What’s Left

When I was 25 I sat down to write my first novel. I had once been an avid reader of novels. Novels were my church and my state. By the time I tried to write one of my own, however, I had more or less stopped reading for several years. That I wasn’t more interested in reading confused me. Now and again I walked myself to a bookstore in the hopes of rekindling my faith, but on the few occasions I left with a book, it often went unread.

Yet there I was about to write one. I did not have a story I wanted to tell other than the story of how I wanted to write. So I decided to write one of the kinds of books I used to like to read but which I was apparently no longer interested in reading. I did not see any problem with this. Bill Kenower was good at being good at things. He would get good at writing novels he would not himself necessarily read and that would be that. This was an executive decision. This was My Plan.

That it took me fifteen years and six novels to abandon this plan is a testament to my stick-to-itiveness and willingness to endure suffering. The trouble with this sort of suffering is that one can cease to see it as suffering at all and come to call it “reality.” Now you aren’t so much enduring something as creating it, which is perhaps all we ever do.

No matter. Apparently fifteen years was precisely the amount of time I needed to spend carrying something I never wanted in the first place so that I could truly feel the pleasure of living without it. You set it down and in its absence you feel something new and yet as old as you. There you are, you who are light, you who are unburdened, you who are what’s left when the suffering is released.

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

Effortless

Over the last few years my writing has become largely effortless. Wait – let me explain. I can still spend twenty minutes or more writing two sentences. I just finished a memoir that took me twelve drafts to complete, drafts that sometimes took me in vastly different directions. I often begin the day with no idea at all of what to write. But this is merely the process that is finding the story I want to tell. This is different than effort.

Whenever I write, I always meet resistance. Because each story and each essay is different, I am always looking for a way I have never travelled before. How can I find that way without experimentation? If the road were marked clearly with signs, I would not be finding my way, I would not learn for myself how to tell the difference between a correct path and an incorrect path. The paths themselves are equal, just as every word is equal, just as every person is equal. The question is whether an idea, a word, or a scene belongs in the story I am wishing tell.

The only way to tell is with resistance. As soon as I begin down an incorrect path I feel resistance. Here is the moment where I get to choose writing that is effortful or effortless. If I feel the resistance, but I wish to continue down the path anyway, then I will have to exert effort. If I do not exert effort, I will by necessity stop, for that is the purpose of the resistance – to compel me to stop and find the correct path. The longer I continue down an incorrect path, the more effort I will exert, and the more I will complain to anyone who will listen about how hard writing is.

If, on the other hand, I listen to this unerring guidance, I will try another path and then another path and then another path until the way is clear of all resistance. It is very difficult to find this path if I believe that it is heroic to overcome resistance, or that effort of the kind I am describing is a virtue, is the source of my inner strength the way lifting barbells builds my muscles. In fact, this kind of effort is an expression of my only weakness – the belief that life is uninterested in my wellbeing.

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

Clever Cannibalism

I watched Rebel Without A Cause a couple times in my early twenties and not again until last week. I had a few clear memories from the movie: James Dean crying at the end, “I had the bullets”; James Dean crying at the beginning, “You’re tearing me apart!”; and then this scene:

Dean has been pulled into the office of the guy who played The Chief in Get Smart. The Chief is playing a cop who specializes in juvenile delinquency. He’s tough but with a good heart. I remembered that Dean was drunk and a little belligerent, and at one point The Chief pulls back his jacket to expose his own midsection. “You want to hit something,” he tells Dean. “Hit me.” Dean does, and hurts his hand. That’s exactly what I remembered. I remembered it very clearly. It made a big impression on me at the time.

Here’s what actually happened in the scene: Dean is pulled into The Chief’s office. He’s drunk and belligerent. The Chief is egging him on a little and so Dean takes a swing at him. The Chief easily avoids the wild hook and throws Dean into a chair by his desk. He, The Chief, then removes his jacket. There is a mild threat in how he removes the jacket, puffing up his midsection as if to say, “I’m a man, remember – not just some authority figure.” Then he says to Dean, “You want to hit something, hit the desk.” Dean does, and hurts his hand.

The memoirist in me took note. That I turned the desk into The Chief’s body is precisely the sort of dreamlike cannibalism for which the imagination is notorious. How resourceful it is, and how undaunted by something as trivial as factual truth. All the facts of my life will be devoured by time, leaving within me with their rich nutrients, the actual truth from which all stories grow.

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

Self Promotion

I had coffee with Ingrid Ricks a few weeks after our recent interview. Hippie Boy, her memoir, was initially self-published. Ingrid is not daunted by the idea of hard work, and once she’d published Hippie Boy she set about learning how one gets reviews on the best blogs, and how to time raising and lowering the price of your book, plus many other things as well, all of which led to her indie published memoir hitting the New York Times bestseller list and netting her a contract with Berkley. “This is a great time to be an author,” she concluded.

Which got me thinking about Deb Caletti, who, after publishing eleven YA novels, was asked by Random House if she’d like to write an adult literary novel, to which she answered, “You bet!” This was a dream fulfilled for her, and during our conversation I asked her about promoting this book she had been waiting all her life to see published. What’d you do? I asked. “Nothing,” she replied. “I’m writing the next book. And this book is selling better than any other book I’ve published. I’ve learned that when a publisher like Random House really wants a book to do well – assuming it’s any good – it will do well.”

Which got me thinking about Andre Dubus. His books do well, to be sure, but Andre always goes on tour, where he does lots of interviews, and gives lots of lectures and answers lots of questions. He only recently got a website, which he largely ignores. Good luck finding him on Facebook. I’m not sure if he even knows what a tweet is.

Which got me thinking about John Green, who also goes on tour, but who has an extremely popular YouTube page and over one million Twitter followers. During his interview he told Brian Mercer, “I do Twitter because I get Twitter; I don’t do Facebook because I don’t get Facebook.”

All of these four very different approaches to book promotion have one thing in common: they are a match to the writer whose book is being promoted. Ingrid is a go-getter and enjoys having her own business; Deb just wants to write; Andre loves to lecture and answers questions; John is an entertainer and, apparently, a prolific tweeter. Just as you should write what you love, so too you should promote as you love. Saying there is only one way to promote is like saying there is only one way to write a book, which is like saying there is only one way to be a person. Write like you, promote like you, and be like you – that is the only formula for success.

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

The Pawn’s Conclusion

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, paranormal vampire romance or quiet literary short stories, whether you are a banker or a bartender, an actor or an architect, eventually you will tell your story. You have already told it, though the ending has since changed, and with it so too the beginning. No matter, it is an interesting story, and you do not mind that it keeps changing, as it means that you get to keep telling it.

Sometimes, however, you do not like this story, though you tell it anyway. You tell it even though the characters – particularly the protagonist – seem to be pawns in a vast and unfriendly and meaningless game. The pawns’ only goal is to stay alive for as long as possible while the meaningless game plays itself into oblivion. Telling this story feels like a chore, and there are days you wonder why you bother telling it at all.

And yet there you are telling it. Though all evidence points to the contrary, secretly you believe that the pawn plays a critical role in this mysterious game. Though all evidence points to the contrary, you feel as if without him the game could not be played. This is infuriatingly compelling because sometimes when you try to tell the story of the pawn’s irreplaceable role in this game you sound disingenuous, naïve, or full of bravado. This is so disappointing you nearly stop telling your story, except there is that feeling about the pawn yet again.

It wouldn’t be possible, would it, that your character isn’t a pawn at all, but a king? You have heard that there is only one such piece on the board, and wouldn’t you have been told if you were that piece? You can see no reason to keep such a secret, except that the longer you tell this story, and the more honestly you tell it, and the more humbly you tell it, you can come to no conclusion other than that the game has always been played for you.

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

Real Magic

When I was a much younger writer I wanted to be able to write impressive sentences. My young writer’s ego most certainly had something to do with this, but vanity is only fear looking for cover behind something authentic. In this case, that authentic thing was the magical transformation I had observed between the first and last words of certain sentences.

Sometimes a sentence is like a single trick within a magician’s entire routine. The magician shows you the ace of spades, and you watch that card and his hands closely because you want to be fooled but you don’t want to be fooled, and somehow within his precise flurry of gestures the ace becomes a queen.

So it is with certain sentences. A sentence is a transformation of thought through words, and if the transformation is dramatic enough and seamless enough, the reader arrives at the last word surprised by the transformation in which she has just participated. The reader, after all, read every word, watched the sentence as closely as an audience watches the magician’s hand, and yet this surprising transformation occurred, as if you had been lulled to sleep then snapped awake by a period.

Like the magician, the writer’s magic occurs within what the reader cannot see. The magician holds the queen even as he shows the ace. So it is with the writer, holding within his imagination the coming transformation. Unlike the magician, the writer himself does not know what he is holding until it appears, for he has never attempted this exact trick before.

This is where reader and writer meet; this is why reading is called magical. At its best, both participants are equally surprised and delighted to behold that which has been pulled from the top hat of our imagination. How did that happen? Neither of us really knows. We are all children at the party after the magician has gone, leaving behind the remnants of his trick and a lingering belief in what cannot be seen.

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

Trusted

I enjoy teaching writing, and while I do teach showing and not telling, and story structure, and contrast, often I wind up talking about trust. All this craft is useless without trust. Without trust, the whole writing operation collapses like a house of matchsticks because all writing is based on the idea that something only you can see and know would be interesting to someone else if translated accurately.

Yet only experience itself can teach us to trust. Fortunately, experience is a brilliant teacher. Experience gives perfectly consistent feedback, it never judges, and never grows tired of teaching. Experience turns words and ideas into reality, turns a concept into something you can live by. You can question an idea, but if you question your own experience, what is there left for you to believe in but someone else’s experiences?

As a mere human teacher, you quickly run up against your limits when trying to teach trust. It is as if there is a coin, and one side of the coin is everything we can all see. It is easy to talk about this side of the coin. But there is another side to this coin called reality, and if you turn the coin over you will see it. Sometimes, the rational mind feels that to turn the coin over is like being asked to believe in Santa Claus again. The rational mind wants proof that this other side of the coin exists before turning reality upside down.

The rational mind will therefore ask someone else to turn the coin over first. The rational mind debates law, history, physics. In such debates only what can be shown is valid. But no one can turn this coin over for you. It is yours to turn or not. This feels like hokum to the rational mind, but there it is all the same. Hokum is magic, after all, and what is asking to be trusted looks a bit like magic. In that moment of trust you find the only ground upon which you were meant to stand, and reality becomes something into which what you trusted may appear.

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

Howard’s Gift

I knew Howard in 8th grade, but we became friends my freshman year in high school. Howard lived with his mother and younger brother in a small apartment on Thayer Street, which struck me as unusual because Thayer Street was a merchant strip that ran through Brown University where my friends and I all hung out – it wasn’t some place you lived.

Unless you were Howard. It was in his little bedroom there that he played Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” for me, which freaked me out at the time. Howard thought it was hilarious that the song so terrified me.

I liked Howard. There was simply no social circle into which Howard would naturally fit. The other friends I was collecting at this time were mostly actors and artists and musicians and the sons and daughters of academics. Though I had the arrow of my ambition trained on being a writer, I was also an athlete and generally a wholesome sort of fellow. I felt immovably traditional compared to my new friends. If you had looked up “American Boy” in an encyclopedia you would have likely found my picture. My friends, meanwhile, tended to dress in long black coats, pierced their ears, and listened to a lot of New Wave, which, frankly, I thought sucked.

I don’t know what Howard was. He was fidgety and excitable and eager. While walking home with me once he said, “I just learned the word decay, Bill. Don’t you love that word?” That was Howard. One evening, I decided to join my artist friends in a giant game of Manhunt, which was sort of like tag. It was weird playing this child’s game as a teenager, but it was fun anyway. Howard was there. Right as we were getting ready to play, he handed me a bracelet.

“This is for you,” he said. “It’s got something in Latin written on it. I can’t read it but it means, ‘Unlike any other.’ That’s you.”

I didn’t know what to say. I thanked him, but at fourteen I did not have the words express my true gratitude. How easy it is to become lost in your own boring story about yourself, and what a relief to be reminded of what we all 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

That Intelligent

When my son was three he sat down at his plastic Winnie the Pooh drum and sang the following song:

You have to get along,
But you gotta have free.

This would become the central challenge of his – and perhaps everyone’s – life. Namely, to live the life you want to live, you have to get along with all the other people trying to live the lives they want to live. But to live the life you want to live, you also have to be free to live that life however you want. Does it not seem that these two needs are often in conflict? I must write whatever I most want to write, but what if no one wants to read it or publish it?

He had forgotten ever having written the song, and he was incredulous when I reminded him of it recently. No three year-old could possibly write something that intelligent, he said. A three year-old had, I assured him. He adjusted to this reality rather quickly.

As do most parents. There is an intelligence within life that will seek expression by whatever means its current vessel provides. In fact, it is the very same intelligence that allows that life to get along while also having free. From a certain distance, such a marriage can seem impossible, as impossible as a three year-old composing existential ballads. Impossible, that is, until it happens.

It’s always wondrous when it happens, as wondrous as sentences and stories falling together as if on their own. How often have you jumped back from the page and thought, “Did I write that? I’m not that intelligent.” Wondrous, too, how quickly you adjust to the idea that maybe you 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

That Gift

Lingering in the back of everyone’s mind is the sometimes quiet, sometimes very loud question, “Am I good enough?” We spend so much time grading, comparing, judging and ranking ourselves that I don’t know how a person could avoid asking this question at least once, if only to test how it feels. It feels lousy, if you haven’t noticed, even just to ask it. Unfortunately, it also smells like the sort of question one must be able to answer “Yes!” to, because if we’re not good enough . . . well, that would be a problem, wouldn’t it?

Writers decide to write for many reasons. Usually, they love to write. Also, they would like to make money doing what they love. But these are not always the only reasons. Sometimes writers write and submit the stories and poems they’ve written so that these stories and poems will be rejected.

Yes, to be rejected. The more often you ask if you are good enough—and it matters not what you are pretending to wonder you are good enough at, that question only ever refers to us as a whole—the more likely the answer will be no. But we can answer no so quietly, so habitually, that we will soon grow accustomed to the sustained discomfort it provides.

You will not have that luxury as the rejection letters come in. Likely as not that quiet voice that whispered no sabotaged your story for this very purpose. Now, you will have to feel self-rejection acutely, and you will feel it again and again and again until you decide you are worthy of a life free from this suffering.

Such a gift, writing. Oh, I know, this is a gift you’d like to give back. Except that you crave, beyond any agent, publishing contract or Amazon ranking, the unequivocal yes you already are. Our lives are led to hold this permanently in our hearts, though it has never been anywhere else.

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