Back to the Well

Sometimes when I first sit down to write, I turn my attention to the well from which my stories come and find nothing. This is partly a consequence of writing these little essays, which I must begin from scratch each day, but I have also experienced the dry well when working on larger projects. When I was a very young writer, and had made the decision that I wanted to be a writer and not simply write when I felt like it, I thought I could manufacture the ideas the well would have otherwise provided. It seemed like the adult thing to do. Adults, from my limited experience, manufactured everything.

The manufacturing of ideas went very poorly. It was like trying to build a flower, which is to say I didn’t even know how to begin. This was vaguely worrisome. My life and livelihood were to depend on these ideas. If I was not their sole source, how could I create with any certainty? How could I know that ideas would come as bright and lovely tomorrow as they did today?

It was a good question that, like many good questions, sat unanswered in my heart until it became a complaint. This particular complaint had a metaphysical flavor to it, which gave it poetic credibility: “Oh, capricious Muse, wherefore art thou?” Eventually, I grew tired of that flavor, finally tasting the bitterness beneath its tangy drama. I saw then where that bitterness came from; I saw how easy it would be to live your life in that very bitterness, feeling abandoned and disappointed and resentful.

Which is to say, I let myself answer the question. If you’ve ever answered this question for yourself then you know it is impossible to describe where the ideas come from; you know only that they come. All we need, I have learned, is a good question. The better the question, the better the answer. Be careful with your questions, however. If it’s a really good one, the answer will arrive with such force that you may fear its momentum. You may feel unready or undeserving, a child who’s stumbled into an adult’s game. Fortunately, the longer you resist the answer, the more you will suffer, until the suffering becomes greater than the fear, and the well becomes a river flowing.

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 Clear Path

Writing a book can be quite a long journey. Sometimes it takes six months and sometimes it takes six years. Often, a book lives in an author for years before he ever begins writing it. The book is an idea that won’t leave him alone, or to which he finds his attention returning on long drives or idle hours at work. Sometimes the journey is so long, is so woven into the fabric of his daily life that it doesn’t feel like a journey at all, just something he’ll be doing for the rest of his life.

I’d always loved the idea of journeys ever since I read the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo walks out of his garden gate with a mysterious magic ring in his pocket. I was only thirteen but I knew I wanted to be on a meaningful journey. What that journey would be, I couldn’t say. I was uninterested in travel, in seeing foreign lands. I knew I wanted to tell stories, but I wasn’t sure telling stories really constituted a journey.

Years later, when I was writing those stories but unable to find a home for them, I often felt as if I was going around in circles. I would sometimes moan to my wife, “Nothing’s changing!” When you’re on a journey, things are always changing. No matter what I wrote, the outcome was always the same.

Except even as I saw myself going around in these circles, certain ideas came niggling at me, ideas about the relationship between fear and creativity, between free will and the blank page. These ideas didn’t seem like the beginnings to the kinds of stories I was currently telling, but they were very interesting all the same. I would find myself returning to them every chance I could. They seemed important to me, as if I was unlocking a mystery.

By and by those very interesting ideas turned into interviews, and essays, and workshops, and books. Once all of that had manifested, as we say, it was easy to see the straight path between an idea that wouldn’t quit niggling at me and a career. It’s so clear, that when a new idea comes, as one did recently, I now see a new path where before I would have only seen something to think about when my journey seemed stalled.

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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Resolved

We’re coming to that time of year when people think about starting something new. It’s a new year, and the holidays are over, and people are getting back to work, and now – now feels like the time to start that novel or get back to running or redo the kitchen. Many of us make resolutions; some of us even write those resolutions down. The unwise make public declarations, which can sometimes feel like accomplishment enough that the resolution goes unfulfilled.

I have never been one for New Years resolutions, but that is only because despite the holidays and getting back to work, January has never felt enough like the beginning of something. It has always felt like the dead middle of winter, and winter is such a hibernating season, such a seasons of being indoors, and bare trees, and dormant lawns, and frozen ponds, and days and days of shadow. I know life continues as ever in winter, but it seems to do so off stage. It feels like a time of year for trusting in what you cannot see, and for patience. Spring will come, and everything will grow again.

I don’t mean to make too much of the seasons. I’m a man of habits, and I don’t generally let a thing like the calendar get in the way of those habits. Writing, of course, is one such a habit. It’s a habit I cultivated and have no intention of breaking. I’ve had to break any number of habits in my life; in fact, I have a couple in mind now that could use a good breaking. I didn’t know they were habits until recently, but now that I’ve spotted them I know they have to go.

