Fearless Writing Part Three: Contrast Is Your Friend

If you’ve ever written and actually enjoyed the experience, then you have written fearlessly. In fact, writing doesn’t really begin until we forget to be afraid. So the question isn’t whether you can write fearlessly, but whether you can do it on purpose. On Monday, I looked at The Only Two Questions You Should Ever Ask; on Tuesday I looked at Having Faith. Here now is the third of the three best tools I know for writing fearlessly every day.

Contrast Is Your Friend

From a pure craft standpoint, contrast is invaluable. Just as a flashlight’s beam is distinct in a dark room and nearly invisible in a brightly lit room, so too is whatever we are trying to share with our readers most perceptible against its opposite. So if you want to write about peace, you must show war; if you want to show forgiveness, you must show judgment; if you want show acceptance, you must show rejection.

Likewise, often the best way to know what we like is when we encounter something we don’t like. If you read a novel and you hate the ending, instead of griping to your husband or writing group about what poor choices the author made, think about how you would have ended it. Your frustration is pointing you toward something you wish to explore, but which has remained unexplored. That discomfort will only grow until it is released on the page.

Finally, the guidance system upon which you so depend to write from day to day speaks entirely in the contrast between the effortlessness of the right word, and the effort of the almost-right word. It speaks in the contrast between the fearlessness of asking yourself what you are most interested in, and the discomfort we have named fear that always comes when we wonder what other people will think of what we write. We must have both experiences for our guidance system to work. Without what we call fear, we would have nothing to guide us back to what we love.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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How to Make Money as a Writer

When I was seventeen I had a job cutting a neighbor’s lawn. It wasn’t a bad way to spend thirty minutes: I got to be alone and I could daydream, which at that time was more or less a fulltime occupation. This job paid me ten dollars every other week. Even in the summer of 1982, that wasn’t a lot of money. Still, it was nice to have the cash, though I often didn’t know what to do with it. When I was done spending it on video games or McDonald’s, I felt as if I had just thrown it away.

That same year the band Pink Floyd released The Final Cut, their first album after The Wall. The Wall had turned me into a devoted Pink Floyd fan. I’d bought nearly everything they’d released, even the very early formative stuff. On the day The Final Cut hit the shelves, I raced to a record store, glad to have something useful to do with this money. Even though it wasn’t as good as The Wall, I did not feel as though I had thrown the money away. What I got from music and books lasted longer in me than food or the brief high of video games.

When I was forty-two, I began a new career. I had spent the last twenty years waiting tables and writing fiction that I had no luck selling. I had become very interested in what is commonly called spirituality, particularly how it related to creativity and writing. I was far more interested in this subject than I had been in any of those novels I tried to sell. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I thought about it when I ran, when I showered, and when I did the dishes. To me it was like a question whose answers always brought better and more interesting questions.

In short, I loved it. The problem, I had to admit, was that I had no idea how to make money sharing it. I had only ever made money by chopping wood, whether mowing lawns or serving steaks. I had never been paid for what I would happily do for free. At that time, being paid for what I loved seemed no more real than those daydreams through which I would float as a teenager. I knew how to write, and I knew how to speak to groups; now I would have to learn how to be paid for it.

Seven years later I found myself standing behind a podium in a conference hall delivering a thirty-minute keynote speech to eight hundred writers. How did I get there? I suppose it had something to do with blogs I had written, or interviews I had done, and classes I had taught, but in truth the most important thing I had done was to focus every day on how much I valued what I wanted to share. People pay for what they value. The more clearly I perceived the value of what I was writing about, the more clearly others could perceive it as well.

If you want to make money as a writer, put all your attention on how much you value the story you’re telling. If you want to research markets, fine; if you want to improve your craft, fine. But none of that will help if you do not perceive the value of your story or poem or essay while it grows in a garden no one else can see. Somewhere out there are readers who are just as eager as I had been with The Final Cut to trade their money for what they will find in your story. But first you must know the value of what you love, independent of anyone else’s opinion, know it as you know how much you love the stories you buy; and what might have once seemed like a dream will grow inevitably into reality.

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

Fearless Writing Part Two: Have Faith

If you’ve ever written and actually enjoyed the experience, then you have written fearlessly. In fact, writing doesn’t really begin until we forget to be afraid. So the question isn’t whether you can write fearlessly, but whether you can do it on purpose. Yesterday, I looked at The Only Two Questions You Should Ever Ask. Here now is the second of the three best tools I know for writing fearlessly every day:

Have Faith

I am defining “faith” as believing in something for which there is no evidence. This shouldn’t be so hard for a writer, really. Every day we sit at our desks and believe in something no one but us can see. In fact, while we’re writing, we believe more in the story we are telling than the chair in which we are sitting. We have to. We have to believe that our hero wants to save the world even though our hero doesn’t exist anywhere but our imagination. We must believe a daughter yearns for her father’s attention even though neither the father nor the daughter is any more real than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. That’s our job – to believe in what only we can see.

The problem is that we would also like to share these stories with other people, and we have absolutely no evidence that this story – which only we can see – will be of interest to anyone. No one knows how many copies of a book will be sold or if it will win any awards. No one knows which reviewers will like it and which will not. It is a mystery to be answered within the sovereign imaginations of our readers.

The only evidence a writer has that his story is worth telling is that he’s interested in telling it. That’s it. That’s all Shakespeare got and that’s all Hemingway got and that’s all Amy Tan and Stephen King get. Your evidence that your story is worth your attention and worth sharing with others is that you think it’s cool, or funny, or scary, or profound. If that’s reason enough for you to write, if that’s reason enough to commit an hour or two a day to the same story for six months or a year or six years, then you have found the simple secret to all faith – that feeling good is evidence enough that something is worth doing and that life is worth living.

Up Next: Contrast Is Your Friend

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

Fearless Writing, Part One: Two Questions

If you’ve ever written and actually enjoyed the experience, if you’ve ever allowed yourself to become lost in the dream of the story you are telling so much that you temporarily forget what time it is, then you have written fearlessly. In fact, writing doesn’t really begin until we forget to be afraid, forget to worry about whether it’s any good or if anyone will like it or if we’ll ever sell it. So the question isn’t whether you can write fearlessly, but whether you can do it on purpose. Here then is the first of the three best tools I know for writing fearlessly every day.

The only questions you should ever ask are: “What do I most want to say?” and “Have I said it?”

I ask these questions because I can actually answer them. I will never know anything better than I know what I am most interested in. I will never be able to pay attention to something for longer than that about which I am most curious. My curiosity is the engine that drives my creative vehicle. It is the source of all my excitement, my intelligence, and my surprise. It is also entirely unique to me. There is no one on earth who knows what I most want to say other than me.

And once I know what I want to say, once I know which story I want to tell, or which scene I want to write, only I can know if I have translated it accurately into words on the page. Whatever I most want to say exists in a realm knowable only to me. There isn’t one editor or teacher or critique group member who can tell me if I have accurately translated what I wanted to share because only I know what that is; these other people, however well-intentioned, can only tell me if they like or understand what I’ve written. That is all they actually know.

If I am ever asking some question other than these two, I am not really writing. I am trying to read other people’s minds. If I am asking, “Is it any good?” I am really asking, “Will anyone else like it?” Or if I’m asking, “Is there market for it?” I am really asking, “Will anyone else like it?” And if I am asking, “Is it too literary? Is it not literary enough?” I am really just asking, “Will anyone else like it?”

What anyone else thinks of what I’m writing is none of my business – at least not while I’m writing. While I’m writing, what I think of what I’m writing is my business. I am always afraid when I believe I must answer questions that are unanswerable. And I am always fearless the moment I return to my curiosity to see where it is headed next.

Up Next: Fearless Writing Part Two – Faith

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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

True Equality

I was talking the other evening to a young woman about the concept of talent. She had heard me say that I didn’t really believe in it, that talent was just another word for love. This woman had just begun playing an organized sport for the first time in her life. It seemed quite clear to her that some people were conspicuously more talented than others. She loved to play this sport, and yet no matter how hard she worked she could not play it as well as certain women on her team.

Such is the trap we can fall into when we pit ourselves against one another on the field – a field we ourselves invented, a field that would have been nothing but a featureless expanse until we drew lines on it and said you must get here before everyone else. There is no doubt that if you tell a crowd of people to run, someone will run the fastest, and so we will call that person more talented than the others, and maybe – just maybe – infer that such talent raises that person’s value above the others.

But now imagine these people running were simply characters in a story you were writing. In the world of fiction, a loss is as valuable as a win, narratively speaking. Does the character need to learn humility? Perhaps a loss is just the thing, or maybe a close second. The outcome means nothing; the story means everything.

Why do we think life is any different? Do we really think true equality means lining up everyone, young and old, at some arbitrary starting line and then having everyone reach some arbitrary finish line at precisely the same time? Life cares nothing for your wins and losses; it cares only for you. Every storyteller eventually savors the story of his defeat when the time comes, relishes in the meaninglessness of what he once called loss, for here he is still standing, having found more in defeat than he might have gained in victory.

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 Second Discipline

Writers have to be disciplined. Most writers do not begin their career with a publishing contract in hand. Instead, the writer has an idea. That is all. This idea so interests him that he sits down every day, alone, often without encouragement, always without guarantees, just him and his idea, and he writes until that idea takes the form of a story he can share with other people.

This is one form of discipline. A writer can learn this kind of discipline with his first book. In fact, the writer must learn this discipline if he ever hopes finish anything at all. But there is a second kind of discipline that cannot be learned with a single book. This discipline must be practiced again and again, from book to book, from day to day, from sentence to sentence even.

Here’s how it goes: You’re writing along, happily focused on the story you’re telling. You’ve forgotten about all your chores and your bills and your obligations; for the moment there is only this interesting story and the effortless feeling of laying your attention upon it. It always feels good to lay your attention on what interests you most. It requires no effort in the same way that eating when you’re hungry requires no effort.

But then, in the middle of wondering what you should write next, you have a thought. You think to yourself, “I’m interested in this story. I wonder if other people will be interested in it too?” Now you have moved your attention off of what interests you most and onto a question you cannot answer. It is impossible while sitting alone at your desk to know what other people are interested in, because they aren’t there. Any answer you receive is made up.

And so, trying to answer this question does not feel good. It feels as bad as laying your attention on what interests you most feels good. In fact, this question now feels like a problem. If other people don’t like it, why are you bothering to write it? Why write another word if no one is going to be as interested in it as you? And because you are an adult, you have learned that problems don’t solve themselves. To fix a problem, you must pay attention to it until it is solved.

Unfortunately, the more you pay attention to this kind of problem, the worse it gets. Now is when you must practice your second discipline. The only way to solve this kind of problem is to ignore it. Despite all the momentum of fear that somewhere out in the misty future there is a world where no one likes what you’ve written, you must bring your attention back to the present moment where the story you want to tell is waiting for you. No matter how real that future appears as you stare at it through the lens of your imagination, you must deny its existence and will yourself back to reality.

It took me a while to understand this practice as discipline. A disciplined person, I felt, was willing to ignore some of life’s easy pleasures to build toward some desired future, like writing every day even if you don’t necessarily feel like writing every day. But this second discipline was about choosing to feel good rather than bad, choosing effortlessness over effort. And yet the degree to which I have mastered this discipline has meant the difference between loving what I do and fearing what I love.

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

What I Left Out

The spring I turned twelve I begged my mother to send me to Camp Fuller By The Sea. My best friend Palmer had gone the year before and his summer had sounded like the best summer a boy could possibly hope to have. He was allowed to shoot BB Guns and a paddle a canoe, and he played basketball and Capture the Flag all day and goofed around with his new friends all night. It would be fun from sunup to sunset, and if there was one thing I always wanted more of, it was fun. My mother eventually caved and signed me up for two weeks.

Unfortunately, Palmer had neglected to mention that I would spend every moment, from sunup to sunset, in the company of other boys. I liked them all well enough, but I was used to having a door I could close when I wanted to be alone. At camp I slept in a tent with twelve other boys, and I played games with other boys, and I ate meals with other boys.

I was intermittently miserable. I liked BB guns and canoes and Capture the Flag, but I needed to be alone. I didn’t know why I needed to be alone, I just knew that there was something with which I was used to being in constant communication that was harder to hear while in the company of other people. It got so bad that during one game of Manhunt I hid myself in some dark ravine and did not emerge until well after the game was over.

I couldn’t wait to get home. However, once I had a door to close, I looked forward once again to spending time with other people. Now, I had a bunch of stories to tell about my two weeks at Camp Fuller By The Sea, about how we called Kool Aid “Bug Juice,” and how I learned to love French toast, and how we were made to go alone at night into an abandoned house. It was great to have so much new material, and it pleased me for reasons I could yet name that I could choose what I put in those stories and what I left out.

My mother would be surprised to learn several years later how unhappy I’d been at camp. “You got so excited telling those stories,” she remarked. “Listening to you tell them it had sounded like the best summer a boy could 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

Just Breathe

If you’re a writer you may have noticed that it feels good when you receive an acceptance letter and it feels bad when you receive a rejection letter. You may also have noticed that it feels good when you read a positive review of a book you wrote and it feels bad when you read a negative review of a book you wrote. This experience might also repeat itself when you check your Amazon ranking or if you do or do not see your name on the New York Times bestseller list.

But if you’re a writer you may also have noticed that when you close the door to your workroom, and you sit in your favorite work chair, and you slowly forget about your day and all the people you have to please or instruct and you gradually remember the story you want to tell, that you slip into an alternate reality. It is not only the reality of the story you are dreaming in your imagination, it is also a reality in which there is no good and bad, there is only that which belongs in your story and that which does not.

It’s a very pleasant reality if you can stay in it for a couple of hours. Gone is the question of who is better, gone is the question of whether you are good enough or smart enough or talented enough, gone is the question of what the future holds or what that person thought of you. Instead there is only one question: What interests me most? It is an effortless question to ask because the answer is as close as your own curiosity. All those other questions are torture by comparison, the answers as unknowable as next year.

Then you leave the reality and you are back in the world of acceptance and rejection and book reviews and bestseller lists. I have lived in these two realities my whole life. For many years I accepted the contrasting realities as I accepted that ice felt cold and fire felt hot. It was not a comfortable division, as most of my time was spent in the world of good news and bad news, but what could I do? That’s life, as they say.

Fortunately, time is a patient and consistent teacher. After many years I had to admit to myself that I loved the stories I was telling. That’s why I was telling them. I did not love those stories because someone else loved them anymore than I loved a song I heard because someone else loved it or I loved my wife because someone else loved her. I loved what I loved because I loved it, whether it was a person or a song or a story I was telling. It was the only natural and effortless relationship to love.

It was, in fact, as natural as breathing. But when I finished a story, I had a habit of holding my breath until I learned what other people thought of it. It wasn’t natural or effortless, but I could still do it. When someone told me they liked the story, I exhaled, and I felt better. When someone told me they didn’t like my story, I held my breath a little tighter, and I felt worse. It was as predictable as the heat of fire and the cold of ice.

But if I want to live, I have to breathe. No one can give me my breath nor take it away. It remains mine to hold or release. I cannot give it any more than I could give my heart to another; I can only share what I find when I ask my heart what interests it 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

Hypnosis

A storyteller’s first and most important job is to convince his reader that there is a problem. Without a problem there is no story, there is no conflict to be resolved, no obstacle to be overcome, no mystery to be explained. But not everyone looks at the same situation and sees a problem. For instance, every four years we elect a President, and approximately half the country sees an immediate problem they hope will be corrected in another four years, and the other half of the country does not see a problem—at least for a day or two.

I once wrote a story about a young man whose girlfriend had moved away. When I shared this story with a writing class, half the students did not understand why her moving away was a problem worthy of the kind of existential woe the protagonist was experiencing. He was just a teenager, and she was just a girlfriend. This was the first moment that I understood that as a storyteller I had to teach these people to see the world through a lens distorted by my character’s pain.

In this way storytelling is a kind of hypnosis from which I will eventually help my readers to awaken. Ironically, in my story of the boy whose girlfriend had moved away, this awakening would return half the students to their original state—namely, a world where girlfriends moving away isn’t a problem. If I had succeeded in hypnotizing them, they would be grateful for this awakening, just as we sometimes take long and tiring journeys only to remember how much we love our homes.

But for the other half the class, the ones who needed no convincing, the awakening would be a little different. These folks had hypnotized themselves long before I shared my story. They are on the exact same journey as the author: to see the world as it was before the story began. This is a story we’d been telling long before Chapter One, and what we call fiction becomes a reminder that our reality is only a story we are telling ourselves.

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

Ending The Story

Sometimes it is as hard to end a story as to begin one. And I don’t mean find the ending; I mean acknowledge that it is over. It is not just that you must surrender that story to the rest of the world, where by the magical combination of language and imagination, it will belong as completely to anyone who reads it as it ever belonged to you. This is difficult enough in its own way because hopefully you loved that story. Hopefully you were delighted to find it and looked forward to joining it every day at your desk no matter how often it seemed that you and this story were incompatible.

It was love that brought you to the story and love that helped you tell it. There was nothing else to keep you there. Everything you might hope to gain from it—all the money and accolades and platform-building—all of that would come later if it came at all. Love, meanwhile, would be there for you in every moment of the telling, if you but turned your attention to it. There is no better, or really, other companion.

But the story must end. No matter how much you love it, it must end. And you end it not because there is absolutely nothing more that could be done with the story. You could always do more. All endings are in their own way artificial. Instead, you end it because it is no longer in service to you. There is nowhere else for you to go within this story. In fact, you have already begun thinking about the next story.

It is a little hard to believe as you close that book that it is over. It consumed your thoughts, both waking and sleeping, while you were in the middle of writing it. Your moods rose and fell with each day’s work. Sometimes removing or replacing a single word felt as weighty as picking a president. Now, it is a little hard to remember why it felt so important. Now, you feel something prickling in you, and it’s got your attention in such a way that you’re not sure if you’re actually forgetting that other story, or remembering the pleasure of discovery.

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