Enemies and Allies

There are three types of characters in a memoir – well, two really: You, and Everybody Else. But Everybody Else can be loosely broken down into two camps: your enemies and your allies. Because this is memoir, who is who will not be as clear as in, say, a young adult fantasy novel. At some point, no matter how much you love your mother or husband or sister or friend, you will probably find yourself in opposition with everyone. Everyone will criticize you, everyone will doubt you, or leave you, or ignore you.

The difference between your enemies and allies, then, is forgiveness. Our allies are those whom we have forgiven for their transgressions; our enemies are those whom we have not. Of our allies we say, “Yes, he can be critical sometimes, but I know that’s mostly because he’s so critical of himself.” Of our enemies we say, “I can’t believe he said that to me! How could a person be so insensitive?”

Good question. Many a memoir is written to find the answer. Because, of course, there is always one more person in need of forgiveness, and that someone is the narrator. Within the narrator lives the understanding that if there exists such a thing as an enemy whose words or deeds are beyond forgiveness, then maybe – just maybe – you are just such an enemy yourself. Perhaps you have uttered a word or committed an act beyond forgiveness.

Unlike in fiction, in memoir we cannot, as a rule, kill our enemies. Yet like an action hero in a thriller, we do not wish to end our story with a villain still at large. Our only hope is to lay that enemy upon the altar of forgiveness, where he or she will perish, to be reborn in an instant as an ally. The moment we do so, we ourselves are forgiven, having surrendered our judgment upon the world – a judgment dreamed to keep us safe from a sin we ourselves invented.

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Write 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

News of the Day

For about ten years starting in my late twenties I became a news devotee. On Sundays I would sit with the New York Times and scour the Book Review, and the magazine, and the Week in Review, and Op Ed, and the front page. If you had asked me, I would have told you I wanted to know “what happened.”

Of course “what happened” had never happened to me directly; in all my years of New York Times reading never once did I read about the comings and goings of Bill Kenower, which seems like a missed opportunity on their part. In any case, I’m sure I would have been disappointed if my life ever had been reported on. I’m sure I would have read it and thought, “But that’s not what really happened.” As every writer eventually learns, what really happened, happened inside of me. What I – or our characters – think and feel about an event is the event. That is all that matters.

Which brings me back to why I was actually reading the New York Times. I wasn’t trying to find out what happened; I was trying to find out who agreed with me and who disagreed with me. When I found a writer or the subject of a story who agreed with me, I felt as though I could rest, for the world needed no correction. When I found someone who disagreed with me, I felt uncomfortable, for now the world needed correction.

On and on it went. The world, I observed, was in constant disagreement, and no sooner did we grow tired of disagreeing about one thing than we began disagreeing about another. The child in me was waiting for all the grownups to come to a firm decision. By and by I had to put the paper down and accept that I was one of those adults and see if I could come to an agreement with myself.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write 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

Temple Building

Each of us spends our days building our own temple so we can see with our eyes what it is we believe. It is often a life’s work, this temple building. What we believe is important. Sometimes, in fact, we are more aware of the importance than the belief itself, a feeling of meaning within us pointing toward a thought we call belief. This can make the building of temples confusing. What should it truly look like when the meaning it is meant to hold lacks all form?\

We are drawn to begin the building anyway. It is an odd relationship between the building and the builder. Sometimes the building teaches the builder what he should build. This seems backwards and yet it often is the case. As the temple grows we learn its shape even as we set each brick in place.

And in the hours when we rest from our work, we may sometimes become aware of what has grown within us. It is simpler to look upon the growing temple than this namelessness we feel. It is there and then it is gone. The temple is always exactly where we left it, unchanged by mood or thoughts or the sadness of shadows.

Only time affects the temple. We dream of building something as permanent as the earth itself, but every speck of dust that collects on its walls, and every stone before the altar worn smooth by our knees, teaches us of the truth. You rise from prayer at such moments, awareness shattering solid life, and all the world feels ready to crumble. Yet it is through those cracks in the walls of your temple that a light reveals what has taken shape within you. There is the temple at last, visible now that the walls between and you and it have toppled.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write 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

Equal Players

I was watching the Brian DiPalma film The Untouchables the other night, and it occurred to me that there was only one actual relationship in this story – that between Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness and Sean Connery’s Malone. Malone and Ness are equals in spirit, though not rank, possessing two equal but necessary perspectives on the same problem: taking down Al Capone. The evolution of these two men’s perspective drives the story forward. The other characters are mostly personalities that serve a narrative purpose within and around this central relationship.

It was a useful observation from a writing perspective. Malone and Ness’s equality was essential for the story, and without it the relationship doesn’t really exist. In the best stories I have read or watched this equality feels present nearly every time two characters are together. Nearly, but not always, of course. The prison guard opening the cell door without a line only exists so that the door is open and not closed. He is not equal within the story.

It is easy to forget as we write our stories or as we go about our day looking out from the first person present tense perspective of our own consciousness that the equality of true relationship is actually universal. It is present even with the cashier and the stranger at the bus stop, bit players and extras in my life, but humans nonetheless in full.

I am the leading man in the story of my life, and I can still be surprised when I meet someone new who does not recognize this, who seems to believe, in fact, that it is I who has stumbled onto the set of his movie. This happens only every single time I relate to another human being, and I am still getting used to it. This, I believe, is what the political among us really mean when they talk about the “struggle for equality.” It is the struggle to write our laws to reflect the reality in which we have always existed, just as we struggle to write our stories to reflect the life we have always lived.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write 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

On The Road

The books we write are like one, or two, or three-year marriages. First, you must love the story you are going to tell. It’s not enough that the story is sexy or interesting. There are a lot of sexy, interesting story ideas out there, but that does not mean you will love them all. If you don’t love a story, you’ll reach the middle and you won’t know where it’s going, and it won’t feel sexy or interesting anymore. But if you love that story, you will be willing to find your way through these valleys, not merely to get to the other side, but because the love you feel for the story has not left, it has just required something different of you to see and feel it.

Which is the other way stories are like marriages – both ask us to change. This is never why we start. We begin because love stimulates our strongest curiosity, our sharpest interest. This relationship, this story, is not a place on the map, it is a road, and you want to know where it’s going for reasons you cannot understand, the same as you cannot see where the road is ultimately headed.

Soon enough, however, you find out. You came to this road ill-equipped for the entire journey. Usually, you are carrying too much. You will never go as far as you want lugging all that you have called precious. You must decide which is more important – the journey or what you are carrying. Or perhaps parts of you are not as strong as you had thought. It wasn’t until you reached the river you had to swim that you understood how weak you had let your arms become. Now you must find the humility to pay attention to what you had called unimportant.

Oh, the agony of change. Always there is that moment when you have marched yourself right up against it and you know you can go no further as you are. For that moment, you hate everything. You hate yourself for needing to change, and the road for requiring you to change. Worse, you cannot go back; that way is now an illusion you can no longer believe. There is only forward, one step toward what you actually are.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write 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

All or Nothing

As I’ve mentioned recently in this column, contrast in stories is irreplaceable. Without hopelessness we cannot understand hope; without loneliness we cannot understand love; without vengeance we cannot understand forgiveness. Contrast is what gives our stories definition and clarity, what allows us to see the light from the dark.

In this way, writing becomes an excellent exercise in valuing what we would otherwise abolish or condemn. Nobody wants war in their life, but we might very well want it in our stories so the peace our characters find feels like a relief. Nobody wants to be poor, but we might want our hero to find himself living on the street so his prosperity is all the more meaningful.

In my own life, I often find I am much annoyed by the contrast all around me. It is one thing to learn about a pig virus sweeping the Midwest and think, “I don’t want that! I don’t like that! I wish that didn’t exist!” It is another, however, to stand in line at the USCAN, as I did the other day, and see a bus driver wearing a pair of “shorts” cut somewhere between the calf and ankle, and think, “I hate those shorts. They don’t deserve to be called shorts. In fact, I wish they did not exist. They are a mistake no one is willing to admit has been made.”

I did not feel so good leaving the grocery store in my pants that went all the way down to my shoe tops. I didn’t feel guilty about disliking the bus driver’s shorts; I disliked them every bit as much as the moment I saw them. It was the believing they shouldn’t exist that was troubling me. Why couldn’t I apply the rules for diseases to ugly pants? I wondered. If one thing shouldn’t exist, why not another?

But as I got into my car and thought about pig viruses, which I still didn’t want, I found there was no pleasure in wishing they didn’t exist either. So that’s how it is, isn’t it? I thought. All or nothing. Given the choice, I would have to take all. Otherwise, that which you don’t want and that which you do want will amount to exactly the same – nothing.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write 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

Time For A Party

My friend Will Green passed away suddenly yesterday. Will was an immensely gentle man who had a gift for celebrating what he enjoyed most about life. Though he will be missed, it seemed entirely appropriate to me that he would leave this party the way he did. He always knew when it was time to move on.

In his honor, I’d like to rerun this piece I wrote last year:

My friend Will was a waiter who had, over the years, transformed the yard around his one bedroom house into something of a floral wonderland, a lush little forest of flowers and bushes and vines and terraces. To tend a yard or garden is to bring something to life and then sustain it for as long as time will permit. Unlike a carpenter, the gardener produces no final product. Instead, he oversees a bell curve of life, whose peak is achieved through strategic cooperation with nature.

Will celebrated that peak with a once-a-year garden party. This was a major event, a dinner party with two-dozen tables, a bartender, and colored lamps. The garden itself was extraordinary. Everywhere your eye landed was life at its greenest, reddest, bluest, and purple-est. If this garden were a woman she was perfectly dressed. Will was her tailor, his hand evident in the checkerboard lawn of grass and granite, the trellises, the paths, the trimmed curve of the bush, but not so evident as to claim the beauty for his own. He merely helped reveal the beauty belonging to the flowers themselves.

It was an easy party to enjoy. Everyone had decided ahead of time they were going to have fun, and the garden would not permit disappointment. It was summer, and it was warm, and we were outside, and there was wine, and we were celebrating nothing more specific than the beauty of life. This was easier than celebrating New Year’s, or Christmas, or birthdays, wed as they are to the artifice of time. There was nothing artificial about the garden, it was just life being life, and we were not required to pretend that this moment was more important than any other moment.

Because no sooner had the wine glasses been cleared than the garden began her gradual retirement. Tired from her long summer, she undressed leaf by leaf through the autumn, requiring less of Will’s attention every day, until Will himself awoke one cool morning to find that beauty had silently entered into the long white dream of winter.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write 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

Where You Will Go

Having a successful day of writing never comes from having a great story to tell; it doesn’t come from reading a hundred books on writing; it doesn’t come from a knowledge of craft; it doesn’t come from the encouragement of acceptance letters or in retaliation to rejection letters. A successful day of writing occurs when and only when you allow yourself to enter your true writing state of mind.

Some writers get there by sitting down and typing as quickly as possible. The first page or two will be thrown away but by page three they’re in it. Some writers get there with a ritual cup of tea and a prayer. Some writers reread what they wrote the day before. Other writers cross their fingers and hope.

It doesn’t matter how you get there. You’ll know when you’ve arrived. You’ve stopped thinking and you’ve started listening. You’ve stopped watching the clock because time is what’s come before and what will happen next and the story you’re telling is being told in the right here and now. You’ve stopped going to get ideas and are letting them come to you. You’ve stopped worrying and started becoming curious. You’ve stopped trying to answer and you’ve started asking.

And suddenly all the classes and seminars and books and blogs and magazines are so immensely beside the point. There is nothing but this place and you know there isn’t one human on earth who could show you how to get there because this place belongs exclusively to you because in fact it is you. It is you without the story of why you shouldn’t or can’t or won’t or aren’t, it is you free of everything that has never been you, it is you not just alive but aware at last exactly how alive you have always been.

That is where every successful day of writing has ever come from. There is no other place it can come from. If you get there today, wonderful, and if you don’t, that’s okay too, because where you need to go will follow you everywhere from now until you are done telling stories.

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

Dream of Life

This issue of Author features my 45-minute conversation with Amy Tan. I thought Amy had a lot of great things to say about being an author, about keeping your balance in what is an easily unbalanced profession, and about finding the meaning of her life in writing. What was perhaps most instructive to me, however, was the story she told of how The Joy Luck Club was published and achieved its rapid and surprise success (See Part One starting around 15:00).

Not only did Amy Tan have no expectation for this collection of stories, she also had no resistance to its success. It may sound odd to think that any writer would have any resistance to his or her work’s success, but I believe it is quite common. Amy’s stories were initially getting published essentially without any effort on her part. In other words, she wasn’t choosing to publish here or there, publishers were coming to her and asking to publish her stories.

I think that this experience is actually closer to reality than many of us understand. The truth is we have no control over who will publish our work and who will not – or, if we are self-published, over who will buy our work and who will not. We all know this intellectually, but we still may not want to believe it. How can we simply turn this very important part of our lives over to something other than our own will?

Yet when I write my stories I always seek the most effortless path, which means following what the story wants to be, not what I want it to be. So too with that story’s publication. A story’s success will depend on my willingness to allow it to succeed as it was meant to succeed. The only one who can impede its success is me, for there is no one else in the world who would care how and when and why it succeeded. To allow my stories to find their place in the world is to allow the dream of life to reach its own surprising conclusion.

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

Getting Ready

Eventually you will have to do something you have never done before. Probably, you have put it off. Perhaps you dreamed of it, or perhaps you believed this was the sort of thing that other people did. It seemed too big and you seemed too small; it seemed too distant, and only your familiar weaknesses felt near.

Still, you couldn’t take your eyes off of it because imagining cost you nothing, and wondering cost you nothing, and asking a question of this one or that one cost you nothing. All you had to pay for your curiosity was attention, and of this you had no limit. You kept your eyes on this thing often without realizing your eyes were on it; you kept your eyes on it because you tricked yourself into believing that casting your attention in that direction did not draw you any nearer, even as you prayed secretly it would.

Until the day came that it was near, and now someone had asked if you would be willing, or you found you had opened a file that read, “Chapter One,” or you met someone who knew someone. Now you were on the doorstep, and though you had dreamed and dreamed you did not feel ready. You did not know what to expect. You needed to do more research. You had to ask more questions. You wanted more practice. No matter how much you researched and practiced you still did not feel ready, even as the moment arrived for you to do what you must do.

And yet there you are doing it. It is not what you expected. It less than you had hoped and it is more than you had imagined. You have not changed at all; you are only someplace new. In that moment, the limits of preparation are immediately apparent. No matter what you are doing, it will always be done in life, and how can you prepare for what you already are?

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