Experiencing Stories

I write what could very, very broadly be called “self-help,” meaning whether it’s a book like Fearless Writing, or these blogs, or personal essays, or lectures and classes, the aim of my work is to offer a perspective on life that I believe will help the reader or audience better understand why they are happy or unhappy, why they suffer or why they succeed. Ideally, my readers will come away feeling less tempted to believe life is just a bunch of meaningless crap that happens to us.

When I realized I wanted to do this kind of work, three things occurred to me immediately: First, I was more interested in it than in all novels I’d written. Second, I wondered who the hell would want to hear from me about all of this? I was just some guy who liked to tell stories. Third, I worried about all the people who I knew would disagree with me. I had once been one of those people who thought the stuff I was now hoping to teach was a bunch of woo-woo hooey.

As it turns out, being a guy who likes to tell stories is an excellent foundation for anyone who wants to teach. After all, I was not just a guy who liked to tell stories. I was also a guy who had lived and suffered and learned. I was a guy who had doubted and felt confident, who had been hopeless and who had been joyous, who had been outraged and who had been at peace. I might doubt whether anyone wanted to hear from me, but I could not doubt the value of what life had taught me. To doubt that would be to doubt the value of life itself.

And one of the things life has taught me is that no classroom or book can match the teaching power of experience. Fortunately, stories are a form of experience. You may not have sat with me in the hospital wondering if my son had leukemia, but if I tell you the story of the time I did, and if you allow yourself to bring that scene to life in your imagination, if you allow yourself to worry and rejoice, you may feel as if you were the one waiting for the doctors to return with the test results. In fact, hearing a story about someone else’s life is strangely similar to reliving our own memories, as both experiences summon real emotions even though the experiences exist entirely in the imagination.

Which is why I depend on stories to teach. It is easy to disagree with an idea; it is nearly impossible to disagree with an experience. I have seen again and again how stories allow people to look at life differently the way a simple declaration cannot. It is one thing to say, “Everything is okay!” and it is another thing altogether to lead the reader into the shadow of fear, and then turn them naturally, humorously, and gently toward the constant light 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

The Fall

Before my father left The Church he served as one of its ministers. If I was ever asked to sit in the pews while he delivered his Sunday address, I have no recollection of it. This was during the shadow of my early childhood, when memory is hampered by the highly fluid relationship between imagination and what I was gently being told was reality. It is hard for me to know what actually happened then and what was invented because at that time everything felt invented.

In those early days, I preferred cartoons to sermons. In cartoons, characters could travel through time or change shape, nothing died, and physical suffering was brief and hilarious. This felt like life as I lived it in my imagination, where the only meaningful boundary was what I wanted.

One afternoon I was playing in the rec room of my father’s church. There was a freestanding bookshelf in the middle of the room, and I thought it would be a good idea to try to scale its smooth back. This turned out to be impossible, but my efforts destabilized the shelf, which began to slowly topple backwards. It was at this point I decided to attempt the first scientific experiment of my young life. If the cartoons were as accurate as they felt, and if this bookshelf were to land, say, on my hands, my fingers would swell to comical proportions and then quickly return to normal. I left my hands on the floor in the path of the falling shelf, and awaited my results.

The pain sucked me into reality. I felt betrayed, though not by cartoons. It was clear there were in fact boundaries in this world, and to transgress them could mean suffering of a magnitude impossible to ignore. It was a great disappointment, though I attributed the tears I shed in my father’s lap afterwards to simple pain and humiliation. How do you explain the other? I could feel the answer within me, but not the facility to express it, a facility wed, in a language as tangible as bookshelves, to the very world that had just betrayed me.

I suppose that is the day I became a writer.

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

Waiting With An Answer

The imagination is as loyal and tireless and non-judgmental as a companion can be. Suppose you sit down to write a story about a one-eyed detective. You feel there is something interesting about a character looking for clues with only one eye. It’s a little obvious on the surface, but maybe once you get deeply into it you’ll find something meatier.

So you begin. You ask your imagination, “How did my detective lose his eye?” and, “Does wearing his eye patch make him feel dangerous and mysterious, or self-conscious and inadequate?” and, “How could I express his different way of seeing the world in all that he does?” The imagination loves these kinds of connected questions as they allow it to build up its moment in a way the scattered questions of day-to-day life do not.

But the imagination does not judge the questions you ask it. It will help you tell any story you wish. And so if you also ask, “Who’s going to want to read this book?” it will show you a world in which no one wants to read your book. And if you ask, “Why did I bother to start this?” it will show you a world in which you should never start anything.

And while you dream your own private dystopia, your imagination awaits your next question. Your imagination is not frightened of the worlds it helped you create because it knows nothing of good and bad. All it knows is waiting and answering. And so it waits where no clock can tick, waits while you choose which story you truly wish to tell.

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 Saint Within

Every writer I know began as a young reader. Most read hungrily once they’d discovered the intimate pleasure of the written word. It feels like escape, this traveling through imaginary worlds. It does not matter what world you are reading about – whether it is the once-real world of Czarist Russia or the unreal world of Narnia – it is all imaginary, for your body is one place while your mind is in another.

But reading is actually the opposite of escape. No story can live without the reader’s emotional participation. The writer’s words are but directions to a place within the reader where sadness and joy and grief and curiosity and boredom and hope and despair reside. The words alone are a skeleton; the reader’s felt responses to those words are the flesh and blood of every story ever told.

What’s more, every story ever told grows from the same fertile thought: Life matters. It matters that someone fell in love or someone was crowned queen. It matters that a father and son were reunited. It matters that the killer was caught. Life is not just a bunch of meaningless crap that happens to us between birth and death. The story guides us to that place within us where we know life matters, where we know that we are interested for a reason, where we know that we matter and are living on purpose.

This is why stories and poems and songs were my church and my state growing up. I turned to them to remind me of what I so often forgot, what I so often lost track of in the hurly-burly of life’s circus. I had thought that I would need to make these heroes who’d saved me from myself less saintly, so that I could take my place beside them on the shelf. Instead, I found again the saint within me, the unblemished self who remains unaffected by my woeful stories of meaninglessness, who finishes the stories others had started, and who now begins my stories that others might finish.

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

A Crash Course in Fearless Writing

If you’ve ever written and actually enjoyed the experience, if you’ve ever allowed yourself to become lost in the dream of the story you are telling so much that you temporarily forget what time it is, then you have written fearlessly. In fact, writing doesn’t really begin until we forget to be afraid. So the question isn’t whether you can write fearlessly, but whether you can do it on purpose. Here are the three best tools I know for writing fearlessly every day.

The only questions you should ever ask are: “What do I most want to say?” and “Have I said it?”

I ask these questions because I can actually answer them. I will never know anything better than I know what I am most interested in. I will never be able to pay attention to something for longer than that about which I am most curious. My curiosity is the engine that drives my creative vehicle. It is the source of all my excitement, my intelligence, and my surprise. It is also entirely unique to me. There is no one on earth who knows what I most want to say other than me.

And once I know what I want to say, once I know which story I want to tell, or which scene I want to write, only I can know if I have translated it accurately into words on the page. Whatever I most want to say exists in a realm knowable only to me. There isn’t one editor or teacher or critique group member who can tell me if I have accurately translated what I wanted to share because only I know what that is; these other people, however well-intentioned, can only tell me if they like or understand what I’ve written. That is all they actually know.

If I am ever asking some question other than these two, I am not really writing. I am trying to read other people’s minds. If I am asking, “Is it any good?” I am really asking, “Will anyone else like it?” Or if I’m asking, “Is there market for it?” I am really asking, “Will anyone else like it?” And if I am asking, “Is it too literary? Is it not literary enough?” I am really just asking, “Will anyone else like it?”

What anyone else thinks of what I’m writing is none of my business – at least not while I’m writing. While I’m writing, what I think of what I’m writing is my business. I am always afraid when I believe I must answer questions that are unanswerable. And I am always fearless the moment I return to my curiosity to see where it is headed next.

Have Faith

I am defining “faith” as believing in something for which there is no evidence. This shouldn’t be so hard for a writer, really. Every day we sit at our desks and believe in something no one but us can see. In fact, while we’re writing, we believe more in the story we are telling than the chair in which we are sitting. We have to. We have to believe that our hero wants to save the world even though our hero doesn’t exist anywhere but our imagination. We must believe a daughter yearns for her father’s attention even though neither the father nor the daughter is any more real than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. That’s our job – to believe in what only we can see.

The problem is that we would also like to share these stories with other people, and we have absolutely no evidence that this story – which only we can see – will be of interest to anyone. No one knows how many copies of a book will be sold or if it will win any awards. No one knows which reviewers will like it and which will not. It is a mystery to be answered within the sovereign imaginations of our readers.

The only evidence a writer has that his story is worth telling is that he’s interested in telling it. That’s it. That’s all Shakespeare got and that’s all Hemingway got and that’s all Amy Tan and Stephen King get. Your evidence that your story is worth your attention and worth sharing with others is that you think it’s cool, or funny, or scary, or profound. If that’s reason enough for you to write, if that’s reason enough to commit an hour or two a day to the same story for six months or a year or six years, then you have found the simple secret to all faith – that feeling good is evidence enough that something is worth doing and that life is worth living.

Contrast Is Your Friend

From a pure craft standpoint, contrast is invaluable. Just as a flashlight’s beam is distinct in a dark room and nearly invisible in a brightly lit room, so too is whatever we are trying to share with our readers most perceptible against its opposite. So if you want to write about peace, you must show war; if you want to show forgiveness, you must show judgment; if you want show acceptance, you must show rejection.

Likewise, often the best way to know what we like is when we encounter something we don’t like. If you read a novel and you hate the ending, instead of griping to your husband or writing group about what poor choices the author made, think about how you would have ended it. Your frustration is pointing you toward something you wish to explore, but which has remained unexplored. That discomfort will only grow until it is released on the page.

Finally, the guidance system upon which you so depend to write from day to day speaks entirely in the contrast between the effortlessness of the right word, and the effort of the almost-right word. It speaks in the contrast between the fearlessness of asking yourself what you are most interested in, and the discomfort we have named fear that always comes when we wonder what other people will think of what we write. We must have both experiences for our guidance system to work. Without what we call fear, we would have nothing to guide us back to what we 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

One Enemy

Writing your first story could be disorienting if you came to it a little later in life. After all, much of the stuff that concerns or alarms or annoys us seems to be outside of us. Sometimes a politician we don’t like is in power, or a war we disagree with is being fought, or a stock we own is going down, or a friend won’t call back, or a child won’t behave. If only all these things would work themselves out we might be happy.

Then you sit down to write a story, to create something that has never existed before, to say, “This is what I think is exciting, or funny, or profound, or clever.” Now the world is yours. Now there are no other people to clutter things up with their misguided plans and wrong politics and greed and selfishness. Now there is only you and your world.

How disorienting when you find yourself just as concerned and alarmed and annoyed as if there were a whole crowd of people in your office offering you lousy story advice. There is no one to point to or to blame. There is only what you believe is lovely and valuable and interesting and your willingness to share it. Who could have predicted that this simple transference from thought to page would have the power to summon the same host of woes as the front page of any newspaper?

I can blame with the best of them. At least once a day I feel certain that I would be ceaselessly happy if only other people weren’t so ceaselessly unhappy. Then I sit down to write and I quickly run out of excuses for my mood. Doubt is the only enemy standing at the gates of my imagination. Doubt can see the end of everything before it has begun, and has come to warn me of what I might have overlooked. He’s right in a way—every story is written by looking past what could be and toward what we still believe is possible.

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

Back To Life

I have a book coming out in May. In fact, I know the exact date it will be published: May 14. My editor has gone through it and made her suggestions and corrections, and the copy editor went through and made her corrections and suggestions, so I now know what will be in the book and what has been taken out. I’ve also seen the cover, so I know what it will look like. What I don’t know, however, are how many copies it will sell, what kind of reviews it will get, or what speaking opportunities it will spawn – and that is where the trouble always starts.

It was fun working on the book, because every day I did so I asked myself questions I could answer. Every day I asked, “What does it really feel like to trust?” or, “What’s the most useful thing I could say about fear?” or, “What’s a good example of a time I doubted myself?” The answers always came — and usually rather quickly. How miserable I’d have been if they hadn’t. I wouldn’t have been able to write the book. Actually, I simply wouldn’t have written the book. There’s absolutely no fun in asking a question to which the only answer is, “I don’t know.”

And yet in my idle hours, which there are more of now as I scour about for my next book project, I sometimes find myself asking questions like, “I wonder how the book will sell?” or, “Where could I give a talk about the book?” The answer to these questions is always, “I don’t know.” In these moments, I am reminded of conversations I have fallen into about death and the afterlife. For some people, the fact that we cannot know empirically what waits for us beyond that portal means that nothing waits for us. If we cannot see it, touch it, or taste it, then it simply cannot exist.

This point of view is an untenable relationship to the future for a writer, I traffic every day in stuff that cannot be seen, touched, or tasted, only imagined. In fact, that “real” world, the world where my book is published, where people can hold it in their real hands and see it with their real eyes, can seem at times more mysterious to me than the imagined world from which the book was born. That imagined world, after all, is where the questions I most like to ask are answered.

Fortunately, asking myself questions about the real world and what the future will look like there is no fun at all. Fortunately, I lose interest in it almost as soon as I begin. This loss of interest sometimes takes the form of despair or pessimism, but that is only a consequence of me trying to give meaning to the meaningless. So I sulk about, dragging a nameless weight about with me, wondering why the world is such a dull place.

Until I find myself back at my desk asking questions I can answer. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Work solves everything.” I thought it was a stupid thing to write when I first read it, but I now believe he was onto something. Work, for me, does not so much solve everything, but it does remind me there is nothing to solve. It connects to me what I have sought connection to in my despair and frustration and uncertainty, that source of answers to all the questions I ask. It brings me back to myself, back to what I know and what I know I want to learn, back to life after a short trip into the death-world of a future I am not meant to know.

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 Balancing Act

Writing can happen in one place and one place only: The Present Moment. It cannot happen in the past, though we might – while in the present moment – focus our attention upon some past event for inspiration or material. But the writing itself happens in the present moment. And of course it can’t happen in the future, that sometimes near, sometimes very distant land where the story we’re writing will live when it’s finished. All creation happens in the present moment, because that is all that actually exists.

I have to remind myself of this every time I sit down to write. How easy to let my attention drift into the past, where I believe all my failures reside. Failure always lives in the past, in whose shadows, like a moss, it can thrive. In the bright hot light of the present moment – in which life is only potential, in which life is only forgiving, in which life is only curious – the concept of failure has no purchase for its hopeless roots.

And how equally easy to let my attention drift into the future, where I believe the value of what I am creating in the present moment will be revealed. I don’t want to waste my time, after all. Why write something that no one wants to read? To ask such a question is to hold my stories hostage until such time as the ransom of other people’s approval has been paid.

Which is why I have learned to ask myself two questions while I write: What do I want to say? And, Have I said it? Only the present moment can answer these questions. But keeping my attention where it needs and actually wants to be is a kind of balancing act, pulled as I am to the past and future. Drift too far either way and I will fall. No matter. The support of the present moment remains ever true, and I need only return to standing to find myself where I have always been.

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

Seeing Castles

Writing is about creative selection. You may see the whole castle from which your imaginary king and queen rule, but you must select those few, delicious details that suggest its complete majesty or decrepitude. Your details are markers for the reader’s imagination, which, if stimulated, rushes in to decorate your world and bring it fully to life. It is easy, however, when rereading your own work to imagine the whole from which you chose your parts and believe the reader sees this whole as well. Which is why we sometimes share our works in progress with a friend or editor or fellow writer. A reader’s innocence can be invaluable to help us see where our details suggested an incomplete world.

But it is not always easy to hear what is missing from your stories. And so time is another kind of beta reader. After enough time you have forgotten the whole from which you selected your parts, and you read the story as if it were someone else’s. And it is, in a way. If enough time has passed, you have changed in ways small and large, and this New You can read the story and not be hurt by what is missing.

Life, meanwhile, remains a story we are telling ourselves and telling ourselves. If we have been alive long enough, we have been telling this story for quite a long time. It is hard to put this story down, however, but fortunately life provides fresh eyes again and again to help us see the story new. These are called children. The old – myself, unfortunately, included – always assume it is their job to teach the young. It is exactly the other way around. Children do not come in knowing the story we have been telling and telling, and they always see the holes that we have not.

Who wants to hear what your story is missing? When we are told what is missing from our story we call children ungrateful or naïve. They’ll learn the truth. What they learn is what we have learned, to summon within us the simple courage to express that portion of the truth missing from the story we tell about life. And as this picture is completed, the castle is revealed, and we see the home in which we have always lived.

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 Saint Within

Every writer I know began as a young reader. Most read hungrily once they’d discovered the intimate pleasure of the written word. It feels like escape, this travelling through imaginary worlds. It does not matter what world you are reading about – whether it is the once-real world of Czarist Russia or the unreal world of Narnia – it is all imaginary, for your body is one place while your mind is in another.

But reading is actually the opposite of escape. No story can live without the reader’s emotional participation. The writer’s words are but directions to a place within the reader where sadness and joy and grief and curiosity and boredom and hope and despair reside. The words alone are a skeleton; the reader’s felt responses to those words are the flesh and blood of every story ever told.

What’s more, every story ever told grows from the same fertile thought: Life matters. It matters that someone fell in love or someone was crowned queen. It matters that a father and son were reunited. It matters that the killer was caught. Life is not just a bunch of meaningless crap that happens to us between birth and death. The story guides us to that place within us where we know life matters, where we know that we are interested for a reason, where we know that we matter and are living on purpose.

This is why stories and poems and songs were my church and my state growing up. I turned to them to remind me of what I so often forgot, what I so often lost track of in the hurly-burly of life’s circus. I had thought that I would need to make these heroes who’d saved me from myself less saintly, so that I could take my place beside them on the shelf. Instead, I found again the saint within me, the unblemished self who remains unaffected by my woeful stories of meaninglessness, who finishes the stories others had started, and who now begins my stories that others might finish.

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