Confidence

The worst thing that could happen to writer is not a bad review, poor sales, or a rejection letter, but to lose his confidence. Without his confidence, he cannot actually write. Instead, he will chase his own confidence across the page in words and sentences, but he will not catch it. It cannot be caught. To think that it can be caught is to lose sight of it again.

I sometimes coach individual writers. Always the first thing these writers want me to do is read their work. They will say this is a practical thing to do, that I might fix their sentences as a tennis coach fixes his student’s swing. But this is usually not what they want. They are hoping my reading their work will give them confidence. Unfortunately, having someone read your work is the last thing that will bring you confidence.

From time to time someone will read something I have written and they will let me know how much they liked it. This is lovely, of course, but then a time will come when I am not feeling my confidence, and I might make the mistake of turning in my memory to those kind words. In that moment I have only traveled further from what I seek. And if my work has been criticized, and if I am not feeling my confidence, I might use that criticism like a whip to punish me back to where I belong.

Where I belong is a place where even the memory of whips does not exist. Here, praise has no meaning either. Within my confidence there is only the gem of love, a thing of value that offers itself for the price of my attention. Nothing else exists there. To see anything else is to fabricate what will only crumble under the weight of time and be called worthless, as all the gifts we give one another must some day. Our confidence was never anyone’s to give; it was only ours to be remembered.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
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How To Build A Fan Base

Let’s say you’ve just published your first book. You’ve posted about your pride and joy on Facebook and Twitter. You’ve booked some readings at mostly local and regional bookstores. Your first readings are attended by friends and family. A few of these people genuinely like your book because your shared aesthetic is part of what you drew you together. But how does it grow beyond that?

I have a group of friends that love science fiction. I am not such a huge science fiction fan myself, but I have observed how they share their love of this movie or that book. Sometimes one of my science fiction-loving friends will recommend a book or movie and the others will then buy it or see it. This is how your fan base will begin to grow beyond the small immediate group of readers, by word-of-mouth from friend to friend. People love to share what they love with the people they love.

Sometimes, however, my science fiction-loving friends will have all read the same book or seen the same movie and they will get into a long and heated and discussion about its merits. If the discussion goes on long enough I can’t help but to remember the title and how favorable their reviews were. And so, for instance, one night I was looking for something to watch with my son, and I remembered them all going on about a show called Firefly, and so we watched it. I would not have thought to try Firefly were it not for having been in proximity to my friends’ discussion.

This is how your fan base will expand further. People not immediately drawn to your work will have heard about it and heard about it and heard about it until they want to see for themselves what the fuss is about. And if enough of these people start reading your book, now it will be as if a crowd has gathered in a large public square, and complete strangers will happen by because crowds attract crowds.

All of this, however, begins with one person – you. Your job is to write the book as well and as clearly as possible. Your job is to make it a book you would buy and you would be thrilled to read. The rest of the work of fan base-building is actually done by other people, most of whom are complete strangers. You can’t do it yourself. The job is too big. While the world is busy selling your book, write the next one. All those strangers who are now your friends in letters are waiting for it.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Nothing New

About two years ago I created a short compilation of my video interviews called, “The Writing Spirit.” I loved the piece because I felt it spoke so clearly to the intersection of writing/creativity and human beings’ inherent spirituality. This intersection is the starting point for Author, this column, Author2Author, and really all my work for the last six years.

It has remained one of my most popular videos, and the comments, with one notable exception, have been unanimously positive. That one exception was the very first comment, posted only hours after I uploaded The Writing Spirit to YouTube. The anonymous viewer posted: “I call bullshit. This has all been said before.”

He (it just felt like a he) was right, of course. It had all been said before. Jesus had said it, and Buddha had said it, and Beethoven had said it, and John Lennon and said it, and now Byron Katie and Abraham-Hicks and Eckharte Tolle and Anne Lamott and many, many others are all saying it and saying it and saying it. Everyone is saying the same thing, only slightly differently.

Everyone is saying it because everyone needs to hear it, and everyone is saying it differently because not every teacher can speak to every student. The world fits together in many places and at many angles. So too with your stories. It is said, depending on whom you ask, that there are only 7, or 5, or 3 stories to be told. The number is irrelevant. When the old stories pass through the original you they come out new.

I admit I was a little miffed that my lovely video was met so rudely by the grumpy world, and I promptly deleted the comment. Maybe I should have left it. It is good to remember that none of what we learn here is actually new. It is good to remember that what we are forever discovering what has always existed, and we are continually relieved to find it is still there.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Necessary Shadows

When an artist renders the world on canvas, she is as much concerned with shadow – the negative space, what cannot be seen – as with light, what can be seen. In this way, shadows define the visible world, providing clear contrast for what we wish to focus upon.

This is a friendly relationship to shadows. It also is easy to forget. As I go about my day, my own world can fall into shadow as quickly as a cloud covers the sun. Here nothing but moss and mold will grow; here nothing can bloom. And sometimes I meet a friend or stranger and I feel the shadow across their eyes, and I can hate them for it. In those moments, I fear shadows as I fear any terminal contagion. Only the strong of will survive and prosper in a world where shadows abound.

But if I were able to live on the surface of the sun there would be only light, light, and more light. Within that ceaseless brightness there would be no definition, no this and that. Not a terrible arrangement, but I like this and that. In this way, the world of form is a world of shadow by necessity. It is shadow that allows us to see. Shadow separates everything and allows everything to be what it is.

Still, the artist must remember she is not rendering the shadows themselves. They do not exist, so there is nothing to render. Much of human life is spent talking about shadows as if they were real. Newspapers and television and the Internet are full of heated debate about the quantity and meaning of shadows. Where did they come from? How long will they be here? Should we convene a panel or begin a case study on them?

Enough of this worry leaves me longing to live on the sun. Yet such a flight might only cast its own shadow on the world I’m departing. A pointless solution given that I will always cast a shadow wherever I stand. Better to continue learning to tell light from shadow, to see the bright and blooming world the sun has illuminated.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Know Your Job

I used to work lunches at a restaurant in Providence. The lunches were slow enough that our entire staff most days consisted of one cook, a dishwasher, and me. For those for hours I was busboy, waiter, host, and bartender. On the days when it did get busy, when the place filled up and there were people waiting to be seated and a margarita to be blended and food sitting in the pass shelf and two orders to be taken and three tables needing to be cleared, I could feel as if I was drowning in my customers’ mounting disappointment. This was uncomfortable, but at least I knew what my job was. That I hadn’t the time to do it properly was the consequence of life’s unpredictability, not my facility.

I would eventually begin the job of professional writer. This appeared to be a simpler job than waiting tables, as there was only my story and me, and life’s unpredictability seemed to play little if no role in my work. And yet often I would find myself at my desk accompanied by a familiar discomfort. It was reminiscent of those busy days working solo lunches, only worse. It was as if I was responsible not only for serving customers, but for creating them as well. I didn’t know how to do that, but if I didn’t, I would fail. I felt some days as if I had been told to step onstage and improvise Hamlet.

It would take me years to understand that I was trying to do something that wasn’t my job. I cannot do my imagination’s job; I can only create an environment within me that permits my imagination to function most effortlessly. It is easy to forget this. My imagination is responsible for my livelihood, for my very survival, and how I wish some days I could grab hold of it and bend it to my worried needs. But grabbing my imagination is as useless as grabbing another person; I might clutch a child in my adult hands, but that child’s freewill remains entirely beyond my reach.

I must remember my job every day I sit down to work. How much easier things go when I do. The child that is my imagination wants only to play within the garden of thought, and it does not care about the past or the future or death or sex or money. I am the one that sometimes cares about those things. Meanwhile, the imagination does its only job, and awaits my return to the garden we have both enjoyed.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Another Journey

I was traveling last week, and whenever I travel I eat too much. I have only recently observed this because I have been travelling more the last year or so. For most of my life, travel was such an infrequent experience that I felt no need to worry myself with such dull daily concerns as diet. All was different. Every view from every car window, plane window, or hotel room was different from the views I knew so well around my home. My bed was different also, as were all the people I met, and the street signs, and the stores. All this difference made traveling exciting. I was an explorer, and the world felt new again.

But as any writer who has ever embarked on a book tour of any length well knows, travel can teach you how rooted in familiarity you actually are. My bed, my kitchen, my desk, my chair, my computer – all these unchanging details of my life can become the only palm in which I believe I can ever rest. And so food, the indulgence that sustains me. I must eat as an explorer eats, feeding the vigilance required to find my way through this jungle of the new.

Look how survival can make us fat. Look how the body grows as we fear its extinction. Home again, I return to my chair and my bed and my diet, but I will be traveling again in a few weeks. It would be helpful if I could remember the journey that we call writing. Armed with nothing but coffee I don the pith helmet of thought and begin my exploration.

I have traveled further at my desk than in any plane, train, or car. And no, not to distant lands or Jupiter’s moons or magical kingdoms. I don’t care about distant lands; they are not actually any different than near lands. The earth is round, after all, and so every road eventually leads us home if we follow it long enough. Meanwhile, the best writing is a discipline of economy, an endless search for the quickest rout to life’s only destination.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Mysterious Treasures

It is common for writers to feel that they write to discover what they know. This is certainly true for writers of fictional stories, where an idea comes to an author in its dim but interesting form. The writer then spends a month or a year or a decade discovering why that idea is so interesting, and in so doing, translating it into a form where another human being might find it interesting also.

But this discovery occurs at all levels of writing, from the largest stories to the smallest sentence. Though I have been doing it all my life, how and why this discovery occurs continues to elude me, even now as I am pursuing it. That is, discovery is always heightened perception. To discover something is to see it – to perceive it – for the first time. If I were searching through sand on a beach for lost coins, I would dig and sift until I perceived coins reflecting in the sun. Even if I unearthed the coins, if I did not see them, if the sun had temporarily blinded me of if the coins were so caked in sand as to be camouflaged, no discovery would have occurred, despite my successful digging.

So it is with writing. To write is to turn our attention within so we might see the world more clearly. Here is where the mystery begins. On a beach I see the sand, I see my hand and my shovel and with luck the coins. But within me there is only the boundary-less expanse of thought. And just as the coin must be separated from the sand, so too must a thought be separated from all other thoughts to be perceived with enough clarity for translation.

Yet thought lacks the engines of shovels and hands. The only engine of thought is more thought. It is easy in this way to become lost in our efforts to discover what we seek. Now we are searching not for a coin within sand, but for a specific grain of sand in a world made of nothing but more sand. Despair not. That which compelled your search, your unique interest and curiosity, remains your truest and only compass. Collect those thoughts to make your interest whole, build it thought by thought. When you are done you will behold that which had lacked only the attention of a curious soul to be made real, and the world will be richer for it.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

I Write About Smells

I am away from my desk this week, and so the blogging duties will be handled by novelist, essayist, and all-around swell person Joan Frank.

Joan Frank

Over glasses of prosecco, a striking young Italian woman who works for the Semester Abroad program here in Florence told me she has a degree in linguistics, and reads hungrily in both English and Italian. Then she told me that she also writes.

I leaned forward, automatically on alert. What, I asked, do you write about?

Her brown-black eyes glowed as though she were confiding a treasured secret.

Smells, she said.

I nearly gasped aloud, enthralled.

She couldn’t know I was already among the converted.

Almost no other sense conveyed in writing (to my thinking) can accomplish so much so fast, so powerfully. But until meeting Marta, I’d never heard any writer confess that smell and smell alone was what she was after. (Academic papers may focus on it—but that’s a different world.)

Proust was onto this magic rabbit hole with his madeleine revelation, when the scent of the shell-shaped, cakelike treat dipped into a cup of tea woke his young protagonist’s memory, as if by hypnotic time travel, to the epic, detailed retrieval of the entire life of his childhood.

Smell’s what informs us before consciousness or words: as infants, alongside warmth, fullness, and other sensual comforts; the smell of mother, father, and the extending world, a potent, deep, yet consciously unnoted element of the universe we grow up in. Capturing the olfactory perception, for me as a writer, is one of my most precious tools, driving much of my work.

As a daily exercise, I try to describe to myself—as freshly and accurately as possible—what particular events, objects, or situations smell like. And I never forget excellent literary descriptions of smells. (Ursula Hegi once compared something to the smell of “wet stones.”) I heartily recommend writers seize this much-neglected tool, and work it like mad. Nothing else, to me, places readers so quickly, so deftly and richly, inside the world of a story.

Alas—before I could ask Marta more, the aperitivo part of the evening was over, and the gathered group had to split up.  But when I see her next I’ll ask to read what she has written.

Greedily, I want to see what I may have missed.

Joan Frank is the author of the novel Make it Stay, the short story collection In Envy Country, and, most recently, Because We Have To: A Writing Life. Visit her at joanfrank.org.

Getting Over It

I am away from my desk this week, and so the blogging duties will be handled by novelist, essayist, and all-around swell person Joan Frank.

Joan Frank

Dateline, Florence, Italy: My husband happens to be teaching a semester here. This amazing luck gives me a chance not only to write, but to read greedily. Of course, one of the first titles anyone thinks of in connection with beautiful Firenze is E. M. Forster’s Room with a View, because it opens and concludes in this jewel of a city—albeit a hundred years ago.

I’m no Forster scholar, but I’ve felt deep admiration for Passage to India, Howard’s End, Room, and other Forster works since too many years to count.  When friends learned I was traveling here, they all but fell down reminding me to snatch up Room, written when the good Forster was only 29 years old.

My paperback copy’s cover features a much-loved Spanish painting of two nineteenth-century women gazing out dreamily over a balcony. The book also features an introduction by Mona Simpson, which I decided to read last—since introductions often give away plotlines. I wanted to experience the work as if for the first time.

I couldn’t wait to commence it, my heart foaming.

Alas.

I’d just finished contemporary Italian author Elena Ferrante’s harsh, proud novel My Brilliant Friend, a story of two girls’ difficult coming-of-age in poverty-struck Naples. After chewing up this grapefruit, reading the Forster was like sipping old milk.

Room’s characters fuss and fume about what’s proper or (heaven spare us) suggestive; how the local service falls short of English standards, and so on. They behave and sound (post-Ferrante) like foppish fools, quite ignorant of the Italy around them except—paradoxically—its view, a backdrop appropriated to emblemize an ideal of vibrant, authentic life. Italian natives have only brief, walk-on parts, beautiful as gods but witless. Room struck me, at best, as a farce of manners.

Oh, get over yourselves, I wanted to snap at Forster’s flustered, self-immersed, pampered English biddies and clergymen of a hundred years ago. And I felt puzzled, and sad: I’d lost something. An earlier me had loved Room—or so I dimly recalled.

But I also understood that this little shock of loss will happen more often, after rereading certain classics. And I won’t be able to blame it on prior reading.

It’s because readers grow up. What feels like a revelation at fifteen or even thirty-five may not make the cut later. We grow older; understand the world better and (by consequence) the parochial or myopic quality of young work. Forster got wiser later—and so, thankfully, did we.

Joan Frank is the author of the novel Make it Stay, the short story collection In Envy Country, and, most recently, Because We Have To: A Writing Life. Visit her at joanfrank.org.

Doing The Difficult Thing

I am away from my desk this week, and so the blogging duties will be handled by novelist, essayist, and all-around swell person Joan Frank.

Joan FrankI know certain people whose driving concern, over the years, has been to keep themselves comfortable.

They are, in classic terms, fussers. Habits of health, food, props and toys, plans and logistics—the list never ends—all must be finessed and re-finessed, parsed and parsed again. Every choice is governed by one need: greater ease.

The prospect of travel stumps such individuals. Travel’s a crapshoot, sometimes slipping out of our control. Control, for Americans, is a throbbing issue. But so, on occasion, is conscience. Often, even what starts out as innocent luxury—say a resort hotel in Puerto Vallarta—winds up giving real unease. We get food poisoning, or the water in the heated pool begins to feel slimy, or the solemn beggars standing just outside the hotel’s strictly roped-off boundaries make guests feel like decadent trespassers.

Moreover, the choice to travel gets tougher as we age. As kids, we’ll sleep in a plastic airport chair (or under it), eat strange foods irregularly, and be fine. As we get older, it’s not so simple. It takes specific rituals to maintain bien-être, to feel good inside ourselves. And feeling good, as we age, seems a logical prerequisite to bringing best attention to what we see and do.

But the writer travels to push the envelope, to do the hard thing, confront the difficult,  the not-easily-assimilable. It can mean, very often, playing the fool. This vulnerability, to paraphrase the brilliant words of author Shirley Hazzard, is essential. It’s the only way to understand through the body that the world is larger, and infinitely more complex, than we knew. That other realms and ways of living go on in full, crackling vitality, simultaneous with our own. That the Japanese tourist wears a surgical mask to keep from infecting others, more than as self-protection. That spectacle is far more important, to Italians, than the drearier facts underlying it. That Cambodian villagers celebrate the installation of a water spigot.

And on and on, for as long as you’ve got time to investigate. And if writing’s not investigation, I don’t know what is. Henry James commands us to “be someone on whom nothing is lost.” Therefore:Writer? Travel when you can. Open your eyes and ears and heart, and forego immediate comfort for the longer-term, slower-blooming revelation. It’ll feed your work, and your soul. The more you understand, the more you’ll be able to see others—and yourself—with new tenderness.

Joan Frank is the author of the novel Make it Stay, the short story collection In Envy Country, and, most recently, Because We Have To: A Writing Life. Visit her at joanfrank.org.