Guided

There’s a great scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon where Monroe Stahr, the titular tycoon, is walking on the beach one evening with his girlfriend. They meet an old African American fisherman and get to talking. The fisherman asks Stahr what he does and Stahr tells him he works in motion pictures (he’s actually one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood at the time). The fisherman says he never cared for motion pictures, and Starh asks him why. The fisherman shrugs and says, “They just don’t seem realistic enough.”

This observation clearly affects Starh. The fisherman then wishes Starh a good evening, and walks off down the beach, “unaware he had just changed the entire motion picture industry.”*

This scene stayed with me more than any other in the book, and for good reason I think. As an author, there is no doubt that certain people’s opinions seem to matter more than other people’s opinions. From a professional standpoint, this is undeniably so. That your cousin the dentist thinks your novel is great is just not going to have the kind of immediate effect on your career as a rave review in the Times.

But from a human standpoint no opinion is actually more important or more valid than another. Though we might enjoy donning our fancy Author Hat as we strut about the world, at the end of the day that hat comes off and we are humans first, last, and only, a reality no publishing contract or movie deal can reverse. Everything beautiful, useful interesting, and profound you will ever write flows from your humanity. And just as no one is more human than another, so too no one’s opinion is actually more important than another.

You know this because before you were an author, before you’d sold anything or been reviewed by anyone, you were just a person who knew what you liked and what you didn’t like. You weren’t famous, no one cared what you thought with the exception of your parents (maybe), and yet what you liked and didn’t like guided you through your life. It guided you to your friends and lovers, to the books read, and eventually to writing stories of your own.

The intimate and private relationship to your tastes and preferences has remained constant even as your life has changed. Now perhaps you stand in a bookstore or library, reading your story to a crowd of friendly strangers. And even though they have all come to hear you, though they have gathered in this one place because of your book, in your heart you are the same person who had never written or published a thing, just a human guided by your humanity to this place and time.

*I apparently lent my copy of The Last Tycoon to some scoundrel who neglected to return it. So this is my best recollection of that scene. Apologies in advance to Fitzgerald scholars offended by any liberties I took out of necessity.

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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Waiting With An Answer

The imagination is as loyal and tireless and non-judgmental as a companion can be. Suppose you sit down to write a story about a one-eyed detective. You feel there is something interesting about a character looking for clues with only one eye. It’s a little obvious on the surface, but maybe once you get deeply into it you’ll find something meatier.

So you begin. You ask your imagination, “How did my detective lose his eye?” and, “Does wearing his eye patch make him feel dangerous and mysterious, or self-conscious and inadequate?” and, “How could I express his different way of seeing the world in all that he does?” The imagination loves these kinds of connected questions as they allow it to build up its moment in a way the scattered questions of day-to-day life do not.

But the imagination does not judge the questions you ask it. It will help you tell any story you wish. And so if you also ask, “Who’s going to want to read this book?” it will show you a world in which no one wants to read your book. And if you ask, “Why did I bother to start this?” it will show you a world in which you should never start anything.

And while you dream your own private dystopia, your imagination awaits your next question. Your imagination is not frightened of the worlds it helped you create because it knows nothing of good and bad. All it knows is waiting and answering. And so it waits where no clock can tick, waits while you choose which story you truly wish to tell.

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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Good Questions

Writing got much easier for me when I accepted that my job was to ask questions and let my imagination bring me the answers. Sometimes my question was, “Why does the witch want to capture my hero?” or “What job does my protagonist really want?” But just as often they were questions like “How do I know I have free will?” or “What if happiness is our natural state of being?”

Every question I ever asked was answered, though it wasn’t always answered immediately. Or, more often, I wasn’t immediately ready for the answer. No matter; when I was ready I heard it, and if it was a really good question, the answer usually led to more questions. Questions are more interesting than answers. I have to remind myself of this often, because I spend a lot of time thinking all my worry would be over if I could rest in the surety of a firm conclusion. In fact, life is never duller, never less meaningful, than when I don’t have a question to ask.

Fortunately, life itself is always creating questions for us. This is good news for writers. I have had the pleasure of working with a number of clients recently whose lives have compelled them to ask fantastic questions. However, the means by which life helped them to ask these questions is what we normally call “trauma.” Like all people, the writers are tempted to believe their lives now would be better if only they could scrub their past clean of those traumatic events.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Life compelled these writers, usually at a very young age, to ask, “What is intimacy?” or “What is real strength?” or “What is unconditional love?” Once the question was asked, the answer started coming, but they were not ready to hear it, usually because they did not even know they’d asked it. So they start writing, where they could ask smaller questions on purpose, the answers trickling down to them in poems and essays and novels until gradually the answer that had been knocking and knocking on the door to their consciousness is allowed in.

