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

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Just Learning

I write about writing and creativity all the time, but the other thing I write about is what I learned raising a son who was diagnosed with autism (for instance, this piece in the New York Times). The two subjects are surprisingly related. The lesson, for lack of a better word, that I learned raising Sawyer, my son, is that no one is broken – not him, not me, not you, not anyone. It’s the best lesson I’ve ever learned, and one I continue to understand more deeply every day.

One thing I’ve come to understand about brokenness is that pretty much everyone believes in it – men and women, scientists and ministers, artists and stockbrokers. Sometimes it seems like the only thing people can agree on. We just don’t agree who is broken; we only agree that someone is broken. Sometimes that someone is us; often it’s somebody else. You know it when you see it.

Except you don’t really. Our belief in brokenness and wholeness has everything to do with our belief in success and failure. Which brings me back to writing. Like Sawyer, writing has taught me much, including success’s infinitely malleable definition. Your success is not my success, just as your goals are not my goals, just as your interest is not my interest. Our concept of failure, meanwhile – that death-like end of happiness and potential and growth – is a reflection of our belief that there is a universally agreed upon definition of success.

There is no success and failure; there is only learning. Nothing else ever. Just learning. As a schoolboy, I won races and lost races. For the victories I was given trophies. For the losses I was given nothing. I learned equally from the victories and the losses, though at the time I resented the learning the losses offered. No matter. Years on, I no longer have the trophies, but the learning from the victories and losses remains, as the branches in a tree remain and continue to grow.

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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Out of the Shadows

When an artist draws an image on a blank canvas, she is interested in the negative space – the shadow – as much the positive space – the object. Negative space gives objects definition and depth and dimension. More importantly, in an image composed of many objects, shadows allow the eye to differentiate between one flower and another, to understand where the sky ends and the horizon begins.

For many years I spent much of my time fixated on negative space, which in my life of romance and writing was called rejection – rejection from prospective partners and rejection from publishers. It was immensely confusing and uncomfortable. I could feel every “no” before it came. Sometimes, I wondered: if I were a better person, a better writer, would the no’s become yes’s? It was an impossible question, because I didn’t know how to be a better person, nor, in truth, a better writer. Some days I seemed to write brilliantly; the next, it was if I’d forgotten the English language.

Then one day I met a girl who seemed different to me than other girls I had met. I had no apprehension the first time I asked her out, because I knew she wouldn’t – no, couldn’t – reject me. She couldn’t, because she was interesting to me for reasons beyond gaining the approval of a yes. She was interesting to me the way a song I heard on the radio started me dancing, the way a joke made me laugh, the way a story excited my imagination. I was only seventeen, but I had stepped out of the shadows, and the difference was unmistakable.

I would be much, much older before I learned to apply this way of living to writing. I continued to fear rejection the way I feared death. Rejection, for me as a writer, seemed like death: an end with no more beginnings. I was not surprised that the first time I chose to tell a story only because it was interesting to me and not because I hoped it would be accepted, that I had the same feeling as I did the first time I asked out that girl who is now my wife. I was just surprised at how long it took me to step into that creative light. I knew, as surely as I knew I would now seek it every time I sat at my desk, that it had been shining and shining all those years, waiting for nothing but my acceptance.

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 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

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