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.

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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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

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.

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

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

What You Have

I spent many years dreaming of success. It is a common dream for writers when they begin their writing journey. The agent, the book contract, the bestseller list – all these goals felt like distant, mysterious, and glorious cities. As I wandered about in the familiar circles of my life, I wondered what my days would feel like when I reached those destinations. When I arrived, I believed it would be as if I’d reached Paris, this city I’d read about and I’d seen in movies but never visited, a city of lights, a city of poetry and paintings and cafes – not a city where people trudged about arguing and complaining and worrying about the future.

That’s what waited for me. It was hard to picture, truly. Often when I placed myself in that imaginary world of success, it was as if I didn’t really belong there, in the same way the fictional characters I wrote sometimes didn’t belong in the careers or relationships I chose for them. My characters would squirm and behave unnaturally until I found their true vocation or partner. So too Successful Bill in the City of Success. None of it felt natural. Those dreams felt like scenes I’d edit out of a book I was writing.

This worried me. Writing had taught me that nothing unnatural, nothing forced, nothing I willed onto the page belonged in the reality of my stories. I had to allow what wanted to come through to come through. So why didn’t I belong in this wonderful, mysterious city? Was I actually traveling the dirt road of failure, the lonely path toward a ghost town where everything ends in dust? I’d read and heard of Failure Town. I assumed it was as real as Paris. Yet even in my darkest hours, when I dreamed this nightmare ending to my journey, I had to admit that my vision of Failure Town seemed no more real to me than Success City.

How strange. I could make no sense of it, and, in the meantime, my life continued. I kept doing stuff and looking for what was interesting where I was. What else was there to do? By and by, as I found more interesting things where I was, I began to have small successes. I published an essay here, was asked to give a talk there. Each time, however, I did not know if I could call what had happened “a success” — it felt too familiar. I was just doing what I liked to do, only for money or in front of people. Neither the world nor I had changed.

It took me many more years to understand that everything I would ever create, whether I called that creation a success or failure, was an extension of something I already had. The books were an extension of ideas and feelings living within me, and my talks and classes were extensions of a conversation I’d been having for as long as I could remember. The environment of the experiences was new, but the source of those experiences was not. This is what is meant when we say we “have everything we need.” We do.

The difference, however, between what I have to come to understand as success, and the long, unhappy, frustrating path I used to believe I was traveling toward success, was not the environment. The difference had nothing to do with money or attention. The difference was life with and without one question: Do I have what it takes? To allow this question to hang unanswered in my heart is to live in an unreal city of fear. To release it is to have what I have always had, and live in the only reality I was born to know.

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

Out of Time

I would not have guessed, when I began teaching Fearless Writing, that the most common problem my students would face was time. To be precise, finding time to write, a subject about which I have written often in this space. I would not have guessed it would be such a problem because I had never considered it a problem in my own writing life. Since boyhood I had always set aside plenty of time to write. No problem.

Like most teachers, I teach what I most want to learn, and I think my students and I are not so very different in our concerns about time. It is one thing to set aside two hours a day to write; it is another thing to spend those two hours productively. And by productively, I don’t mean pounding out a certain number of words or pages; I mean entering into that dreamlike flow where I forget about everything but the story I’m telling, where I am receiving more than making, listening more than thinking.

If I am in that state of mind, I really don’t care if I produce 400 words or 4,000 words. I don’t care where what I’ve written will be published or what anyone will think of it. When I’m in that flow, all I care about is being in that flow. There is no better feeling than focusing on something completely, without any judgment or expectation, without any thought of what I have done or might do. There is no better feeling than living the in present moment.

Which is why time remains the single biggest obstruction to my creativity and productivity. Not the lack of time, simply the awareness of it. When I enter into the creative flow, I forget about the past and the future. I forget about guilt, which exists entirely in the past, and I forget about worry, which waits entirely in the future. Moreover, without the past or the future, there is no time, there is only an endless now.

I am reticent to even write the words “endless now,” as that concept is so elusive it appears not to even exist. It is easier for the imagination to picture the past or future than the present moment. In fact, my imagination cannot picture the present moment. It can, however, enter it, and when it does, it is released from the burden of correcting what is unreal and freed to create what is real.

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

The Gift

Lingering in the back of everyone’s mind is the sometimes quiet, sometimes very loud question, “Am I good enough?” We spend so much time grading, comparing, judging and ranking ourselves that I don’t know how a person could avoid asking this question at least once, if only to test how it feels. It feels lousy, if you haven’t noticed, even just to ask it. Unfortunately, it also smells like the sort of question one must be able to answer “Yes!” to, because if we’re not good enough . . . well, that would be a problem, wouldn’t it?

Writers decide to write for many reasons. Usually, they love to write. Also, they would like to make money doing what they love. But these are not always the only reasons. Sometimes writers write and submit the stories and poems they’ve written so that these stories and poems will be rejected.

Yes, to be rejected. The more often you ask if you are good enough—and it matters not what you are pretending to wonder you are good enough at, that question only ever refers to us as a whole—the more likely the answer will be no. But we can answer no so quietly, so habitually, that we will soon grow accustomed to the sustained discomfort it provides.

You will not have that luxury as the rejection letters come in. Likely as not that quiet voice that whispered no sabotaged your story for this very purpose. Now, you will have to feel self-rejection acutely, and you will feel it again and again and again until you decide you are worthy of a life free from this suffering.

Such a gift, writing. Oh, I know, this is a gift you’d like to give back. Except that you crave, beyond any agent, publishing contract or Amazon ranking, the unequivocal yes you already are. Our lives are led to hold this permanently in our hearts, though it has never been anywhere else.

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

Unreal Journey

I quit college when I was twenty-one to become a writer. That was the plan, anyway. I didn’t need to spend tens of thousands of dollars at a university to write; I could do it for free at my desk. The problem was that although I loved to write and had a naturally diligent work ethic, the plan to become a writer felt entirely like a fantasy. I could not feel the sequential connection between the reality of sitting at my desk typing words onto a blank page and the reality of those words being read by strangers in a published book.

It made the supposed job of writer confusing. The job of writer felt nothing like the other job I took to earn money. Nothing about the job of waiting tables at a café and then a BBQ joint felt anything like a fantasy. That was reality, baby. That was a time card, and cash in my hands, and actual living people to laugh with and complain about. The job of waiting tables felt like life as I already understood it.

The fantasy of the job called writing did not. The act of writing felt like reality because I’d been doing that all my life. But the job of writing, of author, felt as unreal as a city I had never visited. Post cards and guidebooks and movies cannot begin to simulate the experience of living in the city itself. And so it was as if I was on a journey, but because I could not see my destination, every step I took felt as unreal as my imagination’s rendering of the city to which I believed I was headed.

Strange, but I needed to look to no further than the very stories I was telling to know how to get where I wanted to go. A book is written one word at a time, each word the best the writer can choose at that moment. There is no other way. So too that unreal journey. I never needed to know what the city looked like or what I would do when I got there. The only one question I have ever needed ask is, “What is the best step I can take at this very moment?” The answer is reality; the rest is a dream.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

On the Wave

When people ask, I say I write about writing, but this is not completely true. Mostly I write about and teach how to get into the frame of mind in which writing is possible. This is step one for every writer, whether they are writing poetry, steampunk romance, or memoire. Of course many a story, poem, or essay has been written from a different frame of mind. I know, because I’ve done it. When people talk about writing being “hard,” this is what they mean. When I am in the wrong frame of mind, writing is like trying to get to shore by paddling and paddling, just me on my little surfboard and an ocean full of antagonistic currents.

Most of the time I couldn’t even get where I wanted to go. If I did manage to drag myself to the beach, everything I created along the way was full of the struggle and frustration and confusion I experienced on my journey. In short, I had shared a view of life I myself would not want to live. But I’d done it. I’d put words on the page. I’d acted like a writer.

On the other hand, to be in the correct frame of mind is to wait for a wave of curiosity and interest to carry me to shore. If one comes along, and if it is strong, I will need what we call craft to stay with it and not fall off. But the wave itself does most of the work. It’s bigger than me, and has more energy than me, and is going where it’s going whether I want to come along or not.

I have fallen off these sorts of waves many, many times. How disappointing it was. I had such hope for it! Yet the correct writing frame of mind has everything to do with knowing that more waves are coming. They will not — and indeed cannot — stop. It is not in their nature. But I must remember this and trust that it is true. On the ocean of creativity, waves are not perceivable until I believe they exist. Until I can believe in what will come rather than what I currently see, my world will appear flat, and all movement will be meaningless and random.

So I let my mind be still and my thoughts go quiet, and wait for what I know must come when I have cleared away the clutter and noise of doubt and worry and impatience. It is not long before I feel that slow build of energy that says a wave is coming, and then I see an image, a memory, and now words themselves, and I am on my way.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Blank Page

I read once that Ernest Hemingway called the blank page “the white bull.” I fully understand this. The blank page is mercilessly indifferent. It doesn’t care how many books you’ve written or awards you’ve won. It doesn’t care if you’re married or divorced, if a loved one just died or your first child was just born. It offers no advice or critique or clue about what you are going to write. It does not believe in right or wrong. It waits for you as it waits for anyone who has ever sat down to write.

The blank page also lays bare the role choice plays in my life. Not one thing appears on that page until I choose to put it there. I am not always happy with my life, and the unhappier I am, the more I want to blame other people for that unhappiness. Surely I wouldn’t have created this; it must be someone else’s fault. I cannot play that game with the blank page. My acceptance of creative responsibility must be as complete as the page is indifferent.

Which is why I sometimes fear it. The smaller and more insignificant I feel – the more life feels like something happening to me rather than something passing through me – the less capable I feel of accepting this responsibility. The blank page exposes me. There is nowhere to hide on the blank page, nor does it allow me to dream of a future where my potential will at last be realized. The blank page stands in the here and now, more honest than a mirror.

As my relationship with that blank page has evolved, however, I have learned to make a friend of it. I rarely feel as happy and on purpose as when I have allowed myself to enter the creative stream of a story I am telling. I cannot enter that stream without the blank page, for the stream is unique to me: it is a current of thought moving in the direction of my unique interest. How nice to begin my workday with a friend who always asks, “What do you care about most in the world? Let’s go pursue it.”

And when I am away from my desk, and I am feeling myself pulled in some dark direction, when I perceive clouds of doom gathering around my future, I have taught myself to remember that blank page. I will not be happy again, I know, until I allow my mind to become as blank as that page. To do so, I must stop telling myself stories about what I see and hear and read, must slow this current of thought enough that I might get out of my boat and take a look around.

It is literally impossible to know what I will see from this fresh place when I am caught in the shadows of despair and doubt. It is not my job to fix my life or improve my life, it is only ever my job to find that blank page and learn again what it offers, to enter the stream of life that is already flowing.

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