Inner Critic

Some writers embrace criticism, and some do not. When I spoke to Wally Lamb, he shared with me that he is a member of three writing groups, all of whom read and critique his work. Meanwhile, Louis Sachar shares not one shred of what he is writing with anyone – except the title – until the book is completely finished. I was once on a panel with Deb Caletti, Megan Chance, and Jennie Shortridge, all of whom described the outrage they first experience upon receiving a red-gashed manuscript back from their beloved editors. Compare this to N. D. Wilson who craves the “resistance” an editor’s feedback provides, without which he feels his work grows soft.

It is easy for me to become disoriented when the horns of criticism begin blaring in my ear. I write to hear myself, after all; why am I listening to these other people? Yet what is writing but sifting through thoughts until I find one that serves the story I am trying to tell? And what is a criticism but a thought that comes from someone else? Regardless of where it comes from, every thought must in the end be put to the same test—namely, measured against the shape of the story to understand if it fits.

Which is why criticism is so much more useful than how it might or might not strengthen my story. I cannot be reminded often enough of the difference between the thoughts that blow ceaselessly through my mind, and me. How often I have mistaken one for the other, and in that instant my wellbeing feels as transient as a word waiting beneath an uncertain eraser. I remember who I am the moment that word is gone and I awaken to find myself holding the pencil.

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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Nothing Wrong

My older sister, who got straight A’s (with one very notable exception) in college, who excelled in calculus, and who could whip her word-loving brother in crosswords, Boggle, and Scrabble, told me she hated her one creative writing course, in which she received her only collegiate B. “Totally annoying class,” she explained. “There are no right answers.”

How true. This can make it difficult to teach, and can make the blank page particularly daunting. Fortunately, this also means there are no wrong answers either. In the realm of creation there is no right and wrong, no good and bad, there is only what you want to create and what you don’t want to create. Outside of this single parameter, all is equal.

Which is why I encourage writers to never criticize other writers, no matter how wrong the word choices or plot choices those other writers have made may appear. The moment I criticize another writer in this way I see the world of creation as divided into right and wrong, and I am undone. Now I write not to create what I want to see, but only to avoid creating something that is wrong – and since nothing in creation is actually wrong, I write in perpetual fear.

I know that there are so many things in the world beyond stories that seem wrong, the wars and the poverty and the lies, to name only a few. But inequality exists only in the human imagination, where we perceive that which we want more of and that which we want no more of. I cannot un-create what I do not want, but I can create what I do want. To understand this difference is freedom; to forget it is to be condemned instantly to the same prison where all wrong things go, whose cell door opens only when everyone in the world agrees that I am right.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Demolition Critic

A friend of mine published her eleventh novel last year, and in so doing, surrendered her work to the critics, both professional and casual. One of those casual critics did not care for her book. In lieu of a written review on Amazon, he simply posted a video of him blowing up the book.

I have not seen the video, and I have no idea if the author saw it either. A mutual friend brought it to my attention. Whether she sees the video or not, I am sure she will be okay. The fellow who blew up her book, however, has a longer road to travel back to okay. I fully understand the temptation to blow up a book. When I was nineteen I read a 700-page novel whose ending I found so profoundly unsatisfying – the author left me wondering whether the man and the woman would get together, and the last sentence was an untranslated Latin phrase – that I threw it across the room.

The book did not care that I threw it. It wouldn’t have cared if I had burned it. A book is just a giant thought, and you cannot kill a thought. A thought cannot be sent to the electric chair or develop cancer. You can march and march against a thought until your feet are swollen, you can shout until your voice is gone, but the thought will live on. A thought is a road, and you either travel it or not. If you don’t like where it’s going, then turn around and find another one.

It is both that simple and that complicated. My friend loved her book, and love has no opposite, not even a bomb. What the Demolition Critic wanted would not appear magically out of the ashes of my friend’s book. The Demolition Critic would have to look in precisely the same place my friend looked when she found her book. In this place, nothing burns and nothing is rejected. It is all acceptance until the moment you wonder what anyone else would think of what you’ve found. That is the moment you understand the true meaning of rejection: that listening too closely to your critics is suicide, and forgetting them is life.

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 Protector

It doesn’t matter what I’m writing, whether it’s a memoir or an essay or a poem or novel, in order to write honestly and sincerely I must forget myself. I must forget the Bill who looks in the mirror, who checks his followers on Twitter, who squints at the scale in the morning, who replays past conversations in his mind, who gloats over praise and agonizes over criticism. This Bill has many opinions, particularly about what I’ve written. He believes most of what I’ve written is brilliant or horrible. There is very little in between.

I have to forget about him, though it’s not always so easy at first, because he believes he’s looking out for my well-being. He’s a protector of sorts. He’s just not exactly clear what he’s protecting me from. No matter, his vigilance is one of his most endearing qualities. He knows a threat when he sees it, so he keeps his eyes outward, hoping to find trouble before it finds us.

Which is why I like writing in the isolation of my workroom. There’s nothing to see here, just the same four walls, the same windows and clock, the same blank screen. I know immediately when my protector has gone off duty. The room grows immediately quieter. Now I can hear the answers to the questions the steady hum of vigilance had distorted. I cannot hear those answers until I forget to care how anyone else would answer them.

Now I’m writing. And now I experience a lovely transparency. I am not worried about what the protector was protecting because it doesn’t exist. Forgotten are all requirements, all bills and arguments and comparisons and grievances. Now light just passes through. I can only write for so long, however, before I realize I can hear the clock ticking and the cars on the street outside my window. I’m back in the world, and I remember I can be seen again.

It’s not long before I meet my protector again, but the more I write, the less I seem to need him. The older I get, the closer he gets to retirement. I won’t throw him a party or buy him a gift when he’s done. In fact, I doubt I’ll recognize his passing until I look in the mirror and realize I am actually looking back at myself.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

No Offense

I’m going to begin this essay by breaking creative writing’s most fundamental rule. I’m going to tell and not show. Here goes: It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about you. It only matters what you think about you.

Perhaps you’ve heard it before. I certainly have, though I thought of it again the other night when I was interviewing author and illustrator Nick Bantock. When Nick was leaving high school to study art at the university level, his English instructor had some advice for him. “Do humanity a favor,” he said, “and never write.” Thirty-five years later, in the middle of a comfortable career as an artist and illustrator, Nick got an idea for an illustrated epistolary novel. That book would eventually be titled Griffin and Sabine and would go on sell over a million copies. At one point, Nick had three books on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously.

The world of writers is filled with stories like this. Being a professional artist of any kind can seem like a big dream, and there’s usually someone around willing to tell you it’s too big for you. Sometimes that person is a parent or a high school English teacher, or sometimes that person is an editor or agent or MFA professor. It doesn’t matter. The moment I am told I shouldn’t do something I want to do is the moment I must decide whom I plan to spend my life listening to.

It’s a decision I must keep making throughout my writing life. Even now, after I’ve decided that this dream isn’t too big, people are still willing to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do. Sometimes people will tell me I shouldn’t have written what I wrote because either they don’t think what I’ve written is any good, and therefore shouldn’t be out there polluting the reading world, or because what I’ve written is offensive.

Which brings me back to creative writing’s fundamental rule. All readers, whether they’re aware of it or not, make up their own minds about what I’ve written. If I simply tell them something is funny or profound, they’ll have to take my word for it. But if I show them something funny or profound and they are able to perceive it without me calling what I’m showing them funny or profound, then the readers will have discovered something for themselves. What they found will belong to them, not me.

But this showing and not telling is an inexact exchange. It must be, so that enough room is left for the readers to make up their minds. That means that some readers will not see what I’m trying to show them. In fact, sometimes they will see the very opposite. I will try to show them that they have all the power to create any life they want, and they might instead see that all their suffering is their fault, that I am “blaming the victim.”

I am always partly responsible for this misunderstanding. I try to show as directly as I can, but sometimes I leave too much room for the reader. So it goes. I cannot worry about a reader being offended by what they saw in my work, any more than I should worry about the stories other people want to tell. I cannot know what is in another person’s mind; I can only know what I am trying to share. I do the best I can, and let it go.

People have said plenty of unkind things to me in my life, particularly about my work. Yet the things these people said only “hurt” when I believed them. I’ve come to trust that particular pain. It is guidance. Just as I find the right story, sentence, or word by what feels best to me, so too the pain that comes when I believe I am not good enough or smart enough or talented enough is guiding me back to the truth from which my life is meant to be led.

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

A Valuable Lesson

I’ve interviewed enough writers to have heard this story a number of times: A fledging writer, often a would-be genre writer, takes a creative writing class. The teacher – older, frustrated, grumpy, usually with strong literary leanings – informs the student, after reading a few stories, that he/she should give up, because he/she is not a writer. He’s sorry to be the one to break the news (he’s not), but there is no point in continuing with the charade.

There are three responses to this, all of them good:

The first is that the student thinks, “You are wrong. I love to write, but you and I apparently disagree on what constitutes ‘good writing.’ You are not my audience. I will find my voice, and then my audience, and that will be that.” This is the least likely response because a writer with this awareness rarely gets told that they are not a writer, and not just because of how they write. There is an immunity that comes with such self-awareness. A teacher such as the one in this story will find someone else to condemn.

The student might also feel relief. “Thank God!” thinks the student. “He’s absolutely right. Finally, I can give up on this dream and start dancing, or singing, or baking, or accounting, or whatever it is that really pleases me. At last I am done trying to force the square peg of my interests into the round of hole of writing.”

Most common, however, is the third response – despair. The student goes home feeling as if something has been taken from her. Up until this moment, she had looked forward to her time alone at the desk with her stories, and she had dreamed of a time when she might share those stories with other people. Now she is uncertain if she has the authority to know what she likes and does not like, and she does not really know how to live if she can’t know something so fundamental as what interests her.

And she can’t, really, which is why she feels so bad, and why despair is such good news. It means the teacher was wrong, and that this writer’s guidance, the very same silent and constant guidance that leads her from story to story, from word to word, that speaks only in feelings of correct and incorrect, of effortlessness and struggle, this same guidance is now speaking just as loudly as it possible can, saying, “He does not know that he claims to know! Only you can know that.”

Eventually the writer will listen to this guidance, and the despair will pass, and she will return to writing, and the teacher, though he will never know it, will have taught her valuable lesson indeed.

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

Why Not To Judge Your Writing

It’s that time of year when I’ll begin judging submissions for the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association’s yearly writing contest. I’m happy to lend a hand because I know the contest often serves as a valuable career steppingstone for the winners, and that all the writers value the feedback they receive on their submissions. However, the nature of contests is such that I am required to assign numerical scores to every story I read. This is always the most difficult part of my assignment. I am a writer myself before I am a judge, and the writer in me must close his eyes when the judge ranks one story as quantifiably better than the other.

The worst thing I can do as a writer is to believe in good writing and bad writing. Actually, the worst thing I can do as a writer is to believe in good and bad period. The concept of good and bad, of right and wrong, is anathema to creativity. Once I have entered the creative flow of the story I want to tell, my only concern is what belongs in that story and what does not. This requires selectivity. That is, I must select one word or sentence or character over another. Yet this does not mean that one word is actually better than another word, just as a shovel is not better than a hammer unless I want to dig a hole.

No one is capable of making these choices, these selections, but me, for I am the only who knows the story I want to tell. For this reason, I must forget about the idea of good and bad while in that creative flow. I must forget about the idea that any thought, any story, any person is better than another person. I must see the world as neutrally as the eighty-eight keys on the piano – each one necessarily different from the other, but each equally valuable, useful, and deliciously responsive to the artist’s choice as any other.

I understand this neutrality, this absolute equality, largely contradicts my experience away from the desk. I inadvertently judge things as good or bad as I go about my day. But this is only because the creative selection process does not end when I stop writing. The difference is that instead of looking at a blank page, I am looking at the world of other people and the things they say and do and write. I cannot help but notice things that I enjoy and things I do not. I cannot help but want to read one book over another or to notice that I prefer peace to violence and agreement to argument.

But that does not mean I must judge these things. To judge is to determine that something that does exist should not exist. If this is true of something I see, then why should this not be true of me? I exist, after all, how do I know if I am good or bad? When I write, I cannot fear writing something that is bad, that should not exist. There is no right answer to the question, “Is this any good?” I can only answer the question, “Is this the story I want to tell?”

Which is why, though I take the job of reading and critiquing the story submissions seriously, I know the numbers I assign say nothing of that story’s actual value. Every story has served that writer equally, whether that writer wins or loses. It has been true of every story I have ever written, whether they were published or not. Every story brought me closer to myself, to the one who knows that only good can come of what sharing what I love with other people.

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

Music Lessons

For years my wife, herself a writer, was my first and only beta reader. Every draft of every novel went under her nose, and she’d return with her likes and dislikes. It was not a peaceful arrangement. Often her dislikes outnumbered her likes. I came to hate this process. I didn’t really want her feedback; I just wanted her to love it so I could send it to agents or editors with some confidence. Eventually, I relieved her of her duty as beta reader, and there was peace in the kingdom.

About the same time I stopped showing my wife my books, I started writing music. I discovered that using Garage Band I could compose anything from a pop tune to a piano sonata to a symphony. I was thrilled. I’d wanted to compose music my entire life but I hadn’t the time nor discipline to learn to play the piano well enough to write what I heard in my mind. Now I could put little black dots into the program, press play, and hear what I’d written. Sometimes what I’d written sounded like what I heard in my mind, and sometimes it didn’t. And sometimes I liked what I’d written more than what I’d imagined and sometimes I did not. I was my own beta listener.

I was so excited when I finished a song or a little symphony. Even though I had chosen every little black dot, the song still felt a bit like something I’d discovered on the radio. I was the beta listener, after all. And since I always liked the songs, and since whenever you find a song you like you share it with someone you love, I’d play it for my wife.

At first, she was as delighted as I was. “You wrote that?” she’d ask. “Yes!” I’d say. “Isn’t that cool?” Once she’d gotten over the shock that her husband of fifteen years was now writing music, she began to listen with a more critical ear, commenting, “Oh, that beginning’s really dynamic.” Or, “The middle kind of bogs down, don’t you think?” And then one day, after listening to my latest piece: “That just doesn’t work for me. It has no center.”

And that was when a miracle occurred. I didn’t care. To my own amazement, I did not care one speck that she thought it had no center. What she or anyone thought of this or any piece could not change my relationship to it, could not change why I’d written it, or what I’d learned writing it, or what I thought of it. The two experiences were totally separate. And I thought to myself, “If I learned to write music for this lesson alone, it will have been worth it.”

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

Fearless Writing, Part One: Two Questions

If you’ve ever written and actually enjoyed the experience, if you’ve ever allowed yourself to become lost in the dream of the story you are telling so much that you temporarily forget what time it is, then you have written fearlessly. In fact, writing doesn’t really begin until we forget to be afraid, forget to worry about whether it’s any good or if anyone will like it or if we’ll ever sell it. So the question isn’t whether you can write fearlessly, but whether you can do it on purpose. Here then is the first of the three best tools I know for writing fearlessly every day.

The only questions you should ever ask are: “What do I most want to say?” and “Have I said it?”

I ask these questions because I can actually answer them. I will never know anything better than I know what I am most interested in. I will never be able to pay attention to something for longer than that about which I am most curious. My curiosity is the engine that drives my creative vehicle. It is the source of all my excitement, my intelligence, and my surprise. It is also entirely unique to me. There is no one on earth who knows what I most want to say other than me.

And once I know what I want to say, once I know which story I want to tell, or which scene I want to write, only I can know if I have translated it accurately into words on the page. Whatever I most want to say exists in a realm knowable only to me. There isn’t one editor or teacher or critique group member who can tell me if I have accurately translated what I wanted to share because only I know what that is; these other people, however well-intentioned, can only tell me if they like or understand what I’ve written. That is all they actually know.

If I am ever asking some question other than these two, I am not really writing. I am trying to read other people’s minds. If I am asking, “Is it any good?” I am really asking, “Will anyone else like it?” Or if I’m asking, “Is there market for it?” I am really asking, “Will anyone else like it?” And if I am asking, “Is it too literary? Is it not literary enough?” I am really just asking, “Will anyone else like it?”

What anyone else thinks of what I’m writing is none of my business – at least not while I’m writing. While I’m writing, what I think of what I’m writing is my business. I am always afraid when I believe I must answer questions that are unanswerable. And I am always fearless the moment I return to my curiosity to see where it is headed next.

Up Next: Fearless Writing Part Two – Faith

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

Shadows

A writer friend of mine wondered aloud recently why he never experienced anything resembling “writer’s block” in conversation. He’s still using words; he’s still trying to communicate. Where’s the inner critic then?

It was a good question, one I couldn’t answer at that moment and have been thinking about ever since. Yet it wasn’t the only question we shared that day. We talked for a couple hours, sitting at a curbside table at a coffee shop, strangers wandering by in conversations of their own, the sun moving across the sky, the shadows retreating toward the wall until it was too hot to sit and we walked into the cool of a bookstore. He showed me some novels he wanted to read, but I can’t remember their titles. I do remember he told me a story about the last book he’d sold and how hard he’d worked on the proposal.

And then it was time to say goodbye and I was thinking again on the drive home about inner editors and the difference between conversation and writing. The day exists in fragments in my imagination, anchored in that single question, and his story, and his profile at the table as he sipped his tea while the day grew hotter. The rest of it and everything we said is gone, like the strangers who passed us, like the face of the barista, or the name of the café, or the color of his shirt.

Or like all the details I’ve forgotten of every novel or memoir or poem I’ve ever read. Each are anchored in my imagination by a few choice moments – the rest are the shadows into which stories and days dissolve. So it is for every reader and every story, except for the illusion of permanence the page provides. The threat of forever is the inner critic’s weapon of choice – a future where nothing can change and nothing is forgiven, a land where we must get it right or be doomed in history by some imperfect thought.

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