Form and Substance

One of my favorite writing stories is one Gary Zukav told me about the first time he tried to write. Zukav decided he wanted to be a writer. So he bought a book on How To Be A Writer, read it, sat down at the typewriter one day, rolled up his sleeves – and realized he had nothing he wanted to write about. That was the end of his first attempt.

A few years later he met some physicists who were discussing quantum physics. He thought it was fascinating. So fascinating, he kept hanging around with them, even though he was not a scientist and had never liked math. Eventually, he wrote The Dancing Wu Li Masters, which became a bestseller and won the American Book Award for Science, and his life as a writer and spiritual teacher was born.

It’s a great story, but in a way, it’s every writer’s story. Writing is only a form of expression. Like a lot of writers, Zukav recognized it as a form that would serve some greater need for him. But like some writers, he at first mistook the servant for the master, he mistook form for substance. The act of writing itself has no substance whatsoever. It has no inherent direction. Go wander a library and notice all the books there. Each is its own direction. The directions writing can take us are literally limitless – a fact that requires us to make some rather definite choices.

It is not always easy to make these choices. If you are an adult person, you have probably spent a lot time navigating the world of form – the form of jobs, the form of relationships, and the form of books themselves, these objects you can hold in your hand, and on whose cover you might one day like to see the form that is your name. This world of form seems to be where you live and love and succeed.

But to make the choice a writer must make, you must eventually direct your attention elsewhere, away entirely from the world of form and toward that which desires to be given form. It is a blessedly happy moment when you at last perceive writing and life’s true substance, but if you are like me, this choice comes with some trepidation. It can feel as if I am asking myself to walk blindly, to take my eyes off the hard edges of the world that so wounded me when I become distracted. In truth, it was the world that distracted me in the first place, and to seek writing’s source is to teach myself to see.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Eyes on the Road

I have been spending way more time reading and watching political news these days than I normally do. I feel a little guilty about this, the way I do when I gawk at an accident as I’m driving by. But I’m human, and if the scene is particularly compelling, it is hard to keep my eyes on where I want to go. In fact, one night, many years ago, I was biking home from work and became distracted by the swirling lights and dented steel of a recent head-on collision – and crashed square into a tree.

Politics, as necessary as it is, often reminds me of my bike accident. Just as accidents can cause more accidents, animosity – the bent fenders of political debate – usually breeds more animosity. And sometimes not merely animosity, but full-blown hatred. I see it in others as they march and hold their signs and demand answers, and I feel it in myself as I wonder about the nefarious motives of certain players in this gaudy, historic drama.

Hatred can sometimes serve as the first, hot, alarm-bell impulse to do something. It’s true in politics and it’s true in writing. Reading or watching or listening to something I profoundly dislike can be just the motivation I need to write something I like. What I like is always on the opposite side of what I dislike, just as what I love is always on the opposite side of what I believe I hate.

Except I don’t really hate anything. What I have come to call hatred is just the natural consequence of seeing something I disagree with, something whose very opposite I would prefer to be looking at, and then continuing to stare at it and stare it and stare at it until I crash into a tree. When I feel like I hate something, I am listening to the same guidance system that tells me which words, scenes, and characters belong in a story and which do not, only it is speaking very, very loudly. If I knew I didn’t want a particular scene in my story, but I kept reading it and rereading it and rereading it, I’d eventually come to hate that scene as if it were my sworn enemy.

Which is why I have to remember to turn off the news. When I start hating people, it’s time to lift my head and look where I’m going. Travelling my road does not require me to argue with all the roads I don’t travel. Those roads are inconsequential to my journey, even while they are certainly vital to someone else’s. Though it requires me to ignore much of what is going on around me, the choice to look where I want to go is the very opposite of putting my head in the sand. It is the choice to open my eyes to the life I wish to lead, rather than the one others are leading.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Wine Story

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

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

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

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

“The Grange,” he confirmed.

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

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

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

“Delicious,” I said.

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

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

“It’s horrible,” he said.

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

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

“Should we tell him?” I asked.

“Why?” asked Tom. “He’s loving it.”

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

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

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

What You Have

I spent many years dreaming of success. It is a common dream for writers when they begin their writing journey. The agent, the book contract, the bestseller list – all these goals felt like distant, mysterious, and glorious cities. As I wandered about in the familiar circles of my life, I wondered what my days would feel like when I reached those destinations. When I arrived, I believed it would be as if I’d reached Paris, this city I’d read about and I’d seen in movies but never visited, a city of lights, a city of poetry and paintings and cafes – not a city where people trudged about arguing and complaining and worrying about the future.

That’s what waited for me. It was hard to picture, truly. Often when I placed myself in that imaginary world of success, it was as if I didn’t really belong there, in the same way the fictional characters I wrote sometimes didn’t belong in the careers or relationships I chose for them. My characters would squirm and behave unnaturally until I found their true vocation or partner. So too Successful Bill in the City of Success. None of it felt natural. Those dreams felt like scenes I’d edit out of a book I was writing.

This worried me. Writing had taught me that nothing unnatural, nothing forced, nothing I willed onto the page belonged in the reality of my stories. I had to allow what wanted to come through to come through. So why didn’t I belong in this wonderful, mysterious city? Was I actually traveling the dirt road of failure, the lonely path toward a ghost town where everything ends in dust? I’d read and heard of Failure Town. I assumed it was as real as Paris. Yet even in my darkest hours, when I dreamed this nightmare ending to my journey, I had to admit that my vision of Failure Town seemed no more real to me than Success City.

How strange. I could make no sense of it, and, in the meantime, my life continued. I kept doing stuff and looking for what was interesting where I was. What else was there to do? By and by, as I found more interesting things where I was, I began to have small successes. I published an essay here, was asked to give a talk there. Each time, however, I did not know if I could call what had happened “a success” — it felt too familiar. I was just doing what I liked to do, only for money or in front of people. Neither the world nor I had changed.

It took me many more years to understand that everything I would ever create, whether I called that creation a success or failure, was an extension of something I already had. The books were an extension of ideas and feelings living within me, and my talks and classes were extensions of a conversation I’d been having for as long as I could remember. The environment of the experiences was new, but the source of those experiences was not. This is what is meant when we say we “have everything we need.” We do.

The difference, however, between what I have to come to understand as success, and the long, unhappy, frustrating path I used to believe I was traveling toward success, was not the environment. The difference had nothing to do with money or attention. The difference was life with and without one question: Do I have what it takes? To allow this question to hang unanswered in my heart is to live in an unreal city of fear. To release it is to have what I have always had, and live in the only reality I was born to know.

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

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Natural Light

In my day-to-day life I want only ease and happiness. I want to begin every project with enthusiasm and finish it promptly and confidently. Unfortunately, things do not always go as effortlessly as I intend. Rarely a day goes by where I do not struggle, or doubt, or become bored, or procrastinate. I am human. Still, my aim remains trained on ease and happiness, no matter how the arrow of my day may eventually fly.

On the other hand, while I enjoy my students’ and clients’ triumphs and confidence, I remain most interested in their fear and hopelessness and disappointment. It is selfish in a way. The only remedy for fear is fearlessness, just as hope is the only remedy for hopelessness, and contentment the only remedy for disappointment. Explanations, and techniques, and advice will only take you so far. In the end, there remains only the choice between one thing and another.

Which is why I so look forward to those moments when my students and clients can perceive only one choice. Now I get to choose the other. I do so for them, ostensibly, so that they can see they have another choice and then make it of their own freewill – but how could this choice not be for me as well? When is it a bad time to choose fearlessness, hope, or contentment?

I can think of none, and yet there I am from time to time choosing fear, choosing jealousy, choosing regret. I never enjoy my own darkness, and I often complain about the inadequate light by which I must find my way. But find my way I do, and once I’ve returned I am always happy to have discovered another path back to a world where choices are mine again.

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

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

My Only Problem

In every story we tell there is always a problem our hero must overcome. Sometimes the problem is a killer that needs to be caught; sometimes it is a lover who cannot be won; sometimes it is a terrible storm that must be survived; sometimes it is a dragon that must be slain. In almost every case the hero must do something, must solve a puzzle, or climb a mountain, or win a race, or learn a skill. Problems, after all, aren’t going to solve themselves.

On the other hand, the challenges we face while writing our stories are a little different. Yes, I must figure out my story, must find a plausible and entertaining beginning, middle, and end, must write and rewrite until the pieces come together. But a story isn’t a problem; nothing appeared in my way to keep me from where I wanted to go. I was the one who chose to head off into the dark of my imagination until I’d found a way. That’s not a problem; that’s called life.

But sometimes while I am finding my way problems do appear to arise in my path. They often come in the form of questions, such as, “What if this story stinks?” or, “What if I never finish it?” or, “What if it’s unoriginal?” As soon as I ask such a question it is answered in my imagination, and I perceive a future in which my story stinks, or is forever unfinished, or is unoriginal. I do not like this future at all. And yet in the moment I am imagining it, this future feels more real than the present. Now, this future is a problem that needs to be fixed. I want to dismantle it and build another one.

Unfortunately, there is nothing to dismantle. The only way to solve the problem of the future is to ignore it. This is the opposite of the stories we tell, where problems are ignored at the hero’s peril. I must not mistake myself for a storybook hero. Unlike these paper kings and knights, my future remains unwritten, and my only problem remains the belief that what might happen is more important than what is.

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

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Unreal Journey

I quit college when I was twenty-one to become a writer. That was the plan, anyway. I didn’t need to spend tens of thousands of dollars at a university to write; I could do it for free at my desk. The problem was that although I loved to write and had a naturally diligent work ethic, the plan to become a writer felt entirely like a fantasy. I could not feel the sequential connection between the reality of sitting at my desk typing words onto a blank page and the reality of those words being read by strangers in a published book.

It made the supposed job of writer confusing. The job of writer felt nothing like the other job I took to earn money. Nothing about the job of waiting tables at a café and then a BBQ joint felt anything like a fantasy. That was reality, baby. That was a time card, and cash in my hands, and actual living people to laugh with and complain about. The job of waiting tables felt like life as I already understood it.

The fantasy of the job called writing did not. The act of writing felt like reality because I’d been doing that all my life. But the job of writing, of author, felt as unreal as a city I had never visited. Post cards and guidebooks and movies cannot begin to simulate the experience of living in the city itself. And so it was as if I was on a journey, but because I could not see my destination, every step I took felt as unreal as my imagination’s rendering of the city to which I believed I was headed.

Strange, but I needed to look to no further than the very stories I was telling to know how to get where I wanted to go. A book is written one word at a time, each word the best the writer can choose at that moment. There is no other way. So too that unreal journey. I never needed to know what the city looked like or what I would do when I got there. The only one question I have ever needed ask is, “What is the best step I can take at this very moment?” The answer is reality; the rest is a dream.

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 Blank Page

I read once that Ernest Hemingway called the blank page “the white bull.” I fully understand this. The blank page is mercilessly indifferent. It doesn’t care how many books you’ve written or awards you’ve won. It doesn’t care if you’re married or divorced, if a loved one just died or your first child was just born. It offers no advice or critique or clue about what you are going to write. It does not believe in right or wrong. It waits for you as it waits for anyone who has ever sat down to write.

The blank page also lays bare the role choice plays in my life. Not one thing appears on that page until I choose to put it there. I am not always happy with my life, and the unhappier I am, the more I want to blame other people for that unhappiness. Surely I wouldn’t have created this; it must be someone else’s fault. I cannot play that game with the blank page. My acceptance of creative responsibility must be as complete as the page is indifferent.

Which is why I sometimes fear it. The smaller and more insignificant I feel – the more life feels like something happening to me rather than something passing through me – the less capable I feel of accepting this responsibility. The blank page exposes me. There is nowhere to hide on the blank page, nor does it allow me to dream of a future where my potential will at last be realized. The blank page stands in the here and now, more honest than a mirror.

As my relationship with that blank page has evolved, however, I have learned to make a friend of it. I rarely feel as happy and on purpose as when I have allowed myself to enter the creative stream of a story I am telling. I cannot enter that stream without the blank page, for the stream is unique to me: it is a current of thought moving in the direction of my unique interest. How nice to begin my workday with a friend who always asks, “What do you care about most in the world? Let’s go pursue it.”

And when I am away from my desk, and I am feeling myself pulled in some dark direction, when I perceive clouds of doom gathering around my future, I have taught myself to remember that blank page. I will not be happy again, I know, until I allow my mind to become as blank as that page. To do so, I must stop telling myself stories about what I see and hear and read, must slow this current of thought enough that I might get out of my boat and take a look around.

It is literally impossible to know what I will see from this fresh place when I am caught in the shadows of despair and doubt. It is not my job to fix my life or improve my life, it is only ever my job to find that blank page and learn again what it offers, to enter the stream of life that is already flowing.

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

Mastery

Most writers begin understanding certain parts of writing better than other parts. For instance, when I was a teenager I had an instinctive understand of dialogue. I understood it well enough that when I was sixteen I explained to my younger brother that characters rarely say exactly what they mean, that it is always better when they talk about one thing – like the weather – but really mean another – like how uncertain life is. That’s advice I’d still give thirty yeas later.

What did not come so naturally to me was what we call “description.” When I encountered it in the books I read, I often found it boring, something I might skip to get to the cool parts. I knew you needed a certain amount of it so your characters weren’t wandering in a bald moonscape, but the only value I could find in writing a good description as opposed to a boring description is that the former proved what a good writer I was. It felt like a necessary showing off, as if writers were all figure skaters required to hit a certain number of triple axles.

Then shortly before I started college I picked up a collection of T. S. Eliot’s poems, and after reading them one afternoon actually said aloud, “Oh. I get it.” What I got was that “description” was actually an attempt to recreate the emotional experience of being alive and in the world. Now that was cool. What does it feel like to stand in a crowded bus station? What does it feel like to see someone you find beautiful? What does it feel like to watch a clock when you’re waiting for school to end? The words I chose to render the world were, hopefully, portals into my most intimate understanding of life.

Now I got it, meaning I understood that describing something was an act of love rather than of fear. Now I could write toward the sharing of life as I felt it rather than away from the fear that I wasn’t clever enough to stick some literary landing. I spent the ensuing years learning to master this by the exact same means I have used to master anything: by learning again and again that fear is only the belief that there is ever an answer other than love.

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