Waiting For Life

I was twenty-four and had recently relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a career in screenwriting. I didn’t have an idea for a movie I wanted to write, nor was I much interested in the screenplay format, but I wanted to be successful, and Hollywood seemed like the success Mecca. One of the many benefits I believed success granted was plentiful money. I was not the sort of fellow who wanted many things, but I knew didn’t want to worry about money. I hated worrying about money. It drained all the fun out of life.

So I answered a want ad for waiters for a new restaurant opening in Torrance. I drove the hour from Venice where I was crashing with a friend. My commute in Providence, where I’d grown up, had been a ten-minute walk; in LA, an hour was the norm. I found the restaurant in a pleasant, shady outdoor mall, and sat for the initial interview with the head chef at a patio table on the sidewalk beneath an awning. He told me he liked me and that he would hire me on the spot, but that I needed to interview with the owner first, who would be back from lunch soon. Could I hang around for an hour? I told him I could.

I went for a walk. Torrance, which I had never heard of until that afternoon, was a clean, orderly, coastal suburb. Though the mall was somewhat inland, as I strolled the tree-lined streets I could smell the ocean’s salty tang when a breeze stirred. I found a park and wandered along past benches and picnic tables. I was working up a little sweat, and so I found a tall tree across from a playground and lay down in its shade.

I closed my eyes, but I wasn’t remotely tired. I opened them again and stared up through the branches and leaves at the perfectly blue California sky. I could hear the children calling to one another in the playground, and the surrounding white hum of traffic, and the singular, nearing roar of a jet, and even, when I closed my eyes once more, the ocean’s empty, endless hush.

“When will I be able to enjoy this again?” I wondered. I knew the correct answer was Right Now, but Right Now was just a place where I waited until my real, successful, happy, worry-free life arrived. I got up and brushed off my interview pants and looked around at the park and the children and the surrounding hills and the canopy of sky – all of life, right there in Torrance, waiting for nothing.

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

The Comfort Zone

I like to simplify things, and if I had to simplify writing, I would say it’s about learning the difference between the comfort of the right word, sentence, or story, and the discomfort of the wrong word, sentence, or story. In this way, writing is a continuous and deliberate aligning with comfort and effortlessness. I am tempted to say it is a search for comfort, but this would suggest a finite destination. Rather this comfort is like balance, something I find again and again and again.

But maybe you’re familiar with the phrase, “Getting out of your comfort zone.” This seems like good advice. Quit paddling around the same old pond. There’s a whole world out there, if you’d just be willing pick up your boat and drop it in some new river. When I was feeling very stuck in my life many years ago, my wife suggested I try one new thing. “Just one,” she pleaded. So I took a writing class.

I was not a fan of writing instruction. I’d been writing all my life and I preferred hands-on learning to classrooms. Yet it was just the experience I needed. I had created a kind of cocoon for myself, within which I was safe from other people’s opinion of my work. I believed I would crumble if someone told me they didn’t like something I’d written. Turns out it was not such a big deal. In many ways, that class was the first of many changes that led me to this essay I am writing today.

I do not think, however, that the class took me out of my comfort zone. It was actually leading me toward my comfort zone. I had grown so consistently uncomfortable that I began to call it normal. Gradually, I started noticing the kind of story I felt comfortable writing, and the kind of story I was making myself write. Gradually, I decided there was no actual benefit in making myself do anything.

The beauty of true comfort zones is that they are not stationary. Growth is life’s constant, inevitable result. I couldn’t stop myself from growing any more than I could command my apple tree to stop bending toward the light. So I must wake up every day and find again what I found – or, sometimes, did not find – the day before. Though it has moved slightly, the experience of aligning with it has not changed at all. It always feels like coming home, a place where I can comfortably remember who I am.

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

Good Job

My job isn’t to be a good writer, or a good editor, or a good teacher. Nor is my job to be a good father, or a good husband, or brother, or friend, or citizen. I only have one job, and that is to be happy. I don’t mean to suggest that none of those other things I do aren’t important. They are. But I’m not good at doing any of them if I’m not happy. Simply writing or hanging out with the people I love isn’t enough to make me happy.

I have to take being happy seriously. It has to be more important to me than being successful, or handsome, or popular, or cool, or smart, or funny. It has to be more important than how much I weigh or how much money I make. It has to be more important than whether I’m right or who is president. It has to be more important than whether the lawn is mowed or the dishes have been done. It even has to be more important than whether anyone else in my life is happy.

