Love’s Success

The simplest writing advice I could give someone is to write the book he or she would most love to read. Not like to read, but love to read. Nothing brings you back to the desk like love, nothing holds you at the page until you find the best word like love, and nothing brings you home when you have wandered out into the midnight of self-doubt like love.

It’s good advice because writers always need their own private source of motivation. Somewhere in all our minds is the knowledge that, even with a contract in hand, we could still choose to chuck it all and the world would continue to spin perfectly well without our finished book. Writers need a daily answer to the question, “Why am I doing this?” and the best answer is always love.

This can be a disorienting answer for a goal-oriented fellow like myself. For instance, when I think of the love I feel for my wife, that love has no goal other than expression. It doesn’t care about marriage or sex or conversation or who’s right or who’s wrong, it only wants expression. When I express it, I am comfortable; when I withhold it, deny it, avoid it or reject it, I am uncomfortable. When I express it, the world feels correct; when I do not, the world feels incorrect.

So too, I have to admit, for the books I write. My busy, ambitious mind is filled with goals – I will write this number of pages, I will publish this book, I will sell this number of copies and speak here and teach there – yet the love upon which I must draw to achieve all these supposed goals, the love without which I could never finish a single essay, doesn’t give one wit for what I think ought to happen with what I’ve written. Love clearly has its own idea of success, and no matter how much I plan, project, complain, or criticize, it remains the only success I will ever really know.

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

Believing in What You Write

Many years ago, I published a novel. It was the third novel I’d written, but the first I’d published. I loved the book. I was excited about it in a way I had not been about my first two books. The story’s voice sounded more like me than anything else I’d written. Once I’d found the story’s true beginning, the plot seemed to fall together on its own. It took place in the 1800’s, and I found myself happy to do the kind of exhaustive research I had not been willing to do for my second book, which had been set during Prohibition.

The first agent I showed it to at a writer’s conference snatched it up immediately. I was thrilled. I’d never had a real agent. In fact, I’d spent the first seven or eight years of my nascent writing career thinking how much better life would be if only I had an agent. Now I did. She was eager to send it out. Great, I said. Strangely, I couldn’t really imagine a big New York publisher actually buying it. But this was all new to me, and I wasn’t going to worry about what I couldn’t imagine.

My agent sent it out, and it came back. The editors had many complimentary things to say, but it wasn’t . . . quite . . . right. I would eventually find a tiny publisher whom I basically convinced to publish it. I had no idea if they actually liked it. When the book finally came out, after many unexplained delays, it was littered with typos, I was paid half of what I was owed, and I received exactly two copies, which I stuck on my shelf and tried to forget existed. I no longer loved the book. It was an embarrassment.

Ten years later, I found myself pulling a copy off the shelf and reading the first page. A lot had changed for me in those ten years. For instance, I no longer believed that my life would be better if only I had an agent. Also, ten years is a fantastic buffer for a writer’s memory. I had forgotten enough about the book that I could read it almost as if a stranger had written it. To my surprise, I liked it. I kept reading. I still liked it. If I had found it on a shelf in a bookstore, I’d have bought it. Period.

It ought to have been published by one of those New York publishers, I thought to myself. But I couldn’t be bitter about how it was published. I never really believed it would be published, and so, for all practical purposes, it wasn’t. My experience matched my belief perfectly. I found this comforting as I returned the book to its place on my shelf beside all the other books written by friends and strangers. I no longer believe in luck or talent or even hard work.

I believe in perception.

I will never be able to prove that what I believed, while sitting in my office in Seattle, somehow influenced an editor in her office in New York. It makes no logical sense. But I do know that I cannot write a single sentence unless I believe my story is interesting, or exciting, or profound. And I know that I cannot write about love if I am feeling hateful, and I cannot write something funny if I am feeling sad. And I know that if I perceive someone as a friend, they are friendly; and if I perceive them as an enemy, they are not friendly.

And I also know that that the only person’s mind I can change is my own. I have tried mightily to change other people’s minds, but to no avail. I cannot make anyone like what I have written, or buy what I have written, or praise what I have written. All I can do is believe that what I have written is worth sharing, and that continues to make all the difference.

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 Question For You

I interview many different types of writers, and for every type of writer there is a different type of interview, but with every writer one thing remains consistent: the person matches the book. This is not to say that the writer and his or her work are one in the same. Instead, it’s as if the writer is in a life-long discussion with the world, and a book is one part of that discussion. When I meet the writer, I feel that discussion still in process, as though the writer has asked a question of the world, and the answer is coming and coming and coming.

This is particularly helpful when I read books about which I am not excited. It is easy to feel that somehow the writer has set out to waste my time. But this is only because when I read a book I am hearing it in my own voice. If the writer is posing a question which I have already answered to my own satisfaction or am simply not interested in asking myself, then what I hear in my head sounds like a song played in the wrong key.

On the other hand, once I meet the writer, and hear their voice, the question the book posed makes perfect sense—for the writer. It’s then I realize that what bothered me most was the dissonance between my voice and that of the author’s, not whether the book was any good or not.

It is impossible for me, once I meet someone, not to feel the integrity of that person’s life question. Not the integrity of their answers, for none of them are ever meant to be final, only guideposts—but the question. That is the tension of life, just as it is the tension of fiction. But it is a dynamic tension, a creative tension, and it does not matter how far from my own question the dramatic arc of another person’s life is drawn—it bends as necessarily and unstoppably forward as mine. I see this, and I am relieved. I am relieved as I am once again reminded that nothing in life can be gotten wrong, that the question is pure, and the answers are nothing more than cobblestones in the road you are paving in its pursuit.

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

Ashes to Ashes

It was such an unusually cold February night that I lit a fire. I love fires. I love building them, sitting by them, and tending them. I’m a very fussy fire-tender, poking, rearranging or adding logs every ten minutes or so. I pride myself on never needing more than one match to get a blaze going, and a fire that goes out prematurely feels like a failed experiment.

A good fire is the product of a healthy relationship between the wood. The logs must be close enough to share their heat and far enough apart to allow the oxygen needed to burn. The point is always the fire, of course, not the logs, and in a really good fire, where all the logs are burning, each log’s flame lighting and re-lighting all the others, you cannot tell what log is responsible for which tongue of flame.

Still, I can become sentimental about the wood. Whenever I add a fresh log and watch its bare white wood catch quickly and eagerly, that new log becomes the king in my imagination. I look at all the other logs beneath it, coal-black and pulsing red, and remember when they were young and white and fresh and seemed eager to burn. I watch as the old logs’ heat lights the new log, whose fresh flames in turn reignite the old logs, and I’m glad for the old logs that they still have fuel to burn.

I cannot become overly concerned about the individual logs, however, or I will lose sight of their purpose. Everything in my hearth is in service to the fire—the bricks of the fireplace, the iron grate, the poker and the prong—all the hard things I can touch and move are there only to allow for something that can be felt but not held, summoned but not made, and which alone can transfix us as completely as a work of art. The only memory fires leave behind is ash, which says no more about the truth of a fire than a shipwreck does an ocean. In this way the sadness of ashes is misleading, a trick of near-sightedness, as real as believing graveyards are the sum of all creation.

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

Lessons on Creativity for Adults

One evening when I was fifteen, I decided I wanted to write a story. I’d written a bunch of stories already, plus some poems, plus the first 100 or so pages of a novel, plus some comic strips, plus I’d designed the crypts and ruins for the Dungeons & Dragons games I’d been running for a couple years – so I was a fifteen year-old who was used to making stuff. That’s what I did. It seemed there was a switch I could flip from which the things I wanted to make would flow.

So I began pacing around my house, trying to come up with an idea for a story I could tell. I didn’t have one already, you see. No matter. First you don’t have an idea, and then you do. That’s how creativity works. Except on this evening, that was not how it worked. The ideas I came up with felt artificial. I’d never experienced this before. The ideas looked like stories in my mind, but they had no weight or substance. Real story ideas have a way of moving on their own. These ideas were like puppets, dead on the floor unless I pulled their strings. The more ideas I tried to come up with, the more artificial they felt. It was as if I were going around my house flipping every light switch after the power had gone out.

I soon gave up trying to think of a story and listened to some music instead. Yet that experience continued to trouble me for many years afterward. Why didn’t the switch work? Why did it work some nights, but not this one? Little did I know, that was my first encounter with a challenge faced by most professional writers – that is, people who write stories, not when the mood strikes them, but more or less every day. If I was going to be a professional writer, which I very much wanted to be, that switch needed to be as dependable as the electricity flowing through my house.

The big difference between powerless houses and writers without live story ideas is that houses do not fix themselves. If the power is out, then somehow, somewhere, someone needs to turn it on again. For the writer, there is absolutely nothing to fix. The relationship between people and compelling, inspired, interesting, exciting ideas is a connection that can’t be severed. If I ask a question to which I sincerely want an answer, then one will always come. I did not have one such question that night. I was trying, you might say, to manufacture a story on my own, like an adult would. Adults had all the answers – or so they claimed. So I would write a story like an adult.

I would like to tell you that I never made that mistake again, but I did. Many times, in fact. Fortunately, as I said, the connection cannot be severed. It cannot wither or atrophy. It will answer any question, no matter how much time has elapsed since asking. I still have to remind myself, as a fifty-year-old man, that it is not my job to have answers, only questions. The answers I’ve already received may have a certain comfort to them, but they are not as alive as a question I am asking now. For instance, 35 years ago I asked why my creative switch didn’t work, and I’ve been writing down the answers ever since.

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 Necessary Mystery

Perhaps because the nature of my work is inspirational, and because as of this writing I am far from being a household name, nearly all the responses I receive to my blogs and Write Within Yourself are positive. And, whether from someone I meet at a writer’s conference or a comment posted online, I am always glad to learn when something I’ve written has reached and been of use to someone else.

Yet the more I hear from readers, the more I am reminded that my experience of writing something is always different than their experience of reading it. This seems obvious enough intellectually, yet this difference in our experiences, no matter how positive for both parties, often leaves me feeling as though somehow I have been misunderstood. If I wrote it and loved it, and they read it and loved it, how can there be any difference? Was I not clear enough?

Clarity rarely has anything to do with this difference. Two friends can sit side by side in the same theater watching the same movie and leave feeling equally delighted or moved, but both will have in fact watched slightly different movies. Both will have felt the story within themselves, both will have longed for loved ones to be reunited or feared the killer’s wrath within their own sovereign heart. Once they have taken that story’s journey from beginning to end, its unique emotional form belongs to the individual and the individual alone.

Or in other words, once I have finished a piece, what anyone else thinks of it is really none of my business. Am I tempted to believe otherwise? Most definitely. The lure of the fresh Amazon review is mighty. But my job is not to be understood; my job is to understand what I wish share and then share it as authentically as possible. What is actually understood by others after this translation remains a necessary mystery to retain the freedom that remains at the heart of 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

Writing Should Be Fun

Yes, writing should be fun, and for most writers – even those writers who complain about writer’s block, and who claim they like having written more than writing, and who say writing is like sitting at a desk until blood comes out of your forehead – writing is fun. They just don’t recognize the fun when it’s happening. That’s because writers are overwhelmingly adults, and fun is what adults get to have when they’re done doing their important adult work.

It’s true that, if things go well, writing can become a job, a job within the business called publishing. Like all businesses, publishing would not exist unless it made money. Adults, after all, need to make money and pay bills and buy food and maybe even take a vacation now and again. All that is true. Adulthood carries with it the more or less constant responsibility of survival.

This was not so much the case when I was a child. The only time I thought about survival was while negotiating the unsupervised No Man’s Land that was the ’70s schoolyard. Otherwise, my only job, as far as I was concerned, was having fun. School was mostly an interruption to the fun. You could say I did my schoolwork so I could get back to my job.

My real job was to look around and find the most interesting game, toy, or thought, and then follow it. That was how I had fun. It was easy. Sometimes my fun involved other people, and sometimes it did not. It didn’t matter. The point was to match the action to the feeling I’d named fun – that light, exploratory, curious, eager impulse within me seeking expression. Fun was never satisfied with the same game. It always needed something new. And so pretending I was a hero when I was five was fun, and then reading about heroes when I was ten was fun, and then, when I was thirteen, I found that writing a story about a hero was also fun.

I am now a stubborn child in a fifty-year-old man’s body. I only want to have fun. I get grumpy when I think I can’t have fun. When I think I can’t have fun, I procrastinate and complain and become depressed. Fortunately, I am the only adult telling me I can’t have fun. My adult tells me I need to make a living. He’s adamant about this. It’s virtually all he thinks about. He’s no fun.

Very interesting ideas: they sound like fun. It is easy to focus all my attention on a very interesting idea. The fun part of interesting ideas is they are only a beginning. An interesting idea is like a clue that leads to even more interesting ideas. I have found it is more satisfying to write these ideas down than to simply think about them, just as it is more satisfying to build a house with LEGOS than to simply imagine building a house with LEGOS.

Plus, if I write these ideas down, I can share them with other people. This is fun in much the same way that it is more fun to watch a movie with a friend than it is to watch it alone. Other people have a way of multiplying fun. It’s mysterious, but you can’t question these things. You can’t even question it when these other people give you money for these interesting ideas you’ve written down.

Don’t question whether having fun looks like making a living. It’ll spoil the game. My adult always spoils games because he thinks they’re only about winning and losing. As I said, he’s no fun. The game can’t be won or lost because it never ends; it just pauses sometimes while it waits for the next fun idea to come along.

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

Going Home

Here’s a quick lesson in music theory for writers. Every traditional scale has seven notes: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, and Ti. Do is called the root note, and in the key C, the root note is C; in the key of G, the root note is G, and so on. Most melodies are a journey back to that root note. When a song reaches a point of conclusion and rest, when the tension the melody builds is resolved, it is because the melody has found its way home to that root note.

Every note in a scale also has a corresponding chord, which are three or more notes played at the same time. The Do chord and Re chord and the Mi chord and so on. Some are major and some are minor, yet even the major and minor chords sound slightly different from one another. For this reason, not all chords sound harmonious when played in succession.

Which is why we have something called chord progression. Songs are sometimes written as a succession of chords, and music theorists, helpfully, have mapped out which chords progress most naturally from each other. And so while the Do, Mi, So, and Ti chords all follow the Fa chord, only the Do chord naturally follows the So chord. When I write songs, I think of these chord progressions as a map home, for every chord will lead me, either directly or indirectly, back to that root chord.

There is one chord that is different from all the others – the Do chord, the root chord. All chords follow naturally from this chord. That means that musically speaking, which is mathematically speaking (because all music can be understood in purely mathematical terms), which is also emotionally speaking, home is both the destination, the place of rest and resolve, and also the source of all creation, the starting point from which everything is naturally possible.

Whether I’m writing music or blogs or books, I’m always going home, so that I can start creating again.

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 Believe in What You Write

I used to think of “reality” as what I could see and taste and touch – the stuff that has already been made and that everyone agrees exists. The more serious I became about my writing, the more impractical this concept of reality became. For instance, let’s say I woke up one morning and thought to myself, “I want to write a sweeping historical novel.” Let’s say until that morning I’d never written anything but term papers, emails, and Facebook statuses. If I asked myself, “I wonder if I could do this?” and if I looked at “reality” to answer this question, I would have to answer, “No.” Clearly I couldn’t, because I hadn’t.

Absurd, I know. If I looked to what I had done to tell me what I could do, I would never do anything, because I can’t do something until I’ve done it for the first time. But let’s say I didn’t just want to write this novel. I wanted, eventually, to make a living writing sweeping historical novels. Now, as a practical matter, I might look about at the world of writers and ask myself, “Has anyone made a living writing sweeping historical novels?”

Now what we commonly call reality can serve as an inspiration. It wouldn’t take long before I would see that, yes, people do make a living writing these books. Therefore, I might logically conclude, it is possible, and if it is possible, and if I am interested in it, then it is worthy of my full attention.

However, as inspiring as the examples of others can be, turning to the visible world requires great discipline. Because there other examples out there, examples of writers who failed to make a living, who failed even to publish a book. In fact, if I were diligent in my search for evidence, I would soon learn that there are more examples of people who did not make a living at it than of those who did.

What to do? It is as if there are two possible roads, and I won’t know which I am walking until I have reached the end. So it can seem, when I use the world I can see to tell me what I can do. But why would a writer do such a thing? I begin every story facing a blank page. The reality I can see is an empty canvas awaiting my decisions. The reality upon which my true attention is trained is the reality only I can see and know.

Which is why the true reality is not what I can see, not what has been made, but the alive potential within me from which all creation springs. It is a reality to which everyone has equal access, but which is equally unique in its expression through us. This reality is quite comforting when I can remember it. It is friendly and stable and supportive and consistent. When I’m in it, I cannot imagine wanting to leave.

But I do anyway. The world I can see and touch and taste is interesting too, and that’s where all the other people are, and it is easy to lose track of reality while we sit around debating the merits of what has been made, or fretting about what might be made. Meanwhile, there are pages and pages waiting to be filled, each of them equally blank, each of them equally open to whichever road I choose.

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

Inspired Choices

Writing a book could be seen as the result of making 80,000 choices called words. I could think of it that way, but I don’t because it’s overwhelming. When I think of choices I usually imagine myself weighing the value of two apparent equals, such as deciding to eat fish or chicken, or deciding to paint a room Sunshine Yellow or Raincoat Yellow. Most of the words in a book seem to choose themselves, one following the other, as do my steps as I am headed from one place to another.

But from time to time I must pause in my writing journey and choose where to go next. Now I am aware that I am making a choice, and, like a musician learning a new score, everything slows down. In many ways, the success of a piece depends on what I do at these moments. I have paused because I cannot yet perceive a difference between one choice and another, between one word and another, one thought and another. It is this apparent lack of difference that so confuses me – because I know that whether I am writing or taking a walk, I am always choosing between opposites.

A choice is always inspired or uninspired. At any given moment, in a story or in my life, there is only ever one inspired choice, while there are countless uninspired choices. The inspired choice is an expression of unconditional love, unconditional happiness, unconditional well-being. It is happiness, love, joy, passion, or curiosity extending itself outward. As I writer, I ask myself, “What does this story want to be?” It is a question I can answer only from my awareness of how interested I am in the story, utterly independent of what other people will think of that story. That is unconditional love for the story I am telling.

Uninspired choices, meanwhile, are entirely conditional. Uninspired choices – of which I have made many, many, many in my life – are an attempt to assemble happiness by arranging the furniture of my life. I will be happy, says the uninspired thought, when I have bought that house, or won that game, or lost that weight, or published that book. I have made so many of these choices that I sometimes call the effort and force necessary to make them normal. I have made so many that I sometimes call the inevitable disappointment that follows bad luck.

Writing taught me the difference between these choices like nothing else. It is immediately uncomfortable to choose the uninspired word. You can ignore that discomfort, which I frequently have, but the discomfort will only increase with every new uninspired word. Why, you might ask, would I ever make an uninspired choice if it feels so lousy? Why make such a choice if it always leads to disappointment?

Because the uninspired choices carry the illusion of control, whereas the inspired choices always require trust. The uninspired choice says, “I will cut a path through the forest,” whereas the inspired choice knows a path already exists, although I cannot yet see it. My life sometimes feels too important to surrender to something other than the brute strength of my will to succeed and my willingness to work hard. Yet all I am seeking in my hard work and yearning for success is happiness, happiness, happiness, and hopefully more happiness – the very thing waiting to be chosen at any moment.

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