Resolutions

I have never made a New Years resolution, but I am planning on making one tomorrow morning. I will not, however, share with you what that resolution will be. I believe a resolution should be handled like a birthday wish – kept secret until it is fulfilled. Though announcing your resolutions can make you accountable to the world, it can also create the illusion of success, for the dream that lived within you is now outside of you in the form of grand plans and architecture and vivid tales of what will be.

Every writer should know this. Our unwritten stories are best kept to ourselves as well. All the energy I have spent telling friends about the stories I’m still writing is energy I must regain to actually finish writing that story. It seems odd, I know. These two separate events, the telling and the writing, should have nothing to do with one another. But they do. Try as I may not to, telling someone about a story always contains the unspoken question, “Do you think it’s worth finishing?”

So too with dreams and resolutions. I cannot ask the world if my dreams are worth pursuing, or if my resolutions are worth fulfilling. The world will always answer, “I don’t know,” which, depending on my mood, can easily be mistaken for, “I doubt it.” The privacy necessary for creation is non-negotiable. Every story and dream grows in a garden beyond the world’s perception. All that that garden requires to flower is my complete attention.

So I will keep this resolution to myself. Even mentioning I have one feels risky, but no matter. Everyone’s dreaming up something, whether we know what that something is or not – whether they know what that something is or not. Sometimes you have to fall asleep to find those dreams, until the fireworks thunder outside your window, and you are pulled awake into the fullness of a new year.

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.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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The Five Stages of Editorial Comment Grief

Stage One: Adulation. An editor has just accepted your story/essay/book for publication. Happy day! All the writing and rewriting and worrying and dedication and practice and patience were worth it. Your voice will be heard. Now, it seems, there are just a few suggestions and corrections this editor would like you to take a look at first . . .

Stage Two: Outrage. What the hell is this? These aren’t a few comments and suggestions. This is a wholesale rewrite. Maybe this “editor” should just write his own story and put his own name on it instead hiding behind yours. You’re the writer here. You. You!

Stage Three: Shame. What’s wrong with you? How could you have sent this to him? How could you have missed all this? You must have rewritten it fifteen times and it’s nothing but an amateurish mess. What must he have been thinking about you? Why’d he even take it? He did take it, didn’t he? It appears he did. According to the letter you, the author, must accept or reject all the suggested changes.

Stage Four: Acceptance. At first, you consider every altered word. You read the sentence as you wrote it and then as this editor rewrote it. Then again. And again. You decide to click “Accept” in the Track Changes feature in your Word document. Then you’re on to next the word. This you only compare once before clicking “accept.” Ditto the third suggestion. By the sixth suggestion you grow weary of this process and are becoming existentially aware of the inexactness of language. You seek out the “Accept All” tab in Track Changes and send the corrected piece back to the editor.

Stage Five: Forgetting. You receive your copy of the magazine/journal/book in the mail. You are pleased with the final result and have no memory whatsoever of who wrote/suggested what. Nor, for the record, does your editor. It is time to start another one.

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.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Gardener’s Tale

My job is to plant the seed and water the flower, not to grow it. Only the flower can grow the flower. Only the seed itself contains the complete potential of the flower; only the seed understands what that flower will actually be. It is not my job to know nor determine, only to give my attention steadily and trust what occurs underground, where everything begins.

We must choose deliberately which patch of earth to cultivate. Life will flourish everywhere, though environment affects the shape the life will take, whether a cactus or a dandelion. Comparing preferences renders them meaningless, a war of apples and oranges, and yet when obeyed privately the meaning of life’s ceaseless nudging is revealed as you discover the perfect mix of shade and sun for the seeds you’ve so long been carrying in your pocket.

You can get used to having those seeds in your pocket, even believing they were meant to stay there. But they must be surrendered to the earth. This is an unspectacular beginning. No pop of the champagne bottle here, merely laying what might as well be a bone interred for all the inactivity. How easily you are reminded of death as you create life; how easy as you bury life to begin imagining its expiration as your poor, weak eyes can perceive no movement.

And how futile can seem the watering of tilled earth. This water could be more useful elsewhere, could feed a thirsty, growing world, rather than turn a patch of dirt to mud. The garden’s true engine is as beyond the mind’s comprehension as the planted seed is beyond the eye’s perception. But growth occurs all the same, often while we sleep. We awaken one morning to green and yellow and red, and are left to wonder exactly what part we played, and soon enough to dream of other gardens, whose seeds we pull from those new blossoms.

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.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Holiday Season

It is very hard to try to do two things at once. It is very hard to love someone while simultaneously believing you must protect yourself from them, or that you must always be right, or that there are good people in the world and bad people in the world. Likewise it is hard to listen to your creative potential, your muse, your imagination if you simultaneously believe that you must write perfectly, or that you must know that what you’re creating now will succeed later, or that no one wants to hear from someone like you.

Be glad it is hard to do two things at once. All these stories of protecting ourselves and being right, all these stories of writing perfectly and success, are our invention. They are not real, and so can only be maintained by our constant attention. The truth, meanwhile, requires nothing of us. Love cannot be manufactured, only perceived. Our imagination cannot be commanded, only received. How kind life is to make suffering exhausting.

Eventually, everyone must rest. We will complain about it first, and march in protest about how hard it is, and form committees to determine why it is so hard, but by and by, because these stories are not actually a part of reality, we will either forget to tell them or grow weary of telling them. Either way, the truth of love, the truth of our creative potential, will be waiting for us when we do.

We will celebrate such moments. “The good stuff was really coming today,” we’ll say. Or we’ll say, “I had a great time with my wife. No arguments, no debate. Just fun.” These are like holiday seasons, respites of pleasure from the grind of life. But the other day a cashier asked me if I was looking forward to the weekend. “My life’s a weekend,” I confessed. And I didn’t realize until I said it that it was true.

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 Big Time

I was twenty-four and in the middle of writing my first screenplay with my brother. We were writing it as quickly as we could so that when we arrived in Los Angeles, we’d have something to show to the agents and producers we were hoping to somehow manage to meet. I wanted to write it in the same way I’d written the sketch comedy show he and I had been performing for the last few years, which was to tap into the funny, tap into the cool, tap into the interesting I felt within me and let the funny, cool, and interesting find its way onto the page.

But I couldn’t write this screenplay like that. It had to be able to impress agents and producers who, as I understood it, thought in terms millions of viewers and tens of millions of dollars, whereas my sketch comedy show on a good night performed to around 80 people and earned us slightly more than nothing. I had to write for The Big Time, and I wasn’t sure what that meant. I was not sure if my funny, cool and interesting was funny, cool, and interesting enough. So I smoked a lot of cigarettes plus a few other things, and didn’t sleep much, and caught a cold, and began to hear a great clock in the sky ticking its way down to the end of my creatively viable youth.

Then one evening my brother was at work and I wasn’t, and instead of writing more of the screenplay, I decided to describe what it felt like to catch a pass from my father. In one longish paragraph I wrote about the pleasure of running flat out down an open field, tracing the path of the ball in the sky and timing my run and my extended arms so that the ball and I would meet. I wrote about how I couldn’t do this often enough, and that even though I was technically practicing for our Sunday touch football games, was technically getting better so our team could win, the pleasure was all in the running and finding how my father and I were connected through that ball.

I spent an hour writing that paragraph, and when I’d finished, I sat back in my chair and felt something I hadn’t in quite some time. I didn’t want to leave the chair, in fact, because as soon as I did, I knew I’d be caught up once again in the momentum of my day, of which that screenplay was now a part. I wished for a moment that that this was the momentum of my day – the quiet, profitless knowing after writing something just to write it, of catching a ball just to catch it, of living a life just to live 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

The Organizing Principle

Think about all that you love. Think about the people you’ve loved. Think about the books you’ve loved to read and the stories you’ve loved to write. Think about the games you’ve loved play, the meals you’ve loved to cook, the jokes you’ve loved to share.

Who chose these thing for you to love? It wasn’t you, was it? Did you choose to love the people you love, or did you observe that you love them and then choose to follow that love? Did you choose to love the movies you’ve seen or the books you’ve read? Indeed you have not. The power of love comes from its guiding impulse, offering us its effortless path, along which we may surrender the illusion that we must build our world and find the place for every stick and stone along the way.

For writers, love is our first and best teacher. We say, “Write what you love,” meaning, give over to the Organizing Principle of Love. There are limitless stories that could be told, all of them worth telling by someone. Love provides the focus for your work, and teaches us to find its current in ourselves. Within the current is effortlessness; outside of it, we feel the dizzying struggle of trying to make what was never ours to make.

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 Balancing Act

Writing can happen in one place and one place only: The Present Moment. It cannot happen in the past, though we might – while in the present moment – focus our attention upon some past event for inspiration or material. But the writing itself happens in the present moment. And of course it can’t happen in the future, that sometimes near, sometimes very distant land where the story we’re writing will live when it’s finished. All creation happens in the present moment, because that is all that actually exists.

I have to remind myself of this every time I sit down to write. How easy to let my attention drift into the past, where I believe all my failures reside. Failure always lives in the past, in whose shadows, like a moss, it can thrive. In the bright hot light of the present moment – in which life is only potential, in which life is only forgiving, in which life is only curious – the concept of failure has no purchase for its hopeless roots.

And how equally easy to let my attention drift into the future, where I believe the value of what I am creating in the present moment will be revealed. I don’t want to waste my time, after all. Why write something that no one wants to read? To ask such a question is to hold my stories hostage until such time as the ransom of other people’s approval has been paid.

Which is why I have learned to ask myself two questions while I write: What do I want to say? And, Have I said it? Only the present moment can answer these questions. But keeping my attention where it needs and actually wants to be is a kind of balancing act, pulled as I am to the past and future. Drift too far either way and I will fall. No matter. The support of present moment remains ever true, and I need only return to standing to find myself where I 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

Your Job

If I was only allowed to give my writing students one piece of advice, it would this: Pay attention to how you feel. Not sure whether you should write fiction or non-fiction, romance or thrillers, literary fiction or memoir? Pay attention to how you feel when you consider each possibility. Which feels the most exciting to begin, and which feel the most effortless to return to?

Not sure if a scene is working? Pay attention to how you feel as you write and reread it. Do you feel interested as you write it, or are you just trying to get your character to the next scene? Do you actually care about this scene, or is it merely something you’ve intellectually decided belongs? It always feels better to be interested than disinterested, and your writing improves the instant you give your attention to something in which you’re authentically interested.

Not sure which word to use? Pay attention to how you feel as you choose it. Your story isn’t a jigsaw puzzle. In a jigsaw puzzle you see the piece snap into place. In a story, you either feel the word being received into the sentence, or feel yourself forcing it there. Learn the difference, honor the difference, and have the patience to wait until the right one comes along.

What a fantastic tool is our felt understanding of life. Every time we focus on something interesting and exciting we feel good, and every time we force ourselves to focus on something less interesting we feel less good. And every time we devote ourselves to what most interests us success flows to us with less and less effort, and every time we devote ourselves to what does not interest success comes slowly if at all. It is completely predictable and dependable. So that is your main job, you writers you: feel good. The rest will just come.

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

An Authentic Reward

I don’t tend to use a lot of adjectives when I write, though this was entirely an evolution rather than a conscious choice. I say this because low-adjective writing is very much the way in MFA programs, in part because of fashion, but also for very good reasons as well.

One problem with adjectives: they often pass judgment. I might write, “It was a sunny morning,” which is a fact. If I write, “It was a glorious sunny morning,” I am now telling a story, as it were, about that morning, telling you it is glorious. Its gloriousness is entirely subjective. There’s nothing wrong with subjectivity when it is used deliberately. For instance, in the case of this aforementioned morning, I, the writer, might understand the morning is not factually glorious, but I want the reader to understand the narrator perceives it as glorious. That is a fact.

The second problem with adjectives: they are often used in place of authentic feeling. Perhaps I would like to write about that same morning. Perhaps it was a morning I had lived, and which I had found glorious. By inserting glorious I am simply remembering the fact that I once found this morning wonderful, the way I remember that 2+2=4. On the other hand, if I return to that morning in my imagination, and if I feel again what I felt then, I can share how I loved that morning, such as, “It was the first morning in months that I could recall caring that it was sunny rather than rainy, the first morning in months I stepped out my front door and wanted to thank whoever was in charge for the day.”

Writing for me is about sharing something that I feel, and the only way to share that feeling is to actually feel it, to return again and again to what I wish to share. Eventually, I dropped adjectives because I found I was using them when I didn’t trust myself. After all, feelings, unlike fact, can’t be seen or touched or measured or compared; only their expression can be observed. Their source, meanwhile, is known only to me. And so I must trust every time I write that I can find the way back to that source, a journey that remains writing’s first and only real reward.

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

Music Lessons

For years my wife, herself a writer, was my first and only beta reader. Every draft of every novel went under her nose, and she’d return with her likes and dislikes. It was not a peaceful arrangement. Often her dislikes outnumbered her likes. I came to hate this process. I didn’t really want her feedback; I just wanted her to love it so I could send it to agents or editors with some confidence. Eventually, I relieved her of her duty as beta reader, and there was peace in the kingdom.

About the same time I stopped showing my wife my books, I started writing music. I discovered that using Garage Band I could compose anything from a pop tune to a piano sonata to a symphony. I was thrilled. I’d wanted to compose music my entire life but I hadn’t the time nor discipline to learn to play the piano well enough to write what I heard in my mind. Now I could put little black dots into the program, press play, and hear what I’d written. Sometimes what I’d written sounded like what I heard in my mind, and sometimes it didn’t. And sometimes I liked what I’d written more than what I’d imagined and sometimes I did not. I was my own beta listener.

I was so excited when I finished a song or a little symphony. Even though I had chosen every little black dot, the song still felt a bit like something I’d discovered on the radio. I was the beta listener, after all. And since I always liked the songs, and since whenever you find a song you like you share it with someone you love, I’d play it for my wife.

At first, she was as delighted as I was. “You wrote that?” she’d ask. “Yes!” I’d say. “Isn’t that cool?” Once she’d gotten over the shock that her husband of fifteen years was now writing music, she began to listen with a more critical ear, commenting, “Oh, that beginning’s really dynamic.” Or, “The middle kind of bogs down, don’t you think?” And then one day, after listening to my latest piece: “That just doesn’t work for me. It has no center.”

And that was when a miracle occurred. I didn’t care. To my own amazement, I did not care one speck that she thought it had no center. What she or anyone thought of this or any piece could not change my relationship to it, could not change why I’d written it, or what I’d learned writing it, or what I thought of it. The two experiences were totally separate. And I thought to myself, “If I learned to write music for this lesson alone, it will have been worth 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