In My Life

When you are pursuing a dream, such as publishing a book, it is very easy to believe that success, however you describe it, will change something about you and your life. I certainly believed it. Actually, I didn’t believe that success would change something about my life, I needed it to change something about my life. I needed it to change not just how I made money, and how I spent so many of my waking hours, but the quality of those hours, whether I was working or not.

The quality of those hours, in my opinion, was not ideal. A quiet and steady despair had settled over me, one that had begun, as all despair does, in the soil of my childhood, but which had spread like a tangle of vines in the busy garden of adulthood. I experienced it so often, there were days I wondered if this was simply what it felt like to be alive. I was an optimist at heart, however, and just as I could dream stories to write, I could also dream a life free of despair. Dreaming that better life was easy. It was so easy I escaped there as often as I could.

There came a day, when I had begun to experience the smallest glimmers of what I considered to be success, that I thought, “I want to be in my life.” I had lived so long swinging from despair to escape that I had lost track of the resting comfort of existence. Strangely, I was not entirely clear what was keeping me out of my life. My life seemed like something I ought to be able to step into as easily as those dreams I summoned for escape. And yet here I was, circling around the center of where I wanted to be, like a player unready to join the game.

Which was exactly the problem. The moment I truly understood success was the moment I stopped asking the question, “What if I’m not good enough?” The instant I stopped asking that useless, brutal, suffocating question, the despair lifted as effortlessly as dreams ended. That is the question that will keep the player from playing, the writer from writing. It is a question that can’t actually be answered by acceptance letters or reviews. It is a question that cannot be answered, because it never should have been asked. It can only be released, and what remains in its absence is life as you know it can be lived.

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 Dragon In The Garden

I sometimes wonder if the worst misfortune that could befall a writer is to be cursed with a life of excitement and adventure. How easy, even with your own life, to become transfixed by the glitter and drama of events and lose sight of the heart that beats steadily and hopefully beneath every moment. Life may dress itself in a tuxedo, but within that coat and tie is the same naked truth to which we are all beholden.

It is the only truth toward which anyone would write, and the only truth toward which anyone would live. And yet how tempting it is to discard life like one of our own aborted ideas. Not all of life, of course – only the dull bits, the hours spent waiting, the idle hours in front of the TV, the after-dinner conversations with a spouse, the drive to work.

I have felt at times as if I am drowning in life’s dull bits. How the dirty daily business of not-dying consumes my attention. If the dull bits are discardable, why then so am I, for hasn’t my life seemed to have descended into little else? Now I look out and see nothing but empty survival, now I look out and would crave a killer at my door, if only to make that same survival worthy of a movie or at least a mention on the evening news.

How the dull bits summon the specter of meaninglessness. Now a dragon has appeared in my garden, and I am running for my life. Slay me if you can, he’ll whisper, but death has always been my friend, filling your quiet hours as he does with the haunted fantasy of an end as meaningless as the beginning and middle.

I write this column for anyone who has ever felt the pain of his own discarded life. Perhaps you did not even recognize the dragon as you looked at him. Perhaps you called him boredom, loneliness, poverty, loss, bad luck, or abuse. The dragon has many names. To live as a saint, you needn’t renounce your earthly ways, tend the children in Calcutta, or hang yourself on a cross. To live as a saint you need only see what a saint sees, to look out at the garden where the dragon breathes and know that serpent has come to save you.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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What Might Be

I had the pleasure of talking a high school senior in Missouri who’d recently completed and was hoping to publish a book for middle grade readers. This young woman was a big chemistry fan, and the book was intended to introduce middle school girls to the pleasures of science. She had a lot of questions about the publishing process, to which I mostly answered, “It’s hard to say, but if you really love this book, you’re in good shape.”

The scientist-artist is an interesting combination. Science is largely an examination of what is, whereas the artist must focus on what might be. There are times I envy the scientist. Some days I wish I could pick up a rock, crack it open, look at it very, very, very closely and find in its crevasses that day’s essay.

But there is nothing to pick up or crack open. In fact, it is that very nothingness that is the source of all the pleasure and terror that comes with the arts. This thing wasn’t there before and now it is, all because I laid my attention upon it for a period of time. How real all of life feels in that moment, both what is and what could be, the line between what we call dream and reality narrowing to a thought.

But oh, the terror that can come from looking at what is, while what holds my interest is yet to be. Now my dream feels like fantasy because I can’t touch it. Now all of life is reduced to the rubble I suddenly mistake for reality, a heap of old ideas through which I find myself sorting for some evidence of what might be. There is nothing there. Only the imagination could resurrect these bones, only that spark could light the fire we all know as life.

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

Where Life is Lived

For many years, while I was writing my novels and sending them out and getting them back, I would occasionally complain to my wife, “The problem with these query letters and sample chapters is I’m not there. It’s just these words on a page.” On the face of it, this complaint made no sense. I was a writer. My job was to put words on the page and sell them to people. Nonetheless, I was nagged for years by the feeling that I was leaving something out.

I eventually understood that something I was leaving out was talking to people. Whether it was teaching or lecturing or coaching, I wanted to talk to people about the words I was putting on the page. I understood this because while I went for walks and runs, while I stood in the shower or did the dishes, I often found myself dreaming of speaking to imaginary groups. This happened so often that I stopped myself one day in the middle of one of my imaginary lectures and thought, “You need to actually go do this now. You know there’s a difference between doing something and imagining it and you’ve got to learn if you like the difference.”

Writing taught me this. How often on one of those very same walks had I imagined a scene and been certain it would be perfect for whatever story I was writing, only to discover, upon actually writing it, that it was not as interesting on the page as in my mind. As bright and happy and curious as my mind may be, it cannot predict the future, it cannot know in advance every word of the stories it believes I will enjoy telling, and a single, innocent word can sometime reroute the entire direction of 400-page book.

As it turns out, I do enjoy talking to people, though the experience is in fact different than the dream. That difference is where my life is lived, where dream and experience meet. Sometimes it feels like a collision, other times like a union, but the result is always the same. I get to meet myself once again, both the intention and the result, both the dreamer and the dream.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Unreal Journey

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

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

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

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

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

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 it first, and march in protest about how hard it is, and form committees to determine why it 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.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Know Nothing

I have had to accept recently that I know nothing. I have no idea what anyone else is going to do or like. I have no idea how well a book will sell, or how many reads a given blog will receive. I don’t know when a publishing trend will end, and I don’t know what the next publishing trend will be.

More to the point, I don’t even know what is in my best interest. I have spent my life believing I know exactly what is in my best interest. I have been certain that it would be a good thing if this agent or that editor said yes, and it would be a bad thing if they said no. I have had plans and goals, hatched in nervous hours, my future hardly something I was willing to leave to the die-roll of fate. Yet the future always arrived unscheduled and having ignored my script. My plans were a fantasy. I might as well have been planning to be a space pirate.

Worse yet, for a born-again memoirist, I don’t really know what happened yesterday. It’s a shadow play of feeling and image and thought, so near to a dream I would need only the memory of flying from my window or debating modern medicine with Count Dracula to call it that. It’s just material, is all it is. I call it reality because in retelling the past, it feels real again.

Which is all I really know: how I am feeling right now. That I know for sure, but then again only if I pay close attention. If my attention strays to the shadows of the past or my fantasies of the future, I become lost in a changing sea of what I cannot and will never know. But when I pay attention to what I am feeling right now, whether I am writing or taking a shower, I am found again, surrounded and supported by everything I 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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Showing Up

The poet Elizabeth Austen said that her only job when giving a reading was to “show up.” This is good advice, it seems to me. After all, she doesn’t know who will be in attendance, or what sort of poems her audience likes to hear, or how they like to have those poems read to them. All she knows is that if she shows up, if she gives herself fully to that reading, then she will have given that audience the best she has to offer, which is all anyone can ever ask of anyone else.

I always have grand plans in mind for whatever I’m working on. Driving around doing my errands I plan and scheme how this chapter or that book will work out. All this planning gives me a false sense of command. I know that when the time comes my only job will be to show up at the desk and see what happens. Maybe those plans of mine will bear some creative fruit, or maybe they will never be planted. I’ll never know until I actually show up.

As if I ever know what will ever happen. Humans have such a fantastically inflated belief in our imaginations. Rightfully so. We dream a future that terrifies us, where no one reads our work, or we die alone, or there’s a communist in the White House, and we feel that fear right now, in the present moment, where we are in truth safe from these fantasies. No matter, the fear is real and it is here so our visions must be real too.

For all my planning, I remain glad I cannot actually predict the future, and that my only real job is to show up. This is much simpler. The future is far too complex a thing for me to make on my own. Yet it will be there in its entirety when I am too, and once we have met we will find what we can do together.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

No Exaggeration

My younger brother John is a natural storyteller, which is to say he is not afraid to exaggerate. When we were boys, it seemed sometimes as if he lived in an elementary school soap opera peopled with Shakespearean-sized villains and heroes. One day after school he kept me rapt with a tale of his narrow escape from a mysterious group of predatory teenagers. Sensing the totality of my hypnosis, he went so far to stop mid-yarn and declare, “Wait! I hear them. No—it was just a dog.”

My mother, slightly less gullible than I, eventually caught him in a more conspicuous exaggeration and observed, “Making life a little more interesting?” John always appreciated the delicacy with which she handled this moment. As he explained to me years later, he lived his early life feeling as if I, two years his senior, had already done everything interesting someone his age might do, a perception I am certain I did nothing to discourage.

But as I said, he’s a natural storyteller, and he wasn’t about to let something so disposable as the facts get in the way of Job One, which was entertaining his listeners – or, more to the point, telling a story that accurately reflected life as he had lived it. I don’t have to live in his or anyone’s skin to know that his life meant as much to him as mine did to me – or Hamlet’s did to him, for that matter. Sometimes the storyteller is confronted with the conundrum of a day’s routine events not seeming to match the depth at which he lived them.

So I have no problem with exaggerators. But I also know that I do not have to climb Mount Everest to find a worthy view. In fact, I do not even have to leave my desk. From time to time we storytellers luck out, and an event comes along so startling on its surface that it seems to do all our work for us. More often, however, we are left with days so similar to the last they could be laid one on top of the other like pancakes. I decline to call such hours meaningless. Let the historians mark the days as big or small; I reserve the right to live them all.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Nobody Cares

A few years ago I had the pleasure to interview Dennis Lehane, who told the story of how, in his early years of writing, he posted a note to himself above his desk where he worked that read, “Nobody Cares.” This meant both the hard-boiled truth that the world was largely indifferent to his little joys and struggles, but also the emancipating understanding that whether he failed or succeeded would not actually affect anyone else. Since nobody cared, he needn’t waste any energy worrying about what anyone thought about what he was doing.

I thought of this when my creative work began to draw exclusively from my own life, whether in memoir or in this space. I could be a slippery and uncooperative protagonist, stiffening suddenly as the Bill on the page seemed to become aware the literary camera. Ironically, this only made Protagonist Bill less sympathetic, an outcome that only further heightened his awareness of my narrative eye.

Until, that is, I remembered that nobody cared – or more specifically, nobody cared about me. If I have done my job as a writer correctly, the reader will care about my story’s protagonist – me, in this case – but not the me I am so often trying to protect. This is the me to whom I was referring when, as a young man, I sometimes complained, “Nobody cares about me.” Meaning, nobody cared that I was sad; nobody cared that I was frightened. And it was true. To care about my sadness in the way I believed others should would be to ask another to care about an illusion I had believed. To care about this illusion would only strengthen my belief in it, which in turn would only strengthen my sadness.

The opposite of an illusion is the truth, and this is what readers really care about. Stories, at their best, are dreams through which a reader can awaken from an illusion into the truth. Nothing matters but that awakening. The moment I believe that I matter more than the awakening, I begin protecting myself, and the story disappears into the nightmare I have spent my life trying to disbelieve.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter