Little Altars

When I was twenty, I tried reading James Joyce’s Ulysses for the first time. Ulysses is a big book where not a lot happens. I didn’t get very far that first time because I mistook it for a novel, when really, it is a 600-page poem. Still, I liked what I did manage to read. In fact I liked what I read because not a lot happened. In Joyce’s fictional world, nothing was inconsequential; everything, from pear soap to shaving cream to a daydream, was worthy of being rendered in complete and loving detail.

I found this inspiring. Not a lot seemed to be happening in my life then. I drank coffee, I hung out with my friends, I took walks, I tended bar. The parts of one day seemed interchangeable with the parts of the next. And yet, even within these quiet days, if my attention settled completely on the coffee or the conversation or the street I was crossing, I could feel the value and poignancy of life as completely as when I won a race or when then the girl I loved said goodbye.

But because I was still a young writer, I had put Joyce on a kind of artistic altar. He had done what only a chosen few could manage. While any moment in any city at any time could serve as a portal through which to glimpse life’s inherent beauty, not anyone could render what they viewed through that portal. Sometimes when I tried and failed to do so, I despaired, not just because I might lack that which was called talent, but because I feared that what I hoped to share didn’t actually exist. I’d imagined it. What Joyce showed me was just his genius, which belonged to him alone and could not be shared.

I would eventually reread Ulysses, and quite enjoy it, until I reached a particularly experimental chapter and had to give up. I felt as if I were translating a foreign text, and I lost interest. I did not, however, lose interest in writing about all those little moments that felt so valuable to me. In fact, Ulysses still served as a kind of inspiration. It was, after all, a story about the heroic in the everyday. I had to take Joyce off the altar on which I’d placed him, and put life on that altar instead. Now I could see more clearly what I was trying to render, and now it belonged to everyone, including me.

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

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You Can Handle the Truth

I’ve been a fan of situation comedies my entire life. I love to laugh and I like that whatever trouble the characters get themselves into always resolves itself by the end of the story. I have, however, become sensitive over the years to the types of troubles sit-com writers sometimes dream up for their characters – in particular, the trouble that would end if only the character would tell the truth.

It’s a fairly common story trope. The son dents his father’s new sports car and spends the episode keeping the father occupied while he tries to get it fixed. Or the girlfriend forgets to pick up the tickets to the Knicks game and must spend the episode desperately trying to secure seats to that night’s game. No matter how outlandish the characters’ schemes to hide their mistakes may be, these stories always lack a certain dramatic tension. As a viewer I know from word one that in the episode’s final scene the truth will be revealed and all will be forgiven.

In the writers’ defense, this is perhaps the most realistic situation in situation comedies. I speak from experience. Several years ago I thought I might self-publish a little collection of essays about writing. To do so, I would need an ISBN, a thirteen-digit code used by booksellers and publishers to identify the book. It is, in many ways, the book’s real title. ISBNs are not free. I learned this when I went on Bowker’s website. Bowker is to the ISBN what Ingram is to books. I was stunned to learn how much ISBNs cost. They cost so much I considered checking with my wife first to see if this was really such a good idea. But I didn’t. This was my book, after all. In a rush, I grabbed my credit card and hit “Purchase.”

An hour later I was chatting with customer service at Amazon’s Createspace. “Oh, ISBNs are free,” he told me, “if you just want to publish on Amazon.” I’d intended from the start to just publish on Amazon. I hung up the phone and moaned. I’d done it again. In my marriage, the knock on Bill is that he doesn’t shop around enough. If my wife, Jen, doesn’t like one store’s price she always looks elsewhere first before buying. I don’t like this approach. I find it tedious. Yet here was proof, it seemed to me, of just how very wrong my approach was.

“I won’t tell her,” I thought. “No. I can’t tell her. I pay all the bills. She never has to know.” I do not keep secrets from Jen. There’s no need. Jen and I have both made our mistakes, lost our tempers, blamed the other for what wasn’t their fault, and all these transgressions have been forgiven. Forgiveness was the really the foundation of our marriage. Or it had been, at least. In my mind, it was as if I’d had an affair.

As it turned out, I found a small publisher for the book. I asked the publisher about ISBNs. “I got lots of ‘em!” he said. The book was published and I forgot about the purchase. Years went by and, as sometimes happens, the publisher folded. The rights reverted back to me, and I decided to self-publish it. “What a hassle,” I thought. “Now I’m going to need an ISBN.” It was at that moment that I remembered that I already had one waiting for me on Bowker. It had been so long since I’d bought it that it felt free.

That night after dinner I told Jen that I had a story I needed to tell her. She thought it was a very funny story. Jen, by the way, is also a fan of situation comedies.

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

Real Genius

I was having coffee with Frank, a childhood friend. We hadn’t seen each other in many, many years, and so there was a lot to catch up on. For instance, since the last time we spoke he’d become a tenured American History professor and I’d written a few novels. One of those novels was set in the antebellum South on the eve of the Civil War. Frank’s area of expertise, the focus of his life’s study and the subject of several academic books he’d written, just so happened to be the antebellum South.

I mentioned that I was surprised to discover, during my research, that historians weren’t in one hundred percent agreement that slavery was the fundamental cause for the Civil War. It seemed pretty obviously the case.

“Well, actually,” said Frank, sitting up in his chair with fresh enthusiasm, “there were also a number of economic factors that played just as large a role—”

Frank paused, cleared his throat, and leaned across the table seriously. “Now we have to be careful, Bill. We’re getting ready to cross the bridge to Boring Town.”

I laughed and assured him I was willing to risk that journey. I thought about the bridge to Boring Town long after Frank and I said goodbye. I had led my friends across that very bridge in conversation a few times. It often happened accidentally. We’d be chatting along about this and that and then we would stumble on some subject about which I had a long and abiding passion, and the next thing I knew I was in the middle of a dissertation about the imagination or unconditional love.

It is a problem, I think, common for many writers – or for anyone who has allowed himself to get interested in something. I’ve come to understand that what we call intelligence is just a function of curiosity, and what we call genius is an expression of our curiosity indulged. And by indulged I mean pursuing my curiosity without any thought of whether anyone else shares that curiosity; pursuing it without any thought of where it’s leading me or if it’s practical; pursuing it simply because it feels good to do so.

Indulging my curiosity is not generally considered polite behavior, a fact that becomes strangely relevant if, as a writer, I wish to share the fruits of my passion with other people. Being an author is a form of socializing, albeit at a distance. The last thing I want to do as a writer is bore my readers, as I have sometimes bored my friends.

Yet for much of my life my number one complaint about my days was that they were boring. Why, I wanted to know, wasn’t there anything interesting to do? That was before I began really indulging my curiosity. Once I began indulging it, I found I was rarely bored. My curiosity, after all, followed me everywhere. My curiosity was a friend who was always interesting and interested.

The nice thing about being an author is that people can simply stop reading what I’ve written without one thought of whether it’s impolite to do so. This freedom allows readers to indulge their curiosity. What an ideal relationship. Now we can meet somewhere we both very much want to be, having freely crossed a bridge to our shared genius.

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

Our Full Attention

I had the pleasure of interviewing Nora Ephron about five years after she had published a collection of personal essays. She was funny and smart and had many interesting things to say about writing and movies and stories in general. After the interview, I walked with her through the bookstore to pass her off to the folks running her event. Small talk seemed in order. “Are you working on another movie?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” she said wearily. “They always want another one.”

It was the last thing she said to me before we parted ways. I don’t know how much of her weariness was a product of the grind of a book tour or the cancer that would take her a few years later. What I do know is that it had not occurred to me that a person could grow weary at the prospect of having to write and direct yet another major Hollywood movie. The only stories I ever heard about Hollywood and moviemaking and screenwriting were of struggle and triumph. As Ephron pointed out in the interview, movies cost a lot of money to make. They also require a lot people to say, “Yes.” Hear enough of these stories and it can feel as if making a movie requires an alignment of both celebrity and celestial stars.

And yet, as I made my way to my car, I realized I was glad for Ephron’s weariness. It made more sense to me than all those heroic stories of Hollywood success. I do not mean to suggest that life itself is wearisome and that none of our successes are worthy of a little celebration. But dangling in my writer’s imagination was the notion that there existed an Ephron-like level of success beyond which waited only the ceaseless pleasure of creative freedom undampened by the vagaries of other people’s approval.

Meanwhile, in my day-to-day experience, anything – absolutely anything at all – was potentially wearisome. No event, however dramatic, can by itself light the fire of my enthusiasm. The moment I withdraw my full attention, leaving behind just enough to do what needs to be done, or to write what needs to be written, or to climb what needs to be climbed, life becomes a burden to be shouldered against my will. Recall that attention, and I find again that interest is what I bring to an experience, not what I extract from 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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Giving Up

If I am working with a client who has never attempted a book-length project before, one of the first challenges I must help this new writer overcome is the sudden and daunting awareness of how little she actually knows about this book she would like very much like to write through to its conclusion. The writer rarely sets out on her journey with this awareness. Instead, she is just excited by some idea that has become so bright in her imagination that she cannot seem to pull her attention from it.

And so one day she decides to sit down and actually begin writing the thing. The idea has been so bright and so interesting to her that it feels as though all she needs to do is set aside a little time everyday and the story should virtually write itself. Then she begins. Sometimes it takes no more than a couple pages for the writer to understand that this story is made of around 60,000 details called words, and that she must in fact choose each of those details, and that those details must fit together as effortlessly as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

This is often a disorienting moment. The writer’s interest in the story was complete. What’s more, the feeling the story is trying to convey is complete as well. If the author is writing a story about the difference between feeling unlovable and finding love, then that profound difference is complete within her mind. But the story that is meant to share that feeling, which is made of tens of thousands of details, is so incomplete that the writer doubts if she ever knew anything.

I can sometimes be of help to these writers simply by reminding them what it is their job to know and what it is not their job to know. It is not our job to know the details. It is only our job to know we would like to find them. It is a sometimes subtle difference, but what we call failure is usually the mistaken belief that our inability to know all the pieces ahead of time means we are incomplete.

How tempting it is in the moment of this mistaken awareness to give up. The feeling of personal incompleteness is in direct opposition to the direction of life and is commensurately wretched in its expression. It is appropriate to want to give up something at this moment, but it’s not the story. Give up believing you can finish what is already whole, or fix what was never broken, and return to the business of finding what you are actually looking for.

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

Why Writing Requires Our Full Attention

On Friday, my agent told me a publisher had made an offer on a book. How exciting! Though there were still a couple of other publishers to hear from, all indicators pointed toward this publisher. We’ll know for sure by Tuesday, she told me. I spent the weekend with many questions running through my mind. Would one of the other publishers make a counter offer? Who would my editor be? Would I be able to finish it by August, as they requested? What were their marketing plans?

Monday morning came and I decided I might as well do what I always do – write one of these essays. I’d been writing one nearly every morning for eight years. It’s what I did. So I opened a new file and waited. And waited. By and by a little idea came, and I started in, but something was missing. I liked the idea, but I couldn’t get close to it. I forged ahead, hoping to draw closer to it by sheer will. The more I wrote, the further from the idea I felt.

A mild panic began to set in. The book was based on these essays. I’d been writing and writing about creativity and spirituality and inspiration for eight years. What if I was used up? I wisely decided to stop writing. The moment I begin to worry that my creative well is dry is the moment I need to do something else. Yet a new question had entered my mind. Why could I do it nearly every other morning, but not this one? What was different? Unlike the idea I’d been trying to write, this question had my full attention.

It wasn’t long before the very obvious answer arrived: I can only ask and answer one question at a time. For instance, I cannot simultaneously ask, “What would I like to write about this morning?” and, “Who’s going to buy the book?” That I could not actually answer the second question did not make it any less compelling. Nor did it matter that I wasn’t literally thinking the words, “Who’s going to buy the book?” The questions I’d been asking all weekend continued to occupy my imagination passively, like a radio left on so long I forgot it could be turned off.

I like writing for a lot of reasons. I like language, I like solitude, I like discovery, but most of all I like that writing requires my full attention. When I give writing my full attention, I am as interested in being alive as I can possibly be. But when I attempt to write with a divided mind, life itself feels like one long assignment that must be completed before the fun begins.

That these two experiences couldn’t be any more different infuses writing with an unavoidable uncertainty. That is not to say that what we call luck has a hand in whether I experience a good day of writing or a bad day of writing. Quite the opposite. I must choose to give writing my full attention. If I do, it goes well; if I don’t, it doesn’t. Nothing in the world, no book contract or agent or editor, can make me give it my full attention. That power belongs to me alone – and just as the page is blank, so too are tomorrow’s choices yet unmade, and life yet to be lived.

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

Two Fearful Companions

I have just returned from the 60th Pacific Northwest Writers Conference. It was a particularly immersive conference for me, including several hours of one-on-one coaching, moderating, and teaching, and culminating in a two-hour workshop on Sunday. By the time I arrived home I felt as though I never wanted to talk to another writer about writing ever again.

This feeling lasted about twelve hours, and now here I am back at my desk, writing about writing, and happy to do so. I love being around people – particularly writers. I find the writer’s desire, vulnerability, doubt, and conviction consistently moving. But I also must be alone for hours at a stretch or I become exhausted. Fortunately, most of my job requires me to do just that.

For many years I was confused about my need to be alone. I assumed it was a kind of defect, an anti-social shyness indicative of a guy who could hit beautiful three-pointers in his driveway, but who got lost in a game of five-on-five. Life seemed at times like a game to me, a game that could only be won in the company of others.

But to write in a way that is even remotely satisfying is to abandon the notion of games themselves. The very concept of winning and losing is incompatible with the dream of storytelling. Likewise, other people. Should I have the pleasure of sharing my stories, the dream other people called readers will make of it will be entirely their own and have virtually nothing to do with me and my dream.

This may seem like a lonely transaction, but it is just the opposite. I would never have sought the solitude of writing if it left me feeling lonely. It is there – and in writing’s quiet cousin, reading – that I have truly learned to be myself. To bring anyone else to the game is to have nothing to offer, to present some puppet conceived to amuse or impress, and then leave feeling unseen and unheard – the two companions a writer fears most.

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 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 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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Victory Smoke

I smoked cigarettes for a while. I disliked their taste at first, but I got over that when I replaced my awareness of the smoke-taste with the relief and escape each drag provided. Even after I officially quit, I allowed myself one cigarette at the end of every shift I worked as a waiter. A coworker called it the Victory Smoke.

One day, I was driving into work and trying to find one good thing about the coming shift. I didn’t think of the friends I worked with, or the jokes I would tell and be told, or even the money I would make—all I thought about was that Victory Smoke. “That’s no good,” I thought. That one cigarette had all my attention. If I didn’t give it up, how would I see what else was available to me? For a time I missed that Victory Smoke, but before too long I forgot why I had so looked forward to it. When I accepted one from a friend a year later it tasted exactly as bad as the first cigarette I’d ever tried.

Meanwhile, my attention had wandered elsewhere. I had only started smoking, after all, because I’d been looking for an easy way to feel good. I looked and found cigarettes as well as a few other things and more or less stopped looking. Now I was looking again, and by and by I started writing in a way I had not written in many years. I had completely forgotten how I could focus on something that felt good and then find a way to put that feeling onto the page, instead of putting something skillfully and without much feeling onto the page and then hoping that other people would like and then I would feel good.

That was how I mostly wrote while I smoked, and the praise I hoped to receive pleased me as long as one draw on a cigarette pleased me. Unlike the cigarettes, the pleasure of writing from the inside out was exactly as delicious as the last time I’d tried it. Though I’d forgotten it, that feeling hadn’t moved, or abandoned me, or dimmed – it remained perfectly and patiently in one place, burning bright the moment I lit it with my attention.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

What Has No Opposite

The focus I need to tell the story I most want to tell is like the balance necessary to walk across a narrow beam. As my attention strays, as I begin to wonder what others will think about it, or what others have thought about what I have written in the past, I experience a discomfort to which I have given many names over the years. I have called it writer’s block, or lack of talent, or hard, or bad luck.

Or sometimes I even call it failure. I had come to believe failure is the opposite of success, which is where I have always aimed my writing arrow: the bull’s-eye of success. How good it feels, how successful I feel when I am flowing along, when each sentence feels like its own little bull’s-eye. Success! Success! Success! Why, when all these little successful sentences are strung together there can be but one final destination for their sum: success!

Until I feel the discomfort, which feels like the opposite of comfort, which feels like the opposite of success, which must then be failure. Except let us think again of that balance beam. Balance actually has no opposite. Imbalance and balance are but different expressions of the same desire. There is only balance and that which guides me back to balance. Imbalance is not punishment, it is not failure, it is only information about where my attention is currently directed.

And even if I ignore this information and let my attention wander and wander and wander out in the void of other people’s opinion, all that will happen is that I will fall. Now I am completely balanced on my back. Now, I needn’t concern myself with the fine direction of my attention. Now I can rest. Until I feel myself restless to get back on my feet, and restless for that pleasure that is focusing my attention to maintain my balance, the only means by which I can ever get from here to there.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter