Little Altars

When I was twenty, I tried reading James Joyce’s Ulysses for the first time. Ulysses is a big book where not a lot happens. I didn’t get very far that first time because I mistook it for a novel, when really, it is a 600-page poem. Still, I liked what I did manage to read. In fact I liked what I read because not a lot happened. In Joyce’s fictional world, nothing was inconsequential; everything, from pear soap to shaving cream to a daydream, was worthy of being rendered in complete and loving detail.

I found this inspiring. Not a lot seemed to be happening in my life then. I drank coffee, I hung out with my friends, I took walks, I tended bar. The parts of one day seemed interchangeable with the parts of the next. And yet, even within these quiet days, if my attention settled completely on the coffee or the conversation or the street I was crossing, I could feel the value and poignancy of life as completely as when I won a race or when then the girl I loved said goodbye.

But because I was still a young writer, I had put Joyce on a kind of artistic altar. He had done what only a chosen few could manage. While any moment in any city at any time could serve as a portal through which to glimpse life’s inherent beauty, not anyone could render what they viewed through that portal. Sometimes when I tried and failed to do so, I despaired, not just because I might lack that which was called talent, but because I feared that what I hoped to share didn’t actually exist. I’d imagined it. What Joyce showed me was just his genius, which belonged to him alone and could not be shared.

I would eventually reread Ulysses, and quite enjoy it, until I reached a particularly experimental chapter and had to give up. I felt as if I were translating a foreign text, and I lost interest. I did not, however, lose interest in writing about all those little moments that felt so valuable to me. In fact, Ulysses still served as a kind of inspiration. It was, after all, a story about the heroic in the everyday. I had to take Joyce off the altar on which I’d placed him, and put life on that altar instead. Now I could see more clearly what I was trying to render, and now it belonged to everyone, including me.

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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New Life

For several years in a row we grew sunflowers in our backyard. The sunflower is an impressive plant in full bloom, and from time to time I would wonder how I would render into words what I felt when I beheld them. We eventually bought a print of “Sunflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh and hung it in our living room. It seemed to me that Van Gogh had rendered with paint what I would have liked to render with words.

As I understand it, there are painters who replicate the works of The Masters, sometimes to be sold as expensive forgeries. Their technique is so refined that it generally takes an expert in the imitated artist’s work to tell whether a painting is a forgery or the real thing.

Whenever I hear artists, whether painters or writers or composers, discussing craft or technique I think of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and these highly skilled replicators. If a work of art were only a work of craft, of technique, why would anyone with such skill bother imitating what someone has already painted? Since you have the same skill as the masters, why bother with forgery?

The answer, of course, is that Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” was not a product of technique. Van Gogh perceived the beauty of the sunflowers within himself and translated this perception to the canvas. The technique aided greatly in this translation, but first and foremost came the perception. Moreover, after the perception and before the translation came the willingness to share what was neither Van Gogh’s nor the flowers’ but a marriage of the two.

This is not such a simple choice. The forger already knows how the world will receive what he is replicating. Van Gogh did not have this luxury before he dipped his brush. Such is the price you pay when creating something new. Technique without original perception is as dead as a hammer. Technique in service to perception can bring anything to 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

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Seeing Beauty

When I was a teenager I was a passionate fan of music, movies, and novels. I could not, however, have been less interested in politics. This was in the late 70s and early 80s, a time still very much influenced by the upheaval of the 60s, particularly in the arts. Art and politics had gotten all tangled up in the 60s. It sometimes seemed that the job of a serious artist was to call for societal change.

I disliked this supposed mandate because I wanted to be a serious artist, but I had no desire to demand, march, or argue for change. I wanted to create stuff that left people feeling as good as I felt after I read a book, listened to a song, or watched a movie I loved. One day I found myself a reading a review of the Talking Heads album “Speaking in Tongues.” I loved this album. So did the reviewer.

However, this reviewer was particularly pleased to see that David Byrne, the band’s founder and songwriter, had clearly evolved artistically. “He’s even starting to drop in some social commentary!” she wrote. Oh, I was mad. Isn’t it enough to make something beautiful? Do you also have to tell everyone what they must do differently for the world to be a beautiful place?

I’m much older now, and my opinion of the relationship between art and politics has changed. No, I still don’t like to mix the two together. I feel about this division the way I do about the division of church and state. But I am more aware of the difference between the ugliness of how people sometimes treat one another, and the beauty of the art people are capable of creating. How much nicer it would be to read a newspaper and be as uplifted as when I read my favorite novel or poem.

But beauty, you may have heard, is in the eye of the beholder, which is as true of newspapers as it is of paintings, poems, and people. If it’s beauty I want, I must choose to look for it everywhere. And if it’s beauty I wish to share in my work, then I must see that beauty before I can render it in a story. The world, or society, can’t give me that beauty, that truth, that equality. I must learn to see it for myself.

I like this job, though I sometimes complain that the world is doing all it can to make my job more difficult. There are days I look out my window and do not like what I see: darkness and cruelty born of the blindness of hatred. Fortunately, blindness can be a temporary affliction. It is only a consequence of looking in the wrong place for what I want. The moment I turn my attention to beauty’s source, I see it everywhere. The veil we sometimes cast over it is transparent to the eye attuned to what moves us all.

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

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Look At It

We often say that seeing is believing. Good advice, that. It’s one the thing to be told that the Louvre is amazing, it’s another thing to behold it yourself. And by the way, don’t be a sucker, don’t believe every story every fool tells you. Go see for yourself. Let experience be your teacher, and so make your own decisions about what is and isn’t true.

All of this is true in its way, but the reverse is true also: believing is seeing. You cannot see what you do not believe exists. For instance, perhaps you would like to make a living publishing ebooks on CreateSpace. If you believe such a thing is possible, you will begin to see evidence to support this belief even before you write your first ebook. The evidence will all be circumstantial, of course. You will notice stories about this first-time author who sold 100,000 books, or that midlist writer who abandoned traditional publishing in favor of doing it herself and is selling more than ever before. The evidence will accumulate to support the belief until you try your hand at it and now you are maybe one more success story to support someone else’s belief.

Or maybe you don’t believe it. It’s all luck and you aren’t lucky. You’ve got a long list of evidence of your unluck – the rejection letters, the cheating boyfriend, the alcoholic mother. Life’s a crapshoot whose rewards are given to the deserving and undeserving equally. Look at all the lousy books on the bestseller list. You’ve done better and yet look at your rejection letters. You won’t be a sucker and believe in what you cannot see. Look at life—look at it! Look at that mess. How can anyone not see what a mess it is?

I used to take this last question for an accusation, but maybe it is just the opposite. To see something lovely I must first believe in loveliness. Otherwise, I will see only ugliness and ugliness cynically masquerading as beauty. I waited a long time for the world to tell me what it was, all the while it was only listening to me, echoing everything I thought in what I saw.

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

Describing Shadows

All the work I do, whether it’s books, blogging, teaching, or interviewing, is founded on one simple idea: people want to feel good. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white, young or old, man or woman, the President or a pauper – you want to feel good as often as possible. Usually people don’t say they just want to feel good. Usually they say they want to get married, or they want a better job, or they want to publish a book, or they want to watch television. But they only want those things because they believe they will feel good, or at least better, when these things come to pass.

Which is why I believe that if you’re going to write something and share it with other people, you ought to write something that leaves the reader feeling better at the end than they did at the beginning. It’s a good business model, since everyone wants to feel better. Of course, your better might not be my better. In the span of a single day, I can fluctuate between miserable and joyful. Actually, I can do that in the span of five minutes. I can only assume the same is true, more or less, for the rest of humanity.

The trick, I’ve found, is to first remind the reader of how bad they sometimes feel. Whether I’m writing a story or an essay or a poem, I like to ask, “Remember how bad it feels to think you’re not good enough, or whatever you plant won’t grow, or good guys finish last, or life is just a meaningless march to an eternal darkness? Remember that?” This brings us all to the same place. Now everyone is standing in shadow.

I have stood in a great many shadows in my life. I didn’t call them shadows at the time, of course. I called them reality. Sometimes the harsh reality, if I was feeling dramatic. It was not that the sun had passed behind some cloud of thought; no, it was that I finally woke up to the truth that we must all get about by the dim glow of candles, praying all the while that a strong wind isn’t coming. I wasn’t actually a pessimist, mind you. I just wanted to be happy. I just wanted to feel good, and I thought the only way to feel good was to protect that candle from the rain and wind. I was trying to be practical.

Shadows may come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but they all share the same impermanence. When they’re gone, they gone, and they leave behind no marker except maybe a little dampness, which, given time, the sun will burn away. Sunlight is the true engine of change and growth. Which is why it’s so hard to write only about shadows. I sometimes need shadows to appreciate the sun, but even as I describe their darkness, I am noticing only where the sun has been obscured. If I try to give the shadows any more reality than this, my work feels disingenuous.

The nice the thing about the sun is I don’t need to keep it burning. It burned long before I was born and it will go on burning long after I die. And it burns equally brightly for everyone. I know we don’t always see it, and I know there are rain and storms and midnight, but it’s there anyway – and the shadow I cast wherever I go merely marks my relationship to its 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

Natural Beauty

Two weeks ago I was asked to give some lectures at the Northwest Institute for Literary Arts’ (NILA) winter residency program. The residency is held at the Captain Whidbey Inn on Whidbey Island (Washington), a spectacularly scenic locale complete with green fields, tall pines, and an unimpeded view of Penn Cove.

In fact, directly outside my little cabin’s front door was a gravel path that wound left to a tall wood and stone gazebo that could have comfortably housed a small wedding party. Beyond the path was a lawn of spotless emerald running down to a duck pond fed by a narrow inlet. A wooden bridge spanned the inlet, and beyond the bridge Penn Cove’s gray tide, and then Puget Sound, and finally the Pacific Ocean. I had packed only my black dress shoes, but the scene was so picturesque I decided to risk them for a stroll.

As I crossed the bridge it struck me that this was exactly the sort of landscape that would send a water colorist running for her canvas or poets scrambling for their pens. It has sometimes seemed to me an artist’s duty to render nature’s beauty. The ocean, the sunset, the mountain, the lake – life’s given perfection to which all human creation is aspires. Yet standing there amidst all that natural beauty, my writer’s mind drifted to the students I’d met and would soon be teaching, to their struggles with voice and confidence, and their love of language and story.

There was the landscape that moved me most – that line where the human mind and heart meet, where each of us chooses moment to moment between fear and love. The artist never paints what he sees; only what he feels when he is seeing. And in this way, aren’t I the same as any landscape artist? At my best I see within everyone I meet life without the story of suffering and worthlessness and comparison and rejection, life without good and bad, life as a beautiful as any ocean or sunset.

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

Time For A Party

My friend Will Green passed away suddenly yesterday. Will was an immensely gentle man who had a gift for celebrating what he enjoyed most about life. Though he will be missed, it seemed entirely appropriate to me that he would leave this party the way he did. He always knew when it was time to move on.

In his honor, I’d like to rerun this piece I wrote last year:

My friend Will was a waiter who had, over the years, transformed the yard around his one bedroom house into something of a floral wonderland, a lush little forest of flowers and bushes and vines and terraces. To tend a yard or garden is to bring something to life and then sustain it for as long as time will permit. Unlike a carpenter, the gardener produces no final product. Instead, he oversees a bell curve of life, whose peak is achieved through strategic cooperation with nature.

Will celebrated that peak with a once-a-year garden party. This was a major event, a dinner party with two-dozen tables, a bartender, and colored lamps. The garden itself was extraordinary. Everywhere your eye landed was life at its greenest, reddest, bluest, and purple-est. If this garden were a woman she was perfectly dressed. Will was her tailor, his hand evident in the checkerboard lawn of grass and granite, the trellises, the paths, the trimmed curve of the bush, but not so evident as to claim the beauty for his own. He merely helped reveal the beauty belonging to the flowers themselves.

It was an easy party to enjoy. Everyone had decided ahead of time they were going to have fun, and the garden would not permit disappointment. It was summer, and it was warm, and we were outside, and there was wine, and we were celebrating nothing more specific than the beauty of life. This was easier than celebrating New Year’s, or Christmas, or birthdays, wed as they are to the artifice of time. There was nothing artificial about the garden, it was just life being life, and we were not required to pretend that this moment was more important than any other moment.

Because no sooner had the wine glasses been cleared than the garden began her gradual retirement. Tired from her long summer, she undressed leaf by leaf through the autumn, requiring less of Will’s attention every day, until Will himself awoke one cool morning to find that beauty had silently entered into the long white dream of winter.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Time For A Party

My friend Will was a waiter who had, over the years, transformed the yard around his one bedroom house into something of a floral wonderland, a lush little forest of flowers and bushes and vines and terraces. To tend a yard or garden is to bring something to life and then sustain it for as long as time will permit. Unlike a carpenter, the gardener produces no final product. Instead, he oversees a bell curve of life, whose peak is achieved through strategic cooperation with nature.

Will celebrated that peak with a once-a-year garden party. This was a major event, a dinner party with two-dozen tables, a bartender, and colored lamps. The garden itself was extraordinary. Everywhere your eye landed was life at its greenest, reddest, bluest, and purple-est. If this garden were a woman she was perfectly dressed. Will was her tailor, his hand evident in the checkerboard lawn of grass and granite, the trellises, the paths, the trimmed curve of the bush, but not so evident as to claim the beauty for his own. He merely helped reveal the beauty belonging to the flowers themselves.

It was an easy party to enjoy. Everyone had decided ahead of time they were going to have fun, and the garden would not permit disappointment. It was summer, and it was warm, and we were outside, and there was wine, and we were celebrating nothing more specific than the beauty of life. This was easier than celebrating New Year’s, or Christmas, or birthdays, wed as they are to the artifice of time. There was nothing artificial about the garden, it was just life being life, and we were not required to pretend that this moment was more important than any other moment.

Because no sooner had the wine glasses been cleared than the garden began her gradual retirement. Tired from her long summer, she undressed leaf by leaf through the autumn, requiring less of Will’s attention every day, until Will himself awoke one cool morning to find that beauty had silently entered into the long white dream of winter.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Greatest Clarity

When I was a waiter there was often the challenge of being heard as the restaurant got busy. One did not want to have to repeat the specials or ask again how the gentleman would like his porterhouse prepared. Fortunately, I could bellow with the best of them, and so for years, when the decibels around me began to rise, so did my own volume.

By and by I grew tired of all the shouting over more shouting and I began a little experiment. What if, I wondered, there was a way to be heard through the noise without raising my voice? Speaking more slowly and enunciating helped, but it wasn’t enough. That was when I learned to imagine my words like a razor, sharp and precise and bright, and my voice seemed to cut through the hum and clamor of the restaurant. I cannot tell you how did this, only that it worked, and I never shouted again. I had found my waiter’s voice.

Much is made of a writer’s voice, and many hours of sleep have been lost wondering if ours will ever be heard within the din of voices clamoring for attention. How tempting it is to shout. How tempting to break out bigger plots, bigger action, bigger words, bigger technical risks. But all of this noise assumes a competition where none exists. Clarity has no opponent. Once a thing has become perfectly clear it has emerged into itself were it stands sovereign and complete.

Such clarity reminds us of ourselves, or at least the selves we have forgotten and instead of remembering try to improve. No improvement is necessary, only greater clarity. To learn to see yourself clearly and as you actually are is to discover beauty again and again and again, and to know that ugliness is only life seen through the fog of forgetting.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Whole Truth

Writing teaches me every day, but if it teaches me nothing else it teaches me to trust. Specifically, trust that the truth will always be enough. The truth will always be funny enough, interesting enough, exciting enough, or compelling enough for the story I want to tell. The truth needs no exaggeration; it needs no help.

I cannot, however, manufacture the truth, anymore than I can manufacture the sky or an elm tree. The best I can do is to report it, translate it. I have tried to manufacture a more interesting truth when I worried that the truth itself would not suffice, but this ersatz reality, no matter how dramatic, always felt a little thin against what I rejected.

What’s more, the truth resists evidence. It will never be proven, only perceived. And to perceive it, I must keep my attention upon it. The moment I move my attention in search of some proof of what I have perceived, I lose sight of the truth and doubt moves in to take its place. If I feel betrayed by the truth for not following my attention, I call myself a skeptic. Mostly, however, writing has taught me to return my attention to what I had known to be the truth when I had perceived it.

The beautiful thing about the truth is that I can see it in everything if I look at the world correctly. You cannot perceive it if you don’t believe it’s there, but the moment you do, the truth reveals itself. It reveals itself in the sky and in elm trees, in friends and strangers, and from time to time, if I am very still, even in the mirror.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter