Useful Villains

Every story, like every life, requires contrast. If you want to write about love, you must write about loneliness. If you want to write about triumph, you must write about defeat. Everything is always seen more clearly against its opposite. A flashlight’s beam does not register in the middle of a sunny day, but it is a swath of clarity at midnight.

This is useful in a very practical, crafty kind of way. If you know the gift your story is trying to give in its end, then you also know the suffering through which you must first take the reader so that this gift will mean something. You must remind the reader of suffering so she can appreciate and celebrate the relief that comes when the suffering ends. In this way, the darkness of our stories is as much a gift as the light, and most writers learn to relish their stories’ darkness, as an actor often relishes playing a villain.

We do not always apply this reality to our own lives. Darkness is darkness, and in it we cannot see and are lost. Villains are villains, and their villainy is expressed in their desire to harm or obstruct us, not help us. But who better to teach you what you know than someone who disagrees with you and who requires your greatest clarity to bridge the gap of misunderstanding? And where better to perceive your own light than in your own darkness? It was there, after all, you first recognized that which you had always been shining.

And who better than a villain to teach us that we are safe? To perceive a threat where none exists and then to find the truth is to awaken to your inherent safety. It is not always so simple. After all, it is our belief in our frailty that summons a villain to us, and their arrival feels like proof of the nightmare we are dreaming. But with this villain, there is no victory or defeat; there is only the contrast between a dream and reality.

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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
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The Vessel

When I began writing this blog on a daily basis five years ago, I quickly found myself wanting to write not just little essays about writing and creativity but to tell stories from my writing and creative life. Prior to that, all the stories I had written had been fiction. As a fiction writer, the ongoing question driving my stories was: What’s the most interesting thing that could happen next?

I could not ask this exact question when telling stories about my life. First, I already knew what was going to happen. Second, my whole life is interesting – at least to me. It’s true. To me, even those moments I had found dull in the living are interesting in retrospect, if for no other reason than to understand why I found one moment dull and another moment fun. And so instead the question I asked about these stories was: Why would someone who isn’t me or my family be interested in this story?

To answer this question honestly I had to find within my story what belonged to everyone. The stories could not simply be about what I learned, about how I went from feeling one way about myself to another way, but about how life expressed itself through me. Life, after all, guides and moves and supports everyone equally and continuously, the same as the ocean supports all boats of every size equally.

As I told more and more of these stories, I began to see my life as not belonging to me at all. My life was not some delicate treasure I kept safe and showed to friends and strangers like a ship in a bottle. My life was a vessel on the ocean, but it was the ocean I’d come for. Without the ocean, the vessel need never have existed, but give it some wind and water and meaning immediately fills its sails.

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 More Direct Route

Most of the students and clients I work with have two competing thoughts about writing. Their first thought is that they have a story they want to tell. There is something within these stories, whether the stories are fiction, narrative non-fiction, or memoir that has grabbed hold of the writer’s curiosity. This is a fantastic feeling. This is a feeling that gives life meaning without explanation. This is a feeling that is only sought, that is completely satisfying even as it sends you seeking more.

But there is always another thought. Sometimes the thought is that writing is hard; sometimes the thought is that the story must please this reader or that editor; sometimes the thought is that if we don’t get the story exactly right no one will like it; and sometimes a writer has concocted a poisonous stew of all these and more. These thoughts, these stories about storytelling, wait like impatient bosses at our desk and usually begin talking as soon as we arrive for work.

No wonder so many newer writers believe they are lazy, or not disciplined or enough, or not focused enough. We are all meant to avoid what we dislike. We are not, however, meant to avoid what we love, to be kept from that which lights our curiosity. We are always, always, always moving toward what we love, only sometimes this movement is long and circuitous and full of many rest stops and diversions.

No matter. No one can stop moving. But it is possible to take a more direct route. Let your story about writing be the friendliest story you know. Let it be a love story with a happy ending and nothing more. Writing, after all, is a visit with someone you adore, who will answer any question and always has something interesting to say. The impatient boss, meanwhile, is an illusion, marking your time on a clock that does not exist, comparing you unfavorably to friends until everyone is an enemy.

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

Dream World

I rarely have trouble falling asleep. By the end of the day I’m quite done with the waking world. By the end of the day I’ve said enough and thought enough and done enough, and I cannot find within me much reason to say or think or do more. I am ready for the dream world over which I have no command, the dream world to which I must surrender and from which I draw all my strength for the waking world.

But sometimes I am pulled awake while it is still dark, and my thinking mind comes alive with premature industriousness. My poor thinking mind was made for the waking world and all its things, all its words and people and places and objects. It was made to give these things order, to arrange them to meet my desire, and the stillness of my bed confuses it. Now this mind of mine is a dog with all energy but no bone.

I lie there feeling as if something must be done. I know this cannot be, but the feeling is the same as the one I so often carry with me when the sun is up and everyone is doing something. It seems real then, why is it not real now? To surrender again to the dream world feels like I am giving up on that other dream, the dream that all I do in the waking world is very important and necessary and that I am building something permanent.

It has always been my dream that what I do matters. I have always wanted to be Bilbo heading out of The Shire on a great and important adventure. And how I have wanted just one good dragon to slay. I have wanted dragons so badly I have summoned and fought them until I, their creator, declared them slain. What an unsatisfying victory – the end of something that never was, a knight alone on the field, exhausted from fighting himself.

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 Caring God

When I was a teenager I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons. I was usually the Dungeon Master, meaning I designed the adventures – the goblin-infested castles, the dragon lairs, the haunted swamps – in which my friends played. The Dungeon Master is part referee, part storyteller, and part host, and if all goes well the game feels like a party with Doritos and polyhedron dice.

I was one of two principal Dungeon Masters in my little teenage gaming community in Providence, the other being my friend Evan. We were sort of rivals in that our games were often being compared. In my games, none of the players’ characters ever died. They were challenged, they were tested, but they were like heroes in a series whom the readers knew would always make it through to be challenged and tested in the next story.

In Evan’s world, characters died. He was an indifferent God. When the dice spoke, he and all the players listened, and if those dice spoke death, so be it. I played in his world once and I admired his indifference. The game was more exciting. Things seemed to matter more when the ultimate outcome wasn’t predetermined.

I would eventually adopt some of Evan’s indifference. Except it wasn’t indifference at all. I only wanted things to matter, whether it was a game of Dungeons & Dragons or a romantic relationship or a story I was writing. Life was better when you felt your decisions mattered, and so I would let the occasional character die for the betterment of all. Death in this way became the threat that was a gift, a focusing tool for the living, reminding them that the story is more alive when you know that it will end.

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 Stream of Life

I met a woman recently who told me there was only one obstacle between her and a fulfilling writing life: she wasn’t creative. “I’ve never written a poem or short story or a novel. I’ve never written a play. I’ve never painted a picture or composed a sonata. I’m not creative.”

I have always thought of myself as creative. I have also written poems, and plays, and screenplays, and novels, and a memoir. I’ve written sonatas and songs and mini-symphonies. I’ve made little movies and I’ve acted. I even fancied myself a cartoonist when I was a boy. That is to say, I have all the evidence of my creativity this woman believed she lacked.

But when I think of my creativity I do not think of any of the things I’ve created. I think of that place within me where I must go to answer the question, “How shall I fill this blank page?” The answer to that question changes every day, and so no sooner has one answer been given than I feel the itch of a new question forming an intriguing disturbance within me. That is my creativity. Meanwhile, all the things I’ve made are merely an expression of how often I have focused my attention on that creativity.

To think that you could be born without this same restless curiosity is to think that you could be born without a beating heart. But unlike my heart, my creativity requires my attention to function properly. Without my attention it forces itself through me in awkward ways, or keeps me up at nights, or finds me critical of other people’s creations. The moment I allow myself to consult it, to ask, “What shall we do next?”, my creativity and I are moving in the same direction, flowing like blood with questions and answers within the stream of life.

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

Factually Unproven

Perhaps you have heard the phrase, “You have the right to your own opinion, but you do not have the right to your own facts.” Clever, that – and true I suppose. If it is raining, it does not matter if in your opinion it is a warm, sunny day, the fact remains that it is raining. Nor does it matter if you are offended that someone would not take your opinion about the whether seriously, it is still raining.

Except, as any writer knows, the fact that it is raining is rarely of any interest to anyone. All we care about is what we feel about that rain. Does the rain put us in a romantic mood or a gloomy mood? Will the rain ruin the crops or sustain them? Does the rain remind us of the end of summer or the beginning of spring? A writer’s currency, which is also every person’s currency, is how it feels to be alive at any given moment. Ten people could stand in the exact same rainstorm with ten different feelings based on ten different opinions and each opinion would be correct.

All for the better, I say. I get facts wrong all the time. I try to get them right because I hate to be corrected, but being a storyteller I have a natural propensity not to let them get in the way of what I know to be true. What I really know to be true can never be proven. What I really know to be true can never be measured to weighed or compared or diagramed.

And so I tell stories, where if this truth cannot be proven it can at least be shared. This is a much better use for the truth. We all have it and know it anyway so we hardly need to prove it, though we have tried to just the same. Unfortunately, you only prove what you do no already know to be true, and the instant you doubt this truth you lose all sight of it and soon there comes the existential collapse. Until you hear a story, or read a story, or maybe even tell a story, and then you remember what you have always known and who you have always been.

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

Playtime

When I was a boy, going to school seemed divided cleanly in two. While I waited for the first bell to ring, I lived on the playground. On the playground the only question was how to have fun. Did I want to play kickball or swing on the swings? Did I want to shoot hoops alone or join a game? Did I want to wander the perimeter alone drifting in fantasy, or did I want play tag with the other boys? These were the only questions I had to answer on the playground.

Then the bell would ring, which meant that playtime was over and work-time had begun. During work-time you tried to answer questions that other people asked you. Adults asked the questions because it was understood that this schoolwork was preparation for life as it would be lived once playtime was over once-and-for-all. Work-time was not nearly as much fun as playtime, but it wasn’t supposed to be. It was work.

The work wasn’t really lacking all fun. Sometimes the work meant writing stories or drawing pictures, and this didn’t feel like work at all, this was just playing, but with paper and crayons or a pencil. I will write stories for a living, I thought to myself. I must choose work that doesn’t feel like work. I do not want to live my life waiting for the last bell of school to ring so that my time can truly be my own.

Except even as I thought this I could smell the spring air through the open window mixing with the smell of chalk dust and school lunches, and in that very moment what was outside was inside, and I found myself where the playground questions were answered. You either choose to leave those questions on the playground or you don’t. No bell can take those questions from you, just as no person can answer them 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

Nothing Wrong

My older sister, who got straight A’s (with one very notable exception) in college, who excelled in calculus, and who could whip her word-loving brother in crosswords, Boggle, and Scrabble, told me she hated her one creative writing course, in which she received her only collegiate B. “Totally annoying class,” she explained. “There are no right answers.”

How true. This can make it difficult to teach, and can make the blank page particularly daunting. Fortunately, this also means there are no wrong answers either. In the realm of creation there is no right and wrong, no good and bad, there is only what you want to create and what you don’t want to create. Outside of this single parameter, all is equal.

Which is why I encourage writers to never criticize other writers, no matter how wrong the word choices or plot choices those other writers have made may appear. The moment I criticize another writer in this way I see the world of creation as divided into right and wrong, and I am undone. Now I write not to create what I want to see, but only to avoid creating something that is wrong – and since nothing in creation is actually wrong, I write in perpetual fear.

I know that there are so many things in the world beyond stories that seem wrong, the wars and the poverty and the lies, to name only a few. But inequality exists only in the human imagination, where we perceive that which we want more of and that which we want no more of. I cannot un-create what I do not want, but I can create what I do want. To understand this difference is freedom; to forget it is to be condemned instantly to the same prison where all wrong things go, whose cell door opens only when everyone in the world agrees that I am right.

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 Nameless Connection

It is easy for me to enjoy life when I am writing. When the writing is going even reasonably well I feel connected. I often take for granted this feeling of connection while writing because this is what writing has become. Writing without this connection now wouldn’t be writing. In fact, when I write without this feeling of connection I become miserable, and I dislike the work and very quickly myself. But mostly I feel connected, and I while I feel connected I enjoy the work and my life.

It is also easy for me to enjoy life when I am teaching. My wife observed recently that all my writing is really just a kind preparation for my teaching. I think she might be correct. To help another person find his or her connection I must first find my own, and so these people called students serve to teach me what I have to teach them. When the teaching is going even reasonably well I feel quite clear about why I am on planet earth and why life is interesting and necessary and worth living.

But there is a lot of time one spends not writing or teaching. This time has confused and frustrated me for much of my life. I have named this time many things: boring, meaningless, difficult. Soon enough, I will give myself names as well: unimportant, unnecessary, lost, alone. And so this time is passed in unhappiness, as I have come to believe that the doors to what I seek are not merely closed but non-existent.

I could live out my days this way and be productive and happy enough. I could write more and more, teach more and more. Yet this would be living a kind of lie, as if my entire day did not belong entirely to me. It is such a simple error we make when we name life something other than what it always is. Look how it becomes what we call it, look how we cast ourselves in a horror movie of our own creation and call that melodrama reality. And look how the lights go up and curtain falls the moment we give life no name but our own.

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