Less Fortune

I used to enjoy a roleplaying game called Heroes. To construct a character in this system, players were allotted a set number of points to spend on things like strength, intelligence, magic spells, and swordsmanship. However, a player could choose to give his character certain weaknesses (a limp, nearsightedness, paranoia, a dependant grandmother) for which the character would be awarded additional points. The greater the weakness, the more points the character received. My friends and I joked once that we could create a super hero by making our characters deaf, dumb, blind, schizophrenics.

Which reminds me of the characters we create in our stories. Often our characters’ most interesting traits are their weaknesses. Just as often, the story is about our protagonist’s weakness – their insecurity, hubris, poverty, or greed. A hero overcoming an outside force is certainly the stuff of drama, but it is when that same hero overcomes an inside force, when the fog of fear is cleared from the mirror, that the reader not only cheers the victory but feels that victory as her own.

It is fun to choose our roleplaying heroes’ strengths and weaknesses, just as it is interesting to chose our literary characters’ phobias and charms, but it is often hard to imagine this same creative process at work in ourselves. Who would want to be born without legs, or into staggering poverty, or to drunken parents? It is easy—compassionate even—to attribute the circumstances of such lives to uncaring fate. Just as talent seems unfairly distributed, some of us are just dealt a better life than others. It’s called reality, Jack.

But whose life would you trade yours for, knowing that to trade your life means to trade all of it – every kiss, every dream, every thought, every love? It’s all or nothing. Can you not feel the absurdity of it? Can you not feel how somewhere in the unique confluence of consciousness that is your life something necessary and valuable and useful and hopeful and kind is looking to take shape? If it is true for me it must be exactly as true for everyone, from every pauper to every president. Now that’s equality. From this view there is no such thing as more or less fortunate, there is only life in all its variety.

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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Finding Intuition

I interviewed the intuitive psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff yesterday for our upcoming May issue. Intuitive psychiatrist is an unusual combination, one born from Orloff being raised by two physician parents and possessing an intuition so innately strong that she spent much of her childhood believing that something was very wrong with her. Once she understood that the voices she was hearing were not a sign of madness but the product of a very loud and insistent creative guidance system, the life as she knows it now began in earnest.

One of the things I like about Orloff’s work is that she teaches people to use and strengthen their intuition. Until I began paying very close attention to my own creative process, I would not have thought intuition was anything you could teach. Either it visited you or it didn’t. Like the weather, I was glad for sunny days, but no amount of prayer or science would ever part the clouds.

But leaving communication with my intuition to the whims of a capricious subconscious is like leaving my writing schedule to the whims of my mood. I’m going to write every morning regardless of my mood because I have learned that once I start writing I soon find I am in the mood to write. My desire to write never actually turns off, I merely lose track of it in the grumbly, fussy business of daily life. So too with my intuition. It is always running, pulsing away with inspiration and guidance if I can but locate it.

Orloff has certain mechanical steps she recommends, like sitting quietly and taking deep breaths and so on. All good ideas. But there is a reason writers and teachers like Orloff often wind up speaking in metaphors. I could easily point a stranger from Seattle to Boston on a map, but the route to your intuition is like the journey from fear to love. Before the journey can even begin, you must remember it is possible, remember that your destination is real precisely because no one else can find it 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
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Necessary Shadows

When an artist renders the world on canvas, she is as much concerned with shadow – the negative space, what cannot be seen – as with light, what can be seen. In this way, shadows define the visible world, providing clear contrast for what we wish to focus upon.

This is a friendly relationship to shadows. It also is easy to forget. As I go about my day, my own world can fall into shadow as quickly as a cloud covers the sun. Here nothing but moss and mold will grow; here nothing can bloom. And sometimes I meet a friend or stranger and I feel the shadow across their eyes, and I can hate them for it. In those moments, I fear shadows as I fear any terminal contagion. Only the strong of will survive and prosper in a world where shadows abound.

But if I were able to live on the surface of the sun there would be only light, light, and more light. Within that ceaseless brightness there would be no definition, no this and that. Not a terrible arrangement, but I like this and that. In this way, the world of form is a world of shadow by necessity. It is shadow that allows us to see. Shadow separates everything and allows everything to be what it is.

Still, the artist must remember she is not rendering the shadows themselves. They do not exist, so there is nothing to render. Much of human life is spent talking about shadows as if they were real. Newspapers and television and the Internet are full of heated debate about the quantity and meaning of shadows. Where did they come from? How long will they be here? Should we convene a panel or begin a case study on them?

Enough of this worry leaves me longing to live on the sun. Yet such a flight might only cast its own shadow on the world I’m departing. A pointless solution given that I will always cast a shadow wherever I stand. Better to continue learning to tell light from shadow, to see the bright and blooming world the sun has illuminated.

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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The Slow Assembler

I can be a pretty logical guy when I want to be. I enjoy a little algebraic thinking now and again. It’s fun when I can show that if A = B, and B = C, then A = C. In many ways, writing is about showing the connection between things that appear from one perspective to be utterly disconnected. In that moment when the connection is revealed life collapses just a little, from a disparate collection of independent forms or thoughts to an integrated world, where the many serve the whole.

It’s a lovely thing, but I can’t become too enamored of my rational mind, no matter how athletic and proud it feels after one of its success. As Einstein pointed out, it is only a servant of the intuition. My rational mind, however, does not like to see itself as anyone’s servant. When things are going well for him, he is The King. He rules an iron kingdom of incontrovertible truths, truths built of the solid and knowable bricks of facts and bound by the sure mortar of logic. Come into his castle and be safe from the storms of preference and prejudice.

Things do not always go well for him, however. He’s fabulous at building things, but not so good at knowing what to build. In fact, he hasn’t a clue. At some point he looks from up from his throne and sees all the other castles around him. There are as many castles as there are kings and queens. All of them are correct. In that moment, his castle falls. It protects him from nothing.

Until, of course, he receives his instructions again. Now he is happy once more, helping to build what wants to be built. He doesn’t know why it wants to be built, and if he’s honest he admits that he doesn’t care. The why’s belong to something else. He is the slow assembler who must pull together all the parts that form what something else saw and knew in an instant.

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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A Story Arrives

You cannot pick your audience; your audience must pick you. You can pick your characters and your story, you can pick your scenes and your sentences – but you cannot pick your audience. You can say you are writing for young women, or science fiction freaks, or mystery buffs, but you cannot pick which young women, freaks, or buffs—they will pick you.

Your audience will find you the way you found your story. You found your story because at first you knew only that you wanted a story to tell, the same as your audience wanted a story to read. There were an infinite number of stories you could have told. They drifted to you in glimpses and pieces – titles, protagonists, settings – seeking purchase in your imagination. Most drifted away unnoticed. Some you reached for, testing them idly in the car or shower. But you released them as well because they were the wrong story.

You wanted a story that met you where you were and pulled you forward. You wanted a story that summoned questions from you faster than you could answer them. You wanted a story that felt as if it needed to be told. You wanted a story that could keep you at your desk, keep you up at night, keep you interested from sentence to sentence to sentence.

How glad I am when I find the right story, how relieved. It’s like meeting a friend in a roomful of strangers. I can begin to feel like a stranger to myself as I wait for my story to come. How easy to name that space I have cleared for my story failure, the waiting laziness, the unwanted stories enemies. Yet the friend arrives just the same once I grow tired of all this naming, arrives with a name of its own, and I choose it even as it chooses me.

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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The Authors

In most of the stories we tell, someone will have something and they will lose it, or they will be missing something and they will find it. Our characters will lose friends and lovers and they will find friends and lovers; they will lose money and homes and jewelry, and they will find money and homes and jewelry. All around our characters will be the things they can lose and they can find, and they will despair when these things are lost and rejoice when they are found.

We are wiser in many ways than our characters, however. We can see what they cannot. We giveth and taketh with impunity because what they have or don’t have means nothing to us. Only the story means anything to us. The props with which we surround our characters cost us nothing. We can give our characters a mansion as easily as we can give them shoebox. We can kill everyone they love in one chapter and repopulate their life with friends in the next. We can do whatever we want. We are the authors, and all that matters is the story.

And as authors, we know that our story moves forward through what our characters feel. We do not care that our characters live in a mansion, we only care what our characters feel like in that mansion. We do not care that our characters have found a new lover, we only care what they feel like when they are with that new lover. We are as delighted with our characters’ despair as we are with their joy as long as that despair or joy belongs in our story.

The story is never about anyone or anything. Often it is hard to say what the story is about. We write our little descriptions in query letters or pitches, but these are like the dry skeletons of the living thing we hope to share. This is why if you get us talking about our stories we sometimes cannot stop. It is because they are so interesting to us that we sat down and wrote them. It is because they are so interesting to us that we cannot say what they are about, for in our minds we see the whole of what we’ve made, a delightful and interesting thing from beginning to end, a love letter that came to us in the shape of a story.

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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Nothing

I have come to the conclusion that nothing is wrong. That would be nothing as in absolutely nothing. This is not to say that I do not frequently feel that things are wrong. At some point everyday I feel that something is wrong with my wife or with my son or with my computer or with my work or with the politics or football or, of course, with me. On some days, most of what I see looks wrong.

Yet there is a difference between something looking wrong and something being wrong. The understanding or lack of understanding of that difference has been the source of all my suffering and all my ease, all my failure and all my success. I will always suffer when I perceive the world as incorrect, the way I will always suffer when I bend my fingers backwards. And I will always fail when I try to fix that world, the same as I would fail to fix my apple tree when it doesn’t bloom in winter.

For this reason much of my day is spent remembering that nothing is wrong. Writing has been one of my best teachers for learning to see the world as it is instead of how I have imagined it in my frustration and fear. I cannot write what I cannot see. Most of my work time is spent focusing the lens of my imagination until the world I am trying to write is clear enough in my mind that I can render it completely and accurately in words.

This focusing is always a process of remembering, of looking past the stories I have told about the world and to the story the world is trying to tell me. Because if the world could actually speak to me, it would tell me that nothing is wrong with it, the same as I would say that nothing is wrong with me.

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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Not Normal

I was watching a Ken Burns documentary last night about a special school in Vermont designed for children who, for a number of reasons, could not flourish is a typical public school. At one point, the school’s therapist talked about the parents’ desire for their children to be “normal.” He would remind the parents that it wasn’t their child’s job to be normal; it was their child’s job to be themselves.

Of course, what the parents really meant was that they wanted to know that their child would succeed in some recognizable way, whether socially or professionally or romantically. It is easy to imagine how something will thrive if we feel we have seen that thing before. As writers, our success often depends upon our willingness to create something that hasn’t been seen before. While some of our stories will look and sound and walk like other stories, a piece of work’s true value always lies in the qualities that seem to belong to it alone.

And what is true of our work is always true of ourselves. You would be hard pressed to find a more normal-looking fellow than myself. If you passed me on the street you might mistake me for a TV news anchor. Yet I can feel out of place in my own living room. When I am out of sorts with myself, the world appears hostile and un-accepting, a symphony where nothing I can sing or say belongs.

It is not my job, nor anyone’s job, to belong anywhere. It is only my job to speak for myself. Oddly, every time I permit myself to do so, every time I ask what is the most honest thing I can say and then say it, every time I speak from the most personal truth I know, I find myself belonging where I had previously felt unwanted. There is nothing in the world more normal, more universal, than acceptance of oneself. What else is there for anyone? There is only the choice between a lifetime failing to be someone you are not, or succeeding in being someone 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
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The Husk

I have just finished judging ten short memoir entries in the PNWA’s yearly writing contest. In general, the entries I’ve received over the last few years have been getting better and better, and this year was no exception. Unfortunately, I don’t think I had the pleasure of reading what will be this year’s winner. Though some pieces were quite strong, none of them sufficiently answered one critical question: why is this story being told?

This question is usually harder to answer in memoir and personal essay than fiction. The writer knows she has a story to tell. She already knows all the events in this story and that in living them something meaningful was revealed to her. It is likely that in her mind that meaning is tied up in the events themselves, the way a soup’s flavor is contained in the combination of its ingredients. If she could but feed us the events we would know that meaning too.

But of course a writer cannot feed her reader all the events – that is, every thought, every word, every gesture. Memoir and personal essay is in this way the art of highly selective inclusion. And what gets included and what does not depends completely on the answer to the question: why is this story being told? Until the writer understands this clearly, the soup will be unfocussed, for there will be either too many of one kind of ingredient, or not enough of another.

And usually the one ingredient there needs to be less of is the writer herself. Though she was the one who lived these events, though she was the one who suffered and rejoiced, though she was the one who learned to see where she had been blind – the story is not about her. She is the husk the butterfly of perception leaves behind when it flies. The butterfly will be about everyone, and belong to everyone, and when she really learns why the story is being told, what she thought she was and had will seem so small and dull compared to what she found and gave.

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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Helmets Off

I sometimes wonder if Lord of the Rings would get published if it were written today. For instance, it is peopled with almost nothing but guys from top to bottom, an omission few publishers would be willing to overlook given our current understanding of readership demographics—which is to say, 80% of all books are bought by women. That said, perhaps my favorite moment from the film version involves Éowyn, one of the story’s few female characters.

Éowyn is a “shieldmaiden”, and the niece of the Théoden King of Rohan. Against her father’s wishes, she suits up to help defend Minas Tirith against an onslaught of orcs, donning a full helm to disguise her identity. Leading the siege is the Witch King, who, it is said, cannot be killed by any man. In the middle of the battle, the Witch King knocks Théoden from his horse. Éowyn leaps to her uncle’s defense, and the Witch King laughs, “You fool. No man can kill me.”

Éowyn then pulls off her helmet, her long blond hair tumbles out, and she says, “I am no man.” And kills him.

It is tempting to view this moment through the lens of gender and our concepts of strength and so on, but this, for me, actually diminishes its meaning. That Éowyn’s greatest contribution to the struggle of good versus evil was what lay beneath her mask is everyone’s story. It is everyone’s story to hide their true strength because if that true strength is different, if it is unique, then perhaps it doesn’t belong, or perhaps it will be unwanted, or perhaps it is not a strength at all but merely a deformity.

It is every bit like your writing voice. There comes a moment in most writer’s lives when they remove the helmet and speak as themselves. It can be both freeing and terrifying, for the Witch King of failure and irrelevance and mediocrity is surely laughing somewhere in our minds. If he were real, then it would be death for us all, since you cannot protect what you have always been anymore than you can stop being what you already 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