A Friendly World

My son, whom my wife and I have homeschooled for the last five years, turned eighteen this winter and now talks frequently about how worried he is about his future. We – my wife, my son, and I – would all have preferred it if he could have graduated from public high school this spring. The known, after all, is always less unsettling than the unknown. But that was not our path. It became clear that he could no more have stayed in traditional schools than I could enjoy the life of a door-to-door salesman. So here we are.

Fortunately, I’m a writer who dropped out of college, which means I too have taken a somewhat less traditional path. I have had to make peace with the uncertainty of writing so that I could enjoy the freedom it affords me. This is not always so easy. There are times I envy my friends with careers that bring them into an office every day and for which they receive a weekly paycheck. I don’t envy them for long, however. I can’t pretend I could live any life other than the one I am living now. So here I am.

The biggest obstacle my son faces, however, has less to do with having been homeschooled than with his belief that the world is an unfriendly place. It is an odd perception, since for years I have watched the world of strangers treat him with staggering kindness. No matter. His experiences in school, where he was asked, for perfectly understandable reasons, to do things he wasn’t interested in doing, left him with the idea that to grow up and get a job and live an adult life would be school ten-fold – endless days of doing what he has to rather than doing what he wants to. As is always the case with these nightmare ideas, it is other people who will require him to live this life he doesn’t want to lead.

And so, as our academic schooling winds down, I have come to understand that my job as his father is to help him see the world as the friendly place it has always been. It is a good lesson for a writer to learn again and again. I cannot write for an unfriendly world of strangers whose reading desires I must somehow guess correctly in the privacy of my workroom. All I can know for sure are my creative desires, the guidance of my imagination and curiosity, whom I have followed faithfully now for these many years. How certain the future becomes the moment I remember that this is all I have ever needed to know.

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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Not Normal

I was watching a Ken Burns documentary last night about a special school in Vermont designed for children who, for a number of reasons, could not flourish is a typical public school. At one point, the school’s therapist talked about the parents’ desire for their children to be “normal.” He would remind the parents that it wasn’t their child’s job to be normal; it was their child’s job to be themselves.

Of course, what the parents really meant was that they wanted to know that their child would succeed in some recognizable way, whether socially or professionally or romantically. It is easy to imagine how something will thrive if we feel we have seen that thing before. As writers, our success often depends upon our willingness to create something that hasn’t been seen before. While some of our stories will look and sound and walk like other stories, a piece of work’s true value always lies in the qualities that seem to belong to it alone.

And what is true of our work is always true of ourselves. You would be hard pressed to find a more normal-looking fellow than myself. If you passed me on the street you might mistake me for a TV news anchor. Yet I can feel out of place in my own living room. When I am out of sorts with myself, the world appears hostile and un-accepting, a symphony where nothing I can sing or say belongs.

It is not my job, nor anyone’s job, to belong anywhere. It is only my job to speak for myself. Oddly, every time I permit myself to do so, every time I ask what is the most honest thing I can say and then say it, every time I speak from the most personal truth I know, I find myself belonging where I had previously felt unwanted. There is nothing in the world more normal, more universal, than acceptance of oneself. What else is there for anyone? There is only the choice between a lifetime failing to be someone you are not, or succeeding in being someone you are.

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

Instant Gratification

If there is one quality a writer must either have or acquire it’s patience. Writing a book – or even an essay or story or poem – can take a long time. Sometimes writing a single sentence can take a long time. Then, once a story is finished, finding the right agent or publisher could take months or even years. Even in the age of eBooks, there is still the production process, which is far from instantaneous. So a writer must be patient. This is not a career for anyone seeking instant gratification.

Or is it? What exactly is a writer doing while finding her story, or scene, or sentence? Optimally, the writer is resting in the feeling she wishes to share in words with her reader. If it is a story she truly wishes to tell, then that feeling, whether jealousy or desire or hope or surrender, should be interesting to her. And if it is interesting to her, it should be gratifying to rest in it. Or in other words, there is no wait at all. To write as well as she can possible write, the writer must remain as interested as she possibly can, no matter how long it takes that interest to turn into a story, scene, or sentence.

This is true even of the publication process. The impatient author is anticipating a future pleasure, comparing her current life unfavorably with what she believes awaits her when strangers begin reading her story. As gratifying as that experience can be, it is merely a reflection of the pleasure that grew within her until it took the form of her book.

I say this as a man who has lived most of his life impatiently. The world brought pleasure to me at an infuriating and unpredictable pace. At some point I threw up my hands and decided the world simply could not be counted on for something so important as my happiness. It was about this time that my writing improved dramatically. It is nice to share what I have written, to observe what had once pleased only me pleasing someone else, but that same pleasure still exists within me, available instantly should I choose to lay my attention upon it.

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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

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The Rotten Kingdom

Once we leave school, we only read what we want. Our reading life is a sovereign kingdom, with us as the benign but sole authority. We people this kingdom with the stories that please us. It is not always clear which stories will please us and which will not. We wander bookstores and Amazon, we listen to recommendations from friends, we wait for the next release from our favorite authors—but not until we meet the book in person, until we hear its voice and glean its narrative intentions can we decide if this is a story that belongs in our kingdom.

After all, we are building this kingdom based on our own desire, on our own idea of good and bad, our own idea of right and wrong, of funny, of generous, of wise, of true, of hopeful, of scary, of sexy, of surprising. Why would we build our kingdom from what someone else calls wise, funny, profound, or interesting? For this reason, some stories must be set aside and left unfinished. To follow that story to the end is to live with it longer than it took to read.

I wish sometimes I was as disciplined with the stories I do and do not tell myself as I am with the stories I read and don’t read. I have a quick hook for the stories I read, not so much the ones I tell. I will tell a story for years and years without ever liking it. I will tell it to myself at night like the worst bedtime story ever written, a story without heroes, a story where nothing changes, a story where hope is a weak and comical candle against an indifferent wind.

I tell it, and the kingdom becomes muddy from rain. Now it is all clouds and wet winter and stalled busses and empty cupboards and boarded windows. Who rules this lousy place? This was never my kingdom. This is the world I built while I was pretending to be someone else, the one I left happily to rot after I found the stories I was meant to tell.

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

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 bitch 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.

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

My Only Problem

In every story we tell there is always a problem our hero must overcome. Sometimes the problem is a killer that needs to be caught; sometimes it is a lover who cannot be won; sometimes it is a terrible storm that must be survived; sometimes it is a dragon that must be slain. In almost every case the hero must do something, must solve a puzzle, or climb a mountain, or win a race, or learn a skill. Problems, after all, aren’t going to solve themselves.

On the other hand, the challenges we face while writing our stories are a little different. Yes, I must figure out my story, must find a plausible and entertaining beginning, middle, and end, must write and rewrite until the pieces come together. But a story isn’t a problem; nothing appeared in my way to keep me from where I wanted to go. I was the one who chose to head off into the dark of my imagination until I’d found a way. That’s not a problem; that’s called life.

But sometimes while I am finding my way problems do appear to arise in my path. They often come in the form of questions, such as, “What if this story stinks?” or, “What if I never finish it?” or, “What if it’s unoriginal?” As soon as I ask such a question it is answered in my imagination, and I perceive a future in which my story stinks, or is forever unfinished, or is unoriginal. I do not like this future at all. And yet in the moment I am imagining it, this future feels more real than the present. Now, this future is a problem that needs to be fixed. I want to dismantle it and build another one.

Unfortunately, there is nothing to dismantle. The only way to solve the problem of the future is to ignore it. This is the opposite of the stories we tell, where problems are ignored at the hero’s peril. I must not mistake myself for a storybook hero. Unlike these paper kings and knights, my future remains unwritten, and my only problem remains the belief that what might happen is more important than what is.

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

Where Your Will Go

Having a successful day of writing never comes from having a great story to tell; it doesn’t come from reading a hundred books on writing; it doesn’t come from a knowledge of craft; it doesn’t come from the encouragement of acceptance letters or in retaliation to rejection letters. A successful day of writing occurs when and only when you allow yourself to enter your true writing state of mind.

Some writers get there by sitting down and typing as quickly as possible. The first page or two will be thrown away but by page three they’re in it. Some writers get there with a ritual cup of tea and a prayer. Some writers reread what they wrote the day before. Other writers cross their fingers and hope.

It doesn’t matter how you get there. You’ll know when you’ve arrived. You’ve stopped thinking and you’ve started listening. You’ve stopped watching the clock because time is a measure of what’s come before and what will happen next and the story you’re telling is being told in the right here and now. You’ve stopped going to get ideas and are letting them come to you. You’ve stopped worrying and started becoming curious. You’ve stopped trying to answer and you’ve started asking.

And suddenly all the classes and seminars and books and blogs and magazines are so immensely beside the point. There is nothing but this place and you know there isn’t one human on earth who could show you how to get there because this place belongs exclusively to you because in fact it is you. It is you without the story of why you shouldn’t or can’t or won’t or aren’t, it is you free of everything that has never been you, it is you not just alive but aware at last exactly how alive you have always been.

That is where every successful day of writing has ever come from. There is no other place it can come from. If you get there today, wonderful, and if you don’t, that’s okay too, because where you need to go will follow you everywhere from now until you are done telling stories.

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 Only Question

I write two separate blogs, one on my website No One Is Broken, and the other for Author magazine. The blogs I write for No One Is Broken are about being a father to a son who was diagnosed with autism, and the blogs I write for Author are about writing, but in truth they’re both about the same thing: unconditional love.

One of the great gifts my son gave me, particularly when he was much younger and the behaviors that would garner him that diagnosis were more acute, was an absolute dearth of evidence that he would be okay – whatever exactly that meant. There were no glowing report cards, no piano recitals, no lasting friendships, virtually nothing that resembled what I understood to be success except the occasional LEGO set that was put together effortlessly.

So what’s a father to do, aside from try to fix what isn’t actually broken? It was hard to imagine how I could be happy if my son would never thrive, and so I had no choice but to believe that everything was okay, even though it looked like everything was not okay. It became a kind of spiritual practice, finding an inner, emotional balance every day that existed beyond the conditions of the world in which I currently lived, conditions that always included how my son was behaving.

This was great practice for writing. If I write, and if I want to share what I write with other people – if I want to be an author – I must forget to care what anyone might think of what I am writing. It is simply impossible to write with authority and confidence, to find that effortless dream-state from which the most inspired writing flows, if I am wondering what anyone else will think of the story I am telling. If I want to write, I must choose whether to answer the question What do I most want to say? or What would someone else want me to say? I can’t answer them both.

In fact, I am only ever capable of answering one, though I have tried over the years to answer the other, always to my own misery. It seems unfair. Just as a father feels he cannot be happy unless he knows his child will one day thrive as an adult, so too a writer believes he cannot love what he has written unless someone else loves it too. But as a writer I must love my stories as unconditionally as I love my children. It is the only way to perceive either as they actually are.

I don’t think I am the only one writing so often about unconditional love. The more I write about it and think about it, the more I hear a question being asked in every conversation I enter, and in every television show or movie I watch or book I read: Is happiness assembled outside of me, or does it spring continually within me? It’s the most important question we can answer. And what I find most compelling about this question is that it can’t be answered just once. I must answer it again and again and again, with every story I write, with every single thought I think. The question is as continuous as I am, and the answer always becomes what I call my life.

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

Worth Sharing

How easy it is to forget why you’re doing what you’re doing even while you’re doing it. To write is to collaborate with your imagination to share something wonderful or lovely or funny or scary or profound with other people. The sharing with other people is important because without them there would only be you and your diary, which is fine also, but aren’t we all glad for those people who shared what they had written with us? Indeed we are. And aren’t we happy, more or less, to pay a few bucks to read or watch or listen to what those people have shared. Why, yes we are.

It’s the dreary business of staying alive that can gum-up the creative life. There are artists out there who find a paycheck ample motivation, but I count myself among the many others who do not. The moment my attention wanders from the sharing of something lovely with other people to simply building my career, or growing my readership, or padding my savings, I soon wake up to discover that I loath the whole writing business. In fact, I can’t remember ever liking it.

Now I am a hero whose only purpose is to stay alive until the final meaningless word has been writ. I begin complaining. I complain first about other people, and then about myself, and then about life in general, that which summoned me forth for no apparent purpose. The complaining does not help, but perhaps I haven’t done enough of it. No, that doesn’t help either.

Somewhere at the end of all this unhappiness exhaustion gives way to memory. At first it as if I am recalling a story I once heard, until I meet the protagonist and recognize his days as mine. I am glad to find his story is not through, and that he finds it worth telling beyond reasons he can count. Nothing in the world worth knowing can be counted, just as nothing in the world worth dreaming is worth keeping to myself.

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 Third Emotion

Some days it seems as if there are three basic emotional experiences, and two of them aren’t good. The first is despair. This we feel when we believe that which is responsible for our happiness has been denied us or has been taken from us. Oh, the loneliness of these hours waiting for its return or mourning its loss.

The second is what we might call exhilaration. Now that which brings us happiness is here. Part of the thrill of such moments is the uncertainty of it all. Life’s roulette wheel spins . . . spins . . . and we win! That our exhilaration is merely one more spin from despair is part of the romance of life. Such ups and downs are the stuff of fiction and the therapy room.

Finally there is that third emotional experience. It hasn’t nearly the drama of despair and exhilaration and as such makes for much less interesting fiction, but it is where we must all rest by and by. This we can call peace. At such moments we are not following the roulette wheel of life because there is nothing that wheel can win for us. We already have what we need.

This peace, this contentment, can look from certain angles like life’s sweet conclusion, but it is in fact just the opposite. This contentment always says, “You have all you need. And now lets find more.” It makes no sense to the hungry and yearning mind that there could be anything more beyond all that we need, but this contentment has no interest in acquisition. This contentment knows only creation, the expansion of that which both sustains and compels us.

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