Why Writers Must Plan to Be Surprised

Every writer I know is at some point surprised by what they write. In fact, being surprised by what we write is as dependable as it is uncontrollable. Garth Stein, the author of The Art of Racing in the Rain, came to novel-writing via screenwriting. Like most screenwriters, he had trained himself to outline his stories before he began writing them. In the middle of work on his second novel, How Evan Broke His Head, Garth’s protagonist, Evan, found himself in a recording studio. This was a part of Garth’s outline, his plan. At this point, Garth’s novel was still proceeding according to this plan.

But Garth needed to bring that studio to life, and a writer brings a scene to life with details. He couldn’t plan every detail, so he looked around that studio with his writer’s eye and saw that the sound engineer was an attractive young woman. As soon as she appeared he realized that Evan was in love with her. This was not part of the plan. But Garth had been writing long enough to know that when a character fell surprisingly in love, it was time to change the plan.

I have heard this story more times than I can count. The small, insignificant detail in chapter one – the flower pot on the ledge, the neighbor’s cousin, the squeaky floorboard – the detail the author couldn’t have planned but had simply needed to keep the story going, becomes the perfect plot device in chapter ten. Every successful essay, story, poem, or book I have written was born largely of these surprising details.

This is one of the most challenging aspects of writing to teach others. Then again, I had never planned to teach writing. I wanted to teach life! That’s what really interested me. Writing was just the way I understood life. I came up with a plan to teach a class for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association about how writing and life are all the same. The PNWA’s president asked if I’d like to teach a second class, and as an afterthought I said, “Sure. I’ll teach a class on memoir.”

It took me exactly one class to realize I loved teaching memoir. This was not a part of the plan. But I have been alive long enough to recognize – and keep doing – what I love. As soon as that class was done I arranged for another one. I became a much better writer from teaching these classes. You could say it was exactly what my own memoir needed. Plus, the more I taught it, the more I realized the students and I spent as much time talking about life as we did storytelling. Memoir is our life in story, after all. You can hardly talk about one without the other.

I admit that I remain a little finicky when it comes to surprises. I want them to be all birthday presents or letters from old friends. Since I know they are not, I sometimes try to fill in my life and stories with plans to crowd out unwanted surprises – to ensure the happy ending I believe I require, but am not guaranteed. These plans begin unraveling almost as soon as they are implemented, and I am always responsible for that unraveling. Without fail, some little detail I hadn’t planned has caught my attention. Now I’m interested, and I always love being interested, and the plan must be changed or abandoned to make room for me.

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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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The Day I Stopped Reading Reviews

One morning a year ago I received a Google alert that someone had written a blog about a book I’d recently published. Because I’d gotten the alert just as I was sitting down to work, I decided not to read it until I was done writing. Though I doubted someone would take the time to write an entire blog about how much they hated the book, anything was possible, and I wasn’t about to spend the entire morning working against the current of self-doubt that often gets stirred up after I read a bad review.

Soon enough I was into the story I was telling, and I forgot about the blog, and also that I had to drop my car at the mechanics, and that I needed peanut butter when I went shopping, and that there was turmoil in the Middle East, and that I was forty-nine. In fact, it went well enough that day that I forgot about time itself and didn’t remember until I came out of the story-dream that I had other things to do that day.

Such as read a blog someone had written about my book. I knew within the first sentence that the blog’s author had liked the book and wanted to share her enthusiasm for it with her readers. Oh good, I thought, and settled in for a little praise. As I read further, however, I noticed something unusual. The more the author complimented what I’d written, the more I experienced something I had once called excitement, but which I now thought was perhaps something else. By the time I was done reading the blog I realized it wasn’t excitement at all – it was fear.

In fact, what I felt reading this good review was hardly any different than what I felt when I read a bad review. Either way, I was letting what someone else thought of what I’d written determine how I should feel about what I’d written, and this is an untenable position for a writer. The only way to enter that story-dream I so wanted to enter was to forget completely about all the other people and all their opinions. To enter that dream, I must forget about everything but the dream.

