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

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

What You Have

Ninety percent of what you need to tell the story you most want to tell you already have. It does not matter if you are eight or eighty, you already have everything you need except that other ten percent, which we have come to call craft. Many writers are taught the exact opposite – that they are born with ten percent and learn the ninety. This is not surprising; humans are forever teaching each other that we have nothing until we acquire it.

Your imagination will provide you with every idea you will ever need. It is a ceaseless and loyal servant. Your desire to communicate summons this imagination and focuses it. The clearer your desire, the more useful the ideas your imagination provides. Nothing is required of you other than to train your attention steadily on what you desire to share with other people.

Nothing, that is, except trust. This is what most writers are really learning – not character development or strong verbs or showing and not telling. Do not underestimate how quickly you can halt the flow of ideas from your imagination. Trust is the open channel through which these ideas flow. To clamp this hose is to cut ourselves off from creation, from life’s source, and the pain that accumulates from this one choice grows commensurately acute.

Until released. There is a kind of ecstasy that accompanies the return to trust. It can be addictive in its own way, and the artist must resist the temptation to recreate this artificial pleasure. The artist must accept his pleasure as the constant flow of focused thought as he must also accept himself. You were not born a blank slate. You are not clay to be molded by time and circumstance and the sharp edges of experience. You are a conduit for creation itself, ninety percent light, and ten percent shadow so the world will have some form.

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

A Writer’s Guide to Answering, “What if?”

Most stories we write begin with one simple question: What if? What if you were forced to marry whomever the government told you to marry? What if a prince fell in love with a milkmaid? What if a ten year-old boy woke up one morning and decided he was going to run away? And how would I tell these stories?

“What” and “if” are perhaps the two most powerful words in a human’s vocabulary, and writing has taught me that I cannot use them indiscriminately. “What if” opens a door to a new reality. A new story, after all, is its own reality. It operates by its own unique rules, has its own environment of language, its own ambitions and desires and concerns. To write a new story I must believe in a reality I cannot yet see. To write that story I begin by asking the same question humans asked themselves to sail around the world, go to the moon, and create computers we can hold in the palms of our hands.

My imagination loves it when I ask it this question. It gets bored by what has already been made. It wants the door to possibility thrown wide open. Unfortunately, my imagination is so loyal and eager that it will help me dream any reality at all, even one in which I would never want to live.

And so I might find myself walking down the street one sunny afternoon idly thinking about the book I’m writing. I like the first half of the book, but I’m having trouble finding the second half. It’s a little frustrating not knowing what I want to do. It’s just frustrating enough that I casually ask myself, “What if I never finish it?”

My imagination hops to life. It loves to tell stories. So it begins to answer my question. It tells a story about the time I couldn’t complete a book I really wanted to finish. Except the more it answers my question the less it feels like a story I’m telling myself and the more it feels like reality. Now, the sunny day has been transformed into a dystopia where not just this story but every story I begin ends fractured. In ten brutal minutes I have shape-shifted from a curious writer into a has-been.

When I get home, my wife asks, “What’s wrong?” Oh, where to begin? The poor woman apparently lacks my prophetic vision. Better not to worry her with my oncoming creative apocalypse. Though I have to say, it’s good to be around other people who don’t share my reality. They help me question it. By and by, I ask, “What if I did finish that book? How would I do that?” And my imagination comes to life again.

Writing always calms me down because it requires me to think on purpose. To write I must begin by believing that I can create a reality I prefer. Shuffling about the world, this doesn’t always seem possible. I am but a cog in the churning machine of the world. But alone at my desk, attended to by a tireless imagination, facing a perfectly blank page, reality waits for me to name it.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The True Source of a Writer’s Insecurity

I’m currently working on a book about writing fearlessly, a subject about which I have written for the last eight years, and which I have begun teaching in the last two or three. This has provided me with an unusual creative launching pad. Normally I start a book knowing very little other than something looks interesting and I would like to find out why. I felt I knew exactly why I was interested in this book when I started it. I have written and talked and written and talked about this subject so much that when my proposal was accepted I thought that all I would have to do is transcribe what I already knew into book form.

What a relief, I thought as I settled into Chapter One. So many questions that crowd around a new project already felt answered. I did not need to ask myself, “What’s this book really about?” or, “Where’s this book going?” How nice, I thought, to write one book without the quiet insecurity that hovers over a blank page.

Then I started writing. No, writing is not quite the word – typing would be more accurate. For instance, the book is filled with small, illustrative stories, many of which I’ve told dozens of times. I could type them as an actor would his lines from a play, which is just what I began doing – until I noticed I was cranky at the end of my workday. This has happened plenty of times, but only when I’ve had a crap writing session, when the story went nowhere, when nothing felt answered and I pushed myself back from the desk filled with doubt and a creeping sense of self-loathing.

Except it wasn’t a crap writing session. I’d written five perfectly good pages. I had no doubt whatsoever that I’d use them. You’re just bored, I thought as I went for a brisk walk. No matter how well you know the subject, you’ve got to leave room for discovery. You’ve got to find something new. There’s always something new.

Having bucked myself up, I returned to work the following day ready to improvise. Improvise I did, and I finished my day’s work as I always hoped to: feeling calm, rejuvenated, and interested in life. In truth, if I feel this way after a session it doesn’t matter if I’ve written five sentences or fives pages, it was a good day’s work. That wasn’t boredom I felt yesterday, I realized as I got up from the desk – that was insecurity.

I’ve heard writing described as leaping off a cliff and learning to fly on the way down. How easy it is to mistake the blank page as the source of my writer’s insecurity. Yet to simply type words onto the page requires no connection to that which answers my creative questions. My security does not come from my craft, or my readership, or my publishing contract, or my reviews, or even the surprising pleasure of discovery. My security comes entirely from what I am connected to while discovering. Everything else is a happy product of that connection but not a replacement. Contracts, reviews, and even lovely words on the page could no more replace that connection than could wings replace a desire to fly.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Teacher and Student

I was talking to a novelist recently who, like a lot writers, teaches to help make ends meet. He likes teaching, but I know he prefers writing. Teaching writing, after all, can come with some unexpected challenges that have nothing to do with the craft of storytelling. As the novelist pointed out, there are some days he isn’t sure whether he’s a writing instructor or a social worker.

I don’t know how to teach writing and not be a part-time therapist or life coach. Because here is the truth every professional writer should already know: we’re born with everything we need to tell any story we will ever want to tell. As long as you possess curiosity and an imagination, you can tell a story. The rest is just refinement.

What most students are looking for has nothing whatsoever to do with craft. The student wants to believe it is possible that they can tell the story they wish to tell. Sometimes learning a few craft tricks helps us believe this. Sometimes it does not. Which is why as a teacher or coach I will spend more time telling my students and clients, in every way I can think to – yes, yes, yes, you can do this.

Fortunately, I never tire of telling people this. I can never tire of it because in order to say it convincingly I must believe it myself. And in order to believe it myself, I must go that place within myself where that delicious, friendly, hopeful, creative truth always resides. How I love to go there. I’d live there if I knew how, but I don’t yet, so I continue to teach it in the hope that one day I will learn.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Know Your Job

I used to work lunches at a restaurant in Providence. The lunches were slow enough that our entire staff most days consisted of one cook, a dishwasher, and me. For those for hours I was busboy, waiter, host, and bartender. On the days when it did get busy, when the place filled up and there were people waiting to be seated and a margarita to be blended and food sitting in the pass shelf and two orders to be taken and three tables needing to be cleared, I could feel as if I was drowning in my customers’ mounting disappointment. This was uncomfortable, but at least I knew what my job was. That I hadn’t the time to do it properly was the consequence of life’s unpredictability, not my facility.

I would eventually begin the job of professional writer. This appeared to be a simpler job than waiting tables, as there was only my story and me, and life’s unpredictability seemed to play little if no role in my work. And yet often I would find myself at my desk accompanied by a familiar discomfort. It was reminiscent of those busy days working solo lunches, only worse. It was as if I was responsible not only for serving customers, but for creating them as well. I didn’t know how to do that, but if I didn’t, I would fail. I felt some days as if I had been told to step onstage and improvise Hamlet.

It would take me years to understand that I was trying to do something that wasn’t my job. I cannot do my imagination’s job; I can only create an environment within me that permits my imagination to function most effortlessly. It is easy to forget this. My imagination is responsible for my livelihood, for my very survival, and how I wish some days I could grab hold of it and bend it to my worried needs. But grabbing my imagination is as useless as grabbing another person; I might clutch a child in my adult hands, but that child’s freewill remains entirely beyond my reach.

I must remember my job every day I sit down to work. How much easier things go when I do. The child that is my imagination wants only to play within the garden of thought, and it does not care about the past or the future or death or sex or money. I am the one that sometimes cares about those things. Meanwhile, the imagination does its only job, and awaits my return to the garden we have both enjoyed.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter