A Wholesome Love Affair

Although I don’t often mention it here, I am actually an editor. That is, people send me articles and I read them and decide if I will publish them. I read differently as an editor than as a civilian, shall we say. Sometimes, I simply love an article as I would love anything I might read. I have to publish these articles, and I hope our readers will gain as much as I have from reading them.

More often, however, I try to gauge whether the article is a good fit for Author. Here, I am dabbling in the uncertain art of prognostication. I have a fair idea of what flies with our readers, but this is not a hard science. I am frequently wrong, and sometimes surprised by how right I am. But what else can I do? I have a magazine to publish every month and I do the best I can.

Such is the plight of all publishing professionals. It’s the rare agent or editor who deals only with books they adore. Mostly, we are squinting toward the future. This is in direct contrast to readers, whose attention is entirely in the present. A reader has bought your book or discovered your essay online and wants to enjoy it. A reader is seeking something not that she hopes will be successful, but which she hopes will connect her to something valuable within herself.

I’ve always felt this was a more honest relationship with an artist. There is a gambler’s pleasure as an editor when I pick right, but it hardly compares to the satisfaction of having found a book or story I love. If I love the story, I don’t care whether anyone else ever has or ever will read it. It’s a love affair in this way, I suppose, and as such a private matter. But it is a love affair in which I cheat on no one, where I am in fact guided toward that which I would share with everyone.

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 Dream Ends

If you’re a regular reader of this column you may have noticed that there are two signature elements of my life that I write about again and again: my relationship with my wife, and my relationship to being an author. Both these relationships were for some time largely driven by yearning.

I was a very romantic boy who spent his childhood quietly yearning to meet a certain kind of girl. Then he met such a girl, fell in love with her, only to have her move far away six months later. I spent the next seven years pining for her, dreaming of what life might be like if we together again, and grousing about cruel and indifferent fate that separated me from her. Then I found her again, and we have been together ever since.

In addition to being a romantic boy, I was also a boy who loved to write. Once I moved in with my now wife I began writing stories in earnest and sending them off to agents and publishers. For many, many years those agents and publishers all said, “No, thank you.” My days were marked by long hours dreaming of what life would be like when I’d found success as an author, and dark hours fearing that success would never come.

Now that I am living every day with Jen, my wife, and writing books and talking to people about those books, I am confronted with a new challenge: I must live without yearning. Romantics like me secretly enjoy yearning. There is a kind of delicious agony you can maintain by wanting and never quite having. That wanting seems to be what drives your story forward. The having means the credits role, and there is nothing more to tell.

It’s why it took me so long to kiss Jen. I’d go to her house and sit in her living room and talk and talk, and then we’d stand in her doorway saying goodbye, and I’d think, “Kiss her. Kiss! Her!” But I wouldn’t. I knew I loved her as I hadn’t my other girlfriends, and I knew that kissing her would turn dreaming into reality. What if reality was no different?

When we finally kissed, I said to Jen, “Well, that took a while.” She replied, “You could have done that a long time ago.” Such is always the case. Everything I have ever yearned for had long been available to me, even publishing success. There is no point in yearning for love. It’s what I’m made of. I can, however, look for it where it isn’t, and dream of the day I’ll find what I’ve always had.

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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The Best Story

Though it’s been several weeks, the events at Charlottesville have stayed with me for many reasons, some of which have to do with being a writer. Seeing angry young men with torches chanting Nazi slogans and declaring they will not be replaced fills me with a mixture of confusion, anger, and fear. What’s to be done with these people? I ask myself. Rounding them up into cattle cars and shipping them elsewhere seems appealing, but then – as the saying goes – I’d be no better than them.

Which, by the way, I am not. The worst story humans ever told is that some of us are better than others. It has been told and told and told since humans first started telling stories. The Romans and the Greeks told it, and the kings and queens and peasants of Europe told it, and of course Americans told it, despite what we’d written in our Declaration of Independence. It is the most insidious and persistent story known to us, and despite how it always ends, how we know it will end, we keep picking it up and reading it and telling it.

I believe that’s because equality – true equality – is the simplest and most challenging story to tell. To really tell it, I have to walk down the street and see everyone I pass as absolutely equal to me. No one is worse than me and no one is better than me. No one. No matter how rich or poor, old or young, thin or fat; whether they’re saying hello or chanting Nazi slogans. The temptation to compare myself to others, to learn where I rank, is so great that I find myself doing it habitually, the way my hand reaches for a bowl of potato chips at a party.

This also holds true when I walk through a bookstore. No writer is better than another. No matter how many awards a book wins, or how high the sales, the writers themselves are all absolutely equal. That some writers have received more attention is not a reflection of that writer’s value, but of how much that writer values what they share. Editors and agents and readers cannot teach you to love your work; you’ve got to learn how to do it yourself.

The good news is that loving what you want to share is as natural as breathing. Humans may be brilliant at holding their breath, but eventually, breathe we must. I don’t know how to make someone exhale their fear and anger, make them stop telling the story of how they are better or worse. But I do know that I will sit down every day to learn how to better tell the story of how we are equal. Even if I don’t get it perfect, which I never do, I can’t go wrong with that story. It will always win out over the alternative. It will win because it uplifts instead of depresses, brings together instead of dividing, loves rather than hates and, finally, because it’s the truth. Once I let myself do it, the truth is always the easiest story to tell.

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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Current of Life

I like to remind my students and clients that I am rarely in the mood to write when it is time for me to sit down and do so. It is not unusual for less experienced writers to think they don’t “have what it takes” because they are not constantly itching to get back to their story. If you love to write, you have what it takes. But writing does require a shift in focus from where most of us reside mentally most of the time. Once this shift occurs, we are in the mood to write.

I find it is not that hard a shift to make, especially because I have had a lot of practice making it. That shift reminds me of a common experience I have when I teach. I love teaching. I love teaching memoir classes, and I especially love teaching Fearless Writing Workshops and giving talks to writing groups. I love the energy of a roomful of people, and I love the opportunity to tell uplifting stories about writing and life. If a class or workshop goes particularly well, I am often left floating on a current of optimism and gratitude for the work I get to do.

And yet nearly every time the day of a class or workshop arrives, I try to squint and see into the future to know whether I will have a good time. I can’t see anything, and so I think, “Why am I doing this? Do I really want to do this? I could be home watching television.” It’s true. But I make myself go, and I have a great time, and I think, “Can’t wait to do that again!”

This has happened often enough that I have finally started ignoring my reticence to teach the way I have learned to ignore my mood before I write. It is the practice of believing in what I have known but what I cannot currently perceive. How easy it is to doubt what I have loved doing, only because I am not doing it. Caught in the slow tide of whatever domestic chore I must complete, the swift waters of creativity and teaching seem like a dream, the kind of thing only other people get to experience every day. There are no other people. There are only all of us, and the current of life we can remember or forget.

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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Uncomplicated

I sold a piece recently to a parenting magazine about the difference between parenting my older son and my younger son. The point of the story was that even though one was diagnosed with autism and one was not, and one had to be homeschooled and the other was on his high school debate team, in truth I parented them in precisely the same way: by answering the question, “What is the best thing I can do at this very moment?”

It’s a somewhat unusual essay in that it is divided into two distinct parts. The first half set up how different my two sons are and how differently it appears I parented them. The second half looks at what it means to parent in the here and now, to not worry about the future and trust your kids and yourself. When I got my edits back, I found that the editor had done considerable line editing on the first half but very little on the second half. In fact, her edits on the first half were so substantial that in places it was as if she had just rewritten the story.

I was a little grumpy about this until I began rereading the second half and realized why it had needed fewer edits: it was the only part of the essay I was actually interested in writing. I had written the first half more or less mechanically, just getting it down so I could get to the good stuff. Once I got to that good stuff I slowed down, for now there was something to enjoy and be surprised by and discover.

It was a good reminder that no amount of craft can ever replace the quality of attention I bring to my work when I deeply interested in it. I cannot manufacture in the laboratory of my intellect what my imagination and sincere curiosity produce organically. One is a product of necessity, the other of love. How uncomplicated this job actually is. I need only get very, very interested and the rest will take care of itself. Yet every day I must remember this simple rule. Every day I must remember to notice the difference between doing and loving.

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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Hardly Working

The difference between writing a story I love, and writing a story I think might sell, is like the difference between being in an intimate relationship with someone I love, and being in an intimate relationship with someone I merely like and enjoy. That difference is effortlessness. To write a story I love or to be in a relationship with someone I love, I do not first have to overcome my own disinterest nor divert the river of my passion so it flows more conveniently where I need it to flow.

To write a story I love to write, or work a job I love to work, or be with a person I love, is to find the current of my passion and follow it where it is already running. But do so, I must first believe in effortlessness. Following the river of my own passion feels like so much less work than the engineering required to bend that river to my own will that it is sometimes difficult to recognize the following of my passion as a creative and productive endeavor. Mostly it just feels like Bill being Bill.

That hardly seems productive. Bill is Bill watching sports, and eating cereal, and taking a nap. On very good days what I call “working” feels deceptively similar to those idle activities. The difference is that when I am idle, I have said to myself, “No more effort! Let’s watch some soccer.” While I am writing, however, I must choose effortlessness again and again and again.

Because within my creative field swirl a myriad of choices, each as viable as the next, just as every person I pass on the street is as lovable as the next. Some of those viable ideas are quite attractive, exotically ripe with the potential for worldly success. Why, I wonder, can’t I be the sort of fellow who pursues such exotic ideas? Why must I just be Bill? The effort is my answer. The struggle to not be me is a struggle against life itself, a struggle I endure and endure and endure until at last I surrender to the current where work and rest are one and the same.

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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Human Stories

Ever since I could talk, I have enjoyed telling stories to friends and family and acquaintances. Yes, I’m a bit of a performer, who doesn’t mind the spotlight – but mostly I enjoy what is shared in the telling of a story. As a storyteller I must leave room for my audience’s imagination, must paint just enough of a portrait that they can complete the image in their mind. In this way, we are really both telling the story, though only one of us is talking. By story’s end, if we were successful, the audience and I meet in relief, or laughter, or understanding – kingdoms known to everyone, but ruled by no one.

I will often tell the same story to many people. Usually, the story changes depending on what I know about the person to whom I’m talking. My wife might hear a slightly different version of a story than my youngest son, who might hear a slightly different version than my oldest son, who might hear a slightly different version than my father, or one of my clients. In the art of showing and not telling, knowing what your audience already knows or doesn’t know, what they believe is true and what they think is a lot of hooey, determines which and how many details I provide in my portrait.

But when I’m writing a story for the reading public, I know almost nothing about my audience. I don’t know how old they are or whether they are a man or a woman; I don’t know how they vote or what they believe about God or science or marriage or children or taxes or death. I don’t know where they’ve lived or what they’ve lost or how they’ve suffered or when they’ve rejoiced. All I know is that they’re human.

That, I have learned, is enough. While I love telling stories to friends and family, the stories I gain the most from telling are those I share with people I may never meet. To do so, I must find something universal in that story, a narrative purpose that has nothing to do with me specifically, but which illuminates the challenges and joys of being human. It is not so difficult. All I need to do is see what remains of my experience when I ignore my name and age and occupation, ignore my unique history and my unmet desires. When I strip away these trappings, I am hopefully left with something as familiar and unadorned as a newborn, a thing of all love and all potential.

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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Out of the Shadows

When an artist draws an image on a blank canvas, she is interested in the negative space – the shadow – as much the positive space – the object. Negative space gives objects definition and depth and dimension. More importantly, in an image composed of many objects, shadows allow the eye to differentiate between one flower and another, to understand where the sky ends and the horizon begins.

For many years I spent much of my time fixated on negative space, which in my life of romance and writing was called rejection – rejection from prospective partners and rejection from publishers. It was immensely confusing and uncomfortable. I could feel every “no” before it came. Sometimes, I wondered: if I were a better person, a better writer, would the no’s become yes’s? It was an impossible question, because I didn’t know how to be a better person, nor, in truth, a better writer. Some days I seemed to write brilliantly; the next, it was if I’d forgotten the English language.

Then one day I met a girl who seemed different to me than other girls I had met. I had no apprehension the first time I asked her out, because I knew she wouldn’t – no, couldn’t – reject me. She couldn’t, because she was interesting to me for reasons beyond gaining the approval of a yes. She was interesting to me the way a song I heard on the radio started me dancing, the way a joke made me laugh, the way a story excited my imagination. I was only seventeen, but I had stepped out of the shadows, and the difference was unmistakable.

I would be much, much older before I learned to apply this way of living to writing. I continued to fear rejection the way I feared death. Rejection, for me as a writer, seemed like death: an end with no more beginnings. I was not surprised that the first time I chose to tell a story only because it was interesting to me and not because I hoped it would be accepted, that I had the same feeling as I did the first time I asked out that girl who is now my wife. I was just surprised at how long it took me to step into that creative light. I knew, as surely as I knew I would now seek it every time I sat at my desk, that it had been shining and shining all those years, waiting for nothing but my acceptance.

