Surrounded by Life

I was watching a documentary about a forest in Japan that has become a hauntingly popular destination for suicides. The filmmakers followed a geologist who, because of his work monitoring the volcanic rumblings of nearby Mt. Fuji, wound up a kind of forest suicide ranger, both uncovering the bodies of those who succeeded in killing themselves, and counseling those strangers camped far off the trails who remained uncertain which path they would follow, so to speak.

The geologist explained that most people who come to the forest hang themselves, making the tall, old growth trees unwitting accomplices in the final act. To accentuate this point, the filmmakers paused to pan slowly up a tree from roots to branches. The pan was accompanied by an appropriately spooky soundtrack. The soundtrack was so spooky that I was expecting the camera to find a dangling, lifeless body amid the branches.

Only it didn’t. It was just a tree, and a beautiful one at that. For a moment during that slow, creepy shot, I imagined that tree without a soundtrack. That’s the artist’s hand, I thought. We decide what everything means. The tree means nothing by itself, but pan slowly with some cellos droning in a minor key, and you have a monster.

I believe the documentary was intended to be sort of real life horror movie, only it fell short of this for me because of its lead character. The geologist was a reassuring guide through this forest of death. He talked about how important it was for people to spend time with one another, to find meaning in relationships. Somehow, his daily trips through the world of suicide had only connected him further to the life in which he was surrounded in that quiet, beautiful forest.

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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Lasting Silence

I just learned that Maya Angelou passed away at 86. I loved Maya Angelou’s voice. I remember listening to her recite the poem she had written for Bill Clinton’s inauguration. I was worried for her as she stepped up to that podium before those thousands of people gathered for a day of pomp. Poetry is such a quiet and gentle medium and politics is so rough and raucous, and the writer in me stood with her wondering if the poet’s voice could be heard above the din of political triumph.

Hers could. I loved the poem so much I hunted it down (this in the days before the internet), hoping to commit it to memory as I did with all my favorite poems. Strangely, I did not love it as much reading it to myself as I did listening to her recite it. The words themselves were lovely, but somehow she had found the song in them I could not.

Hard to believe she had once silenced herself. She had been raped as a child, and after telling some relatives what had happened, the man was murdered. She believed her voice had the power to kill, and so she did not talk for years.

I am sorry I will not get to hear her recite anymore poems or tell anymore stories, but I choose to believe that she had said all she needed to say. She chose silence once, why not again? Silence, after all, is where we go as we to find what we wish to say. It is the mother of all creation, the womb from which all words come, and where all words must return.

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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Can’t Take It With You

Like a lot of writers I know, I prefer to write first thing in the morning. Whether I’m working on a story or an essay, everything I write is like its own journey, with its own path, its own obstacles, and its own destination. I may wander a bit aimlessly some days, I may become lost, but these journeys are not for mere sightseeing. These are journeys of discovery, and though I am not always sure what I’m looking for, I must be committed to finding it.

Which is why the morning is the best time for me to write. There are no competing journeys yet in my consciousness first thing in the morning. I have drawn no conclusions yet about my day other than I will begin it by writing. From this neutral place, there is nothing I must set aside to begin or resume my journey, there is only remembering why I began it.

Later in the day, however, when I find time to write these blogs, there is always much I have to set aside before I can begin. Before I can begin I have to set aside all conversations I wish I’d finished differently; I have to set aside all the emails and articles I’ve read and all the news they’ve carried; I have to set aside the stories I’ve begun telling myself about the people I disagree with; I have to set aside grievances and disappointments which can accumulate quickly once I join the world.

I do not always want to do this. The day has begun to mean something to me. I want to air my grievances and seek a little retribution. I want to share news and hear stories about the world. I want to take a tally of what this day is worth. All these things have to be laid on the ground if I’m to begin even the little journey that is a 400-word essay. When I stand at the edge of a blank page, all these things seem so real. They can’t simply be set aside by something so effortless as a choice – they must be undone, answered, finished. Yet as soon as I choose that first step, as soon as my attention is on that new path, all that seemed important has vanished, and the world is mine again.

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

What Is Real

If write your story accurately, no one will ever see any of its characters, yet every reader will know what these protagonist looks like. If you write your story with compassion, nobody will actually die, but your reader will feel the loss of death when your heroine’s best friend succumbs to cancer. If you write your story with joy, no one will actually get married, but your reader will know the satisfaction of consummated love.

Our stories don’t exist in the material world. At best, the books in which they are printed could be torched for a little heat; at worst, with digital readers, not even that. You can hold a book, but you cannot hold the story. You can read the word “fire” with your seeing eyes, but the heat it gives burns only in the furnace of your imagination. Writers traffic in thought and dreams and possibility.

Yet a thought, a story, can last longer than any building, longer even than some mountains. Rivers might go dry while a story is still being told. It is tempting to write with this idea of immortality in mind, thinking that somehow if future strangers are still whispering your name in libraries and classrooms you will somehow avoid what is often seen as the travesty of death.

Perhaps we write with another idea of immortality in mind. Perhaps we write to forget what is absolutely going to die and remember what cannot. If a thought, if a story, can endure through time, if that story is immune to wind and plague and bombs, where are you going when you “find your characters?” As you enter that story, as you lose track of time, is this retreat a forgetting of what is real, or a remembering of what 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

Cross-Legged In An Imaginary Chair

I began a new workout regimen last week that includes, among many other challenges, certain stretching exercises based on basic yoga poses. One stretch requires me to cross my right ankle over my left knee and then bend as if sitting in an invisible chair, all the while balancing on one foot. This is not a position I had ever attempted until Sean, my very fit, encouraging instructor, told me to.

It didn’t go so well at first. Sean was as solid as stepstool, but I always wobbled left, right, or forward. I don’t like wobbling. Whether I’m writing, talking, walking, or standing on one foot, I like to be balanced. But I always wobbled doing this pose. I wobbled so much that the insidious, defeatist mantra began whispering in my mind: I just can’t do it.

Until I realized I was waiting too long to find my balance. To balance on one foot while sitting cross-legged in an invisible chair doesn’t leave much room for error. This position asks you to find your true center, that thin energetic line running from the top of your heard to the ground. Standing on two feet on a level hardwood floor, however, does not require such fine attention. The trick, I soon learned, was to find my true center before beginning the pose, and then maintain it from start to finish.

And lo, I wobbled less. Writing is often like sitting cross-legged in an imaginary chair. To find that new thought, that new scene, that new character, requires an attuning to a fine imaginary line within me, a place without doubt, a place without the vertiginous pull of other people’s opinion. To stay there long enough always requires emotional balance, a balance I cannot always find in an instant. Better to seek it even in the simpler scenes and thoughts, to hold it as a starting and ending point, so I needn’t go through the drama of mistaking falling for failure.

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

Creating Opportunities

You may have heard the expression, “create your own opportunities.” To me, this sort of tidy aphorism sometimes feels lovely in its can-doism, but dubious in its application. An opportunity is something that comes to you and upon which you act; how can you create something that comes to you? Here’s how.

Last year I was interviewed on The Back Porch Writer, a Blogtalk Radio show hosted Kori Miller. This opportunity came about after Kori wrote me to thank me for one of my recent episodes of Author2Author. After a friendly back-and-forth I mentioned I had a book out and would she like me be a guest on her show. She said yes, and we scheduled our interview.

But that was not how I actually created this opportunity. I had actually created this opportunity, unbeknownst to me, about a year earlier. Kori began our interview by asking me what had motivated me to start Author2Author, and I explained about wanting to expand the format of my interviews and so on. Then Kori told me that she had stumbled on Author2Author one day, liked what she heard, and thought, “I want to do what he’s doing!” And so she started Back Porch Writer. This was how I “created my own opportunity.” I did what I loved and offered it to people through the means available to me, and acted in a timely fashion when that love was returned to me.

After hearing Kori’s story, I was reminded again of what I can do and what I can’t do. Madness waits for anyone certain he must build his every opportunity board-by-board. Creation is always a group effort, a fact I frequently ignore. I awake from uneasy dreams full of doubt and pessimism, the field of possibility an inscrutable and unfriendly bog. Oh, the misery of forgetting. To stand in loneliness, convinced I must make the world alone, while feeling an emptiness that is actually other people’s efforts and then calling myself incomplete.

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

Unfolding

A writer can be as practical as she wants to be. She can talk about Facebook, and Twitter, and blog tours, and strong female leads, and compelling characters. She can sit in a restaurant with her best friends and discuss agents and advances and the pros and cons of indie publishing versus traditional publishing. She can have a great website and a publicist she trusts.

It’s good perhaps to be this practical, to look upon her work like so much ketchup she must sell. It’s good to go to bed at night as her body lays down for sleep in the bed she owns, covered by a roof she keeps in place by selling those books that might as well be ketchup. Because come the morning she must go to her workroom and enter a dream. If she is to keep that roof over her head, if she is to have something to tweet about and FB about, she must believe that dream. She must treat that dream as though it is as real as the chair in which she sits.

Because her readers will. Her readers will go to bookstores or Amazon or B&N and spend real money on real books so they can enter a dream and have it feel as real as the chair in which they are sitting. The writer knows this. She knows these strangers will become some kind of friends when reached by that infinite bridge of the imagination. She knows all her practical commerce is based up on a belief in dreams.

So it is good she thinks so practically. It is good to remember from time to time that she has an actual body she must feed and clothe and house. That’s sometimes easy to forget in her world of dreams. Easy to confuse realities. Easy to look up from her desk and out her window see a story already told, instead of one unfolding.

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

Never Disappointing

There are the results I want and then there are the results I get. For years, I called the latter disappointment. I believed that growing up was about learning to accept the difference between expectation and reality. Though we still want what we want as much the child wants an ice cream cone, the adult understands this is not how life works. Life, in this way, becomes an exercise in managed disappointment.

Yet how often does the story we finish differ from the story we first expected? For that matter, how often does the scene we write differ from the one we first imagined? I have learned too well not to expect too much from my ideas. They are enough only to be bring me to the desk where my imagination meets the blank page, and that intersection becomes the reality known as a story.

There is usually much discomfort between idea and reality. There are those narrative roads I travel that don’t work, and sometimes I must go a long way down a certain path before I understand that the growing irritation under my boots is the story telling me turn back. I do not always want to listen to the story. I want what I want. This is my story, isn’t it?

It’s hard to tell sometimes. If I’m very honest, when I get to the end of a story, I am most pleased when that story feels like something I followed and found, not something I made. I cannot make the truth, after all, any more than I can make my life. I can only follow my life, and think how grateful I am, long after the fact, for all the burrs in my boots.

“Why, wasn’t it good luck,” I said to my wife the other night, “that Penguin didn’t buy that book of mine twelve years ago? How could I have ever done the work I’m doing now?” I could vaguely remember the disappointment I felt at the time. I’d been so close. Only now I cannot even see what it was I thought I’d been close to, any more than I can stand beside a dream after I awaken.

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 Dragon in the Garden

I sometimes wonder if the worst misfortune that could befall a writer is to be cursed with a life of excitement and adventure. How easy, even with your own life, to become transfixed by the glitter and drama of events and lose sight of the heart that beats steadily and hopefully beneath every moment. Life may dress itself in a tuxedo, but within that coat and tie is the same naked truth to which we are all beholden.

It is the only truth toward which anyone would write, and the only truth toward which anyone would live. And yet how tempting it is to discard life like one of our own aborted ideas. Not all of life, of course – only the dull bits, the hours spent waiting, the idle hours in front of the TV, the after-dinner conversations with a spouse, the drive to work.

I have felt at times as if I am drowning in life’s dull bits. How the dirty daily business of not-dying consumes my attention. If the dull bits are discardable, why then so am I, for hasn’t my life seemed to have descended into little else? Now I look out and see nothing but empty survival, now I look out and would crave a killer at my door, if only to make that same survival worthy of a movie or at least a mention on the evening news.

How the dull bits summon the specter of meaninglessness. Now a dragon has appeared in my garden, and I am running for my life. Slay me if you can, he’ll whisper, but death has always been my friend, filling your quiet hours as he does with the haunted fantasy of an end as meaningless as the beginning and middle.

I write this column for anyone who has ever felt the pain of his own discarded life. Perhaps you did not even recognize the dragon as you looked at him. Perhaps you called him boredom, loneliness, poverty, loss, bad luck, or abuse. The dragon has many names. To live as a saint, you needn’t renounce your earthly ways, tend the children in Calcutta, or hang yourself on a cross. To live as a saint you need only see what a saint sees, to look out at the garden where the dragon breathes and know that serpent has come to save 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

A Little Miraculous

I was twenty and I had discovered fashion, meaning I had awakened to the reality that like it or not every morning I had to choose what I wore and either I could care about that choice or not. I discovered I cared. I didn’t have much money, but every other week I wandered down to a boutique that sold the kind of clothes a newly fashionable fellow like me would wear, and pick out a pair of pleated pants or brightly colored shirt.

The boutique’s owner worked the counter. He had recently begun training for triathlons, and it was his new passion. He told me about his times, about how many miles he had logged on his bike that month, about how much he had bench pressed last week. “Man, I’m thirty-six, and I’ve never been in better shape. I weigh less than I weighed when I was twenty-one!”

I felt a certain kinship for him that had nothing to do with staying in shape and everything to do with his enthusiasm. I would stand at the counter with my new argyle sweater vest, which I would not get to pay for until I heard about how he had just shaved three minutes off his personal best. I was a twenty year-old athlete. I had never been anything but in shape. I didn’t know what it was to be alive and not be fit. My fitness didn’t even feel like a choice.

But that argyle sweater vest felt like a choice. I walked home looking forward to pairing it with those nice khakis and my favorite white shirt. Meanwhile, the young writer in me was remembering the owner’s enthusiasm for triathlons. I could feel the separation between what he was saying and what he was feeling. He didn’t care about his times or his weight. He had discovered that life was miraculous, that all one needs to do is a make a choice and something changes, but how do you share such a thing with another person and not have it just sound like bragging?

I arrived home and tried on the vest with the khakis and the shirt. Not bad. I could understand why a person might devote their life to fashion. But I still preferred the blank page. There was no pretending that anything could happen there without a choice, and wasn’t it a little miraculous that when you liked one of those choices you felt as if you had just met yourself?

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