That Intelligent

When my son was three he sat down at his plastic Winnie the Pooh drum and sang the following song:

You have to get along,
But you gotta have free.

This would become the central challenge of his – and perhaps everyone’s – life. Namely, to live the life you want to live, you have to get along with all the other people trying to live the lives they want to live. But to live the life you want to live, you also have to be free to live that life however you want. Does it not seem that these two needs are often in conflict? I must write whatever I most want to write, but what if no one wants to read it or publish it?

He had forgotten ever having written the song, and he was incredulous when I reminded him of it recently. No three year-old could possibly write something that intelligent, he said. A three year-old had, I assured him. He adjusted to this reality rather quickly.

As do most parents. There is an intelligence within life that will seek expression by whatever means its current vessel provides. In fact, it is the very same intelligence that allows that life to get along while also having free. From a certain distance, such a marriage can seem impossible, as impossible as a three year-old composing existential ballads. Impossible, that is, until it happens.

It’s always wondrous when it happens, as wondrous as sentences and stories falling together as if on their own. How often have you jumped back from the page and thought, “Did I write that? I’m not that intelligent.” Wondrous, too, how quickly you adjust to the idea that maybe you 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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Generous Creators

If you have written a book, or a story, or a poem, and you liked it, then by all means find some way to share with other people. Find a blog, or a magazine, or a publisher, and get it out there. Add your new crayon to the vast crayon box of stories and poems and books. There can never possibly be enough, because everyone keeps coloring and coloring and coloring their world.

But if you do share what you’ve written, remember that in truth no one actually reads the book, or the essay, or the story you wrote. No one can. Those books, essays, and stories are not on the page but in your mind. The story you wrote remains a mixture of what you put on the page and what you left behind, and what you found, not just in the story, but in yourself as you found the story. What you really found belongs to you and you and alone, and is the true reason you wrote the story in the first place.

The reader will read a different story. That one will belong to them. The reader will fill all the empty spaces you left between words and images and scenes in ways you could never imagine. The reader will focus on certain details and completely ignore others. The reader will draw their own conclusions, with which you might or might not agree. It doesn’t matter if you agree – it’s not your story anymore.

Some confusion occasionally occurs when reader and writer meet. The reader is naturally deferential, wishing to assign ownership to the writer, and the writer feels an understandable proprietorship. Yet this is a moment when the full generosity of creativity is called for. Everyone’s world must be colored as the pages of their life keep turning, each page calling for more color. If some reader tries to hand you your story in praise, or even criticism, give it back. Perhaps then they might find a way to share what they found with others, learning that no one can give or take from you what you already have.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

How to Stay Humble While Sharing Awesomeness

As a writer/teacher I have two basic job descriptions. The first is to share as much awesomeness as possible. The second is to stay humble. These two requirements are inextricably linked to one another. In fact, I couldn’t achieve the first if I forgot the second. I know this, because I do forget the second from time to time – because I’m human – and as soon as I do I can’t find any awesomeness to share.

To be clear, my necessary humility cannot dim the light of whatever awesomeness I am trying share. I must love what I am sharing. I must delight in it and celebrate it. And I must also acknowledge that what I am sharing, no matter how much it might resemble what others are sharing or have shared, is absolutely unique to me. It is literally impossible for someone else to have shared exactly what I am sharing. Except for me, it simply wouldn’t exist.

And so where, you might ask, is the humility in all of this? Simple: what I am sharing is not and never was mine. All the writer or artist or teacher can do is find another and another and another way to say, “Look at life! Isn’t it awesome?” The awesomeness exists whether or not I see it or share it. It is a universal light that I can either block or let shine through the unique shape that is me.

It is easy for me to forget this light, even when I am appreciating what someone else has shared. For instance, I love Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. Van Gogh had a style. His style is easily recognizable, particularly in that painting, so much so that my mind’s eye can become transfixed by the unique choices he made. We sometimes call this “appreciating someone’s genius,” which is nice, but Starry Night is above all an appreciation of life. That is why I love it. I don’t actually give two figs about van Gogh’s style. What I love is that his style helped me see the awesomeness of life afresh.

Because sometimes my sight misleads me and I do not perceive that awesomeness at all. These are not happy times. I cannot simply manufacture awesomeness anymore than I can assemble a flower from dirt and seeds and sun. So what I do not see does not exist, and I shuffle about, quietly complaining to myself, as if clouds had extinguished the sun.

My biggest complaint during these darkest times is always the same: No one loves what I’ve shared. No one cares about me. It’s not pretty, but it’s a trap that many artists fall into. As I mope from here to there, I hold out the hope that if I could just attract the light of someone else’s attention, all would be well.

Fortunately, self-pity requires its own kind of diligence. It simply won’t maintain itself without my continued effort. By and by I forget to feel sorry for myself, and in the empty space once occupied by my complaints, I notice something interesting. It feels so good to be interested and curious that I shine my own attention on what I’ve seen, and there, in that light, is the awesomeness of life that I’d forgotten.

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

That Gift

Lingering in the back of everyone’s mind is the sometimes quiet, sometimes very loud question, “Am I good enough?” We spend so much time grading, comparing, judging and ranking ourselves that I don’t know how a person could avoid asking this question at least once, if only to test how it feels. It feels lousy, if you haven’t noticed, even just to ask it. Unfortunately, it also smells like the sort of question one must be able to answer “Yes!” to, because if we’re not good enough . . . well, that would be a problem, wouldn’t it?

Writers decide to write for many reasons. Usually, they love to write. Also, they would like to make money doing what they love. But these are not always the only reasons. Sometimes writers write and submit the stories and poems they’ve written so that these stories and poems will be rejected.

Yes, to be rejected. The more often you ask if you are good enough—and it matters not what you are pretending to wonder you are good enough at, that question only ever refers to us as a whole—the more likely the answer will be no. But we can answer no so quietly, so habitually, that we will soon grow accustomed to the sustained discomfort it provides.

You will not have that luxury as the rejection letters come in. Likely as not that quiet voice that whispered no sabotaged your story for this very purpose. Now, you will have to feel self-rejection acutely, and you will feel it again and again and again until you decide you are worthy of a life free from this suffering.

Such a gift, writing. Oh, I know, this is a gift you’d like to give back. Except that you crave, beyond any agent, publishing contract or Amazon ranking, the unequivocal yes you already are. Our lives are led to hold this permanently in our hearts, though it has never been anywhere else.

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

Why It’s Okay to Say What’s Been Said Before

Several years ago I created a short inspirational video called The Writing Spirit. It’s a sort of montage of quotes from writers I’ve interviewed like Sir Ken Robinson, Richard Bach, Gary Zukav and others about the spiritual nature of writing and the creative process. I loved making this video. I loved choosing the clips, I loved editing them, and I loved writing every note of the music that accompanied the video.

I was all tingly with excitement the day I uploaded it to YouTube. I didn’t have many followers at that time, but Ken Robinson did, and when he tweeted about it, the video went a little viral. How exciting! Then, the first comment appeared. “I call bullshit,” wrote the commenter. “This has all been said before.”

All other comments on this video would be positive, but I did not know that would be the case when I read this first opinion. For a moment, I felt the sting familiar to all artists whose work has not been appreciated. He’s wrong, I thought in my defense. This video is not bullshit. It’s lovely. He’s just too gloomy to see it, and so he’s wrong and I’m right.

Except this didn’t leave me feeling any better. Until, that is, I thought: No, he’s right. It has all been said before. But that’s okay. Everything valuable humans have to share with one another has been said before, and yet we keep saying it again and again and again. We keep telling each other to trust ourselves, and listen to our intuition, and treat others the way we would be treated, and that we’re strong enough, and that we shouldn’t fear death, and that love is the organizing principle of the universe.

We can’t say it often enough, because we all want to hear it, because we all keep forgetting it. And the reason writers keep telling the same stories over and over again of good overcoming evil, and the guy getting the girl, and justice prevailing is that the story sounds little different when a writer tells it in his or her unique voice. A writer brings just enough difference to a familiar story that a reader is able to see the story’s familiar truth anew – and that’s all we want. We just want to be reminded of what we have always known.

It’s a good job, if you ask me. I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I don’t have to redefine the narrative, or discover a new tense for verbs. Maybe I will, but I needn’t worry about it. If I’m as honest as I can be, which is always the most effortless path for whatever I’m creating, then I’ll have made something original. I can’t not, because whether I like it or not, I’m original, and so are you.

And so was that fellow who didn’t like my video, though he may not yet believe that. So many of us don’t. It sometimes feels safer to think you’re just like everyone else. Which you are, in that you want to love and be loved, and you prefer it when people are kind to you, and you would rather succeed than fail. We are all, in this way, inseparable members of the Tribe of Humans. But the tribe would like to hear from you.

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

Getting in the Flow

The hardest part of my writing life is those long swaths of time when I’m not writing. It is easy for me to get a little sloppy with my attention, by which I mean, drift out of the flow. I love being in the flow. It’s really the only reason I write. If you’ve ever enjoyed writing, you’ve been in the flow too. When I’m in the flow, I’m not worried about tomorrow or regretting yesterday; I’m not thinking about results, I’m not comparing myself to other people, I’m just focused on the next interesting thought and the next interesting thought and the next interesting thought. When I’m in the flow, my job is to ask interesting questions and then listen to the interesting answers. There is no right or wrong in flow, no good or bad, just that which belongs in my story and that which does not.

So I like the flow. But then I stop writing and it is easy to believe that that which was flowing while I wrote has gone still. Being that I am an adult, it seems like there’s a bunch of things I have to do – my chores and appointments. In truth, I don’t mind doing chores, I don’t mind cooking dinner or going to the store or paying the bills, and if I made an appointment I’m usually happy to keep it. I just don’t like being out of the flow, and I’m not entirely sure that if I were in the flow I would want to attend to my chores and obligations because the flow sets its own course. In other words, the flow feels great, but is it practical?

Yes, it is. In fact, it is the most practical state of mind I can achieve. The flow is where opportunity is found. Whether I’m writing or vacuuming, being in the flow is how I attract new and interesting ideas. Ideas are a kind of opportunity. A new story, a new essay, or a new lecture always begins as an idea. I cannot manufacture, demand, or conscript these ideas. All I can do is get into the flow and wait for them to come, which they always do.

Then there are those opportunities that I spot in the world around me. When I’m in the flow, I’m curious and optimistic. When I’m in the flow, I’m not judging the world, I’m just interested in it. It is the perfect state of mind to notice the website, the article, or the book that will inspire me, assist me, or answer a question I’ve been asking. The flow is a supremely friendly state of mind, and all these things other people have created, instead of being in competition with what I’m trying to create, now exist to help me.

Finally, there are those mysterious opportunities, the unexpected email, phone call, or encounter on the street. Someone literally offers me an opportunity to speak, to teach, or to write. The more time I spend in the flow, the more often this happens. I admit that unlike thoughts and things I spot, I cannot perceive the direct link between being in the flow and getting a “lucky” phone call other than a consistent experience. By and by, I have had to conclude that one is born out of the other.

There is, of course, one other opportunity that is only available to me in the flow: the opportunity to be happy. This is the flow’s the first and last benefit and its one requirement of me. I do not get to be unhappy and be in the flow. I do not get to doubt or criticize or be afraid. To be in the flow, I must let the world be what it is, let myself be what I am, and find out what we will make together.

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

Okay

You know how it is when you’re at a movie, and the house is full and everyone is seeing the same actors say the same dialogue, seeing the same tears and kisses, and at just about the end of this love story, you get it. It’s kind of tragic love story, the guy really does love the girl, but she dies. She dies. But he’s okay. That’s the point. She dies and he’s okay because even though he misses her, what came alive in him did not die with her and so he will be okay.

You get it even though the guy never says, “I’ll be okay,” even though there’s a funeral with black umbrellas and heavy rain, even though he can’t yet take her picture off the wall, you still get it. You get it so clearly it’s as if someone did say, “He’s going to be okay,” but no one said it, you just heard it.

Which is why it’s disorienting when you leave the theater and your friend says, “That was so depressing.” Your friend was watching the same movie as you, and everything you believe you now have, you feel was given to you by that movie. If you got it then the movie must have given it to you, and movies don’t give to some and not others. How could he not get it?

“It’s so depressing,” your friend repeats. “Whose bright idea was it to do that to me?”

You don’t know what to say. Your friend senses something in your silence, and he turns to you, and for a moment it’s as if you aren’t friends anymore, as if it was maybe your bright idea. He’s your friend, and you want it to stay that way, but you can still feel what the movie gave you, and it’s yours now anyway, and there’s nothing you can do about that.

“How should it have ended?” you ask him as you head for the car.

“God, I don’t know. I’m such a softy. I just like everyone to be okay.”

“I know what you mean. Those are my favorite endings, too.”

He thinks for a moment. “If I died, would you be okay?”

“Would you want me to be?”

“Yeah, I guess I would.”

“Then I probably would be.”

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 Pawn’s Conclusion

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, paranormal vampire romance or quiet literary short stories, whether you are a banker or a bartender, an actor or an architect, eventually you will tell your story. You have already told it, though the ending has since changed, and with it so too the beginning. No matter, it is an interesting story, and you do not mind that it keeps changing, as it means that you get to keep telling it.

Sometimes, however, you do not like this story, though you tell it anyway. You tell it even though the characters – particularly the protagonist – seem to be pawns in a vast and unfriendly and meaningless game. The pawns’ only goal is to stay alive for as long as possible while the meaningless game plays itself into oblivion. Telling this story feels like a chore, and there are days you wonder why you bother telling it at all.

And yet there you are telling it. Though all evidence points to the contrary, secretly you believe that the pawn plays a critical role in this mysterious game. Though all evidence points to the contrary, you feel as if without him the game could not be played. This is infuriatingly compelling because sometimes when you try to tell the story of the pawn’s irreplaceable role in this game you sound disingenuous, naïve, or full of bravado. This is so disappointing you nearly stop telling your story, except there is that feeling about the pawn yet again.

It wouldn’t be possible, would it, that your character isn’t a pawn at all, but a king? You have heard that there is only one such piece on the board, and wouldn’t you have been told if you were that piece? You can see no reason to keep such a secret, except that the longer you tell this story, and the more honestly you tell it, and the more humbly you tell it, you can come to no conclusion other than that the game has always been played for you.

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

Preacher

A student asked me an unusual question recently. I was teaching a class addressing only the emotional mastery required to be an author instead of the mastery of craft. I can get pretty animated when I teach, particularly around this subject. Confidence, after all, is not something that can be taught in the way story structure and query letters can be taught. Confidence must be found every workday within every author. As a teacher of this discipline, I can but remind my students that they have it if they choose to look for it.

After class the student asked if I had been an evangelical minister before teaching writing. We had a good laugh at this, but there was something serious beneath her question that I did not know how to answer at the time. I have lived my life as a secular man, but I have always understood the value of a good sermon. The minister, like the singer, like the poet, like the teacher, says, “Let my joy become your joy; let my belief become your belief.” This cannot be done mechanically. This transference, if it occurs, is shared only through the artistry of love.

I suppose the classroom is a kind of church to me. There is nothing holier than creation itself, whether creation takes the form of a baby, or a flower, or a memoir. In the classroom we gather to ask ourselves how we can create something on purpose, how we can look within ourselves to find something to add to the whole of creation. I know it is easy to look at what we write and think, “It’s just a little story.” But it is just as easy to look at a flower and think how it is merely one of trillions, just as one can look at a newborn and think how, despite its fresh little body, that child, like seven billion other bodies, is headed inevitably for the grave.

Numbers always fail us in this way; their values are too easily compared. Creation assigns no such hierarchy, nor does it acknowledge subtraction. Which is why the poet and the preacher and the teacher can say, “What’s mine is yours if you want it.” There’s the miracle of life – what can be given without being lost, what can evolve as it remains the same, what can be learned while it is already 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

A New Story About Writing

Imagine a life drawing class. A model poses in the middle of a classroom surrounded on all sides by artists. In this class, every artist is equally skilled at rendering the model. Yet every artist also sees the model from a slightly different perspective. For this reason, every finished drawing will be accurate, yet necessarily incomplete. The artist can render only what he or she sees and hope that what is left out is implied to the viewer.

This is how I see storytelling. A story is life seen and then translated from one perspective. However, unlike in that classroom where each student is positioned in one place, with the stories I tell, I can turn events in my imagination until I see them from the perspective that serves me best. In fact, when I’m writing, this is most of what I do when I’m not typing: I’m turning and turning what I want to describe until I see it from the most transformative, or inspiring, or entertaining perspective.

It occurred to me recently that when I “teach” writing, most of what I do is offer my students a new story about the writing experience. There are certain experiences that are universal to all writers – acceptance and rejection; praise and criticism; days where the writing comes easily, and days where it does not; loving what we wrote one day and then hating it the next; being surprised by what we write; becoming lost in the flow of writing. If you decide to write, it is more or less a fact that you will experience some, or more likely, all of these things.

The question, then, is not what you will experience, but the story you will tell yourself about those experiences. There is one story in particular floating around the writing world that gets told a lot, and it goes like this: Some have it, and some don’t. If I believe this particular story, every good day and bad day, every acceptance and rejection, gets translated as proof that I have it or don’t have it. This is an anxious way to write and live. There’s no sure way to know if I have it; no award, contract, or good review can ensure that tomorrow I won’t wake up and feel that I have nothing worthy to share with the reading world.

The story I prefer to tell goes like this: Everyone is born with everything they need to write whatever they want to write. If you’re curious and have an imagination, you’re good to go. If you’re curious and have an imagination then you’re talented enough, smart enough, and original enough. The only question is how much you trust your imagination and your curiosity. The more you trust them, the “better” you write.

This story is far more practical. With this story, I don’t have to concern myself with having something or not having something. I already have everything I need; I just need to use it as it was meant to be used. Now, every experience – whether acceptance or rejection, praise or criticism, good day or bad day – teaches me how to use it. If I believe this story, I can write without the threat of inevitable failure that must befall the creatively unlucky.

As friendly and useful as this story is, it is not always so easy to believe. To believe it, I can’t compare myself, or worry, or complain. These are all expressions of belief in a different story, a story I told inadvertently in my impatience and doubt. My mind, you see, can’t stop telling stories. It’s all you and I know how to do. The question isn’t whether we tell a story, but whether we will live our lives in service to a story we would never tell, or tell a story that serves our life.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter