Killing

I was talking to a gentleman the other night who, in addition to being an executive at a large corporation and a former figure skater, is also a public speaker. We found ourselves agreeing about the power and the necessity of silence when speaking to hundreds of strangers. If you ask a question, you must allow a pause for your audience to consider their own answer; if you make a point, you must pause to allow your audience to absorb it.

How tempting to fill the room with your words, as if any pause is an opportunity for your audience to escape your thrall. There is, after all, a certain deadly kind of restless silence that any public speaker, including authors on a book tour, comes to dread. It is the silence of an audience waiting for something else, preferably the end of the lecture. I have known such silences, and at those moments I understand why comedians say that when a show goes well they’ve killed, and when it goes very poorly they have died.

It’s brutal-sounding language, but accurate, I think, because to succeed as a public speaker, or as a writer, I must allow something to die within me so that I can become transparent enough to allow through what wants to come through. I can’t stand guard at the gates of my mind screening every word or thought to protect some idea of my public image. The image must die, at least for that hour or two that I’m trying to share something.

And if I can succeed, the audience might experience their own gentle death as well. I have sat in darkened theaters and known that death. Some speaker or actor or singer took me to a place where I could forget what I was afraid of and what I needed to protect, where I could forget how old I was and how long I had left to live, where I could forget what I’ve done and what I haven’t done, where I could forget all that was wrong with the world and my life and remember who I was.

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
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In Front of Us

I recently launched a new website, nooneisbroken.com, in support of my forthcoming memoir No One Is Broken: What a Father Learned when He Tried to Fix His Son. The memoir is my story, but I knew there was more I could say about raising a child on the spectrum and learning to see a world without broken people. Yet how exactly would that be shared I wasn’t sure.

For months I delayed going live with the site because I didn’t really know what it was, nor what it would say other than that no one is broken. Then my wife and I began talking about it, and talking about it, and talking about it until she pointed out that I should, essentially, do what I always do.

Meaning, for the last six years I have been writing about writing in this space. Yet any regular reader has no doubt noticed that I rarely write about how to write, only why we write, why it is a journey worth taking, and why we must never be afraid to write what we love. Like Write Within Yourself, this space is in fact an author’s companion, not an author’s guide.

So too with nooneisbroken.com. As Author is a site for writers, No One Is Broken is a site for parents of children on the spectrum, but not a site to teach them how to parent, to tell them whether or not to use omega three oils or vitamins, whether to use drugs or meditation, but rather to help answer those persistent questions that caring for a child on the spectrum raises about the parents themselves. Questions like: Am I failure if they never talk? Have I done enough? Am I a bad person if I periodically hate them? On and on.

That I can do, I thought, because it’s all I ever do. It’s like finally finding the ending to your story. When you find it, you feel as if the ending had been sitting on your desk all along, the thing you kept pushing out of the way so you could see the screen better, until you stopped looking and finally saw.

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

Little Napoleon

My mother was a devoted practitioner of a Zen style of minimalist parenting, a style that suited me and my general desire not to be meddled with perfectly. Never was this style more expertly employed than when I was nine and first learning to play the flute.

The problem was the slurs. To slur, a flutist does not tongue each individual note but exhales one continuous breath so that the notes appear to run together as if they were poured out of a jug, rather than dropped one by one from your instrument. I couldn’t get it. Somehow by not pausing to articulate each note the whole business came out rushed and muddied. How disappointing: only three months into my musical expedition, and I’d reached my Waterloo.

After a particularly fruitless practice session, I marched to my mom’s bedroom where she may have been seeking refuge from the life of a single mother, and broke the news. “I can’t get the slurs,” I told her. “I’m going to quit.”

To which she replied: “Okay.”

I was caught completely off guard. I had prepared a passionate defense of my fluting ineptitude and the pain it was causing me. Did she want me to suffer through failure after failure? But the fight for which I had readied myself never came, and I turned around knowing I was not going to quit.

There is nothing failure loves more than opposition. It feeds off it. After all, if something is being opposed, then that something must exist. When your punches come back empty, you can only ask yourself what you were swinging at. I certainly did that day. This little Napoleon marched back to his music stand, victorious in his surrender.

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

Know Nothing

I have had to accept recently that I know nothing. I have no idea what anyone else is going to do or like. I have no idea how well a book will sell, or how many reads a given blog will receive. I don’t know when a publishing trend will end, and I don’t know what the next publishing trend will be.

More to the point, I don’t even know what is in my best interest. I have spent my life believing I know exactly what is in my best interest. I have been certain that it would be a good thing if this agent or that editor said yes, and it would be a bad thing if they said no. I have had plans and goals, hatched in nervous hours, my future hardly something I was willing to leave to the die-roll of fate. Yet the future always arrived unscheduled and having ignored my script. My plans were a fantasy. I might as well have been planning to be a space pirate.

Worse yet, for a born-again memoirist, I don’t really know what happened yesterday. It’s a shadow play of feeling and image and thought, so near to a dream I would need only the memory of flying from my window or debating modern medicine with Count Dracula to call it that. It’s just material, is all it is. I call it reality because in retelling the past, it feels real again.

Which is all I really know: how I am feeling right now. That I know for sure, but then again only if I pay close attention. If my attention strays to the shadows of the past or my fantasies of the future, I become lost in a changing sea of what I cannot and will never know. But when I pay attention to what I am feeling right now, whether I am writing or taking a shower, I am found again, surrounded and supported by everything I know.

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

Love’s Success

The best writing advice I could give someone is to write the book he or she would most love to read. Not like to read, but love to read. Nothing brings you back to the desk like love, nothing holds you at the page until you find the best word like love, and nothing brings you home when you have wandered out into the midnight of self-doubt like love.

It’s good advice because writers always need their own private source of motivation. Somewhere in all our minds is the knowledge that, even with a contract in hand, we could still choose to chuck it all and the world would continue to spin perfectly well without our finished book. Writers need a daily answer to the question, “Why am I doing this?” and the best answer is always love.

This can be a disorienting answer for a goal-oriented fellow like myself. For instance, when I think of the love I feel for my wife, that love has no goal other than expression. It doesn’t care about marriage or sex or conversation or who’s right or who’s wrong, it only wants expression. When I express it, I am comfortable; when I withhold it, deny it, avoid it or reject it, I am uncomfortable. When I express it, the world feels correct; when I do not, the world feels incorrect.

So too, I have to admit, for the books I write. My busy, ambitious mind is filled with goals – I will write this number of pages, I will publish this book, I will sell this number of copies and speak here and teach there – yet the love upon which I must draw to achieve all these supposed goals, the love without which I could never finish a single essay, doesn’t give one wit for what I think ought to happen with what I’ve written. Love clearly has its own idea of success, and no matter how much I plan, project, complain, or criticize, it remains the only success I will ever really know.

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

A New Story

Eric was the Sous-chef at the restaurant where I worked for many years. He was optimistic and philosophical, a rather rare combination, and from time to time he would appear at my shoulder and say, “Bill, tell me a story.” One day I told him this story:

I was living in Providence and performing a show I had written with my brother. It was a small show being performed at small theaters to small crowds, but we had gotten our first review in an actual newspaper and it was starting to feel a little bit real. But I wasn’t making any money at it, and so I was working as a waiter in a BBQ place. One day I was having lunch by myself in a restaurant across the street from where I worked when who should stop by but Jimmy Griffin.

Jimmy had gone to high school with me, and was working as a busboy in the restaurant. He sat down across from me and asked what I was up to. Unfortunately, I began by telling him I was a waiter at the BBQ place. Jimmy shook head and lowered his eyes. “Man, Bill,” he said, “I thought if anyone from that stupid high school could make it, it would be you.”

I began stammering about my show, about the review, about how the crowds were getting bigger—but it was too late. If I couldn’t make it, what hope was there for them rest of them? He wished me luck without enthusiasm, and went back to bussing tables.

I had always hated and feared this story, but I decided on the day I told it to Eric to make it a funny story. Eric thought it was the most hilarious story he had ever heard. He put his hand on my shoulder and imitated Jimmy and we both laughed. It was not an easy story to tell. A part of me had wanted to tell it the way I had always been telling it, but I kept my eyes on Eric and kept reminding myself it could be funny if I let it, and it was, and it has been ever since.

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

Everyone’s Story

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jamie Ford recently, author of Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and Songs of Willow Frost (look for the interview next month). His writing journey was in many was a familiar one. He had tried to write a “bleak literary novel” because he believed that was what he was supposed to write. This did not go so well. He explained that in deciding to write Hotel he had to admit to himself that he really wanted to write not-bleak historical novels.

I drove home from our interviewing thinking about how many writers I know who’ve told a similar story. Theo Pauline Nestor found her voice when she finally accepted she didn’t want to write fiction, but wanted to write about her own life, what we call memoir. Kevin O’Brien had to accept that he wanted to write scary stories. Garth Stein had to accept that he wanted to write a book narrated by a dog. On and on.

Which reminded me of my conversation with Armistead Maupin, who came out of the closet publicly in the 1970s, thirty years before Ellen DeGeneres had her own daytime talk show. It occurred to me then that we all have to come out in one way or another. We all have to admit that we are who are, which is always going to be different in some ways either large or small from the family we were born into, or the genre we were taught to write.

It seems like it would be simpler if we all lived our entire lives out of our respective closets, but I believe something would be lost if we were deprived of that choice between who we are and who we thought we were supposed to be. I never quite feel myself so clearly as the moment I shed some old story I didn’t even realize I was telling. There I am, lighter now I suppose but really just the correct weight, me minus nothing except what I never wanted.

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 Journey

Two months ago my son, Sawyer, purchased a copy of “Fifty Science Fiction Classics.” As I described in an earlier column, this collection included such treasures as “Egah!” and “Santa Clause Conquers the Martians.” Once Sawyer understood he had come home with a kind of rogue’s gallery of bad cinema, he devised a plan: We would watch them all, he and I, one a night, and when we were done we would celebrate. He called this plan The Journey.

I am happy to report we finished our journey last week. As a kind of test of our endurance, I learned two things. First, I learned that you must try to enjoy yourself. Early on, we made a game of criticizing and complaining about each movie. There was a lot to complain about. Why is the narrator describing exactly what we’re seeing? Why don’t any of the characters have personalities? Why isn’t anything happening?

These were perfectly reasonable questions, but asking them and asking them became fatiguing because no one could answer them. The movies had been made and there was nothing we could do about it. Better, it turns out, to find something redeeming in each film. Better to find some shred of a plot, some thread of a question you want answering. How will Santa Claus conquer the Martians? Let’s find out.

Second, it’s critical to remember you chose to be on the journey. How tempting in the middle of a particularly story-less effort to cry out to the universe for clemency. Boredom, after all, is torturous in its way. Yet there was no torturer in the room. There was only us. We chose to watch every movie, and could have stopped at anytime.

We had to remind ourselves of this lesson almost every night. If we were suffering, we were doing so by choice. Oddly, once we remembered we had chosen The Journey, the suffering faded. Now we could settle back, father and son goofing around for a couple hours, waiting to see what Santa Claus would do next.

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

A Good Story

It was a several years ago at the PNWA’s summer writer’s conference and I had a YA fantasy novel I was shopping around. I had an agent for the book that I liked very much, but we were still looking for the right editor. There was one editor from St. Martin’s attending the conference that I thought would be a good fit, but I had decided I did not want to sit down with her at one of the pitch sessions, but rather find some time we might talk privately about the project. This was what I wanted. I really wanted this. I had thought about it a lot before the conference.

Unfortunately, this editor did not attend the pre-conference party the PNWA throws for the agents and editors. It was the next day and Bob Dugoni was in the main ballroom introducing all the agents. The hallway outside, where I was standing, not knowing what to do with myself, was deserted. What should I do? I wondered.

Get some coffee downstairs at Spencer’s,” a voice in my head answered.

“I don’t want coffee,” I told the voice.

Get some coffee downstairs at Spencer’s,” the voice said again.

And so there I was climbing into the elevator, and there I was winding my way toward the lobby and Spencer’s, thinking how I did not want coffee, when I looked up and saw a professional-looking woman drifting toward me with a lost look in her eye.

“You looking for the conference?” I asked.

“Yes. I’m supposed to be on the Editor’s Panel. This place is so confusing.”

“I’ll take you there.”

Now I recognized her from her picture in the conference brochure and I introduced myself and told her who my agent was and about the project and she said I should send it right along to her.

This would be a perfect story, I suppose, if she had bought it and that had been the beginning of my YA fantasy writing career, but she did not. In fact, no one bought that book, which turned out to be a good thing, because that very same voice eventually told me to write a very different kind of book. I am sure that voice had been trying to talk to me for many years, but that, to my memory, was the first time I actually listened to it.

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

Historically Meaningful

As a part of our homeschooling, my son and I have been watching a lot of history videos lately. I don’t know about Sawyer, but I’ve learned more about Constantinople/Istanbul, and the rise of Christianity, and the fall of Rome, and just how predictably ruthless and bloody every king, queen, emperor, or tsar was for two or three thousand years after we all gathered together in large groups and decided there’s us and there’s them than I had in previous 48 years of my life.

It’s pretty interesting stuff. Who knew how influential the Vikings were in the development of Europe? I didn’t. Now I do. I also didn’t know just how huge the Ottoman Empire had been, nor about how the Mongols conquered and basically created what is now China, nor that the “hot gates” T. S. Eliot referred to in – I think it was The Wasteland – was from the same battle on which that movie 300 was based.

At the end of a 14-part documentary on the rise and fall of Rome, one poor historian was given the unenviable job of summarizing why it is we bother studying the 2,000 year-old shenanigans of a bunch of sandal-wearing pagans. I believe he said something about learning from their mistakes. That’s nice in theory, but I think humans tend to learn more from their own personal mistakes, than, say, the mistakes Augustus Caesar made.

Yet I can hardly blame him for this answer. He must have wanted it to match in some way the passion he felt for this subject. It cannot be that it simply means nothing. It cannot be that it was just a bunch of stuff that happened and has no relevance to our actual lives. It cannot be because it’s interesting. Yes indeed. That’s all we ever really get in our search for meaning – that something is interesting to us right now. The moment I lay my restless attention on something of interest to me I make sense to myself for exactly as long as I can resist asking why.

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