A Friendly World

My son, whom my wife and I have homeschooled for the last five years, turned eighteen this winter and now talks frequently about how worried he is about his future. We – my wife, my son, and I – would all have preferred it if he could have graduated from public high school this spring. The known, after all, is always less unsettling than the unknown. But that was not our path. It became clear that he could no more have stayed in traditional schools than I could enjoy the life of a door-to-door salesman. So here we are.

Fortunately, I’m a writer who dropped out of college, which means I too have taken a somewhat less traditional path. I have had to make peace with the uncertainty of writing so that I could enjoy the freedom it affords me. This is not always so easy. There are times I envy my friends with careers that bring them into an office every day and for which they receive a weekly paycheck. I don’t envy them for long, however. I can’t pretend I could live any life other than the one I am living now. So here I am.

The biggest obstacle my son faces, however, has less to do with having been homeschooled than with his belief that the world is an unfriendly place. It is an odd perception, since for years I have watched the world of strangers treat him with staggering kindness. No matter. His experiences in school, where he was asked, for perfectly understandable reasons, to do things he wasn’t interested in doing, left him with the idea that to grow up and get a job and live an adult life would be school ten-fold – endless days of doing what he has to rather than doing what he wants to. As is always the case with these nightmare ideas, it is other people who will require him to live this life he doesn’t want to lead.

And so, as our academic schooling winds down, I have come to understand that my job as his father is to help him see the world as the friendly place it has always been. It is a good lesson for a writer to learn again and again. I cannot write for an unfriendly world of strangers whose reading desires I must somehow guess correctly in the privacy of my workroom. All I can know for sure are my creative desires, the guidance of my imagination and curiosity, whom I have followed faithfully now for these many years. How certain the future becomes the moment I remember that this is all I have ever needed to know.

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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Never Despair

I have to come think of my confidence as a kind of inner balance. It is natural, always available, but, just like my physical balance, requires my deliberate attention to maintain. It is easy to maintain my balance on a smooth and level surface, but it is more challenging, and requires greater attention, on a balance beam or a tightrope. So too my confidence: it is rather easy to maintain that inner balance doing something I love and surrounded by people I love, but it requires greater attention when the news is troubling or the rejection letters come.

If you’ve ever had a good day of writing, you’ve found this inherent confidence. You simply cannot have a happy, creative day of work if you have completely lost your balance. Writing that is alive and natural, that surprises and excites you, is a living, active expression of your confidence. That’s what your confidence sounds like. It will sound both new and familiar. It’s you, after all, but if you are like me, you spend a lot of time wobbling around the world, speaking in a voice not quite yours.

Life’s a bit of a balance beam. We prefer it that way, I think. We are never so alive as when we are giving life our full attention. But we will wobble. We will feel the pull of discontent as our attention strays to the unwritten future, to other people’s opinions, to judgment. Discontent, like the experience of imbalance, is only there to alert us that our attention has strayed. It is not punishment or proof of our inadequacy or life’s inadequacy. It is guidance back to ourselves.

Which is why I must remind myself daily to never despair. It is one thing to recognize discontent; it is another thing to pursue it. The gymnast never pursues imbalance; she adjusts. I have pursued discontent with savage determination. I have pursued it in the hope of destroying it, of wiping it from the earth. Noble of me, I know, but I always fail to eliminate what never existed. Our discontent is not a villain, it is not a problem, it is not a threat – it is the language of life, calling to us in a voice we all can hear.

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 Balanced Life

I love to celebrate happy events. I love celebrating when my favorite teams win a game, or when a friend comes to visit, or even when the news I watch and read is what I call good and not I call worrisome. And, of course, I love celebrating the sort of events all writers celebrate – the acceptance letter, the contract, the praise from my editor. I have a book coming out in about a month (Fearless Writing), and I’ll certainly be celebrating its release.

It can get a little addictive, all this celebrating. It feels so good to be happy, and sharing that happiness with other people; and it feels so awful to worry, and complain, and correct, and fix. How easy it is to let life become a seesaw between celebration and despair, as if all our days are merely sporting events we witness, whose outcomes, over which we have no control, determine our well-being.

Writing is such a calming antidote to this addiction. Every morning I bless the utterly uneventful blank page. There is nothing to celebrate or mourn on that page, just the question of what I would like to see there. The answer to that question resides in a realm where, I have come to understand, nothing ever happens by our definition of that word. It is a kingdom forever in balance, and it is my goal every morning to write something that is a true reflection of the balance I always find there.

And when I feel I have succeeded in that, even if only for a sentence, I celebrate a little. It is so nice when the outside and the inside align. That is balance. I can’t celebrate for long, however, as I’m usually already onto the next sentence. To fully maintain my balance, I have to keep moving, I have to keep growing, for every question answered on the outside sparks another question on the inside. To live is to learn to love the question as much as the answer; to understand that finding balance is as satisfying as having 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

Cooperative Nature

If I had never published a single word, the experience of choosing word after word and sentence after sentence would remain invaluable to me. To find a way forward with no path other than my awareness of the difference between effort and effortlessness, between the swift current of my inherent curiosity and the urgent paddling of my ego, remains an irreplaceable practice in how to live.

But I do not think I would have spent so much time finding word after word and sentence after sentence if it weren’t for the goal of someday publishing some of these words and sentences. If I weren’t interested even slightly in publishing what I’d written, I believe I would have found something else to do that I wanted to share with other people. As private as writing may be, as intimate as my relationship to my imagination will forever remain, I do not really understand the creative process without at least the concept of other people enjoying what I enjoy.

Not the money, mind you, nor the attention, nor the approval – just other people’s pleasure in what pleases me. I cannot extricate the creative process from this awareness any more than I can live my day-to-day life without other people’s cooperation, without other people stopping at stop lights, and stocking shelves in grocery stores, and writing books for me to read. Life is cooperative – it cooperates in sun, rain, soil, and flowers, and in writers, agents, publishers, and readers.

There is a reason solitary confinement is our most severe punishment besides execution. It is our attempt to deprive the flower of sun and rain. But even in this environment, the soil of consciousness remains. You can try to confine yourself in a silent cell, safe from winds of other people’s pleasure, but you cannot keep yourself from growing. You will either suffer in your resistance, or flourish in your cooperation – either way, you will grow and grow, from word to word and sentence to sentence.

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

Finding Stillness

If you’ve ever had a very good day of writing, a day where you found your story or poem or essay quickly, where you discovered something unexpected and exciting early on and spent the rest of your session pursuing it, because suddenly and quite completely, nothing else seemed as interesting and important – if you’ve ever had a day of writing like this, then you are familiar with the experience of being carried by a momentum for which you are not wholly responsible but of which you are wholly a part.

It is as a good feeling as you’ll ever know. You are both entirely free and entirely focused. Gone for the moment are thoughts of your value or mortality; now there is only this very interesting thing and your pursuit of it. It is such a good feeling, and can feel like such a relief, that it is easy to develop a drug-like relationship to it.

I have certainly made that mistake. I became so fixated on the momentum I forgot its source. I believed momentum alone was the answer to the question, “How shall I fill my days?” When I am caught in the momentum of a story I am telling, time disappears; when I am staring down a day with nothing interesting in my sights, time becomes a burden. Give me some momentum, I think. Give me anything – an argument, a game, a movie – anything to get me moving again.

In my desperation to feel better, I forgot that all momentum begins in stillness. It is in stillness that I find the seed of an idea worthy of my full attention. It is in stillness that I find again the balance necessary to move at full speed. It is for this reason that writing remains my greatest practice. To sit quietly in a chair, looking at a blank page, and find that life-giving creative momentum is to be reminded again and again of what is always available for me if I look in the right place.

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 Show Must Go On

Many years ago, I wrote a sketch comedy show with my brother, John, and my pianist friend, Dale. It was always a lot of fun creating the show. John and I would write the sketches and then share the drafts with one another, and we’d make them funnier together. Then we’d bring in Dale and he’d add music and we’d rehearse the pieces and they’d change again, altered organically as they moved from the two-dimensional page to the three-dimensional stage.

I was a bit surprised how much I enjoyed putting the show together. I was a writer first and an actor second, so I was used to creating things alone. As a fiction writer, I was every actor, director, lighting man, and choreographer. Yet I loved working with other people, loved watching how ideas I had had in the supreme privacy of my desk took on new shape in John and Dale’s imaginations, and I loved how their ideas inspired new ideas in me, and then my new ideas inspired ideas in them.

But plays are meant to be performed, so I had my artist friend Gorham make up some posters for us that John and I tacked up all over town. Eventually the night would come, and we three would be waiting back stage, listening to the building murmur of the arriving crowd. There was always a moment, shortly before the show began, when I would think, “What have I done?” I could feel the energy of the crowd, could feel how this night I had asked for and planned for was about to be turned over to something bigger than John, Dale, and me.

And then the curtain would rise, and we’d be in the lights, and there was the audience, the final ingredient in this creative stew. The show we rehearsed was never the show we performed. It was always different, because every crowd was different. The crowd was not aware of their role in the show, but I came to understand that the separation between actor and audience was an illusion. They finished what we had started, and every night we gave away what we had called ours, gave it to them, who gave us their attention and created something new.

 

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

Discovery

Though I write only non-fiction these days (personal essays and memoir) I spent a little over two decades writing only fiction. This background served me very well from a craft standpoint – the fiction writer learns very early that he must show at every turn rather than telling – but perhaps more importantly I learned that the foundation of all writing is discovery.

Again, this is sometimes easier for the fiction writer to perceive than the non-fiction writer. After all, fiction writing is all discovery. When I wrote fiction I began with the smallest seed of an idea and then set about to discover everything that would grow from it. Most of that was discovered during the actual writing. Typically, I would begin a scene with little more than this: Joe goes to go the hardware store and meets his ex-wife and gets into an argument with her. Then I would start writing and see what happens. Sometimes Joe wouldn’t even meet his wife. That was the pleasure of it all.

But the non-fiction writer, by definition, isn’t making anything up. The non-fiction writer writes about what is. Except we aren’t, really. I write essays and memoirs to discover why it is I know what I think I know. No matter how many times I’ve told a story before I write it, no matter how thoroughly I’ve thought through an idea before I write an essay about it, I always leave room within my writer’s imagination for something new about this story or idea to come.

And almost always that something new is my role in the troubles my stories or essays are depicting. The temptation to lay all the blame for the problems of the world on others remains great. Let me tell you what’s been done to me, or let me tell you all how you should behave so that we might straighten out this mess. Such is my response when I believe the world I behold was made by others. That I must look within to find the world I perceive is more than a bumper sticker, it is the only direction my writing journeys have ever taken me.

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

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The Greater Good

When I was a waiter my bosses always wanted me to “upsell.” This is the practice of talking customers into buying an appetizer they hadn’t ordered or recommending the Australian lobster tail rather than the halibut. It makes a certain sense from a business standpoint. We were a fine dining restaurant and wanted to “maximize sales” on each table. From a waiter’s standpoint it made sense also: the higher my sales, the more tips I’d make.

Yet I refused to upsell. I focused instead on helping the customers have the best possible experience they could have. I believed that if they felt as though I were trying to squeeze an extra few bucks out of them, they would feel more used than cared for. I reasoned that I could make just as much money by caring more about service than sales.

I did not know it then, but I was getting a glimpse into a dynamic that is always at play in every business arrangement – even writing. Namely, an individual’s needs versus society’s needs. Customers, or society, don’t give two figs about the restaurant’s bottom line. Customers want to enjoy themselves. A business, meanwhile, wants to make money. Whether I’m waiting tables, running a restaurant, or selling books, it can seem sometimes as though my only focus is extracting as much money from other people as possible, so that I can go on living and writing.

In a way, my choice not to upsell was a kind of experiment. What if, I reasoned, the customer’s needs could be my own? What if there was no difference between what I needed and what other people needed? As it happens, the more I focused just on service and not on sales, the more money I made. It was a happy arrangement.

But if I’m honest, the choice not to upsell served my most immediate needs as well. I didn’t like how it felt when I tried to sell rather than serve. It felt dishonest. Service, meanwhile, always felt good. After all, I was a human first and a waiter second, just as the people I was serving were humans first and customers second. Service became a means of connecting on a human level rather than a commercial level.

I started having success as a writer when I saw it as service, not sales. Instead of asking what I could write that could get someone to buy what I’d written, I asked myself what I would most like to share with other people. What if the kind of story that uplifted me, that served my life, might serve others? You already know how this story ends, because you already know that we all meet each other in our shared desire to know life as an act 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

Giving and Receiving

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve recently spent more time than usual following politics. Listening to politicians reminds me of watching a skillfully written stage drama. The best dialogue always has the characters saying one thing and meaning another. The husband might say he’s angry with his wife for overcooking the broccoli, when really, he’s upset because he believes she doesn’t respect him.

With politics, all the arguments and accusations about taxes and regulations and jobs stems from the eternal, persistent, uncomfortable fact that some people have more money than other people. This bothers nearly everybody. If you don’t have as much of it as you want, you might view those who have more with deep and bitter suspicion; and if you do have more of it, you might believe that those who have less spend all their days plotting how to take yours from you.

Unfortunately, no tax code or regulation will ever cure humanity of envy and greed. Because neither the “haves” or “have-nots” actually care about money; they just want to be happy and have mistaken money for the source of that happiness. I have made this mistake myself, though not so much with money. As a writer, I envied other writers who received more attention than I had – attention from other people, that is. Attention in the form of sales, of reviews, of crowds at their readings. These things looked to me like love and appreciation. Who would not be happier with more love and more appreciation?

I was correct that those writers I envied had received more attention than I; I was just incorrect about the source of that attention. I began to see my own sales, and reviews, and crowds when I gave myself my full attention. Everything I value in my life grew from giving my full attention to what interests me most, for no other reason other than it felt good to do so. That is the magic formula for success.

Of course, one can rid oneself of greed and envy as quickly as changing one’s mind. It’s always slower when you bring more people into the equation. I must remind myself of this as I marinate in the simmering pot of daily news. Everyone wants to be happy. Many, many of us aren’t. How loud we all get when we’re unhappy, and how tempted we are to blame other people for that unhappiness. Meanwhile, what is calling to each of us waits patiently for our attention, waits for us to give so that we might in turn receive.

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

Eyes on the Road

I have been spending way more time reading and watching political news these days than I normally do. I feel a little guilty about this, the way I do when I gawk at an accident as I’m driving by. But I’m human, and if the scene is particularly compelling, it is hard to keep my eyes on where I want to go. In fact, one night, many years ago, I was biking home from work and became distracted by the swirling lights and dented steel of a recent head-on collision – and crashed square into a tree.

Politics, as necessary as it is, often reminds me of my bike accident. Just as accidents can cause more accidents, animosity – the bent fenders of political debate – usually breeds more animosity. And sometimes not merely animosity, but full-blown hatred. I see it in others as they march and hold their signs and demand answers, and I feel it in myself as I wonder about the nefarious motives of certain players in this gaudy, historic drama.

Hatred can sometimes serve as the first, hot, alarm-bell impulse to do something. It’s true in politics and it’s true in writing. Reading or watching or listening to something I profoundly dislike can be just the motivation I need to write something I like. What I like is always on the opposite side of what I dislike, just as what I love is always on the opposite side of what I believe I hate.

Except I don’t really hate anything. What I have come to call hatred is just the natural consequence of seeing something I disagree with, something whose very opposite I would prefer to be looking at, and then continuing to stare at it and stare it and stare at it until I crash into a tree. When I feel like I hate something, I am listening to the same guidance system that tells me which words, scenes, and characters belong in a story and which do not, only it is speaking very, very loudly. If I knew I didn’t want a particular scene in my story, but I kept reading it and rereading it and rereading it, I’d eventually come to hate that scene as if it were my sworn enemy.

Which is why I have to remember to turn off the news. When I start hating people, it’s time to lift my head and look where I’m going. Travelling my road does not require me to argue with all the roads I don’t travel. Those roads are inconsequential to my journey, even while they are certainly vital to someone else’s. Though it requires me to ignore much of what is going on around me, the choice to look where I want to go is the very opposite of putting my head in the sand. It is the choice to open my eyes to the life I wish to lead, rather than the one others are leading.

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