My Real Job

I’ve been conducting video interviews for Author magazine since 2008, and hosting Author2Author, a weekly conversation on blogtalk radio, since 2012. I always learn something in every conversation, but one the most instructive interviews was the one I was least interested in conducting.

I wasn’t even supposed to do it. Jeff, my associate editor, had booked the author and was very excited about getting to interview this guy, Lee Child. I’d never heard of him. I didn’t read suspense, you see. It wasn’t my thing. Jeff did, though, and he kept telling me how lucky we were to have him for our fledgling magazine.

But the night before the interview Jeff told me he couldn’t do it. Something about a kid’s baseball game he couldn’t miss. I groused. Jeff had read everything the guy had ever written, but I hadn’t even seen a book cover. How was I going to do the interview? Jeff told me not to worry. He’d write up some questions for me. I’d be fine.

I brought the questions to the bookstore for the interview, but wasn’t sure if I wanted to use them. They weren’t my sorts of questions. While I was waiting for Child to arrive, one of the booksellers asked me excitedly if I were going to be interviewing the Lee Child. “You bet,” I said. “Hey, do you read him?”

“Of course!”

“So what are his books like? What’s the premise usually?”

He explained about Jack Reacher and how in every book he arrived in a new town and faced off against new villains and slept with a new beautiful woman. “Got it,” I said. Child arrived. He was very tall and very charming and very British. I liked him right away. When I like someone, I want to get to know him, and the best way to get to know someone is to ask him questions. I never looked at Jeff’s questions that night, and it was perhaps the best interview I’d done to that point. It was the last time I ever bothered to bring questions with me to an interview.

The questions I used to write before my interviews were always based on my concept of who the author was before I met him or her. As soon as that author said, “Hello,” however, I immediately understood they were not who I thought they were. Every time I think I know who the author is based on the combination of their book and my imagination, I am wrong. They are always more than I can imagine. It is why they are both so interesting and mysterious.

The same is true of the ideas from which stories are born. Every time I think I know what kind of a story an idea will turn into before I write it, I am wrong. I never really know what a story will be until I meet it on the blank page. That first page never ceases to humble me. I must remember it is not my job to know, but to be curious. Knowledge can certainly seem safer than curiosity, but it’s an illusion. What I call knowledge is stored in the past, but curiosity lives in the present, where everything is written and lived.

**(Author’s note: No real passwords were shared in the writing of this essay).

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

Passwords

My sixteen year-old son recently built a computer. This was the first time he’d ever done this, by which I mean not just built a computer (gathered a CPU and a graphics card and a motherboard and a hard drive and some RAM and the cooling fans and assembled them inside a case and attached all the wires from the power supply and downloaded all the drivers), but actually began a significant project and saw it successfully all the way through to its end.

It was a proud moment when I poked my head into his bedroom and saw him playing a game on the new computer and asked, “It’s actually working?” and he said, “Of course it’s working!” But that moment did not come so easily. Only a few hours earlier he had declared the project a failure. This was about the fourth time since he began building it that he’d done so. But this time he really meant it. The thing was all put together, and he’d just installed Windows and restarted the computer but he couldn’t log back in. Whenever he entered the password he’d just created Windows told him his password was incorrect.

His password, he believed, was “danknewspookypc.”** He’d even written it down. But Windows didn’t like it. “I just want to use my new computer,” he cried. “I just want to be happy. But I’m locked out!” I suggested he had somehow entered differently. Try different combinations, I said. So he did. It was like watching the queen trying to guess Rumpelstiltskin’s name. Nothing worked. I left his room and retreated to the relative quiet of the living room. He followed me.

“I’m locked out!” he repeated.

“No, you’re not. There’s a way in. There has to be.”

“I’m locked out. It’s just logic, Dad.” He marched back into his room.

“Then quit!” I spat. “If it’s so logical, just quit.”

That was the frustrated writer in me talking. He follows me around even when I’m trying to be a helpful father. He is never helpful. But it’s only because he finds his job so confounding sometimes. The writer must believe in and communicate what lives within his imagination, a dreamlike realm beyond the reach of shared senses. Some days that seems like an impossible task. How can I show my readers what only I can see? Their imaginations are as impenetrable as mine. No thought or story is allowed in without my holy permission. And yet I require entry into my readers’ imaginations to do this job. It is easy on some days to feel quite locked out, barred from happiness by the laws that separate us all.

Meanwhile, my son tried to find other ways in. None worked. So I took him out for lunch, and I told him how awesome he was and reminded him how he’d never tried this sort of thing before. This did not mean much to him. But then we ate pizza and drank soda and talked about stuff besides computers and by the time we got home he thought maybe he’d call Microsoft and ask for help. But then he didn’t. He wanted to try one other thing.

I was in my own room Googling reinstalling Windows when a triumphant cry rang out from across the hall. I jumped up from my desk and ran to his room.

“I left out new,” he said. “The password was just ‘dankspookypc.’ I just got the password wrong.”

A couple hours of downloading drivers later he had a working computer.

Oh, the sweet relief of what we’ve named success. It is an experience from which the dream of writing grows. I’ve thought from time to time of quitting, but it felt too much like quitting life. Whether I call it writing or not, or remembering passwords or not, I will always have to believe in what cannot be seen, but is known instead, as my dreams are known.

**(Author’s note: No real passwords were shared in the writing of this essay).

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

Final Resting Place

Kung Fu was much on my mind in the 70’s. First there was the television show starring David Carradine, which was THE GREATEST SHOW EVER for a non-violent, philosophically minded pre-teen. Two years after its debut, G. I. Joe developed Kung Fu grip. This was a breakthrough in Action Figure Technology. Now, Joe could grab his opponents and climb walls and . . . well, much more, I was sure of it. I had to have one.

It turns out that once you’ve grabbed your first enemy action figure, and once you’ve posed him dangling off the kitchen table, he’s just another G. I. Joe with funny hands. So I did the only other interesting thing I could think to do with him: I stood outside and threw Joe as high into the air as I could. I caught him twice, but on the third attempt I threw him so high that he landed on our roof, rolled down the incline, and came to rest in the gutter. Only his camouflage-clad right arm and Kung Fu-gripped right hand were visible; the rest lay hidden, two stories above the ground.

The Kenowers did not own a ladder. And so for one season, and then two seasons, and then three seasons I played in our yard and would occasionally glance at Joe and his one dangling arm and hand. The more I glanced at that arm and his Kung Fu hand, the more I missed Joe. I began to think of new things I could do with him and his grip. I imagined adventures he hadn’t taken, enemies he hadn’t faced. His life had been so brief. I hoped the rest of him was doing all right there in the gutter.

Finally, a full year after his entombment, the day came that my father, never to be accused of handiness, procured a ladder. There had been some badgering, I suspect. Up he went, my brother, sister and I waiting below, wondering if we might soon be fatherless because of this trapped toy. The ladder was just high enough that if he stood on the second-highest rung and leaned one hand against the house, he could reach over the gutter with the other and fling Joe free.

“Careful!” I cried, as Joe spun through the air. I caught him!

I don’t know what exactly happens in a gutter over the course of summer, fall, spring, and winter. I suppose there’s a lot of water and debris. Whatever it is, there’s some powerful chemistry at work, for what I held in my hand was an unrecognizable, plastic carcass of a toy. The clothes were stinking, rotted shreds, and somehow the body had decayed in that one brutal year. All that remained intact was the single arm, still wrapped in its camouflage sleeve, extending to a perfect Kung Fu hand.

My brother and I buried him the next day. The adventures I had dreamed for him would be lived by other toys, or told in other stories. He had served his family well.

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 More Important Questions

When I was twenty-two, I began hearing a melody in my head. The more I heard it, the clearer it became, until finally I thought it might be a good idea to write it down somehow. I already knew how to read music from years of playing the flute, but I knew absolutely nothing about music theory—I knew nothing about half-steps or whole-steps or chords or why it would matter what key a song was written in.

So I bought a keyboard, hoping somehow the song would move from my head to my fingers to the keys. This did not happen. Trying to find my song on that keyboard was like trying to learn to write by randomly striking letters on a typewriter. I am a very stubborn student. I will waste hours of my time figuring out how to do something myself rather that allow someone else show me. But not being able to write my song was such a profoundly frustrating and unsatisfying experience that I did something I had never done before and have not done since: I bought a How To book.

It was a slim volume, a kind of Music Theory for Dummies before there was such a thing. But it was enough. After an hour or so I’d gotten the gist of it and was at the keyboard finding my song. That first day was rather magical. All at once I was literate, and the order of the black keys and the white keys transformed almost before my eyes from a mysterious code to an elegantly simple system to write anything I should wish.

Given this experience, you might think I’d be a bigger proponent of How To books. I am not. I quietly and stubbornly maintain that with a little more time I could have figured it out myself. No matter. How to write a song has never been nearly as interesting a question to me as which song I want to write. No such book exists that can answer that question. Only silence can answer that question—that empty space that asks everyone equally: What will your life be next?

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 Fall

Before my father left The Church he served as one of its ministers. If I was ever asked to sit in the pews while he delivered his Sunday address, I have no recollection of it. This was during the shadow of my early childhood, when memory is hampered by the highly fluid relationship between imagination and what I was gently being told was reality. It is hard for me to know what actually happened then and what was invented because at that time everything felt invented.

In those early days, I preferred cartoons to sermons. In cartoons, characters could travel through time or change shape, nothing died, and physical suffering was brief and hilarious. This felt like life as I lived it in my imagination, where the only meaningful boundary was what I wanted.

One afternoon I was playing in the rec room of my father’s church. There was a freestanding bookshelf in the middle of the room, and I thought it would be a good idea to try to scale its smooth back. This turned out to be impossible, but my efforts destabilized the shelf, which began to slowly topple backwards. It was at this point I decided to attempt the first scientific experiment of my young life. If the cartoons were as accurate as they felt, and if this bookshelf were to land, say, on my hands, my fingers would swell to comical proportions and then quickly return to normal. I left my hands on the floor in the path of the falling shelf, and awaited my results.

The pain sucked me into reality. I felt betrayed, though not by cartoons. It was clear there were in fact boundaries in this world, and to transgress them could mean suffering of a magnitude impossible to ignore. It was a great disappointment, though I attributed the tears I shed in my father’s lap afterwards to simple pain and humiliation. How do you explain the other? I could feel the answer within me, but not the facility to express it, a facility wed, in a language as tangible as bookshelves, to the very world that had just betrayed me.

I suppose that is the day I became a writer.

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

Worth Sharing

How easy it is to forget why you’re doing what you’re doing even while you’re doing it. To write is to collaborate with your imagination to share something wonderful or lovely or funny or scary or profound with other people. The sharing with other people is important because without them there would only be you and your diary, which is fine also, but aren’t we all glad for those people who shared what they had written with us? Indeed we are. And aren’t we happy, more or less, to pay a few bucks to read or watch or listen to what those people have shared. Why, yes we are.

It’s the dreary business of staying alive that can gum-up the creative life. There are artists out there who find a paycheck ample motivation, but I count myself among the many others who do not. The moment my attention wanders from the sharing of something lovely with other people to simply building my career, or growing my readership, or padding my savings, I soon wake up to discover that I loath the whole writing business. In fact, I can’t remember ever liking it.

Now I am a hero whose only purpose is to stay alive until the final meaningless word has been writ. I begin complaining. I complain first about other people, and then about myself, and then about life in general, that which summoned me forth for no apparent purpose. The complaining does not help, but perhaps I haven’t done enough of it. No, that doesn’t help either.

Somewhere at the end of all this unhappiness exhaustion gives way to memory. At first it as if I am recalling a story I once heard, until I meet the protagonist and recognize his days as mine. I am glad to find his story is not through, and that he finds it worth telling beyond reasons he can count. Nothing in the world worth knowing can be counted, just as nothing in the world worth dreaming is worth keeping to myself.

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

Shadows

A writer friend of mine wondered aloud recently why he never experienced anything resembling “writer’s block” in conversation. He’s still using words; he’s still trying to communicate. Where’s the inner critic then?

It was a good question, one I couldn’t answer at that moment and have been thinking about ever since. Yet it wasn’t the only question we shared that day. We talked for a couple hours, sitting at a curbside table at a coffee shop, strangers wandering by in conversations of their own, the sun moving across the sky, the shadows retreating toward the wall until it was too hot to sit and we walked into the cool of a bookstore. He showed me some novels he wanted to read, but I can’t remember their titles. I do remember he told me a story about the last book he’d sold and how hard he’d worked on the proposal.

And then it was time to say goodbye and I was thinking again on the drive home about inner editors and the difference between conversation and writing. The day exists in fragments in my imagination, anchored in that single question, and his story, and his profile at the table as he sipped his tea while the day grew hotter. The rest of it and everything we said is gone, like the strangers who passed us, like the face of the barista, or the name of the café, or the color of his shirt.

Or like all the details I’ve forgotten of every novel or memoir or poem I’ve ever read. Each are anchored in my imagination by a few choice moments – the rest are the shadows into which stories and days dissolve. So it is for every reader and every story, except for the illusion of permanence the page provides. The threat of forever is the inner critic’s weapon of choice – a future where nothing can change and nothing is forgiven, a land where we must get it right or be doomed in history by some imperfect thought.

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 Dictator

“I figured it out, Bill,” my brother told me recently. “In the absence of a dictatorship, we create one.”

His epiphany reminded me of Daniel Pink’s book Drive, which looks at the real reason people are motivated to do what they do. Pink argues, quite convincingly, that it is not the old “carrot and stick.” According to Pink’s research, humans are far more motivated by an inner desire to learn, expand, and do work they find meaningful. It turns out that avoiding the pain of punishment or seeking the trophy of approval and money is not why we do things. We do things because we like to do them.

Which is great, but, as my brother pointed out, we are all perfectly capable of creating our own dictatorships. I certainly have. For where could I possibly have more freedom than at my own desk before the blank page? There are no rules here or masters to obey. It is fully a democratic country, where the votes of preference and desire and curiosity guide the ship of state that is my story.

Freedom always feels good. The moment I release myself from the grinding rules of The World, I feel good. The moment I enter that kingdom where imagination and curiosity meet, where I am free to seek any answer to any question without injury or argument, I am released from the strange contortion that I assumed to appear acceptable. It is a natural contortion for writers to seek, since their livelihood appears to be based on the acceptance of editors and publishers and readers. And yet in meeting the blank page, to feel the difference between what is natural and what is unnatural, to feel the difference between contortion and relaxation, is to find and know all that I want.

It is a little disorienting to enter the dream of the story I am telling and feel that is it is enough. What about money? What about recognition? What about all those things that I was certain mattered and must be attended to if I am to be happy? A dictator always arrives in answer to these questions. He does not believe that freedom is its own reward. He punishes me for every false word. How else will I know not to use them again? And he holds out the carrot of success to keep me working. What else would bring me back to the desk?

It is hard to remember that even a dictator wants his subjects to be happy. After all, he was only summoned when I believed in my own unhappiness. He is the lord of unhappiness who nonetheless promises happiness if I can be obedient enough and work hard enough, so that one day, some day, I will have earned my way to freedom. How quickly I come to hate him. Soon a rebellion stirs, and I find myself in search of a palace to burn and a king to behead.

I have cut off his head a thousand times. It gives me something to do while I’m not writing. It is profoundly unsatisfying, however, particularly when I find the freedom of the page again. There I forget a dictator ever lived in my mind. Strange that someone who seemed so real can simply vanish like a shadow when the sun moves. So it goes when I turn myself toward life, where there has always been enough light to grow freely.

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

Our Only Currency

Writers traffic in the most universal of all human currency: feelings. The question every writer must ask about every scene or sonnet is, What does this moment or idea feel like? Does it feel happy or tense or funny or sad or boring? What is happening is largely irrelevant. Events are merely vessels for the feeling contained within them.

But this is true of everyone, writers and non-writers alike. I have heard it said that everyone is selling something, and isn’t that something happiness? Isn’t the job of the advertiser to convince us that this chewing gum or hybrid car or life insurance will somehow make us happier? There is no other reason we would want it.

Sometimes, however, we sell unhappiness. We do this for the good of our fellow man, who have been lulled – largely by all those people running around selling happiness – into believing the world is in far better shape than it actually is. We might say, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention!” Or, “Silence equals death!” Though the world will sometimes shoot the messenger, the message must be delivered all the same, lest the happiness we all crave remain nothing but an illusion peddled by hucksters.

I would love nothing more than for all my readers to feel happier when they have finished one of my stories than when they began, but there are days I feel like a huckster myself. Happiness is something I invented to relieve the boredom and terror of life, a snake oil for the gullible and lonely. Trust me, is all I can offer. Yet what else can I offer? Happiness, the gold that would fill the purse of every soul on earth, remains forever a thing unseen and untouched. Instead, it can only be known as the imagination knows itself, and then shared with a world made richer by gaining what it cannot count.

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

Leaving Room

I was a high school senior and I had lots of big ideas and lots of big emotions but none of those emotions seemed to translate onto the page no matter how many big words and big stories I put there. But I also was the co-editor of the yearbook, whose responsibilities apparently required two periods a day to fulfill. Of course, the yearbook was done and in the can by early March, so there I would be, day after day, sitting in the yearbook office with nothing to do, until one afternoon in late spring I decided to take a walk.

I had never done such a thing. You weren’t supposed to. You had to get permission. But I did not get permission. I simply left. It was weirdly easy to do. So I strolled down to Thayer Street and into College Hill Bookstore. My friend Con, who was nearly three years older than I and had a beard, kept talking about someone named Elliott. I found Elliott, and there was this book about cats, which seemed silly, and then a Best Of Collection that was very slender and manageable and seemed like the sort of thing I might enjoy.

I began to read. How interesting. This Elliott fellow had very big ideas. Here he talked about disturbing the universe, and here measuring out your life in coffee spoons, and here the world ending, but the world was ending in what sounded like a children’s rhyme. It was all very simple in a way. It was poetry that was poetic but also sounded like conversation. And after reading it and reading it and reading it, not entirely understanding it but loving it and being mysteriously moved by it all the same, I put the book down and actually said out loud, “Oh. You can do that.”

It hadn’t occurred to me how powerful that simplicity could be. The simplicity left empty space that I had been trying to fill with big words and big stories. The empty space was where the readers could find their way into the story or poem. That was where the bigness came from. Not from me, but from the combination of the reader and me. You don’t try to say everything, you say a part of it and point the reader toward the rest.

And that was my first and best lesson in what we call craft.

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