Deus Ex Machina

The best piece of writing I did in high school was also the last piece of writing I did in high school. Our principal had died suddenly in the middle of my senior year, and I was asked to say a few words about him at the graduation before giving his widow a copy of the yearbook, which we had dedicated to him. Both the knowledge that I would be speaking to the entire senior class and their families as well the solemn shadow of death cast over the occasion, focused me in a way the short stories I toiled over did not. I wrote that little speech in one shot, and when I read it to my yearbook advisor – who only a year before had suggested I make up stories and let other people write them – her voice choked when she said, “Yes. That’ll definitely do.”

A year later I wrote personal essay for my freshman composition class. I had never written a personal essay before. I found it easier than all the short stories I crafted and crafted and crafted. My professor told me it was the best essay he’d read in his fifteen years teaching the class. “Huh,” I thought, and then went back to my short stories.

I got better at writing fiction but it was never effortless. No matter. I had heard that writing was hard and I believed it. After twenty years of crafting and struggling I found myself writing personal essays again for this magazine, and they were exactly as easy for me to write as the one I wrote in Freshman Composition. But I was also teaching, and sometimes when I wrote my essays I’d get so excited by the ideas that I’d hop out of my chair and practice delivering the essays and lectures. I found that what I wrote taught me how speak, and whenever I spoke I was inspired to write more.

In my freshman year in college I also studied Aristotle. In his Poetics he said the ideal ending to a story should be “surprising but inevitable.” I have to agree. It’s no good if your reader sees the ending coming two-thirds of the way through your story, but the must all be in place. The surprising but inevitable ending was preferable, he believed, than those endings that depended on a deus ex machina, or the “machine of the gods.” Sometimes in Greek theater a machine would lower a character playing a god onto the stage in the final act, whereupon the god would sort out the mess the characters had created, punishing the bad and rewarding the good.

If you had told me twenty years ago that I’d be writing personal essays and giving inspirational talks, I’d have been very surprised. Then again, if I’d looked at the clues all about me, I might have seen how inevitable this conclusion was. But at that I was still waiting for my own deus ex machina in the form of a published novel to sort out the mess of my life. While I waited and struggled, life kept sorting itself for me, with or without my help. There is a machine of the gods, I believe, but it is always functioning in our lives. We just have to learn how to use 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

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Easy

When I was a teenager, I knew just a few things for certain, one of which was that I wanted a girlfriend. I knew I wanted a girlfriend the way I knew I liked David Bowie’s album Ziggy Stardust and T. S. Eliot’s poetry, and the way I knew I liked playing football and the game Dungeons & Dragons. I knew what happiness felt like, and I knew I preferred it to the alternative, and I also knew that all those other things that made me happy could not take the place of what I believed waited for me in the unique happiness of The Girlfriend.

I say believed, because when I had girlfriends, that unique happiness never quite materialized. In its place was an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying exploration. The difference between what I could picture in my mind when I thought Girlfriend and what was actually happening was the stuff of mournful sonnets and love songs. It was my own mental clarity around the subject that confounded me. I absolutely knew this experience could be better, the way I knew what happiness felt like. So why wasn’t it better?

The answer, of course, was that I was only seeing half a picture in my mind. I was seeing Me with Somebody. I could see me quite clearly; I just didn’t understand that the Somebody couldn’t be just Anybody. Then I met Jen, and I understood. I hadn’t wanted A Girlfriend. I had wanted to be with Jen, but I just hadn’t met her yet.

I made this same mistake with writing for a very long time. I knew I wanted to publish a book, the way I had once known I wanted a girlfriend. I had the exact same mental clarity around the subject, as well as the same confusion. Part of the reason I had wanted A Girlfriend was that any girl who said “Yes” to me could help me believe I was desirable. A published book, I hoped, would have the same effect. It took me many interesting but ultimately unsatisfying explorations to conclude that I didn’t want to publish just any book.

It was when I asked myself, “What book do you desire to publish?” that the experience of writing and publishing matched the pleasure I had believed it could bring me. It was like that first date with Jen. We sat there eating chocolate cake at Penguin’s Cafe, talking and talking and talking, and I thought, “This is easy.” It was, to that point, the easiest thing I’d ever done. Nothing was required of me other than following my own curiosity, which always led me right back to Jen.

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

 

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

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A Visit with an Old Friend

When Fearless Writing was published in May of this year, I found myself in my local Barnes & Noble where, against my better judgment, I drifted over to the Writing and Publishing section to see if my book was in stock. Bookstores, you see, even larger bookstores like B&N, don’t stock every single published book. Like a lot of writers, I’ve had a lifelong conversation with Disappointment, who for a time seemed to be a constant companion of mine. I hadn’t heard from him in a while, but maybe he was wandering the bookstore now, ready to resume our dialogue.

To my mild surprise the book was there – and shelved face out, rather than spine out. Well, I reasoned, they probably do that with all the new books. As it happens, the shelf on which it was displayed was visible from the escalator, so that the next time I was in the store I could peer “casually” in that direction without risking running square into Disappointment, who would be standing exactly where the book used to be. Yet there it was, still face out. I worried for a moment that it was there only because it wasn’t selling, but my inner Publishing Professional quickly talked me down off that ledge.

A couple months later I was back in the store, and there was the book, still face out on the same shelf. This time, however, I noticed that this was not just any shelf. This was the “Top Picks in Writing and Publishing” shelf. They must know I’m local, I thought, and so they’re doing me a favor.

Then recently I was in the store again, and there was the book, still on that shelf, still face out. I found a bookseller and asked her about the Top Picks. Were those books chosen by this particular store? “Oh no,” she told me. “Those books are chosen by Corporate depending on what’s selling well nationally.”

“Nationally?” I said.

“That’s correct.”

I had to make sure I’d heard it right. Disappointment can be an annoying fellow. He’ll be jabbering in your ear and you mistake a No for a Yes. It happens. I thanked her and headed for the escalator, and as I glanced once more toward the shelf, there was my old friend, arms folded, shaking his head. He was smiling though. We’ve gotten to know each other pretty well over the years. I knew I’d meet him every time I tried to predict my happy future, and he, I believe, had always known I would be fine however the future unfolded.

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

 

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

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Know Your Job

Up until the end of his fourth grade in school, getting my eldest son Max to do his homework was an exhausting exercise in parenting gymnastics. My wife invented games and songs and stories to make his work seem as friendly as possible. We created rules and rewards. We took his Gameboy away and we gave his Gameboy back. None of it worked. Every night was a competition between what he needed to do for school and what he wanted to do for himself.

One night I helped him write a report on John Adams. There was the blank page. His page was exactly as blank as mine when I sat at my desk every morning. Only he could fill it. I offered him prompts. I asked him questions about John Adams. I even suggested outlining his one page paper. By the end, I did everything but stick the pen between his fingers and move pen and fist across the page.

Then, one evening, Max took his homework into his room and did it without our assistance. When my wife asked if he needed help, he shooed her away. That was that. He eventually told us that he came to understand that school was a game he needed to play if he wanted to do certain things later in life. Now he and school were aligned, and we were no longer necessary.

Sometimes when I am trying very hard to write a book, I feel as if I am back in Max’s bedroom working on that John Adams paper. No matter how creative I was, no matter how supportive I was, I couldn’t do Max’s job. Likewise with the stories I would like to tell. My job is to be curious and open and keep asking questions; my imagination’s job is to do every thing else. I’ve tried to do both jobs and I am left feeling like a failure. No wonder. I’ve given myself an impossible task.

But when I remember my job and how simple it is, I feel like a success again. I know how to be curious, I know how to be open, and I know how to ask questions. That’s easy. In fact, it’s so easy I have to remind myself every day what my job is and what my job isn’t. And when our work is done, and if I have been disciplined about doing only my job, I leave my desk aligned with an ambition that knows only success.

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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Choosing Games

It is not unusual when I am teaching a workshop at a conference or interviewing a writer to find myself talking about money. These conversations always remind me of the squabbles my wife and I have over money, because those squabbles are never actually about money. Usually we’re squabbling about safety, or our own creative potential, but money is so tangible and measureable and necessary that it seems simpler just to argue about whether we should buy that new sofa than about where safety does or does not exist.

Money reminds me of a race I ran in second grade. Our teacher lined every student up at one end of the playground and told us to run as fast we could to the wall at the other end of the playground. First one there was the winner. She yelled go and I ran. I loved running. I loved harnessing all my body’s energy, and I even loved the race, as it provided a reason to do so. On that day, I was the first to reach the wall.

But as I touched the wall, and looked down the line at all the other boys and girls finishing after me, I had an unusual thought for an eight year-old: The only reason I won, it occurred to me, wasn’t that I was faster than the rest of them, but that I was the one who was most fully committed to the race. All my energy had been focused in one place and for one purpose, but from where I stood, I could feel how the other children’s energy had been split, and that made all the difference.

The problem with that race was that everyone had to run it whether they wanted to or not. In this way, though we all started and ended in the same place, it was not a fair race. Yet once it was run, everyone had to contend with the questions that always arise within us when we compare ourselves to others. Some would remember their indifference to the race and dismiss these questions; others, I am sure, did not.

Making money is a lot like a game we are all made to play. As we line ourselves up at the starting line of adulthood, money can seem to be a universal measurement upon which everyone’s value is based. After all, everyone wants it, and everyone would like more of it, and some succeed in making lots and lots of it and some do not. I was one of those who did not.

I did not because my energy was split. I am a writer. I do not write to make money. I write because I love to write. I had written stories since I was a boy. In this way, writing was like play. Earning money, meanwhile, seemed like the most adult thing I could do. And so I played a game I didn’t want to play: the game of making money for money’s sake. I thought it was a stupid game, but I was still unhappy when I lost at it.

I lost and lost and lost at it until I decided to play a different game: I would see how much money I could make doing something I would happily do for free. I knew when I began playing this game that I did not really understand the rules, nor was I very good at it. No matter. The key to any game is the wanting to play it, and I wanted to. By and by, I got better at it, and I am still playing it today.

Games are great, but it is important to remember that they’re make-believe. We create the starting line and finishing line; we make the rules and choose the prize. And no one has to play. I can quit anytime I want, and look around the playground, and see what interests me most. That interest, that ceaseless creative impulse that has traveled with me my entire life, remains the only authority to which I must listen. Only it knows which races are worth my running, and which ones can be left to others.

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

 

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

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What’s the Point?

My wife and I have been homeschooling our youngest son Sawyer since he was thirteen because he could not cope with the traditional classroom. Neither Jen or I had any regrets about choosing to homeschool him, but as he got older Sawyer became increasingly worried that his education was not preparing him to lead a normal, independent, successful life. Now that he is 18, he voices those concerns nearly everyday.

I must point out that Sawyer’s worries are not totally unfounded. Even by homeschooling standards his education has been very unorthodox, a situation for which he is almost entirely responsible. Sawyer, you see, simply cannot make himself do something if he doesn’t want to do it. We would start many a lesson only to have him abandon it mid-class from lack of interest. This is why traditional school was impossible. In school, we are always asking children to do something whether they feel like doing it or not. My wife and I, like a lot of people, could manage this. Sawyer could not, and so here we are.

I happen to know there is nothing wrong with where we are, but it is hard for Sawyer to see what I see. These days, in the middle of our class, he’ll bury his face in the couch cushion and moan, “What’s the point? I’ll never go to college. I’ll never be able to sit through a GED test.” The other day, instead of bucking him up, I suggested we just start our music class. “What’s the point?” he asked again.

“You like it,” I said.

“Fine” he replied, and trudged over to the piano.

One of the things I’ve seen is that Sawyer has an intuitive musical understanding. I’ve seen this since he was three, when he drummed along to Hey Jude and his rhythm was spot on. This afternoon we were working on composition, for which he also has a knack. “Don’t modulate,” I told him as he started playing. “Just for this exercise, stay in the same key.”

