True Endings

I have written in the past about the practice of “joining” that my wife and I used to help our young son who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum around age eight. The principle of joining is this: if you want someone’s behavior to change (Sawyer always preferred to talk to himself rather than other people), instead of telling that person over and over to change, you begin joining him in whatever it is he seems to prefer doing. This way, you become friends, and friends are always more willing to go someplace new together than alone.

Later I learned to listen to him. This was probably when he really learned to talk. It was our listening to him that showed him what he had to say was worth saying, and so worth learning to say. Yet listening is just another form of joining, because in listening you surrender your imagination to another person’s story. The imagination cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined, so to surrender this powerful tool to another person and his story is ultimately an act of trust.

I have sometimes been stingy with my listening. People don’t always have such good stories to tell. People will tell you stories of how we are all victims, how the government is out to get us, how love isn’t real, how the universe is mechanical and we are all machines, how the publishing world is big and unfriendly. What is one to do? Someone takes you on his narrative journey and leaves you in a hole, and now you must spend so much time finding your way out. Better sometimes just not to listen.

It was Sawyer who taught me another way to listen. What Sawyer said didn’t always make sense, and so I would ask him to clarify what sounded jumbled. All our tragic and wretched and hopeless tales are just jumbled stories. If you listen closely you hear another story beneath them that isn’t being told so clearly. It is the story of someone who wants to be at peace, but feels at war. But to hear it you must believe it yourself, and sometimes such an audience is all a storyteller needs to find his true ending.

Happy New Year!

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

The Gardener’s Tale

My job is to plant the seed and water the flower, not to grow it. Only the flower can grow the flower. Only the seed itself contains the complete potential of the flower; only the seed understands what that flower will actually be. It is not my job to know nor determine, only to give my attention steadily and trust what occurs underground, where everything begins.

We must choose deliberately which patch of earth to cultivate. Life will flourish everywhere, though environment affects the shape the life will take, whether a cactus or a dandelion. Comparing preferences renders them meaningless, a war of apples and oranges, and yet when obeyed privately the meaning of life’s ceaseless nudging is revealed as you discover the perfect mix of shade and sun for the seeds you’ve so long been carrying in your pocket.

You can get used to having those seeds in your pocket, even believing they were meant to stay there. But they must be surrendered to the earth. This is an unspectacular beginning. No pop of the champagne bottle here, merely laying what might as well be a bone interred for all the inactivity. How easily you are reminded of death as you create life; how easy as you bury life to begin imagining its expiration as your poor, weak eyes can perceive no movement.

And how futile can seem the watering of tilled earth. This water could be more useful elsewhere, could feed a thirsty, growing world, rather than turn a patch of dirt to mud. The garden’s true engine is as beyond the mind’s comprehension as the planted seed is beyond the eye’s perception. But growth occurs all the same, often while we sleep. We awaken one morning to green and yellow and red, and are left to wonder exactly what part we played, and soon enough to dream of other gardens, whose seeds we pull from those new blossoms.

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

Life On The Street

When I was in sixth grade I sat next to Alex Fernandez in Mrs. Sears’s class. Alex was Portuguese and lived in Fox Point where many of the immigrant Portuguese families in Providence had settled. Most of the Portuguese boys at Nathan Bishop Junior High looked unhappy. They always seemed on the lookout for something, their attention coiled as if ready to strike should whatever it was they were looking for appear. In sixth grade, Alex was not on the lookout. He liked hamsters, and I liked hamsters, and so we had something to talk about.

Ten years later I was living in an apartment in Fox Point. One summer afternoon I was walking home when I passed a young man reclining in a lawn chair on the sidewalk in front of a chain-link fence.

“Billy Kenower,” he called.

I blinked at him. I wouldn’t have recognized Alex if he hadn’t said my name. At twenty-one he had the bearing of a middle-aged man. His hair was thinning, he had a pot belly, and a double chin. He reminded me of a mafia don. His eyes shifted left and right continuously as he talked. He wanted to know what I was doing in this neighborhood. I told him where I lived, and he warned me about the sort of men who hung out in the park across the street from my apartment.

“They’ll cut you as soon as look at you.”

It was clear he was dealing drugs. It was his business. He asked me what I was up to and I told him I was going to be a writer.

“I write,” he said. “I met this lesbian chick from Brown. She really loved what I was doing and would work with me on it. It was a story about being on the street.”

Alex then recited verbatim the first paragraph of his novel about life on the street, about what it feels like when the sun rises and the smells seem to rise with it. It seemed to me he carried that paragraph around in his mind, where it remained insulated against the very street it depicted. It was good and I told him so.

“Yeah, that’s what the lesbian chick said too.”

I wished him good luck and he told me be careful. I never saw Alex ever again – though, come to think of it, I never saw the men who would cut me as soon as look at me either.

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

New Life

For several years in a row we grew sunflowers in our backyard. The sunflower is an impressive plant in full bloom, and from time to time I would wonder how I would render into words what I felt when I beheld them. We eventually bought a print of “Sunflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh and hung it in our living room. It seemed to me that Van Gogh had rendered with paint what I would have liked to render with words.

As I understand it, there are painters who replicate the works of The Masters, sometimes to be sold as expensive forgeries. Their technique is so refined that it generally takes an expert in the imitated artist’s work to tell whether a painting is a forgery or the real thing.

Whenever I hear artists, whether painters or writers or composers, discussing craft or technique I think of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and these highly skilled replicators. If a work of art were only a work of craft, of technique, why would anyone with such skill bother imitating what someone has already painted? Since you have the same skill as the masters, why bother with forgery?

The answer, of course, is that Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” was not a product of technique. Van Gogh perceived the beauty of the sunflowers within himself and translated this perception to the canvas. The technique aided greatly in this translation, but first and foremost came the perception. Moreover, after the perception and before the translation came the willingness to share what was neither Van Gogh’s nor the flowers’ but a marriage of the two.

This is not such a simple choice. The forger already knows how the world will receive what he is replicating. Van Gogh did not have this luxury before he dipped his brush. Such is the price you pay when creating something new. Technique without original perception is as dead as a hammer. Technique in service to perception can bring anything to 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

Found Authority

Every writer seeks his or her authority. It cannot be given to you as an award or a publishing contract is given to you. Your authority arises entirely from your relationship with your work, a relationship that occurs within a region unknown to anyone but you. You are the lone reporter on this battlefield, the only witness to this love affair, the sole survivor from this storm. There is no one to challenge your story, no competing point of view. We have no one to believe but you.

Do not ask us for your authority. We don’t possess it. We wouldn’t know what to give you, so we would mostly give you criticism or advice. We mean no harm, but it is uncomfortable to be asked for something you don’t have. It makes us feel inadequate. If pressed, we might describe what we believe our own authority would sound like, which would not sound like yours, and so you would believe you lack authority on everything.

What follows is an unhappy time in your life. You become quarrelsome. You notice how the world is full of lies and half-truths and imitation. You consider making a career out of complaint, assuming the thankless but apparently necessary job of reminding the world of its inadequacy. This brings you some attention but no pleasure. The more you look at it, the worse the world appears. It is a shadow realm, a cheap sound stage in which you have been asked to live a full life.

Sometimes there is no better place from which to find your authority. Once the world of form is stripped of all its meaning and all its power, what is left to you but that which is all meaning but no form? There is the true world in all its fullness, a companion that asks only that you stay long enough to remember its voice when you speak.

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

Monstrous

One of the philosophical challenges of horror fiction, which I shall call a story with an antagonist monster whose primary objective is to kill everyone, is that if death is not not the worst possible outcome, the story has no meaning.

A friend told me a story once about a German friend of his. This man’s father had been a guard at Auschwitz. In fact, his father’s job had been to oversee the Jews as they were entering the gas chambers. He noticed that many of the prisoners would draw butterflies on the wall before entering the showers. He asked the prisoners why they did this, but they refused to tell him. Finally, one old man explained:

“When we were in the ghettos we were like caterpillars crawling through the dirt; when we came to the camps, we were imprisoned as if in a cocoon; but when we go in there, into the showers, we will be free.”

Prior to this moment, he, the guard, had believed the story his superiors had told him: that Jews weren’t human. It is hard to imagine believing such a thing, believing that someone who looks like you and even speaks your language is not human, but this is what he believed, this is why he could usher these people into the gas chambers. But after hearing this story he awoke from the nightmare he had come to believe, and he could not continue his job.

I don’t know what became of this man. I don’t know how the rest of his time at Auschwitz was spent. He, of course, is the monster in most stories. What is a monster but that which can kill us without feeling? And yet what made him monstrous was his belief that a man or a woman or a child could be less than human. And what becomes of me, even here at my desk, if I make him a monster, and if I wish death for him as his punishment?

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

The Organizing Principle

Think about all that you love. Think about the people you’ve loved. Think about the books you’ve loved to read and the stories you’ve loved to write. Think about the games you’ve loved play, the meals you’ve loved to cook, the jokes you’ve loved to share.

Who chose these thing for you to love? It wasn’t you, was it? Did you choose to love the people you love, or did you observe that you love them and then choose to follow that love? Did you choose to love the movies you’ve seen or the books you’ve read? Indeed you have not. The power of love comes from its guiding impulse, offering us its effortless path, along which we may surrender the illusion that we must build our world and find the place for every stick and stone along the way.

For writers, love is our first and best teacher. We say, “Write what you love,” meaning, give over to the Organizing Principle of Love. There are limitless stories that could be told, all of them worth telling by someone. Love provides the focus for your work, and teaches us to find its current in ourselves. Within the current is effortlessness; outside of it, we feel the dizzying struggle of trying to make what was never ours to make.

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

Honestly Original

Writers mustn’t become too mesmerized by words. They aren’t actually real in the way we sometimes think they are. The word “anger” isn’t real, only the feeling it is meant to name is real. The feeling itself isn’t the word, just as a tree isn’t actually “a tree,” it is only that thing of wood and leaves growing in our yard.

A small distinction perhaps, but one of the writer’s jobs is to claim the world back from the words we have attached to it and to name this world again. It is the writer’s job to feel the story she is trying to tell without words and then find those words that match what she is feeling. This is sometimes called originality but it is really just honesty. Everyone is original. Look around you – even those we call identical twins have their differences, have their originality. But not everyone, it seems, is willing to be honest.

I have been dishonest in my life far more than I have been honest. My dishonesty was never malicious, however, nor outrageous. Usually, it was in deference to tribal loyalty, reciting when I would have rather been speaking. To speak, I feared, was to be cast out onto the savannah with the lions and hyenas. There is safety in agreement, after all, even when we are agreeing to be afraid.

This kind of safety will eventually wear thin. There is no real warmth to be found away from the fire of what you know to be true. To see that light and feel that heat and name it for yourself is to offer it to others, not so they would use your words as well – though some will – but so that they might see life new for a moment, and remember their world belongs to them.

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

The Gymnast

How does the gymnast know when she has leaned too far left or right? How does she know when the focus of her attention has wandered from her true center where her balance resides? She knows by the discomfort she has learned to name imbalance. She recognizes that feeling, and if she recognizes that feeling quickly enough, she rights herself, and seeks her balance again with her next step. If she does not recognize the imbalance, the feeling of discomfort grows as she tips further from her center, tipping until at last she falls.

But the gymnast cannot complain about this feeling. She cannot call it unfair and unjust and cruel. Nor can she call herself a failure for experiencing it. She cannot give up the first time she feels this imbalance, because she knows she will always feel a certain measure of it, for it is the imbalance that allows her to find her balance. This discomfort called imbalance is information life provides her about where her attention currently resides. The information is always correct, always present, and always there to help her find the balance she is seeking.

The very worst thing the gymnast can do is imagine there is something she can grab onto for balance. If she imagines some handrail, she might be tempted to reach for it. She might be tempted to believe that balancing on the beam is simply beyond her, and if only she had something she could grab, she would not have to listen to this ceaseless information that does not feel as good as balance. If only she had something to hold onto she would always be stable and never have to find anything. And so she reaches for the stability she imagines, and as she reaches for it this stability moves, and moves, and moves until what she is feeling is falling and the illusion of the stability is broken.

How betrayed she feels when she falls. Why, it is as if someone has pulled that handrail away. What a fickle and untrustworthy world. She gets up, dusty and a little bruised, and contemplates the balance beam. Why bother walking it if I must walk alone? Some gymnasts choose not to return at all, but those who do, feel balance as its own reward, a place in a world conceived for her stability.

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

The Marionette’s Song

Writers play a strange game with themselves sometimes. We sit at our desks and in one way or another ask the question, “What shall I feel today?” After all, to write about love, you must first feel love; to write about fear, you must feel fear. So too anger, frustration, shyness, curiosity, or vanity. First you feel it, then you write it. Sometimes we ask this question by wondering what our characters are feeling, and sometimes we ask this question by wondering what is going to happen in a given scene, and sometimes we ask it simply by wondering what we will write about that day.

However we ask it, the answer is always a feeling. That is what we are here to communicate: the felt knowledge of life. To forget this is to forget why we are writing.

At our desk, we choose what it is we will feel and what it is we will share. Sometimes at our desk we forget to ask what a scene or character or essay should feel like. As soon as we forget this, there are no right answers. We are lost in a forest of words and ideas without meaning.

Until we remember – and there we are again, and we finish our day’s work, and get up from the desk feeling like ourselves. Then we wander out into the world and we begin to play the strange game. We say, “There’s too much violence in the world; I must feel bad.” Or, “My boyfriend hasn’t called in two days; I must feel unlovable.” Now the world tells us how to feel. Now the world is the author of our lives, and we are its marionette characters.

So it often seems to me, I have to admit, but as any good fiction writer knows, the characters are there to tell you what will happen next, not the other way around. I can be no different. I don’t know what will happen from one moment to the next, but I know how I want to feel. The moment I remember this, I remember who I am, and the strings are cut, and I will do my dance only when it feels right.

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