The Greater Good

When I was a waiter my bosses always wanted me to “upsell.” This is the practice of talking customers into buying an appetizer they hadn’t ordered or recommending the Australian lobster tail rather than the halibut. It makes a certain sense from a business standpoint. We were a fine dining restaurant and wanted to “maximize sales” on each table. From a waiter’s standpoint it made sense also: the higher my sales, the more tips I’d make.

Yet I refused to upsell. I focused instead on helping the customers have the best possible experience they could have. I believed that if they felt as though I were trying to squeeze an extra few bucks out of them, they would feel more used than cared for. I reasoned that I could make just as much money by caring more about service than sales.

I did not know it then, but I was getting a glimpse into a dynamic that is always at play in every business arrangement – even writing. Namely, an individual’s needs versus society’s needs. Customers, or society, don’t give two figs about the restaurant’s bottom line. Customers want to enjoy themselves. A business, meanwhile, wants to make money. Whether I’m waiting tables, running a restaurant, or selling books, it can seem sometimes as though my only focus is extracting as much money from other people as possible, so that I can go on living and writing.

In a way, my choice not to upsell was a kind of experiment. What if, I reasoned, the customer’s needs could be my own? What if there was no difference between what I needed and what other people needed? As it happens, the more I focused just on service and not on sales, the more money I made. It was a happy arrangement.

But if I’m honest, the choice not to upsell served my most immediate needs as well. I didn’t like how it felt when I tried to sell rather than serve. It felt dishonest. Service, meanwhile, always felt good. After all, I was a human first and a waiter second, just as the people I was serving were humans first and customers second. Service became a means of connecting on a human level rather than a commercial level.

I started having success as a writer when I saw it as service, not sales. Instead of asking what I could write that could get someone to buy what I’d written, I asked myself what I would most like to share with other people. What if the kind of story that uplifted me, that served my life, might serve others? You already know how this story ends, because you already know that we all meet each other in our shared desire to know life as an act of love.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Inner Critic

Some writers embrace criticism, and some do not. When I spoke to Wally Lamb, he shared with me that he is a member of three writing groups, all of whom read and critique his work. Meanwhile, Louis Sachar shares not one shred of what he is writing with anyone – except the title – until the book is completely finished. I was once on a panel with Deb Caletti, Megan Chance, and Jennie Shortridge, all of whom described the outrage they first experience upon receiving a red-gashed manuscript back from their beloved editors. Compare this to N. D. Wilson who craves the “resistance” an editor’s feedback provides, without which he feels his work grows soft.

It is easy for me to become disoriented when the horns of criticism begin blaring in my ear. I write to hear myself, after all; why am I listening to these other people? Yet what is writing but sifting through thoughts until I find one that serves the story I am trying to tell? And what is a criticism but a thought that comes from someone else? Regardless of where it comes from, every thought must in the end be put to the same test—namely, measured against the shape of the story to understand if it fits.

Which is why criticism is so much more useful than how it might or might not strengthen my story. I cannot be reminded often enough of the difference between the thoughts that blow ceaselessly through my mind, and me. How often I have mistaken one for the other, and in that instant my wellbeing feels as transient as a word waiting beneath an uncertain eraser. I remember who I am the moment that word is gone and I awaken to find myself holding the pencil.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Adventures in Marketing

I was twenty-two and had written a batch of poems in a brief creative dash. It had been years since I had finished so much as a short story, and the satisfaction of having something completed, even if it was only eight lines, was addictive. Plus most of my poems were like little monologues, and I loved the theater, so it was a happy discovery that I could marry these art forms.

My mother’s friend Tina also loved poetry, so much so that she had started her own literary journal. Word trickled down to me that Tina would be hosting a poetry reading at the University of Rhode Island, and if I wanted to I could participate. I was quite nervous waiting my turn there in the classroom with all the other poets, but when the moment arrived, and I laid my poems on the lectern and started reading, it was just more theater, and it was great fun sharing these little pieces that had so pleased me with other people and seeing that these people seemed to be pleased as well.

A week after the poetry reading I got a call from Tina. What a success the reading had been! You were a hit, she said. The actor in me enjoyed that. I would do another poetry reading shortly thereafter and I enjoyed it every bit as much as the first. Then I got another call from Tina. She wanted to publish some of my poems in the upcoming edition of her journal. Would that be okay? I said it most certainly would be okay. And that was how my work was published for the first time.

Here is what I knew back then: I knew that I loved to read certain poets, and that I loved to write poetry. I loved both the freedom poetry afforded me, as well as the economy it required, and I loved the energy of performing. What I did not know was that those poetry readings were my first adventures in marketing. My poems were published because I had found a means to expose my work to other people such that opportunities that had not previously been available were now available.

Except it didn’t feel like marketing because I wasn’t trying to sell anything, or get published, or get exposure. I wasn’t trying to get anything. I just wanted to share something that felt good to share. That is all “marketing” needs to be. In fact, to call it anything else is a lie. To call it anything else is to say that I do not love what I love, and that I do not believe the world will be better off with more of what I love in it – which, though I have spent many years doubting this is so, remains the only truth to which I can reliably return.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Giving and Receiving

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve recently spent more time than usual following politics. Listening to politicians reminds me of watching a skillfully written stage drama. The best dialogue always has the characters saying one thing and meaning another. The husband might say he’s angry with his wife for overcooking the broccoli, when really, he’s upset because he believes she doesn’t respect him.

With politics, all the arguments and accusations about taxes and regulations and jobs stems from the eternal, persistent, uncomfortable fact that some people have more money than other people. This bothers nearly everybody. If you don’t have as much of it as you want, you might view those who have more with deep and bitter suspicion; and if you do have more of it, you might believe that those who have less spend all their days plotting how to take yours from you.

Unfortunately, no tax code or regulation will ever cure humanity of envy and greed. Because neither the “haves” or “have-nots” actually care about money; they just want to be happy and have mistaken money for the source of that happiness. I have made this mistake myself, though not so much with money. As a writer, I envied other writers who received more attention than I had – attention from other people, that is. Attention in the form of sales, of reviews, of crowds at their readings. These things looked to me like love and appreciation. Who would not be happier with more love and more appreciation?

I was correct that those writers I envied had received more attention than I; I was just incorrect about the source of that attention. I began to see my own sales, and reviews, and crowds when I gave myself my full attention. Everything I value in my life grew from giving my full attention to what interests me most, for no other reason other than it felt good to do so. That is the magic formula for success.

Of course, one can rid oneself of greed and envy as quickly as changing one’s mind. It’s always slower when you bring more people into the equation. I must remind myself of this as I marinate in the simmering pot of daily news. Everyone wants to be happy. Many, many of us aren’t. How loud we all get when we’re unhappy, and how tempted we are to blame other people for that unhappiness. Meanwhile, what is calling to each of us waits patiently for our attention, waits for us to give so that we might in turn receive.

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

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Wine Story

The wine critic Robert Parker is supposed to have said, “Twenty years of experience can go out the door with a brown paper bag.” By which he meant you might think you know how to taste a wine when you can read the label, when you know how old it is and who made it and where the grapes came from—when, in essence, you know the wine’s story. But then taste that wine when you can’t see the label, when all you know is that you have a red wine or a white wine. Then you’re really tasting it, just the wine, not the story of the wine.

One night when I was waiting tables a man and his date sat in my section. The man was rich, and his date was fifteen years younger than he and beautiful. He was not so beautiful. First he ordered a bottle of Dom Perignon, at a $120 a pop, just to get things started.

“And I want you to get a bottle of Penfolds Grange breathing.”

“The Grange?” I said, just to be sure.

“The Grange,” he confirmed.

This was the most expensive bottle we had on the menu, which at that time was around $350. Penfolds Grange was an Australian Shiraz whose 1994 vintage was named Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator. It was, in wine parlance, a huge wine, meaning rich, full of tannin, and packing a fruity wallop in your mouth. It was the kind of wine that needed air to release the tannins, and it was also the kind of wine, not made so much anymore, that needed a few years to lay down, to let all those huge flavors coalesce and relax. I don’t know how wine does this, but it does.

I opened the Grange. He was very excited just to see the bottle. He told his date about it. She was very impressed. After it had breathed for a while he told me to get a glass. Tom, my manager and a very astute taster, was summoned as well. The man happily poured us each a taste and we toasted and raised our glasses to our lips.

“What do you think?” he asked, beaming. He was doing it, you see. He was actually drinking Penfolds Grange!

“Delicious,” I said.

“Isn’t it?” he said. “God. I could die happy right now.”

Tom and I thanked him again for the taste and took the rest of our wine back to the waiter’s station. Tom looked at me for a moment.

“It’s horrible,” he said.

“Yep,” I said. “Green as a Granny Smith apple.”

The wine was so in need of laying down, was so sour and tight, that it was virtually undrinkable. I had tasted green wines before, but nothing this green.

“Should we tell him?” I asked.

“Why?” asked Tom. “He’s loving it.”

That he was. He cooed over very drop. And for years afterward he and his lovely date would be able to tell the story of the night they drank the most delicious wine they had ever had in their life.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

What You Have

I spent many years dreaming of success. It is a common dream for writers when they begin their writing journey. The agent, the book contract, the bestseller list – all these goals felt like distant, mysterious, and glorious cities. As I wandered about in the familiar circles of my life, I wondered what my days would feel like when I reached those destinations. When I arrived, I believed it would be as if I’d reached Paris, this city I’d read about and I’d seen in movies but never visited, a city of lights, a city of poetry and paintings and cafes – not a city where people trudged about arguing and complaining and worrying about the future.

That’s what waited for me. It was hard to picture, truly. Often when I placed myself in that imaginary world of success, it was as if I didn’t really belong there, in the same way the fictional characters I wrote sometimes didn’t belong in the careers or relationships I chose for them. My characters would squirm and behave unnaturally until I found their true vocation or partner. So too Successful Bill in the City of Success. None of it felt natural. Those dreams felt like scenes I’d edit out of a book I was writing.

This worried me. Writing had taught me that nothing unnatural, nothing forced, nothing I willed onto the page belonged in the reality of my stories. I had to allow what wanted to come through to come through. So why didn’t I belong in this wonderful, mysterious city? Was I actually traveling the dirt road of failure, the lonely path toward a ghost town where everything ends in dust? I’d read and heard of Failure Town. I assumed it was as real as Paris. Yet even in my darkest hours, when I dreamed this nightmare ending to my journey, I had to admit that my vision of Failure Town seemed no more real to me than Success City.

How strange. I could make no sense of it, and, in the meantime, my life continued. I kept doing stuff and looking for what was interesting where I was. What else was there to do? By and by, as I found more interesting things where I was, I began to have small successes. I published an essay here, was asked to give a talk there. Each time, however, I did not know if I could call what had happened “a success” — it felt too familiar. I was just doing what I liked to do, only for money or in front of people. Neither the world nor I had changed.

It took me many more years to understand that everything I would ever create, whether I called that creation a success or failure, was an extension of something I already had. The books were an extension of ideas and feelings living within me, and my talks and classes were extensions of a conversation I’d been having for as long as I could remember. The environment of the experiences was new, but the source of those experiences was not. This is what is meant when we say we “have everything we need.” We do.

The difference, however, between what I have to come to understand as success, and the long, unhappy, frustrating path I used to believe I was traveling toward success, was not the environment. The difference had nothing to do with money or attention. The difference was life with and without one question: Do I have what it takes? To allow this question to hang unanswered in my heart is to live in an unreal city of fear. To release it is to have what I have always had, and live in the only reality I was born to know.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Whole Story

I was watching the mini-series The People vs. OJ Simpson the other night, and there was one character in particular I was looking forward to seeing. Not OJ, or Johnnie Cochran, or Robert Shapiro, though they were all very well portrayed. I’d become familiar with them while I followed that bizarre trial with the rest of America. No, the character I wanted to see was the prosecuting attorney Marcia Clark. I had recently learned something about Clark that changed my perception of her as well as, in certain of ways, everyone associated with the trial.

You see I’d had a chance to interview Marcia Clark on my show Author2Author a few months ago. Clark is now a suspense novelist. Prior to our conversation, I knew, of course, about her surprise celebrity and that she’d published a book about the trial and then went on to write fiction. I assumed she’d written the book about the trial because that’s what a lot of people do when they are a part of something so sensational, and then, perhaps because of the unwanted exposure of the trial, decided that practicing law was just too complicated and so made the switch to novels, capitalizing, to some degree, on her name.

I was wrong about that. Early in the interview Clark revealed that since she’d been a girl her dream had been to be a novelist. But, like a lot of smart, academically inclined, hardworking, ambitious people, she was worried about the uncertainty of the writer’s life, and so chose to pursue the law. What’s more, once she made the switch to novelist, her name was more of liability than an asset. Like me, a lot of people assumed she wasn’t really a writer, just a curious celebrity looking for more outlets.

As I watched The People Vs. OJ Simpson and Marcia’s character appeared on screen, what I saw was an aspiring novelist working a high-paying, high-profile day job. I saw the childhood she described briefly to me, and the career waiting for her. And then Marcia would begin talking to Christopher Darden, or Robert Shapiro, and I realized I had written a story in my mind about those characters as well.

I have to admit that my backstories about the other characters weren’t particularly kind. I disliked the OJ trial with all its racial overtones and scandal, a dislike that had seeped into my perception of all those associated with it. All those, that is, except one. For a moment, I found myself wishing I could know every character’s true backstory, all the surprising choices from childhood forward that had led them to that place and time. Barring this, I would have to settle for the understanding that everyone’s complete story is always kinder than what I can imagine.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

News of the Day

For about ten years starting in my late twenties I became a news devotee. On Sundays I would sit with the New York Times and scour the Book Review, and the magazine, and the Week in Review, and Op Ed, and the front page. If you had asked me, I would have told you I wanted to know “what happened.”

Of course “what happened” had never happened to me directly; in all my years of New York Times reading never once did I read about the comings and goings of Bill Kenower, which seems like a missed opportunity on their part. In any case, I’m sure I would have been disappointed if my life ever had been reported on. I’m sure I would have read it and thought, “But that’s not what really happened.” As every writer eventually learns, what really happened, happened inside of me. What I – or our characters – think and feel about an event is the event. That is all that matters.

Which brings me back to why I was actually reading the New York Times. I wasn’t trying to find out what happened; I was trying to find out who agreed with me and who disagreed with me. When I found a writer or the subject of a story who agreed with me, I felt as though I could rest, for the world needed no correction. When I found someone who disagreed with me, I felt uncomfortable, for now the world needed correction.

On and on it went. The world, I observed, was in constant disagreement, and no sooner did we grow tired of disagreeing about one thing than we began disagreeing about another. The child in me was waiting for all the grownups to come to a firm decision. By and by I had to put the paper down and accept that I was one of those adults and see if I could come to an agreement with myself.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Unreal Journey

I quit college when I was twenty-one to become a writer. That was the plan, anyway. I didn’t need to spend tens of thousands of dollars at a university to write; I could do it for free at my desk. The problem was that although I loved to write and had a naturally diligent work ethic, the plan to become a writer felt entirely like a fantasy. I could not feel the sequential connection between the reality of sitting at my desk typing words onto a blank page and the reality of those words being read by strangers in a published book.

It made the supposed job of writer confusing. The job of writer felt nothing like the other job I took to earn money. Nothing about the job of waiting tables at a café and then a BBQ joint felt anything like a fantasy. That was reality, baby. That was a time card, and cash in my hands, and actual living people to laugh with and complain about. The job of waiting tables felt like life as I already understood it.

The fantasy of the job called writing did not. The act of writing felt like reality because I’d been doing that all my life. But the job of writing, of author, felt as unreal as a city I had never visited. Post cards and guidebooks and movies cannot begin to simulate the experience of living in the city itself. And so it was as if I was on a journey, but because I could not see my destination, every step I took felt as unreal as my imagination’s rendering of the city to which I believed I was headed.

Strange, but I needed to look to no further than the very stories I was telling to know how to get where I wanted to go. A book is written one word at a time, each word the best the writer can choose at that moment. There is no other way. So too that unreal journey. I never needed to know what the city looked like or what I would do when I got there. The only one question I have ever needed ask is, “What is the best step I can take at this very moment?” The answer is reality; the rest is a dream.

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