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

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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

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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

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A Different Angle

I was in Los Angeles recently teaching at writer’s conference and visiting my brother and an old friend, both of whom work in television and film. Going to Los Angles, to Hollywood, is always a tricky proposition for me. I love seeing my brother and my old pal, and I certainly love teaching, but I also feel a bit how a recovering alcoholic might if he spent the night hanging out in a bar with friends. It is not just the proximity to temptation, but the memory of having yielded to temptation in exactly that location.

Though I had lived in LA for only nine months twenty-seven years ago, that time remains etched vividly in my psyche. For someone transfixed by the societal ladder of success and failure for much of his early life, Hollywood provided constant opportunities to measure how close to the top or bottom I resided. There were so many beautiful people in beautiful clothes driving beautiful cars to beautiful homes, and there were so many movie studios with iron gates and security guards keeping out the riff raff, and there were so many conversations with other writers and actors trying, trying, trying to make it. All of this and also the merciless Southern California sun, and the dry Los Angeles River, and the sprawling heartless freeways, and the men selling oranges at traffic lights, and the strip clubs, the people you’d meet who looked every bit like you who’d say, “You have be lucky or willing to sell your body in this town.”

So I was glad to leave that place, but the ladder can follow you everywhere. Back walking those palm tree-lined streets, feeling that weird Los Angeles sun, and everyone sparkly and ambitious, I felt the temptation to measure myself again. I was relieved to retreat to the hotel, and to the cool conference rooms where I could teach a little fearless writing. When I’m doing what I love it is easy to forget what I was never meant to love. After the class, sitting with my brother on his balcony, he asked, “When you’re teaching, what do you do when you look out and see all their fear and self-doubt? Doesn’t it freak you out a little bit?”

“Not when I’m teaching,” I said. “It’s like I can look right through it to who they really are.”

“Good trick,” he said.

“Yeah. Now, if I could just do that always.”

I glanced out over North Hollywood. The sun had set and it was cool enough for sweaters. I knew the Hollywood itself sign wasn’t far, that from a different angle I might be able to spot it through the palm trees lit by the city’s neon glow. I was just as happy then not to find that angle, and as usual that made all the difference.

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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Unknown

In the middle of the Dark Years, when nothing I was writing was being read, I would occasionally threaten to quit writing altogether. “I will just quit it if things don’t turn around,” I told my wife.

“Really?” she asked. “And then what would you do?”

“I don’t know, but this ridiculous. I mean what’s the fricking point?”

“I get it, but what else would you do?”

It was a maddeningly unanswerable question. I was suffering. I knew this as certainly as I knew I was tired at the end of my day or thirsty after a run. But while I could sleep when tired or drink when thirsty, the power to end this suffering appeared to rest in other people’s hands. It was an unacceptable arrangement, a slave and slave master arrangement. More than to have my work read, I wanted to be free. I wanted my life to be my own.

Which is why I would threaten to quit from time to time. It was a suicidal choice, but sometimes it’s necessary to march yourself to that cliff if only ask, “Who’s making you do anything? Who’s making you breath and eat?” To take that leap is to remember the truth at last, as you fall freely into the unknown.

I’ll never be free from the unknown anymore than I can be free from blank pages. Those blank pages are my dependably unwritten future. They were also the answer to my wife’s question. When I wondered what else I would do, I perceived only a blank page, an unknown awaiting my attention, and the moment I stepped willingly into it, my life was my own again.

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

 

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

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The Second Discipline

Writers have to be disciplined. Most writers do not begin their career with a publishing contract in hand. Instead, the writer has an idea. That is all. This idea so interests him that he sits down every day, alone, often without encouragement, always without guarantees, just him and his idea, and he writes until that idea takes the form of a story he can share with other people.

This is one form of discipline. A writer can learn this kind of discipline with his first book. In fact, the writer must learn this discipline if he ever hopes to finish anything at all. But there is a second kind of discipline that cannot be learned with a single book. This discipline must be practiced again and again, from book to book, from day to day, from sentence to sentence even.

Here’s how it goes: You’re writing along, happily focused on the story you’re telling. You’ve forgotten about all your chores and your bills and your obligations; for the moment there is only this interesting story and the effortless feeling of laying your attention upon it. It always feels good to lay your attention on what interests you most. It requires no effort in the same way that eating when you’re hungry requires no effort.

But then, in the middle of wondering what you should write next, you have a thought. You think to yourself, “I’m interested in this story. I wonder if other people will be interested in it too?” Now you have moved your attention off of what interests you most and onto a question you cannot answer. It is impossible while sitting alone at your desk to know what other people are interested in, because they aren’t there. Any answer you receive is made up.

And so, trying to answer this question does not feel good. It feels as bad as laying your attention on what interests you most feels good. In fact, this question now feels like a problem. If other people don’t like this story, why are you bothering to write it? Why write another word if no one is going to be as interested in it as you? And because you are an adult, you have learned that problems don’t solve themselves. To fix a problem, you must pay attention to it until it is solved.

Unfortunately, the more you pay attention to this kind of problem, the worse it gets. Now is when you must practice your second discipline. The only way to solve this kind of problem is to ignore it. Despite all the momentum of fear that somewhere out in the misty future there is a world where no one likes what you’ve written, you must bring your attention back to the present moment where the story you want to tell is waiting for you. No matter how real that future appears as you stare at it through the lens of your imagination, you must deny its existence and will yourself back to reality.

It took me a while to understand this practice as discipline. A disciplined person, I felt, was willing to ignore some of life’s easy pleasures to build toward some desired future, like writing every day even if you don’t necessarily feel like writing every day. But this second discipline was about choosing to feel good rather than bad, choosing effortlessness over effort. And yet the degree to which I have mastered this discipline has meant the difference between loving what I do and fearing what I love.

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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Deus Ex Machina

The best piece of writing I did in high school was also the last piece of writing I did in high school. Our principal had died suddenly in the middle of my senior year, and I was asked to say a few words about him at the graduation before giving his widow a copy of the yearbook, which we had dedicated to him. Both the knowledge that I would be speaking to the entire senior class and their families as well the solemn shadow of death cast over the occasion, focused me in a way the short stories I toiled over did not. I wrote that little speech in one shot, and when I read it to my yearbook advisor – who only a year before had suggested I make up stories and let other people write them – her voice choked when she said, “Yes. That’ll definitely do.”

A year later I wrote personal essay for my freshman composition class. I had never written a personal essay before. I found it easier than all the short stories I crafted and crafted and crafted. My professor told me it was the best essay he’d read in his fifteen years teaching the class. “Huh,” I thought, and then went back to my short stories.

I got better at writing fiction but it was never effortless. No matter. I had heard that writing was hard and I believed it. After twenty years of crafting and struggling I found myself writing personal essays again for this magazine, and they were exactly as easy for me to write as the one I wrote in Freshman Composition. But I was also teaching, and sometimes when I wrote my essays I’d get so excited by the ideas that I’d hop out of my chair and practice delivering the essays and lectures. I found that what I wrote taught me how speak, and whenever I spoke I was inspired to write more.

In my freshman year in college I also studied Aristotle. In his Poetics he said the ideal ending to a story should be “surprising but inevitable.” I have to agree. It’s no good if your reader sees the ending coming two-thirds of the way through your story, but the must all be in place. The surprising but inevitable ending was preferable, he believed, than those endings that depended on a deus ex machina, or the “machine of the gods.” Sometimes in Greek theater a machine would lower a character playing a god onto the stage in the final act, whereupon the god would sort out the mess the characters had created, punishing the bad and rewarding the good.

If you had told me twenty years ago that I’d be writing personal essays and giving inspirational talks, I’d have been very surprised. Then again, if I’d looked at the clues all about me, I might have seen how inevitable this conclusion was. But at that I was still waiting for my own deus ex machina in the form of a published novel to sort out the mess of my life. While I waited and struggled, life kept sorting itself for me, with or without my help. There is a machine of the gods, I believe, but it is always functioning in our lives. We just have to learn how to use it.

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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Easy

When I was a teenager, I knew just a few things for certain, one of which was that I wanted a girlfriend. I knew I wanted a girlfriend the way I knew I liked David Bowie’s album Ziggy Stardust and T. S. Eliot’s poetry, and the way I knew I liked playing football and the game Dungeons & Dragons. I knew what happiness felt like, and I knew I preferred it to the alternative, and I also knew that all those other things that made me happy could not take the place of what I believed waited for me in the unique happiness of The Girlfriend.

I say believed, because when I had girlfriends, that unique happiness never quite materialized. In its place was an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying exploration. The difference between what I could picture in my mind when I thought Girlfriend and what was actually happening was the stuff of mournful sonnets and love songs. It was my own mental clarity around the subject that confounded me. I absolutely knew this experience could be better, the way I knew what happiness felt like. So why wasn’t it better?

The answer, of course, was that I was only seeing half a picture in my mind. I was seeing Me with Somebody. I could see me quite clearly; I just didn’t understand that the Somebody couldn’t be just Anybody. Then I met Jen, and I understood. I hadn’t wanted A Girlfriend. I had wanted to be with Jen, but I just hadn’t met her yet.

I made this same mistake with writing for a very long time. I knew I wanted to publish a book, the way I had once known I wanted a girlfriend. I had the exact same mental clarity around the subject, as well as the same confusion. Part of the reason I had wanted A Girlfriend was that any girl who said “Yes” to me could help me believe I was desirable. A published book, I hoped, would have the same effect. It took me many interesting but ultimately unsatisfying explorations to conclude that I didn’t want to publish just any book.

It was when I asked myself, “What book do you desire to publish?” that the experience of writing and publishing matched the pleasure I had believed it could bring me. It was like that first date with Jen. We sat there eating chocolate cake at Penguin’s Cafe, talking and talking and talking, and I thought, “This is easy.” It was, to that point, the easiest thing I’d ever done. Nothing was required of me other than following my own curiosity, which always led me right back to Jen.

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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Unburdened

For many years I wrote under great pressure. Because I had not published a book, and I was in my thirties and then my forties, and because I worked as a waiter to support my family, and because I was often ashamed to talk about what I did for a living, and because most evenings I drove to work wondering why I felt trapped in the life I’d created, I had come to see writing as my ticket to freedom. Freedom from shame, freedom from the burden of joyless labor, and freedom finally from the ceaseless threat of failure – that dark and final verdict on the value of my entire life.

So when I sat down every day to write, I wasn’t merely telling a story. I was trying to save my life. This made writing very difficult on most days. I knew how to tell stories, but I didn’t really know how to save my life – this thing I was already living. Some days, of course, I’d forget that my life needed saving, and I’d simply write. The work went effortlessly on those days, and for an hour or two I’d feel relieved from worry, and I’d step away from the desk at the end of my work with the vague sense that all my problems would soon be solved. Then I’d go to the job, and the shame and fear would creep back in, and the next day’s writing would be burdened once again.

Most of the clients I work with aren’t simply writing. They’re writing and trying to prove their value, or that they’re intelligent, or that they have a voice. My primary job as their coach is to guide them to the understanding that what they most want from the writing will come to them the moment they allow themselves to simply do the thing they want to do without any other requirement.

When they visit me in my office, I sit two feet from where I used to write, where I used to try to save my life. It is a useful reminder of what I am teaching. All the burdens we put on our work are like static obscuring the answers to our creative questions. How easy to misinterpret that static for lack of talent, or a story that’s not worth telling. How easy to believe the value of a life must be proven in accomplishment, rather than known in the joy of doing what I’ve always loved.

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

 

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

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The Fall

Before my father left The Church he served as one of its ministers. If I was ever asked to sit in the pews while he delivered his Sunday address, I have no recollection of it. This was during the shadow of my early childhood, when memory is hampered by the highly fluid relationship between imagination and what I was gently being told was reality. It is hard for me to know what actually happened then and what was invented because at that time everything felt invented.

In those early days, I preferred cartoons to sermons. In cartoons, characters could travel through time or change shape, nothing died, and physical suffering was brief and hilarious. This felt like life as I lived it in my imagination, where the only meaningful boundary was what I wanted.

One afternoon I was playing in the rec room of my father’s church. There was a freestanding bookshelf in the middle of the room, and I thought it would be a good idea to try to scale its smooth back. This turned out to be impossible, but my efforts destabilized the shelf, which began to slowly topple backwards. It was at this point I decided to attempt the first scientific experiment of my young life. If the cartoons were as accurate as they felt, and if this bookshelf were to land, say, on my hands, my fingers would swell to comical proportions and then quickly return to normal. I left my hands on the floor in the path of the falling shelf, and awaited my results.

The pain sucked me into reality. I felt betrayed, though not by cartoons. It was clear there were in fact boundaries in this world, and to transgress them could mean suffering of a magnitude impossible to ignore. It was a great disappointment, though I attributed the tears I shed in my father’s lap afterwards to simple pain and humiliation. How do you explain the other? I could feel the answer within me, but not the facility to express it, a facility wed, in a language as tangible as bookshelves, to the very world that had just betrayed me.

I suppose that is the day I became a writer.

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