Mastery

Most writers begin understanding certain parts of writing better than other parts. For instance, when I was a teenager I had an instinctive understanding of dialogue. I understood it well enough that when I was sixteen I explained to my younger brother that characters rarely say exactly what they mean, that it is always better when they talk about one thing – like the weather – but really mean another – like how uncertain life is. That’s advice I’d still give thirty yeas later.

What did not come so naturally to me was what we call “description.” When I encountered it in the books I read, I often found it boring, something I might skip to get to the cool parts. I knew you needed a certain amount of it so your characters weren’t wandering in a bald moonscape, but the only value I could find in writing a good description as opposed to a boring description is that the former proved what a good writer I was. It felt like a necessary showing off, as if writers were all figure skaters required to hit a certain number of triple axles.

Then shortly before I started college I picked up a collection of T. S. Eliot’s poems, and after reading them one afternoon actually said aloud, “Oh. I get it.” What I got was that “description” was actually an attempt to recreate the emotional experience of being alive and in the world. Now that was cool. What does it feel like to stand in a crowded bus station? What does it feel like to see someone you find beautiful? What does it feel like to watch a clock when you’re waiting for school to end? The words I chose to render the world were, hopefully, portals into my most intimate understanding of life.

Now I got it, meaning I understood that describing something was an act of love rather than of fear. Now I could write toward the sharing of life as I felt it rather than away from the fear that I wasn’t clever enough to stick some literary landing. I spent the ensuing years learning to master this by the exact same means I have used to master anything: by learning again and again that fear is only the belief that there is ever an answer other than love.

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

 

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

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The Holiday Season

It is very hard to try to do two things at once. It is very hard to love someone while simultaneously believing you must protect yourself from them, or that you must always be right, or that there are good people in the world and bad people in the world. Likewise it is hard to listen to your creative potential, your muse, your imagination if you simultaneously believe that you must write perfectly, or that you must know that what you’re creating now will succeed later, or that no one wants to hear from someone like you.

Be glad it is hard to do two things at once. All these stories of protecting ourselves and being right, all these stories of writing perfectly and success, are our invention. They are not real, and so can only be maintained by our constant attention. The truth, meanwhile, requires nothing of us. Love cannot be manufactured, only perceived. Our imagination cannot be commanded, only received. How kind life is to make suffering exhausting.

Eventually, everyone must rest. We will complain about our suffering first, and march in protest about how hard it is, and form committees to determine why everything is so hard, but by and by, because these stories are not actually a part of reality, we will either forget to tell them or grow weary of telling them. Either way, the truth of love, the truth of our creative potential, will be waiting for us when we do.

We will celebrate such moments. “The good stuff was really coming today,” we’ll say. Or we’ll say, “I had a great time with my wife. No arguments, no debate. Just fun.” These are like holiday seasons, respites of pleasure from the grind of life. But the other day a cashier asked me if I was looking forward to the weekend. “My life’s a weekend,” I confessed. And I didn’t realize until I said it that it was true.

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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Between Words

When I was a boy I wanted to disappear into stories and music. The books I read couldn’t be long enough and the songs I listened to couldn’t be loud enough. I certainly loved playing football and Whiffle ball and Dungeons & Dragons, but no game I played, no single thing I did in the world seemed to be able to match the purity of stories and songs. While the games I played or the races I ran were tainted with the unfriendly yearnings of achievement and comparison, stories and songs offered no treasure greater than enjoyment for enjoyment’s sake.

I resolved early in my life that I would write stories to make a living, thereby coming as close as possible to living daily in the chaste and friendly confines of art. Unfortunately, I still had to get about in a world that seemed burdened with money and argument and loss. In fact, it was where I spent most of my time. I could not fully reconcile the uncomfortable difference between art and what I called life, and so I lived with a permanent, if noble, melancholy. It seemed like the only honest response.

Then what happened is I fell in love. Though really, I don’t think anyone falls in love. What actually happened is that I was moping about the world when I spotted someone and recognized something in her that I had been looking for more of in myself. It was as pure an experience as any song or story. Her company gained me nothing or won me nothing except her company, and that was treasure enough.

I have to admit it was hard to let go of the melancholy. I had become mildly addicted to its nobility. Yet it was increasingly hard to square with loving someone. I was tempted to put romantic love into the same special category as art, a pure experience removed from the dirty daily business of mere survival, but to do so would be to ignore that what I saw in her and I had begun to see in everyone and everything.

In fact, the closer I looked, the less difference I perceived between the world in which I survived and the stories and songs into which I had once wanted to disappear. The closer I looked, the more everything blurred together, the more everything seemed to grow from the same garden, until what separated us seemed no more meaningful than the space between words on a page.

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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Half-Told Tales

My cat Charlie died yesterday. He was still a young cat, who seemed completely healthy and whom I had anticipated spending many more years feeding, petting, and having the kind of one-sided conversations to which cats seem amenable. But then he got very sick very quickly, and the next thing we knew the vet was telling us it was probably best to put him down.

I loved Charlie as much as I could love a cat, and as it became clear to me where we might be headed, I found myself starting something that I practice every day I sit down to work. I write about how much I love life. That’s my job. To do so, however, I mustn’t become too fixated on any of life’s transient details, not the things I use and see nor even the people and animals I know and love. To write about how much I love life, I must focus simply on life itself, that which flows through everything everywhere always. If I look too hard at the shape that life takes, I begin to lose sight of what I love so much about it.

Driving home from the veterinary hospital I found myself remembering why I actually loved life. I had to; it was either that or fall into the bottomless hole of loss. I do not think death is the opposite of life. I don’t think life has an opposite, except fear maybe, which is really just mistaking shadows for something permanent. But death does require me to focus in a way I normally do not while bopping around the world of people and animals and trees. It requires me to focus as if I were sitting down to write a love story whose ending I do not yet know.

I am always happiest than when I focus in this way. I have never read nor told a satisfying story that ended with acquisition of any kind. The hero might get the girl or win the trophy, but to do so he cannot confuse what he can see and touch for what he values most. If he makes that mistake, he is only prolonging his inevitable despair. Such a story is actually only half-told. The true end to every story is when the hero learns what he is and has always been, that he has lost nothing except the fear there is something to lose.

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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Writing, Fame, and Kindness

When I was a young man, I wanted to be famous. It didn’t matter so much as what, though early on I recognized that writing was the most appealing path to follow. Fame, it seemed to me, meant freedom – freedom from worry, freedom from poverty, freedom from irrelevance and obscurity, and freedom ultimately from the suicidal thought that nothing I did or said actually mattered. If something I did or said reached and moved other people, then somehow this meant that what I had done or said mattered, which meant I mattered, which meant life itself mattered. So I wanted be famous.

I ended up spending about twenty years waiting tables, which was perhaps the exact opposite of my original career goal. When you’re a server, you have to forget about yourself. To do your job well, you have to forget about what you want and listen carefully to what other people want, bring it to them, and then go away. Your opinion matters little, though your patience and compassion mean everything. People come to dinner in all different moods, and from all different walks of life. To do your job well, you have to treat them all with equal kindness.

All the time I was serving people I was also writing; it’s just that no one was reading what I was writing. And yet sometimes I would come home after a shift, and there I would be, sitting alone in my living room, my wife and children already asleep, and if I didn’t think about being a waiter, or the stories I hadn’t sold, or how old I was, I found I would forget what it was I thought fame would free me from. I did not know what to make of this experience. It felt like giving up, and yet it wasn’t.

By and by I left the restaurant and was asked to start an online magazine. Now, people were reading what I was writing, which was strange because the experience did not feel significantly different than when people weren’t reading what I was writing. There is not much that can influence what it is to sit alone at your desk and translate your curiosity into essays and stories, except the unanswerable question of how to measure whether what you are doing matters. Does it matter if no one else is reading it? What if one person reads it? What if a million people read it?

A better question to ask, I learned, was, “What is the very best thing I can share with other people?” When I asked this question it was as if I was a server again, because to answer it I had to forget about myself. I had to forget about whether I was better or worse, whether I was right or wrong, and just listen. I was never as kind to myself as when I sat alone at my desk and listened. To listen was to be free from the idea that the difference between people matters.

Some days I listen better than other days. Some days I find I am just listening for what I want to hear. There is no kindness in this, only judgment. When I was younger and dreaming of fame, I would not have guessed that judgment is imprisonment and kindness is freedom. It got all mixed up as I looked and looked for what I already 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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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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