The Greater Good

When I was a waiter my bosses always wanted me to “upsell.” This is the practice of talking customers into buying an appetizer they hadn’t ordered or recommending the Australian lobster tail rather than the halibut. It makes a certain sense from a business standpoint. We were a fine dining restaurant and wanted to “maximize sales” on each table. From a waiter’s standpoint it made sense also: the higher my sales, the more tips I’d make.

Yet I refused to upsell. I focused instead on helping the customers have the best possible experience they could have. I believed that if they felt as though I were trying to squeeze an extra few bucks out of them, they would feel more used than cared for. I reasoned that I could make just as much money by caring more about service than sales.

I did not know it then, but I was getting a glimpse into a dynamic that is always at play in every business arrangement – even writing. Namely, an individual’s needs versus society’s needs. Customers, or society, don’t give two figs about the restaurant’s bottom line. Customers want to enjoy themselves. A business, meanwhile, wants to make money. Whether I’m waiting tables, running a restaurant, or selling books, it can seem sometimes as though my only focus is extracting as much money from other people as possible, so that I can go on living and writing.

In a way, my choice not to upsell was a kind of experiment. What if, I reasoned, the customer’s needs could be my own? What if there was no difference between what I needed and what other people needed? As it happens, the more I focused just on service and not on sales, the more money I made. It was a happy arrangement.

But if I’m honest, the choice not to upsell served my most immediate needs as well. I didn’t like how it felt when I tried to sell rather than serve. It felt dishonest. Service, meanwhile, always felt good. After all, I was a human first and a waiter second, just as the people I was serving were humans first and customers second. Service became a means of connecting on a human level rather than a commercial level.

I started having success as a writer when I saw it as service, not sales. Instead of asking what I could write that could get someone to buy what I’d written, I asked myself what I would most like to share with other people. What if the kind of story that uplifted me, that served my life, might serve others? You already know how this story ends, because you already know that we all meet each other in our shared desire to know life as an act of love.

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

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Eyes on the Road

I have been spending way more time reading and watching political news these days than I normally do. I feel a little guilty about this, the way I do when I gawk at an accident as I’m driving by. But I’m human, and if the scene is particularly compelling, it is hard to keep my eyes on where I want to go. In fact, one night, many years ago, I was biking home from work and became distracted by the swirling lights and dented steel of a recent head-on collision – and crashed square into a tree.

Politics, as necessary as it is, often reminds me of my bike accident. Just as accidents can cause more accidents, animosity – the bent fenders of political debate – usually breeds more animosity. And sometimes not merely animosity, but full-blown hatred. I see it in others as they march and hold their signs and demand answers, and I feel it in myself as I wonder about the nefarious motives of certain players in this gaudy, historic drama.

Hatred can sometimes serve as the first, hot, alarm-bell impulse to do something. It’s true in politics and it’s true in writing. Reading or watching or listening to something I profoundly dislike can be just the motivation I need to write something I like. What I like is always on the opposite side of what I dislike, just as what I love is always on the opposite side of what I believe I hate.

Except I don’t really hate anything. What I have come to call hatred is just the natural consequence of seeing something I disagree with, something whose very opposite I would prefer to be looking at, and then continuing to stare at it and stare it and stare at it until I crash into a tree. When I feel like I hate something, I am listening to the same guidance system that tells me which words, scenes, and characters belong in a story and which do not, only it is speaking very, very loudly. If I knew I didn’t want a particular scene in my story, but I kept reading it and rereading it and rereading it, I’d eventually come to hate that scene as if it were my sworn enemy.

Which is why I have to remember to turn off the news. When I start hating people, it’s time to lift my head and look where I’m going. Travelling my road does not require me to argue with all the roads I don’t travel. Those roads are inconsequential to my journey, even while they are certainly vital to someone else’s. Though it requires me to ignore much of what is going on around me, the choice to look where I want to go is the very opposite of putting my head in the sand. It is the choice to open my eyes to the life I wish to lead, rather than the one others are leading.

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

Natural Light

In my day-to-day life I want only ease and happiness. I want to begin every project with enthusiasm and finish it promptly and confidently. Unfortunately, things do not always go as effortlessly as I intend. Rarely a day goes by where I do not struggle, or doubt, or become bored, or procrastinate. I am human. Still, my aim remains trained on ease and happiness, no matter how the arrow of my day may eventually fly.

On the other hand, while I enjoy my students’ and clients’ triumphs and confidence, I remain most interested in their fear and hopelessness and disappointment. It is selfish in a way. The only remedy for fear is fearlessness, just as hope is the only remedy for hopelessness, and contentment the only remedy for disappointment. Explanations, and techniques, and advice will only take you so far. In the end, there remains only the choice between one thing and another.

Which is why I so look forward to those moments when my students and clients can perceive only one choice. Now I get to choose the other. I do so for them, ostensibly, so that they can see they have another choice and then make it of their own freewill – but how could this choice not be for me as well? When is it a bad time to choose fearlessness, hope, or contentment?

I can think of none, and yet there I am from time to time choosing fear, choosing jealousy, choosing regret. I never enjoy my own darkness, and I often complain about the inadequate light by which I must find my way. But find my way I do, and once I’ve returned I am always happy to have discovered another path back to a world where choices are mine again.

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

Mastery

Most writers begin understanding certain parts of writing better than other parts. For instance, when I was a teenager I had an instinctive understand 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.

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

No Difference

If you’re going to write anything at all, whether it’s an epic poem or an historical romance or a cyberpunk vampire space opera, you have to be able to tell the difference between one thing and another. You must be able to tell the difference between a story that interests you and a story that does not; you must be able to tell the difference between forcing a word or a scene or a character, and allowing a word, scene, or character. This is how you really learn to write. Nothing in all the classes you take or books you read can ever replace this felt, uniquely personal understanding.

And to write anything at all, you must be able to tell the difference between love and fear, between loneliness and companionship, between confidence and insecurity. To show something we must contrast it against its opposite in the same way we most enjoy breathing immediately after holding our breath. We create danger so our reader can fully appreciate safety, despair so they can appreciate contentment.

Remember, however, that all the differences we experience and learn to perceive are ultimately a part of a flawlessly integrated whole. To walk a tightrope, you must learn the fine difference between balance and imbalance. And yet these two opposites are in service to the same goal. The discomfort we have named imbalance is there to help, not to punish. So it is with all discomfort, and with everything we have discarded in favor of a different thing. Yes cannot exist without no, as form cannot exist without shadow.

As abstract as this concept may seem as you go about the very practical business of writing your next legal thriller or your first tender coming-of-age love story, it remains the source of your creative wellbeing. The idea that your creations are but a shadow, is anathema to creativity. We are not in the business of good and bad; we are in the business of what we want and don’t want. Everything is good in the end, even that meandering first draft you scrapped. You are a better writer because of it.

Which is why you have suffered so when you believed you were no good, that what you planted could not grow. You had believed completely in the good and the bad, had demanded it of the world, and yet if you looked closely at anything that you named bad you always saw some good. And so you labeled yourself bad to maintain this useless idea. The suffering you knew even then was merely guiding you back to the truth, back to what you are, back to what you want to create.

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 Balancing Act

Writing can happen in one place and one place only: The Present Moment. It cannot happen in the past, though we might – while in the present moment – focus our attention upon some past event for inspiration or material. But the writing itself happens in the present moment. And of course it can’t happen in the future, that sometimes near, sometimes very distant land where the story we’re writing will live when it’s finished. All creation happens in the present moment, because that is all that actually exists.

I have to remind myself of this every time I sit down to write. How easy to let my attention drift into the past, where I believe all my failures reside. Failure always lives in the past, in whose shadows, like a moss, it can thrive. In the bright hot light of the present moment – in which life is only potential, in which life is only forgiving, in which life is only curious – the concept of failure has no purchase for its hopeless roots.

And how equally easy to let my attention drift into the future, where I believe the value of what I am creating in the present moment will be revealed. I don’t want to waste my time, after all. Why write something that no one wants to read? To ask such a question is to hold my stories hostage until such time as the ransom of other people’s approval has been paid.

Which is why I have learned to ask myself two questions while I write: What do I want to say? And, Have I said it? Only the present moment can answer these questions. But keeping my attention where it needs and actually wants to be is a kind of balancing act, pulled as I am to the past and future. Drift too far either way and I will fall. No matter. The support of the present moment remains ever true, and I need only return to standing to find myself where I have always been.

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

Dreaming Big

Like many writers I know, I had big dreams for myself when I began my first book. I imagined myself winning all the usual awards, appearing at the top of bestseller lists, and being invited to speak to thousands of people. I was embarrassed to share the specifics of these fantasies with anyone. As a writer, I knew a cliché when I saw one, and it seemed to me the story I dreamed for my life ought to be as original as I aimed to make the stories I crafted at my desk.

But what could I do? From where I stood, all I knew of the life I believed I wanted were those elements I could perceive and understand from a distance. Awards, massive sales, and large crowds seemed to match the bigness of the life I wished for myself. I was not interested in living a small life, which to me meant a limited life. There was no limit to what I could feel or desire or imagine. I had encountered no limit to how happy I could be, how interested I could be, or how curious I could be. Why then should I accept any other limit on my life?

For a very long time it seemed that all I could do was dream. I dreamt so often I got tired of dreaming. What had once served as a bright beacon for me in the night of my search had become a siren song. The more I pursued it, the less I found it. My life felt small and incomplete.

By and by, I found myself writing blogs. Blogs seemed small to me, because they weren’t books and I didn’t think anyone read them. Plus, I was writing them for a small magazine. Except the experience of writing them wasn’t small. It was the first time I’d written about creativity and spirituality and I was surprised how complete my interest was in this subject, and how peaceful I felt after I finished each little essay. That’s enough, I’d think. I was worried for myself, as it all seemed so small, but I couldn’t argue with my own contentment.

Then one day, a few months after publishing the first blog, I was sitting with a new friend. We found ourselves talking about writing when she mentioned how much she enjoyed my blogs. “You read them?” I asked. She laughed and said she had indeed read them. She went on to describe how comforted she felt after reading them. Hearing this reminded me of how I felt after I wrote them. How unexpected, I thought, and how satisfying.

I was surprised how content I felt to know that what I had written had reached and moved exactly one person. Yet it was also quite familiar. The experience of meeting this one reader was as full and complete and big an experience as a conversation with a friend, or cooking a delicious meal, or getting a new idea.

I would go on to meet more readers and sell books and speak to larger and larger groups of people. Yet no experience was really any bigger than any other, they were just different. My imagination is limitless, but it remains incapable of predicting the future. Just as I cannot perceive all the many details that make up a story until I write it, so too I cannot actually dream anything bigger and more complete than life itself.

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 More Direct Route

Most of the students and clients I work with have two competing thoughts about writing. Their first thought is that they have a story they want to tell. There is something within these stories, whether the stories are fiction, narrative non-fiction, or memoir that has grabbed hold of the writer’s curiosity. This is a fantastic feeling. This is a feeling that gives life meaning without explanation. This is a feeling that is only sought, that is completely satisfying even as it sends you seeking more.

But there is always another thought. Sometimes the thought is that writing is hard; sometimes the thought is that the story must please this reader or that editor; sometimes the thought is that if we don’t get the story exactly right no one will like it; and sometimes a writer has concocted a poisonous stew of all these and more. These thoughts, these stories about storytelling, wait like impatient bosses at our desk and usually begin talking as soon as we arrive for work.

No wonder so many newer writers believe they are lazy, or not disciplined or enough, or not focused enough. We are all meant to avoid what we dislike. We are not, however, meant to avoid what we love, to be kept from that which lights our curiosity. We are always, always, always moving toward what we love, only sometimes this movement is long and circuitous and full of many rest stops and diversions.

No matter. No one can stop moving. But it is possible to take a more direct route. Let your story about writing be the friendliest story you know. Let it be a love story with a happy ending and nothing more. Writing, after all, is a visit with someone you adore, who will answer any question and always has something interesting to say. The impatient boss, meanwhile, is an illusion, marking your time on a clock that does not exist, comparing you unfavorably to friends until everyone is an enemy.

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

Motivated Characters

I got an email from an old writing friend recently with the subject heading, “Was cleaning out my closet.” The email contained a JPEG of a novel I had shared with him while we were in a writing group together. “That’s some pretty good prose,” he wrote. “You ever going to finish this story?”

It had been many years since I’d abandoned that project, enough years that, as I read the page, it was almost like reading someone else’s novel. He was right about the prose – by which I mean, while reading it, I found myself thinking, “Hey, that’s good stuff.” But a story is not just an assemblage of good prose, and I thought about his question. Why had I abandoned it?

As is often the case with memory, the first thing that came back to me was how it felt to write that story in the months leading up to the decision to abandon it. I felt lost, as if every choice was right and every choice was wrong. It’s awful feeling, a feeling no amount of craft can soothe. Then I remembered the two other novels I had abandoned after that one. The third of that trio was a great epic journey of a novel. Round about page 600 the characters started turning to one another frequently and asking, “Why are we on this journey again?”

Which, from a very practical standpoint, is why the novels were abandoned: I didn’t know what my protagonists wanted. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every character in every scene has to want something, even if it’s a glass of water.” Good advice that, yet even better advice for every writer – novelist, poet, memoirist, and screenwriter alike – is, “Pay attention to how you feel.”

I knew I wanted to write, but what I most wanted to write about did not lend itself so easily to fiction. Yet for years my identity had been that of a fiction writer. That’s who I was. If I abandoned fiction writing, who was I? It sounds silly now, but it wasn’t silly at the time. At the time, it was profoundly disorienting.

Fortunately, the same guidance system that helps me find the right word and the right story and the right life keeps speaking to me in whatever language I’m willing to hear: In my case, that lost feeling of writing stories with protagonists as unmotivated in their lives as I was in my writing. By and by, I decided that no identity was worth the suffering of telling stories I didn’t actually want to tell, and so I chose a different kind of story, and I found the motivation that never abandons 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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter