No Problem

I used to turn my writing into a problem. There I would be, writing along, enjoying myself, translating scene after scene and thought after thought into words, lost in the dream of the story, the blank page a friendly, fertile field for whatever I wished to grow – until I came to a point where the way ahead was unclear. Such is the nature of writing. Discovery remains the writer’s first reward, and clarity is always most satisfying when found within the fog of uncertainty.

So I would sit, still happy to be on this journey, considering my many, many options. This is the moment where discipline is required. It feels good to be moving swiftly within the momentum of the story. How effortless creation feels within that current, and how aware I am of the support the current provides, buoying and sustaining me with the next thought and the next thought and the next thought. What a relief compared to the hurly-burly of my workaday life.

It is easy then to mistake the necessary stillness of a creative mind for inaction, and inaction for abandonment, and abandonment for failure. Now, my story has gone from a journey I wish to take to a problem I must solve. It is a problem because I have put myself in jeopardy. Until I begin moving again I am living under the threat of failure, which to the writer’s mind is like living under the threat of death. How tempting to leap on the first thought that comes along simply to escape the quicksand of failure.

Yet stillness is the only state from which I can perceive the movement of my story. Stillness is both my invitation to my imagination and my acceptance of its reply. It has taken me many years and many false escapes from a false death to understand that problems do not exist within the garden of creation. If I can remember this simple and enduring fact then no way is ever blocked to me. But if I forget, then my garden appears full of dragons and thorns, and my choices are like a game of Russian roulette where every loser is forgotten.

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

Trusting Discipline

There is an important, though at times hard to distinguish, difference between effort and discipline. Writing definitely requires discipline, meaning I cannot be sloppy in how I think about my work. To bring myself to the desk every day I cannot compare what I am writing to what other people have written, nor can I believe I have a crystal ball in my imagination capable of foreseeing a grim future where nothing I write will be appreciated. I cannot doubt that the things I find interesting will be interesting to other people. To write I must have the discipline of trust.

I must have this discipline because, as I write, many ideas will present themselves that do not belong in my story. Most of these ideas will nearly belong in my story, and if I am impatient, if I doubt the arrival of a better-fitting idea, I may try to force that idea into my story, thinking to myself, “That’s good enough. Nothing wrong with that idea.” Forcing requires effort. The idea cannot fit by itself in my story, and so I must stuff it in and hold it there, all the while telling myself there is nothing at all wrong with it.

Which there isn’t, of course. There’s nothing wrong with any idea; they just don’t all belong in the story I am telling. Where discipline and effort begin to feel similar is when I feel caught in the riptide of my impatient mind. Now, any idea feels better than the emptiness that the idea I’m actually waiting for is meant to fill. In this moment, doing nothing, simply resting in the feeling I am wishing to express, feels like an effort compared to the instant gratification of putting words – any words – on the page.

How easy it is to mistake trust for complacency or indifference. I am never more productive and creative than when I am trusting, though this trust does not always express itself in action; in fact, often the opposite. Yet when I am the most trusting I do not really distinguish between movement and stillness, between silence and speaking, because in this state I do not consider one more valuable than the other. One cannot be more valuable than the other because they are both expressions of the same thing – the first so I can learn it for myself, the second so I can share it with others.

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

Pretending

The best way for me to view my stories are as gifts. Though it can feel a bit presumptuous at first to assign value to something I have made, it remains the most humble relationship to my work. After all, I do not give gifts to draw attention to myself. In fact, it is my hope that if the one receiving the gift truly enjoys it he will become even more aware of himself in the same way I became more aware of myself when I first received it.

But the only way to give a gift generously is without requirements. I cannot in my heart require anyone to love my stories; nor can I require how they must love my stories. This is not always so easy for me. I sometimes want proof that what I felt in writing my stories is real, and I mistakenly believe the evidence I am looking for can be found in the people with whom the stories are shared. This search for proof always ends in disappointment – in me, in my readers, and eventually in the whole world.

Of course that disappointment is merely the result of looking for something where it does not exist. If I search a desert for a fruit tree, I will always be disappointed and call the world incomplete, though the desert is missing nothing. Likewise, if I share a story with a reader and require him to love it in just this way and in just this moment, I have offered not an opportunity for that reader to know himself, but a bunk in my prison where other people hold the key to freedom.

Fortunately, whatever I received in writing a story cannot be lost or taken from me or disproved. It simply exists within me, growing steadily whether I acknowledge it or not. All my fear and distrust can do nothing to uproot it, the same as an imaginary axe cannot fell a real fruit tree. No matter how large and sharp I imagine this axe to be, the tree grows on and bears its fruit, more stories to share once I am done pretending the world can set me free.

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

Home Again

I love to teach, but to say I teach writing is somewhat inaccurate. My goal for my students, as for myself, is to find the connection to the source of our creativity. Once a creative person is tapped into this source, he doesn’t don’t need a teacher – or an editor, or an agent, or even readers; all those things will come later. When a creative person is tapped into this source, they don’t need anything, because they already have exactly what they set out to find.

It is easier sometimes to talk about our writing itself – the words on the page, the characters, the scenes – all the myriad choices that can be made and unmade as quickly as we change our minds. After all, we can see the words and the scenes and the characters, and we can erase them or move them about or suggest more words, scenes, and characters. Our stories are like homes we furnish and paint, homes we invite others to share when they read what we have written.

These homes have addresses and are easily found. The source of our creativity, that which builds all the homes that have ever been built, is not so easily located. I can point toward that source, but I cannot lay my finger on it. It exists beyond the reach of any hand or eye, and yet all that we touch and see has sprung from it. It is easy sometimes to believe that only what I can touch and see truly exists. It is particularly easy to believe this when I have lost all track of my creative source. In those moments that source feels like a fairy tale, a myth built to betray the gullible.

It is an unhappy moment, and because I always want to be happy, I begin rearranging all my words and scenes and characters in search of the pleasure in which I once believed. The more I do this, the less what I have written means, until by and by I collapse in frustration and despair. I give up, I declare. There’s no point! And there isn’t. There is no point on the grid of life where I can rest, there is only where my attention has pointed me all my life, and I need only turn that way and I am home 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.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Generous Reminder

I was not an industrious teenager. I considered work a joyless requirement to provide this strange stuff called money of which I never seemed to have enough. Periodically I would get some of this money and I would wonder what I should do with it. When I discovered the wicked addiction of video games, I would sometimes go down to Charlie’s Hot Weiner’s and blow the entire $10 I had just earned mowing Mrs. Allen’s lawn in a thirty minute, quarter-by-quarter, alien-killing frenzy. On such days, I would walk home from Charlie’s having gained nothing in exchange for my $10 except a vague itch to play again.

But sometimes I would take this money to a bookstore or a record store. The exchange of money for music or stories was more than fair. In fact, if it was a book or song I truly desired, I couldn’t give the cashier my money fast enough. Take it, take it, I would think. It’s nothing, and yet what you’ve given me is something, for it feels like happiness.

I know the saying about what money can buy you, and it’s true happiness was not what I had actually bought. What I had bought was a reminder for which I will always pay gladly. I think of this exchange when I am the one selling. If what I am offering is any kind of a reminder, our exchange is always a fair one. After all, I have lost nothing. Within me still burns that feeling of which I was reminded when writing. Meanwhile, with luck my customer will be reminded of something more valuable than $9.95. With luck, they will be reminded of themselves.

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 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 built differently, and all of them have been built correctly. 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.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Giving Up

If I am working with a client who has never attempted a book-length project before, one of the first challenges I must help this new writer overcome is the sudden and daunting awareness of how little she actually knows about this book she would like very much like to write through to its conclusion. The writer rarely sets out on her journey with this awareness. Instead, she is just excited by some idea that has become so bright in her imagination that she cannot seem to pull her attention from it.

And so one day she decides to sit down and actually begin writing the thing. The idea has been so bright and so interesting to her that it feels as though all she needs to do is set aside a little time everyday and the story should virtually write itself. Then she begins. Sometimes it takes no more than a couple pages for the writer to understand that this story is made of around 60,000 details called words, and that she must in fact choose each of those details, and that those details must fit together as effortlessly as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

This is often a disorienting moment. The writer’s interest in the story was complete. What’s more, the feeling the story is trying to convey is complete as well. If the author is writing a story about the difference between feeling unlovable and finding love, then that profound difference is complete within her mind. But the story that is meant to share that feeling, which is made of tens of thousands of details, is so incomplete that the writer doubts if she ever knew anything.

I can sometimes be of help to these writers simply by reminding them what it is their job to know and what it is not their job to know. It is not our job to know the details. It is only our job to know we would like to find them. It is a sometimes subtle difference, but what we call failure is usually the mistaken belief that our inability to know all the pieces ahead of time means we are incomplete.

How tempting it is in the moment of this mistaken awareness to give up. The feeling of personal incompleteness is in direct opposition to the direction of life and is commensurately wretched in its expression. It is appropriate to want to give up something at this moment, but it’s not the story. Give up believing you can finish what is already whole, or fix what was never broken, and return to the business of finding what you are actually looking for.

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

A Way Back

For about four years in my early forties, I composed dozens of songs on my computer. What began as simple pop tunes quickly evolved into symphonic pieces. While I did have a rudimentary understanding of music theory, most of what I had to learn to compose the more complex pieces, I learned not from a book or a class, but from trial and error. As I look back at that time I am still surprised at how quickly an unschooled fellow like me went from composing for two instruments to fifteen instruments, a progression I attribute primarily to one factor: I never criticized myself.

I mention this because this was the polar opposite of the approach that I took for my writing. There I survived on a steady diet of self-criticism, which I felt served to keep me on the straight and narrow. Yet never – and I mean absolutely never – was it so with the music. I was just thrilled I could do it. I had dreamed all my life of being able to write symphonic music, and now I was.

At first, my wife, with whom I would share every song or sonata, felt the same way. “Wow,” she’d say. “That is so cool that you wrote that.” By and by, however, she got used the fact that I was writing music, and her responses changed. One day, after I played a new piece for her, she shrugged and commented, “That one really doesn’t come together.” Had she said this about a story I’d written, I’d have been furious or depressed. Yet with this sonata, I realized I didn’t actually care what she thought about it. I knew I’d learned something writing it, and that hadn’t changed because she couldn’t get into it.

This was an experience at once wholly foreign and intimately familiar. In the past, when opinions about something I had made arrived at my doorstep, I was used to viewing these messages as a command to head out in search of some treasure that would please everyone. Yet in this instance, I stayed home. That, after all, is where the music was being written and where all the pleasure I’d gained from it was known.

As an artist, I am still disoriented from time to time by this relationship between home and the world outside my door. What I create in here is meant to travel out there. I, however, am meant to stay home. It is tempting to try to follow those stories to ensure their safe travel, but I lose sight of them the moment I cross my threshold, and am left instead to search for a way back to where I belong.

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

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, and 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.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Free Time

Most authors I know who are at the beginning of their writing journey struggle to find enough time to write. There are so many demands placed on an adult with a job and a house to keep up and maybe a spouse and some growing children that finding an hour or two five or six days a week seems destined to end in a Sophie’s choice between art and sleep. Writing, after all, is a tree that can take years to bear fruit, whereas dishes, and homework, and bills and all the daily business of being alive and a functioning member of society form an endless harvest from seeds already sown decades ago.

In fact, most of what we call our life has been growing around us for so long that it is hard to remember who sowed those seeds in the first place. It is easy to forget and call it reality, the way schools existed before we were fed into them, and our days soon became wed to the weekly rhythms of a song written long before we were born. When I look at life this way, my life feels like something that happened to me, a job handed me at birth that I am made to work until I retire into the grave.

But the writer must accept his freedom. The page is blank and only a conscious exercise of that freedom will fill it. The time to write can be found within the recognition of our inherent and persistent freedom. My days have always been a perfect portrait of what I believed about life. When I believed the world was divided into have and have-nots, into the servant and the served, my days were spent toiling to write books to set me free from a life of indentured servitude in a job for which I had willingly applied and willingly worked for seventeen years.

Somewhere in all that toiling I began to see my writing as in service to life, and the clear division between haves and have-nots became increasingly blurry. I eventually discovered I did not need that job anymore, and soon my days were no longer divided between what I wished for and what I had. Time was mine whether I wanted it or not, and I had exactly as much of it as everyone else on the planet.

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