An Island for One

Perhaps you have played the game of what book or album you would take with you if you were stranded on a desert island. The unspoken presumption behind this game is that we choose a book or album we love, a book or album that stimulates feelings to which we would happily return again and again.

The books you choose to write should meet the exact requirement of the book you would bring onto a desert island. After all, you will be marooned with this story of yours for some time, and while marooned you will have to return again and again to the same feelings and ideas.

The only difference between your book and the book you would choose for the game is that yours hasn’t been written. And perhaps this would make it the best book of all for a desert island. The gears of time cannot turn so noisily within the dream of creation. And within that dream, instead of the idle and easy repose of a reader, you most don your adventurer’s pith helmet and set off on a journey into the depths of your curiosity.

In this way that island is not entrapment but liberation, and the journey into your story becomes the quickest way home.

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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The Stranger

The stranger will come to your door. He cannot enter without your permission, but he has come to help, and so there seems to be no harm to inviting him in.

He likes to talk. First he talks about the problems he can solve. This is how he helps. He’s a helper. He is also a man who understands the connections between things, and so he points out the other problems, those problems that led to the problems he was invited to solve. One must trace a thing back to its beginning. After all, to effectively weed a garden we must pull out the roots.

Now he begins to dig. You find you are not enjoying your companion so much. All this digging is exhausting and only ever seems lead to more problems. “When will this end?” you ask.

“Once we’ve solved all the problems.”

“But we haven’t solved a single problem yet.”

“Because we haven’t found them all. Anything less than thorough is useless.”

You did not know until meeting your friend that your life was nothing but problems. What a mess you’ve made. “What will it look like once you’ve found all these problems and solved them?”

“What will what look like?”

“My life. Can you describe it to me?”

Your friend blinks back at you. “Why would you want to know that? Do you want me to leave?”

“I’m sorry. What?”

“If there are no problems, there’s no reason for me to be here. Is that how you repay me? I came to help and all you can show me is the door?”

“I just want a life without problems.”

“Well, you’re going to have to choose. It’s a life without problems, or a life without me, your closest and most loyal friend.”

It almost feels like love, what he’s describing. Except you remember that love is what comes when problems leave, and so you make your choice.

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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Home Free

The writer can spend a lot of time locked in a prison called The Future. There waits acceptance or rejections, reviews and sales. I have dwelt there often. So often, in fact, that I can forget that it is not real, that my suffering and triumphs are all stories I am telling myself from that stage called The Present.

And not one of my predictions – not one – has ever come true. They cannot. What I foresee is merely a shadow of what will come, the same as the stories I tell are suggestions of a whole the reader must complete in their own imagination. When the actual, living moment arrives, whatever I predicted will be incomplete compared to life as it will be led. Life is composed of infinite detail, each as important as the next. If it is impossible for us to know the entire present, how can we possibly know the future?

Still, we try – or at least I do. I try and try until I feel trapped in a nameless and insidious suffering. If am trapped, then I must get out, but every effort to escape only makes this prison more real and more unbearable. I build the walls even as I try to climb them.

It is easy to forget that it is freedom I seek, not escape. To live free of the future or the past is to arrive suddenly at your own doorstep. Perhaps you fear it. After all, to enter is a kind of death, for everything you have made in the past cannot follow you into your home, and all the nightmares and circuses and parades you’ve dreamed for yourself will vanish in your awakening.

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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Real Tigers

For a writer, there is necessary ambiguity, and unnecessary ambiguity. The best stories I read are the ones finished inside me after what the writer calls The End. In this way, the writer is pointing me toward what he wishes to share, and allowing me to find it in my own thoughts and feelings, thereby making it my own.

But this way of sharing a story comes with unavoidable ambiguity. What will the reader take away? Yann Martel told me how once a reader was eager to thank him for Life of Pi. “It’s just so perfect,” she told him. “The tiger is obviously a marriage.”

“It is?” he asked.

“Of course. I’m married and that tiger is a marriage.”

So it was for her. It is almost frightening as an author how varied your readers’ responses can be. A thousand people will read a thousand different stories all with the same title. And yet we pour our attention onto the page so that we may say precisely what we mean. Why bother?

Because of the alternative. Do not be distracted by all this interpretation. Do not be seduced by the witchcraft of meaninglessness: “Life is ambiguous; so too shall be my endings. Who am I to say what is real and what is not?”

You are the author. Pick what you know to be valuable and write it. Know what you know and do not be afraid it, nor that other people will not understand it, nor that they will find something valuable in your work that you did not first see. It is your intention that lights their imagination. It is your desire to share something meaningful and remind readers where the value of life dwells that allows them to turn tigers inter marriages.

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 Different Day

It was my eighteenth birthday and I told the girl whose house I’d been hanging around at twice-a-week after track practice and whom I couldn’t say I was dating because I would leave her house everyday asking myself, “Why haven’t you kissed her yet?” – I told this girl that for my birthday we would go on an actual, out-of-the-house date. She agreed.

But before this date there was a special track meet being held in Connecticut instead of Rhode Island, and featuring runners from Massachusetts and New York. With me in the van driving to the meet was the great Billy McCoy, a runner from a rival Providence high school who had been the best sprinter in the state for the last three years. I cared more on that day about my date with the girl I wanted to kiss than I did about my race, and my performance reflected it. Billy did well, however, and in the Van ride home he talked about the fast track, and the strong wind, and also about being intimidated by a sprinter from NY who seemed like a man, not an 18 year-old boy.

It was nice, this different day. It was nice being in the van with the great Billy McCoy who felt more like a friend now than a competitor and headed home to a date with the girl I didn’t know how to kiss. As the van grew quiet I looked out the window at the passing world and entered a kind of dream watching a forest zip past. My dream mind began to compose a description of what I was seeing, and bit by bit this became the words, “We drove by thick forests, as dark as dawn at midday.”

This pleased me, and I found myself thinking again of this description as I dressed for my date. That description pleased me even though there was no way I could profit from it. It was not the words I loved, but where I had to go to find them. I ought to go there more often, I thought as I knocked on her door. It seemed to me that only good could come from a place that was both as quiet and creative as a kiss.

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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Greatest Clarity

When I was a waiter there was often the challenge of being heard as the restaurant got busy. One did not want to have to repeat the specials or ask again how the gentleman would like his porterhouse prepared. Fortunately, I could bellow with the best of them, and so for years, when the decibels around me began to rise, so did my own volume.

By and by I grew tired of all the shouting over more shouting and I began a little experiment. What if, I wondered, there was a way to be heard through the noise without raising my voice? Speaking more slowly and enunciating helped, but it wasn’t enough. That was when I learned to imagine my words like a razor, sharp and precise and bright, and my voice seemed to cut through the hum and clamor of the restaurant. I cannot tell you how did this, only that it worked, and I never shouted again. I had found my waiter’s voice.

Much is made of a writer’s voice, and many hours of sleep have been lost wondering if ours will ever be heard within the din of voices clamoring for attention. How tempting it is to shout. How tempting to break out bigger plots, bigger action, bigger words, bigger technical risks. But all of this noise assumes a competition where none exists. Clarity has no opponent. Once a thing has become perfectly clear it has emerged into itself were it stands sovereign and complete.

Such clarity reminds us of ourselves, or at least the selves we have forgotten and instead of remembering try to improve. No improvement is necessary, only greater clarity. To learn to see yourself clearly and as you actually are is to discover beauty again and again and again, and to know that ugliness is only life seen through the fog of forgetting.

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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Keep Looking

Though I believe in something that might be called magic, I don’t believe in dragons. I mean I don’t believe that actual, fire-breathing dragons walk this earth. I believe dragons, like vampires, werewolves, and zombies, are a vivid product of the supple and searching collective human imagination. But I don’t believe they are real. I don’t believe I’ll ever run into one.

Somewhere somebody does, I’m sure. Likely, this person has begun to accumulate dragon evidence. Perhaps an enormous footprint or a weirdly large scale; perhaps there are stories from Himalayan villagers or Peruvian farmers; perhaps there are grainy pictures or shaky videos. All of this evidence would have great meaning to a believer in dragons. To a person like myself, the only evidence that would have any meaning at all would be a live dragon rearing back to scorch me with its violent breath.

If I should ever meet a believer in dragons, I hope I will have the wisdom to listen to their dragon stories without contempt. Most human discovery begins with the belief in what we cannot see. A writer discovers a story that lives unseen and untold within her and which is found only through the continued belief in a feeling of excitement and curiosity, a feeling that holds her interest so that ideas can come and shape this feeling into something other people can see and feel and be excited by.

Meanwhile it is strangely impossible to see what you do not believe exists. Perhaps I have been living my entire life surrounded by dragons. I have to admit that I don’t really care because I do not see the benefit in living in a world filled with dragons and so I remain content never to have met one. But if you believe in dragons, keep looking for one. Our time spent searching for what we believe is real is never time wasted. You will absolutely find what you are looking for, though like the best stories, the end may be as surprising as it is satisfying.

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

Finding Your Readers

I was at a reading recently, talking about writing the way I like to – which is to say encouraging everyone just to do it and ignore all the noise about how hard it is to get published and the shrinking markets and rejections and snappy openings and so on – when a woman raised her hand and said, “This is such a relief.”

Which I share not to brag but because I had found a like soul. This column, and now my book (Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion), have been a relief to me. For years I worked against the current of a story that went thus: Writing and publishing are hard. You have to be lucky or talented or preferably both, and don’t forget it’s a business, and be original but make sure your work fits into a category, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I hated this story, but I believed it was reality.

The more I wrote while believing this story, however, the more I felt the mounting discomfort of working against what I secretly felt to be true and useful. The discomfort – which I sometimes called failure, or writers block, or a bad day’s work – was actually a form of asking. The discomfort was saying, “Not this. It isn’t working. Go find something better.” And so the discomfort grew and grew until at last I started a magazine and allowed myself to tell a different story, and in the answering of my own question the strain and weight of working against myself were relieved.

It is important as a writer to remember that out there in the reading wilderness are strangers looking for what you have written. I suppose this woman was. Whatever suffering had been relieved that night had been her asking. I am sure she did not recognize it as such. I am sure she called it a bitter pill of reality she must swallow if she wanted to pursue this dream. In this way, my answer was her answer, my relief was her relief, and my story was her story.

And that, I believe, is what we call finding your readers.

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

Home Again

I have spent my life finding my way home. I find it and I leave, and then I find it and I leave until I find it once more. I leave my home for the same foreign lands again and again, cities of noise and constant striving. I often mistake these places for home until I feel a yearning that nothing in the world can relieve. This is also called despair, until I remember home and begin my journey.

I do not think I am so different than anyone else. This is hard to remember when I sit at the same table with a friend. There he is across from me, and yet it is entirely possible that we are in two different countries trying to reach the same destination. Home is the same for everyone, yet no two can get there by the same route. And so I might suggest we take a plane, for I am stranded on a kind of island.

“That’s unnecessary,” says my friend. “We’ll just drive.”

“If we drive, we’ll drown.”

“Drown in what?”

“The ocean.”

“There is no ocean.”

“Are you blind?”

“Are you crazy?”

Such are arguments when everywhere that isn’t home is an illusion we believe with absolute certainty. I think about this when writers and readers debate which book is better than the other. These are questions that can only end in argument. Those books, like everything else in the world, are signposts and lighthouses for travelers. If you are not traveling by way of a certain book, it is of no use to you in your journey, and perhaps you call it dull, or pretentious, or just bad.

But if you are traveling by way of that book it can become a beacon reminding you in some small way of where you are headed. So write your own way home. There is no difference between your home and a stranger’s, and if you can find your way perhaps you will help another, and there you can meet in a place that is all agreement.

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

Give It All

Due to an ongoing Internet issue, I’ve been dealing with a lot of customer service representatives lately. My strategy with these people is to be as nice as possible, to treat them like new friends who would love nothing more than to do everything in their power to help me. Once upon a time it was more important that the person trying to help me thought I was nice than they actually helped me. Their theoretical opinion of me was like a wall that stood between me and all the nasty, impatient things I was often thinking.

That wall seems to have disappeared. In this way, my niceness is a choice, which is actually the nicest way to be nice – assuming, of course, I am actually as nice as I think I am. Yet this wall’s absence reminds me of how people over forty-five tend to speak their minds no matter what anyone thinks of what they have to say, a tendency that only increases the older we get. As my mother-in-law recently explained, “I held my tongue for all those years. Now I don’t give a damn who I offend.”

Which is why, I believe, writing is so often a middle-aged profession. It is much easier to write honestly if you don’t give a damn who you offend. I don’t think there’s any value in trying to offend, but not trying not to offend will quickly paint you into a very boring corner. In fact, it is much easier to write if you don’t care what anyone thinks of anything you have to say, because no matter what you say you are guaranteed that everyone will think everything given the chance.

Still, I try to write stories that are kind, patient and generous because that is always how the truth has felt to me. It took me years to work up the courage write stories like this. I was worried people would think I was unsophisticated. Somewhere someone probably thinks exactly that, but this seems like a very small price to pay. To offer half the truth you know is to offer no truth at all. Instead, give to the world all that you know to be true so that the world might know the truth that is you.

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