Adventures in Marketing

I was twenty-two and had written a batch of poems in a brief creative dash. It had been years since I had finished so much as a short story, and the satisfaction of having something completed, even if it was only eight lines, was addictive. Plus most of my poems were like little monologues, and I loved the theater, so it was a happy discovery that I could marry these art forms.

My mother’s friend Tina also loved poetry, so much so that she had started her own literary journal. Word trickled down to me that Tina would be hosting a poetry reading at the University of Rhode Island, and if I wanted to I could participate. I was quite nervous waiting my turn there in the classroom with all the other poets, but when the moment arrived, and I laid my poems on the lectern and started reading, it was just more theater, and it was great fun sharing these little pieces that had so pleased me with other people and seeing that these people seemed to be pleased as well.

A week after the poetry reading I got a call from Tina. What a success the reading had been! You were a hit, she said. The actor in me enjoyed that. I would do another poetry reading shortly thereafter and I enjoyed it every bit as much as the first. Then I got another call from Tina. She wanted to publish some of my poems in the upcoming edition of her journal. Would that be okay? I said it most certainly would be okay. And that was how my work was published for the first time.

Here is what I knew back then: I knew that I loved to read certain poets, and that I loved to write poetry. I loved both the freedom poetry afforded me, as well as the economy it required, and I loved the energy of performing. What I did not know was that those poetry readings were my first adventures in marketing. My poems were published because I had found a means to expose my work to other people such that opportunities that had not previously been available were now available.

Except it didn’t feel like marketing because I wasn’t trying to sell anything, or get published, or get exposure. I wasn’t trying to get anything. I just wanted to share something that felt good to share. That is all “marketing” needs to be. In fact, to call it anything else is a lie. To call it anything else is to say that I do not love what I love, and that I do not believe the world will be better off with more of what I love in it – which, though I have spent many years doubting this is so, remains the only truth to which I can reliably return.

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

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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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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

Authority

I don’t like to deal with words in this way often, but I will today, and the word of choice is author. You may not ever think about it, but author is, obviously, the root word for authority. That is one powerful word, authority, no matter how you define it. Either you are the one making and enforcing the rules, or you are a respected expert whose opinion on any matter is tantamount to law. If you are an authority, ideas may begin and end with you.

I don’t think most writers, especially fiction writers, feel as though they have much authority. Writers work alone. Writers must submit their work for approval and acceptance. Writers frequently have no idea how the stories they are starting will end, merely following, child-like, Doctorow’s headlights on the road.

And yet a writer wishes to become an author. When you publish a book, or a poem, or a blog, you are not just its writer, you are also its author. And I know for myself that I moved from being a writer to an author when I granted myself authority within the realm of my work.

It wasn’t easy. I was waiting, unbeknownst to myself, to be given this authority from the publishing world. I was waiting for some agent or editor to crown me king of my writing world. But no matter how many agents represented me, no matter how may editors said, “Yes,” the authority seemed to elude me. Maybe if I was praised a little more, paid a little more, read a little more . . .

And then one day, before I had ever thought of starting Author, I wrote a blog. It was the first blog I had ever written. In it I wrote what I had longed for all my writing life to hear from some God-like publishing or writing authority. Not about me, but just about writing. I’m sure someone somewhere had written this, but I had never read it until I wrote it myself. It was like writing my own acceptance letter.

And when I was done I sat back and looked at what I had written, what I had self-published, and I thought, “It can’t be as easy as that.”

But it was.

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

Endless Story

I’ve probably never met you. If you’re a writer, I don’t know what genre you write in or who inspired you to become a writer, nor do I know who, if anyone, told you not to bother, that it was too big a dream and the odds of success were too low. I don’t know where you’ve submitted your work, and I don’t know what fearful stories you’ve told yourself in the idle hours you passed waiting to hear back. I don’t know how many stories you had to write until you began to feel like you understood what a story was, nor do I know how many writing books you’ve read or writing classes you’ve taken.

I may never get to meet you, and I may never learn the answers to these questions, but I do know this: You can’t get it wrong. You can’t screw this up. I know you sometimes think you can. I know any work of art appears to come together or fall apart, that as you write, you hope to stitch the seams of a mysterious fabric into a recognizable whole. I know the frustration of sewing and sewing and feeling as if your thread unravels with every stitch.

But I also know that your work only appears to be made of separate pieces. It does not matter how many poems, essays, stories, or novels you’ve written, it does not matter how many projects you think you’ve started and believed you’ve finished – in the end, it is all one. You have been telling only one story your entire life, and the pieces you completed or abandoned, and the pieces you published or did not, were all a part of this single, endless story to which you return day after day after day.

You know that already, though you frequently forget it in your efforts to polish something, to mint it lovely and done. You know it because at the end of every day, no matter many pages you write, whether your work is accepted or rejected, you can feel within yourself something discovered. You discovered something in loss and in victory, in effort and in effortlessness. To deny the discovery is to deny your own life, though you deny it anyway because you would prefer to choose the exact route of your discovery.

All routes are headed in the same direction, though some are more direct than others. Travel on. I’m traveling too, and perhaps some day we’ll meet. If we do, we’ll tell each other stories of our travels, of the things we’ve made or hope to make, of our successes and failures. There is nothing I love more than a good story. If I love yours, I’ll make it mine – another piece of this mysterious whole, discovered.

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 Difference

If you’re going to write anything at all, whether it’s an epic poem or an historical romance or a cyberpunk vampire space opera, you have to be able to tell the difference between one thing and another. You must be able to tell the difference between a story that interests you and a story that does not; you must be able to tell the difference between forcing a word or a scene or a character, and allowing a word, scene, or character. This is how you really learn to write. Nothing in all the classes you take or books you read can ever replace this felt, uniquely personal understanding.

And to write anything at all, you must be able to tell the difference between love and fear, between loneliness and companionship, between confidence and insecurity. To show something we must contrast it against its opposite in the same way we most enjoy breathing immediately after holding our breath. We create danger so our reader can fully appreciate safety, despair so they can appreciate contentment.

Remember, however, that all the differences we experience and learn to perceive are ultimately a part of a flawlessly integrated whole. To walk a tightrope, you must learn the fine difference between balance and imbalance. And yet these two opposites are in service to the same goal. The discomfort we have named imbalance is there to help, not to punish. So it is with all discomfort, and with everything we have discarded in favor of a different thing. Yes cannot exist without no, as form cannot exist without shadow.

As abstract as this concept may seem as you go about the very practical business of writing your next legal thriller or your first tender coming-of-age love story, it remains the source of your creative wellbeing. The idea that your creations are but a shadow, is anathema to creativity. We are not in the business of good and bad; we are in the business of what we want and don’t want. Everything is good in the end, even that meandering first draft you scrapped. You are a better writer because of it.

Which is why you have suffered so when you believed you were no good, that what you planted could not grow. You had believed completely in the good and the bad, had demanded it of the world, and yet if you looked closely at anything that you named bad you always saw some good. And so you labeled yourself bad to maintain this useless idea. The suffering you knew even then was merely guiding you back to the truth, back to what you are, back to what you want to create.

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

The Balancing Act

Writing can happen in one place and one place only: The Present Moment. It cannot happen in the past, though we might – while in the present moment – focus our attention upon some past event for inspiration or material. But the writing itself happens in the present moment. And of course it can’t happen in the future, that sometimes near, sometimes very distant land where the story we’re writing will live when it’s finished. All creation happens in the present moment, because that is all that actually exists.

I have to remind myself of this every time I sit down to write. How easy to let my attention drift into the past, where I believe all my failures reside. Failure always lives in the past, in whose shadows, like a moss, it can thrive. In the bright hot light of the present moment – in which life is only potential, in which life is only forgiving, in which life is only curious – the concept of failure has no purchase for its hopeless roots.

And how equally easy to let my attention drift into the future, where I believe the value of what I am creating in the present moment will be revealed. I don’t want to waste my time, after all. Why write something that no one wants to read? To ask such a question is to hold my stories hostage until such time as the ransom of other people’s approval has been paid.

Which is why I have learned to ask myself two questions while I write: What do I want to say? And, Have I said it? Only the present moment can answer these questions. But keeping my attention where it needs and actually wants to be is a kind of balancing act, pulled as I am to the past and future. Drift too far either way and I will fall. No matter. The support of the present moment remains ever true, and I need only return to standing to find myself where I have always been.

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

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.

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

The Only Answer for a Writer’s Worry

The fantasy author Terry Brooks worked as a lawyer for many years before becoming a fulltime writer. Typically, writers don’t begin their careers earning as much money as lawyers, and this was certainly the case with Brooks. In fact, some professional writers never earn as much as a third-year associate. Nevertheless, Brooks’ ambition was to write fulltime, and so he set a goal: if he could publish three books, he’d allow himself to quit the law.

By now he’s published a lot more than three books, and I assume he’s earned as much as your average lawyer, but of course he didn’t know any of that when he set his goal. All he knew was that he wanted to write fantasy novels for a living, whatever that living might be. It’s a subject that often comes up in my conversations with writers of all stripes – that leap from teacher or lawyer or journalist to writer. The first career almost always includes a regular paycheck; the latter, almost never.

I too had to make this leap. At the time I was a waiter. My wife and I had come in to some money, enough that we could conceivably live off of it for a couple years. What I was writing wasn’t selling at that time, and I had no real prospects to replace what I was earning as a waiter. But I did know this: waiting tables occupied a lot of space in my mind and in my life. I knew that if I quit I would find something to replace it. I just didn’t know what that something would be. I needed the blank page, so to speak, of joblessness to find out.

However, my wife’s and my marriage is such that leaving my job is not a decision I would make without her. I had attempted this conversation with her before, but in past attempts I had looked to her as a child would to a parent to grant me permission to leave. She never did. The problem was that my wife was as dependent on my income as I was, but just as no one else could see the stories I’ve imagined but haven’t written, she could not perceive the opportunities I knew my free time would present.

I could not describe those opportunities to her, any more than I could tell her about all the really cool scenes in a story until I’ve written them. But I knew the opportunities would come just as I know cool scenes will come. So I spoke to her that day from what I did know, and that was enough. I realized then that I did not always speak to people from this place of knowing something I couldn’t yet prove. I had become reliant on evidence, which is a byproduct the past; opportunities always exist in the future and the present.

Whenever I worry I am peering over the horizon for evidence of my future wellbeing. A lot of writers worry about the future because no one knows how well the next book will sell. Keep your eyes on the page. That’s where all your opportunities wait, where all your happiness and interest and pleasure waits. Keep your eyes on the page and the future will grow from what you write today.

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

Valuable Advice

Imagine you travel back in time to 1994 England. You stumble on a young woman scribbling away in a notebook in a pub. She looks familiar somehow, and so you say hello, introducing yourself as a writer. “I’m a writer, too,” she says.

“What are you working on? You look very engrossed.”

“Oh, I am. I just love this story. It came to me in a flash. It’s about this boy wizard who has to go to this wizarding school. Only it’s not set in a magical kingdom. It’s set in modern-day England.”

Not wanting to create a time paradox, you limit your response to: “Wow. Sounds great.”

“I know,” she says, but begins chewing on a fingernail. “The thing is, it’s a children’s book – which, of course, never make money, my agent said so – and I’m dead broke. On the dole, as a matter of fact. And it’s long. It’s as long as an adult novel, and children’s books should be shorter. So I’m wondering if I should switch it around. Make it shorter, and also maybe set it in a proper magical kingdom, and maybe even take out the school part, because that’s not how fantasy books are written. I love the story, but I really want some kind of success. I’m a broke, single mum who failed at journalism. I just don’t know what to do.”

What would you tell her? Would you tell her she is at this moment sitting on a treasure beyond her gaudiest dreams of avarice? Would you tell her that all she needs to do is render as accurately as possible what she sees within herself and the results will astound her? Or would you tell her to look outside herself, at the market and what other writers have written?

It’s an easy answer in hindsight. It’s easy to name something’s value once a price tag has been put on it. It is not so easy maybe when you are alone at your desk, and a story has come to you, and it is similar to other stories but also different enough to both truly interest you and leave you worried that no one else will recognize its value. Yet I would never curse a writer with a time traveling advisor. Why deprive her of the chance to learn who really decides what something is worth?

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