Not Normal

I was watching a Ken Burns documentary last night about a special school in Vermont designed for children who, for a number of reasons, could not flourish is a typical public school. At one point, the school’s therapist talked about the parents’ desire for their children to be “normal.” He would remind the parents that it wasn’t their child’s job to be normal; it was their child’s job to be themselves.

Of course, what the parents really meant was that they wanted to know that their child would succeed in some recognizable way, whether socially or professionally or romantically. It is easy to imagine how something will thrive if we feel we have seen that thing before. As writers, our success often depends upon our willingness to create something that hasn’t been seen before. While some of our stories will look and sound and walk like other stories, a piece of work’s true value always lies in the qualities that seem to belong to it alone.

And what is true of our work is always true of ourselves. You would be hard pressed to find a more normal-looking fellow than myself. If you passed me on the street you might mistake me for a TV news anchor. Yet I can feel out of place in my own living room. When I am out of sorts with myself, the world appears hostile and un-accepting, a symphony where nothing I can sing or say belongs.

It is not my job, nor anyone’s job, to belong anywhere. It is only my job to speak for myself. Oddly, every time I permit myself to do so, every time I ask what is the most honest thing I can say and then say it, every time I speak from the most personal truth I know, I find myself belonging where I had previously felt unwanted. There is nothing in the world more normal, more universal, than acceptance of oneself. What else is there for anyone? There is only the choice between a lifetime failing to be someone you are not, or succeeding in being someone you are.

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 Stream of Life

I met a woman recently who told me there was only one obstacle between her and a fulfilling writing life: she wasn’t creative. “I’ve never written a poem or short story or a novel. I’ve never written a play. I’ve never painted a picture or composed a sonata. I’m not creative.”

I have always thought of myself as creative. I have also written poems, and plays, and screenplays, and novels, and personal essays. I’ve written sonatas and songs and mini-symphonies. I’ve made little movies and I’ve acted. I even fancied myself a cartoonist when I was a boy. That is to say, I have all the evidence of my creativity this woman believed she lacked.

But when I think of my creativity I do not think of any of the things I’ve created. I think of that place within me where I must go to answer the question, “How shall I fill this blank page?” The answer to that question changes every day, and so no sooner has one answer been given than I feel the itch of a new question forming an intriguing disturbance within me. That is my creativity. Meanwhile, all the things I’ve made are merely an expression of how often I have focused my attention on that creativity.

To think that you could be born without this same restless curiosity is to think that you could be born without a beating heart. But unlike my heart, my creativity requires my attention to function properly. Without my attention it forces itself through me in awkward ways, or keeps me up at nights, or finds me critical of other people’s creations. The moment I allow myself to consult it, to ask, “What shall we do next?” my creativity and I are moving in the same direction, flowing like blood with questions and answers within the stream of life.

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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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The Fallen

It was 1983 and a friend and I had just left a party where David Bowie’s Modern Love, which had been one of many hit songs off of his mega-best-selling album Let’s Dance, had been playing. I commented how much I liked the song, and my friend grumbled something about Bowie. This was a friend given to strong opinions, especially about music, but I had always thought he was something of a Bowie fan. I asked him what the problem was.

“That song’s all right, but the album sucks,” he explained.

“So?”

“So he could have been great!”

I can still see the hurt in his eyes as he said the word “great.” I understood my friend’s point of view, that this album signaled a change in Bowie’s music, a change not to our liking, but so what? My friend scowled on. Bowie’s crime, for the time being anyway, was unpardonable.

For the record – no pun intended – Let’s Dance was by far Bowie’s bestselling album, but also, according an interview I saw with the man himself, his least favorite album. He had written it to make lots of money, he had, and he hated it. So perhaps my friend had sniffed all the “selling out” going on, but still I say, “So what?”

It is never anyone’s business what mistakes anyone else does or doesn’t make, especially if that someone else is an artist. And anyway, I don’t think my friend cared one lick about Bowie’s greatness. What my friend cared about was the realization that artistic integrity—or any integrity for that matter—is not so simple to maintain. As it turns out, money, fame, ego, boredom—all these things can pull anyone from the horse.

The problem with looking to an artist as an example is you generally only get to see the result of the artist’s integrity, not the process of maintaining it. In the end, all our heroes are going to fall, not because it is a fallen world, but because it is difficult to learn any other way. We usually meet artists as they are experiencing the first great flight of their life, freed from whatever weight they sloughed off in their early stumbles. But one can only hold the trajectory of this flight for so long, and what was once a freedom feels like a jail as the artist seeks to expand again.

Whether this expansion happens gracefully or not isn’t the point. Those public figures we admire are merely shadows of what we think we would like to become. Their stumbles are no more ours than their successes, and as soon as you think, “Bowie couldn’t stay great, how will I?” you have built yourself a prison wall. And the great irony of this fear that what befell others must befall us is that within the work of all artists we admire, within all the words and music and stories, exists one message, echoed over and over again, always heard, but so hard to follow: Be yourself.

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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 Talent Myth

I love a good story. I love them so much I am always on the lookout for more. A good story reminds me why life is worth living. If I look at life the wrong way, it can seem like just a bunch of crap I have to endure until I die. A good story always involves some of what in my darker moments I call crap and shows how there is something valuable waiting on the other side of it. Now the crap isn’t crap at all, but a portal into life and myself.

As much as I love good stories, I dislike and am wary of bad stories. A bad story has the exact opposite effect on me as a good story. After hearing it, I am not quite sure why life is worth living if it is so unfair, or unkind, or meaningless. Most bad stories point to all the crap and say, “There is absolutely nothing waiting on the other side of this but more crap. Deal with it.” When I hear stories like this, I must remind myself that it is just a story, and like a book, I can put it down and find a better one.

There is a very popular story going around the writing world about something called talent. Perhaps you’ve heard the story. It goes like this: Some have it, and some don’t. If you have it, then you might know success. If you don’t – too bad. That’s life. Usually I hear a shortened version of this story, which goes like this: My God, she’s a talented writer! Or: The problem is, he just hasn’t got any talent.

To me, the story of talent is a horror story. Since I’m a writer, and since I very much want to know success, want to share my work with as many people as possible, then I absolutely must be one those people with talent. But how do I know if I’ve got it? Usually, you discover you’re talented when someone else tells you so. If this is true, I must trust others more than myself, for they are the ones who will tell me if the path I’ve chosen is worth walking. Why follow some path if it will only lead to failure and despair?

I fully understand why this story is told so often. There are writers whose work excites me and inspires me and surprises me, and there are writers whose work does none of these for me. Anyone who has ever read has experienced this difference. In fact, that this difference in experience exists is universally agreed upon. What is not universally agreed upon is which books are exciting, inspiring, and surprising, and which are not.

I would never look to another person to tell me which books I am to be excited or inspired or surprised by. Another person couldn’t possibly know as well as I do what I am most interested in. Likewise, I cannot look to anyone else to tell me which path I must follow. Only my curiosity can guide me there.

All the authors I know who’ve been called talented – and I know many – have one thing in common: they are authentically interested in the path of writing. Not just the results of writing, but the path itself. The effortlessness they appear to exhibit is merely an expression of moving with the current of their curiosity rather than striving against it. If you are curious, you have talent. It is truly that simple. You can choose to follow that curiosity as you would choose your favorite stories, a path so interesting you hope it never ends.

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

True Equality

I was talking the other evening to a young woman about the concept of talent. She had heard me say that I didn’t really believe in it, that talent was just another word for love. This woman had just begun playing an organized sport for the first time in her life. It seemed quite clear to her that some people were conspicuously more talented than others. She loved to play this sport, and yet no matter how hard she worked she could not play it as well as certain women on her team.

Such is the trap we can fall into when we pit ourselves against one another on the field – a field we ourselves invented, a field that would have been nothing but a featureless expanse until we drew lines on it and said you must get here before everyone else. There is no doubt that if you tell a crowd of people to run, someone will run the fastest, and so we will call that person more talented than the others, and maybe – just maybe – infer that such talent raises that person’s value above the others.

But now imagine these people running were simply characters in a story you were writing. In the world of fiction, a loss is as valuable as a win, narratively speaking. Does the character need to learn humility? Perhaps a loss is just the thing, or maybe a close second. The outcome means nothing; the story means everything.

Why do we think life is any different? Do we really think true equality means lining up everyone, young and old, at some arbitrary starting line and then having everyone reach some arbitrary finish line at precisely the same time? Life cares nothing for your wins and losses; it cares only for you. Every storyteller eventually savors the story of his defeat when the time comes, relishes in the meaninglessness of what he once called loss, for here he is still standing, having found more in defeat than he might have gained in victory.

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

Brilliant Light

As a young man I stumbled across an article in which the author confessed that, “At twenty-seven I finally accepted I wasn’t genius.” I was all for a little self-deprecating humor, but couldn’t help feeling that he had given up prematurely on his genius. I certainly wasn’t prepared to give up on mine, though I wasn’t going to admit this to anyone. Wanting to be a genius seemed like an ambition you really ought to keep to yourself if you ever wanted to have any friends.

The truth was that on any given day I could feel the light of my intelligence shining brilliantly or not at all. When it shined brilliantly, I just wanted to share it with everyone. When it was dim, I felt as if there wasn’t much need for me on planet earth. It was an up and down life. It worried me. Geniuses, I believed, were brilliant all the time. I was hoping the day would come when my light would turn on permanently.

I eventually found myself well beyond twenty-seven with my light still flickering from bright to dim. Then one day I got curious about something. It had to with creativity and freewill, though it doesn’t actually matter what it was, it just mattered that I became very, very curious about it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and talking to people about it and then even writing about it. It was all I wanted to think about, and the more I thought about it, the more I saw it in everything I did and read and heard.

And the more I thought about it, the less I cared about being a genius. In fact, the more I thought about it, the less I believed in geniuses, by which I mean special people born with a rare and distinguishing gift. My light never shines brighter than when I am indulging my curiosity, and I do not believe there is anything rare about curiosity. I do believe that many people choose not to indulge theirs, that many people think, “Who would be interested in this?” If the answer is, Me, then you’ve found your genius, and all you have to do is keep following that light.

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 Wheel of Life

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

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

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

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

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter