The Life Within

I discovered James Joyce’s Ulysses in my early twenties in large part because of the book’s reputation as a marginally unreadable tour de force. It’s not the sort of book you snuggle up with in front of the fire, being 600 pages long and chronicling one day in the lives of two men in Dublin in 1904. Not a lot happens, which is part of why I so enjoyed it. I liked that Joyce paid such close attention to the smallest experiences, that he was able to show me – no, remind me that when viewed with love and care every single moment, no matter how mundane, mattered.

I can’t be reminded of this often enough. My life’s pretty mundane, honestly, which is apparently how I prefer it. It’s easier to focus. The four walls that make up a life, the boundaries of my little world, are in the end illusory. Tempted as I often am to knock them down, to feel imprisoned by the cramped circumference of my daily route, it is sometimes good to be reminded that the only journey I have ever wanted to take begins and ends in exactly the same place.

Which is to say, the writing life, as I have understood it, has always been the life within. This is a reality with which I am still coming to terms after fifty-two years on this planet. I still kind of hope that what I’m looking for is out there somewhere – out there on the field of play, out there on the stage, on the book tour. It is easy to get lost out there when you’re looking for something where it isn’t.

On the other hand, the moment I find the right story, the right sentence, or the right word I am home. It is true that the storyteller’s imagination allows for limitless journeys, whether around Dublin or to distant planets, but the imagination’s greatest expanse is its portability. It’s with me everywhere always. It’s with me in grief and in boredom and in rage. It’s with me every single mundane moment, waiting and alive, a direct portal to the center of life.

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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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

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Half-Told Tales

My cat Charlie died yesterday. He was still a young cat, who seemed completely healthy and whom I had anticipated spending many more years feeding, petting, and having the kind of one-sided conversations to which cats seem amenable. But then he got very sick very quickly, and the next thing we knew the vet was telling us it was probably best to put him down.

I loved Charlie as much as I could love a cat, and as it became clear to me where we might be headed, I found myself starting something that I practice every day I sit down to work. I write about how much I love life. That’s my job. To do so, however, I mustn’t become too fixated on any of life’s transient details, not the things I use and see nor even the people and animals I know and love. To write about how much I love life, I must focus simply on life itself, that which flows through everything everywhere always. If I look too hard at the shape that life takes, I begin to lose sight of what I love so much about it.

Driving home from the veterinary hospital I found myself remembering why I actually loved life. I had to; it was either that or fall into the bottomless hole of loss. I do not think death is the opposite of life. I don’t think life has an opposite, except fear maybe, which is really just mistaking shadows for something permanent. But death does require me to focus in a way I normally do not while bopping around the world of people and animals and trees. It requires me to focus as if I were sitting down to write a love story whose ending I do not yet know.

I am always happiest than when I focus in this way. I have never read nor told a satisfying story that ended with acquisition of any kind. The hero might get the girl or win the trophy, but to do so he cannot confuse what he can see and touch for what he values most. If he makes that mistake, he is only prolonging his inevitable despair. Such a story is actually only half-told. The true end to every story is when the hero learns what he is and has always been, that he has lost nothing except the fear there is something to lose.

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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Peaceful Stories

The other night I spoke to a group of parents whose kids are on the autism spectrum. I had a great time and I hope to give more of these talks in the near future. I love public speaking, but normally I talk to writers about writing. This was the first time I’d ever talked to parents about parenting. Strangely, though the subject matter was different, the experience was more or less the same.

This surprised me. In the hours leading up to the talk I was nervous in a way I hadn’t been in a while. I knew I was going to tell stories I hadn’t told before, and no amount of preparation could unlock the mystery of how those stories would be received. Only experience could do that. So there was nothing to do but wait and wonder and repeat to myself over and over: “It’s going to be fine.”

As soon as I arrived for the talk I knew I was indeed going to be fine. The organizer had arranged the room just as I would have for one of my writing workshops – with a table facing the audience. I like to sit on a table when I teach, as it provides a small platform from which all the participants can see me equally. So I felt physically the same, which provided the helpful illusion that I’d done this before.

Then I started to tell stories. I love stories, whether they’re about writing or being a father. I love inviting the audience to take a journey with me. There is something magical about knowing that even though I am the one talking, and they are the ones listening, we are still somewhere together, even though none of us can actually touch or point to where we all meet. And I love that by the end of a night of stories we all feel as if we’ve been through something together.

I know that what I went through and what the audience went through was slightly different, but maybe not in any meaningful way. The real difference between audience and artist is negligible, as negligible as the difference between writing and parenting. Everything I do is a search for what can only be described as peace. To be at peace with the story as it was meant to be told, to be at peace with the child as he was meant to live, to be at peace with myself wherever I may be.

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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Experienced Storytellers

I have discovered rather late in life that I enjoy teaching. For many years I didn’t believe I was interested in teaching or being taught. If I needed to learn how to do something, I’d do it, and make mistakes, and then do it again until I could do it well. The thing I most wanted to do well was to tell stories. I loved stories whether I was the audience or the storyteller. Stories brought life into focus, narrowing it down into something knowable and interesting and sharable. I loved stories so much I couldn’t fully understand why everyone didn’t want to be a storyteller when they grew up.

Now I find myself teaching people how to tell stories. I wasn’t very good at it at first, but after making a bunch of mistakes I’ve gotten better. One of the first things I learned is that experience is the only teacher. So I say to my students, “Try doing this when you get home.” If they have success, it is because they allowed an experience to teach them something about writing or creativity or fearlessness. I was not so much the teacher as the one pointing them toward what I believed was the best classroom.

Though this is perhaps not entirely true. A lot of what I do when I teach is tell my students stories. A storyteller must leave room in his story for his audience. He must leave room for their imaginations to bring that story to life so that they can feel within themselves the excitement or worry or relief. He must leave room for the audience to draw their own conclusions, to decide who is trustworthy and who is not, to decide who is guilty and who is innocent. Ideally, by the end of the story the audience feels as if they have walked the path the storyteller carved through life’s brambles and thickets.

In this way a story is as close as we can come to two people sharing the same experience. I did not understand until I began teaching people to tell stories that all storytellers are teachers. We invite our audience to experience again the value of love or courage or compassion or peace. We all forget. We get lost down dark paths of our own creation, having told ourselves stories of our wretchedness and powerlessness and vanity. How nice when we find a friend to tell a better story to, a story that can help us forget where we were going and remember who we 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

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Interesting Difference

When I interviewed Yann Martel several years ago he pointed out that it was his book Life of Pi that became famous, not he. Unlike an actor, Martel could easily walk the streets of his native Toronto without being recognized. This is probably a best-case scenario for the average writer, most of whom happily practice their craft in an alive solitude with only their imagination for company. We love other people, our readers most definitely included, but they are very distracting and they sometimes make a lot of noise.

I say this as someone who, once he’s done writing, loves to find other people and talk to them. Now these other people are no longer a distraction – they are an inspiration. It is easy to become so familiar with your own work that you forget why it was ever so interesting to you. Fortunately, no two people are ever interested in the same thing for exactly the same reason. Because stories are brought to life in the alive solitude of the reader’s imagination, every reader I meet seems have a read a slightly different book than the one I wrote. The difference between the book I wrote and the book they read can bring that story to life for me again.

I thought about this difference when I watched the movie version of Life of Pi. I’d taken my youngest son to see it, and at one point in the middle of the film he began to cry. I glanced down at him to make sure it was crying that I was hearing, since I was watching the same movie he was, and I was not even in the vicinity of tears. He was most certainly crying. I returned my attention to the screen, where a zebra was struggling to climb onto Pi’s lifeboat. It was then I remembered my son’s feelings about animals. I loved animals too, but I knew he identified with them in a way I did not.

During our conversation, Martel said one reader he met told him the tiger sharing the lifeboat with Pi clearly represented marriage. Martel thought the tiger represented God, but he wasn’t about to disagree with her. Ideally, I would never disagree with anyone, even when someone doesn’t like what I’ve written. To do so would be to ignore the inspiring difference between us, a constant reminder that everyone has something new to offer – including me.

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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Useful Villains

Every story, like every life, requires contrast. If you want to write about love, you must write about loneliness. If you want to write about triumph, you must write about defeat. Everything is always seen more clearly against its opposite. A flashlight’s beam does not register in the middle of a sunny day, but it is a swath of clarity at midnight.

This is useful in a very practical, crafty kind of way. If you know the gift your story is trying to give in its end, then you also know the suffering through which you must first take the reader so that this gift will mean something. You must remind the reader of suffering so she can appreciate and celebrate the relief that comes when the suffering ends. In this way, the darkness of our stories is as much a gift as the light, and most writers learn to relish their stories’ darkness, as an actor often relishes playing a villain.

We do not always apply this reality to our own lives. Darkness is darkness, and in it we cannot see and are lost. Villains are villains, and their villainy is expressed in their desire to harm or obstruct us, not help us. But who better to teach you what you know than someone who disagrees with you and who requires your greatest clarity to bridge the gap of misunderstanding? And where better to perceive your own light than in your own darkness? It was there, after all, you first recognized that which you had always been shining.

And who better than a villain to teach us that we are safe? To perceive a threat where none exists and then to find the truth is to awaken to your inherent safety. It is not always so simple. After all, it is our belief in our frailty that summons a villain to us, and their arrival feels like proof of the nightmare we are dreaming. But with this villain, there is no victory or defeat; there is only the contrast between a dream and reality.

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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A Different Angle

I was in Los Angeles recently teaching at writer’s conference and visiting my brother and an old friend, both of whom work in television and film. Going to Los Angles, to Hollywood, is always a tricky proposition for me. I love seeing my brother and my old pal, and I certainly love teaching, but I also feel a bit how a recovering alcoholic might if he spent the night hanging out in a bar with friends. It is not just the proximity to temptation, but the memory of having yielded to temptation in exactly that location.

Though I had lived in LA for only nine months twenty-seven years ago, that time remains etched vividly in my psyche. For someone transfixed by the societal ladder of success and failure for much of his early life, Hollywood provided constant opportunities to measure how close to the top or bottom I resided. There were so many beautiful people in beautiful clothes driving beautiful cars to beautiful homes, and there were so many movie studios with iron gates and security guards keeping out the riff raff, and there were so many conversations with other writers and actors trying, trying, trying to make it. All of this and also the merciless Southern California sun, and the dry Los Angeles River, and the sprawling heartless freeways, and the men selling oranges at traffic lights, and the strip clubs, the people you’d meet who looked every bit like you who’d say, “You have be lucky or willing to sell your body in this town.”

So I was glad to leave that place, but the ladder can follow you everywhere. Back walking those palm tree-lined streets, feeling that weird Los Angeles sun, and everyone sparkly and ambitious, I felt the temptation to measure myself again. I was relieved to retreat to the hotel, and to the cool conference rooms where I could teach a little fearless writing. When I’m doing what I love it is easy to forget what I was never meant to love. After the class, sitting with my brother on his balcony, he asked, “When you’re teaching, what do you do when you look out and see all their fear and self-doubt? Doesn’t it freak you out a little bit?”

“Not when I’m teaching,” I said. “It’s like I can look right through it to who they really are.”

“Good trick,” he said.

“Yeah. Now, if I could just do that always.”

I glanced out over North Hollywood. The sun had set and it was cool enough for sweaters. I knew the Hollywood itself sign wasn’t far, that from a different angle I might be able to spot it through the palm trees lit by the city’s neon glow. I was just as happy then not to find that angle, and as usual that made all the difference.

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 Second Discipline

Writers have to be disciplined. Most writers do not begin their career with a publishing contract in hand. Instead, the writer has an idea. That is all. This idea so interests him that he sits down every day, alone, often without encouragement, always without guarantees, just him and his idea, and he writes until that idea takes the form of a story he can share with other people.

This is one form of discipline. A writer can learn this kind of discipline with his first book. In fact, the writer must learn this discipline if he ever hopes to finish anything at all. But there is a second kind of discipline that cannot be learned with a single book. This discipline must be practiced again and again, from book to book, from day to day, from sentence to sentence even.

Here’s how it goes: You’re writing along, happily focused on the story you’re telling. You’ve forgotten about all your chores and your bills and your obligations; for the moment there is only this interesting story and the effortless feeling of laying your attention upon it. It always feels good to lay your attention on what interests you most. It requires no effort in the same way that eating when you’re hungry requires no effort.

But then, in the middle of wondering what you should write next, you have a thought. You think to yourself, “I’m interested in this story. I wonder if other people will be interested in it too?” Now you have moved your attention off of what interests you most and onto a question you cannot answer. It is impossible while sitting alone at your desk to know what other people are interested in, because they aren’t there. Any answer you receive is made up.

And so, trying to answer this question does not feel good. It feels as bad as laying your attention on what interests you most feels good. In fact, this question now feels like a problem. If other people don’t like this story, why are you bothering to write it? Why write another word if no one is going to be as interested in it as you? And because you are an adult, you have learned that problems don’t solve themselves. To fix a problem, you must pay attention to it until it is solved.

Unfortunately, the more you pay attention to this kind of problem, the worse it gets. Now is when you must practice your second discipline. The only way to solve this kind of problem is to ignore it. Despite all the momentum of fear that somewhere out in the misty future there is a world where no one likes what you’ve written, you must bring your attention back to the present moment where the story you want to tell is waiting for you. No matter how real that future appears as you stare at it through the lens of your imagination, you must deny its existence and will yourself back to reality.

It took me a while to understand this practice as discipline. A disciplined person, I felt, was willing to ignore some of life’s easy pleasures to build toward some desired future, like writing every day even if you don’t necessarily feel like writing every day. But this second discipline was about choosing to feel good rather than bad, choosing effortlessness over effort. And yet the degree to which I have mastered this discipline has meant the difference between loving what I do and fearing what I 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

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Easy

When I was a teenager, I knew just a few things for certain, one of which was that I wanted a girlfriend. I knew I wanted a girlfriend the way I knew I liked David Bowie’s album Ziggy Stardust and T. S. Eliot’s poetry, and the way I knew I liked playing football and the game Dungeons & Dragons. I knew what happiness felt like, and I knew I preferred it to the alternative, and I also knew that all those other things that made me happy could not take the place of what I believed waited for me in the unique happiness of The Girlfriend.

I say believed, because when I had girlfriends, that unique happiness never quite materialized. In its place was an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying exploration. The difference between what I could picture in my mind when I thought Girlfriend and what was actually happening was the stuff of mournful sonnets and love songs. It was my own mental clarity around the subject that confounded me. I absolutely knew this experience could be better, the way I knew what happiness felt like. So why wasn’t it better?

The answer, of course, was that I was only seeing half a picture in my mind. I was seeing Me with Somebody. I could see me quite clearly; I just didn’t understand that the Somebody couldn’t be just Anybody. Then I met Jen, and I understood. I hadn’t wanted A Girlfriend. I had wanted to be with Jen, but I just hadn’t met her yet.

I made this same mistake with writing for a very long time. I knew I wanted to publish a book, the way I had once known I wanted a girlfriend. I had the exact same mental clarity around the subject, as well as the same confusion. Part of the reason I had wanted A Girlfriend was that any girl who said “Yes” to me could help me believe I was desirable. A published book, I hoped, would have the same effect. It took me many interesting but ultimately unsatisfying explorations to conclude that I didn’t want to publish just any book.

It was when I asked myself, “What book do you desire to publish?” that the experience of writing and publishing matched the pleasure I had believed it could bring me. It was like that first date with Jen. We sat there eating chocolate cake at Penguin’s Cafe, talking and talking and talking, and I thought, “This is easy.” It was, to that point, the easiest thing I’d ever done. Nothing was required of me other than following my own curiosity, which always led me right back to 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

Follow wdbk on Twitter