One of these habits is rather sticky, and I kind of wish I were a resolution-making guy. I think resolutions can be a good trick. I’ve tricked myself into doing things in the past. For instance, I once tricked myself into believing no one was reading this column, which helped me forget to care what people would think about what I was writing it. That was probably the best trick I ever pulled on myself.

Tricks won’t work for this habit, though. I’m simply going to have to find the resolve within myself. That resolve is there, even if I can’t always find it. The resolve is obscured beneath the very same habits it would help me break. When I find it, it always asks the same question: “Are you done convincing yourself this thing makes you happier?” As soon as the answer is yes, the shadow lifts and something new begins to grow.

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 Better Question

I was a philosophical young man, by which I mean I would from time to time find myself asking, “What is the meaning of life?” I really did find myself asking that. I’d ask it after all other questions had been exhausted, after what I perceived as unnecessary and capricious suffering had gone unanswered. I did not really ask the question expecting an answer, which is good because one never came. I sometimes took this silence as an indication there was no meaning at all, but mostly it left me quietly confused.

The confusion reminded me of how I’d feel when I was writing a story that wouldn’t finish. Sometimes I’d think about that story: “Well, maybe it just can’t be finished.” I didn’t ask this often because I ultimately had faith that all stories could be finished if you looked at them from the right angle. That was the trick. If what you were doing wasn’t working you had to turn the story, ask a different question about it, and by and by you’d unlock it and away you’d go.

That was always the best. I was never happier than when that story had been unlocked. I didn’t know how it was going to end but I knew I was on the path, and all I had to do was ask, “What next?” and an answer would soon come. I did have to learn what it felt like to be on the path rather than just near it. That took some time, but all that was required to learn that difference was honesty, which I could usually manage in the privacy of my workroom.

After about twenty-five years of this practice I noticed that I wasn’t asking what the meaning of life was anymore, though I did still suffer. Now when I suffered I’d ask, “Where’s the path?” This was a better question. In fact, it’s really the only question. Everyone’s answer is going to be different to that question, just as every writer will tell a different story. To hear the answer is to find yourself again and again, find yourself not in a place but in a direction, moving forward with the flow of 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

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The Holiday Season

It is very hard to try to do two things at once. It is very hard to love someone while simultaneously believing you must protect yourself from them, or that you must always be right, or that there are good people in the world and bad people in the world. Likewise it is hard to listen to your creative potential, your muse, your imagination if you simultaneously believe that you must write perfectly, or that you must know that what you’re creating now will succeed later, or that no one wants to hear from someone like you.

Be glad it is hard to do two things at once. All these stories of protecting ourselves and being right, all these stories of writing perfectly and success, are our invention. They are not real, and so can only be maintained by our constant attention. The truth, meanwhile, requires nothing of us. Love cannot be manufactured, only perceived. Our imagination cannot be commanded, only received. How kind life is to make suffering exhausting.

Eventually, everyone must rest. We will complain about our suffering first, and march in protest about how hard it is, and form committees to determine why everything is so hard, but by and by, because these stories are not actually a part of reality, we will either forget to tell them or grow weary of telling them. Either way, the truth of love, the truth of our creative potential, will be waiting for us when we do.

We will celebrate such moments. “The good stuff was really coming today,” we’ll say. Or we’ll say, “I had a great time with my wife. No arguments, no debate. Just fun.” These are like holiday seasons, respites of pleasure from the grind of life. But the other day a cashier asked me if I was looking forward to the weekend. “My life’s a weekend,” I confessed. And I didn’t realize until I said it that it was true.

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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Curious Discovery

Years ago, when I started writing this column on a daily basis, a regular reader asked how I found something to say about writing five days a week. I found the question difficult to answer. I didn’t actually know how I did it, I just did it, which as a teacher isn’t any kind of answer at all. So I said something about trust, which I knew was at least in the vicinity of the answer. The full answer, however, kept nagging at me like a story that wanted to be finished.

The more students and clients I’ve worked with since that reader asked me his question, the more I’ve come to understand that my first impulsive answer was in many ways the most accurate. That is, I was able to write prolifically when I understood that I didn’t have to know what I was going to write about. In creative writing, I had found a subject about which I remained interested on a daily basis. I saw the act of writing as a clear metaphor for life itself, for the every day and every moment creative act of choosing and choosing what to think and do and say next, just as I must choose and choose every next word on the page. All I needed to do was sit down and think about what had caught my attention recently, either in my domestic life or my writing life. If I’m awake, something is always catching my attention. My job then was to describe what had caught my attention and follow it where it wanted to go.

This, I know, is the part that’s hard to describe. This is the mysterious part, and the part I most look forward to while writing. This is the discovery. Without the discovery, I couldn’t stay interested. Which is why it’s so important that I not know what I am going to write specifically. It’s like imposing a kind of willful innocence on myself. As an adult, I like to think I know a lot of stuff and how to get where I’m going and what to do and why things happen. As a writer I must forget all this knowing and see the world as a child would, with a curiosity unburdened by judgment.

Though in truth I’m a bit like parent and child while writing. The parent in me knows that the answer to every question a story asks is: Everything is okay. That is something I’ve learned as an adult that I only suspected a child. Interestingly, I write a little less about writing these days because I have found a new metaphor in parenting. No matter; it’s all life anyway. My only job is to wake up and pay attention and be curious about what I’ll discover today.

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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Unplanned

A few days ago I published this essay based on an experience I’d had working with a client. I like the essay, but it’s not what I’d meant to write about. What I had intended to write about when I sat down was how during my session with this client, while I was talking and talking to her about her inherent creativity and talent, I’d said, “You have to be relentlessly optimistic and curious.”

“Ooh,” she said, and made a note. “That’s good.”

“What’s good?”

“Relentlessly optimistic and curious. You should make T Shirts that say that.”

“Oh, right. Well that’s what you’ve got to be.” And I was on the next thing. Teaching is like writing in that when you’re cooking you’re always on to the next thing. Besides, I only said what I’d said because I was trying to help her feel her own creative potential. When we’d wrapped up our session and were headed for the door, she said, “I’m still thinking about relentlessly optimistic and curious.”

“It’s as much yours as mine, kiddo,” I said. “I wouldn’t have thought of it without you.”

That’s how it works, and why I love teaching. The student inspires the teacher who inspires the student who inspires the teacher.

So that, as I mentioned, is what I’d meant to write about. But it’s not what I wrote about. As often happens, a sentence came along early in the piece and I decided to follow it instead of where I had originally planned to go. This is what makes writing fun. I have learned to trust the surprising idea that feels more real and more interesting and more necessary than my plans. When this happens, the plan seems like the excuse my subconscious used to bring my attention to what really needed to be said.

These surprises, however, are also a big reason I am a writing coach. Many of my clients have not yet learned to fully trust these surprises more than their plans. It’s understandable. What if the surprises stop coming? What if they take you somewhere you don’t want to go? Experience has taught me that they never stop coming and they always take me somewhere I want to be – but everyone must experience and learn this for themselves.

In the meantime, I can sooth and encourage them to trust what I know is trustworthy. I have learned that teaching is most effective when I find new language to say what I have said before. Every student is different, after all, and every student is surprising. Tempting to lean on the old hits, so to speak. But better to trust that something new and something better and something inspiring will come along that neither of us had planned on but both of us needed.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Self-Confidence

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

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

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

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

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Acceptable Answers

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

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

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

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

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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The Dream Ends

If you’re a regular reader of this column you may have noticed that there are two signature elements of my life that I write about again and again: my relationship with my wife, and my relationship to being an author. Both these relationships were for some time largely driven by yearning.

I was a very romantic boy who spent his childhood quietly yearning to meet a certain kind of girl. Then he met such a girl, fell in love with her, only to have her move far away six months later. I spent the next seven years pining for her, dreaming of what life might be like if we together again, and grousing about cruel and indifferent fate that separated me from her. Then I found her again, and we have been together ever since.

In addition to being a romantic boy, I was also a boy who loved to write. Once I moved in with my now wife I began writing stories in earnest and sending them off to agents and publishers. For many, many years those agents and publishers all said, “No, thank you.” My days were marked by long hours dreaming of what life would be like when I’d found success as an author, and dark hours fearing that success would never come.

Now that I am living every day with Jen, my wife, and writing books and talking to people about those books, I am confronted with a new challenge: I must live without yearning. Romantics like me secretly enjoy yearning. There is a kind of delicious agony you can maintain by wanting and never quite having. That wanting seems to be what drives your story forward. The having means the credits role, and there is nothing more to tell.

It’s why it took me so long to kiss Jen. I’d go to her house and sit in her living room and talk and talk, and then we’d stand in her doorway saying goodbye, and I’d think, “Kiss her. Kiss! Her!” But I wouldn’t. I knew I loved her as I hadn’t my other girlfriends, and I knew that kissing her would turn dreaming into reality. What if reality was no different?

When we finally kissed, I said to Jen, “Well, that took a while.” She replied, “You could have done that a long time ago.” Such is always the case. Everything I have ever yearned for had long been available to me, even publishing success. There is no point in yearning for love. It’s what I’m made of. I can, however, look for it where it isn’t, and dream of the day I’ll find what I’ve always had.

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