That was the day I decided I was done reading reviews – and not just my reviews, but all reviews. I understand reviews serve many purposes, including promoting the books we’ve written, as well helping readers choose which books they want to read. Also, some of my best friends write book reviews and love doing so. I am not advocating an end to book reviews. But I can’t read them anymore. The more I read them the more I believe that it actually matters what one person thinks about what another person has written.

If I’m going to live by that sword, then I will surely die by it, and have many times. I have staggered about like the walking dead after receiving a bad review. What I thought was good was bad. As a writer, I might as well mistake night for day. I am left to roam the countryside, feasting on praise wherever I can find it. That is a hunger that cannot be satisfied. No matter how many times I let someone else tell me how I should feel about who I am or what I’ve done, at the end of the day I am left only with myself and my imagination and my curiosity – my only true company when I write my books and live my life.

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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

I Can

I did not learn to drive until I was nineteen. My mother tried to teach me on our old Chevy Chevette when I was sixteen, but I couldn’t figure out the clutch. I found the experience of stalling out so humiliating that I gave up. Three years later I was sick of riding a bike everywhere, and I signed up for lessons from AAA. That was when I met Gabe.

Gabe was a 62 year-old ex-marine with a crew cut and a barrel chest. When I climbed into the AAA Student Driver Car I could smell the early 1950s on him. As we began our lesson, he explained to me that a good car was like a good woman: if you let go of the wheel you should be able to trust it to go straight. When I had to slow for two black kids on bikes crossing against a light, he explained, “It’s not they’re fault. They’re just black.”

At nineteen, I was not prepared to call a 62 year-old ex-marine on his racism or antiquated notions of women’s independence. Plus he was an immensely patient guy. He had me driving comfortably in a couple lessons. As long as we avoided certain subjects, we could spend a pleasant hour together. An hour, however, is a long time to spend avoiding subjects, and during lesson three he asked, “So what would you like to do with yourself, Bill?”

I glanced at my companion. I suspected he held the arts in much the same regard as working women and black kids on bikes. Still, he might as well know the truth.

“Actually, Gabe, I’d like to be a writer.”

“Well, that’s great.”

I was humbled by his reply. But Gabe wasn’t done.

“You see, you’re an American, Bill. And in every American there’s an A, and an M, and an E, and an R . . .”

For the record, Gabe spoke slowly, and so I had sufficient time to wonder, “Is he actually going to spell it all the way out for me?”

“. . . and an I, and a C, and an A, and an N. And do you know what that means, Bill?”

I told him I did not know what this meant.

“It means that at the end of every American, there’s an ‘I CAN.’”

I was sorry for all the mean things I’d thought about Gabe. I’m a sucker for optimism, no matter how it’s packaged. Plus, it’s good to remember that if you’re quiet long enough people will eventually tell you who they really are.

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

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A Human Experience

I first interviewed Alice Hoffman in 2008 while she was touring to promote her novel The Third Angel. Like a lot of the authors I interviewed, I’d never heard of Hoffman until her book arrived from her publicist. I didn’t know that she’d published close to twenty-five novels or that she’d been a guest on Oprah or that four (now five) of her books had been turned into movies. What I did know is that I loved The Third Angel. I loved it as much as any book I’d read, even those books by Great Dead Writers.

This was a little disorienting to me. I was accustomed to loving books written by people I wouldn’t or, in many cases, couldn’t meet. For most of my life I wouldn’t have wanted to meet these writers, really. Keeping them at an unreachable distance allowed my favorite authors to remain in a special category of person as unique and valuable and rare as what I felt when I finished reading the books they had written. Now, I was about to meet one of these people.

Hoffman was easy to interview. She was honest, listened well, and gave very thoughtful answers. In the middle of the interview she thanked me for the questions I’d asked, saying how much she was enjoying our conversation. She was the first author to ever thank me in this way, so I was touched, and it also allowed me the opportunity to do something I had never done in my forty-three years on the planet: thank a writer for what they’d written.

