A Game in a Rented House

I gathered with a group of friends recently for a long weekend of eating and drinking and talking and playing a game around which we had all met when we were boys. Our adulthoods have taken us to different corners of the country, and our arrivals are staggered. Those first hours are filled with reacquaintance. Each freind you meet again is different because you are resuming your relationship where it left off, and yet each friend you meet is similar because there is something about meeting a friend that is always like meeting yourself as well.

That first night time is irrelevant. It is Thursday, and Monday morning is too distant to concern your imagination. Still, it is possible to let yourself dwell on it. It will come, after all. You arrived here knowing it would come. This weekend is like a cocoon within the rest of your life, and you can feel that life pulsing at the edges of the house you’ve rented. That other life is fine, but you’re here now, and dwelling on ending would only spoil the pleasure of beginning.

And then there is the game. The game means nothing unless you let it mean something. The worst thing you can do is think about the game. If you think about the game, you believe it is absurd that you are even playing it. It’s just a game. The best thing to do is enjoy it. Some enjoy the story of it, some the strategy, others the jokes, others the camaraderie. There are many ways to enjoy the game, but you must enjoy it only as you enjoy it. That is why you play it.

The ending begins before Monday morning. Cleaning the house Sunday night feels like a half-goodbye. You talk about who will be catching which flights and to where. When the morning comes, everyone leaves at different times. Saying goodbye you cannot believe it is already over, and yet you are ready for something else. The last hour before you leave is the hardest. There is always a moment of surprising and profound despair. For a moment, the weekend feels like a waste. It came and went and nothing seems to have changed. But to stay would be feel worse than leaving, and so you are out the door, and the rented house and the game are just a story now as you return again to your family.

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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War Stories

In the course of our homeschooling, my son and I decided we should learn a bit about World War I. I knew very little about World War II’s less popular younger brother except that men still road horses into combat and fought in trenches and started using machine guns. I also knew about the Red Barron, gas warfare, artillery, and someplace called Verdun. I was always very unclear about why it started. I knew there was someone called Arch Duke Ferdinand, but I never believed his assassination was actually the reason the war started.

Turns out it was. Or it wasn’t, actually. My son and I concluded World War I was a very stupid war, which could be said of all wars, in a way, except this was the one where we in the West first understood this. From the sound of it (and you History Majors please stand down) the reason the war really started was a story, which went like this: Countries fight each other.

That was the story. The Arch Duke was killed and word went around that it was time to fight again. Everyone was ready to do it – the French were ready to fight, the English were ready to fight, the Germans, the Austrians, the Russians – everyone. Britain needed 100,000 more men for their rather small army. When they put out the call, one million signed up. Because countries fought each other. Everyone knew that. War was a part of being a human who lived in a country. That was the story and everyone told it and everyone knew it and so off to war we went. And then we fought this horrible, unromantic, muddy, bloody, ugly war and many of us did not like this story anymore. Not quite enough of us, but quite a few anyway, and so gradually the story began to change.

You may think the stories you write are of no real consequence. You may think you are only trying to help people escape reality for a plane ride, or pass an evening pleasantly in the company of a new literary friend, but we are all the accumulation of the stories we tell and are being told. While it is unlikely your stories will start or stop a war, they might bring peace to one person for one moment and serve as a reminder of what we actually are, and where we are actually going.

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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Crepes and Stories

I had an actual handmade crepe for the first time the other day. This was at a cheery, hole-in-the-wall creperie where I could stand at the counter and watch as the young woman poured the batter on the Frisbee-sized black griddle, swirled this creamy pool thin with a wooden spreader, then deftly flipped the crepe with two steel, knife-like spatulas. When she was done she handed me what was, for all I could tell, a perfect crepe. I was certain she would make another hundred exactly like it before clocking out that day. As I ate my crepe, the student in me reviewed her crepe making as if it would soon be my turn to have a go at it. I would want to make a crepe exactly like hers.

As it happens, I had just come from teaching a writing workshop. Very little writing ever happens in the workshops I teach. Instead, we just talk. I have nothing against writing workshops where students actually write, but sometimes all that writing gets in the way of understanding what actually obstructs our best work. You can have craft up to your eyeballs, but if you have forgotten why you write or where your writing actually comes from, your craft will be as useless as that creperie without customers.

It is easy to understand why we would be tempted to teach ourselves to write stories the way we teach ourselves to make crepes, or paint houses, or multiply fractions, or bake cakes, or any of the million little things we humans do while we’re living on earth. But a story or a poem or an essay is not a crepe, in exactly the same way you are not a crepe. The crepe maker’s job is to recreate the crepe experience again, and again, and again. The writer’s job is to summon something new again, and again, and again.

Which is why I tend not to do much writing in the workshops I teach. Even though making new things is what humans were built to do, even though it’s all we do, we remain continuously uncertain of our ability to do so. So I teach workshops where I help students remember who they are so they can get on with the business of being who they are. You and your stories are not the crepe, nor the crepe maker, nor the creperie, nor the customers, but all four wrapped into a perfect whole, and nothing new is necessary to complete you, even as you seek to complete something new.

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 Innocent

I often ask the lawyer-writers I interview why there are so many lawyer-writers, but it has occurred to me recently that all writers are lawyers of a kind. Who are our readers but a jury of our peers whom we must convince of our character’s guilt or innocence by showing the facts we call events, dialogue, and action? After all, no lawyer would stand up in court and merely tell the jury, “Look at my client. I’ve seen a lot of guilty people in my life, and you can trust me – she is not one of them. I rest my case.”

The difference is you have no opponent, and the jury wants very much to believe you. They want to believe you because it is not your characters’ innocence on trial, but your reader’s. Your reader will become every character as you became those characters, and to show your reader guilt or innocence is to allow her to go within herself and feel her own guilt and innocence so that she might put a name and feeling to what she has beheld.

And your reader desires guilt every bit as much as she desires innocence. The guilty in your stories will eventually suffer and maybe even die. All the guilt within your reader is a story she has forgotten to stop telling. When your guilty character perishes, for a moment the story of your reader’s guilt will perish as well, and she will perceive within herself the reality of life without the story of her imaginary guilt. For a moment, she will be free.

Free to become your innocent hero. Innocence cannot be taken from us by mere actions. Only the story we tell about those actions deprives us of our innocence. We put our stories on trial and condemn the worst stories to prison where we hope they will never be told again. Meanwhile, the hero within us is always free because only the hero believes he is free. His freedom is the only story he can tell – freedom to choose any book, any career, any city – a freedom so complete he will occasionally put himself in prison so he might once again seek himself.

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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Seeing Castles

Writing is about creative selection. You may see the whole castle from which your imaginary king and queen rule, but you must select those few, delicious details that suggest its complete majesty or decrepitude. Your details are markers for the reader’s imagination, which, if stimulated, rushes in to decorate your world and bring it fully to life. It is easy, however, when rereading your own work to imagine the whole from which you chose your parts and believe the reader sees this whole as well. Which is why we sometimes share our works in progress with a friend or editor or fellow writer. A reader’s innocence can be invaluable to help us see where our details suggested an incomplete world.

But it is not always easy to hear what is missing from your stories. And so time is another kind of beta reader. After enough time you have forgotten the whole from which you selected your parts, and you read the story as if it were someone else’s. And it is, in a way. If enough time has passed, you have changed in ways small and large, and this new you can read the story and not be hurt by what is missing.

Life, meanwhile, remains a story we are telling ourselves and telling ourselves. If we have been alive long enough, we have been telling this story for quite a long time. It is hard to put this story down, however, but fortunately life provides fresh eyes again and again to help us see the story new. These are called children. The old – myself, unfortunately, included – always assume it is their job to teach the young. It is exactly the other way around. Children do not come in knowing the story we have been telling and telling, and they always see the holes that we have not.

Who wants to hear what your story is missing? When we are told what is missing from our story we call children ungrateful or naïve. They’ll learn the truth. What they learn is what we have learned, to summon within us the simple courage to express that portion of the truth missing from the story we tell about life. And as this picture is completed, the castle is revealed, and we see the home in which we have always lived.

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 Terrible Silence

It’s easy to forget that writing is a conversation, not a monologue. This is a simple enough mistake to make. After all, you’re the only one there. Haven’t you spent your days away from the desk swarmed by all these Other People and their incessant need to speak, their relentless will to influence the stream of thought that is a conversation? Haven’t you earned this literary spotlight, this chance to complete these thoughts as you and you alone would complete them?

Of course you have. And so there you are, alone at last at your desk, the room silent, the page blank and waiting for your words. How could this be anything but a monologue? The honest writer will admit that just because he is the only one writing does not mean he is the only one speaking. The difference is that only one of the participants in this conversation has a voice. That’s you. The other participant . . .?

You may call her your imagination if you wish. Or your muse. Or Source Energy. Or God. Or nothing at all. It doesn’t matter what you call her as long as you acknowledge that you have cleared this time and space in your life as much to hear her speak as you. She is the one who surprises you when you write. She is the one speaking when you say you are “listening to your characters.” And she is the one who whispers that new story idea while you stand idle in the shower.

So tempting when I type The End to want to take full credit for what I have written, and yet so important to remain humble at that moment. To take full credit is to mentally close the door on this muse. She is not vengeful. If I thump my chest and say, “Look what I have made!” she will not be hurt, her desire to join me in conversation will not have dimmed.

But she is obedient. If I take full credit she will understand that I wish to go it alone. And so she will become silent so that I can hear only myself. This is a terrible silence. This is the silence of madness. It is not long before in desperation I am listening for her again. How strange that when I hear her at last I feel like myself once again.

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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Back Into Life

Remember that the story isn’t over. You may be a storyteller, and you will end the stories you tell as a matter of necessity, but the story isn’t over.

How we despair when we believe the story is actually over. We jolt awake at midnight to a world condemned to darkness. We have finally crossed some divide where nothing that has left will return, no field gone fallow will ever flower again, and life is but one endless season of loss. We have always suspected it was possible, we have worried that it was possible, and now through carelessness or cruelty or the indifferent hand of fate the curtain has finally dropped.

My very liberal friends believed the story was over when George W. Bush was President. Torture and war and spying and who knew what else. But the story wasn’t over. Then my conservative friends thought the story was over when Barak Obama was elected, for we were all socialists now. But the story wasn’t over. Because then Tea Partiers were elected to Congress and my liberal friends again thought the story was over. But the story is still being told.

The stories we tell one another must have an ending. Though the story of our life is still being told and cannot stop being told, it would be dishonest to let the stories we tell go on without conclusion. What we call The End is merely the moment at which we remind our reader of what they have perhaps forgotten or taken for granted. In fact, if it is the best kind of story it is anything but an end. Rather, it is a beginning, an invitation back into the story of life.

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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Inviting Perspective

Though we have lovely brains capable of calculating the distance from Mars to Pluto or memorizing the lyrics to six dozen show tunes, human beings are first, last, and always emotional creatures. It is our feeling of fear and love, and the myriad shades between, that guide us through all our life choices, from which shirt to buy to which man to marry. Without them, we would be computers without software.

A writer cannot write his emotions exactly as he lives them. The emotions that come to us throughout our day are information, guiding us toward what will serve us and away from what will not. But these emotions are as immediate as impulse, and often extraordinarily strong, and it is impossible to render them accurately when experienced in this way. It would be like trying to paint a flower while holding it one centimeter from your face.

And yet a writer must feel what his characters are feeling, must, to the best of his ability, feel the same fear and love and jealousy and delight. As writers, we summon those same feelings at our desk, but because these feelings are not meant to guide us, we can instead behold them. This is the artist’s proper relationship to aesthetic emotion. While beholding the emotions from an artistic distance, we can paint them accurately without the bias inherent in heeding, or not heeding, their guidance.

This may seem academic, but in the end, whether we are writing or not, we are always the ones observing the feelings. We are the ones to whom the fear speaks, we are not the fear itself. Likewise, we are the ones who follow love or ignore it. Writing, whether it is poetry, memoir, suspense, or romance, becomes a discipline of elevated perspective. It is a perspective I have learned to seek away from my desk. Life, after all, is always friendliest when viewed as a whole, is always most inviting when you can see where you belong.

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 Beginning and the End

Writers cannot write for praise from readers, friends, family, or critics. The quickest way to kill anything you are writing is to stare at your page or screen and wonder, “What will THEY think of it?” They – whoever They are – aren’t there, and so you can’t know what They will think, and so you cannot answer this insidious question. As long as you are asking it, you are probably not writing.

That said, hearing from appreciative readers can be very helpful. It is easy as a writer to become preoccupied with how successful a piece of work is, to become preoccupied with whether or not a story sold, and if so for how much; to become preoccupied with how many copies of it have been bought, or with its ranking on Amazon. It is easy, being a human being who depends on such things, to become preoccupied with the numbers in your bank account and how these numbers are affected by the stories you have written.

It is tempting because all these things are measurable, and humans have developed a relentless love of measuring things – including, unfortunately, themselves. Yes, it’s no fun to be measured last and worst, but this is the price we all seem to be willing to pay so that we might be measured first or best.

Which is why it’s good from time to time to hear from an appreciative reader. To hear someone say, “I loved your book,” or, “It was just what I needed,” or, “It kept me up all night turning the pages,” can remind a writer why he or she picked up the pen in the first place: because we had something valuable we wanted to share with other people. Yes, there would be money and praise and maybe fame – but first there was that, the immeasurable impulse to increase the quantity of good in the world.

I know this sounds a bit altruistic, I know publishing is a business, I know everyone needs to make ends meet, but that cannot alter where this work begins, and where, in the end, we must return to every day at our desk.

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 Birds and the Blunderbusses

Once upon a time, someone looked up at the night sky and thought, “I wonder how you could get to the moon?” Our imaginations are so ceaselessly curious that it was a question humans were strangely incapable of not asking. If we could see it, we could imagine standing on it, and if we could imagine standing on it, we must begin asking ourselves how that might be accomplished.

Yet what a far-fetched question this must have once seemed. We were so hopelessly earthbound. Even birds soared within range or our arrows and blunderbusses. What hope was there for us, whose leaps were a hiccup compared to the song of a bird’s flight, to reach the moon? No matter. We kept asking ourselves and asking ourselves until one day two brothers flew 120 feet. A mere 66 years later, there was Neal Armstrong.

No one would have ever set foot on the moon, however, if humans had not asked themselves, “I wonder if it is possible?” This simple question, married with desire, creates a fertile open space into which the imagination can by and by provide an answer. But if all those humans dreaming of reaching the moon had filled that open space with stories of birds and blunderbusses and all that seemed impossible, no answers would have come.

For all our ceaseless dreaming, humans spend a lot of time telling one another what is impossible. We might say, “It is impossible—well, nearly impossible to make a living as a fiction writer these days.” Perhaps, but nearly is all the imagination requires. Nearly is an open space, which might seem small at first glance, just as the moon had once seemed impossibly distant. How perception changes with our attention. Now the moon becomes a steppingstone to other stars, and the crack between possible and impossible becomes the portal through which you step into your life.

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