He agreed, and began a chord progression. In the middle of the song he stopped and looked up at me conspiratorially. “You see what I did there? I skipped over C Major. I hate C Major. It’s such a boring, vanilla chord.”

I quite like C Major, and so we began to have little debate about its value. I suspected that Sawyer, a natural contrarian, didn’t like C Major because it’s sort of the mother of all chords, making it too mainstream. I had an idea. I told him to sit on the couch while I played a series of major chords. I was so certain that his objections weren’t based on the sound of C Major, but the idea of C Major. If he didn’t know a C Major was being played, he’d have a different idea of it. So I started. A Flat Major, D Major, G Major, E Flat Major, C Major—”

“See what I mean? It’s just so boring.”

I looked at my son. He was not even mildly impressed that he could easily identify a C Major chord by ear. His attitude suggested he believed anyone could. Anyone could not. I thought of how often, when I was 18 – and 28, and 38 – I found myself asking, “What’s the point?” I just wanted some certainty that the seeds I was planting would grow into something meaningful and interesting. Yet all my plans and ideas could offer me no guarantees other than my interest in them.

I’m in my own garden now, and everything that bloomed tallest and strongest grew out of what came most easily to me, what I often assumed everyone knew and everyone could do. The point, I continue learn, is always right in front of me – in the next most interesting step, the next most interesting word.

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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Making Something

I have always thought of myself as ambitious, which, if pressed, I’d have once admitted was the steady and quiet desire to make something of myself. I would not be some idle passenger in my own life, twiddling my thumbs until they dumped me in the ground; I would grab the wheel and captain this ship to some port of my own choosing. I would go somewhere.

The problem with wanting to go somewhere and make something of myself is that I am always somewhere and I am always something. I have tried calling some places nowhere and I have looked in the mirror from time to time and thought maybe I was nothing, but these perceptions had the same unreality of the stories a writer cannot make himself write. Just as when I have found myself forcing a story somewhere it didn’t want to go, I learned eventually to step back from the mirror and let my mind return to stillness, a quiet space removed from the din of doubt and comparison.

I cannot fear this stillness. I cannot mistake it for the catastrophic termination of a shipwreck. As a writer, I have had to make a friend of that stillness as I have the blank page. That is where I must go to understand my role in my own life. I have come to see writing as my decision to join a conversation already in progress. It is a conversation that began long before I was born and will continue long after I have died. It is a conversation that only gets better and richer and more interesting as it evolves and draws in more and more participants.

Writing in this way taught me that what I call ambition is merely the decision to participate in my own inevitable evolution. The stillness of the blank page reminds me that my choices are my role in that evolution. No one can make those choices for me; stories do not write themselves. Whether I choose to write or not, however, does not stop the desire to write, that ceaseless call from life to join in the conversation. The moment I choose to heed that call, I am exactly where I want to be, and I remember again exactly what I am.

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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No Illusions

A writer must have no illusions.

A writing life cannot be supported by fantasies of genius. Our little fantasies are at best shadows of our actual genius, which, when freed from doubt, feels as normal to us as breathing. Our fantasies, meanwhile, are like the dreams of breathing that a man has while he is drowning.

A writer must have no illusions about talent. The illusion that some are talented and some are not, that some have it what takes and some do not, turns the page into an unfriendly proving ground where the writer must inevitably fail. The writer must accept that talent is an expression of our curiosity unfettered by judgment, not the result of some cosmic game of genetic roulette.

A writer must have no illusions about the value of what’s been written. Any number we assign, high or low, is a fantasy of speculation, a long, hard look in a fun house mirror. What number would we assign to that holy instant a reader becomes lost in the same dream we dreamed while writing?

For what is a writer but a hypnotist, and what is the reader but a willing subject? Both surrender to a reality beyond the world they can see and touch, a reality given life in a realm as limitless as it is private. The more complete the surrender, the more satisfying the journey. It is a journey where author and reader meet regardless of the dull and tiny specifics of time and space. It is a journey where we forget our name, and we forget our past, and we forget all the stories we tell ourselves as we tramp around the world we can see and touch.

It is a journey, finally, to a life without end. We close the book, we finish the story, but nothing is over. Reader and writer are always left with something both complete and still growing. To see it otherwise is to believe too fully in the world we can see and touch, a world where things fall apart, and have price tags, and are argued over. The writer must have no illusions about that world. It is no more real than the words on the page, empty marks brought to life where all reality is born.

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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Waiting For Life

I was twenty-four and had recently relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a career in screenwriting. I didn’t have an idea for a movie I wanted to write, nor was I much interested in the screenplay format, but I wanted to be successful, and Hollywood seemed like the success Mecca. One of the many benefits I believed success granted was plentiful money. I was not the sort of fellow who wanted many things, but I knew didn’t want to worry about money. I hated worrying about money. It drained all the fun out of life.

So I answered a want ad for waiters for a new restaurant opening in Torrance. I drove the hour from Venice where I was crashing with a friend. My commute in Providence, where I’d grown up, had been a ten-minute walk; in LA, an hour was the norm. I found the restaurant in a pleasant, shady outdoor mall, and sat for the initial interview with the head chef at a patio table on the sidewalk beneath an awning. He told me he liked me and that he would hire me on the spot, but that I needed to interview with the owner first, who would be back from lunch soon. Could I hang around for an hour? I told him I could.

I went for a walk. Torrance, which I had never heard of until that afternoon, was a clean, orderly, coastal suburb. Though the mall was somewhat inland, as I strolled the tree-lined streets I could smell the ocean’s salty tang when a breeze stirred. I found a park and wandered along past benches and picnic tables. I was working up a little sweat, and so I found a tall tree across from a playground and lay down in its shade.

I closed my eyes, but I wasn’t remotely tired. I opened them again and stared up through the branches and leaves at the perfectly blue California sky. I could hear the children calling to one another in the playground, and the surrounding white hum of traffic, and the singular, nearing roar of a jet, and even, when I closed my eyes once more, the ocean’s empty, endless hush.

“When will I be able to enjoy this again?” I wondered. I knew the correct answer was Right Now, but Right Now was just a place where I waited until my real, successful, happy, worry-free life arrived. I got up and brushed off my interview pants and looked around at the park and the children and the surrounding hills and the canopy of sky – all of life, right there in Torrance, waiting for nothing.

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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An Interesting Life

I reached a very low point in my life about fifteen years ago, when nothing I was writing was getting published, and I could barely remember what it felt like to believe I would ever have any kind of success in my life. I became so unhappy, it made all the unhappiness I had previously known seem like mere practice for what I was now experiencing. One night it became so acute I thought, “I have got to do something different.”

It took me less than twenty-four hours to identify what that something was: I had to stop looking for other people’s approval. I realized I had turned life into an endless game of winning approval. That was the trophy, the proof of my value, and the drug whose brief high promised to sustain me through the dull hours of my day. It’s an easy enough trap for an artist to fall into. It can seem as though your job isn’t done until someone else likes what you’ve made. Yet it also meant all my happiness and all my well-being and all my success depended ultimately to other people.

It was a disorienting realization. For a brief time it made life seem directionless. As I sat one night contemplating my New Life, I could not quite picture what would keep life interesting. A life-long game player, I no longer understood what winning meant. Where would the excitement and satisfaction come from? If life wasn’t interesting, if it wasn’t fun, I had no interest in living it.

What an interesting question, I thought to myself. Where is the satisfaction? And isn’t it interesting that life has to be fun to be worth living? I hadn’t really thought of that before. I had simply wished it was true, but now I had decided it was true. That’s interesting too – the difference between wishing and deciding. They’re actually close cousins. That’s interesting.

I had asked myself what would keep life interesting while I was sitting on my couch in the living room. I was now standing in my kitchen, but I could not remember how I got there. It was as if I’d teleported. That’s interesting too, I thought. I leaned back against the counter and noticed how I was feeling. There was that quiet calm I used to cherish when I was a younger man and I’d won a race or just come off stage. That was always victory’s true prize – the moment I reclaimed what I’d given to other people.

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