“You’re very welcome,” I said. “But I have to thank you as well. This book is awesome. Honestly, the ending meant as much to me as any ending I’ve ever read.”

“Thank you,” she replied. “That’s so nice of you to say.” I couldn’t help but notice how well she received a compliment. It’s not as easy as you would think.

And that was that. It was a very human experience. From then on, authors – no matter how much I loved what they’d written – no longer occupied a special category of human in my imagination. Of course, it also meant I wouldn’t occupy a special category of human either, but that was a relief. I didn’t know how to be special. On my best days, when I forgot to compare myself to everyone living and dead, when I forget to demand that I do better, I sometimes knew how to be 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

The Law of Response: Where Acceptance and Rejection Begin

One evening, when I was still feeling rather low about all the books I hadn’t published and all the money I hadn’t made, I was having dinner with my wife and two sons and fell into a discussion about respect, about who deserved it and who did not. I was of the opinion that everyone deserved it.

My oldest son, Max, then twelve, was not so sure. “For instance,” he offered, “I don’t respect you, Dad, because you’re not a success.”

To be clear, Max is actually a very kind person. But he had the habit, particularly at that age, of blurting out the name of whatever elephant was currently clogging up the room. Which is why, though I was tempted to give a swift and harsh fatherly lecture about how you talk to people, I chose instead to say absolutely nothing. I had a very clear thought at that moment, a thought clearer than all those I’d ever had about success and failure: “You think you’re a failure much of time. When you stop thinking it, he’ll stop saying it.”

This turned out to be absolutely true. A few years later, when I was interviewing authors and speaking to writing organizations and generally loving all the different things I was doing, Max’s talk of failure quickly dried up. It was a satisfying arc of experience, but one I often felt I could have had only with Max. He had a quirky directness I rarely encountered elsewhere. Most people, I figured, don’t notice if you bring an elephant to a dinner party.

If only that were so. Since then I’ve noticed that everyone talks about whatever elephant I’ve dragged into the room; they just talk about it differently. Some respond to the elephant graciously, others nervously; some are commiserative, others are hostile. However precisely they respond, everyone always treats me exactly the way I expect to be treated. Which is to say, I find I like the things people say to me when I’m liking myself, and I do not like the things people say to me when I’m not liking myself. It is as predictable as gravity.

This law of response extends even to agents and editors and readers, which is a little mystifying because these people are so far away. For reasons that cannot be explained by any of Newton’s laws, whatever I offer the reading world is accepted or appreciated to the exact degree that I have accepted and appreciated it. Luck, I’ve decided, has got absolutely nothing to do with it.

If this is a little too woo-woo for you, I understand. Most authors I know try to be as practical as possible. It’s just that authors have a strange relationship to other people. We need them for everything we do. We need them to buy our books and edit our books and review our books. Without those other people, we’d have no career, no livelihood, no one with whom to share our work.

Yet none of those other people are there with us in the room when we write our stories and poems and essays. We are completely, necessarily, delightfully alone. Which is why the most impractical thing I can do in the creative solitude of my workroom is to start trying to guess whether anyone will like what I am writing. All I can ever know is what I think of what I’m writing. So whether I like it or not, whether it’s woo-woo or not, the only way to gain the attention of all these readers and reviewers, all these other people spread far and wide over the entire world, is to sit alone at my desk and pay very close attention to myself.

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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

Your Greatest Resource

I sometimes work with students or clients who’ve published independently and want to know how to market their novel or memoir. I rarely have the sort of answers these writers are looking for at the ready, and so I was glad when I stumbled on this post from author and blogger Molly Greene: Book Promotions That Work. If you’ve just published something, and you’re wondering what you should do next, this is a short but handy list.

It’s a good place to start, and a lot of writers need a good place to start because a lot of writers have exactly zero interest in marketing. Most writers just want to write. As well they should. Even with the good days and bad days, writing is mostly good. It feels good to sink into that dream. It feels good to forget about your day and your job and your bills and follow the stream of a story. It feels good to stop worrying what other people think about this or that and only wonder what you think of this and that.

And it feels good to listen to your imagination and intuition. They come up with such interesting ideas, ideas you would never have come up with bumping around your day, grousing about the government or your in-laws. How reassuring, when you go deep into that dream called a story and the imagination and intuition take over; how nice to know you don’t have to come up with every little idea by yourself.

Which is why, I when I teach marketing, I don’t start with lists, even good one’s like Molly’s. I don’t want any author to lose track of their greatest resource. This resource is not on any website or in any class or any writing magazine or writing book. It can be found exactly where the stories you are marketing were found, and it is always waiting there with another great idea.

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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

Factually Unproven

Perhaps you have heard the phrase, “You have the right to your own opinion, but you do not have the right to your own facts.” Clever, that – and true I suppose. If it is raining, it does not matter if in your opinion it is a warm, sunny day, the fact remains that it is raining. Nor does it matter if you are offended that someone would not take your opinion about the whether seriously, it is still raining.

Except, as any writer knows, the fact that it is raining is rarely of any interest to anyone. All we care about is what we feel about that rain. Does the rain put us in a romantic mood or a gloomy mood? Will the rain ruin the crops or sustain them? Does the rain remind us of the end of summer or the beginning of spring? A writer’s currency, which is also every person’s currency, is how it feels to be alive at any given moment. Ten people could stand in the exact same rainstorm with ten different feelings based on ten different opinions and each opinion would be correct.

All for the better, I say. I get facts wrong all the time. I try to get them right because I hate to be corrected, but being a storyteller I have a natural propensity not to let them get in the way of what I know to be true. What I really know to be true can never be proven. What I really know to be true can never be measured to weighed or compared or diagramed.

And so I tell stories, where if this truth cannot be proven it can at least be shared. This is a much better use for the truth. We all have it and know it anyway so we hardly need to prove it, though we have tried to just the same. Unfortunately, you only prove what you do not already know to be true, and the instant you doubt this truth you lose all sight of it and soon there comes the existential collapse. Until you hear a story, or read a story, or maybe even tell a story, and then you remember what you have always known and who you have always been.

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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

No, Not Everyone Has a Blog

I was a teaching a class recently when a student asked me, “Why should I bother starting a blog? Everyone has one?” It was a good question. As someone who spends more than the average person on writers’ websites (I interview these people, you see), it does sometime appear that nearly every writer in the world – published or otherwise – has a blog. They’re free to start, and operate with no gatekeeper other than the writer’s willingness to plunk him or herself down and tap out a few hundred words.

Which is exactly why everyone does not actually have a blog. It’s one thing to start a blog, and to post an entry or two or three or twelve, but it is another thing altogether to keep that blog alive with regular posts every week. Most of the blogs I visit on author’s websites begin with a rush of entries that soon dwindle to one every two months – if that.

This is not a criticism. Most blogs are begun, I think, because the author believes she should have a blog. Either some publicist indicated as much or the author looked around and said to herself, “What is wrong with me that I don’t have one of these? Better get going. They’re free after all. Why not?”

Because humans by and large quit doing things they have to do or are supposed to do. It takes a long time to write a book. Writers don’t write books because they should; they write books because they want to, or because they know they wouldn’t be happy if they didn’t. So if starting a blog interests you – if you think you might love plunking yourself down a couple times a week and writing something for free to share with other people – go for it. There’s always room in the world for one more person to do one more thing they 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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Why Writers Can’t Actually Fail

I ran competitively when I was in high school. I enjoyed training and the camaraderie of my teammates and even my competitors at the track meets. I liked running as fast as I possibly could, and I liked how strong my body became, and how long I could run without getting tired. But I found the finish line a strangely confusing destination. Getting across it first seemed to mean more while I was crouched at the starting line than after I’d leaned through the tape. Win or lose, the race was over, and whatever consequences I attributed to my place at the end of it always felt more or less invented, like a story I would tell about Bill the Winner or Bill the Loser.

Years later I would begin pursuing a career as a writer. As careers went, this one seemed steeped in success and failure. Just as a marathon with 1,000 competitors can have only one winner, so too the world of writers appeared separated into haves and have-nots; the haves were few, the have-nots tragically many. I was determined to win this race. This was about more than some ribbon or trophy, after all; this seemed to be my whole life, my income and identity.

This is a terrible, terrible way to do anything. Or at least it was for me. For one thing, the finish line keeps moving. First it’s getting an agent, then a publishing contract, then getting on some bestseller list, then winning some award, and then winning a better award. Worse yet, the punishment for failure seems so extreme. It’s like a kind of death, an endless hell of what might have been.

Had I been able to tell my young writer self about all the rejections I would receive, all the books I would write but wouldn’t publish, I might have said, “Then I shouldn’t do this, because that is failure, and I do not want that life.” Incredibly, I would have been wrong. I say incredibly, because to this day the runner in me can’t quite believe that a finish line doesn’t exist. No matter how disappointed I was with this or that result, my desire to live my own life and make my own choices remained wholly unchanged, and it was from this desire that writing has and always will grow.

This became clearer to me once I began to have what I had once called success. Where once I had feared that someone might tell me I wasn’t good enough, that it was possible to be shown some eternal door and barred from happiness, now I was being told I was good enough – and nothing changed at all. I didn’t feel any better about myself, and I still had to face a blank page every morning, and I was still the only one who could fill it. It would be forever so until I chose not to face it. And even if I chose to quit facing the page I still wouldn’t have failed; I’d merely have taken my curiosity and intelligence and imagination and applied them elsewhere.

I know this may be of little consolation if you are at that point in your writing life where so much seems uncertain, where there is more rejection than acceptance. It easy from that place to spin dark fantasies about your future, a science fiction dystopia where nothing you write is read. Do not be easily hypnotized by the stories with which you terrify yourself at 2 a.m. Wait until you’re at your desk to tell your story on purpose, because like me, you do not know who will read it or like it, or if it will be published, or if it will win an award, but you do know you want to write it, and believe it or not, that’s good enough.

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

Right and Wrong

There is nothing quite so exhausting as telling yourself that what someone else is doing is wrong. Most people who aren’t, say, the Dalai Lama, probably do it at least once-a-day. What President Obama is doing is wrong; what the Republicans are doing is wrong; what your husband, your daughter, your mother, your neighbor, your boss, or your agent, is doing is wrong. These people are too loud or too quiet; too forceful or too timid; too gaudy or too plain.

All you want is for these people to stop doing what they are doing – which, again, is wrong – and start doing what is right. What is so bad about that? Why is it that merely thinking this for longer than thirty seconds is so fatiguing?

The simplicity of the answer is deceiving: Those other people aren’t you. As soon as we think, “He must stop doing that or I cannot be happy,” all our lovely, pure, creative energy is poured down the sinkhole that is trying to change someone else. No matter how right we are, no matter detailed our argument, no matter how invective-filled our pleas, these other people remain infuriatingly, resiliently, unalterably free to do whatever they want to do.

And so we are left with ourselves once again. Because nothing feels so good as taking that energy wasted trying to change someone else and directing it where it wants to go. Nothing feels so good as stepping away from the desk after a long session of asking again and again, “What do I most want say?” of feeling all the energy summoned to grow and grow that answer, stepping away from the desk both physically tired and filled with what you have planted and asking, “What shall I do now?”

Now you remember what it feels like to be alive. Now you don’t care about all those other people and all the wrong things they’re doing or not doing because none of them are you and none of them can answer the only question you have ever wanted 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