geek and I enjoy talking to people about narrative arcs, and showing and not telling. Nor do I teach to offer insider information on the publishing world, though I am happy to do so, if only to eradicate the idea of insiders and outsiders.

In fact, I am not really interested in teaching writing, though it serves as a handy excuse to do what I love to do, which is tell the truth. That’s why I teach and that’s why I write. To tell the truth, my words must match my feelings. If I say I am happy but I feel worried, I am not telling the truth. If I say writing is at its core effortless, but I believe and feel that it is like working in a salt mine, I am not telling the truth. To tell the truth, whether in the class or on the page, I must first feel what I wish to say.

Fortunately, most of what I teach and most of what I write boils down to this: Everything is okay. That’s it. You can all go home now. Everything is okay. Everything is okay and always has been okay. You would think that three words would not be enough to inspire the 1,000-plus blogs I’ve written nor fill a four-hour master class, but they most certainly can and have. Everything, you see, does not appear to be okay. Quite the opposite, really. And so I need constant reminding.

And what better way to remember than to tell someone else that everything is okay. To tell someone else the truth I must first find that place within me where I know that everything is okay. I lose track of it constantly. And then I find it again. And then I lose it. And then I find it again. Every time I find it, whether on the page or in the class or even watering my lawn, the world tells me the truth right back. Every time I find it, what I feel, and then what I say, and finally what I see are the same. To find that balance is the only reason I do anything.

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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Uncomplicated

I sold a piece recently to a parenting magazine about the difference between parenting my older son and my younger son. The point of the story was that even though one was diagnosed with autism and one was not, and one had to be homeschooled and the other was on his high school debate team, in truth I parented them in precisely the same way: by answering the question, “What is the best thing I can do at this very moment?”

It’s a somewhat unusual essay in that it is divided into two distinct parts. The first half set up how different my two sons are and how differently it appears I parented them. The second half looks at what it means to parent in the here and now, to not worry about the future and trust your kids and yourself. When I got my edits back, I found that the editor had done considerable line editing on the first half but very little on the second half. In fact, her edits on the first half were so substantial that in places it was as if she had just rewritten the story.

I was a little grumpy about this until I began rereading the second half and realized why it had needed fewer edits: it was the only part of the essay I was actually interested in writing. I had written the first half more or less mechanically, just getting it down so I could get to the good stuff. Once I got to that good stuff I slowed down, for now there was something to enjoy and be surprised by and discover.

It was a good reminder that no amount of craft can ever replace the quality of attention I bring to my work when I deeply interested in it. I cannot manufacture in the laboratory of my intellect what my imagination and sincere curiosity produce organically. One is a product of necessity, the other of love. How uncomplicated this job actually is. I need only get very, very interested and the rest will take care of itself. Yet every day I must remember this simple rule. Every day I must remember to notice the difference between doing and loving.

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

Hardly Working

The difference between writing a story I love, and writing a story I think might sell, is like the difference between being in an intimate relationship with someone I love, and being in an intimate relationship with someone I merely like and enjoy. That difference is effortlessness. To write a story I love or to be in a relationship with someone I love, I do not first have to overcome my own disinterest nor divert the river of my passion so it flows more conveniently where I need it to flow.

To write a story I love to write, or work a job I love to work, or be with a person I love, is to find the current of my passion and follow it where it is already running. But do so, I must first believe in effortlessness. Following the river of my own passion feels like so much less work than the engineering required to bend that river to my own will that it is sometimes difficult to recognize the following of my passion as a creative and productive endeavor. Mostly it just feels like Bill being Bill.

That hardly seems productive. Bill is Bill watching sports, and eating cereal, and taking a nap. On very good days what I call “working” feels deceptively similar to those idle activities. The difference is that when I am idle, I have said to myself, “No more effort! Let’s watch some soccer.” While I am writing, however, I must choose effortlessness again and again and again.

Because within my creative field swirl a myriad of choices, each as viable as the next, just as every person I pass on the street is as lovable as the next. Some of those viable ideas are quite attractive, exotically ripe with the potential for worldly success. Why, I wonder, can’t I be the sort of fellow who pursues such exotic ideas? Why must I just be Bill? The effort is my answer. The struggle to not be me is a struggle against life itself, a struggle I endure and endure and endure until at last I surrender to the current where work and rest are one and the same.

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

Forgetting Stories

Starting stories is usually a lot of fun, but finishing one can be a little disorienting. And I don’t mean the process of finding the story’s best ending. The story and I are still in active conversation while I’m finding its ending. While we may be looking for the perfect moment to say goodbye, we are still talking to one another, and there is more I have to learn about the story, and there is still more the story has to teach me.

But then the day, the hour, the moment comes when there is no more for us to say to one another. That story, hopefully, is going to go have other conversations with other people called readers, but those conversations are by and large none of my business. They will happen in other homes and other cities and in the sanctity of other minds, and to wonder about those conversations is to burden my imagination with an unsolvable mystery.

In this way, I must forget about the story. This is not easy, maybe, since I loved the story. That’s why I wrote it. I loved meeting it at my desk and seeing where we went that day. Forgetting can feel like rejection. Writers don’t like rejection. It lives as a shadowy enemy for much of our life. I want that story to find acceptance somewhere. I want everything I love to be accepted.

This forgetting is not rejection, but rather making room for another story. I can only have one conversation at a time if I want to give that conversation my full attention. I never feel better than when I am giving life my full attention. To do so, I must temporarily forget everything else: other stories, other obligations, even my loved ones. I’ll remember everything by and by, but in the meantime, like a reader picking up a new book, I must clear my mind of memories and what might or might not happen in the shadowed future. For now, I must accept that this next story is as important as the last story, is as important as any story, and so a new conversation begins.

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