A Fair Arrangement

I was eleven, and my mother knocked gently on my bedroom door. “Bill, I think it might be time we clean your room.” I looked over my shoulder at the landfill my room had become. It was as if I had taken the contents of my dresser and toy box and emptied them onto the floor. The only clear space were the stepping-stones of hardwood forming a path from bed, to desk, to door. Even I could not argue with these facts.

So I pushed myself from that day’s work – painting miniature soldiers – and joined my mother in what I felt was the end of childhood, and so the end of happiness. Now begins the inevitable and ceaseless business of staying alive, which, until such time as I was crowned king of my own country, would be my responsibility. As I stuffed shirts and socks into the hamper I could feel the coming dull flood of chores, of jobs, of bills, of shopping, of cleaning, of planning, of meeting, of life like one endless school day. Within this necessary tedium would shine those cracks of light called pleasure and adventure and love, but we must be real about how many we would see.

What made it worse, perhaps, was that leaving my room as it was – even for a stubborn non-cleaner like me – simply wasn’t an option. How insidious. Why, there was not even some crotchety schoolmarm on whom to blame my burden. There was only life, which left toys and undershirts wherever they were thrown.

Eventually the room was cleaned and I returned to my work, which was a good deal cheerier without the surrounding mess. This was no easy admission, but there it was. I made a habit of putting my clothes away in the laundry and my toys on their shelves after that. I observed that while life would not pick up my clothes for me, it would also not scatter them on the floor while my back was turned. This seemed like a fair arrangement, one I could reasonably live with for as long as life would have me.

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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Other People

When I waited tables I dreaded the Customers From Hell. The CFH did not believe the world would bring them what they wanted. They placed their order, and as soon as I left the table the confidence I would return with their drink, their salad, their dinner, declined with every passing moment. I would see them craning their necks as I kicked the kitchen door open, and every drink and dinner was received with tepid thanks, my momentary timeliness merely delaying their inevitable disappointment.

Oh, the agony of waiting: To give your order and then rely on other people to bring it to you. Other people. The world is filled with other people, and how we need them to do anything, and yet how little control you have over them. Servers, husbands, wives, agents, editors, readers – all these other people, these souls who are not you and without whom you cannot be happy, without whom you cannot create a single thing of meaning. You give your order and you wait, and any dream of control you ever believed you possessed leaves with that sovereign servant.

For years I hated and feared the CFH. Why visit your misery here? Stay home where you can cook your every meal, clear your every dish, and be freed from the torture of trusting another human being. For ten years, for fifteen years I tried to soothe them with competence, but to no avail. No drink could be brought fast enough, no steak could be cooked Medium-Rare enough. There was always another opportunity to screw up, and so their fears confirmed, and so their unhappiness complete.

Until one evening a CFH sat in my station, and I stepped to the table, and looked into his fearful eyes and thought, “Be not afraid.” I was thinking it for myself, but as I thought it, I saw something melt behind his eyes as well. For that moment the illusion called other people dissolved, and we saw who we were, and knew that to get what we wanted we needed only to trust ourselves.

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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No Exaggeration

My younger brother John is a natural storyteller, which is to say he is not afraid to exaggerate. When we were boys, it seemed sometimes as if he lived in an elementary school soap opera peopled with Shakespearean-sized villains and heroes. One day after school he kept me rapt with a tale of his narrow escape from a mysterious group of predatory teenagers. Sensing the totality of my hypnosis, he went so far to stop mid-yarn and declare, “Wait! I hear them. No—it was just a dog.”

My mother, slightly less gullible than I, eventually caught him in a more conspicuous exaggeration and observed, “Making life a little more interesting?” John always appreciated the delicacy with which she handled this moment. As he explained to me years later, he lived his early life feeling as if I, two years his senior, had already done everything interesting someone his age might do, a perception I am certain I did nothing to discourage.

But as I said, he’s a natural storyteller, and he wasn’t about to let something so disposable as the facts get in the way of Job One, which was entertaining his listeners – or, more to the point, telling a story that accurately reflected life as he had lived it. I don’t have to live in his or anyone’s skin to know that his life meant as much to him as mine did to me – or Hamlet’s did to him, for that matter. Sometimes the storyteller is confronted with the conundrum of a day’s routine events not seeming to match the depth at which he lived them.

So I have no problem with exaggerators. But I also know that I do not have to climb Mount Everest to find a worthy view. In fact, I do not even have to leave my desk. From time to time we storytellers luck out, and an event comes along so startling on its surface that it seems to do all our work for us. More often, however, we are left with days so similar to the last they could be laid one on top of the other like pancakes. I decline to call such hours meaningless. Let the historians mark the days as big or small; I reserve the right to live them all.

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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An Everyday Miracle

At a book signing last week a young woman pulled out her iPhone and showed me a picture of her office. “You can’t really see it in the photo,” she told me, “but I keep a quote of yours – the one about what it is you most want to say – on my computer so I can look at it every day.”

I squinted, but to no avail. It seemed appropriate that I should have take her word for it, as the idea that something I had said or written served as a daily inspiration for a person I had never met felt mildly miraculous to me. Yes, I write a column that is inspirational in its intent; yes, when I speak I do so more to inspire than to educate; and yes, I have published a book whose sole purpose is to inspire the reader to do what he or she loves. No matter. Within me is the recent memory of waiting tables and writing books that no one read. How exactly did this happen?

Still, my own story is mundane compared to that of Marc Allen, with whom I had the pleasure to chat two weeks ago on Author2Author. Marc is the co-founder of New World Library, a multi-million dollar publishing company. When Marc says that if he can find this kind of success anyone can find this kind of success, he really means it. The day he decided he wanted to start the company he was thirty years old, unemployed, broke, had never thought of starting a business, nor writing a book. And yet, here he is.

To hear Marc tell this story is to understand the everyday-ness of the miraculous. It is easy to call a miracle a lovely fluke, a gift of life’s roulette wheel of fortune and failure. Yet my own brief astonishment at the book signing quickly passed. I had merely lapsed for a moment into the dream-world of memory, a place where I had not yet perceived how this moment was possible. In the next breath I was back in the present where book signings and were not just possible but occurring, where what had once seemed as unlikely as a miracle was now reality.

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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Your Invitation

Know your value. Know your job.

If you look for your value, you will not find it. If you look for your value, and if you believe you have found it, you will soon feel betrayed and valueless. You cannot find your value, you can only know it, the same as you must know the value of the story you will tell before your have told it. To seek your value is to question its immovable and immeasurable permanence, and this mere questioning is an intolerable grief against your soul, and your searching will be filled with anxiety and despair.

You are not some statue of gold, nor of stone, nor of assembled dust. You are not a thing separate from others, cluttering the way for those of greater value, in whom you have bestowed the treasure of perfection you now seek. You are an equal part of the whole, neither separate from, nor greater than, nor lesser than. You are not in anyone’s way, for no one could do anything without you, and you could do nothing without them. The world would collapse in an instant if the bond that connected us could ever be severed.

Your only job is to know your value. It is from this knowing that the stories you wish to tell will spring. It is in this knowing that you will draw readers to you, for as you know your value, so do they. Your value is their value, there is no difference, and so you can teach others what you know, which is what they already are.

Life simplifies immensely the instant you know your value and your job. Know your value, and you will not have to spend your days arranging proof of what cannot be proven. Know your value, and life will come to you, for you will have removed the obstacles to its arrival, the evidence you assembled to protect that which needed no protecting. This moment where you ask nothing of anyone is what you once mistook for loneliness. And yet it is the very opposite. This is an invitation to the whole of life, an invitation life can but accept, for accepting is all life ever does.

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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A Long Experiment

My early twenties were a very creative time in my life. I had recognized that the best way to create anything was through a combination of enthusiasm and trust. When I trusted my imagination to give me something cool or funny or profound, and when I allowed my enthusiasm to guide me in translating those ideas into stories or poems or sketches, the work felt alive and it came easily and I enjoyed making it. In fact, it was not like work at all; it was like very focused play.

But then one evening I was laying in bed in my apartment thinking about driving. When you’re a boy you sit in the back of the car and the adults drive wherever you must go. This is a nice way to travel as you can lean your head against the window and let yourself drift where your imagination will take you. This is how you get from place to place as a child.

Now, however, I drove the car. Now I must choose right or left, north or south; now I must know where to go. I became suspicious of this relationship I was forming with my imagination. Where was it headed, exactly? Though I was enjoying the ride, it did feel suspiciously like chance. How could I trust it would bring me the success I required?

So I changed the rules. Playtime is over, I said. The grownups are in charge now. From here on I will decide what we write and you will provide me what I need. If I say screenplay, you will give me a screenplay; if I say literary novel, you will give me literary novel. My future is too important a thing to leave to chance.

And so, for twenty years or so, most of what I wrote was dead.

The imagination is one tireless and loyal companion, however. It knows nothing of time; it cannot be hurt or rejected. Eventually, I became exhausted. It was hard always working and never playing. Plus, I was no Dr. Frankenstein; I could not make live what was really dead. The tiring experiment complete, I looked about for other ideas, and there came one from a familiar place, and I quite liked it, and I followed where it was headed.

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

Remember Well

I will always be writing to myself, to the Bill who has thought, “This sucks. This whole place sucks. Nothing I do works, nothing I say means anything, nothing is happening, and no one cares. This sucks, and I am doomed.” I write to this Bill because he needs writing to. And he is not alone. Humans are prolific and creative when it comes to predicting of their own demise. The world, I have noticed, is always about to end.

Sometimes when I write to this Bill, I say, “It’s going to be okay. Listen to me. No, don’t look away – listen to me. I’m okay right now, which means you will be okay. Look ahead to the lights and follow them. Eyes out of the shadows now, they are only obscuring your vision.”

But sometimes I prefer to write into the shadow itself. When I do this I ask gloomy Bill to think not of his current despair, but of one of his many, many other despairs. I take him back to some old moment of doubt and of ruin, and I say to him: Remember. Remember exactly how it felt. Remember exactly how real the pain was, the excruciating story of doom, the instant death of meaningless. Remember all of it in glorious detail. Summon the whole rotten story and retell every rotten moment.

And then ask yourself, How did the story end? Ask yourself why the world is still spinning with you on it. Where is that pain? It was as real as the tree in your yard, wasn’t it? You felt it like a knife. And yet the tree remains, and the pain . . .? It lives only in a story. How real a thing could it have been that it left not a single, fearful mark on the world? Remember now what you once called reality, and remember how in the seeing you watched it vanish within the light of your eyes.

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

It’s Happening

Something is always happening.

How much time does a writer spend in a day where nothing appears to be happening? How many cumulative hours idle and un-writing before the keyboard? How many days with no word from editors or agents or contest judges? Nothing is happening. We wander our homes and apartments, surrounded by the exact same books and furniture as the day before. We turn on the TV, and isn’t that another rerun of Law and Order? Why isn’t anything happening? What must I do to get things to finally start happening?

Nothing. Because something is always happening. Movement is the only constant of the universe. You were not idle at the computer, you were waiting. Waiting is the silent awareness of movement and change. You cannot make anything happen, because something is always happening. You can only choose what happening you will join.

Life in this way is one endless playground, but how often has the writer wandered its periphery? How often has he stood by the fence watching the games in progress? Something is happening for them, he thinks, but not for me. Lonely me. Now an idea comes to the writer, as ideas do, and he wanders with it along the fence, and it is an interesting idea, and for a time he has forgotten to tell the story of how nothing is happening and he is not wanted.

And as the writer wanders, some player spies him by the fence. What is happening there? the player wonders. Why does it look like he’s doing something when he’s doing nothing? How wonderful that must be to live without the knowledge that this game must end, and then begins the dull, uncertain nothingness between games. How nice it would be if the game never ended, if something were always happening.

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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Science!

I have written here and spoken often about the myth that writing is hard. This myth says that writing is naturally, unavoidably hard. Sometimes it’s effortless, but that’s just luck. Mostly it is hard. Once upon a time I fully believed this story. After all, everyone seemed to say that writing was hard, I frequently found writing hard, it made perfect sense to believe a story so fully supported by so much evidence.

How was it, then, that I came to believe a different story about writing? Science! Yes, I used a form of logical inquiry that went thus: Sometimes writing feels hard, and sometimes writing feels effortless. The writing that feels hard is not always my best writing; the writing the feels effortless usually is. What’s more, I am much happier when the writing is effortless than when it is hard. Wouldn’t it be nice if the writing didn’t have to be hard some of the times? What if it could always be effortless? And what if the effortlessness isn’t luck? What if there are what you might call environmental factors that contribute to the effortlessness?

So began my inquiry. Which is to say I started paying attention. And soon I noticed the writing was more effortless when I was enthusiastic about what I was writing than when I wasn’t. I also noticed the writing was more effortless when I wasn’t worrying about past mistakes or what the agents would think of what I was writing. And finally, I noticed it was effortless when I was patient, when I didn’t conclude that those moments of waiting for the next word, idea, or scene to come to me were an indication of my inadequacy.

And lo, brothers and sisters, the work became more effortless. This is just how we got to the moon, you know. We asked, What if? What a lovely, optimistic, creative question. Just, What if? You don’t have to know the answer. After all, I was already living in the world where writing was hard. What if another world existed within the one I knew? What if the moon was as close as a thought, and what if it was actually fertile and green, and this stone I had called life was really cold and dead?

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

See It

Sometimes I will read a sentence by another writer that doesn’t ring completely true. Depending on how far from the mark the writer landed, such a sentence might get labeled “bad writing,” a term that is itself as inaccurate as the writing it claims to describe. The writing wasn’t bad, it was just unfinished and the writer didn’t know it.

I have written many, many such sentences in my life, and always a part of me knew at the time of the writing that there was something closer to what I had meant. I could not understand why some lines hit spot on, while others strayed again and again from their mark. It felt like luck – or worse yet, talent, as if my only bad luck was being born slightly less talented than my literary ambitions required.

All of that changed when I learned that most of the best writing has nothing to do with words and everything to do with patience. And I don’t just mean the patience to rewrite. I mean the patience to wait until you can see or hear or smell or feel what you are trying render. You must have the patience to allow the lens of your imagination to focus completely on what you are trying to translate into language. How can you possibly render it accurately if it is not clear? How can you write what you cannot see? Such writing is luck, and you have about as much chance of winning that game as you do the slots in Vegas.

Before you put one word on the page, ask yourself, “Can I see it? Can I feel it?” If you can’t see it clearly, feel it clearly, put all words aside and wait. It is critical you not dwell in words in this moment; they will only confuse you. Wait until you have focused that lens as tightly as possible on your target. Then open your mind to words, and if your focus is tight and clear they will come effortlessly. There is no luck to it. There is only the willingness to believe that if you can see it, you were meant to write 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