A Balanced Life

I love to celebrate happy events. I love celebrating when my favorite teams win a game, or when a friend comes to visit, or even when the news I watch and read is what I call good and not I call worrisome. And, of course, I love celebrating the sort of events all writers celebrate – the acceptance letter, the contract, the praise from my editor. I have a book coming out in about a month (Fearless Writing), and I’ll certainly be celebrating its release.

It can get a little addictive, all this celebrating. It feels so good to be happy, and sharing that happiness with other people; and it feels so awful to worry, and complain, and correct, and fix. How easy it is to let life become a seesaw between celebration and despair, as if all our days are merely sporting events we witness, whose outcomes, over which we have no control, determine our well-being.

Writing is such a calming antidote to this addiction. Every morning I bless the utterly uneventful blank page. There is nothing to celebrate or mourn on that page, just the question of what I would like to see there. The answer to that question resides in a realm where, I have come to understand, nothing ever happens by our definition of that word. It is a kingdom forever in balance, and it is my goal every morning to write something that is a true reflection of the balance I always find there.

And when I feel I have succeeded in that, even if only for a sentence, I celebrate a little. It is so nice when the outside and the inside align. That is balance. I can’t celebrate for long, however, as I’m usually already onto the next sentence. To fully maintain my balance, I have to keep moving, I have to keep growing, for every question answered on the outside sparks another question on the inside. To live is to learn to love the question as much as the answer; to understand that finding balance is as satisfying as having 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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Giving and Receiving

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve recently spent more time than usual following politics. Listening to politicians reminds me of watching a skillfully written stage drama. The best dialogue always has the characters saying one thing and meaning another. The husband might say he’s angry with his wife for overcooking the broccoli, when really, he’s upset because he believes she doesn’t respect him.

With politics, all the arguments and accusations about taxes and regulations and jobs stems from the eternal, persistent, uncomfortable fact that some people have more money than other people. This bothers nearly everybody. If you don’t have as much of it as you want, you might view those who have more with deep and bitter suspicion; and if you do have more of it, you might believe that those who have less spend all their days plotting how to take yours from you.

Unfortunately, no tax code or regulation will ever cure humanity of envy and greed. Because neither the “haves” or “have-nots” actually care about money; they just want to be happy and have mistaken money for the source of that happiness. I have made this mistake myself, though not so much with money. As a writer, I envied other writers who received more attention than I had – attention from other people, that is. Attention in the form of sales, of reviews, of crowds at their readings. These things looked to me like love and appreciation. Who would not be happier with more love and more appreciation?

I was correct that those writers I envied had received more attention than I; I was just incorrect about the source of that attention. I began to see my own sales, and reviews, and crowds when I gave myself my full attention. Everything I value in my life grew from giving my full attention to what interests me most, for no other reason other than it felt good to do so. That is the magic formula for success.

Of course, one can rid oneself of greed and envy as quickly as changing one’s mind. It’s always slower when you bring more people into the equation. I must remind myself of this as I marinate in the simmering pot of daily news. Everyone wants to be happy. Many, many of us aren’t. How loud we all get when we’re unhappy, and how tempted we are to blame other people for that unhappiness. Meanwhile, what is calling to each of us waits patiently for our attention, waits for us to give so that we might in turn receive.

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

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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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Gift

Lingering in the back of everyone’s mind is the sometimes quiet, sometimes very loud question, “Am I good enough?” We spend so much time grading, comparing, judging and ranking ourselves that I don’t know how a person could avoid asking this question at least once, if only to test how it feels. It feels lousy, if you haven’t noticed, even just to ask it. Unfortunately, it also smells like the sort of question one must be able to answer “Yes!” to, because if we’re not good enough . . . well, that would be a problem, wouldn’t it?

Writers decide to write for many reasons. Usually, they love to write. Also, they would like to make money doing what they love. But these are not always the only reasons. Sometimes writers write and submit the stories and poems they’ve written so that these stories and poems will be rejected.

Yes, to be rejected. The more often you ask if you are good enough—and it matters not what you are pretending to wonder you are good enough at, that question only ever refers to us as a whole—the more likely the answer will be no. But we can answer no so quietly, so habitually, that we will soon grow accustomed to the sustained discomfort it provides.

You will not have that luxury as the rejection letters come in. Likely as not that quiet voice that whispered no sabotaged your story for this very purpose. Now, you will have to feel self-rejection acutely, and you will feel it again and again and again until you decide you are worthy of a life free from this suffering.

Such a gift, writing. Oh, I know, this is a gift you’d like to give back. Except that you crave, beyond any agent, publishing contract or Amazon ranking, the unequivocal yes you already are. Our lives are led to hold this permanently in our hearts, though it has never been anywhere else.

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

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

Endless Story

I’ve probably never met you. If you’re a writer, I don’t know what genre you write in or who inspired you to become a writer, nor do I know who, if anyone, told you not to bother, that it was too big a dream and the odds of success were too low. I don’t know where you’ve submitted your work, and I don’t know what fearful stories you’ve told yourself in the idle hours you passed waiting to hear back. I don’t know how many stories you had to write until you began to feel like you understood what a story was, nor do I know how many writing books you’ve read or writing classes you’ve taken.

I may never get to meet you, and I may never learn the answers to these questions, but I do know this: You can’t get it wrong. You can’t screw this up. I know you sometimes think you can. I know any work of art appears to come together or fall apart, that as you write, you hope to stitch the seams of a mysterious fabric into a recognizable whole. I know the frustration of sewing and sewing and feeling as if your thread unravels with every stitch.

But I also know that your work only appears to be made of separate pieces. It does not matter how many poems, essays, stories, or novels you’ve written, it does not matter how many projects you think you’ve started and believed you’ve finished – in the end, it is all one. You have been telling only one story your entire life, and the pieces you completed or abandoned, and the pieces you published or did not, were all a part of this single, endless story to which you return day after day after day.

You know that already, though you frequently forget it in your efforts to polish something, to mint it lovely and done. You know it because at the end of every day, no matter many pages you write, whether your work is accepted or rejected, you can feel within yourself something discovered. You discovered something in loss and in victory, in effort and in effortlessness. To deny the discovery is to deny your own life, though you deny it anyway because you would prefer to choose the exact route of your discovery.

All routes are headed in the same direction, though some are more direct than others. Travel on. I’m traveling too, and perhaps some day we’ll meet. If we do, we’ll tell each other stories of our travels, of the things we’ve made or hope to make, of our successes and failures. There is nothing I love more than a good story. If I love yours, I’ll make it mine – another piece of this mysterious whole, discovered.

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

No Difference

If you’re going to write anything at all, whether it’s an epic poem or an historical romance or a cyberpunk vampire space opera, you have to be able to tell the difference between one thing and another. You must be able to tell the difference between a story that interests you and a story that does not; you must be able to tell the difference between forcing a word or a scene or a character, and allowing a word, scene, or character. This is how you really learn to write. Nothing in all the classes you take or books you read can ever replace this felt, uniquely personal understanding.

And to write anything at all, you must be able to tell the difference between love and fear, between loneliness and companionship, between confidence and insecurity. To show something we must contrast it against its opposite in the same way we most enjoy breathing immediately after holding our breath. We create danger so our reader can fully appreciate safety, despair so they can appreciate contentment.

Remember, however, that all the differences we experience and learn to perceive are ultimately a part of a flawlessly integrated whole. To walk a tightrope, you must learn the fine difference between balance and imbalance. And yet these two opposites are in service to the same goal. The discomfort we have named imbalance is there to help, not to punish. So it is with all discomfort, and with everything we have discarded in favor of a different thing. Yes cannot exist without no, as form cannot exist without shadow.

As abstract as this concept may seem as you go about the very practical business of writing your next legal thriller or your first tender coming-of-age love story, it remains the source of your creative wellbeing. The idea that your creations are but a shadow, is anathema to creativity. We are not in the business of good and bad; we are in the business of what we want and don’t want. Everything is good in the end, even that meandering first draft you scrapped. You are a better writer because of it.

Which is why you have suffered so when you believed you were no good, that what you planted could not grow. You had believed completely in the good and the bad, had demanded it of the world, and yet if you looked closely at anything that you named bad you always saw some good. And so you labeled yourself bad to maintain this useless idea. The suffering you knew even then was merely guiding you back to the truth, back to what you are, back to what you want to create.

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

Experienced Writers

I played a lot of sports when I was a boy and young man. I learned early on that to enjoy playing the game I had to care whether I won or lost. The goal line, the net, the boundaries, and the score had to mean something, or the game lost its purpose. Yet to improve at any sport, and indeed to deeply enjoy actually playing that sport, I had to forget temporarily about those very outcomes that gave the game its shape, and focus instead on the pleasure of whatever I was doing at any given moment.

For instance, one of my favorite games was football, and my favorite position in that game was wide receiver. I loved to catch balls the way a dog loves to catch Frisbees. First, I loved to run. I loved what it felt like to coordinate all the parts of my body into one fluid expression. But running with a purpose was better than plain running, and that ball became the purpose. How satisfying to be aware of both my body and this sphere travelling across the sky, to time my run so that the one aligns with the other, and then to feel that intimate moment when we arrive at the same place at the same time and my hands arrest the ball’s rotation and we are one.

That’s why I got better at football. Because I loved doing that. I did and it and did it and did it because I loved doing it. The winning and losing, the dropped passes and interceptions, were more like stories I laid over the moment-to-moment experience of playing. No outcome that I named good or bad could strip the game of its inherent pleasure – unless, of course, I paid more attention to the story than the experience.

Sports were excellent preparation for a writing life. I did not begin having any success as a writer until I stopped paying so much attention to results and started caring more about my moment-to-moment experiences. It is easy when writing to become hypnotized by acceptance letters and rejection letters, by sales and Amazon rankings. Results can offer me information about my experiences. A dropped ball told me my attention had wandered ever so slightly, and rejection letters gave me information about the people to whom I’m submitting or about the readiness of what I’ve submitted.

In the end, the writing life is composed of the experience of sitting at my desk and looking for the right sentence and the right word, or the experience of looking for the right agent or the right publisher, and then the experience of meeting those readers for whom my story was the right story. When I look upon my writing life, or my career, as an opportunity to have more and more and more experiences that I love, my career and life make sense, and grow as naturally as a tree grows. There is nothing more immediate and more knowable than experience, and there is nothing that offers greater and more instantaneous satisfaction than an experience I enjoy. An experience is what I actually have. A result is only the residue of that experience and has no lasting power in my life unless I tell a story about it.

It is tempting to tell myself triumphant stories about those results when they’re what I hoped for, but this also requires me to tell a tragic story when they are not. Better if I don’t tell any story about those results. I have to keep my attention on where I’m going if I am going to catch the stories I am meant to tell.

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

Happy Endings

I have always been ambitious, which means I have spent a lot of time peering into the future to determine whether I am headed where I think I ought to be going. This is not unusual for writers. Though we love our time alone at the desk, though if pressed every writer easily admits there is no greater pleasure than immediate immersion in whatever story we are telling, curiosity alone can pull our attention to that dim horizon where the harvest of our labor waits.

Unfortunately, while curiosity is the tireless engine of creativity, the future, at least as I have tried to know it, is an ambition killer. My life sometimes feels like one of those stories I love to tell. When I love a story, I want to know how it’s going to end. I confess, I prefer happy endings. When it comes to my life, I require them. This is why I get so curious about the future. That’s where the ending waits for me, where I get the girl or win the race or die trying.

While my curiosity is fantastic at telling me what I’m interested in right now, it’s lousy at predicting the future. Every single time I ask myself, “What’s going to happen?” I’m met with shadows of uncertainty and specters of failure. Do this often enough and life hardly seems worth living. After all, I’ve now seen where I’m headed, and I don’t like it.

Until, of course, I find myself back at my desk, back in front of a blank page, back where my curiosity can do what it was meant to do. Asking myself to see the future is like asking a fish to climb a tree. But throw me into the water and say, “Find the current of what interests you most,” and I start swimming and swimming, happy to be where I am.

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

Finding Value

I was teaching a Fearless Writing class recently in which a student talked about what is perhaps an author’s most common fear: failure. You love the story, you write the story, you try to share the story, only to have it rejected. When I asked the student why he feared failure, what he imagined that experience to be, he said, simply, “Just – emptiness.”

Which makes perfect sense. Fear of failure, for writers in particular, is a natural response to misperceiving what it actually means to share something we’ve written with other people. It is common to look to other people to assign a value to what we have done. We do it in school with grades, at work with salaries and raises, with film and books reviewers, and we do it with publishers. By accepting our work, by giving us an advance, the publishers assign our work a value. Acceptance and rejection can appear to show us whether or work is worth writing or not worth writing.

Yet we do not share our work to learn its value, we share our work to extend its value. We only write about what we find interesting, and what we find interesting is always valuable to us. We never actually doubt whether we are interested in what we are interested in. How could we? But we do sometimes doubt whether anyone else will be interested. Or, to be more accurate, we realize it is impossible to know who will be interested in what interests us.

The emptiness my student described was actually a perfectly accurate rendering of what he knows about other people’s thoughts: Nothing. So, as writers, we must direct our attention back to what we do know, back to the story we love and are interested in and find valuable, and write it until what is on the page accurately reflects the value of what we perceived in our imagination. Then we share it with other people.

Some will see our story’s value, and some will not, just as some will laugh at our jokes and some will not. Once you begin to share your work regularly it will become clear that no one can assign value to what you find valuable. Your readers are just like you. All they know is what they find valuable. Your readers will find your stories the way you found your stories, but searching first within themselves for what interests them most.

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

Unknown

In the middle of the Dark Years, when nothing I was writing was being read, I would occasionally threaten to quit writing altogether. “I will just quit it if things don’t turn around,” I told my wife.

“Really?” she asked. “And then what would you do?”

“I don’t know, but this ridiculous. I mean what’s the fricking point?”

“I get it, but what else would you do?”

It was a maddeningly unanswerable question. I was suffering. I knew this as certainly as I knew I was tired at the end of my day or thirsty after a run. But while I could sleep when tired or drink when thirsty, the power to end this suffering appeared to rest in other people’s hands. It was an unacceptable arrangement, a slave and slave master arrangement. More than to have my work read, I wanted to be free. I wanted my life to be my own.

Which is why I would threaten to quit from time to time. It was a suicidal choice, but sometimes it’s necessary to march yourself to that cliff if only ask, “Who’s making you do anything? Who’s making you breath and eat?” To take that leap is to remember the truth at last, as you fall freely into the unknown.

I’ll never be free from the unknown anymore than I can be free from blank pages. Those blank pages are my dependably unwritten future. They were also the answer to my wife’s question. When I wondered what else I would do, I perceived only a blank page, an unknown awaiting my attention, and the moment I stepped willingly into it, my life was my own again.

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

Why You Don’t Have To Fear The Writing Game

The first time I interviewed the author Richard Bach, he described an evening he spent with Kurt Vonnegut, Truman Capote, and Leon Uris. “It was so disappointing,” he said. “Here I was sitting with these three great minds, and all they wanted to talk about was agents and advances and sales.”

In the other writers’ defense, Bach had recently published Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which was in the process of setting sales records. Moreover, though I am sure he enjoyed the fruits of that success, no writer I’ve interviewed has ever shown less interest in the business side of this business. For instance, when he sold Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the editor who bought it had to convince him to accept an advance. He didn’t care; he just wanted people to be able to read it. “If I don’t give you an advance, they won’t market it,” she explained. “Fine,” he said. “Give me whatever you want.”

I think of Bach’s story of his disappointing evening with famous writers sometimes as I’ve watched Donald Trump wage his bizarre campaign for President. I understand that all politicians are saddled with a problematic relationship to honesty. I don’t know if it would be possible to get elected and say exactly what you believe all the time. It’s like trying to write a story that would please readers of science fiction, romance, and literary fiction. That said, I can’t remember a politician who seemed so transparently willing to say whatever needs to be said to win. I have no real idea what Trump actually believes. For all I know, he doesn’t want to build a wall and his best friend’s a Muslim.

It’s easy to judge Trump, especially if you share my political views. But judgment assumes we have nothing in common with the one we’re judging, and everyone I know has something in common with Trump. Trump is above all a survivor. Winning is his way of surviving. I would like to say I’ve never been preoccupied with my own survival, that I’ve never descended into grisly conversations about sales and advances and marketing, that I’ve never viewed other writers as my competition, that I’ve never been jealous, or looked upon writing as a game I must win and win and win and win. Unfortunately, I have found myself swimming for my life in this shallow end of the writing pool from time to time.

But I cannot begin to write until I forget about the fearful and uninspiring business of survival. To write I have to forget about winning and losing, success and failure, and even dying and living. The creative flow to which we all have equal access doesn’t care about survival because it knows no end. It just keeps flowing and flowing and flowing the way the earth keeps turning and turning and turning. To listen to that flow, I must speak its language, which is the language of life itself.

Whatever happens this November, that flow will keep flowing. Yes, I’ll be unhappy if things turn out differently than I hope, but I doubt the entire world will instantly go up in flames. To fear even that outcome is to join those chanting the song of doom against which we must build walls, as if we could ever stem the flow of life, as if life is a game to be won or lost.

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