A Kind Mistress

Writing is such a relationship. Roald Dahl described how he would “sniff around an idea” before committing to it. By returning again and again on walks and the shower, or by taking notes, or perhaps scratching out a line or two of dialogue, a writer can see if his interest remains as strong as the day the idea first arrived.

I have started many a story the day it first popped into my head. I would never suggest that one cannot finish a book begun this way. But you can also spend two months on something you discover wasn’t as enduringly interesting to you once you are slogging your way through the torturous middle. If the story, like a partner, is not something you love, it will end, just as many relationships end once the dishes aren’t done and the car breaks down.

But in a good marriage, not only are you willing to work together to see that the dishes get done and the car gets fixed, not only are you willing to find your way through the arguments these petty problems seem to stir, but, in time, you will likely find that the petty problems are as valuable to a marriage as sex and long conversation and romantic vacations. Within the slog of everyday life lived with someone you love you can uncover the divine, the lovely, and the meaning in absolutely everything.

So too is it with a story you love. Every story will become as tangled as a late night argument; every story will appear as hopeless and small as a flat tire. But if you love that story you will discover you have the patience to find your way through a tired middle, will have the discipline to discard an unnecessary character. Love is simply not a mistress you can quit. What you call quitting is only a search that will lead you back exactly where you started, where she will be waiting for you to start another story.

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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Showing Up

The poet Elizabeth Austen said that her only job when giving a reading was to “show up.” This is good advice, it seems to me. After all, she doesn’t know who will be in attendance, or what sort of poems her audience likes to hear, or how they like to have those poems read to them. All she knows is that if she shows up, if she gives herself fully to that reading, then she will have given that audience the best she has to offer, which is all anyone can ever ask of anyone else.

I always have grand plans in mind for whatever I’m working on. Driving around doing my errands I plan and scheme how this chapter or that book will work out. All this planning gives me a false sense of command. I know that when the time comes my only job will be to show up at the desk and see what happens. Maybe those plans of mine will bear some creative fruit, or maybe they will never be planted. I’ll never know until I actually show up.

As if I ever know what will ever happen. Humans have such a fantastically inflated belief in our imaginations. Rightfully so. We dream a future that terrifies us, where no one reads our work, or we die alone, or there’s a communist in the White House, and we feel that fear right now, in the present moment, where we are in truth safe from these fantasies. No matter, the fear is real and it is here so our visions must be real too.

For all my planning, I remain glad I cannot actually predict the future, and that my only real job is to show up. This is much simpler. The future is far too complex a thing for me to make on my own. Yet it will be there in its entirety when I am too, and once we have met we will find what we can do together.

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 Good Reminder

Every morning, my wife reads aloud to me from a book called A Course in Miracles. The version we read is broken into lessons, some of which are no more than two paragraphs long. If they are short enough, Jen reads through them twice, which is exactly what she did the other morning. When she read the last sentence for the second time she observed, “Isn’t that funny. I have no memory of that sentence from the first time I read it.”

All of two minutes had elapsed between the first and second reading, and yet she had already forgotten. As a writer, this is a mildly unsettling experience. Though not everyone attends to every sentence with Joycean precision, if we did not believe a sentence belonged in a piece, if it did not serve that piece, we would take it out. We left it there because we believed it was a part of the whole. We left it there because without it, we did not believe our story or poem or essay would be complete.

Yet ninety-nine percent of what we write is almost immediately forgotten. This is the kind of statistic that can drain all the meaning out of our work. Why bother waiting for the right word to arrive if that word is only going to pass through my readers’ sieve-like minds and into oblivion? We do so for two reasons. First, we do it for ourselves. We do it because the experience of waiting for the right word is meaningful to us whether anyone reads and remembers it or not. The practice of writing connects us to ourselves and what we value most, and whether anyone remembers what we have written cannot change this because with luck we were changed with the writing.

But we also do it for our readers. Our stories are journeys, and the words and sentences and scenes are bricks we lay in that path so our readers’ way is smooth. No one remembers every brick in the road they travel, but those bricks were never the point. We are always guiding our readers home, to that destination they may have forgotten, and that we have in our telling helped them remember.

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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In Time

One of the most common complaints for the writer balancing family, a job, and the writing of a book is lack of time. There are the kids, and the husband, and that meeting at 4:30, and someone’s got to make dinner for which the rice takes twenty minutes and the chicken fifteen. Our day is a pie of time, the slimmest slice of which appears to be named Writing.

Yet despite the real clock on the wall whose second hand we can see with out own eyes sweeping in its tireless circle, time is entirely a product of the human imagination. Time is what we invented when our imagination discovered the past and the future and we needed to place ourselves linearly within this dreamscape. Because the past the future don’t exist. They are only thoughts. All that exists is this very moment.

It is quite obvious to say, and yet we forget it constantly as we plan and remember, plan and remember. We forget it because our imaginations are so powerful we relive our past as if it was present, and we believe our visions of the future as if they were already here. A day spent this way seems to belong to someone else – and it indeed it does. We have handed our lives to our past and future selves, ghosts with no power in the real world but to frighten or depress.

Fortunately, the imagination’s truest purpose is not to invent fictional futures or fictional pasts, but to assist in the creation of this very moment. Here is where the time every busy writer seeks can be found. Writing begins the moment you surrender to the present moment and it ends the instant you leave the present moment. The instant you give yourself over to this authentic creation, to summoning the imagination’s full power to create rather than remember or predict, you have found your true time – because, you quickly discover, you have also found yourself.

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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Imagined Worlds

I wrote recently about the need for contrast in our work, how that which we wish to share will always be seen most clearly against its opposite. In fact, a neuroscientist was attending a writing workshop of mine recently and pointed out that human beings seem to require contrast to make any sense out of the world. It’s always nice to be backed up by science.

Yet I have come to understand that the thing I seek most, which assumes many names but is actually always love, has no opposite. Fear would seem to be love’s opposite, but imagine love like the sun. All around the sun is the empty blackness of space, which we shall call fear. All that emptiness is equally not the sun, whether a mere inch of it, or 10,000 miles of it. Meanwhile, the light of the sun can either be observed or not observed, obscured or received.

It may seem like semantics, but to say love has an opposite is to believe that opposite is as real as love. Truth has no opposite. The only opposite of truth is illusion, which is all that fear has ever been. We stand in the present moment, safe and bright, while the empty space of the past and the future appeals to our imagination. We fill that emptiness with stories of our wretchedness or loss or doom, and then call that fear real and declare that it dwells beside us.

Which is why stories are so often about our hero’s shift in perception. Nothing really changes but his view of the world he inhabits. I have heard well-meaning people say how they would like to change the world. I appreciate that such activists are seeking to bring justice where there is injustice, kindness where there is cruelty, hope where there is hopelessness. Yet all those changes we would march for arrive the instant we cease to believe in the world we have imagined, and see the world in which we actually live.

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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Dream World

I rarely have trouble falling asleep. By the end of the day I’m quite done with the waking world. By the end of the day I’ve said enough and thought enough and done enough, and I cannot find within me much reason to say or think or do more. I am ready for the dream world over which I have no command, the dream world to which I must surrender and from which I draw all my strength for the waking world.

But sometimes I am pulled awake while it is still dark, and my thinking mind comes alive with premature industriousness. My poor thinking mind was made for the waking world and all its things, all its words and people and places and objects. It was made to give these things order, to arrange them to meet my desire, and the stillness of my bed confuses it. Now this mind of mine is a dog with all energy but no bone.

I lie there feeling as if something must be done. I know this cannot be, but the feeling is the same as the one I so often carry with me when the sun is up and everyone is doing something. It seems real then, why is it not real now? To surrender again to the dream world feels like I am giving up on that other dream, the dream that all I do in the waking world is very important and necessary and that I am building something permanent.

It has always been my dream that what I do matters. I have always wanted to be Bilbo heading out of The Shire on a great and important adventure. And how I have wanted just one good dragon to slay. I have wanted dragons so badly I have summoned and fought them until I, their creator, declared them slain. What an unsatisfying victory – the end of something that never was, a knight alone on the field, exhausted from fighting 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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Useful Villains

Every story, like every life, requires contrast. If you want to write about love, you must write about loneliness. If you want to write about triumph, you must write about defeat. Likewise, if you want to write about loneliness or defeat, then you must at least write about the yearning for love or triumph. Everything is always seen more clearly against its opposite. A flashlight’s beam does not register in the middle of a sunny day, but it is a swath of clarity at midnight.

This is useful in a very practical, crafty kind of way. If you know the gift your story is trying to give in its end, then you know the suffering through which you must first take the reader so that this gift will mean something. You must remind the reader of suffering so she can appreciate and celebrate relief. In this way, the darkness of our stories is as much a gift as the light, and in fact most writers relish their stories’ darkness, as an actor often relishes playing a villain.

We do not always apply this reality to our own lives. Darkness is darkness, and in it we cannot see and are lost. Villains are villains, and their villainy is expressed in their desire to harm or obstruct us, not help us. But who better to teach you what you know than someone who disagrees with you, who requires your greatest clarity to bridge the gap of misunderstanding? And where better to perceive your own light than in your own darkness. It was there, after all, you first recognized it, that which you had always been shining.

And who better than a villain to teach us that we are safe? To perceive a threat where none exists and then to find the truth is to awaken to your inherent safety. It is not always so simple. After all, it is our belief in our frailty that summons a villain to us, and their arrival feels like proof of the nightmare we are dreaming. But with this villain, there is no victory or defeat, there is only the contrast between a dream and 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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A Wholesome Love Affair

Although I don’t often mention it here, I am actually an editor. That is, people send me articles and I read them and decide if I will publish them. I read differently as an editor than as a civilian, shall we say. Sometimes, I simply love an article as I would love anything I might read. I have to publish these articles, and I hope our readers will gain as much as I have from reading them.

More often, however, I try to gauge whether the article is a good fit for Author. Here, I am dabbling in the uncertain art of prognostication. I have a fair idea of what flies with our readers, but this is not a hard science. I am frequently wrong, and sometimes surprised by how right I am. But what else can I do? I have a magazine to publish every month and I do the best I can.

Such is the plight of all publishing professionals. It’s the rare agent or editor who deals only with books they adore. Mostly, we are squinting toward the future. This is in direct contrast to readers, whose attention is entirely in the present. A reader has bought your book or discovered your essay online and wants to enjoy it. A reader is seeking something not that she hopes will be successful, but which she hopes will connect her to something valuable within herself.

I’ve always felt this was a more honest relationship with an artist. There is a gambler’s pleasure as an editor when I pick right, but it hardly compares to the satisfaction of having found a book or story I love. If I love the story, I don’t care whether anyone else ever has or ever will read it. It’s a love affair in this way, I suppose, and as such a private matter. But it is a love affair in which I cheat on no one, where I am in fact guided toward that which I would share with everyone.

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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Factually Unproven

Perhaps you have heard the phrase, “You have the right to your own opinion, but you do not have the right to your own facts.” Clever, that – and true I suppose. If it is raining, it does not matter if in your opinion it is a warm, sunny day, the fact remains that it is raining. Nor does it matter if you are offended that someone would not take your opinion about the whether seriously, it is still raining.

Except, as any writer knows, the fact that it is raining is rarely of any interest to anyone. What means something is what we feel about that rain. Does the rain put us in a romantic mood or a gloomy mood? Will the rain ruin the crops or sustain them? Does the rain remind us of the end of summer or the beginning of spring? A writer’s currency, which is also every person’s currency, is how it feels to be alive at any given moment. Ten people could stand in the exact same rainstorm with ten different feelings based on ten different opinions and each would be correct.

All for the better, I say. I get facts wrong all the time. I try to get them right because I hate to be corrected, but being a storyteller I have a natural propensity not to let them get in the way of what I know to be true. What I really know to be true can never be proven. What I really know to be true can never be measured to weighed or compared or diagramed.

And so I tell stories, where if this truth cannot be proven it can at least be shared. This is a much better use for the truth. We all have it and know it anyway so we hardly need to prove it, though we have tried to just the same. Unfortunately, you only prove what you do no already know to be true, and the instant you doubt this truth you lose all sight of it and soon there comes the existential collapse. Until you hear a story, or read a story, or maybe even tell a story, and then you remember what you have always known and who you have always been.

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 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
Follow wdbk on Twitter