Sharing Stories

I was giving a talk in Spokane shortly after the release of Write Within Yourself. In many ways, that book and this column constitute an ongoing story about writing. I’d heard a lot stories about writing over years, stories about how hard it is, and how you have to be lucky to have success at it, and how some people have talent and some just don’t. I did not like any of these stories, nor did I find them helpful.

So I started telling a different story. During the question and answer part of my talk a woman at the back the room raised her hand and stood up. “I don’t have a question,” she said. I leaned forward. She seemed to be on the verge of tears. “I just want to say what a relief it is to hear all this!”

She sat back down. I thanked her and told her how glad I was that something I wrote to help me had also helped someone else. But I’ve thought often of that woman since I met her. It is possible she will remember me as someone who changed her relationship to writing. Yet all I did was offer her permission to stop telling a story she had never wanted to tell in the first place. She was the one who decided that night to stop telling it. I was merely a convenient excuse to do so.

And what a relief it is when we stop telling crappy stories to ourselves. What a relief to stop bending our minds into some shape we decided at some weak moment was more acceptable than the shape it wants to take. What a relief to stop believing what makes us miserable to believe. The fever of self-loathing breaks, and when the sweat dries and we feel ourselves again in our natural form, we move in the direction we were meant to move, toward a story worth sharing 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

Storytelling Magic

All storytellers must convince their readers that there is a problem. Without problems there would be no stories. But conditions are not seen universally as problems. For instance, my oldest son, Max, attended public schools and thrived. My youngest son, Sawyer, so hated public schools—well, all schools—that we pulled him out and are now schooling him at home. The problem for Sawyer was not school, but the combination of school and Sawyer.

So if Sawyer were to write a story about his time in school, he would have to do so in such a way that the Maxes of the world understood why school seen through Sawyer’s eyes was as problem. For the story to be moving and compelling, the Maxes of the world would absolutely have to believe that this whole school thing stinks. Ideally, the Maxes of the world would begin to question why they ever liked school in the first place.

Then Sawyer, like all storytellers, would have to pull a little storytelling magic: he would solve the problem. The problem, however, would have to appear to solve itself. That is, in the very best stories, the resolution is, as Aristotle said, surprising but inevitable. Like the best mystery writer, the clues should have been present all the time. Or, to put it another way, the problem arrived already containing its own solution.

Or, to put it another way, there was never any problem to begin with. The only true problem was one of perception. Once the truth is perceived, the problem no longer exists the same as a dream no longer exists; the same as the dream never existed. This is the storyteller’s magic – to trick us into believing what isn’t real so that we might remember what is.

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

Body and Soul

It doesn’t matter whether I am interviewing an award-winning literary writer on Author2Author or talking to a group of beginning writers at a writer’s conference, by and by the subject of money will likely come up. The established writer might wonder if he will “sell through” on his latest advance, while the beginning writer will ask if it is really possible to make a living at this and at what point can one quit one’s day job.

I think all the questions around writing and money really come down to this: Can I make a living doing something I would happily do for free? By the time a writer sits down to write, and then to try to publish that first book, he has likely been earning a living in some job or another. He probably – though certainly not always – wouldn’t do that job unless he were paid to do so. This was certainly true of me. I made a living as a waiter for twenty years. It was good work, it fit my writing schedule nicely, but I wouldn’t have done it for one minute without the promise of payment.

I had to train myself to live like this, a training that began in school. I liked school well enough, the teachers were nice, I had friends, the work wasn’t hard – but if a foot of snow dropped and school was cancelled, I was overjoyed. Now I was free to do what I wanted, not what I had to. But this is life. You do what you have to do. You chop wood and carry the wood because you need a fire and if you don’t, it won’t get done. It’s called being an adult.

To write for a living, we must forget this training. Writing for a living contradicts the story most adults learn to accept. To write for a living, I must be willing to admit that the story I told to keep me safe and fed in the world, the story whose acceptance defined my manhood and maturity, was never more than that – a story. To write for a living means to create no separation between love and money, between joy and survival. Every time I am paid for what I would gladly do for free, I close that unfriendly gap between body and soul, and can forget that the world ever wanted anything from me other than exactly what I am.

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

We’re All Authors Now

I spent this past weekend at the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference. As is custom, on Friday night there was a book-signing event for all the authors, both those invited to teach and speak as well as attendees whose work had been published. This was a tipping point year. For the first time, the number of authors sitting behind a pile of their books outnumbered the number of people looking to have those books signed.

Such is the inevitable consequence of holding a book-signing at a writer’s conference in the age of self-publishing. It would be tempting to lament this imbalance, except that this imbalance is anything but. Rather, it is the recognition of what has always been the truth – that everyone has a story they want to tell and share with other people. With the rise of self-publishing, and blogs, and YouTube, and programs like Garage Band, we’re all authors and filmmakers and musicians now.

Fortunately, we are all readers as well. My boys often claim they aren’t interested in reading, though they spend most of their days doing just that, only on blogs and forums and wikis. The books I sold at the reading were sold to other writers who took a moment to climb out from behind their own stack. YouTube celebrities watch YouTube. Musicians listen to music. Entertainers, it turns out, want to be entertained.

I do not know how all this will shake down. Amazon currently boasts two million titles for sale, with more being added every day. With everyone promoting their latest $.99 title, social media can seem cacophonous with self-promotion. But I cannot believe that anything but good will come of people understanding that they have a voice and that it is worth using, that there is no true barrier to expression but the willingness to express. The gatekeepers were never real. They were servants of our own self-imposed silence, boogiemen born out of the secret hope and secret terror that one story or one life could ever matter more than another.

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

Two Fearful Companions

I have just returned from the 60th Pacific Northwest Writers Conference. It was a particularly immersive conference for me, including several hours of one-on-one coaching, moderating, and teaching, and culminating in a two-hour workshop on Sunday. By the time I arrived home I felt as though I never wanted to talk to another writer about writing ever again.

This feeling lasted about twelve hours, and now here I am back at my desk, writing about writing, and happy to do so. I love being around people – particularly writers. I find the writer’s desire, vulnerability, doubt, and conviction consistently moving. But I also must be alone for hours at a stretch or I become exhausted. Fortunately, most of my job requires me to do just that.

For many years I was confused about my need to be alone. I assumed it was a kind of defect, an anti-social shyness indicative of a guy who could hit beautiful three-pointers in his driveway, but who got lost in a game of five-on-five. Life seemed at times like a game to me, a game that could only be won in the company of others.

But to write in a way that is even remotely satisfying is to abandon the notion of games themselves. The very concept of winning and losing is incompatible with the dream of storytelling. Likewise, other people. Should I have the pleasure of sharing my stories, the dream other people called readers will make of it will be entirely their own and have virtually nothing to do with me and my dream.

This may seem like a lonely transaction, but it is just the opposite. I would never have sought the solitude of writing if it left me feeling lonely. It is there – and in writing’s quiet cousin, reading – that I have truly learned to be myself. To bring anyone else to the game is to have nothing to offer, to present some puppet conceived to amuse or impress, and then leave feeling unseen and unheard – the two companions a writer fears most.

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

Novocain

I was having lunch with a group of writers at a conference last year when we fell into tales of strange dentistry. The woman across from me confessed to using a dentist who didn’t believe in Novocain.

“What do you mean, didn’t believe in it?” I asked.

“He didn’t like it. Wouldn’t use it.”

“He drilled without Novocain? On you? In the twenty-first century? And you kept going to him?”

She nodded shyly.

“For how long?”

“Years.”

This seemed a bit like paying the Inquisition for their exacting spiritual counsel, but it also made sense to me in a way. The dentist knew it was just pain, after all. Pain can’t actually scar you. She’d be fine. Which she was.

Though she did eventually decide to use another dentist. She made this decision the way I have made many decisions in my life: by recognizing that what I had been calling normal was actually suffering and that I was done suffering.

Pain is great information – it tells me what I’m believing. If I feel the pain of failure, or poverty, or lowliness, jealousy, and greed I know I’ve begun telling myself stories that aren’t true. I would never choose Novocain to block that pain; it’s just too valuable. But I also have to remember to find another story. I have to remember that pain is only normal when I am telling painful stories.

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

Questions and Answers

As I mentioned in a piece last week, I have finally answered the question, “How do I find the time to write?” to my own satisfaction. This came after a member of a workshop I was teaching cheerfully told me my answer that day did not help him one little bit. I would come to learn that other members of that workshop were happy with the answer I gave that afternoon. Fortunately, they weren’t the ones who asked the question.

Had someone else asked the question, I would not have spent the next week thinking and thinking about time, and motivation, and belief. And when I say “thinking” I mean me asking myself, “How could I better explain this?” and then waiting for my answer. The answer that finally came helped teach me what I had always known but could not express precisely. In finding that precise expression, what I knew had now found a shape I could share with the most people possible.

This happens in almost every class or workshop I teach. I love that feeling of connection when comprehension blooms, which feels like fear dropping away. This does not always happen, and being bit of a perfectionist, the idea that I cannot answer every question exactly right the first time does not always sit well with me. How tempting, as The Teacher, to believe it is my job to do just that.

But as my friend from the conference a couple weeks ago taught me once again, the most productive questions are often the ones I can’t answer. Now my own little creative engine begins to turn. What is more delicious to my mind than a question it wants to answer? Nothing, of course, because that is why I have a mind in the first place. The division between teacher and student is entirely illusory. Both arrive in the classroom to ask and answer questions, and both leave, hopefully, with better questions still to ask.

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

Choosing Confidence

Writing is all about making choices. I must choose every character, every storyline, every scene, every sentence, every word. Nothing happens until I make a choice. Choices can be erased, modified, or extended, but they must be made. Without choice, there is only the potential of a story, but no story itself.

However, I cannot choose something unless I know it exists. I cannot choose to use the word, say, “sesquipedalian” unless I know it exists. I had never heard of that word until I was forty. Now I choose to use it from time to time, if only for comic effect. For the forty years that I never used the word it always existed, only not in my awareness – which, as far the choices I can make are concerned, is the only reality that matters.

Which is why it’s nice to expand your vocabulary, or read about the world, or take yourself on periodic adventures, or try new wines, or listen to new music. All these things give us new choices. But maybe more useful than all this exploration is this simple question: If I could change one thing about myself, what would it be?

I used to wish I could stay calm when I was in conflict with another person. During every argument or disagreement I felt as if I were being given a test for which I neglected to study. Everything I said and did was guesswork, and all I wanted was for the argument to end so I could go back to feeling confident in my choices. And then one day my wife and I were in an argument, and I wanted it to be over so I could go back to being her friend. But on this day I tried something different. I thought, “What if, when I talk to her, I go to the same place I go when I write?”

All at once I had confidence, and the argument dissolved quickly. It was nothing short of miraculous. My confidence had always been available to me in arguments; I had just mislabeled it. What I had called imagination was really love, and I can never be more confident than when I am focused on what I love. I still forget what real confidence is, but no matter – I can choose it exactly as often as I remember where to find 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.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Innocent Characters

I had a great conversation on Tuesday with the journalist-turned-psychotherapist Kim Schneiderman. Kim’s the author of Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life, a handy little book that helps people apply traditional story arcs to their own life so that they might see themselves as the heroes of their narrative rather than the victims or villains. One of the very useful tricks Kim employs is writing our story in the third person. Instead of writing, “I lost my job and didn’t know what to do.” I would write, “He lost his job and didn’t know what to do.”

All at once that person on the page is a character, not me, allowing me to view him from the necessary authorial distance. I thought of Kim’s technique this morning as I worked on a scene in a memoir I’m rewriting. This particular scene wasn’t going well. I knew it wasn’t going well because of how lousy I felt. The more I wrote, the worse I felt, until I knew it was time to get out before I declared the whole book a waste my time.

After I’d exercised and showered and generally calmed down, it occurred to me that when I’m telling the story I truly wish to tell, I view the Bill on the page as a character. No matter what this Bill does or has done to him, he is innocent. When he is allowed to be innocent, so are all his friends and supposed foes. On the other hand, when I’m telling my story, which is really what you would call my ego’s story, no one is innocent. Now I am either justifying what I did or apologizing for it. It never feels good to tell this story, though sometimes it is the only story I can hear.

By and by I find my way back to innocence. It is easy for me to confuse innocence for the vulnerability of childhood, when all that I didn’t know about the engine of the world seemed to leave me unguarded against a vague but constant threat. That the threat never materialized did not dim its power. The strangest part of growing up is finding that same intact innocence within a storm of knowledge, and ready at last to tell a story about the world I’ve always known.

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

Wasting Time

I was teaching at a conference the other weekend when a student asked me familiar question: How do I write this book I want to write when I don’t have enough time? As usual, when I asked the class how many other people felt this way, half the students raised their hand. The answer I gave that day did not help the one who asked the question, and I have thought about it a lot since. The answer I eventually received to all my thinking was surprisingly simple.

If you feel you do not have enough time to write, ask yourself this: Is writing a waste of time? You only have so much of it in a day, in a year, in a life. Are you wasting it by retiring to your little writing cave to tell some story? It is easy to know why that job you might or might not like isn’t a waste of time: it provides you with an income, and a sort of social life, and an identity – but mostly an income. And you know why talking to your spouse or partner isn’t a waste of time: you enjoy it, and it nurtures this relationship you value. And you know why you do the laundry and clean the kids’ rooms and take the kids to ballet and soccer. You’re a parent. It’s what you do.

And you also know why you watch TV and play video games and go to movies and draft your fantasy football team and talk on the phone with old friends and knit: these things are pleasing and relaxing, and you must relax, you must have fun. Life can’t be all work. These things may not bring you money or maintain the ship of state that is your domestic life, but you need to occasionally simply enjoy yourself for no other reason than it feels good to do so.

But then there’s writing. You don’t know when or if you will make any money from it. It takes you away from your friends and family. And it’s not always fun. Some days, it’s harder than anything else you have ever done. And so why are you doing it? You know why you spend your time on all your other activities, why are you bothering with this?

I never wondered whether I should spend two hours a day writing; to choose not to do so felt like committing suicide. But I often wondered if all this writing would ever produce anything in the world other than a pile of pages in my desk drawer. There were many dark nights it seemed little else would come of it. It took me years of writing and midnight agony to understand what the word faith actually meant, what it was to believe in something I could not see or touch or measure.

The question is not whether writing is a waste of time, but whether you believe in something only you can perceive. Your writing hours are spent making real what lives only in your imagination. Do you also believe in how much you love those stories? Or that that love will travel beyond your workroom? In the end, the only thing we know for sure is that we love our stories. Is that enough? If it is, you will always find the time.

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