Blameless

I wrote the other day about the power of very good questions. Here’s an example of a not-so-good question: “What’s wrong with me?” Whenever I used to ask this question – which, for a time, was pretty often – it seemed like absolutely the most practical question to which I could put my mind. I only asked the question because something was wrong, by which I mean I was unhappy. If you’re a writer I don’t need to tell you what was wrong. It’s always the same for all writers – rejection and failure. These are not small and discrete problems, however. Their scope can be all consuming.

Which is why I asked this not-so-good question. I was an adult, after all, and as an adult when something is wrong, you fix it. The problem was that every time I asked myself – and by “myself” I mean my imagination, which answered all my questions, creative or otherwise – whenever I asked this question I got no answer. There was only silence, the void. It reminded me hauntingly of my worst fears about death. In fact, this thought of death seemed every bit like the life of failure, an endless absence of joy and discovery.

By and by (and by and by and by; I was a very slow learner with this one), I learned that whenever something was happening that I didn’t like, I would ask myself, “If nothing’s wrong with me, and if nothing’s wrong with anyone else, and if nothing’s wrong with Life, why is this happening?” I had to phrase it this way because I was sorely tempted to simply assign blame for my troubles. Blame stops all questioning without providing a real answer.

So I’d ask this question. It’s a good one, but you sometimes have to be patient with the answer. No matter. Just as I can sit quietly at my desk waiting for the next sentence to come, so too I can sit quietly in my car or at the kitchen table for that question to be answered. I could wait because now I wasn’t solving the Problem of Bill, now I was just thinking creatively, which is the happy pursuit of an expanded perception of life.

The answer, by the way, was always the same: I’d misunderstood. I mistook a rejection letter for my career’s death knell, feeling stuck with a story for a lack of talent. I’d made these mistakes and accepted them as reality. Do not accept death as an answer. The void is just a case of temporary blindness, of looking for what is wrong when there is nothing wrong and no one to blame.

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

The Storyteller

Sometimes I wander about the world as a storyteller, and sometimes as someone having a story told to him by the world. I look to the world for the story it is telling me only when I forget I am a storyteller, but this forgetting happens quietly, quickly, and frequently. I do not always mind the story I believe the world is telling me. It can be funny or exciting or even flattering. I particularly enjoy the flattering stories the world is telling about me. How nice that the entire world holds me in such high regard!

But I just as often do not like the story the world is telling me at all. It is such a depressing story, a story of happiness being something known only when the pieces of the world arrange themselves for brief trembling moments that can be enjoyed until chance, or inertia, or gravity, or evolution pull them apart. It is a story of greed, and violence, and lust, and vengeance. I must grab and cling to all the happiness I can before my time runs out.

I soon become a critic. If the world is bent on telling me these crappy stories, and if I am forced to listen to these stories—and how can I not be, since I am only one man and the world is huge and loud, and while I must rest, it talks on and on and on?—then by God I will do what I can to change that story. So I criticize and reject and complain. Then I do it some more. Yet still the world tells its depressing story, and I can but listen and watch.

It is nice at such times to retreat to my desk where the page is blank and I can ask, “What is the best story I can tell myself today?” How quickly my mood changes with that simple question. How optimistic and curious I become. And how I love that blank page, how it erases all the stories I told myself about the world and returns me to my natural state—a storyteller choosing a happy ending for the world he makes.

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

An Interesting Life

I reached a very low point in my life about fifteen years ago, when nothing I was writing was getting published, and I could barely remember what it felt like to believe I would ever have any kind of success in my life. I became so unhappy, it made all the unhappiness I had previously known seem like mere practice for what I was now experiencing. One night it became so acute I thought, “I have got to do something different.”

It took me less than twenty-four hours to identify what that something was: I had to stop looking for other people’s approval. I realized I had turned life into an endless game of winning approval. That was the trophy, the proof of my value, and the drug whose brief high promised to sustain me through the dull hours of my day. It’s an easy enough trap for an artist to fall into. It can seem as though your job isn’t done until someone else likes what you’ve made. Yet it also meant all my happiness and all my well-being and all my success depended ultimately to other people.

It was a disorienting realization. For a brief time it made life seem directionless. As I sat one night contemplating my New Life, I could not quite picture what would keep life interesting. A life-long game player, I no longer understood what winning meant. Where would the excitement and satisfaction come from? If life wasn’t interesting, if it wasn’t fun, I had no interest in living it.

What an interesting question, I thought to myself. Where is the satisfaction? And isn’t it interesting that life has to be fun to be worth living? I hadn’t really thought of that before. I had simply wished it was true, but now I had decided it was true. That’s interesting too – the difference between wishing and deciding. They’re actually close cousins. That’s interesting.

I had asked myself what would keep life interesting while I was sitting on my couch in the living room. I was now standing in my kitchen, but I could not remember how I got there. It was as if I’d teleported. That’s interesting too, I thought. I leaned back against the counter and noticed how I was feeling. There was that quiet calm I used to cherish when I was a younger man and I’d won a race or just come off stage. That was always victory’s true prize – the moment I reclaimed what I’d given to other people.

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

Authority

I don’t like to deal with words in this way often, but I will today, and the word of choice is author. You may not ever think about it, but author is, obviously, the root word for authority. That is one powerful word, authority, no matter how you define it. Either you are the one making and enforcing the rules, or you are a respected expert whose opinion on any matter is tantamount to law. If you are an authority, ideas may begin and end with you.

I don’t think most writers, especially fiction writers, feel as though they have much authority. Writers work alone. Writers must submit their work for approval and acceptance. Writers frequently have no idea how the stories they are starting will end, merely following, child-like, Doctorow’s headlights on the road.

And yet a writer wishes to become an author. When you publish a book, or a poem, or a blog, you are not just its writer, you are also its author. And I know for myself that I moved from being a writer to an author when I granted myself authority within the realm of my work.

It wasn’t easy. I was waiting, unbeknownst to myself, to be given this authority from the publishing world. I was waiting for some agent or editor to crown me king of my writing world. But no matter how many agents represented me, no matter how may editors said, “Yes,” the authority seemed to elude me. Maybe if I was praised a little more, paid a little more, read a little more . . .

And then one day, before I had ever thought of starting Author, I wrote a blog. It was the first blog I had ever written. In it I wrote what I had longed for all my writing life to hear from some God-like publishing or writing authority. Not about me, but just about writing. I’m sure someone somewhere had written this, but I had never read it until I wrote it myself. It was like writing my own acceptance letter.

And when I was done I sat back and looked at what I had written, what I had self-published, and I thought, “It can’t be as easy as that.”

But it was.

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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

Accepting Your Role

The author appears to be seeking acceptance from others. It is, in fact, our business model. Until we have received acceptance from others in the form of a publishing contract or book sales, we earn no money, nor can the story we told live in the imagination of others at it was meant to live. In this way, the author is not merely seeking acceptance but actually requires it to be an author. Without this acceptance, the author is nothing but a diarist.

For years I resented this requirement. It meant I had no power. What I thought of what I’d written seemed to mean nothing at all until someone else approved of it. During these bitter years I dreamed of my freedom, a day when I had received enough acceptance that I was no longer required to seek it. These dreams were often filled with the brief and shallow pleasure of praise and applause that was like the pleasure of drugs.

Yet even within these dreams I would also conjure an image of myself that felt both familiar and foreign. Here was a man who was done worrying about what other people thought him. If I were an actor I could have played him convincingly, could have found within myself the knowledge from which this stranger lived. But like an actor, what I had come to call reality waited for me beyond the curtain, a story of pure improvisation in which I’d taken a minor role.

I suppose I am still an actor today, except I have decided to play the role in which my dreams had cast me. If you do so long enough, it doesn’t feel like acting anymore. There are still days in which my life feels more like a performance than I would like, but this is a natural consequence of peeking at the audience. For a moment, my wandering attention disrupts the dream we had all come to the theater to believe, until I call it back, and return to the role I was born to play.

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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

How To Accept Your Readers

I wrote in this space recently about the relationship between self-acceptance and publishing acceptance. There is an immediate and almost tangible practicality to the practice of accepting myself – choosing to share the words and scenes and stories in which I am interested, for no other reason than I am interested in those words, scenes, and stories. There is, however, another less tangible and immediate group of people I must also practice accepting, just as regularly, if I hope to have any publishing success – namely, everyone else.

I am an author, meaning that unless I am writing in my journal, everything I write is written to be read by other people. While those other people are, thankfully, not in the room with me while I’m writing, I have occasionally gotten out of the house over the last fifty years, and whenever I do, I meet some of these folks and notice that each of them has their own idea about what is funny and what is not, and what is cool and what is not, and what is sexy and what is not. In other words, everyone has their own imagination, which is the final destination of everything conceived within my imagination.

As soon as I shared one thing I’d written with one other person, even someone I knew very well, I noticed this strange phenomenon: what I wrote and what they read were not precisely the same thing. Within the sanctity of their own imaginations, my readers ignored details I considered important while focusing on those I considered trivial. Readers would hate characters I loved and love characters I hated. No matter how carefully I crafted my story, no matter how many drafts I wrote or editors I hired, readers continued committing the unfortunate mistake of making up their own minds about what my story meant.

I had not understood, until I began sharing my work regularly, how much this difference between what I thought I had written and what my readers read had served as a quiet impediment to getting published. As a writer, I considered being misunderstood a kind of failure. Strangely, my job is not to be understood. My job is to write as clearly and honestly as I can, and then allow the reader to take whatever they need most from what I have written.

But to do so I must accept that everyone is on an equally important journey, and that everyone is their own best guide toward where they are going. This is not always so easy for me to accept. Sometimes as I go about my day, I see or meet people doing or saying things that make no sense to me. It is tempting at such times to think, “What is wrong with them that they would do that?” or, “What is wrong with me that I don’t understand them?”

The answer in both cases is always “Nothing,” but to accept that answer I must trust in something I cannot immediately perceive. Fortunately, I do this all the time. I cannot perceive the success of a story while I am writing it. All I know is that I want to write it. On most days, that is enough. I trust that what I want for that story will come. It will come in the form of other people finding it, guided to the story by precisely the same means I wrote it.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

How To Accept Rejection

Most writers view rejection as their professional enemy. A writing career requires acceptance, after all. If a writer received nothing but rejection, that writer wouldn’t have a career at all. Except writers cannot hate rejection. And no, not just because it is often a part of the submission cycle. Rejection is actually a crucial aspect the writing process itself.

For instance, here’s a typical storyteller’s brainstorming session: What should my hero do for a living? A lawyer? No, he’s not that successful. But he is in front of people. How about a teacher? No, too altruistic. Also, he enjoys the spotlight. Ah, he’s an actor! An unemployed actor. No – not totally unemployed. He got one gig in a commercial playing a guy with hemorrhoids. Perfect.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. This is how writers find their stories. And it really doesn’t matter whether we are writing fiction or non-fiction. Even the memoirist sifts through the past and decides what to put in and what to leave out. And yet, if you look again you will notice that the above example is filled with rejection. Our author could not arrive at his final Yes without the guidance of a great many No’s.

Writing is all about learning to say, “Yes.” Every word on the page is a word to which I’ve said, “Yes.” But I cannot find the words and sentences and scenes and stories I wish to share unless I also know what I do not wish to share. It would be impossible to say yes if I couldn’t say no. No is like the feeling of imbalance the gymnast experiences as she seeks the Yes of balance. These opposites are actually the allied yin and yang of my creative life.

It just never felt that way to me when the rejection letters came in. Whereas I called the comfort and discomfort that guides me in the choice of words and sentences and so on information, those rejections letters felt every bit like unwanted, unhelpful, discouraging, depressing closed and barred doors to what I wanted most. What’s so useful about that?

Everything, if I listen to what those rejections are telling me. When I write, the worst thing I can try to do is force a word or sentence in where it’s not wanted. The best thing to do when I feel this resistance is pull back and try something else. This is what the resistance is telling me. Many times, however, I felt this resistance and soldiered on. Yet what I thought of as writing by force of will was actually self-rejection. It was uncomfortable, but such is adulthood – or so I’d heard. The sting I felt when the stories I’d written in this fashion were rejected was merely an echo of the pain of self-rejection I’d inflicted on myself by ignoring my own inherent guidance.

That’s right, to find acceptance in the publishing world you must first accept yourself. I take that back – you need only practice accepting yourself. You practice this every single time you sit down to write, every single time you choose a word that feels right or wrong for no other reason than you like it or don’t like it. That’s self-acceptance. You don’t need to climb a mountain and meditate for the rest your life to find it. You find it as you find your balance, with every step and every choice.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Why Everyone Has Time To Write

Many of the students I meet at writers’ conferences complain that they don’t have enough time to write. These men and women have fulltime jobs, marriages, children, hobbies, parties to attend, and favorite television shows to follow. How in an already full life are they expected find one or two hours a day to write a book?

It’s a good question, and the simple, honest, but ultimately unhelpful answer is this: Every writer who has ever written a book has had a full life within which that book was written. If you need “more time,” get up an hour earlier every day. That’s what a lot of writers do. Or they go to bed an hour later. But usually they get up earlier. There. Problem solved.

Except this really solves nothing, just as telling a smoker to simply stop smoking solves nothing. The question most writers are really asking isn’t, “How do I find time to write?” but, “Is writing a waste of time?” Going to college probably didn’t feel like a waste of time because it would, in theory, lead to a career. And going to work probably doesn’t feel like a waste of time because it provides an income and a social network and a bit of an identity. Even crashing in front of the TV doesn’t feel like a waste of time because everyone needs some downtime.

But is writing a waste of time? It is relatively easy for the imagination to perceive the connection between enrolling in college and a successful career in, say, high tech, even though many years and many choices and many unplanned turns and reversals wait between one and the other. The path one walks for this career, has, in many ways, been cleared by those who walked it before you, like a paint-by-number life. How comforting. Do this and that and then this and then that and you will be safe and fed and housed and respected and have health care and a time-share in Maui.

As soon as we sit down to write, we understand how blank our canvas really is. Not only do we not know if that book will ever be published, we don’t even know what that book will like when it’s done. All we can really perceive is what is directly before us: that blank canvas called a page. And so we sit alone with this simple question, “What would I most like to put here?” That’s the writer’s first and last guarantee, that we will get to answer that question as often as we ask it.

That may not seem like much at first compared to the apparent security of a color-coded life, but the moment a writer decides that getting up an hour earlier every day just to ask and answer that question, he or she has discovered the holy secret to writing and publishing success. I will never get up an hour earlier to ask, “Why bother?” I would sooner sleep the entire day. At least then I could dream. So if you feel you need time to write, don’t begin by trying to clear away an hour of clutter from your day’s schedule. Instead, clear space within your mind; clear away all the useless questions of talent and money and comparison, and you will find the blank space that has always belonged to you.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Day I Stopped Reading Reviews

One morning a year ago I received a Google alert that someone had written a blog about a book I’d recently published. Because I’d gotten the alert just as I was sitting down to work, I decided not to read it until I was done writing. Though I doubted someone would take the time to write an entire blog about how much they hated the book, anything was possible, and I wasn’t about to spend the entire morning working against the current of self-doubt that often gets stirred up after I read a bad review.

Soon enough I was into the story I was telling, and I forgot about the blog, and also that I had to drop my car at the mechanics, and that I needed peanut butter when I went shopping, and that there was turmoil in the Middle East, and that I was forty-nine. In fact, it went well enough that day that I forgot about time itself and didn’t remember until I came out of the story-dream that I had other things to do that day.

Such as read a blog someone had written about my book. I knew within the first sentence that the blog’s author had liked the book and wanted to share her enthusiasm for it with her readers. Oh good, I thought, and settled in for a little praise. As I read further, however, I noticed something unusual. The more the author complimented what I’d written, the more I experienced something I had once called excitement, but which I now thought was perhaps something else. By the time I was done reading the blog I realized it wasn’t excitement at all – it was fear.

In fact, what I felt reading this good review was hardly any different than what I felt when I read a bad review. Either way, I was letting what someone else thought of what I’d written determine how I should feel about what I’d written, and this is an untenable position for a writer. The only way to enter that story-dream I so wanted to enter was to forget completely about all the other people and all their opinions. To enter that dream, I must forget about everything but the dream.

That was the day I decided I was done reading reviews – and not just my reviews, but all reviews. I understand reviews serve many purposes, including promoting the books we’ve written, as well helping readers choose which books they want to read. Also, some of my best friends write book reviews and love doing so. I am not advocating an end to book reviews. But I can’t read them anymore. The more I read them the more I believe that it actually matters what one person thinks about what another person has written.

If I’m going to live by that sword, then I will surely die by it, and have many times. I have staggered about like the walking dead after receiving a bad review. What I thought was good was bad. As a writer, I might as well mistake night for day. I am left to roam the countryside, feasting on praise wherever I can find it. That is a hunger that cannot be satisfied. No matter how many times I let someone else tell me how I should feel about who I am or what I’ve done, at the end of the day I am left only with myself and my imagination and my curiosity – my only true company when I write my books and live my life.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Law of Response: Where Acceptance and Rejection Begin

One evening, when I was still feeling rather low about all the books I hadn’t published and all the money I hadn’t made, I was having dinner with my wife and two sons and fell into a discussion about respect, about who deserved it and who did not. I was of the opinion that everyone deserved it.

My oldest son, Max, then twelve, was not so sure. “For instance,” he offered, “I don’t respect you, Dad, because you’re not a success.”

To be clear, Max is actually a very kind person. But he had the habit, particularly at that age, of blurting out the name of whatever elephant was currently clogging up the room. Which is why, though I was tempted to give a swift and harsh fatherly lecture about how you talk to people, I chose instead to say absolutely nothing. I had a very clear thought at that moment, a thought clearer than all those I’d ever had about success and failure: “You think you’re a failure much of time. When you stop thinking it, he’ll stop saying it.”

This turned out to be absolutely true. A few years later, when I was interviewing authors and speaking to writing organizations and generally loving all the different things I was doing, Max’s talk of failure quickly dried up. It was a satisfying arc of experience, but one I often felt I could have had only with Max. He had a quirky directness I rarely encountered elsewhere. Most people, I figured, don’t notice if you bring an elephant to a dinner party.

If only that were so. Since then I’ve noticed that everyone talks about whatever elephant I’ve dragged into the room; they just talk about it differently. Some respond to the elephant graciously, others nervously; some are commiserative, others are hostile. However precisely they respond, everyone always treats me exactly the way I expect to be treated. Which is to say, I find I like the things people say to me when I’m liking myself, and I do not like the things people say to me when I’m not liking myself. It is as predictable as gravity.

This law of response extends even to agents and editors and readers, which is a little mystifying because these people are so far away. For reasons that cannot be explained by any of Newton’s laws, whatever I offer the reading world is accepted or appreciated to the exact degree that I have accepted and appreciated it. Luck, I’ve decided, has got absolutely nothing to do with it.

If this is a little too woo-woo for you, I understand. Most authors I know try to be as practical as possible. It’s just that authors have a strange relationship to other people. We need them for everything we do. We need them to buy our books and edit our books and review our books. Without those other people, we’d have no career, no livelihood, no one with whom to share our work.

Yet none of those other people are there with us in the room when we write our stories and poems and essays. We are completely, necessarily, delightfully alone. Which is why the most impractical thing I can do in the creative solitude of my workroom is to start trying to guess whether anyone will like what I am writing. All I can ever know is what I think of what I’m writing. So whether I like it or not, whether it’s woo-woo or not, the only way to gain the attention of all these readers and reviewers, all these other people spread far and wide over the entire world, is to sit alone at my desk and pay very close attention to 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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter