Natural Boundaries

There are certain rules of craft that seem to apply to all writers. For instance, nouns and verbs will always carry more power and immediacy than adjective and adverbs. This is true in literary fiction, urban fantasy, and memoir. Every writer, no matter what they write, will have to learn these universal truths. And you will learn them the only way anyone can learn anything: through experience. I can tell you and tell you to use more nouns and verbs than adjectives and adverbs, but nothing will teach you that like the experience of writing a clear, honest sentence without one single descriptor.

But every writer must also find her own craft. What works in your stories or poems may not work in mine. These little essays I write have a craft all their own. Having written a bunch of them, I’ve learned what works in them and, probably more importantly, what doesn’t work. Knowing from experience what doesn’t work saves me a lot of time. The page always begins blank, after all; I could, theoretically, write anything. Knowing what doesn’t work narrows my focus considerably, and as I find my way through an essay I can more easily spot that path of thought that is heading nowhere.

I do not mean to suggest that success is all about what we don’t do. Success is always about what we say yes to. This is true for the whole of life. I can only live, I can only experience, what I say yes to. I’ve said yes to a bunch of things that wasted my time, that drained me of my enthusiasm and optimism. I have said yes to so many of these things that I published a whole book recently about not caring what other people think of your work. That’s something I spent a lot of time saying yes to until experience finally taught me not to bother.

Except even that book really isn’t about not doing something; it is about what’s available to us when we choose not to worry about whether other people will like our work. Just as a writer uses her craft to leave room for the reader’s imagination, so too learning not to care about what other people will think of your work leaves room for your own genius. Your genius requires complete freedom; it cannot be confined by the artificial boundaries of shame, the fear that what you have to offer might not be worth offering. The only boundaries you should honor are those imposed by your own aesthetic, the path to which life has taught you again and again to say yes.

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 Clear Path

Writing a book can be quite a long journey. Sometimes it takes six months and sometimes it takes six years. Often, a book lives in an author for years before he ever begins writing it. The book is an idea that won’t leave him alone, or to which he finds his attention returning on long drives or idle hours at work. Sometimes the journey is so long, is so woven into the fabric of his daily life that it doesn’t feel like a journey at all, just something he’ll be doing for the rest of his life.

I’d always loved the idea of journeys ever since I read the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo walks out of his garden gate with a mysterious magic ring in his pocket. I was only thirteen but I knew I wanted to be on a meaningful journey. What that journey would be, I couldn’t say. I was uninterested in travel, in seeing foreign lands. I knew I wanted to tell stories, but I wasn’t sure telling stories really constituted a journey.

Years later, when I was writing those stories but unable to find a home for them, I often felt as if I was going around in circles. I would sometimes moan to my wife, “Nothing’s changing!” When you’re on a journey, things are always changing. No matter what I wrote, the outcome was always the same.

Except even as I saw myself going around in these circles, certain ideas came niggling at me, ideas about the relationship between fear and creativity, between free will and the blank page. These ideas didn’t seem like the beginnings to the kinds of stories I was currently telling, but they were very interesting all the same. I would find myself returning to them every chance I could. They seemed important to me, as if I was unlocking a mystery.

By and by those very interesting ideas turned into interviews, and essays, and workshops, and books. Once all of that had manifested, as we say, it was easy to see the straight path between an idea that wouldn’t quit niggling at me and a career. It’s so clear, that when a new idea comes, as one did recently, I now see a new path where before I would have only seen something to think about when my journey seemed stalled.

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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Resolved

We’re coming to that time of year when people think about starting something new. It’s a new year, and the holidays are over, and people are getting back to work, and now – now feels like the time to start that novel or get back to running or redo the kitchen. Many of us make resolutions; some of us even write those resolutions down. The unwise make public declarations, which can sometimes feel like accomplishment enough that the resolution goes unfulfilled.

I have never been one for New Years resolutions, but that is only because despite the holidays and getting back to work, January has never felt enough like the beginning of something. It has always felt like the dead middle of winter, and winter is such a hibernating season, such a seasons of being indoors, and bare trees, and dormant lawns, and frozen ponds, and days and days of shadow. I know life continues as ever in winter, but it seems to do so off stage. It feels like a time of year for trusting in what you cannot see, and for patience. Spring will come, and everything will grow again.

I don’t mean to make too much of the seasons. I’m a man of habits, and I don’t generally let a thing like the calendar get in the way of those habits. Writing, of course, is one such a habit. It’s a habit I cultivated and have no intention of breaking. I’ve had to break any number of habits in my life; in fact, I have a couple in mind now that could use a good breaking. I didn’t know they were habits until recently, but now that I’ve spotted them I know they have to go.

One of these habits is rather sticky, and I kind of wish I were a resolution-making guy. I think resolutions can be a good trick. I’ve tricked myself into doing things in the past. For instance, I once tricked myself into believing no one was reading this column, which helped me forget to care what people would think about what I was writing it. That was probably the best trick I ever pulled on myself.

Tricks won’t work for this habit, though. I’m simply going to have to find the resolve within myself. That resolve is there, even if I can’t always find it. The resolve is obscured beneath the very same habits it would help me break. When I find it, it always asks the same question: “Are you done convincing yourself this thing makes you happier?” As soon as the answer is yes, the shadow lifts and something new begins to grow.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Curious Discovery

Years ago, when I started writing this column on a daily basis, a regular reader asked how I found something to say about writing five days a week. I found the question difficult to answer. I didn’t actually know how I did it, I just did it, which as a teacher isn’t any kind of answer at all. So I said something about trust, which I knew was at least in the vicinity of the answer. The full answer, however, kept nagging at me like a story that wanted to be finished.

The more students and clients I’ve worked with since that reader asked me his question, the more I’ve come to understand that my first impulsive answer was in many ways the most accurate. That is, I was able to write prolifically when I understood that I didn’t have to know what I was going to write about. In creative writing, I had found a subject about which I remained interested on a daily basis. I saw the act of writing as a clear metaphor for life itself, for the every day and every moment creative act of choosing and choosing what to think and do and say next, just as I must choose and choose every next word on the page. All I needed to do was sit down and think about what had caught my attention recently, either in my domestic life or my writing life. If I’m awake, something is always catching my attention. My job then was to describe what had caught my attention and follow it where it wanted to go.

This, I know, is the part that’s hard to describe. This is the mysterious part, and the part I most look forward to while writing. This is the discovery. Without the discovery, I couldn’t stay interested. Which is why it’s so important that I not know what I am going to write specifically. It’s like imposing a kind of willful innocence on myself. As an adult, I like to think I know a lot of stuff and how to get where I’m going and what to do and why things happen. As a writer I must forget all this knowing and see the world as a child would, with a curiosity unburdened by judgment.

Though in truth I’m a bit like parent and child while writing. The parent in me knows that the answer to every question a story asks is: Everything is okay. That is something I’ve learned as an adult that I only suspected a child. Interestingly, I write a little less about writing these days because I have found a new metaphor in parenting. No matter; it’s all life anyway. My only job is to wake up and pay attention and be curious about what I’ll discover today.

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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Balancing Act

Writing can happen in one place and one place only: The Present Moment. It cannot happen in the past, though we might – while in the present moment – focus our attention upon some past event for inspiration or material. But the writing itself happens in the present moment. And of course it can’t happen in the future, that sometimes near, sometimes very distant land where the story we’re writing will live when it’s finished. All creation happens in the present moment, because that is all that actually exists.

I have to remind myself of this every time I sit down to write. How easy to let my attention drift into the past, where I believe all my failures reside. Failure always lives in the past, in whose shadows, like a moss, it can thrive. In the bright hot light of the present moment – in which life is only potential, in which life is only forgiving, in which life is only curious – the concept of failure has no purchase for its hopeless roots.

And how equally easy to let my attention drift into the future, where I believe the value of what I am creating in the present moment will be revealed. I don’t want to waste my time, after all. Why write something that no one wants to read? To ask such a question is to hold my stories hostage until such time as the ransom of other people’s approval has been paid.

Which is why I have learned to ask myself two questions while I write: What do I want to say? And, Have I said it? Only the present moment can answer these questions. But keeping my attention where it needs and actually wants to be is a kind of balancing act, pulled as I am to the past and future. Drift too far either way and I will fall. No matter. The support of the present moment remains ever true, and I need only return to standing to find myself where I have always been.

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

Unplanned

A few days ago I published this essay based on an experience I’d had working with a client. I like the essay, but it’s not what I’d meant to write about. What I had intended to write about when I sat down was how during my session with this client, while I was talking and talking to her about her inherent creativity and talent, I’d said, “You have to be relentlessly optimistic and curious.”

“Ooh,” she said, and made a note. “That’s good.”

“What’s good?”

“Relentlessly optimistic and curious. You should make T Shirts that say that.”

“Oh, right. Well that’s what you’ve got to be.” And I was on the next thing. Teaching is like writing in that when you’re cooking you’re always on to the next thing. Besides, I only said what I’d said because I was trying to help her feel her own creative potential. When we’d wrapped up our session and were headed for the door, she said, “I’m still thinking about relentlessly optimistic and curious.”

“It’s as much yours as mine, kiddo,” I said. “I wouldn’t have thought of it without you.”

That’s how it works, and why I love teaching. The student inspires the teacher who inspires the student who inspires the teacher.

So that, as I mentioned, is what I’d meant to write about. But it’s not what I wrote about. As often happens, a sentence came along early in the piece and I decided to follow it instead of where I had originally planned to go. This is what makes writing fun. I have learned to trust the surprising idea that feels more real and more interesting and more necessary than my plans. When this happens, the plan seems like the excuse my subconscious used to bring my attention to what really needed to be said.

These surprises, however, are also a big reason I am a writing coach. Many of my clients have not yet learned to fully trust these surprises more than their plans. It’s understandable. What if the surprises stop coming? What if they take you somewhere you don’t want to go? Experience has taught me that they never stop coming and they always take me somewhere I want to be – but everyone must experience and learn this for themselves.

In the meantime, I can sooth and encourage them to trust what I know is trustworthy. I have learned that teaching is most effective when I find new language to say what I have said before. Every student is different, after all, and every student is surprising. Tempting to lean on the old hits, so to speak. But better to trust that something new and something better and something inspiring will come along that neither of us had planned on but both of us needed.

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

Acceptable Answers

I was meeting with a client the other day that had spent many years working in PR and has decided to take a sabbatical to work on her novel. Like a lot of professionals I’ve met looking to transition into a life supported by their artistic work, she was feeling overwhelmed by the sheer uncertainty of the creative writer’s life. Could she really write the kind of books she loved to read? Did she have any talent at all? What if no one in the world wanted to buy her books?

I love working with this client precisely because she asks these kinds of questions. These are great questions, though I don’t recommend you asking them at the 2:00 in the morning in a sleepless bed as I once did. If you ask them at the wrong time and in the wrong way they’ll kill all your creativity and ambition and love of life itself. On the other hand, if you ask these questions in the right way and at the right time, they become portals to your inherent confidence.

The right way to ask these questions is the same way you ask yourself, “What should happen next in my story?” You know when you ask this question that the answer must serve your story. You will not accept a boring answer or a false answer. You will only accept answers that move your story forward in an honest and compelling direction. This is what the writer does sentence by sentence by sentence.

This is also what the writer can do when she wonders if she has any talent at all. I know you sometimes think you cannot answer this question the way you answer questions about the stories you tell, that the answer to the questions about your creative value will be determined by editors, and reviewers, and readers. But these other people cannot answer this question for you. All they know is what they value. They will never know your value as you know it, just as they will never be able to write your stories for you. As an author, you must learn that the only acceptable answer to the questions “Am I talented?” or “Will people like my books?” or “Do I have what it takes?” is, “Yes, yes, yes, yes – forever and ever yes.”

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

Playtime

When I was a boy, going to school seemed divided cleanly in two. While I waited for the first bell to ring, I lived on the playground. On the playground the only question was how to have fun. Did I want to play kickball or swing on the swings? Did I want to shoot hoops alone or join a game? Did I want to wander the perimeter alone drifting in fantasy, or did I want play tag with the other boys? These were the only questions I had to answer on the playground.

Then the bell would ring, which meant that playtime was over and work-time had begun. During work-time you tried to answer questions that other people asked you. Adults asked the questions because it was understood that this schoolwork was preparation for life as it would be lived once playtime was over once-and-for-all. Work-time was not nearly as much fun as playtime, but it wasn’t supposed to be. It was work.

The work wasn’t really lacking all fun. Sometimes the work meant writing stories or drawing pictures, and this didn’t feel like work at all, this was just playing, but with paper and crayons or a pencil. I will write stories for a living, I thought to myself. I must choose work that doesn’t feel like work. I do not want to live my life waiting for the last bell of school to ring so that my time can truly be my own.

Except even as I thought this I could smell the spring air through the open window mixing with the smell of chalk dust and school lunches, and in that very moment what was outside was inside, and I found myself where the playground questions were answered. You either choose to leave those questions on the playground or you don’t. No bell can take those questions from you, just as no person can answer them for you.

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

Interesting Conversations

Writers start stories and readers finish them. Writers probably know this better than readers, who consistently underestimate their role in their own reading experience. Without the reader’s imagination to bring the characters fully to life, without the reader’s ability to feel grief and love and joy and sorrow, the story would be no more powerful to the reader than a grocery list.

Which is why the best marketing advice I ever heard was from the publicist Dan Blank who told me that writers should look upon their books, blogs, and websites – in other words, their platform – as an invitation to a conversation. This conversation can be about absolutely anything, whether its steampunk romance or spiritual parenting. All that matters is that the writer is deeply, personally, and authentically interested in having that conversation.

Years ago, before I’d thought about any of this, I became very interested in the relationship between how I write and how I live. It seemed to me that the experience of following a story’s path was identical to the experience of following my life’s path. I wanted to learn how to apply the decision making process I used choosing the right word, scene, or story to all the choices I made. This relationship between writing and life did not just seem practical, but also had an enduring and magnetic effect on my attention. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I thought about it so much I felt like I needed to talk about it or my head would burst. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anyone besides my wife who also wanted to have this conversation, and she did not want to talk about it as obsessively as I did. So I wrote about it. This was like a conversation between my imagination and me. And when that wasn’t enough, I would talk to myself about it. I did this a lot. I’d pace my office or my living room or my backyard talking and talking and talking. I looked a little crazy, I suppose, but I felt if I didn’t talk I might go crazy.

Eventually, that conversation found its way to Author magazine, this blog, the book Fearless Writing, and my clients and students. The more I have this conversation, the more people I meet who want to have it too. It’s great. But that conversation started with me, and no matter how many readers I reach or lectures I give, my connection to the conversation remains the same. My attention need never go further than my own curiosity, which guides me faithfully through every story I write and every day I live.

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 Caring God

When I was a teenager I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons. I was usually the Dungeon Master, meaning I designed the adventures – the goblin-infested castles, the dragon lairs, the haunted swamps – in which my friends played. The Dungeon Master is part referee, part storyteller, and part host, and if all goes well the game feels like a party with Doritos and polyhedron dice.

I was one of two principal Dungeon Masters in my little teenage gaming community in Providence, the other being my friend Evan. We were sort of rivals in that our games were often being compared. In my games, none of the players’ characters ever died. They were challenged, they were tested, but they were like heroes in a series whom the readers knew would always make it through to be challenged and tested in the next story.

In Evan’s world, characters died. He was an indifferent God. When the dice spoke, he and all the players listened, and if those dice spoke death, so be it. I played in his world once and I admired his indifference. The game was more exciting. Things seemed to matter more when the ultimate outcome wasn’t predetermined.

I would eventually adopt some of Evan’s indifference. Except it wasn’t indifference at all. I only wanted things to matter, whether it was a game of Dungeons & Dragons or a romantic relationship or a story I was writing. Life was better when you felt your decisions mattered, and so I would let the occasional character die for the betterment of all. Death in this way became the threat that was a gift, a focusing tool for the living, reminding them that the story is more alive when you know that it will end.

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