Yes, it’s a Me First orientation, but, as I said, I’m pretty much useless at doing anything until I’m happy. Some days I wish I could act myself into happiness. I wish I could write myself to happiness, or kiss my way to happiness, or laugh my way to happiness. Some days it seems as if I do. But just as you can love the story you’re writing one day and hate it the next, so too the thing I did yesterday that seemed to make me so happy is an empty chore the next.

As activities go, however, writing nearly always makes me happy. It’s the blank page, you see. That nothingness is so bare and honest. It asks me what I’m most interested in this morning. I am consistently happy when I’m chasing some interesting idea, whether on the page or in conversation. But those ideas don’t come by themselves; they don’t appear magically on the page. They arrive by invitation only. No interesting ideas will come to a house crowded with complaint and fear and envy. Ideas are looking for a party, a celebration of nothing more specific than life itself, where nothing more is needed, but more keeps coming anyway.

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

The Beautiful Formula

Donald Maass taught the first writing class I ever attended at a writer’s conference. It was an early iteration of his very popular “Writing the Breakout Novel” workshop he has since taught all over the country (and which he’ll be teaching this summer at the PNWA’s conference). As with all the classes I take, I remember only one nugget he shared that afternoon, though it was a good one: books succeed, ultimately, because of word of mouth.

That was true then, before the Internet and well before social media, and it is true now. I was reminded of this the other week when I woke up one morning to discover a rash of tweets that included my handle (@wdbk, if you’re curious). It turns out the blogger and digital media maven Jane Friedman had excerpted the first chapter of my new book Fearless Writing. Her readers seemed to like what she’d shared and were saying so in the Twitterverse. How exciting!

I had no idea why she had excerpted it, however, until my editor explained that they sent all their books to Jane in the hope she might mention one. This is what we call publicity. You publish a book and twiddle your thumbs and wonder, “What can I do to help that book?” Apparently my publisher had done something. I wondered what else they or I could do. It feels good to do things you like doing, after all. That’s why I write – because it feels good. There are other reasons, but that’s the first and most important reason.

It’s also the reason we tweet and talk about books we like: it feels good. It feels good to read something you like, and then it feels good to talk about it. Which is why the very best piece of publicity is the book itself. No review, platform, or book tour will ever supplant the influence the book has over its readers, and their desire to recommend it to others. After the book is written, those other actions we take, help, but it is important to remember that our first and most important job is to write a book we would love to read. No one would have tweeted that excerpt if they hadn’t felt good while they were reading it, and they wouldn’t have felt good reading it if I hadn’t felt good while I wrote it. That’s writing’s beautiful formula.

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

No Sacrifice

When I was a teenager, a teacher suggested I consider a life in politics. I was deeply offended. To me it was as if she had told me she thought I’d make a good gigolo. Years on now, and having spent the last eight or so months marinating in political coverage as never before, I think that teacher recognized something in me that I did not. Namely, the creative writer and the politician are not so very different in their struggles and desires.

After all, both writers and politicians must be ambitious. We must be driven from within to expand the scope of our professional lives – whether it’s the better contract or the higher office. There is absolutely nothing wrong with ambition, with obeying my inherent impulse to grow. To resist that growth is to invite a quiet suffering into my life.

However, ambition is not an end in itself. Service, the desire to share something of value with others, whether that something is a poem, suspense novel, or fairer tax plan, is the only end worth pursuing. For a time, I was far more interested in ambition than service. Like a politician who will say whatever he must to garner the most votes, I spent many of my days wondering what I should write to finally get that contract. This was movement without direction, and it led me nowhere.

The moment I began to see my work as service, as sharing what I value most with other people, I was moving with direction. I have more compassion now for politicians than I used to. It’s easy to think that if you can just get as many people as possible to like you, you’ll be happy, that winning the election or contract are meaningful destinations in themselves. But the contract or the election are merely the platforms from which service can occur.

Do not mistake service for sacrifice, however. I give up nothing, I expect not one fraction less for my own life as I look to serve others. After all, I am only sharing what it is I value most, and I cannot share what I do not have. In this, I do not think about how much I can get from life, but how much I can give, and the more I give, the more I have.

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

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

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

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.

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 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