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

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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

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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

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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

Blameless

I wrote the other day about the power of very good questions. Here’s an example of a not-so-good question: “What’s wrong with me?” Whenever I used to ask this question – which, for a time, was pretty often – it seemed like absolutely the most practical question to which I could put my mind. I only asked the question because something was wrong, by which I mean I was unhappy. If you’re a writer I don’t need to tell you what was wrong. It’s always the same for all writers – rejection and failure. These are not small and discrete problems, however. Their scope can be all consuming.

Which is why I asked this not-so-good question. I was an adult, after all, and as an adult when something is wrong, you fix it. The problem was that every time I asked myself – and by “myself” I mean my imagination, which answered all my questions, creative or otherwise – whenever I asked this question I got no answer. There was only silence, the void. It reminded me hauntingly of my worst fears about death. In fact, this thought of death seemed every bit like the life of failure, an endless absence of joy and discovery.

By and by (and by and by and by; I was a very slow learner with this one), I learned that whenever something was happening that I didn’t like, I would ask myself, “If nothing’s wrong with me, and if nothing’s wrong with anyone else, and if nothing’s wrong with Life, why is this happening?” I had to phrase it this way because I was sorely tempted to simply assign blame for my troubles. Blame stops all questioning without providing a real answer.

So I’d ask this question. It’s a good one, but you sometimes have to be patient with the answer. No matter. Just as I can sit quietly at my desk waiting for the next sentence to come, so too I can sit quietly in my car or at the kitchen table for that question to be answered. I could wait because now I wasn’t solving the Problem of Bill, now I was just thinking creatively, which is the happy pursuit of an expanded perception of life.

The answer, by the way, was always the same: I’d misunderstood. I mistook a rejection letter for my career’s death knell, feeling stuck with a story for a lack of talent. I’d made these mistakes and accepted them as reality. Do not accept death as an answer. The void is just a case of temporary blindness, of looking for what is wrong when there is nothing wrong and no one to blame.

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 Little Help

Writers often have a love-hate relationship with their work. In truth it’s a love-love relationship, but it’s not always easy to see it that way. That thing with which we are in relation cannot speak to us as directly as we believe we would like it to, though it is speaking to us all the time. Its only means of communication is feeling, and this is where the confusion and the hate in this relationship often comes in.

What is speaking to you only wants the best for you. It only wants you to create what you most want to create, say what you most want to say. It only wants you to evolve and expand. It has no motive other than your happiness and success. To this end, when the story you are telling is being told within the current of your true desire, you will feel good. You might call this feeling effortless, or exciting, or interesting, or important. The name can vary, but its root meaning is always Yes.

Sometimes, however, the story you are telling is not in service to your true desire. Sometimes it has wandered afield. Or maybe you have quietly begun telling a story about your story, a terrible prophecy of rejection and doom. It does not matter how you strayed, the result will always be the same. You will receive a feeling whose only meaning is: Not that way. If you are very far afield, the feeling will be commensurately strong; if you are still close to the current of your true desire, the feeling will be mild. Either way, the feeling is only there to help you.

But it is not a feeling we normally associate with help. When we are feeling it, particularly when it is very strong, we say we are feeling bad, as if we have caught the virus of unfair life, or we have at last understood the unhappy truth about ourselves. These are just more stories, however, for which we will receive further guidance until we can no longer bear the guidance and surrender to where it is pointing us. Then it is as if we have awakened from a fever, and the world is clear again, and it is hard to remember where we have been because we are so interested in where we are going.

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 Rabbit Hole

One of my favorite books about writing is Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his posthumously published memoir about his years in Paris as a young man. It was the first book I’d read that I felt fully captured the pleasures and challenges of writing, though one line always both bothered me and stayed with me. Hemingway was describing the need for discipline if you want to write, and how you can’t let your life’s problems get in the way of your work. Besides, he went on, “Work solves everything.”

I don’t care if the guy won the Nobel Prize, I thought, nothing solves everything. I was a young man myself when I first read the book. I’d had my share of problems and did not think work alone could possibly have solved all of them. Though even as I thought this, I could not remember what had solved them. Problems were strange that way. They seemed in those days to appear and disappear like unwanted party guests, cluttering up the conversation with their complaints and accusations, until mysteriously, quietly, without ever being asked to leave, they were gone.

Then recently I was having one of those days a writer sometimes has. I had agreed to write six essays about Fearless Writing for an online tutorial. Unfortunately, I had just written a whole book on the subject, and was finding the work boring. On this particular day, as I looked about at my little world, all my interests felt like chores and all my chores felt like slave labor. Life, apparently, had become chewing gum chewed past its flavor. Plus, all the news on the TV was bad. People killed each other and screamed at each other. Also, people bought all the wrong books.

I decided I would write the next essay as if I’d never written about fearless writing before. I didn’t care if it contradicted everything I’d written in the book; there was just no point in doing anything if it wasn’t any fun. Before long, a New Idea arrived. Just what I’d been looking for, I thought, and followed it. Down the rabbit hole we went, and the old world was forgotten because the new one was so interesting.

I’m not sure how much time I spent in the rabbit hole, ten minutes or two hours. Time changes down there. Eventually, the Idea and I had wound our way back to the surface. When I emerged, I sat for a moment, back in my chair, in my room, in this world, and I tried for a moment to remember my problems from earlier that day. I couldn’t. Papa was right, I concluded, and left my office, to return to my very interesting life.

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 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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Useful Obscurity

About a year before I started writing Author, before I began interviewing writers and, most importantly, before I began writing this blog, I started my own blog. I had just left the restaurant where I had worked for seventeen years, and I hadn’t yet found any meaningful work to replace it. And so, about three times a week, I would take my laptop to a nearby coffee shop, order a non-fat latte, and write a blog.

It is the only time in my life I’ve written in a café. I wrote there so I could get out of the house. I enjoyed my time with my latte and my blog. The blog was about creativity and spirituality. I had never written about the intersection of these two subjects, and I discovered I quite liked doing so. Perhaps my favorite part about that first blog, however, was the fact no one was reading it.

This was immeasurably helpful. I could technically publish it – that is, put it out there where anyone who wanted to could find it – without concerning myself about what anyone thought about it because, as far as I could tell, the blog remained an undiscovered treasure. I’m sure someone was reading it, but I didn’t concern myself with these phantoms. Real readers would have only gummed up the works.

Just about the time I was ready to let someone read what I was writing, I founded Author and wrote my first of many blogs for the magazine. I prefer having my work read, but I remain ever grateful for that year of Internet obscurity. In many ways, I am still writing the first blog, still pretending I am alone, so that I might hear what it was I actually want to share with others.

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