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

Getting in the Flow

The hardest part of my writing life is those long swaths of time when I’m not writing. It is easy for me to get a little sloppy with my attention, by which I mean, drift out of the flow. I love being in the flow. It’s really the only reason I write. If you’ve ever enjoyed writing, you’ve been in the flow too. When I’m in the flow, I’m not worried about tomorrow or regretting yesterday; I’m not thinking about results, I’m not comparing myself to other people, I’m just focused on the next interesting thought and the next interesting thought and the next interesting thought. When I’m in the flow, my job is to ask interesting questions and then listen to the interesting answers. There is no right or wrong in flow, no good or bad, just that which belongs in my story and that which does not.

So I like the flow. But then I stop writing and it is easy to believe that that which was flowing while I wrote has gone still. Being that I am an adult, it seems like there’s a bunch of things I have to do – my chores and appointments. In truth, I don’t mind doing chores, I don’t mind cooking dinner or going to the store or paying the bills, and if I made an appointment I’m usually happy to keep it. I just don’t like being out of the flow, and I’m not entirely sure that if I were in the flow I would want to attend to my chores and obligations because the flow sets its own course. In other words, the flow feels great, but is it practical?

Yes, it is. In fact, it is the most practical state of mind I can achieve. The flow is where opportunity is found. Whether I’m writing or vacuuming, being in the flow is how I attract new and interesting ideas. Ideas are a kind of opportunity. A new story, a new essay, or a new lecture always begins as an idea. I cannot manufacture, demand, or conscript these ideas. All I can do is get into the flow and wait for them to come, which they always do.

Then there are those opportunities that I spot in the world around me. When I’m in the flow, I’m curious and optimistic. When I’m in the flow, I’m not judging the world, I’m just interested in it. It is the perfect state of mind to notice the website, the article, or the book that will inspire me, assist me, or answer a question I’ve been asking. The flow is a supremely friendly state of mind, and all these things other people have created, instead of being in competition with what I’m trying to create, now exist to help me.

Finally, there are those mysterious opportunities, the unexpected email, phone call, or encounter on the street. Someone literally offers me an opportunity to speak, to teach, or to write. The more time I spend in the flow, the more often this happens. I admit that unlike thoughts and things I spot, I cannot perceive the direct link between being in the flow and getting a “lucky” phone call other than a consistent experience. By and by, I have had to conclude that one is born out of the other.

There is, of course, one other opportunity that is only available to me in the flow: the opportunity to be happy. This is the flow’s the first and last benefit and its one requirement of me. I do not get to be unhappy and be in the flow. I do not get to doubt or criticize or be afraid. To be in the flow, I must let the world be what it is, let myself be what I am, and find out what we will make together.

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

Why Writers Must Plan to Be Surprised

Every writer I know is at some point surprised by what they write. In fact, being surprised by what we write is as dependable as it is uncontrollable. Garth Stein, the author of The Art of Racing in the Rain, came to novel-writing via screenwriting. Like most screenwriters, he had trained himself to outline his stories before he began writing them. In the middle of work on his second novel, How Evan Broke His Head, Garth’s protagonist, Evan, found himself in a recording studio. This was a part of Garth’s outline, his plan. At this point, Garth’s novel was still proceeding according to this plan.

But Garth needed to bring that studio to life, and a writer brings a scene to life with details. He couldn’t plan every detail, so he looked around that studio with his writer’s eye and saw that the sound engineer was an attractive young woman. As soon as she appeared he realized that Evan was in love with her. This was not part of the plan. But Garth had been writing long enough to know that when a character fell surprisingly in love, it was time to change the plan.

I have heard this story more times than I can count. The small, insignificant detail in chapter one – the flower pot on the ledge, the neighbor’s cousin, the squeaky floorboard – the detail the author couldn’t have planned but had simply needed to keep the story going, becomes the perfect plot device in chapter ten. Every successful essay, story, poem, or book I have written was born largely of these surprising details.

This is one of the most challenging aspects of writing to teach others. Then again, I had never planned to teach writing. I wanted to teach life! That’s what really interested me. Writing was just the way I understood life. I came up with a plan to teach a class for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association about how writing and life are all the same. The PNWA’s president asked if I’d like to teach a second class, and as an afterthought I said, “Sure. I’ll teach a class on memoir.”

It took me exactly one class to realize I loved teaching memoir. This was not a part of the plan. But I have been alive long enough to recognize – and keep doing – what I love. As soon as that class was done I arranged for another one. I became a much better writer from teaching these classes. You could say it was exactly what my own memoir needed. Plus, the more I taught it, the more I realized the students and I spent as much time talking about life as we did storytelling. Memoir is our life in story, after all. You can hardly talk about one without the other.

I admit that I remain a little finicky when it comes to surprises. I want them to be all birthday presents or letters from old friends. Since I know they are not, I sometimes try to fill in my life and stories with plans to crowd out unwanted surprises – to ensure the happy ending I believe I require, but am not guaranteed. These plans begin unraveling almost as soon as they are implemented, and I am always responsible for that unraveling. Without fail, some little detail I hadn’t planned has caught my attention. Now I’m interested, and I always love being interested, and the plan must be changed or abandoned to make room for me.

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

The Slow Assembler

I can be a pretty logical guy when I want to be. I enjoy a little algebraic thinking now and again. It’s fun when I can show that if A = B, and B = C, then A = C. In many ways, writing is about showing the connection between things that appear from one perspective to be utterly disconnected. In that moment when the connection is revealed life collapses just a little, from a disparate collection of independent forms or thoughts to an integrated world, where the many serve the whole.

It’s a lovely thing, but I can’t become too enamored of my rational mind, no matter how athletic and proud it feels after one of its success. As Einstein pointed out, it is only a servant of the intuition. My rational mind, however, does not like to see itself as anyone’s servant. When things are going well for him, he is The King. He rules an iron kingdom of incontrovertible truths, truths built of the solid and knowable bricks of facts and bound by the sure mortar of logic. Come into his castle and be safe from the storms of preference and prejudice.

Things do not always go well for him, however. He’s fabulous at building things, but not so good at knowing what to build. In fact, he hasn’t a clue. At some point he looks from up from his throne and sees all the other castles around him. There are as many castles as there are kings and queens. All of them are built differently, and all of them have been built correctly. In that moment, his castle falls. It protects him from nothing.

Until, of course, he receives his instructions again. Now he is happy once more, helping to build what wants to be built. He doesn’t know why it wants to be built, and if he’s honest he admits that he doesn’t care. The why’s belong to something else. He is the slow assembler who must pull together all the parts that form what something else saw and knew in an instant.

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

Writing Ideas

Nearly every writer hates to be asked, “Where do your ideas come from?” Here the author is confronted squarely by the ephemeral nature of her work. Where presumes a place that exists on a map or biology textbook. Where presumes a there. Of course, there is no there. One moment there was no writing idea, the next moment there was.

The author might answer that she saw something interesting or unusual – like two lovers arguing on a street corner – and from this began the “what ifs” from which so many stories are born. But the writing idea did not come from the two lovers arguing, it came from the mysterious intersection of that scene and the author’s unique curiosity. Why that scene and why not another nearly like it she had glimpsed before? Within that unanswerable question beats the unseen heart of all creation.

Which is why when an audience member asks an author where her writing ideas come from, the author might as well be asked why the universe exists. The author may not want to see herself as a microcosm of the universe and its infinite creativity. She’s just an honest gal trying to tell an honest story and make an honest living. And yet the author silently faces the uneasy truth that she sits down at her desk everyday and asks that which cannot be seen to provide for her that which does not yet exist. This is where writing ideas come from.

It’s okay if you don’t want to think about it. In fact, creation is beyond the comprehension of our thinking mind. Know only that writing ideas come in answer to the question of your desire. The stronger the desire, the faster and brighter they come. This is the unerring formula.

I know this formula as I know my own reflection, and yet not a day goes by when I do not doubt it. Not a day goes by when I do not feel abandoned and astray. Such is the suffering impatience brings. To hear the beating of your own heart and call it the ticking of a clock, as if time could run out on creation, when it was creation that invented time.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Finding Intuition

I interviewed the intuitive psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff yesterday for our upcoming May issue. Intuitive psychiatrist is an unusual combination, one born from Orloff being raised by two physician parents and possessing an intuition so innately strong that she spent much of her childhood believing that something was very wrong with her. Once she understood that the voices she was hearing were not a sign of madness but the product of a very loud and insistent creative guidance system, the life as she knows it now began in earnest.

One of the things I like about Orloff’s work is that she teaches people to use and strengthen their intuition. Until I began paying very close attention to my own creative process, I would not have thought intuition was anything you could teach. Either it visited you or it didn’t. Like the weather, I was glad for sunny days, but no amount of prayer or science would ever part the clouds.

But leaving communication with my intuition to the whims of a capricious subconscious is like leaving my writing schedule to the whims of my mood. I’m going to write every morning regardless of my mood because I have learned that once I start writing I soon find I am in the mood to write. My desire to write never actually turns off, I merely lose track of it in the grumbly, fussy business of daily life. So too with my intuition. It is always running, pulsing away with inspiration and guidance if I can but locate it.

Orloff has certain mechanical steps she recommends, like sitting quietly and taking deep breaths and so on. All good ideas. But there is a reason writers and teachers like Orloff often wind up speaking in metaphors. I could easily point a stranger from Seattle to Boston on a map, but the route to your intuition is like the journey from fear to love. Before the journey can even begin, you must remember it is possible, remember that your destination is real precisely because no one else can find it for you.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Slow Assembler

I can be a pretty logical guy when I want to be. I enjoy a little algebraic thinking now and again. It’s fun when I can show that if A = B, and B = C, then A = C. In many ways, writing is about showing the connection between things that appear from one perspective to be utterly disconnected. In that moment when the connection is revealed life collapses just a little, from a disparate collection of independent forms or thoughts to an integrated world, where the many serve the whole.

It’s a lovely thing, but I can’t become too enamored of my rational mind, no matter how athletic and proud it feels after one of its success. As Einstein pointed out, it is only a servant of the intuition. My rational mind, however, does not like to see itself as anyone’s servant. When things are going well for him, he is The King. He rules an iron kingdom of incontrovertible truths, truths built of the solid and knowable bricks of facts and bound by the sure mortar of logic. Come into his castle and be safe from the storms of preference and prejudice.

Things do not always go well for him, however. He’s fabulous at building things, but not so good at knowing what to build. In fact, he hasn’t a clue. At some point he looks from up from his throne and sees all the other castles around him. There are as many castles as there are kings and queens. All of them are correct. In that moment, his castle falls. It protects him from nothing.

Until, of course, he receives his instructions again. Now he is happy once more, helping to build what wants to be built. He doesn’t know why it wants to be built, and if he’s honest he admits that he doesn’t care. The why’s belong to something else. He is the slow assembler who must pull together all the parts that form what something else saw and knew in an instant.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Knowing Everything

I watched a recent episode of Hollywood Game Night (where six celebrities and two non-celebrities team up to play a series of pop-culture themed parlor games) that included Henry Winkler among its panel of famous people. I had the opportunity to interview Winkler in 2009 after he had published book seventeen in his Hank Zipster series, an easy reader collection about a boy with dyslexia, and seeing him perched on the set-couch I thought, “This may not go so well.”

Most of the games involve remembering the names of movies, songs, television shows, or actors, and, due to his dyslexia, remembering stuff is not Winkler’s strongest mental muscle. The longer the show went on, the more I started worrying for him. He’s such a sweet man, and when it was his turn to guess who sang that or who played this and he once again got that innocent, vaguely lost look in his eye, I wanted to bust through the television and cry, “He’s dyslexic! Why don’t you all leave him alone?”

I don’t think he got one answer correct, and yet, if his performance bothered him at all, he never betrayed it. I admired his steady demeanor in the face of constant failure. I am a little bit rabid when it comes to winning. I kept picturing myself in his place and thinking how I’d want to crawl under that couch until the show was over. But he didn’t crawl under the couch. He smiled and joked and seemed interested to learn who did sing “That’s the Night When Lights Went Out in Georgia.” (It was Vicky Lawrence, by the way).

Then yesterday I decided to include his interview on my new website, and watched it again for the first time in several years. In the middle of the conversation Winkler talked about his intuition. “Your mind knows a few things,” he said. “Your instinct knows everything.” Perhaps that was why his demeanor was so steady. The student’s job is to answer the teacher’s questions. The artist’s job is to ask a question and let his instinct, intuition, and imagination bring him the answer. With this arrangement, you can only fail if you are unwilling to wait for the answer to 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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter