Wholly Present

I never went to church as a boy, but I did go to the theater – first as an audience member as a teenager, and later when I began performing my own show with my brother in my twenties. There was something holy about the theater both before and after the curtain rose. Standing in the darkened backstage, seeing the light beneath the curtain, listening to the audience as they found their seats, all the concerns of my life, the grievances of my past, my worries about the future, evaporated. Where I was at that moment was all that mattered to me, and being so wholly present I felt how much I mattered as well.

Then the house lights went down and the curtain went up, and there in the shadows beyond the stage light’s glow were the faces of the waiting strangers. Everyone was welcome in the theater. Where you lived, what you’d done, who you’d hurt or who you’d loved, what you’d gained or lost – none of it had any baring on your place in that crowd. Everyone at that moment was equal, for everyone was equally capable of forgetting the story of their lives and entering the story we were telling that night.

I had found the relationship between audience and performer holy for as long as I could remember. To surrender your attention was the greatest gift you could give another person, for nothing was as close to you, as dear to you, or as responsible for your experience than the direction of your attention. When someone surrendered their attention to me I felt I owed them a story worthy of their full attention, something that would remind them that life is always worth living. The only way to tell such a story was to give it my full attention.

When the show finished, and if the story went well, there was always the applause. I knew they thought they were clapping for my brother and me, but if they had really loved the show, if they had gone on the story’s journey with us, they could only be clapping for themselves. How nice to feel your body again, to hear it make noise, to celebrate simply being here, a human among humans, together in one place until all the lights go up and we disperse to what we call our separate lives.

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

Between Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

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.

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

Gifted

I turned fifty a couple of years ago. It was a mess of a birthday. First, I had not understood how I needed to make peace with what I perceived as a somber milestone. I had celebrated my 40th birthday with verve, flying in a few friends from different corners of the country. It was a great. Not so much my 50th. In the weeks leading up to it I never quite found the time to plan something. I was sort of operating under the dream that if I didn’t pay attention to it, it might not happen.

It did, and on the day itself my wife got very sick, so instead of going to a B&B we liked, we stayed home and ordered Indian food. She rallied enough to make me a cake, which I appreciated because I do like cake, but I also felt guilty watching her cough and cough while she stirred the batter.

Then, to finish things off, I got a rejection letter. This was for a book for which I’d long been seeking a publisher. I was certain I’d found a good fit. Turns out I hadn’t. I sat there reading the email, feeling old and disappointed. I closed my laptop and thought about feeling sorry for myself. It was my birthday after all. But at 50, I had had a lot of practice feeling sorry for myself and it never really had the payoff I hoped for. It was as if I expected the universe to notice my despair and set things right for me.

“What if,” I asked myself, “this rejection letter isn’t a problem?” I’d never let myself ask this question right after getting a rejection. Usually I’d let time show me why what seemed like a problem wasn’t. Time is a very gentle and patient teacher. But I was ready to move things along that afternoon. “What if this isn’t a problem?” I asked myself again.

I felt better just asking the question. I didn’t have the kind of answer time always provided – the new idea, the new agent, the new publisher – but in asking the question I could feel within me the space for something new. I’d been teaching myself to cultivate those spaces for 50 years. It’s the writer’s first and most important job. I have to make room for new stories before they can be told, and once that space is cleared I feel again that ageless optimism and curiosity that is any day’s gift.

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

An Interesting Life

I reached a very low point in my life about fifteen years ago, when nothing I was writing was getting published, and I could barely remember what it felt like to believe I would ever have any kind of success in my life. I became so unhappy, it made all the unhappiness I had previously known seem like mere practice for what I was now experiencing. One night it became so acute I thought, “I have got to do something different.”

It took me less than twenty-four hours to identify what that something was: I had to stop looking for other people’s approval. I realized I had turned life into an endless game of winning approval. That was the trophy, the proof of my value, and the drug whose brief high promised to sustain me through the dull hours of my day. It’s an easy enough trap for an artist to fall into. It can seem as though your job isn’t done until someone else likes what you’ve made. Yet it also meant all my happiness and all my well-being and all my success depended ultimately to other people.

It was a disorienting realization. For a brief time it made life seem directionless. As I sat one night contemplating my New Life, I could not quite picture what would keep life interesting. A life-long game player, I no longer understood what winning meant. Where would the excitement and satisfaction come from? If life wasn’t interesting, if it wasn’t fun, I had no interest in living it.

What an interesting question, I thought to myself. Where is the satisfaction? And isn’t it interesting that life has to be fun to be worth living? I hadn’t really thought of that before. I had simply wished it was true, but now I had decided it was true. That’s interesting too – the difference between wishing and deciding. They’re actually close cousins. That’s interesting.

I had asked myself what would keep life interesting while I was sitting on my couch in the living room. I was now standing in my kitchen, but I could not remember how I got there. It was as if I’d teleported. That’s interesting too, I thought. I leaned back against the counter and noticed how I was feeling. There was that quiet calm I used to cherish when I was a younger man and I’d won a race or just come off stage. That was always victory’s true prize – the moment I reclaimed what I’d given to other people.

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

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.

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

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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