Ashes To Ashes

It was such an unusually cold February night Saturday that I lit a fire. I love fires. I love building them, sitting by them, and tending them. I’m a very fussy fire-tender, poking, rearranging or adding logs every ten minutes or so. I pride myself on never needing more than one match to get a blaze going, and a fire that goes out prematurely feels like a failed experiment.

A good fire is the product of a healthy relationship between the wood. The logs must be close enough to share their heat, and far enough apart to allow the oxygen needed to burn. The point is always the fire, of course, not the logs, and in a really good fire, where all the logs are burning, each log’s flame lighting and re-lighting all the others, you cannot tell what log is responsible for which tongue of flame.

Still, I can become sentimental about the wood. Whenever I add a fresh log and watch its bare white wood catch quickly and eagerly, that new log becomes the king in my imagination. I look at all the other logs beneath it, coal-black and pulsing red, and remember when they were young and white and fresh and seemed eager to burn. I watch as the old logs’ heat lights the new log, whose fresh flames in turn reignite the old logs, and I’m glad for the old logs that they still have fuel to burn.

I cannot become too overly concerned about the individual logs, however, or I will lose sight of their purpose. Everything in my hearth is in service to the fire—the bricks of the fireplace, the iron grate, the poker and the prong—all the hard things I can touch and move are there only to allow for something that can be felt but not held, summoned but not made, and which alone can transfix us as completely as a work of art. The only memory fires leave behind is ash, which says no more about the truth of a fire than a shipwreck does an ocean. In this way the sadness of ashes is misleading, a trick of near-sightedness, as real as believing graveyards are the sum of all creation.

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

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Luckless

No matter how many writers I interview tell me that a certain degree of luck is necessary to get that first book published, I remain unconvinced that luck, in the truest sense of the word, has got anything to do it.

For instance: Let’s say I am playing a game where in order to win I must roll two sixes on a pair of dice. If I were only allowed to roll once, or even twice, then yes, a certain amount of luck would be required to win. But what if I were allowed to roll ten times? Or twenty times? Or what if I were allowed to roll as many times as I wanted, for as long as I could tolerate rolling, until I got two sixes? In that case “luck” would only govern how long it took me to win, not if I won. And in fact, since I couldn’t technically lose unless I stopped rolling, it wouldn’t really be a game at all, because gone would be the question of winning and losing; the only question would be whether I was willing to continue rolling.

So it goes with publishing and most everything we do in life. If for each story I wrote I were only allowed one stamp to mail one copy to one publisher, then I would certainly need some luck. But what the writers who mention luck really mean is that there is an element to publishing, as with everything, that is out of our control. Namely, other people. What we call luck is an expression of our own impatience and our periodic frustration with other people’s persistent desire to make up their own minds.

Forget about luck if you can. It is an insidious concept, implying somehow that life is nothing but a meaningless collision of numbered ping-pong balls in a glass case. Luck is an excuse to give up, to cede our role in the unfolding of our lives to an invisible force, a force that in the end turns out to be nothing but our own lack of faith in ourselves.

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

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

True Story

Here is one story: Editors would much rather buy books by published writers than unpublished writers. The unpublished writer has no readership, no track record. If that book fails, the editor’s publisher will ask, “What were you thinking?” Better to work with a proven writer. After all, if you were hiring a contractor, would you choose one who just opened his business, or one who’d been at it for twenty years?

Here’s another story: Editors love publishing books by unpublished writers. That writer has no track record working against him. How aggravating for an editor to find a book she really loves but be unable to sell it to her publisher because that writer’s last book didn’t sell through. What’s more, how exciting to discover a new talent. What a feather in an editor’s cap to be the one to discover the next J. K. Rowling or Jonathan Franzen. Careers are built on such discoveries.

If you are a published writer, you probably prefer the first story. If you are an unpublished writer, you probably prefer the second. Unfortunately, both are true. Fortunately, you get to decide which one you tell.

Storytelling can be odious in this way. So much simpler to have only one true version of a story; so much simpler not to have to choose. What if you are wrong? Best to disprove the other story, and once you have completely discredited it then you can begin telling the story you’ve wanted to tell all along.

But the other story will always be true for anyone who believes it. Why else are we writing but to make true what we choose to believe? The moment your reader cries when your heroine loses her lover – your story is true. The moment your reader cheers when your hero conquers his nemesis – your story is true. It is true because your reader believed in it enough to suffer and celebrate with it. And your reader believed in it because in the moment of creation, when thought found word, you allowed the separation between an imagined kiss and a physical kiss to dissolve, surrendering to the understanding that your life is only a story you are telling yourself.

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

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Narrow Light

When I was twenty I bought my first car: a 1972 Saab. No sooner did I begin driving it then I noticed Saabs everywhere. How strange. Perhaps there had been a spike in their popularity. I pointed this anomaly out to my father.

“This happens every time you buy a new kind of car,” he said. “You just never noticed them before.”

At the time, I disliked his blunt dismissal. I thought I was on to something. I have since decided he was absolutely right. But I have also decided that I was right. I was on to something, I just didn’t understand what.

There are a lot of cars in a busy city: there are cars waiting in driveways, cruising on the freeway, and jammed into parking garages. You pass them and they pass you and you can hardly stop to consider every one. But what if you began looking for a certain type of car? Now you would actually begin seeing a car, whereas before you were actively looking those cars were passing by unseen.

I heard life described once as a vast warehouse filled with everything imaginable – everything you could ever want, and everything you could ever not want. The only problem is the lights in this warehouse have been turned off. The only illumination we have is the narrow flashlight beam of our attention. We can only see where it is shining. In this way we are both blind and seeing at the same time.

This is why I was justified in my excitement about the proliferation of Saabs in Providence, RI. I had made a great discovery. It turned out I was surrounded by what I was looking for as soon as I started looking for it.

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

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Tyranny of Mediocrity

Mrs. Casey, my senior year English teacher, always worried me. She was a graduate of Brown University and was teaching at a poor urban school, the vast majority of whose students would not attend college, let alone an Ivy League school. She dressed primly with her collar always buttoned to her neck, and referred to her husband as her “darling Arthur.” She probably should have been a New York editor, but there she was teaching Return of the Native to the bored boys and girls of Hope Street High School.

I worried for her for because even though she was physically a sturdy woman, I sensed she lived on the edge of a mental collapse. She would from time to time use the classroom as a forum for her grievances with The World. First, modern America was suffering from a “tyranny of mediocrity.” This was her own phrase, and I must have heard her use it a dozen times that year. Second, she felt the word “tragedy” was used far too loosely. Hamlet, she said, was a tragedy; Oedipus was a tragedy. A 100-point dip in the stock market was not a tragedy. I had to agree, but I also had to wonder, “So what?”

Still, the times I worried most for Mrs. Casey was when she would talk about her “darling Arthur.” She was just so genteel, Mrs. Casey, in her plaid skirts and her sprayed hair. I appreciated her gentility – her propriety and her vocabulary – but it was all so quixotically out of place, and it seemed that the strain to maintain it was going to break her.

The last time I saw Mrs. Casey was two years after I had graduated. Hope’s football team was going to be playing for the Class B State Championships, and my father suggested we go watch. There she was, in the same skirts, the same sprayed hair, standing on the sidelines with three young students who were videotaping the event for her Communications Class. I came down out of the bleachers and said hello.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

She shook her head and winced. “The same, Bill.  It’s a tyranny of mediocrity.”

This is what she said to me – while behind her the boys of Hope High were busy becoming State Champions.

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

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Divide

It was the first and only writing class I would take in my adult life, and there I was, having written for over fifteen years, about to read my fiction aloud to strangers for the first time. I had written and performed my own theatrical production, I had given poetry readings – but no matter. This was a very autobiographical novel – the first of its kind I had ever attempted – and it was the first book I had written that I felt really sounded like me. What would it mean if no one liked it?

I read my pages, set them down, and waited. As always, the work was greeted by silence. Who would be the first to speak? Who would risk offering his or her opinion if no one else agreed with it? Finally Amanda, a very bright psychologist/novelist spoke up:

“I don’t get it. What’s the narrator so upset about?”

And then another: “I don’t get it either.  It’s like there’s no plot.”

And then another: “I couldn’t really follow it. So the narrator’s upset because his girlfriend left?  That’s it? I don’t get it.”

On and on until half the class had spoken, and half the class didn’t get it. I checked my pulse: I was still alive. That was something.

And then, from behind me, Nick cleared his throat. Nick was the most experimental writer in the class, the most surreal. Sometimes when Nick spoke, his voice warbled a bit, as though someone had just finished choking him.

“I don’t know,” he warbled. “I liked it.”

Then Asa. “So did I! It was funny.”

And then Pete: “I didn’t care that there wasn’t much of a plot. I just like listening to the narrator.”

When it was over, the class was evenly divided: A perfect result. I was back exactly where I had begun, having to decide, just like my classmates, if I was willing to use my voice whether anyone agreed with what that voice said or not.

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

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Derping

Statistically speaking, my oldest son, Max, is what you might call an achiever. He carries more or less a 4.0, he scored well beyond what was necessary on his SATs to get into Harvard, he has debate trophies above his desk, and is the finance chairman of his robotics club. Robotics, if you’re curious, is a big deal in Seattle public schools—at least according to Max. He wants to get a degree in marketing and then go make a lot of money. More power to him.

But Max is also a firm believer in what he calls derping. To derp is to do nothing in particular. To derp is also to troll around the Internet in search of interesting stories or facts. To derp is to pace around the back yard and think about interesting stories or facts and turn them into more interesting stories. If what you think is particularly interesting, you might have to say it out loud. If what you are saying is really, really interesting you might even begin to run a little.

Max does not believe in studying for tests and Max does not begin his homework until 10:30 PM. He cannot start until then because he has too much derping to do. I used to get on him about all the derping. I used to tell him it was getting late and maybe he should quit pacing around the backyard and do the homework already. Except the more he derped, the better his grades got. So that was that.

I knew a waitress once who claimed to be a friend of Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s lyricist and longtime collaborator. I might not have believed her if she hadn’t told me that while visiting him he had once politely excused himself, explaining it was “time to work.” He then went out onto his deck, sat in a lawn chair, and closed his eyes.

I don’t know how long Max will be able to successfully derp. I don’t know if the Madison Avenue advertising firm he imagines himself running will frown upon him pacing his office and talking to himself. But I do know this: work can look a lot like play when the one doing the working his enjoying himself. Sometimes, it even looks like dreaming.

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

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Snow Days

If you live in or around Seattle then you have probably just been snowed upon. This is such a rare enough occurrence here that the mere threat of snow compelled the Powers That Be to cancel school before the white stuff started falling.

Growing up in Providence, RI we would have scoffed at such a thing. I have the distinction of having walked a mile in a literal blizzard to get home from school. I was twelve, and so of course I loved snow, and I loved it all the more for closing school, but there was a moment in my trek, about a half-mile from home, that I found myself thinking, “This is actually getting unpleasant.”

This was the Great Blizzard of ’78. RI was caught off guard by the storm and our roads remained impassable for days. Like many families we were forced to drag a sled from the garage and pull it to the nearest supermarket so that we could have bread and milk. We were running out of food, you see – actually running out of food. Everyone, rich and poor, was running out of food.  Who thought such a thing was possible in America in 1978?

This experience had such a profound effect on Rhode Islanders that to this day, my RI relatives tell me, stores still sell out of bread and milk when a winter storm warning is issued. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Still, I don’t believe society is as fragile as some Rhode Islanders might fear it is. When the plows finally did get to plowing, one came groaning and steaming down our street. As he neared our house, he spied us standing snowbound in our front yard, and he turned his machine and plowed our driveway. We were surprised, and I think he was surprised himself, but then we waved and cheered him and he smiled and waved back, and next thing he was plowing our neighbor’s driveway, and then our neighbor’s neighbor’s driveway. The snowdrift he left behind survived until March, just long enough to hear the first myths of that winter be told.

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

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Uncorked

If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to watch Deb Caletti’s interview in this month’s issue. In many ways her story exemplifies why I started this magazine. I love the craft of writing, and I even find the business of writing interesting in the same way I find MONOPOLY interesting, but I couldn’t dedicate a publication to these two subjects.

But the question Deb faced when her already physically abusive first husband told her that her writing would amount to nothing more than a hobby and that he wanted her to quit, is enough for me to fill a lifetime of magazines. As she explains in the interview, when someone hits they take something, but when they want to silence your voice they are taking much more.

I thought of Deb when I came across a video the other day in which a classically autistic girl, a girl who lacked speech and was presumed mentally retarded, began communicating through typing. What she had to say about autism was remarkable, but when she wrote, “I found my voice; you can find yours too,” I thought, We are all autistic in one way or another.

The world cannot know what truth you perceive unless you express it. I can become a kind of tyrant to my own children simply because I am too tired, too worried, or too grumpy to understand why an extra ten minutes of video games won’t mean the end of civilization. I do not mean this as a joke. It is at those moments when I, the father and supposed voice of reason, have lost my way that my sons must find their voice, not just to get their video games, but to understand that balance is always possible if you are willing to speak what you know but what others have temporarily forgotten.

The world is a friendly place, but everyone loses their way. Husbands lose their way, children lose their way, governments lose their way. We are all susceptible. But every time you perceive a lapse in another, you are presented with a choice: complain and blame, or speak and try to heal. It can seem a bit lonely when you speak for the first time, when you understand that in fact no one can speak for you, that you are as much the governing as the governed—but this feeling is only temporary. In fact, it vanishes the moment the words leave your heart, where you have kept them bottled, protected for years from nothing.

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

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Practice

Although I rarely address it directly in this space, I have always been a student of what we call craft. Though I have avoided writing classes and books on writing, I have always read other writers with an eye out for what I think works and what I think doesn’t work. As we all know, reading is second only to writing in the necessities of this discipline.

But writing is still first, and it is here that I am practicing even as I am working. This is how we get better, yes? We ask ourselves: Is there a quicker way to say that? Could this be more honest? Could this be more accurate? Could this be funnier, or sadder, or livelier?

These are all good questions, and when answered honestly, my work improves daily. This voice is like an inner coach, goading me on with gentle, relentless dissatisfaction. But this coach must be gentle. I call upon him when rereading my work, and if he is harsh, if he asks, “Why did you write that?” I will come to fear his eye. Now I will not be able to read my work honestly, and be inclined to call what is unfinished finished simply to avoid the coach’s whip.

I felt that whip for years and yet never knew where the scars had come from. If asked, I’d say, “Oh, that time the teacher said . . .” or, “There was this older writer I knew once who said . . .” But all these people did was show me how to hold the whip and how best to crack it. As with most things in my life, I perfected my technique in private.

It is odd to finally look down and see what is in your hands. If it’s there, then it has to be there for a reason, doesn’t it? Except once you have seen the whip, once you are aware you are holding it, the reasons are strangely absent. Something about getting better . . .. You can’t remember now, and as you put it down, you discover you can practice kindness in private also.

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

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter