Good Questions

Writing got much easier for me when I accepted that my job was to ask questions and let my imagination bring me the answers. Sometimes my question was, “Why does the witch want to capture my hero?” or “What job does my protagonist really want?” But just as often they were questions like “How do I know I have free will?” or “What if happiness is our natural state of being?”

Every question I ever asked was answered, though it wasn’t always answered immediately. Or, more often, I wasn’t immediately ready for the answer. No matter; when I was ready I heard it, and if it was a really good question, the answer usually led to more questions. Questions are more interesting than answers. I have to remind myself of this often, because I spend a lot of time thinking all my worry would be over if I could rest in the surety of a firm conclusion. In fact, life is never duller, never less meaningful, than when I don’t have a question to ask.

Fortunately, life itself is always creating questions for us. This is good news for writers. I have had the pleasure of working with a number of clients recently whose lives have compelled them to ask fantastic questions. However, the means by which life helped them to ask these questions is what we normally call “trauma.” Like all people, the writers are tempted to believe their lives now would be better if only they could scrub their past clean of those traumatic events.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Life compelled these writers, usually at a very young age, to ask, “What is intimacy?” or “What is real strength?” or “What is unconditional love?” Once the question was asked, the answer started coming, but they were not ready to hear it, usually because they did not even know they’d asked it. So they start writing, where they could ask smaller questions on purpose, the answers trickling down to them in poems and essays and novels until gradually the answer that had been knocking and knocking on the door to their consciousness is allowed in.

I don’t want to suffer any more than you do. I want my days to go as effortlessly and undisturbed as a perfect Sunday picnic. But when I find myself wondering, “What the hell is going on?” or “What’s the point?” or “Why am I here?” I have not reached the end of my happiness. I’ve found again life’s interesting path.

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

Simple Solution

I have a theory that a truism’s value is in direct proportion to how difficult it is to hear when you most need to hear it. For instance: all problems are like gifts that arrive containing their own solution. Writing more than anything else has taught me that this is definitely true, though you shouldn’t remind me of this when I’m deep in the middle of some problem. You might get punched.

On the other hand, I cannot write unless I remember this truth in some way. I noticed this repeatedly with my students and clients. Many of them are writing memoirs, all of which are based on a period in their lives where they experienced great difficulty. These writers all believe that their lives have taught them something valuable that they’d like to share with their readers. For obvious reasons, most of these writers do not want to dwell too long on their troubled pasts. Many want to hurry to the solution.

I find myself again and again reminding them to go back to their supposed problem. From a very practical standpoint, this is essential so that the reader can fully receive the gift the author is trying to share. If you want to share your understanding of unconditional love, you must show what is like to live for twenty years believing that you are unlovable unless you’re married or win the State Wrestling Championship. The reader must fully experience the suffering, so they might fully experience the relief.

Yet just as important is what authors learn in writing about their problems. The experience of writing about their troubles teaches the author how to write about the solution. The very language and metaphors used to describe the problem are almost always used to express the solution. What’s more, the author invariably finds the moment that they created the problem themselves, the moment they believed in their own limitation, or ignored their own guidance.

We are always the creators of our own troubles. Again, I don’t really want to hear this when I’m in the middle of my trouble. I’m usually pretty certain that if other people would just get their act together, my life would be fine. Or, on darker days, I think there’s nothing anyone can do to fix my sorry condition. I’ve already tried and tried to fix myself, and nothing’s worked. I want to give up – but then I must choose what to give up: living or fixing. The moment I give up fixing, living gets much simpler.

.

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

Suffering For Your Art

I don’t recommend suffering for your art. In fact, I don’t recommend suffering for anything – though you almost certainly will suffer for your art or anything else you want to pursue. I don’t know how to get anywhere without a little suffering. It’s the only way to know I’m headed in the wrong direction. All directions are possible, after all. The page of life is quite blank. And so I head out, picking what looks like the best route. My first choices are almost always wrong.

Or at least not completely right. There is a difference, I’ve learned. Wrong is simply too complete a word to assign to any of these kinds of choices. Within every sentence I delete is a portion of what I eventually choose to share, just as within every romantic relationship I pursued and ended there had been some aspect of what I found in the whole of my marriage. The key, I have learned, is to be kind. This is not always so easy for me. The boy who feared criticism grew into a man striving for perfection.

That was an empty and impossible pursuit, and oh, how I suffered as I sought it. I believed it was possible to achieve, because I perceived perfection in others. Not all the time, of course. People did all sorts of goofy and useless things, made all sorts of mistakes – but that wasn’t who they really were. That was just them trying too hard, or trying to solve problems that didn’t exist. When you dusted away the chaff of these choices, looked through the veil of a moment’s behavior, it was easy to see someone whole, unique, and in need of nothing but an awareness of their own inherent perfection.

Then there is me. I can look at other people, but I can feel only myself. The mirror tells me nothing. Sometimes I am suffering, and sometimes I am not. I don’t want to suffer. I used to think it was romantic, but not anymore. Suffering itself is a kind of veil I must look beyond, with the same vision I use to tell my stories. Suffering does not ask me to share it, dwell and writhe in it – suffering asks only that I recognize it so that I might return to myself.

.

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 Difference

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

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

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

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

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

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Privileged

If you’re a regular reader of these essays, you may have noticed that I often write about my many years spent working as a waiter. It is a rich source of material. I met a lot of people during that time, both coworkers and customers I served, and each taught me something about myself and life in ways both large and small.

Mostly, however, I write about how unhappy I was. I was unhappy because I was writing books that I couldn’t sell and because I didn’t know how to feel good about myself. I wanted something tangible I could point to as proof of my value and potential. I wanted to be proud of something I’d accomplished, and in those days, I felt I had nothing.

Which is exactly why I write so often about my time in the restaurants. And also why I like to write about some of the races I ran when I was young man. I actually won a bunch of those, for which I was awarded trophies and ribbons, but those aren’t the races I like to write about. I prefer to write about the races I lost, particularly the finals of State Championships my senior year in high school when I crashed into the second hurdle and finished last.

The first race I really remember winning was against my father. I was thirteen, and my mother suggested the competition, which my dad quickly agreed to. This was the same year my father went broke and found himself living in a slum and buying groceries with food stamps. That’s something else I like to write about.

I like to write about those times, because to write, I must sink into a dream that I make more real than the world I inhabit. I have to forget about the past and ignore the future and believe completely in something only I can perceive. To write, I must forget about what I can see and touch and call my own, and find again that intersection of curiosity and imagination, the source of everything valuable that has ever come to me.

I notice the word privilege is getting thrown around a lot lately. I understand that word is used in an attempt to level a playing field that appears, from certain perspectives, inherently unequal. But I have never trusted that word, steeped as it is in judgment. Nothing good in my life has ever grown out of judgment, whether that judgment was aimed at myself or at others.

Writing has taught me that our true equality can never be taken from us nor given to us. At some point, we all must learn that our value and potential has nothing to do with the house we live in, or the job we do, or what people think about us, or how many books we’ve sold or awards we’ve won. You can learn it in a mansion or in a tenement house. You can learn it after you’ve won the Pulitzer or after your hundredth rejection letter. The result will be the same. To learn it is to remember what you have always been and what you will always be and where to find what you have always been 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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Cruel Shoes: Find the Story that Fits You

I worked for about twenty years as a waiter while I wrote a bunch of novels I had no luck selling. One of the toughest parts of being a waiter, especially if you want to be a writer, is that no one really cares what you think about anything, except for the occasional wine recommendation. If you want to write, and share what you have written with other people, you have believe that what you are interested in thinking about and writing about would be interesting to someone else.

When I finally left the restaurant and was hired to write storylines for a video game company, I was so happy find myself in a room with people who seemed very interested in what I thought would or would not make a good story. How nice to be valued for something other than my ability to bring someone their steak dinner in a timely fashion.

The only slight problem was that I wasn’t all that interested in the games or their stories. I considered this a minor problem, however, given how much money they were paying me. In fact, I used some of that money to buy a new pair of dress shoes. These were my power shoes. They were shiny, black, and made a satisfying clip-clop sound as I went from here to there in them.

The only slight problem was that I wasn’t sure if they actually fit. If I stood still they were fine, but if I clip-clopped from here to there my feet seemed to slide around a bit. But only a little bit. And they looked great. And sometimes shoes need to be broken in, especially power shoes made of stiff black leather. So I kept the shoes, and both loved them and feared them: my feet always felt so good when I took them off at the end of a day.

Then the video game company decided they would fly a few of us to New York to meet with a bunch of literary agents. The company had dreams of creating a line of books based on their games. How exciting! They would pay for my flights, my hotel room, all my meals, and I would I get to meet all these agents. Plus, I had just the pair of shoes for such a trip.

For some reason, my comrades decided it would be more practical to walk from agency to agency rather than take cabs. Fine with me, I said. So we started walking, and walking, and walking. By the time we left the third agency, my shoes had become instruments of torture. Every step I took was measured in pain. I stopped thinking about New York, and literary agencies, and games, and money. All I could think about were my poor, abused feet.

My happiest memory of the trip was of sitting on my bed in my hotel room slipping out of those shoes and feeling like myself again. My brother, who lived in New York at the time, came by and we went out for dinner and a few drinks. I was now wearing black sneakers with my dress slacks and blazer and I was very happy. About the same time I left the restaurant, I had gotten very interested in the relationship between spirituality and creativity. That night, I told him about my ideas. I always got very excited when I talked about these ideas.

“Why don’t you just write that stuff instead of all the novels?” he said at the end of the night.

“I can’t do that,” I told him. “No one would be interested in it.”

I was wrong about that, though it would take me a few years to learn just how wrong I was. No matter. The best piece of advice I could ever give another writer is to pay attention to how you feel. All discomfort, however slight, is guidance. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in paying attention to how you feel. That discomfort will grow and grow until you do.

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

Realists

When I was younger and of the opinion that love was something one could find in the same manner in which a food enthusiast discovers new delights at exotic banquets, I dated an artist named Fishy. This was not her real name, but one she had adopted herself. This was a clue I ignored because I was in the habit of ignoring clues back then as they consistently interfered with my sampling of the female buffet.

Fishy was like a reverse superhero. By day she was an artist and an intellectual, who wore John Lennon glasses, spoke with a dry affect, and divided the world into those things worthy of her approval and those things that were not. By night she became just Lilly, a very wounded young woman, who was so fragile I thought she would crack in my arms. I had dated her because I was drawn to Fishy’s intellectual strength, only to discover I was actually dating Lilly’s frailty.

Before it ended, she asked me if I was an optimist or a pessimist. I told her I was an optimist, an identity a young intellectual like Fishy was not allowed to embrace, but which Lilly secretly yearned for. In retrospect, however, I was neither. I am actually a realist. I believe in reality, which in its fullness is better than the optimist’s best-case scenario. Reality, which is the whole of life, is beyond judgment, beyond suffering, beyond tragedy.

But it is also beyond my ability to perceive. Had I been able to, I would have seen past Fishy to Lilly, and would have seen past Lilly to that part of her that was incapable of being wounded. I came to understand that Lilly perceived me as someone immune to hurt. I wasn’t, of course; the little me stumbling around the world could feel just as wounded as Fishy. But Lilly must have sensed in me that which runs through all of us, that which perceives the pain but does not live it. She wanted to draw it from me for herself, but I could not give her what she already had.

Which is why I encourage writers to go toward their pain in their work, but not to write about their pain. Rather, learn in your work to see through your pain, to see beyond the veil of suffering, for it is in that space you will meet yourself, the reality you have always been seeking.

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

That Gift

Lingering in the back of everyone’s mind is the sometimes quiet, sometimes very loud question, “Am I good enough?” We spend so much time grading, comparing, judging and ranking ourselves that I don’t know how a person could avoid asking this question at least once, if only to test how it feels. It feels lousy, if you haven’t noticed, even just to ask it. Unfortunately, it also smells like the sort of question one must be able to answer “Yes!” to, because if we’re not good enough . . . well, that would be a problem, wouldn’t it?

Writers decide to write for many reasons. Usually, they love to write. Also, they would like to make money doing what they love. But these are not always the only reasons. Sometimes writers write and submit the stories and poems they’ve written so that these stories and poems will be rejected.

Yes, to be rejected. The more often you ask if you are good enough—and it matters not what you are pretending to wonder you are good enough at, that question only ever refers to us as a whole—the more likely the answer will be no. But we can answer no so quietly, so habitually, that we will soon grow accustomed to the sustained discomfort it provides.

You will not have that luxury as the rejection letters come in. Likely as not that quiet voice that whispered no sabotaged your story for this very purpose. Now, you will have to feel self-rejection acutely, and you will feel it again and again and again until you decide you are worthy of a life free from this suffering.

Such a gift, writing. Oh, I know, this is a gift you’d like to give back. Except that you crave, beyond any agent, publishing contract or Amazon ranking, the unequivocal yes you already are. Our lives are led to hold this permanently in our hearts, though it has never been anywhere else.

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

A Level Field

Everything I have ever done that has been singled out, that has received the attention of others, that has for one moment been called “special,” grew out of my trust in humanity’s absolute equality. For much of my life I had neither faith nor interest in absolute equality. That is, I wanted everyone to have a fair chance, I wanted society to level the playing field as much as possible, but let’s face it – life appeared neither fair nor equal. There were winners and losers, and that being the case, I would very much prefer to be a winner.

Yet the more I saw the world filled with have and have-nots, with the talented and talentless, with the lucky and the unlucky, the harder it became for me to create anything I wanted to share, or achieve anything I wanted to remember. Instead, my attention increasingly circled around this one question: Which am I? If life is unfair and unequal, if we are not all born with the identical potential, then where do I land? Is that rejection letter a message from my upper limit? Do I or do I not have what it takes?

Then I remembered the first race I ever ran. It was in second grade, and the teacher lined up the entire class and told us to run until we reached the far wall. One, two, three, Go! And away we went. I was the first to touch that wall, but as I looked down at the row of children arriving a stride or two later than I, I understood – somehow – that I wasn’t actually faster than anyone, I was simply the one who was most completely invested in the race on that day. The result that singled me out was the consequence of my attention, and nothing else.

I cannot prove this, of course. I don’t really know about fast twitch muscles and slow twitch muscles and genetics and the rest. What I do know is that this understanding has served me well every since. If I can but remember to see the field as utterly level, ignore the great disparity in human achievement and experience, ignore awards and sales and money and age and disease, ignore everything but what I wish to create and where I wish to go, then I do not need to ask, “Which am I?” I only need to ask, “What do I want?”

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 Journey Back

Without problems there would be no stories.

I’ve written in this space several times about reading a passage from one of my novels to a creative writing class. The story was based on the summer after my senior year in high school, a time of tumultuous change for me, in large part because the girl I loved had just moved 3,000 miles away. I would eventually find and marry this girl, but I did not know that then, and I was very unhappy.

The chapter I read to the class depicted the evening after the narrator, Tom, said goodbye to his girlfriend. Tom is end-of-the-world distraught, and there is little his friends can do that night to cheer him up. The class was evenly divided in their response to the chapter. Half the class didn’t understand what Tom was so upset about. She’s just a girlfriend; he’s just eighteen. Life goes on and there are more fish in the sea. The other half of the class knew exactly why Tom was so upset. The girl he loved was gone. What’s not to be upset about?

I knew it was possible to help the first half of the class understand why his girlfriend leaving was a Big Problem. This would be the focus of my rewriting: to help certain people see problems where they did not previously believe they existed. Yet what a strangely diabolical job. Why must a storyteller upset his reader? If someone has a balanced view of something like love and loss, why not leave them be?

Because sometimes we do not know we have something until we are deprived of it, just as sometimes we do not know we are carrying something heavy until we are allowed to set it down. A story is not a punishment, but a reward, and the hero’s suffering is an expression of life lived without that story’s gift. It is a relief to come to the end, to return to ourselves, glad for the journey back and for what we might have found along the way.

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