No Sacrifice

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Good Questions

My most recent book, Fearless Writing, is based on the idea that your best days of writing – the days where you sink so deeply into the story you’re telling that you lose track of time and the weather and politics, where you’re surprised by what your characters do, and where ideas come to you so quickly you have to keep up with them – these wonderful writing days always begin the moment you forget to care what anyone thinks about what you write.

I’ve had a lot of these days since I became more disciplined about what I do and do not focus on when I sit down to write. My mind, like my stories, can go absolutely anywhere. The mind is so free, is so quick and unrestrained by the limitations my slow and earthbound body must abide, that it requires some firm boundaries only I can impose on it. I must be disciplined in the questions I ask my imagination to answer. I cannot ask it about the future, or about what other people like or don’t like. I must ask it questions only about the story I’m telling. When I limit my questions in this way, I always have a good day of writing.

The problem, I’ve learned, is that the experience of a good day of writing often stands in noticeable contrast to the rest of my day. I am not, you see, nearly as disciplined in the questions I ask as I wander about the world. It is one thing to sit in the solitude of my workroom and forget to care about other people’s preferences and taste, and it is quite another to be face to face with those people and ignore the thought, “What do they think of me?”

Oh, the misery that question has sown in my life, regardless of the answer. It is almost as unpleasant as when I ask myself, “What do I think of them?” This is my retribution question, payback for all the hurt that other question has inflicted. It’s enough to keep me bound to my desk, if it weren’t for those moments in my day when I forget to ask those useless questions and I find myself once again amongst friends. This is the exact same freedom writing has shown me, the peace that love provides when I follow it rather than demand it.

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

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The Third Eye

For many years I was a writer obsessed with the form my stories and sentences took. This is also called style. I had loved certain writers whose style was so distinctive and evocative and exciting to me that I believed if I paid very close attention to the form my stories and sentences took, I would be able to write the kind of stories I loved to read. I was less aware of my stories’ content at that time. I felt that if I started writing, something cool would come out.

It didn’t work that way. Obsessing over a story’s form is a little like fussing with your hair in the mirror. There is only so much a hairstyle can communicate. But it is something I can control. I can cut it, wash it, gel it, comb it, comb it again, mess it up and comb it one more time. What I cannot do is control what anyone will think of that hair. And so I stare into the mirror, aware of this uncomfortable fact, knowing that for all my grooming, people are just going to go ahead and think whatever they want to think.

My stories became a kind of mirror I was staring into, with me fussing and fussing before the big date that was submission. I sent them out aware of some nameless deficiency, and they were predictably rejected. Had I not fussed long enough in the mirror? What was missing? What had I overlooked?

Eventually I began to focus more on my stories’ content rather than their form. It was a very different way of thinking, because the content, which was a felt awareness of life, had no form whatsoever. Love, after all, can take any form, as can grief, and joy, and doubt. My time at the desk now was spent trying to see with my writer’s third eye what love and joy and grief really looked like, without any idea of what other people thought love and joy and grief looked like. Once I felt I could see it clearly, I tried to make what I could see with words.

I love language and sentences as much as I ever did, but I spend very little time now thinking about either. It’s a relief, frankly. I look in the mirror about twice a day, and that’s enough. The rest of my time is spent living within what it feels like to be alive. That is the reality of which I am most aware. This reality is not always comfortable, but the comfort I seek does not exist in the mirror or on the page. That comfort can only be perceived with my third eye, for that is where everything I want to share resides.

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

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Looking For Something Where It Isn’t

Sometimes I am like a man who needs his keys, looks for them on his bureau, doesn’t find them, and declares his keys lost. My keys might be on the mantle, they might be on the kitchen table, they might even be jangling in my pocket, but because I don’t see them at that very moment, I believe they have been swallowed into the void of all lost things.

When I lose something physical, I always tell myself the same thing: “I know it has to be somewhere.” Such is the nature of the physical world. Everything is somewhere; it’s just that that somewhere often changes. When I despair, however, when I worry about my future, I have lost track of something that never moves. I look for what I always need where it doesn’t exist, don’t find it, and believe that all hope is lost.

Writing is a great practice in remembering where to look for what I actually need. The stories I wish to tell are not in any newspaper, or on Facebook, or on television, or even in the eyes and minds of people I love. The fount from which those stories flow exists where only I can perceive it. What comes from that fount changes every moment, but its location is constant. Despite this unerring reliability, I find the quiet and dull surroundings of my workroom an ideal environment for locating that fount.

I am, I have learned, easily distracted. When I leave my workroom there are just so many things to look at. How easy it is to look for my confidence and my value in what I see – in my sales, or reviews, or visits to my website. How quickly I despair when I don’t find what I’m looking for. When I’ve misplaced my keys, I’ll sometimes replay my day to remember if I might have left them someplace unusual, like the studio or my coat pocket. This same approach sort of works when I have misplaced my well-being. The difference is that instead of remembering when I felt good, I simply remind myself what confidence and value feels like, and the moment I do, I find what I’m looking for.

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

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Valuable Experience

Many years ago, Jen, my girlfriend at that time, visited me for a week in California. She was an art student and so I decided to take her to an art gallery. As it happens, the Getty Museum was not far from where I lived, and I’d heard there was a special exhibit currently on display. I was glad there was a special exhibit because I was not an art fan – which is to say, going to museums had not yet been added to my mental list of things I enjoyed doing. What did appear on this list was the vague concept of Special Things, and so we headed straight for the exhibit once we’d paid for our tickets.

The Getty had acquired a Van Gogh. A very small Van Gogh: it was about the size of a square dinner plate. It was, however, so incredibly valuable that the museum had cordoned off a 20-foot perimeter in front of the painting so that the viewing public wouldn’t be tempted to touch it or breathe on it. The distance made it difficult to appreciate the painting for its aesthetic value, but it certainly reinforced the painting’s specialness. It was like being in the presence of a celebrity. Leaning over the rope with the crowd, I had the sense that the painting was somehow worth more than the throng that had come to see it.

I didn’t enjoy the experience. It was easier once Jen and I moved on to the other exhibits. Now we could get close and look at the brush strokes and decide for ourselves whether we liked a painting or not. I didn’t really think I had that option with the Van Gogh. Plus, we could talk freely with one another, now that we weren’t in the hushed presence of greatness. None of these other paintings seemed more important than our relationship.

Driving home we talked some about the Van Gogh. It was more fun to talk about it than to see it. It was fun to learn what she experienced while she looked at it and it was fun to share what I experienced when I looked at it. I realized I valued fun above all other experiences. This seemed like a child’s view of life, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t choose what I valued any more than I could choose who I loved – which is how I knew I wanted to write about what I experienced, and why I knew I would marry Jen.

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

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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.

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

Discovering Stories

Every writer is a teacher of some kind, though most do not see themselves that way. Most writers see themselves as entertainers – meaning it is not their job to instruct their readers, but rather to engage them, amuse them, frighten them, or inspire them. To do so, writer and reader go on a journey together, and though the writer may be the guide for this journey, may have mapped its route and chosen its destination, the discoveries the reader makes along the way belong entirely to him. If a reader says he loves a story, it is those discoveries he loves, discoveries he may attribute to the writer, but for which he is ultimately responsible.

Yet that journey begins where only the writer can perceive it. Its value and potential are known only to the writer. The writer has made a discovery, you see. The writer has discovered a new love story, or a new adventure, or a new poem. The writer made this discovery in the idle dreaming of his days – picked up a magazine, or looked out the window, or overheard a conversation; and where one moment the writer was looking at the world, the next he was seeing the beginning of a story. A seed has found its soil.

A writer may experience the full pleasure of discovery before putting a single word to a page. As satisfying as this can be, the writer must be willing to transform his discovery to share it. The story must take a form everyone can see, so that everyone can have can have the opportunity to perceive its value. Sometimes it feels as if something is lost in this transformation, that the form our story takes is a pale shade of the rich discovery we made.

This is a trick of our eyes. That story began where even our eyes could not see it. Teachers help their students see what they have not yet seen, whether it is a mathematical formula, or a mother’s and daughter’s reconciliation. It is always a little mysterious why some students easily see what others do not, but what we writers discover is mysterious as well. The best discoveries always feel as if they were right in front of us our whole lives. How, we wonder, could we not have seen them? It does not matter. Life, everyone’s first teacher, showed us, and now can’t stop looking at it until it is a story everyone can see.

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

 

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Not Normal

I was watching a Ken Burns documentary last night about a special school in Vermont designed for children who, for a number of reasons, could not flourish is a typical public school. At one point, the school’s therapist talked about the parents’ desire for their children to be “normal.” He would remind the parents that it wasn’t their child’s job to be normal; it was their child’s job to be themselves.

Of course, what the parents really meant was that they wanted to know that their child would succeed in some recognizable way, whether socially or professionally or romantically. It is easy to imagine how something will thrive if we feel we have seen that thing before. As writers, our success often depends upon our willingness to create something that hasn’t been seen before. While some of our stories will look and sound and walk like other stories, a piece of work’s true value always lies in the qualities that seem to belong to it alone.

And what is true of our work is always true of ourselves. You would be hard pressed to find a more normal-looking fellow than myself. If you passed me on the street you might mistake me for a TV news anchor. Yet I can feel out of place in my own living room. When I am out of sorts with myself, the world appears hostile and un-accepting, a symphony where nothing I can sing or say belongs.

It is not my job, nor anyone’s job, to belong anywhere. It is only my job to speak for myself. Oddly, every time I permit myself to do so, every time I ask what is the most honest thing I can say and then say it, every time I speak from the most personal truth I know, I find myself belonging where I had previously felt unwanted. There is nothing in the world more normal, more universal, than acceptance of oneself. What else is there for anyone? There is only the choice between a lifetime failing to be someone you are not, or succeeding in being someone you are.

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

 

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

One Enemy

Writing your first story could be disorienting if you came to it a little later in life. After all, much of the stuff that concerns or alarms or annoys us seems to be outside of us. Sometimes a politician we don’t like is in power, or a war we disagree with is being fought, or a stock we own is going down, or a friend won’t call back, or a child won’t behave. If only all these things would work themselves out we might be happy.

Then you sit down to write a story, to create something that has never existed before, to say, “This is what I think is exciting, or funny, or profound, or clever.” Now the world is yours. Now there are no other people to clutter things up with their misguided plans and wrong politics and greed and selfishness. Now there is only you and your world.

How disorienting when you find yourself just as concerned and alarmed and annoyed as if there were a whole crowd of people in your office offering you lousy story advice. There is no one to point to or to blame. There is only what you believe is lovely and valuable and interesting and your willingness to share it. Who could have predicted that this simple transference from thought to page would have the power to summon the same host of woes as the front page of any newspaper?

I can blame with the best of them. At least once a day I feel certain that I would be ceaselessly happy if only other people weren’t so ceaselessly unhappy. Then I sit down to write and I quickly run out of excuses for my mood. Doubt is the only enemy standing at the gates of my imagination. Doubt can see the end of everything before it has begun, and has come to warn me of what I might have overlooked. He’s right in a way—every story is written by looking past what could be and toward what we still believe is possible.

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

 

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The 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.

 

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter