Golf Dreams and Nightmares

Alice Cooper liked to play golf. If you don’t know, Alice Cooper was a rock and roll star who saw his heyday in the early 70s, and is considered the godfather of Shock Rock or Glam Rock. His stage shows included fake blood, electric chairs, guillotines, and boa constrictors. He wore a lot of makeup. This is sounds tame now, but in 1971, when he hit the charts with “I’m Eighteen,” I was six years old, and my favorite song was The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”

Over the next few years, news of Alice Cooper and his macabre stage shows trickled down to me through rumor and schoolyard whispers. It sounded insane to me. The Halloween makeup and the blood and giant snakes seemed like a nightmare. As it happens, in 1975 he released his most popular album, “Welcome to My Nightmare.” I had nightmares of my own, I thought, and I didn’t like them. Why would I want to travel through his? Mind you, I had never heard a single note of any song he had written.

Twenty years later I was married with children and had new dreams and even some new nightmares. I was watching an MTV music history retrospective when who should they interview but a makeup-less, weathered-looking Alice Cooper. He was hilarious. He talked about how much he and his band liked to play golf. They had to be careful about this. They would sneak onto golf courses dressed as conservatively as possible. They had a reputation to uphold.

Growing up, I thought golf was the suburbs of sports – tame, asexual, quiet, and exclusive. It was a weenie sport for weenie people. At about the same time I learned that Alice Cooper was a secret golfer, a work friend convinced me to play nine holes with him at a public course. I loved it. Yet I never played again. Instead, I dreamt of golfing for years afterward, and in every dream, I made all the shots. I was a natural.

Oh, and I recently Googled “I’m Eighteen” and had a listen. It’s pretty good.

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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Human Stories

Ever since I could talk, I have enjoyed telling stories to friends and family and acquaintances. Yes, I’m a bit of a performer, who doesn’t mind the spotlight – but mostly I enjoy what is shared in the telling of a story. As a storyteller I must leave room for my audience’s imagination, must paint just enough of a portrait that they can complete the image in their mind. In this way, we are really both telling the story, though only one of us is talking. By story’s end, if we were successful, the audience and I meet in relief, or laughter, or understanding – kingdoms known to everyone, but ruled by no one.

I will often tell the same story to many people. Usually, the story changes depending on what I know about the person to whom I’m talking. My wife might hear a slightly different version of a story than my youngest son, who might hear a slightly different version than my oldest son, who might hear a slightly different version than my father, or one of my clients. In the art of showing and not telling, knowing what your audience already knows or doesn’t know, what they believe is true and what they think is a lot of hooey, determines which and how many details I provide in my portrait.

But when I’m writing a story for the reading public, I know almost nothing about my audience. I don’t know how old they are or whether they are a man or a woman; I don’t know how they vote or what they believe about God or science or marriage or children or taxes or death. I don’t know where they’ve lived or what they’ve lost or how they’ve suffered or when they’ve rejoiced. All I know is that they’re human.

That, I have learned, is enough. While I love telling stories to friends and family, the stories I gain the most from telling are those I share with people I may never meet. To do so, I must find something universal in that story, a narrative purpose that has nothing to do with me specifically, but which illuminates the challenges and joys of being human. It is not so difficult. All I need to do is see what remains of my experience when I ignore my name and age and occupation, ignore my unique history and my unmet desires. When I strip away these trappings, I am hopefully left with something as familiar and unadorned as a newborn, a thing of all love and all potential.

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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My Whole Life

I like to remind my memoir students that the first personal essay I published in a larger magazine told the story of the only time I ate an oyster. I had been quite the picky eater for the first twenty-five years of my life, so this was no small decision on my part – but still, it was just an oyster. No one put a gun to my head to make me eat it, nor did I eat it while stranded an island. I had just gotten a job at a fancy restaurant and I had to try it as part of my training.

I share this story because while some students come to me to help them tell their tale of loss or abuse or sickness, some come with less dramatic stories. In fact, sometimes students aren’t sure what story they’d like to tell – they just know they want to write about their lives. These students are sometimes intimidated by those students who have survived cancer, or who grew up in religious cults or biked across the country. Their lives, by comparison, seem uneventful.

You would be hard pressed to find a more uneventful life than mine – at least as I’m living it now. I write, I teach, I interview people, and I talk to my wife, and occasionally to people who aren’t my wife. That’s pretty much it. Yet I write about my life to the exclusion of all other subjects. I find my life endlessly interesting. Though it’s really not my life I find interesting, but rather life itself. What I call my life is just my intimate, personal experience of life.

This may sound like semantics, but it’s not. Life, to me, is never what is happening, in the same way a story is not about what’s happening. A story is about how a character feels while something is happening, and how that character changes, and what that change reveals about all of us. A story is a current of events moving toward an inevitable conclusion, the current stronger and more meaningful than any of the events which comprise it.

Life is also a current, not a fractured collection of events, and certainly not a static object to be studied and dismantled. If I allow myself to look deeply at any event, I can perceive the current of life flowing through it. In fact, I can perceive the whole of life, though I will never be able to render this in language. It is beyond rendering. It is not, however, beyond perception nor beyond feeling, and somewhere in the exchange between writer and reader, the whole of life is shared.

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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Forgetting Stories

Starting stories is usually a lot of fun, but finishing one can be a little disorienting. And I don’t mean the process of finding the story’s best ending. The story and I are still in active conversation while I’m finding its ending. While we may be looking for the perfect moment to say goodbye, we are still talking to one another, and there is more I have to learn about the story, and there is still more the story has to teach me.

But then the day, the hour, the moment comes when there is no more for us to say to one another. That story, hopefully, is going to go have other conversations with other people called readers, but those conversations are by and large none of my business. They will happen in other homes and other cities and in the sanctity of other minds, and to wonder about those conversations is to burden my imagination with an unsolvable mystery.

In this way, I must forget about the story. This is not easy, maybe, since I loved the story. That’s why I wrote it. I loved meeting it at my desk and seeing where we went that day. Forgetting can feel like rejection. Writers don’t like rejection. It lives as a shadowy enemy for much of our life. I want that story to find acceptance somewhere. I want everything I love to be accepted.

This forgetting is not rejection, but rather making room for another story. I can only have one conversation at a time if I want to give that conversation my full attention. I never feel better than when I am giving life my full attention. To do so, I must temporarily forget everything else: other stories, other obligations, even my loved ones. I’ll remember everything by and by, but in the meantime, like a reader picking up a new book, I must clear my mind of memories and what might or might not happen in the shadowed future. For now, I must accept that this next story is as important as the last story, is as important as any story, and so a new conversation begins.

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

Giving Up

If I am working with a client who has never attempted a book-length project before, one of the first challenges I must help this new writer overcome is the sudden and daunting awareness of how little she actually knows about this book she would like very much like to write through to its conclusion. The writer rarely sets out on her journey with this awareness. Instead, she is just excited by some idea that has become so bright in her imagination that she cannot seem to pull her attention from it.

And so one day she decides to sit down and actually begin writing the thing. The idea has been so bright and so interesting to her that it feels as though all she needs to do is set aside a little time everyday and the story should virtually write itself. Then she begins. Sometimes it takes no more than a couple pages for the writer to understand that this story is made of around 60,000 details called words, and that she must in fact choose each of those details, and that those details must fit together as effortlessly as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

This is often a disorienting moment. The writer’s interest in the story was complete. What’s more, the feeling the story is trying to convey is complete as well. If the author is writing a story about the difference between feeling unlovable and finding love, then that profound difference is complete within her mind. But the story that is meant to share that feeling, which is made of tens of thousands of details, is so incomplete that the writer doubts if she ever knew anything.

I can sometimes be of help to these writers simply by reminding them what it is their job to know and what it is not their job to know. It is not our job to know the details. It is only our job to know we would like to find them. It is a sometimes subtle difference, but what we call failure is usually the mistaken belief that our inability to know all the pieces ahead of time means we are incomplete.

How tempting it is in the moment of this mistaken awareness to give up. The feeling of personal incompleteness is in direct opposition to the direction of life and is commensurately wretched in its expression. It is appropriate to want to give up something at this moment, but it’s not the story. Give up believing you can finish what is already whole, or fix what was never broken, and return to the business of finding what you are actually looking for.

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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Discovering Stories

Every writer is a teacher of some kind, though most do not see themselves that way. Most writers see themselves as entertainers – meaning it is not their job to instruct their readers, but rather to engage them, amuse them, frighten them, or inspire them. To do so, writer and reader go on a journey together, and though the writer may be the guide for this journey, may have mapped its route and chosen its destination, the discoveries the reader makes along the way belong entirely to him. If a reader says he loves a story, it is those discoveries he loves, discoveries he may attribute to the writer, but for which he is ultimately responsible.

Yet that journey begins where only the writer can perceive it. Its value and potential are known only to the writer. The writer has made a discovery, you see. The writer has discovered a new love story, or a new adventure, or a new poem. The writer made this discovery in the idle dreaming of his days – picked up a magazine, or looked out the window, or overheard a conversation; and where one moment the writer was looking at the world, the next he was seeing the beginning of a story. A seed has found its soil.

A writer may experience the full pleasure of discovery before putting a single word to a page. As satisfying as this can be, the writer must be willing to transform his discovery to share it. The story must take a form everyone can see, so that everyone can have can have the opportunity to perceive its value. Sometimes it feels as if something is lost in this transformation, that the form our story takes is a pale shade of the rich discovery we made.

This is a trick of our eyes. That story began where even our eyes could not see it. Teachers help their students see what they have not yet seen, whether it is a mathematical formula, or a mother’s and daughter’s reconciliation. It is always a little mysterious why some students easily see what others do not, but what we writers discover is mysterious as well. The best discoveries always feel as if they were right in front of us our whole lives. How, we wonder, could we not have seen them? It does not matter. Life, everyone’s first teacher, showed us, and now can’t stop looking at it until it is a story everyone can see.

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

A Good Relationship

Writing got much easier for me when I began to see it as a relationship rather than something I alone was doing. To write, I asked questions, and then listened for an answer. If I perceived myself – the one who asked the question – as also responsible for the answer, one never came. So though I was physically alone whenever I wrote, the experience was of communication with something else. Though this contradicted certain concepts of reality I had been taught to believe, it was the only practical approach to doing the thing I loved to do.

But this relationship became troubled and argumentative as soon as I began worrying about other people, the ones with whom I would like to share my work. Publishing is a relationship also. I start a story and readers finish it in their imaginations. The inherent truth of all relationships is equality, and this is true of the writer-reader relationship. My reader’s interpretation of my stories is every bit as valid and important as mine. But those interpretations are none of my business.

The moment I think they are my business, the moment I begin worrying about what people will think of what I’ve written, I become lost in a desperate and endless search for approval. I have gone on that search many times, only to find myself in some bitter country of constant argument. You can either look for your story or for people’s approval – not both. The moment I return to the story and begin listening to whatever answers all my questions, I am traveling in the only direction I have ever wanted to travel.

I have learned that this rule is applicable to all relationships. Every argument I have begun with people I love stemmed from my belief that I knew what another person was thinking, or that I had to somehow guess what they were thinking. I mistook this illusory mind-melding for intimacy. Just as when I am writing, to be in good relation to another person, I must forget about what I think they’re thinking and simply speak the truth as best I can. The only way I know how to speak the truth is by listening to that same voice that answers my questions when I write.

Every argument of which I have ever been a part ended the moment I chose to be completely honest. Or, I should say, the argument ended in me, which is all I’ve ever wanted. I am still a little amazed that to feel close to someone else, I must return to what I trust most completely in myself. It seems a little contradictory, but I believe what I listen to when I write speaks to everyone. In this way, it is the true source of all our intimacy, and the more closely we listen to it, the better we know others and ourselves.

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

Enough Experience

Writers are often advised to “write what you know,” which can be tricky advice if what you want to write is, say, steampunk vampire romance. You are not a vampire in love and you do not live in 1890 and fly a steam-powered helicopter. You do, however, love vampires, steampunk, and romance – in fact, you know you love these things – which is why you can write about them with authority.

But even if you are writing in a genre set in another time and place, you must still make the characters that inhabit these faraway and fantastic lands realistic – meaning they must respond to trouble and temptation and triumph the way people do. It doesn’t matter whether your characters are elves, barons, pirates, or cavemen, the universal human impulses that guide us all must guide them as well. Believability is paramount to all stories, and the moment your reader thinks, “That wouldn’t happen,” you’ve lost them.

Of course, humans are dizzyingly varied in their behavior – so varied that it can seem at times as if we are each a species of one. Which is why I have found my own experiences so invaluable. I will never know suffering, joy, confusion, or clarity better than through my own experience. Since my target audience is other people, I have come to depend on my own experiences to make what I write about seem believable to them, wherever and whoever they are.

Everything your characters feel, you have felt, and so has everyone else. I know this intellectually, but each time I sit down to write, I must remember that what I have experienced in my rather limited and quiet life is enough. It is enough to reach anyone if I can write about it clearly and honestly. It is enough to create far-off worlds, or to write essays about creativity. Because whether I’m writing about the past or some distant future, I am really writing about what it is to be alive.

We are all exactly as alive as each other, a simple fact that connects us in ways we cannot perceive as we stumble about crashing into one another and arguing and falling in and out of love. No matter. To write is to go deeply into my own experience and harvest what belongs to us all, share it, and then live some more.

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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A Wine Story

The wine critic Robert Parker is supposed to have said, “Twenty years of experience can go out the door with a brown paper bag.” By which he meant you might think you know how to taste a wine when you can read the label, when you know how old it is and who made it and where the grapes came from—when, in essence, you know the wine’s story. But then taste that wine when you can’t see the label, when all you know is that you have a red wine or a white wine. Then you’re really tasting it, just the wine, not the story of the wine.

One night when I was waiting tables a man and his date sat in my section. The man was rich, and his date was fifteen years younger than he and beautiful. He was not so beautiful. First he ordered a bottle of Dom Perignon, at a $120 a pop, just to get things started.

“And I want you to get a bottle of Penfolds Grange breathing.”

“The Grange?” I said, just to be sure.

“The Grange,” he confirmed.

This was the most expensive bottle we had on the menu, which at that time was around $350. Penfolds Grange was an Australian Shiraz whose 1994 vintage was named Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator. It was, in wine parlance, a huge wine, meaning rich, full of tannin, and packing a fruity wallop in your mouth. It was the kind of wine that needed air to release the tannins, and it was also the kind of wine, not made so much anymore, that needed a few years to lay down, to let all those huge flavors coalesce and relax. I don’t know how wine does this, but it does.

I opened the Grange. He was very excited just to see the bottle. He told his date about it. She was very impressed. After it had breathed for a while he told me to get a glass. Tom, my manager and a very astute taster, was summoned as well. The man happily poured us each a taste and we toasted and raised our glasses to our lips.

“What do you think?” he asked, beaming. He was doing it, you see. He was actually drinking Penfolds Grange!

“Delicious,” I said.

“Isn’t it?” he said. “God. I could die happy right now.”

Tom and I thanked him again for the taste and took the rest of our wine back to the waiter’s station. Tom looked at me for a moment.

“It’s horrible,” he said.

“Yep,” I said. “Green as a Granny Smith apple.”

The wine was so in need of laying down, was so sour and tight, that it was virtually undrinkable. I had tasted green wines before, but nothing this green.

“Should we tell him?” I asked.

“Why?” asked Tom. “He’s loving it.”

That he was. He cooed over very drop. And for years afterward he and his lovely date would be able to tell the story of the night they drank the most delicious wine they had ever had in their life.

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

The Whole Story

I was watching the mini-series The People vs. OJ Simpson the other night, and there was one character in particular I was looking forward to seeing. Not OJ, or Johnnie Cochran, or Robert Shapiro, though they were all very well portrayed. I’d become familiar with them while I followed that bizarre trial with the rest of America. No, the character I wanted to see was the prosecuting attorney Marcia Clark. I had recently learned something about Clark that changed my perception of her as well as, in certain of ways, everyone associated with the trial.

You see I’d had a chance to interview Marcia Clark on my show Author2Author a few months ago. Clark is now a suspense novelist. Prior to our conversation, I knew, of course, about her surprise celebrity and that she’d published a book about the trial and then went on to write fiction. I assumed she’d written the book about the trial because that’s what a lot of people do when they are a part of something so sensational, and then, perhaps because of the unwanted exposure of the trial, decided that practicing law was just too complicated and so made the switch to novels, capitalizing, to some degree, on her name.

I was wrong about that. Early in the interview Clark revealed that since she’d been a girl her dream had been to be a novelist. But, like a lot of smart, academically inclined, hardworking, ambitious people, she was worried about the uncertainty of the writer’s life, and so chose to pursue the law. What’s more, once she made the switch to novelist, her name was more of liability than an asset. Like me, a lot of people assumed she wasn’t really a writer, just a curious celebrity looking for more outlets.

As I watched The People Vs. OJ Simpson and Marcia’s character appeared on screen, what I saw was an aspiring novelist working a high-paying, high-profile day job. I saw the childhood she described briefly to me, and the career waiting for her. And then Marcia would begin talking to Christopher Darden, or Robert Shapiro, and I realized I had written a story in my mind about those characters as well.

I have to admit that my backstories about the other characters weren’t particularly kind. I disliked the OJ trial with all its racial overtones and scandal, a dislike that had seeped into my perception of all those associated with it. All those, that is, except one. For a moment, I found myself wishing I could know every character’s true backstory, all the surprising choices from childhood forward that had led them to that place and time. Barring this, I would have to settle for the understanding that everyone’s complete story is always kinder than what I can imagine.

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