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 Crash Course in Fearless Writing

If you’ve ever written and actually enjoyed the experience, if you’ve ever allowed yourself to become lost in the dream of the story you are telling so much that you temporarily forget what time it is, then you have written fearlessly. In fact, writing doesn’t really begin until we forget to be afraid. So the question isn’t whether you can write fearlessly, but whether you can do it on purpose. Here are the three best tools I know for writing fearlessly every day.

The only questions you should ever ask are: “What do I most want to say?” and “Have I said it?”

I ask these questions because I can actually answer them. I will never know anything better than I know what I am most interested in. I will never be able to pay attention to something for longer than that about which I am most curious. My curiosity is the engine that drives my creative vehicle. It is the source of all my excitement, my intelligence, and my surprise. It is also entirely unique to me. There is no one on earth who knows what I most want to say other than me.

And once I know what I want to say, once I know which story I want to tell, or which scene I want to write, only I can know if I have translated it accurately into words on the page. Whatever I most want to say exists in a realm knowable only to me. There isn’t one editor or teacher or critique group member who can tell me if I have accurately translated what I wanted to share because only I know what that is; these other people, however well-intentioned, can only tell me if they like or understand what I’ve written. That is all they actually know.

If I am ever asking some question other than these two, I am not really writing. I am trying to read other people’s minds. If I am asking, “Is it any good?” I am really asking, “Will anyone else like it?” Or if I’m asking, “Is there market for it?” I am really asking, “Will anyone else like it?” And if I am asking, “Is it too literary? Is it not literary enough?” I am really just asking, “Will anyone else like it?”

What anyone else thinks of what I’m writing is none of my business – at least not while I’m writing. While I’m writing, what I think of what I’m writing is my business. I am always afraid when I believe I must answer questions that are unanswerable. And I am always fearless the moment I return to my curiosity to see where it is headed next.

Have Faith

I am defining “faith” as believing in something for which there is no evidence. This shouldn’t be so hard for a writer, really. Every day we sit at our desks and believe in something no one but us can see. In fact, while we’re writing, we believe more in the story we are telling than the chair in which we are sitting. We have to. We have to believe that our hero wants to save the world even though our hero doesn’t exist anywhere but our imagination. We must believe a daughter yearns for her father’s attention even though neither the father nor the daughter is any more real than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. That’s our job – to believe in what only we can see.

The problem is that we would also like to share these stories with other people, and we have absolutely no evidence that this story – which only we can see – will be of interest to anyone. No one knows how many copies of a book will be sold or if it will win any awards. No one knows which reviewers will like it and which will not. It is a mystery to be answered within the sovereign imaginations of our readers.

The only evidence a writer has that his story is worth telling is that he’s interested in telling it. That’s it. That’s all Shakespeare got and that’s all Hemingway got and that’s all Amy Tan and Stephen King get. Your evidence that your story is worth your attention and worth sharing with others is that you think it’s cool, or funny, or scary, or profound. If that’s reason enough for you to write, if that’s reason enough to commit an hour or two a day to the same story for six months or a year or six years, then you have found the simple secret to all faith – that feeling good is evidence enough that something is worth doing and that life is worth living.

Contrast Is Your Friend

From a pure craft standpoint, contrast is invaluable. Just as a flashlight’s beam is distinct in a dark room and nearly invisible in a brightly lit room, so too is whatever we are trying to share with our readers most perceptible against its opposite. So if you want to write about peace, you must show war; if you want to show forgiveness, you must show judgment; if you want show acceptance, you must show rejection.

Likewise, often the best way to know what we like is when we encounter something we don’t like. If you read a novel and you hate the ending, instead of griping to your husband or writing group about what poor choices the author made, think about how you would have ended it. Your frustration is pointing you toward something you wish to explore, but which has remained unexplored. That discomfort will only grow until it is released on the page.

Finally, the guidance system upon which you so depend to write from day to day speaks entirely in the contrast between the effortlessness of the right word, and the effort of the almost-right word. It speaks in the contrast between the fearlessness of asking yourself what you are most interested in, and the discomfort we have named fear that always comes when we wonder what other people will think of what we write. We must have both experiences for our guidance system to work. Without what we call fear, we would have nothing to guide us back to what we 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

Follow wdbk on Twitter