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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Blameless

I wrote the other day about the power of very good questions. Here’s an example of a not-so-good question: “What’s wrong with me?” Whenever I used to ask this question – which, for a time, was pretty often – it seemed like absolutely the most practical question to which I could put my mind. I only asked the question because something was wrong, by which I mean I was unhappy. If you’re a writer I don’t need to tell you what was wrong. It’s always the same for all writers – rejection and failure. These are not small and discrete problems, however. Their scope can be all consuming.

Which is why I asked this not-so-good question. I was an adult, after all, and as an adult when something is wrong, you fix it. The problem was that every time I asked myself – and by “myself” I mean my imagination, which answered all my questions, creative or otherwise – whenever I asked this question I got no answer. There was only silence, the void. It reminded me hauntingly of my worst fears about death. In fact, this thought of death seemed every bit like the life of failure, an endless absence of joy and discovery.

By and by (and by and by and by; I was a very slow learner with this one), I learned that whenever something was happening that I didn’t like, I would ask myself, “If nothing’s wrong with me, and if nothing’s wrong with anyone else, and if nothing’s wrong with Life, why is this happening?” I had to phrase it this way because I was sorely tempted to simply assign blame for my troubles. Blame stops all questioning without providing a real answer.

So I’d ask this question. It’s a good one, but you sometimes have to be patient with the answer. No matter. Just as I can sit quietly at my desk waiting for the next sentence to come, so too I can sit quietly in my car or at the kitchen table for that question to be answered. I could wait because now I wasn’t solving the Problem of Bill, now I was just thinking creatively, which is the happy pursuit of an expanded perception of life.

The answer, by the way, was always the same: I’d misunderstood. I mistook a rejection letter for my career’s death knell, feeling stuck with a story for a lack of talent. I’d made these mistakes and accepted them as reality. Do not accept death as an answer. The void is just a case of temporary blindness, of looking for what is wrong when there is nothing wrong and no one to blame.

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

 

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

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The End of Tyranny

A few years ago I played the classic puzzle-solving video game Myst with my youngest son, Sawyer. I played Myst to its conclusion almost 20 years ago, so I could remember little of the game and its many ingenious puzzles except this: all the puzzles are indeed solvable. I had to remind myself of this on the several occasions Sawyer and I appeared to have reached a dead-end. Sawyer had not played the game through, however, and so when we reached these impasses he did what most people normally do when confronted with what looks like an insurmountable obstacle—he complained.

“This game is flawed!” he concluded. “It’s poorly designed.”

To be clear, I would have complained as well had I not known, empirically, that the problem was not the game’s design but the players’ perception. It was a kind of foggy hindsight, which, while obscuring the solutions, revealed complaint in all its uselessness. The complainer says, “There are no solutions!” and so none are perceived. His complaints actually prevent him from seeing the very thing he complains does not exist.

It was a rare treat in my life as a father. I was able to say, “Trust me, we’ll figure it out,” with a time-traveler’s authority. But I do not need to replay my trials every decade or so to know the roles of trust and complaint in my life. What can feel like a declaration of independence from the tyranny of an unjust world is actually a sentence to a prison of my own design. Fortunately, I can leave as soon as I remember that the key to that cell is not the solution to some problem but only the belief that one exists.

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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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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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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Life Lessons

Writing has taught me that the only real currency that people value is how we feel. As a writer I never write about what is happening, I am writing about how a character feels while something happening. I do not report on the fact of the rain, I write about what it feels like to stand in the rain, or be chased by a killer, or see the woman I love, or be stuck in traffic. The feeling is the experience. The environment – whether it’s the rain, or a killer, or traffic – are merely opportunities for the reader (and often the writer) to learn who that character is. The character that sings in traffic to cheer himself up is different than the character that angrily honks his horn at the other drivers.

As a writer – as an author – I ultimately want to sell what I’ve written. As a fellow human, I know that I buy stuff that I think is valuable. That’s why I know I’m selling my readers a feeling. I’m a feeling merchant. My readers will forget most of what I write about, but if what I’ve written resonates with them, they will remember how they felt at the end of the story. Which is why I must be deliberate in choosing what my stories feel like. The feeling the story wants to share dictates what will happen in it, never the other way around.

It took me many years, but eventually I began to apply this same awareness to my whole life. It is my job, as the author of my life, to choose how I want to feel in any situation and then use that situation to learn how to feel that way. And by the way, I only want to feel good. I only want to feel peaceful and safe and interested and valuable and loved. There has never been a single moment in my life when I have wanted to feel bored, or agitated, or valueless, or unloved. And yet I have felt that way often. And every time I did, it is because I believed the situation required it of me.

This is what happens when I forget I am the author, not a character. Characters in my stories don’t get to choose how they feel. Sometimes the story needs them to be happy and sometimes the story needs them to be sad. Their feelings are in service to something bigger, which is the gift I ultimately want to share with my readers. As the author of my life, I cannot always choose what is happening, but I can always choose how I want to feel while it is happening. No one and nothing can stop me from making that choice.

I know I won’t always succeed immediately. Some situations are more challenging than others. It is easier to feel loved when someone says, “I love you” than when they say, “I hate you.” But failure in this case is only delayed learning, just as rejection letters are delayed acceptance letters. If I choose how I want to feel, success is inevitable, though I may have to learn the many lessons time kindly provides.

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