I don’t want to suffer any more than you do. I want my days to go as effortlessly and undisturbed as a perfect Sunday picnic. But when I find myself wondering, “What the hell is going on?” or “What’s the point?” or “Why am I here?” I have not reached the end of my happiness. I’ve found again life’s interesting path.

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 Best Story

Though it’s been several weeks, the events at Charlottesville have stayed with me for many reasons, some of which have to do with being a writer. Seeing angry young men with torches chanting Nazi slogans and declaring they will not be replaced fills me with a mixture of confusion, anger, and fear. What’s to be done with these people? I ask myself. Rounding them up into cattle cars and shipping them elsewhere seems appealing, but then – as the saying goes – I’d be no better than them.

Which, by the way, I am not. The worst story humans ever told is that some of us are better than others. It has been told and told and told since humans first started telling stories. The Romans and the Greeks told it, and the kings and queens and peasants of Europe told it, and of course Americans told it, despite what we’d written in our Declaration of Independence. It is the most insidious and persistent story known to us, and despite how it always ends, how we know it will end, we keep picking it up and reading it and telling it.

I believe that’s because equality – true equality – is the simplest and most challenging story to tell. To really tell it, I have to walk down the street and see everyone I pass as absolutely equal to me. No one is worse than me and no one is better than me. No one. No matter how rich or poor, old or young, thin or fat; whether they’re saying hello or chanting Nazi slogans. The temptation to compare myself to others, to learn where I rank, is so great that I find myself doing it habitually, the way my hand reaches for a bowl of potato chips at a party.

This also holds true when I walk through a bookstore. No writer is better than another. No matter how many awards a book wins, or how high the sales, the writers themselves are all absolutely equal. That some writers have received more attention is not a reflection of that writer’s value, but of how much that writer values what they share. Editors and agents and readers cannot teach you to love your work; you’ve got to learn how to do it yourself.

The good news is that loving what you want to share is as natural as breathing. Humans may be brilliant at holding their breath, but eventually, breathe we must. I don’t know how to make someone exhale their fear and anger, make them stop telling the story of how they are better or worse. But I do know that I will sit down every day to learn how to better tell the story of how we are equal. Even if I don’t get it perfect, which I never do, I can’t go wrong with that story. It will always win out over the alternative. It will win because it uplifts instead of depresses, brings together instead of dividing, loves rather than hates and, finally, because it’s the truth. Once I let myself do it, the truth is always the easiest story to tell.

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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Simple Solution

I have a theory that a truism’s value is in direct proportion to how difficult it is to hear when you most need to hear it. For instance: all problems are like gifts that arrive containing their own solution. Writing more than anything else has taught me that this is definitely true, though you shouldn’t remind me of this when I’m deep in the middle of some problem. You might get punched.

On the other hand, I cannot write unless I remember this truth in some way. I noticed this repeatedly with my students and clients. Many of them are writing memoirs, all of which are based on a period in their lives where they experienced great difficulty. These writers all believe that their lives have taught them something valuable that they’d like to share with their readers. For obvious reasons, most of these writers do not want to dwell too long on their troubled pasts. Many want to hurry to the solution.

I find myself again and again reminding them to go back to their supposed problem. From a very practical standpoint, this is essential so that the reader can fully receive the gift the author is trying to share. If you want to share your understanding of unconditional love, you must show what is like to live for twenty years believing that you are unlovable unless you’re married or win the State Wrestling Championship. The reader must fully experience the suffering, so they might fully experience the relief.

Yet just as important is what authors learn in writing about their problems. The experience of writing about their troubles teaches the author how to write about the solution. The very language and metaphors used to describe the problem are almost always used to express the solution. What’s more, the author invariably finds the moment that they created the problem themselves, the moment they believed in their own limitation, or ignored their own guidance.

We are always the creators of our own troubles. Again, I don’t really want to hear this when I’m in the middle of my trouble. I’m usually pretty certain that if other people would just get their act together, my life would be fine. Or, on darker days, I think there’s nothing anyone can do to fix my sorry condition. I’ve already tried and tried to fix myself, and nothing’s worked. I want to give up – but then I must choose what to give up: living or fixing. The moment I give up fixing, living gets much simpler.

.

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 Storyteller

Sometimes I wander about the world as a storyteller, and sometimes as someone having a story told to him by the world. I look to the world for the story it is telling me only when I forget I am a storyteller, but this forgetting happens quietly, quickly, and frequently. I do not always mind the story I believe the world is telling me. It can be funny or exciting or even flattering. I particularly enjoy the flattering stories the world is telling about me. How nice that the entire world holds me in such high regard!

But I just as often do not like the story the world is telling me at all. It is such a depressing story, a story of happiness being something known only when the pieces of the world arrange themselves for brief trembling moments that can be enjoyed until chance, or inertia, or gravity, or evolution pull them apart. It is a story of greed, and violence, and lust, and vengeance. I must grab and cling to all the happiness I can before my time runs out.

I soon become a critic. If the world is bent on telling me these crappy stories, and if I am forced to listen to these stories—and how can I not be, since I am only one man and the world is huge and loud, and while I must rest, it talks on and on and on?—then by God I will do what I can to change that story. So I criticize and reject and complain. Then I do it some more. Yet still the world tells its depressing story, and I can but listen and watch.

It is nice at such times to retreat to my desk where the page is blank and I can ask, “What is the best story I can tell myself today?” How quickly my mood changes with that simple question. How optimistic and curious I become. And how I love that blank page, how it erases all the stories I told myself about the world and returns me to my natural state—a storyteller choosing a happy ending for the world he makes.

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 Exaggeration

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

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

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

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

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 Perfect Companion

Every story, play, poem or essay is a journey home. Only the author knows where home is. He knew where home was the moment he set out, though in finding it again, he will know it better than before he left.

Along the way, the author will become lost in details and the endless choices open to him. At such times it will seem as though he has forgotten what home looks and feels like. In this dream of forgetting he might believe he does not actually know where he is going or how to get there. He will look to the world to tell him. The world is fantastically accurate at telling you where you are. There are landmarks and road signs; there are friends and even strangers who will tell you also. But if you ask those friends or strangers, “How do I get home?” they will begin describing the route they know to the home they know. To follow these directions is to become more lost than before.

Now the author might begin to hate the world. It and all its people are useless to him, and have abandoned him in this hour of need. He sees that the world is devoid of meaning and purpose, a giant rock where life is born just to die, and every road bends back on itself. He’s through with the world. He is done looking to it for anything.

Yet even in what he calls giving up, he discovers that he is not done looking. In fact, with his mind at rest and his attention with nowhere else to go, he soon finds the trail he’d left. Suddenly the world is useful again, telling him in one glimpse where he is in relation to where he wants to go. The world is a perfect companion, he thinks as he sets off again. It leaves him alone, but never leaves him, until he has found again his garden gate, and his wandering for the day is done.

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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Sharing Stories

I was giving a talk in Spokane shortly after the release of Write Within Yourself. In many ways, that book and this column constitute an ongoing story about writing. I’d heard a lot stories about writing over years, stories about how hard it is, and how you have to be lucky to have success at it, and how some people have talent and some just don’t. I did not like any of these stories, nor did I find them helpful.

So I started telling a different story, which led to the book and which brought me to Spokane. During the question and answer part of my talk a woman at the back the room raised her hand and stood up. “I don’t have a question,” she said. I leaned forward. She seemed to be on the verge of tears. “I just want to say what a relief it is to hear all this!”

She sat back down. I thanked her and told her how glad I was that something I wrote to help me had also helped someone else. But I’ve thought often of that woman since I met her. It is possible she will remember me as someone who changed her relationship to writing. Yet all I did was offer her permission to stop telling a story she had never wanted to tell in the first place. She was the one who decided that night to stop telling it. I was merely a convenient excuse to do so.

And what a relief it is when we stop telling crappy stories to ourselves. What a relief to stop bending our minds into some shape we decided at some weak moment was more acceptable than the shape it wants to take. What a relief to stop believing what makes us miserable to believe. The fever of self-loathing breaks, and when the sweat dries and we feel ourselves again in our natural form, we move in the direction we were meant to move, toward a story worth sharing with 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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The Saint Within

Every writer I know began as a young reader. Most read hungrily once they’d discovered the intimate pleasure of the written word. It feels like escape, this traveling through imaginary worlds. It does not matter what world you are reading about – whether it is the once-real world of Czarist Russia or the unreal world of Narnia – it is all imaginary, for your body is one place while your mind is in another.

But reading is actually the opposite of escape. No story can live without the reader’s emotional participation. The writer’s words are but directions to a place within the reader where sadness and joy and grief and curiosity and boredom and hope and despair reside. The words alone are a skeleton; the reader’s felt responses to those words are the flesh and blood of every story ever told.

What’s more, every story ever told grows from the same fertile thought: Life matters. It matters that someone fell in love or someone was crowned queen. It matters that a father and son were reunited. It matters that the killer was caught. Life is not just a bunch of meaningless crap that happens to us between birth and death. The story guides us to that place within us where we know life matters, where we know that we are interested for a reason, where we know that we matter and are living on purpose.

This is why stories and poems and songs were my church and my state growing up. I turned to them to remind me of what I so often forgot, what I so often lost track of in the hurly-burly of life’s circus. I had thought that I would need to make these heroes who’d saved me from myself less saintly, so that I could take my place beside them on the shelf. Instead, I found again the saint within me, the unblemished self who remains unaffected by my woeful stories of meaninglessness, who finishes the stories others had started, and who now begins my stories that others might finish.

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