Exhaling

Here’s an experiment in storytelling: Stand up and take a deep breath. Take another deep breath. Notice, if you can, how your body feels at rest. You’re rather used to it, so it’s not that simple. Still, do the best you can. Then, squeeze your hands into fists, flex your upper body – your chest and your biceps and your shoulders – and hold your breath. Maintain this tension for five or ten seconds. Now comes the important part. Exhale and stop flexing and unclench your firsts and let your body return to rest.

Notice how your body feels the moment you release the tension. The feeling will move quickly through your body, so quickly that if you are not paying close attention you might not notice it. If you are not paying close attention, the transition from tension to rest will seem instantaneous. But it is not. Your body must remember its normalcy, and that remembering is why we write.

All stories are about normalcy, tension, and a return to normalcy. But the power of storytelling resides within the movement from one state to another, particularly the movement from tension to normalcy. Once your body has released the tension you created in this exercise, you quickly adjust to the experience of lack of tension, because that is how you are meant to live, which makes it not so easy to appreciate. But during that transition, that remembering, you appreciate what has always been available to you.

Storytelling is about creating war so we can appreciate peace; creating hatred so we can appreciate love; creating inequality so we can appreciate equality. To write with power requires a subtle awareness of how it feels to move from one state to another. In truth, we storytellers spend our energies building, detailing, and believing in nightmares, and then offering the brief, sweet exhalation that is awakening to life as we were meant to live it. This we give to our readers. The living that follows belongs entirely to them.

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

Behold Life

When humans gather together, we usually tell each other stories. One story goes like this: Things are bad and about to get a lot worse. Here, the storyteller is a like a town crier, bringing the most alarming headlines of the day to his friends. Usually the one who enjoys this story the most is the town crier himself. It’s fun to be the center of attention, and scaring people is a sure way to get their attention. So on the plus side, everyone in the room is paying attention to the same thing; on the down side, everyone is also depressed, because there’s rarely anything anyone can do about the supposed problem.

Another story we like to tell goes like this: Listen to this awesome thing I did. This is also called bragging. The storyteller doesn’t always mean to brag; he’s just excited about his own life. It’s good to be excited about life as you are leading it, but how to share this excitement? It turns out a list of accomplishments doesn’t work. The audience is left to feel only jealousy or awe, but not excitement. Nothing is really shared.

The last type of story goes like this: Behold life! This story does not end with a problem that needs to be solved, nor does it single out one person above another. In this story, everyone is allowed to be happy because life belongs equally to everyone. The storyteller is simply looking at life from his unique point of view. It is the same life everyone is seeing, but in sharing the author’s view the audience is allowed to behold life anew.

Humans never tire of seeing life anew. It’s all we ever look at, and yet we can’t get enough of it. We can’t get enough of awakening to life, having drifted briefly into our nightmares of doom and fantasies of heroism. How nice to hear a story that literally brings us back to life, that shows us life not as something to fear and fix, nor as something we might have one day, but that which we already have completely, simply by living.

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

Separated

If you are a writer, you probably have a list favorite authors, authors you discovered years ago who inspired you and who revealed to you what was possible in the written word. When I was eighteen I discovered T. S. Eliot, and after reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock I actually said aloud, “Oh, you can do that!” By “that” I meant express big ideas in simple, even conversational language. Prior to then, I thought big ideas required big language. It was through Eliot that I learned the opposite was nearly always true.

More than that, he, like many other artists I was discovering at that time, was exciting something within me. Art valued and targeted my emotional life above all other concerns, above intellectual learning and politics and right and wrong. This awareness was both intimate and universal, a yin and yang that pointed a very secular young man toward the spiritual. In this way, the artists I discovered where like holy men and women to me.

It was natural, then, to place them on pedestals, to set them apart from the mere mortals with whom I spent most of my time. The problem was that I was one of those mere mortals, and I did not know how one went about becoming deified. It turns out that the best way to “honor” an artist whose work I love is to see that artist as my equal. What I called greatness was merely one person’s exquisite recognition of our absolute and irreversible equality.

It is not so easy to do. Humans love to rank themselves, and compare themselves, and grade themselves, and divide themselves into neighborhoods, political parties, and races, and classes, and genres. At times it seems to me as if all human energy is spent ceaselessly trying to separate what cannot be separated.

As an artist, who wants to express what he sees from where he stands and what he has lived, the temptation to join in the effort to separate us all is great. How else to know what I want to say, to be heard and recognized, to get out of the pews and onto the pulpit? But after years of trying to find what set me apart, I decided to write one simple piece about what connected us. What a relief I felt when I’d finished that story, to simply follow the river rather than try to divert its waters where I believed they should flow.

“Oh,” I thought. “You can do that.”

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 Meeting Place

I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Semple in 2010, after she had published her first novel, This One Is Mine, and apparently before she had begun writing her breakout bestseller, Where’d You Go, Bernadette. She was feeling philosophical about her novel writing career that day. “I don’t know what I’m going to write next,” she said. “I might just be a one novel author. That would be okay.”

In the middle of the interview she reflected on the self-doubt she faced while writing This One is Mine. “Why would anyone be interested in this?” she found herself asking again and again. It was a debilitating and unanswerable question, a question many, many writers ask regardless of their experience level. She eventually found a novelist friend who explained that if she liked the book then someone else would like the book also. She found his answer credible enough to finish the novel and see it published.

But I suspect that that question was still following her around her Seattle apartment that day. It’s a very pesky question. I liked Maria very much. She’s naturally funny, by which I mean her humor flows in and out of whatever she’s talking about. I don’t think she knows how to speak without humor. She is also not someone, it seemed to me, overly concerned with self-control. Given the option, she’d rather let it rip, which happened to make her a very entertaining subject for an interview.

This One Is Mine was funny, but Maria let something loose in Where’d You Go, Bernadette that felt a lot like the woman I met that day. Sometimes the story I most want to tell feels so close to how I think and talk and see the world that it’s hard to imagine that story inhabiting anyone’s imagination but my own. I can no more imagine who would like to read it than imagine who would want to be me. Yet it is the very intimacy of what interests me most that becomes the portal through which I have reached the most people. I am unique, but I am not so very different than anyone else. I am continually seeking agreement with myself, and when I do, I find that place within me where all friends and strangers are welcome.

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

By Myself

I may crave the moment I can finally close the door to my workroom and sit quietly at my desk and enter once again the dream of the story I have been telling, but I must never mistake this experience for loneliness. Storytellers are never alone, although we are by ourselves.

While I write I am by myself in the same way I might say I sat by a stranger on plane, or I was held by my mother as child. To write is to sit by myself, with myself, and continue a conversation I often lose track of while I bounce around the world, occasionally colliding with other storytellers, or arguing with other storytellers, or becoming envious of other storytellers. There are just so many storytellers telling so many stories.

I like some of these stories; many, I admit, I do not. I do not like the story that goes: Something is wrong and someone needs to fix it! I hear that story a lot. Some days it feels like the only story I am hearing. I admit, I sometimes tell this story myself. Whenever I tell it, I feel very alone. I know, somehow, that although I have seen the problem, I am incapable of fixing this problem. It is always too big of a problem; it is a systemic problem, a global problem, a human problem. Should I rally everyone together, form a committee, a focus group, a non-profit with a website and a mission statement?

I choose instead my workroom. At last I am by myself, and I can ask myself honestly what I think of all these problems. The question is never answered because it is not even heard. The one I sit with at my desk is deaf to problems. He is only interested in the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. And so, because I am tired of all these problems I cannot fix, and because I am tired of feeling alone, I wonder what the next thing might be, and no sooner do I ask than I hear my first answer, and the conversation continues.

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

Creative Irresponsibility

The human mind thinks entirely in the positive. That is, if my wife were headed to the store, and I called out, “Don’t forget the milk!” she would actually hear, “Forget the milk!” Better then to say, “Remember the milk.”

Which is why writers must only focus on what we want to create, not what we don’t want to create. Though it is perfectly natural for me to think, “I don’t want to write a boring book,” if I continue to think this, it would be as if I am watering dandelions and hoping they will grow into roses. Or, to put it in writerly terms: if I want to write a scene about love, I cannot think about fear, hatred, and violence. If I want to write about love, I must think about love.

I know all of this intellectually, yet I still find myself from time to time thinking about the things I don’t want to create. I do so out of the misguided belief that the only way to stay safe from the threat of What Might Be is to remember all the things that I don’t want to exist – as if, but for my diligence, I might trip and accidentally write a book I don’t want to write. This is an exhausting and uncomfortable way to live and write. I feel as if I am navigating a minefield of disastrous possibility, with only capricious luck and joyless concentration to keep me safe.

When I think too long in this way, I quickly find myself in conversation with other people complaining about the state of the world. Look what a mess we’ve made. To not recognize the mess we’ve made would be irresponsible. How else will we correct the problems?

Fortunately, I have lived long enough to learn creative irresponsibility. By and by, I choose to ignore my problems. I ignore the problem of forgetting the milk and remember my desire to have milk in my cereal. I forget the problem of a boring book and remember my desire for an interesting book. In so doing I become responsible once again for the life I’m leading, rather than the life I’m afraid I might lead.

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

Instant Success

During my conversation with Patricia Park this past Tuesday, the debut author of Re Jane described an all too familiar experience for many a young author. As the bright, hardworking, college-educated daughter of Korean immigrants, she was an expectation and desired to have some kind of tangible success in her burgeoning professional life. Unfortunately, Patricia wanted to be a writer – specifically, a novelist. There are few tangible successes for beginning novelist.

Except there are. As she said in our conversation, when asked, “How is it going?” she often wanted to answer, “Great!” because she had just found a new character or gotten rid of an unnecessary scene. For a novelist in the thick of a story, these little discoveries are success. In fact, any time a writer finds the right character, or the right scene, or even the right word she experiences the unmistakable, effortless pleasure of success. She just can’t share it yet with anyone else.

It is important for me to periodically remind myself that success doesn’t actually exist outside of my imagination. That is, success is not like a publishing contract or a game of Yahtzee! You cannot measure it or hold it in your hands or accumulate it. Despite all my glittering goals and dreams and ambitions, all I actually desire is the feeling I believe I will experience when those goals, dreams, and ambitions are known.

Which is why an author can experience success with a single word. What we call success is the alignment of action with authentic desire. The right word is an action that expresses our authentic desire to tell a story. The moment this happens, inside and outside are one and there is nothing to want except more alignment. All those things I believe I want will come by and by, but I needn’t worry myself with them. Just as I do when I tell my stories, I need only seek the next most aligned word, or aligned story, or aligned anything and won’t have to wait another moment for the success I already have.

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

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 and 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.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Friendliest Part of Me

Here’s a secret: you don’t actually care what anyone else thinks about your work. I know you think you do. I know your day has been ruined by what one person said or wrote about your stories or poems, and I know that another day brightened the moment you learned that someone liked what you’d written. I know you share your work with your writing group, or your editor, or beta readers to find out what they think of it. I know how anxiously you read your Amazon reviews or your New York Times reviews. I know all the time and energy you’ve spent wondering and worrying about what other people think of your work – but the truth, the final truth, the only truth is that you don’t actually care and never have.

You don’t care because you know it doesn’t matter. It can’t matter. Those other people don’t live where your writing occurs, which is a friendly place within you accessible only to you. You want to share what you find there. Because others can’t see or hear or know this place, you have to translate what you find there into words. Sometimes people understand the translation. Sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, you can try to retranslate it. Or not. It’s up to you.

So it can be a little helpful to know whether other people understand your translation; translation is imprecise, to say the least. But it is not even slightly helpful to know what other people think about it. It is not helpful to know how your story reminds them of their ex-husband, or that they prefer it when characters use smaller words. It is not helpful to know how they would have written it, or what they believe your story says about the human condition. It is not helpful to know any of the thousands of thoughts that cross another person’s mind when they read your story. Those are none of your business and they cannot help you tell your stories.

It is very uncomfortable to try to make myself care about something I don’t really care about. It seems as though the only way to control what another person thinks about what I have written is to care what they think; that if I take very seriously what another person thinks, the next time I write something I will write it in such a way that I will already know what everyone – I mean absolutely everyone – already thinks about it and thereby not suffer the misery of waiting to learn and having to make myself care all over again. It is as exhausting as it is distressing. Because I don’t care and never have and neither do you, and remembering this is the friendliest way I know to share something I found in the friendliest part of 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.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

All Is Well

Many of the writers I work with complain of a similar problem: they sit down to write but they can’t write. They want to write, they need to write, they should write, and yet they don’t write. This experience is just about the most pain one can feel while sitting and doing nothing. And yet the pain, the discomfort, is both necessary and a clear indicator to the writer that all is well.

Writing is very much like a prayer. The writer is asking for something that is not currently clear within his consciousness. When the clarity comes, whether it is in the form of a rhyme to a poem or an epiphany at the end of an essay or a plot twist in a thriller, the writer experiences both discovery and relief, for what he has found feels both new and familiar. He is seeking something new, the authentic evolution of his story, and it is the familiarity that signals to him that what he has found belongs in the story he is telling.

I have experienced this discovery and relief thousands of times in my writing life. It remains the pleasure against which all other pleasures in my life are measured. Yet the more I have this experience, the more I understand that it cannot be replicated. Each prayer is wholly different than the one before, because what I asked for yesterday has already been given. Once it has been given there is no need for it to be given a second time because I already have it – and so it is not.

If I doubt my new prayer will be answered, I will feel discomfort. The more profound my doubt, the more profound the discomfort. Yet it is the pain of doubting that tells me I needn’t doubt. This is the doubt that can disbelieve spring in winter, whose eyes are hypnotized by what has already been made and has lost the vision to see what might be. It is the doubt that sees life as nothing but a giant waiting room within a slaughterhouse, where the dream of death is more real than the endless discovery 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.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter