The Third Eye

For many years I was a writer obsessed with the form my stories and sentences took. This is also called style. I had loved certain writers whose style was so distinctive and evocative and exciting to me that I believed if I paid very close attention to the form my stories and sentences took, I would be able to write the kind of stories I loved to read. I was less aware of my stories’ content at that time. I felt that if I started writing, something cool would come out.

It didn’t work that way. Obsessing over a story’s form is a little like fussing with your hair in the mirror. There is only so much a hairstyle can communicate. But it is something I can control. I can cut it, wash it, gel it, comb it, comb it again, mess it up and comb it one more time. What I cannot do is control what anyone will think of that hair. And so I stare into the mirror, aware of this uncomfortable fact, knowing that for all my grooming, people are just going to go ahead and think whatever they want to think.

My stories became a kind of mirror I was staring into, with me fussing and fussing before the big date that was submission. I sent them out aware of some nameless deficiency, and they were predictably rejected. Had I not fussed long enough in the mirror? What was missing? What had I overlooked?

Eventually I began to focus more on my stories’ content rather than their form. It was a very different way of thinking, because the content, which was a felt awareness of life, had no form whatsoever. Love, after all, can take any form, as can grief, and joy, and doubt. My time at the desk now was spent trying to see with my writer’s third eye what love and joy and grief really looked like, without any idea of what other people thought love and joy and grief looked like. Once I felt I could see it clearly, I tried to make what I could see with words.

I love language and sentences as much as I ever did, but I spend very little time now thinking about either. It’s a relief, frankly. I look in the mirror about twice a day, and that’s enough. The rest of my time is spent living within what it feels like to be alive. That is the reality of which I am most aware. This reality is not always comfortable, but the comfort I seek does not exist in the mirror or on the page. That comfort can only be perceived with my third eye, for that is where everything I want to share resides.

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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Seeing Beauty

When I was a teenager I was a passionate fan of music, movies, and novels. I could not, however, have been less interested in politics. This was in the late 70s and early 80s, a time still very much influenced by the upheaval of the 60s, particularly in the arts. Art and politics had gotten all tangled up in the 60s. It sometimes seemed that the job of a serious artist was to call for societal change.

I disliked this supposed mandate because I wanted to be a serious artist, but I had no desire to demand, march, or argue for change. I wanted to create stuff that left people feeling as good as I felt after I read a book, listened to a song, or watched a movie I loved. One day I found myself a reading a review of the Talking Heads album “Speaking in Tongues.” I loved this album. So did the reviewer.

However, this reviewer was particularly pleased to see that David Byrne, the band’s founder and songwriter, had clearly evolved artistically. “He’s even starting to drop in some social commentary!” she wrote. Oh, I was mad. Isn’t it enough to make something beautiful? Do you also have to tell everyone what they must do differently for the world to be a beautiful place?

I’m much older now, and my opinion of the relationship between art and politics has changed. No, I still don’t like to mix the two together. I feel about this division the way I do about the division of church and state. But I am more aware of the difference between the ugliness of how people sometimes treat one another, and the beauty of the art people are capable of creating. How much nicer it would be to read a newspaper and be as uplifted as when I read my favorite novel or poem.

But beauty, you may have heard, is in the eye of the beholder, which is as true of newspapers as it is of paintings, poems, and people. If it’s beauty I want, I must choose to look for it everywhere. And if it’s beauty I wish to share in my work, then I must see that beauty before I can render it in a story. The world, or society, can’t give me that beauty, that truth, that equality. I must learn to see it for myself.

I like this job, though I sometimes complain that the world is doing all it can to make my job more difficult. There are days I look out my window and do not like what I see: darkness and cruelty born of the blindness of hatred. Fortunately, blindness can be a temporary affliction. It is only a consequence of looking in the wrong place for what I want. The moment I turn my attention to beauty’s source, I see it everywhere. The veil we sometimes cast over it is transparent to the eye attuned to what moves us all.

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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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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.

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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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Curiosity: The Path to Finding Your Voice

Learning the craft of writing is one thing. There are lots of classes and books that can help you understand both the fundamentals and the nuance of story, dialogue, character, and description. If you don’t like books and classes, you can also just write as much as you can and you will eventually learn that dialogue is most provocative when characters don’t say exactly what they mean, and that nouns and verbs are the bones and muscles of all descriptive writing.

Learning about voice, however, is another thing altogether. For a writer, finding what we have come to call our voice is ultimately more important than learning how to tighten a sagging middle or create believable characters. Until you have found your voice, no matter how diligently you study craft, writing will remain frustratingly unknowable, the blank page a moving target you come to fear and resent.

Yet as a writing instructor, I cannot train your voice the way a singing instructor could help you train your voice. All I can do is remind you that you have one. It’s true. That is because your voice is what interests you most. That’s it. Your voice is not a product of clever word choice, or an expansive vocabulary, or a willingness to take bold stylistic chances. Your voice is your unique interest authentically expressed, unencumbered by any thought of what anyone else thinks is interesting.

Which is why “finding your voice” has very little to do with writing and everything to do with simply being human. Everyone has to find their voice, whether they love to write, cook, garden, or play hopscotch. It is both the simplest thing and the most difficult thing. It is the simplest thing because nothing is easier, more natural, and requires less effort than laying your attention on that to which your curiosity is inherently drawn. It is as natural as eating what you find delicious or laughing at what you find funny.

But it can be the most difficult thing, because to follow your curiosity without apology or restraint means accepting that you and you alone can answer the question, “What is a good life?” To follow your curiosity you cannot worry about fitting in, or sounding smart, or doing the “right thing.” You also cannot worry about success and failure. To follow your curiosity with abandon is to accept that you will learn what your success looks like, and that it will look different than anyone else’s.

Humans love to tell each other what to do. We love to tell each other how to behave, and whom to vote for, and what to eat, and what to read, and which songs to listen to, and when and how and if we should pray. Sometimes we even punish people when they don’t do what we believe they should do. As writer, you have probably been punished at some point in your life for writing the “wrong thing.” It is possible you perceive rejection as a kind of punishment for writing the wrong thing, or maybe writing the right thing in the wrong way.

The worst punishment I have ever known is trying to live someone else’s idea of a life, to write someone else’s idea of a story. That is constant suffering, for no matter how hard I try, everything I do feels wrong, and every path I follow leads to failure. Yet all the suffering and rejection and failure I have known in my life has merely served to guide me back to myself, back to my curiosity, whose unerring guidance I have always had the option to reject or accept.

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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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Write What You Really Know

Contrast is a storyteller’s best friend. It helps us show what it is we want our readers to see. Just as a flashlight’s beam is clearly visible on a starless night, but virtually invisible on a bright sunny day, so too peace is easier to perceive when contrasted against war. So, if you are writing a love story, you will likely have your heroine feeling alone and unlovable for the majority of the story. That way, when she finally does find love, the reader will hopefully experience the same release of tension she feels when she finally believes she is worth of love.

I must remember the power and simplicity of contrast whenever I find myself trying to “figure out a story.” I hate figuring out stories. Whenever I start figuring out a story, I feel as if I’m in math class and someone has handed me a 70,000-word equation for which there is only one right answer, which is known only by acquisitions editors in New York. Unlike a lot of writers I know, I was pretty good in math, and it was fun to find the right answer, but I became a writer because I wanted to make a living asking question to which only I knew the answer.

Which is why I must remember contrast. Stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, can start seeming pretty complicated when I think they’re about what happens. That means I’m trying to untangle a knot of plot points and characters and settings. But stories aren’t about what happens. Stories about what it feels like when something is happening. Your readers won’t remember ninety percent of what took place in the stories you tell. But they will remember how that story left them feeling, because that is all that matters to any of us ever. We all want to feel good. Whether we believe it’s possible or not, we still want it. We arrange all the details of our lives with the sole intention of creating a life, like a story, that leaves us feeling as good as we can feel.

I know that because I’m human. I know that, because I know I would always rather feel good than bad. I would always rather feel curious than bored; I would always rather feel happy than unhappy; inspired rather than depressed. This never, ever changes. It is the one absolute, unending, never-dimming constant in my life. It’s so constant, I take it for granted. It’s so constant, I can start to believe life and all the people in it are far more complicated than they actually are.

If I can remember the simplicity of contrast, life and stories begin to make sense again. In the end a story is about the difference between one feeling and another. Stories are about the difference between feeling like I have no voice and knowing that I have a voice; or the difference between feeling weak and feeling strong; or feeling powerless and powerful. When I tell a story, I choose a difference I have known and experienced. Once I have known the difference between weakness and strength, between fear and love, between violence and peace, that knowledge is unquestionable; it is the resting place for my restless mind.

Write your stories about the feelings you know. If you have lived, you have learned the difference between one feeling and another. Your questions about your stories are usually questions about what you already know to be true. When you accept the simplicity of the difference between fear and love or hate and compassion, your stories will come together on their own, finding their form the way you find yourself when you cease to doubt what you have always known.

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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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The Good Doctor

My parents divorced when I was seven, leaving me, technically, as the man of the house. By which I mean John, my younger brother, instinctively turned to me for guidance that would have otherwise been provided by our father. I think that for many years I resented this role and so was not a particularly gracious big brother. I was also fiercely competitive, and I was not going to allow John to be better than me at anything, which for a time he dutifully wasn’t. We eventually became quite close, and when I look back I believe this closeness started with the arrival of Dr. VonVickenvoctor.

Doctor, as we usually called him, was a purple muppet to which we had adhered two button eyes and a mustache made of yarn. I may have been moody and competitive, but I loved to be entertained, and one day John, age 10, sat down on the couch across from me and introduced me to Doctor.

What followed was the first of many shows. Doctor – a greedy, libidinous, self-absorbed billionaire – would tell me about the time he . . . and then the story. Doctor could travel at will through time and space, and wherever he went, things always went askew. No matter, Doctor always came back for more, never changing, never learning, a purple ego muttering, “Me . . . me . . . me . . .” as he considered his next bizarre plan.

I loved him. My brother had a genius for improvisation and puppetry, and for the duration of those shows I became an eager audience, in the process handing the wheel of our friendship to my little brother. Doctor told me stories for years, and things between John and me grew steadily better.

John would go on to be an actor/writer/director, and at my wedding he gave a moving speech, during which he spoke about how I had been a kind of creative mentor to him. I have always had lots to say about writing and stories and the arts in general, and no doubt John was made to listen to much of it, but I believe in retrospect my gift to his artistic development was not my lectures and diatribes, but those puppet shows.

In entertaining me he must have glimpsed in me, the ferocious big brother, the power of laughter and of joy and his own capacity to harness that power. Talking is fine, but listening is always the greatest gift. Within the attentive audience’s perched silence the artist often hears his voice clearly for the first time. Your mind, after all, was given so you could talk to yourself; but your voice you were given to talk to others.

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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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

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A Question For You

I interview many different types of writers, and for every type of writer there is a different type of interview, but with every writer one thing remains consistent: the person matches the book. This is not to say that the writer and his or her work are one in the same. Instead, it’s as if the writer is in a life-long discussion with the world, and a book is one part of that discussion. When I meet the writer, I feel that discussion still in process, as though the writer has asked a question of the world, and the answer is coming and coming and coming.

This is particularly helpful when I read books about which I am not excited. It is easy to feel that somehow the writer has set out to waste my time. But this is only because when I read a book I am hearing it in my own voice. If the writer is posing a question which I have already answered to my own satisfaction or am simply not interested in asking myself, then what I hear in my head sounds like a song played in the wrong key.

On the other hand, once I meet the writer, and hear their voice, the question the book posed makes perfect sense—for the writer. It’s then I realize that what bothered me most was the dissonance between my voice and that of the author’s, not whether the book was any good or not.

It is impossible for me, once I meet someone, not to feel the integrity of that person’s life question. Not the integrity of their answers, for none of them are ever meant to be final, only guideposts—but the question. That is the tension of life, just as it is the tension of fiction. But it is a dynamic tension, a creative tension, and it does not matter how far from my own question the dramatic arc of another person’s life is drawn—it bends as necessarily and unstoppably forward as mine. I see this, and I am relieved. I am relieved as I am once again reminded that nothing in life can be gotten wrong, that the question is pure, and the answers are nothing more than cobblestones in the road you are paving in its pursuit.

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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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

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That Intelligent

When my son was three he sat down at his plastic Winnie the Pooh drum and sang the following song:

You have to get along,
But you gotta have free.

This would become the central challenge of his – and perhaps everyone’s – life. Namely, to live the life you want to live, you have to get along with all the other people trying to live the lives they want to live. But to live the life you want to live, you also have to be free to live that life however you want. Does it not seem that these two needs are often in conflict? I must write whatever I most want to write, but what if no one wants to read it or publish it?

He had forgotten ever having written the song, and he was incredulous when I reminded him of it recently. No three year-old could possibly write something that intelligent, he said. A three year-old had, I assured him. He adjusted to this reality rather quickly.

As do most parents. There is an intelligence within life that will seek expression by whatever means its current vessel provides. In fact, it is the very same intelligence that allows that life to get along while also having free. From a certain distance, such a marriage can seem impossible, as impossible as a three year-old composing existential ballads. Impossible, that is, until it happens.

It’s always wondrous when it happens, as wondrous as sentences and stories falling together as if on their own. How often have you jumped back from the page and thought, “Did I write that? I’m not that intelligent.” Wondrous, too, how quickly you adjust to the idea that maybe you are.

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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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

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Leaving Room

I was a high school senior and I had lots of big ideas and lots of big emotions but none of those emotions seemed to translate onto the page no matter how many big words and big stories I put there. But I also was the co-editor of the yearbook, whose responsibilities apparently required two periods a day to fulfill. Of course, the yearbook was done and in the can by early March, so there I would be, day after day, sitting in the yearbook office with nothing to do, until one afternoon in late spring I decided to take a walk.

I had never done such a thing. You weren’t supposed to. You had to get permission. But I did not get permission. I simply left. It was weirdly easy to do. So I strolled down to Thayer Street and into College Hill Bookstore. My friend Con, who was nearly three years older than I and had a beard, kept talking about someone named Elliott. I found Elliott, and there was this book about cats, which seemed silly, and then a Best Of Collection that was very slender and manageable and seemed like the sort of thing I might enjoy.

I began to read. How interesting. This Elliott fellow had very big ideas. Here he talked about disturbing the universe, and here measuring out your life in coffee spoons, and here the world ending, but the world was ending in what sounded like a children’s rhyme. It was all very simple in a way. It was poetry that was poetic but also sounded like conversation. And after reading it and reading it and reading it, not entirely understanding it but loving it and being mysteriously moved by it all the same, I put the book down and actually said out loud, “Oh. You can do that.”

It hadn’t occurred to me how powerful that simplicity could be. The simplicity left empty space that I had been trying to fill with big words and big stories. The empty space was where the readers could find their way into the story or poem. That was where the bigness came from. Not from me, but from the combination of the reader and me. You don’t try to say everything, you say a part of it and point the reader toward the rest.

And that was my first and best lesson in what we call craft.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

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A Writer’s Inspiration

What is a writer’s inspiration? Here is what all creative people value: to find oneself fueled as if by command from within to put into the world that which can only be seen by the imagination’s vivid eye. We value that fuel as it propels us past logic and doubt, past reason and comparison. The writer’s inspiration does not share the writer’s fear of failure and judgment. The writer’s inspiration says simply, Create this, and you will know in the creating why you must.

The writer’s inspiration asks only that the writer does not doubt its reality. Doubt its reality and you have lost all sight of it, and so you say, “Look! It was never real. Doubt has shown me the truth. I have cast the light of skepticism upon this thing I could never see, and now it is gone. I am alone, as I have always suspected.” Do not make doubt your friend. It is crafty in its insidious logic. It asks of the writer’s inspiration what it cannot possibly produce: proof of the value of what has not yet been made so that it knows it is worth making.

Doubt is no friend to creation. Love is creation’s only companion. The writer knows his inspiration’s value only has he knows what he loves. Nowhere can your love be proven. In no court could your love stand the withering eye of reason. All that we can say of love is that we know it.

You love your inspiration as you love your friends. You trust your inspiration as you trust your friends. You may believe on some dark night that you trust a friend because he has proven himself through deeds to be worth trusting – but you know this is not so. You know that only in trusting does a friend become a friend; only in trusting do you allow a person to reveal himself to you. So too is it with the writer’s inspiration. Your trust is inspiration’s invitation, the open door of your heart through which love seeks its voice.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter