The Truth

I love to teach as much as I love to write, and I teach and write for precisely the same reason. The reason I teach is not to share secrets of craft, though I am a bit of craft geek and I enjoy talking to people about narrative arcs, and showing and not telling. Nor do I teach to offer insider information on the publishing world, though I am happy to do so, if only to eradicate the idea of insiders and outsiders.

In fact, I am not really interested in teaching writing, though it serves as a handy excuse to do what I love to do, which is tell the truth. That’s why I teach and that’s why I write. To tell the truth, my words must match my feelings. If I say I am happy but I feel worried, I am not telling the truth. If I say writing is at its core effortless, but I believe and feel that it is like working in a salt mine, I am not telling the truth. To tell the truth, whether in the class or on the page, I must first feel what I wish to say.

Fortunately, most of what I teach and most of what I write boils down to this: Everything is okay. That’s it. You can all go home now. Everything is okay. Everything is okay and always has been okay. You would think that three words would not be enough to inspire the 1,000-plus blogs I’ve written nor fill a four-hour master class, but they most certainly can and have. Everything, you see, does not appear to be okay. Quite the opposite, really. And so I need constant reminding.

And what better way to remember than to tell someone else that everything is okay. To tell someone else the truth I must first find that place within me where I know that everything is okay. I lose track of it constantly. And then I find it again. And then I lose it. And then I find it again. Every time I find it, whether on the page or in the class or even watering my lawn, the world tells me the truth right back. Every time I find it, what I feel, and then what I say, and finally what I see are the same. To find that balance is the only reason I do anything.

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

Learning to Listen

Writers come in every conceivable shape, size, color, and age. We tell every variety of stories. Some of us write in the middle of the night and some in the wee hours of morning. Despite all these many differences, nearly all the writers I know have this in common: we like to be alone. We’d better. With but a few exceptions, our work – before editors and proofreaders have their say – is entirely, supremely, exquisitely solitary.

And by solitary I don’t just mean we are physically alone. Some of us like to write in cafés or airport terminals. But where we’re sitting has nothing to do with where we are actually writing. Our writing always occurs in a realm utterly and forever unknowable to anyone but ourselves. Oh, the pleasure of slipping into that world from which any world can be borne, to listen to a voice only I can hear. To lose myself entirely in that world, to forget entirely about the world in which I sit, is to feel as free as I have ever felt.

Yet it is precisely because our work is so solitary, it is precisely because we must listen to voices only we can hear, that writing invites us to listen to that other voice, the voice of doubt. I sometimes feel as if my entire writing life has been one long practice in learning the difference between the one voice and the other. The results are always as clear as black and white, but those clear differences do not come until I have made a choice, a choice no can make for me, a choice only I am aware needs to be made.

The choice is always between being small and being what I actually am. After all, where those voices speak has no limits. Here, horizons are just unexplored possibilities. Doubt can feel like the swaddling a newborn craves, a boundary against endlessness, but my true safety lies in exploration. Doubt would always have me stay where I am, whereas what I am is always calling me forward toward more of myself.

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

Discovery

Though I write only non-fiction these days (personal essays and memoir) I spent a little over two decades writing only fiction. This background served me very well from a craft standpoint – the fiction writer learns very early that he must show at every turn rather than telling – but perhaps more importantly I learned that the foundation of all writing is discovery.

Again, this is sometimes easier for the fiction writer to perceive than the non-fiction writer. After all, fiction writing is all discovery. When I wrote fiction I began with the smallest seed of an idea and then set about to discover everything that would grow from it. Most of that was discovered during the actual writing. Typically, I would begin a scene with little more than this: Joe goes to go the hardware store and meets his ex-wife and gets into an argument with her. Then I would start writing and see what happens. Sometimes Joe wouldn’t even meet his wife. That was the pleasure of it all.

But the non-fiction writer, by definition, isn’t making anything up. The non-fiction writer writes about what is. Except we aren’t, really. I write essays and memoirs to discover why it is I know what I think I know. No matter how many times I’ve told a story before I write it, no matter how thoroughly I’ve thought through an idea before I write an essay about it, I always leave room within my writer’s imagination for something new about this story or idea to come.

And almost always that something new is my role in the troubles my stories or essays are depicting. The temptation to lay all the blame for the problems of the world on others remains great. Let me tell you what’s been done to me, or let me tell you all how you should behave so that we might straighten out this mess. Such is my response when I believe the world I behold was made by others. That I must look within to find the world I perceive is more than a bumper sticker, it is the only direction my writing journeys have ever taken me.

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

Back To Life

I have a book coming out in May. In fact, I know the exact date it will be published: May 14. My editor has gone through it and made her suggestions and corrections, and the copy editor went through and made her corrections and suggestions, so I now know what will be in the book and what has been taken out. I’ve also seen the cover, so I know what it will look like. What I don’t know, however, are how many copies it will sell, what kind of reviews it will get, or what speaking opportunities it will spawn – and that is where the trouble always starts.

It was fun working on the book, because every day I did so I asked myself questions I could answer. Every day I asked, “What does it really feel like to trust?” or, “What’s the most useful thing I could say about fear?” or, “What’s a good example of a time I doubted myself?” The answers always came — and usually rather quickly. How miserable I’d have been if they hadn’t. I wouldn’t have been able to write the book. Actually, I simply wouldn’t have written the book. There’s absolutely no fun in asking a question to which the only answer is, “I don’t know.”

And yet in my idle hours, which there are more of now as I scour about for my next book project, I sometimes find myself asking questions like, “I wonder how the book will sell?” or, “Where could I give a talk about the book?” The answer to these questions is always, “I don’t know.” In these moments, I am reminded of conversations I have fallen into about death and the afterlife. For some people, the fact that we cannot know empirically what waits for us beyond that portal means that nothing waits for us. If we cannot see it, touch it, or taste it, then it simply cannot exist.

This point of view is an untenable relationship to the future for a writer, I traffic every day in stuff that cannot be seen, touched, or tasted, only imagined. In fact, that “real” world, the world where my book is published, where people can hold it in their real hands and see it with their real eyes, can seem at times more mysterious to me than the imagined world from which the book was born. That imagined world, after all, is where the questions I most like to ask are answered.

Fortunately, asking myself questions about the real world and what the future will look like there is no fun at all. Fortunately, I lose interest in it almost as soon as I begin. This loss of interest sometimes takes the form of despair or pessimism, but that is only a consequence of me trying to give meaning to the meaningless. So I sulk about, dragging a nameless weight about with me, wondering why the world is such a dull place.

Until I find myself back at my desk asking questions I can answer. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Work solves everything.” I thought it was a stupid thing to write when I first read it, but I now believe he was onto something. Work, for me, does not so much solve everything, but it does remind me there is nothing to solve. It connects to me what I have sought connection to in my despair and frustration and uncertainty, that source of answers to all the questions I ask. It brings me back to myself, back to what I know and what I know I want to learn, back to life after a short trip into the death-world of a future I am not meant to know.

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

Your Job

If I was only allowed to give my writing students one piece of advice, it would this: Pay attention to how you feel. Not sure whether you should write fiction or non-fiction, romance or thrillers, literary fiction or memoir? Pay attention to how you feel when you consider each possibility. Which feels the most exciting to begin, and which feel the most effortless to return to?

Not sure if a scene is working? Pay attention to how you feel as you write and reread it. Do you feel interested as you write it, or are you just trying to get your character to the next scene? Do you actually care about this scene, or is it merely something you’ve intellectually decided belongs? It always feels better to be interested than disinterested, and your writing improves the instant you give your attention to something in which you’re authentically interested.

Not sure which word to use? Pay attention to how you feel as you choose it. Your story isn’t a jigsaw puzzle. In a jigsaw puzzle you see the piece snap into place. In a story, you either feel the word being received into the sentence, or feel yourself forcing it there. Learn the difference, honor the difference, and have the patience to wait until the right one comes along.

What a fantastic tool is our felt understanding of life. Every time we focus on something interesting and exciting we feel good, and every time we force ourselves to focus on something less interesting we feel less good. And every time we devote ourselves to what most interests us success flows to us with less and less effort, and every time we devote ourselves to what does not interest success comes slowly if at all. It is completely predictable and dependable. So that is your main job, you writers you: feel good. The rest will just come.

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 Marionette’s Song

Writers play a strange game with themselves sometimes. We sit at our desks and in one way or another ask the question, “What shall I feel today?” After all, to write about love, you must first feel love; to write about fear, you must feel fear. So too anger, frustration, shyness, curiosity, or vanity. First you feel it, then you write it. Sometimes we ask this question by wondering what our characters are feeling, and sometimes we ask this question by wondering what is going to happen in a given scene, and sometimes we ask it simply by wondering what we will write about that day.

However we ask it, the answer is always a feeling. That is what we are here to communicate: the felt knowledge of life. To forget this is to forget why we are writing.

At our desk, we choose what it is we will feel and what it is we will share. Sometimes at our desk we forget to ask what a scene or character or essay should feel like. As soon as we forget this, there are no right answers. We are lost in a forest of words and ideas without meaning.

Until we remember – and there we are again, and we finish our day’s work, and get up from the desk feeling like ourselves. Then we wander out into the world and we begin to play a strange game. We say, “There’s too much violence in the world; I must feel bad.” Or, “My boyfriend hasn’t called in two days; I must feel unlovable.” Now the world tells us how to feel. Now the world is the author of our lives, and we are its marionette characters.

So it often seems to me, I have to admit, but as any good fiction writer knows, the characters are there to tell you what will happen next, not the other way around. I can be no different. I don’t know what will happen from one moment to the next, but I know how I want to feel. The moment I remember this, I remember who I am, and the strings are cut, and I will do my dance only when it feels right.

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

Cruel Shoes: Find the Story that Fits You

I worked for about twenty years as a waiter while I wrote a bunch of novels I had no luck selling. One of the toughest parts of being a waiter, especially if you want to be a writer, is that no one really cares what you think about anything, except for the occasional wine recommendation. If you want to write, and share what you have written with other people, you have believe that what you are interested in thinking about and writing about would be interesting to someone else.

When I finally left the restaurant and was hired to write storylines for a video game company, I was so happy find myself in a room with people who seemed very interested in what I thought would or would not make a good story. How nice to be valued for something other than my ability to bring someone their steak dinner in a timely fashion.

The only slight problem was that I wasn’t all that interested in the games or their stories. I considered this a minor problem, however, given how much money they were paying me. In fact, I used some of that money to buy a new pair of dress shoes. These were my power shoes. They were shiny, black, and made a satisfying clip-clop sound as I went from here to there in them.

The only slight problem was that I wasn’t sure if they actually fit. If I stood still they were fine, but if I clip-clopped from here to there my feet seemed to slide around a bit. But only a little bit. And they looked great. And sometimes shoes need to be broken in, especially power shoes made of stiff black leather. So I kept the shoes, and both loved them and feared them: my feet always felt so good when I took them off at the end of a day.

Then the video game company decided they would fly a few of us to New York to meet with a bunch of literary agents. The company had dreams of creating a line of books based on their games. How exciting! They would pay for my flights, my hotel room, all my meals, and I would I get to meet all these agents. Plus, I had just the pair of shoes for such a trip.

For some reason, my comrades decided it would be more practical to walk from agency to agency rather than take cabs. Fine with me, I said. So we started walking, and walking, and walking. By the time we left the third agency, my shoes had become instruments of torture. Every step I took was measured in pain. I stopped thinking about New York, and literary agencies, and games, and money. All I could think about were my poor, abused feet.

My happiest memory of the trip was of sitting on my bed in my hotel room slipping out of those shoes and feeling like myself again. My brother, who lived in New York at the time, came by and we went out for dinner and a few drinks. I was now wearing black sneakers with my dress slacks and blazer and I was very happy. About the same time I left the restaurant, I had gotten very interested in the relationship between spirituality and creativity. That night, I told him about my ideas. I always got very excited when I talked about these ideas.

“Why don’t you just write that stuff instead of all the novels?” he said at the end of the night.

“I can’t do that,” I told him. “No one would be interested in it.”

I was wrong about that, though it would take me a few years to learn just how wrong I was. No matter. The best piece of advice I could ever give another writer is to pay attention to how you feel. All discomfort, however slight, is guidance. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in paying attention to how you feel. That discomfort will grow and grow until you do.

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

A Writer’s Best Question: What Next?

Music was a big part of my life growing up. Though I would come to love classical music as a teenager and young adult, my first love was popular music. I was particularly interested in those musicians who wrote and performed their own songs. Though I didn’t know it at the time, these were my first artistic mentors. Unlike the authors I read, whose words I heard in my own voice, I was more aware of the musicians as actual living people, since it was always their voices I heard. As a result, I loosely followed the musicians’ careers. For instance, my first memory of a newspaper is of a headline announcing that the Beatles had broken up.

I got curious about how different bands’ music evolved – or didn’t – from album to album. I noticed how flat an album felt if the songs were too much like those from the album that preceded it. Or, if an album seemed very different, I would return to the previous one to see if I could find those songs that seemed to presage where the band was headed creatively. Why, I would sometimes wonder, did the songwriter go this way instead of that way?

With all this observation I began to notice a pattern that, for a budding artist, seemed somewhat ominous. Often a bands’ first album would be exciting, and original, and full of fresh energy. Then the second and third albums would come along and things would sort of flat-line. It seemed like the first albums were fueled by the question: “Can we make it?” Then, once that question had been answered, the songwriters were unsure which new question to ask.

Every artist has to contend with this challenge. “Can I make it?” is a fantastically compelling question. To ask that single question is to simultaneously ask questions about equality, and originality, and value, and voice, and your place in the creative world. There is no way to empirically answer that question until you have tried to make it. Every artist must go forward from the same anonymity to find their readers, their listeners, their viewers.

But the only way to really answer the question, “Can I make it?” is if you’ve always known the answer was yes. You may need some evidence to back this up, but you will never find your readers until you acknowledge you don’t require their recognition to know the value of what you have to share. Which is why, to sustain our work, we will always need some question other than “Am I good enough? Can I make it?”

As a young music fan, I had already identified the better question when I sought the trail of my favorite bands’ evolution, which is, “What next?” If I’m good enough, or talented enough, or smart enough – whatever any of that means – what next? That remains the most compelling question I can ever ask myself, though it often feels so ordinary. Anyone can ask that question, after all. Everyone on earth is asking, “What next?” whether they know it or not.

Yet the moment I decide that this everyday question is actually more important, more valuable, and more sustaining than any other, I return to the source of my creative power. That source has never cared about how many readers I have, or what the critics think, or how big my advances are. Its only interest is the next story, the next scene, the next sentence. It can see nothing else. My job as a writer is to remember that that’s all I need to see as well.

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

Writing is the Opposite of Thinking

Writers often behave like smart people. When they’re not reading a lot of books, they’re sitting alone somewhere staring at a blank piece of paper or a computer screen or a wall. It is a very active kind of staring, meaning it looks like thinking, which is what smart people supposedly like to do most of all. Except writers really aren’t thinking – at least they shouldn’t be. If a writer is doing their job, when they aren’t typing or scribbling, they are listening.

The difference between thinking and creative listening can feel subtle, but in reality is as significant as the difference between sleeping and waking. I know I’m thinking when I’m rearranging, negotiating, or strategizing with what already exists. Whether I’m balancing my checkbook, learning how a new software application works, or planning a trip, I’m using my mind to assemble a puzzle whose pieces were created before I set to work on it.

Writing, on the other hand, always begins with a blank page. I mustn’t be fooled into believing I am thinking, simply because the words I use can all be found in dictionaries or that the hero’s journey provides the architecture for most stories. All the writing that has come before the story I would like to tell, all the writing books and writing classes, merely serve as a reminder that it is possible to create something out of nothing.

It’s easy to forget. You face that blank page and maybe you think how much simpler it would be if you just had some chess pieces to move about or a road map to follow. After all, when you leave your desk, the world you’ll roam is filled with stuff that’s already been made – television shows, and restaurants, and houses, and story upon story about all the things people have done and said. That’s reality! You’re a grown person. It’s your job to deal with reality. Kids can live easily enough in their fantasy worlds – even encourage it – but we adults must negotiate the world, and learn how things work, and make good decisions, and study the issues, and learn our history lest we repeat it.

But the blank page doesn’t care about any of that stuff that’s already been made. The blank page doesn’t want you to study or do the right thing or try to be a grown up. All the blank page wants to know is what you’re most interested in right now. What question is knocking loudest at the door to your imagination? Your job is to open the door for that question, and then ask it and ask it until you begin to hear some answers.

It’s only logical, after all. If I’m one the one asking a question like, “What should happen next in this story?” I can’t also be the one answering it. If I had the answer, why ask the question? I can’t concern myself with physical reality. I know I’m the only one in the room, but I’m listening all the same. I’m listening to what comes through the door I opened, listening so that what existed only in my desire and curiosity can join the reality we all share.

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

Finding Your Readers

I was giving a reading once, talking about writing the way I like to – which is to say encouraging everyone just to do it and ignore all the noise about how hard it is to get published and the shrinking markets and rejections and snappy openings and so on – when a woman raised her hand and said, “This is such a relief.”

Which I share not to brag but because I had found a like soul. This column has been a relief to me. For years I worked against the current of a story that went thus: Writing and publishing are hard. You have to be lucky or talented or preferably both, and don’t forget it’s a business, and be original but make sure your work fits into a category, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I hated this story, but I believed it was reality.

The more I wrote while believing this story, however, the more I felt the mounting discomfort of working against what I secretly felt to be true and useful. The discomfort – which I sometimes called failure, or writers block, or a bad day’s work – was actually a form of asking. The discomfort was saying, “Not this. It isn’t working. Go find something better.” And so the discomfort grew and grew until at last I started a magazine and allowed myself to tell a different story, and in the answering of my own question the strain and weight of working against myself were relieved.

It is important as a writer to remember that out there in the reading wilderness are strangers looking for what you have written. I suppose this woman was. Whatever suffering had been relieved that night had been her asking. I am sure she did not recognize it as such. I am sure she called it a bitter pill of reality she must swallow if she wanted to pursue this dream. In this way, my answer was her answer, my relief was her relief, and my story was her story.

And that, I believe, is what we call finding your readers.

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