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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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.

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

Music Lessons

For years my wife, herself a writer, was my first and only beta reader. Every draft of every novel went under her nose, and she’d return with her likes and dislikes. It was not a peaceful arrangement. Often her dislikes outnumbered her likes. I came to hate this process. I didn’t really want her feedback; I just wanted her to love it so I could send it to agents or editors with some confidence. Eventually, I relieved her of her duty as beta reader, and there was peace in the kingdom.

About the same time I stopped showing my wife my books, I started writing music. I discovered that using Garage Band I could compose anything from a pop tune to a piano sonata to a symphony. I was thrilled. I’d wanted to compose music my entire life but I hadn’t the time nor discipline to learn to play the piano well enough to write what I heard in my mind. Now I could put little black dots into the program, press play, and hear what I’d written. Sometimes what I’d written sounded like what I heard in my mind, and sometimes it didn’t. And sometimes I liked what I’d written more than what I’d imagined and sometimes I did not. I was my own beta listener.

I was so excited when I finished a song or a little symphony. Even though I had chosen every little black dot, the song still felt a bit like something I’d discovered on the radio. I was the beta listener, after all. And since I always liked the songs, and since whenever you find a song you like you share it with someone you love, I’d play it for my wife.

At first, she was as delighted as I was. “You wrote that?” she’d ask. “Yes!” I’d say. “Isn’t that cool?” Once she’d gotten over the shock that her husband of fifteen years was now writing music, she began to listen with a more critical ear, commenting, “Oh, that beginning’s really dynamic.” Or, “The middle kind of bogs down, don’t you think?” And then one day, after listening to my latest piece: “That just doesn’t work for me. It has no center.”

And that was when a miracle occurred. I didn’t care. To my own amazement, I did not care one speck that she thought it had no center. What she or anyone thought of this or any piece could not change my relationship to it, could not change why I’d written it, or what I’d learned writing it, or what I thought of it. The two experiences were totally separate. And I thought to myself, “If I learned to write music for this lesson alone, it will have been worth 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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Self-Confidence

To write as well as I can possibly write, I must tap into my self-confidence. In fact, if I have lost all track of that self-confidence, if I have looked and looked for it where it isn’t, it is as if I have forgotten how to write. Without that self-confidence I cannot find the mysterious and unique path a story must follow. Without that self-confidence, the way forward seems as unknowable to me as a winning lottery number.

However, I have found it is rather easy to become lost in this way, for the self in whom I must have confidence is totally independent of my age and gender and height and weight. More importantly, it is independent of everything I have ever done – of every game I have won or lost, every award I was or was not given, every book I’ve published, every compliment I’ve been paid. The self in whom I must have confidence is independent of absolutely everything I can point to or name or hold.

This is a little tricky because sometimes I look for myself in all of those things. I look for myself there because it seems like the easiest way to distinguish myself from everyone else. I’ve done this and that and lived here and kissed this one and lost that one and drive this car and wear these clothes. On and on. There are so many differences, and yet the more I look for myself in those differences the further and further I stray from the only thing I have ever wanted or sought or needed.

Which is why I love writing and the blank page. What a helpful reminder. The blank page is uninterested in what I’ve done and where I’ve been. It is equally uninterested in what anyone else has done. The blank page asks, “What do you want right now?” It asks this question equally of everyone and accepts everyone’s answer equally. To answer the blank page’s question honestly, I must turn to myself, to my only connection to what actually belongs to all of us.

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

Acceptable Answers

I was meeting with a client the other day that had spent many years working in PR and has decided to take a sabbatical to work on her novel. Like a lot of professionals I’ve met looking to transition into a life supported by their artistic work, she was feeling overwhelmed by the sheer uncertainty of the creative writer’s life. Could she really write the kind of books she loved to read? Did she have any talent at all? What if no one in the world wanted to buy her books?

I love working with this client precisely because she asks these kinds of questions. These are great questions, though I don’t recommend you asking them at the 2:00 in the morning in a sleepless bed as I once did. If you ask them at the wrong time and in the wrong way they’ll kill all your creativity and ambition and love of life itself. On the other hand, if you ask these questions in the right way and at the right time, they become portals to your inherent confidence.

The right way to ask these questions is the same way you ask yourself, “What should happen next in my story?” You know when you ask this question that the answer must serve your story. You will not accept a boring answer or a false answer. You will only accept answers that move your story forward in an honest and compelling direction. This is what the writer does sentence by sentence by sentence.

This is also what the writer can do when she wonders if she has any talent at all. I know you sometimes think you cannot answer this question the way you answer questions about the stories you tell, that the answer to the questions about your creative value will be determined by editors, and reviewers, and readers. But these other people cannot answer this question for you. All they know is what they value. They will never know your value as you know it, just as they will never be able to write your stories for you. As an author, you must learn that the only acceptable answer to the questions “Am I talented?” or “Will people like my books?” or “Do I have what it takes?” is, “Yes, yes, yes, yes – forever and ever 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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Experiencing Stories

I write what could very, very broadly be called “self-help,” meaning whether it’s a book like Fearless Writing, or these blogs, or personal essays, or lectures and classes, the aim of my work is to offer a perspective on life that I believe will help the reader or audience better understand why they are happy or unhappy, why they suffer or why they succeed. Ideally, my readers will come away feeling less tempted to believe life is just a bunch of meaningless crap that happens to us.

When I realized I wanted to do this kind of work, three things occurred to me immediately: First, I was more interested in it than in all novels I’d written. Second, I wondered who the hell would want to hear from me about all of this? I was just some guy who liked to tell stories. Third, I worried about all the people who I knew would disagree with me. I had once been one of those people who thought the stuff I was now hoping to teach was a bunch of woo-woo hooey.

As it turns out, being a guy who likes to tell stories is an excellent foundation for anyone who wants to teach. After all, I was not just a guy who liked to tell stories. I was also a guy who had lived and suffered and learned. I was a guy who had doubted and felt confident, who had been hopeless and who had been joyous, who had been outraged and who had been at peace. I might doubt whether anyone wanted to hear from me, but I could not doubt the value of what life had taught me. To doubt that would be to doubt the value of life itself.

And one of the things life has taught me is that no classroom or book can match the teaching power of experience. Fortunately, stories are a form of experience. You may not have sat with me in the hospital wondering if my son had leukemia, but if I tell you the story of the time I did, and if you allow yourself to bring that scene to life in your imagination, if you allow yourself to worry and rejoice, you may feel as if you were the one waiting for the doctors to return with the test results. In fact, hearing a story about someone else’s life is strangely similar to reliving our own memories, as both experiences summon real emotions even though the experiences exist entirely in the imagination.

Which is why I depend on stories to teach. It is easy to disagree with an idea; it is nearly impossible to disagree with an experience. I have seen again and again how stories allow people to look at life differently the way a simple declaration cannot. It is one thing to say, “Everything is okay!” and it is another thing altogether to lead the reader into the shadow of fear, and then turn them naturally, humorously, and gently toward the constant light of 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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Unknown

In the middle of the Dark Years, when nothing I was writing was being read, I would occasionally threaten to quit writing altogether. “I will just quit it if things don’t turn around,” I told my wife.

“Really?” she asked. “And then what would you do?”

“I don’t know, but this ridiculous. I mean what’s the fricking point?”

“I get it, but what else would you do?”

It was a maddeningly unanswerable question. I was suffering. I knew this as certainly as I knew I was tired at the end of my day or thirsty after a run. But while I could sleep when tired or drink when thirsty, the power to end this suffering appeared to rest in other people’s hands. It was an unacceptable arrangement, a slave and slave master arrangement. More than to have my work read, I wanted to be free. I wanted my life to be my own.

Which is why I would threaten to quit from time to time. It was a suicidal choice, but sometimes it’s necessary to march yourself to that cliff if only ask, “Who’s making you do anything? Who’s making you breath and eat?” To take that leap is to remember the truth at last, as you fall freely into the unknown.

I’ll never be free from the unknown anymore than I can be free from blank pages. Those blank pages are my dependably unwritten future. They were also the answer to my wife’s question. When I wondered what else I would do, I perceived only a blank page, an unknown awaiting my attention, and the moment I stepped willingly into it, my life was my own again.

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

The Second Discipline

Writers have to be disciplined. Most writers do not begin their career with a publishing contract in hand. Instead, the writer has an idea. That is all. This idea so interests him that he sits down every day, alone, often without encouragement, always without guarantees, just him and his idea, and he writes until that idea takes the form of a story he can share with other people.

This is one form of discipline. A writer can learn this kind of discipline with his first book. In fact, the writer must learn this discipline if he ever hopes to finish anything at all. But there is a second kind of discipline that cannot be learned with a single book. This discipline must be practiced again and again, from book to book, from day to day, from sentence to sentence even.

Here’s how it goes: You’re writing along, happily focused on the story you’re telling. You’ve forgotten about all your chores and your bills and your obligations; for the moment there is only this interesting story and the effortless feeling of laying your attention upon it. It always feels good to lay your attention on what interests you most. It requires no effort in the same way that eating when you’re hungry requires no effort.

But then, in the middle of wondering what you should write next, you have a thought. You think to yourself, “I’m interested in this story. I wonder if other people will be interested in it too?” Now you have moved your attention off of what interests you most and onto a question you cannot answer. It is impossible while sitting alone at your desk to know what other people are interested in, because they aren’t there. Any answer you receive is made up.

And so, trying to answer this question does not feel good. It feels as bad as laying your attention on what interests you most feels good. In fact, this question now feels like a problem. If other people don’t like this story, why are you bothering to write it? Why write another word if no one is going to be as interested in it as you? And because you are an adult, you have learned that problems don’t solve themselves. To fix a problem, you must pay attention to it until it is solved.

Unfortunately, the more you pay attention to this kind of problem, the worse it gets. Now is when you must practice your second discipline. The only way to solve this kind of problem is to ignore it. Despite all the momentum of fear that somewhere out in the misty future there is a world where no one likes what you’ve written, you must bring your attention back to the present moment where the story you want to tell is waiting for you. No matter how real that future appears as you stare at it through the lens of your imagination, you must deny its existence and will yourself back to reality.

It took me a while to understand this practice as discipline. A disciplined person, I felt, was willing to ignore some of life’s easy pleasures to build toward some desired future, like writing every day even if you don’t necessarily feel like writing every day. But this second discipline was about choosing to feel good rather than bad, choosing effortlessness over effort. And yet the degree to which I have mastered this discipline has meant the difference between loving what I do and fearing what I 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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Unburdened

For many years I wrote under great pressure. Because I had not published a book, and I was in my thirties and then my forties, and because I worked as a waiter to support my family, and because I was often ashamed to talk about what I did for a living, and because most evenings I drove to work wondering why I felt trapped in the life I’d created, I had come to see writing as my ticket to freedom. Freedom from shame, freedom from the burden of joyless labor, and freedom finally from the ceaseless threat of failure – that dark and final verdict on the value of my entire life.

So when I sat down every day to write, I wasn’t merely telling a story. I was trying to save my life. This made writing very difficult on most days. I knew how to tell stories, but I didn’t really know how to save my life – this thing I was already living. Some days, of course, I’d forget that my life needed saving, and I’d simply write. The work went effortlessly on those days, and for an hour or two I’d feel relieved from worry, and I’d step away from the desk at the end of my work with the vague sense that all my problems would soon be solved. Then I’d go to the job, and the shame and fear would creep back in, and the next day’s writing would be burdened once again.

Most of the clients I work with aren’t simply writing. They’re writing and trying to prove their value, or that they’re intelligent, or that they have a voice. My primary job as their coach is to guide them to the understanding that what they most want from the writing will come to them the moment they allow themselves to simply do the thing they want to do without any other requirement.

When they visit me in my office, I sit two feet from where I used to write, where I used to try to save my life. It is a useful reminder of what I am teaching. All the burdens we put on our work are like static obscuring the answers to our creative questions. How easy to misinterpret that static for lack of talent, or a story that’s not worth telling. How easy to believe the value of a life must be proven in accomplishment, rather than known in the joy of doing what I’ve always loved.

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

A Visit with an Old Friend

When Fearless Writing was published in May of this year, I found myself in my local Barnes & Noble where, against my better judgment, I drifted over to the Writing and Publishing section to see if my book was in stock. Bookstores, you see, even larger bookstores like B&N, don’t stock every single published book. Like a lot of writers, I’ve had a lifelong conversation with Disappointment, who for a time seemed to be a constant companion of mine. I hadn’t heard from him in a while, but maybe he was wandering the bookstore now, ready to resume our dialogue.

To my mild surprise the book was there – and shelved face out, rather than spine out. Well, I reasoned, they probably do that with all the new books. As it happens, the shelf on which it was displayed was visible from the escalator, so that the next time I was in the store I could peer “casually” in that direction without risking running square into Disappointment, who would be standing exactly where the book used to be. Yet there it was, still face out. I worried for a moment that it was there only because it wasn’t selling, but my inner Publishing Professional quickly talked me down off that ledge.

A couple months later I was back in the store, and there was the book, still face out on the same shelf. This time, however, I noticed that this was not just any shelf. This was the “Top Picks in Writing and Publishing” shelf. They must know I’m local, I thought, and so they’re doing me a favor.

Then recently I was in the store again, and there was the book, still on that shelf, still face out. I found a bookseller and asked her about the Top Picks. Were those books chosen by this particular store? “Oh no,” she told me. “Those books are chosen by Corporate depending on what’s selling well nationally.”

“Nationally?” I said.

“That’s correct.”

I had to make sure I’d heard it right. Disappointment can be an annoying fellow. He’ll be jabbering in your ear and you mistake a No for a Yes. It happens. I thanked her and headed for the escalator, and as I glanced once more toward the shelf, there was my old friend, arms folded, shaking his head. He was smiling though. We’ve gotten to know each other pretty well over the years. I knew I’d meet him every time I tried to predict my happy future, and he, I believe, had always known I would be fine however the future unfolded.

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