The Good Doctor

My parents divorced when I was seven, leaving me, technically, as the man of the house. By which I mean John, my younger brother, instinctively turned to me for guidance that would have otherwise been provided by our father. I think that for many years I resented this role and so was not a particularly gracious big brother. I was also fiercely competitive, and I was not going to allow John to be better than me at anything, which for a time he dutifully wasn’t. We eventually became quite close, and when I look back I believe this closeness started with the arrival of Dr. VonVickenvoctor.

Doctor, as we usually called him, was a purple muppet to which we had adhered two button eyes and a mustache made of yarn. I may have been moody and competitive, but I loved to be entertained, and one day John, age 10, sat down on the couch across from me and introduced me to Doctor.

What followed was the first of many shows. Doctor – a greedy, libidinous, self-absorbed billionaire – would tell me about the time he . . . and then the story. Doctor could travel at will through time and space, and wherever he went, things always went askew. No matter, Doctor always came back for more, never changing, never learning, a purple ego muttering, “Me . . . me . . . me . . .” as he considered his next bizarre plan.

I loved him. My brother had a genius for improvisation and puppetry, and for the duration of those shows I became an eager audience, in the process handing the wheel of our friendship to my little brother. Doctor told me stories for years, and things between John and me grew steadily better.

John would go on to be an actor/writer/director, and at my wedding he gave a moving speech, during which he spoke about how I had been a kind of creative mentor to him. I have always had lots to say about writing and stories and the arts in general, and no doubt John was made to listen to much of it, but I believe in retrospect my gift to his artistic development was not my lectures and diatribes, but those puppet shows.

In entertaining me he must have glimpsed in me, the ferocious big brother, the power of laughter and of joy and his own capacity to harness that power. Talking is fine, but listening is always the greatest gift. Within the attentive audience’s perched silence the artist often hears his voice clearly for the first time. Your mind, after all, was given so you could talk to yourself; but your voice you were given to talk to others.

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

One Enemy

Writing your first story could be disorienting if you came to it a little later in life. After all, much of the stuff that concerns or alarms or annoys us seems to be outside of us. Sometimes a politician we don’t like is in power, or a war we disagree with is being fought, or a stock we own is going down, or a friend won’t call back, or a child won’t behave. If only all these things would work themselves out we might be happy.

Then you sit down to write a story, to create something that has never existed before, to say, “This is what I think is exciting, or funny, or profound, or clever.” Now the world is yours. Now there are no other people to clutter things up with their misguided plans and wrong politics and greed and selfishness. Now there is only you and your world.

How disorienting when you find yourself just as concerned and alarmed and annoyed as if there were a whole crowd of people in your office offering you lousy story advice. There is no one to point to or to blame. There is only what you believe is lovely and valuable and interesting and your willingness to share it. Who could have predicted that this simple transference from thought to page would have the power to summon the same host of woes as the front page of any newspaper?

I can blame with the best of them. At least once a day I feel certain that I would be ceaselessly happy if only other people weren’t so ceaselessly unhappy. Then I sit down to write and I quickly run out of excuses for my mood. Doubt is the only enemy standing at the gates of my imagination. Doubt can see the end of everything before it has begun, and has come to warn me of what I might have overlooked. He’s right in a way—every story is written by looking past what could be and toward what we still believe is possible.

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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Know Your Job

I used to work lunches at a restaurant in Providence. The lunches were slow enough that our entire staff most days consisted of one cook, a dishwasher, and me. For those for hours I was busboy, waiter, host, and bartender. On the days when it did get busy, when the place filled up and there were people waiting to be seated and a margarita to be blended and food sitting in the pass shelf and two orders to be taken and three tables needing to be cleared, I could feel as if I was drowning in my customers’ mounting disappointment. This was uncomfortable, but at least I knew what my job was. That I hadn’t the time to do it properly was the consequence of life’s unpredictability, not my facility.

I would eventually begin the job of professional writer. This appeared to be a simpler job than waiting tables, as there was only my story and me, and life’s unpredictability seemed to play little if no role in my work. And yet often I would find myself at my desk accompanied by a familiar discomfort. It was reminiscent of those busy days working solo lunches, only worse. It was as if I was responsible not only for serving customers, but for creating them as well. I didn’t know how to do that, but if I didn’t, I would fail. I felt some days as if I had been told to step onstage and improvise Hamlet.

It would take me years to understand that I was trying to do something that wasn’t my job. I cannot do my imagination’s job; I can only create an environment within me that permits my imagination to function most effortlessly. It is easy to forget this. My imagination is responsible for my livelihood, for my very survival, and how I wish some days I could grab hold of it and bend it to my worried needs. But grabbing my imagination is as useless as grabbing another person; I might clutch a child in my adult hands, but that child’s freewill remains entirely beyond my reach.

I must remember my job every day I sit down to work. How much easier things go when I do. The child that is my imagination wants only to play within the garden of thought, and it does not care about the past or the future or death or sex or money. I am the one that sometimes cares about those things. Meanwhile, the imagination does its only job, and awaits my return to the garden we have both enjoyed.

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 Herd

Writers sometimes make reluctant capitalists, but whether we wish to discuss it or not, we are responsible for creating a product that we must in turn sell to the general public. The knock on capitalism, generally speaking, is its cold heartedness, a necessarily unfeeling engine of commerce whose deity, The Market, rights all wrongs through a Darwinian winnowing of the entrepreneurial herd. We writers, meanwhile, usually like to view ourselves as caring, empathetic people. Empathy is more or less in the creative writer’s job description; how else to render believably all those people who aren’t us?

But there is something beautifully democratic about capitalism that every business owner, including writers, at some point understands. We all have our own crowd. We all have the people we eat and drink with, the people we seek out at parties. Society, in some ways, remains an extension of the high school cafeteria, with everyone gravitating to their respective tables. It’s not always inspiring, but it’s practical; easier to talk to people you like than to those you don’t.

But then you become a writer, and someone from another lunch table does something unexpected: they buy your book. In fact, you might look up to realize that only people from other lunch tables are buying your book. Now these people aren’t so bad after all. And not merely because they’re putting quarters in your pocket. When you meet your readers you discover for whom, beside yourself, you were actually writing.

Though I was the sort who bounced between different lunch tables, I have my preferences. While it is gratifying in a way to learn that someone I know and perhaps admire likes my work, there is something singularly uplifting about a stranger finding comfort in it. On the savannah, herd animals seek safety in numbers. Writers must go it alone to do our work, and our safety, in the end, depends on our willingness to accept all comers, to welcome round us anyone whose questions match our own. You see life then for what it is: a collection of curiosity, whose form must yield by and by to the answers received.

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 Fallen

It was 1983 and a friend and I had just left a party where David Bowie’s Modern Love, which had been one of many hit songs off of his mega-best-selling album Let’s Dance, had been playing. I commented how much I liked the song, and my friend grumbled something about Bowie. This was a friend given to strong opinions, especially about music, but I had always thought he was something of a Bowie fan. I asked him what the problem was.

“That song’s all right, but the album sucks,” he explained.

“So?”

“So he could have been great!”

I can still see the hurt in his eyes as he said the word “great.” I understood my friend’s point of view, that this album signaled a change in Bowie’s music, a change not to our liking, but so what? My friend scowled on. Bowie’s crime, for the time being anyway, was unpardonable.

For the record – no pun intended – Let’s Dance was by far Bowie’s bestselling album, but also, according an interview I saw with the man himself, his least favorite album. He had written it to make lots of money, he had, and he hated it. So perhaps my friend had sniffed all the “selling out” going on, but still I say, “So what?”

It is never anyone’s business what mistakes anyone else does or doesn’t make, especially if that someone else is an artist. And anyway, I don’t think my friend cared one lick about Bowie’s greatness. What my friend cared about was the realization that artistic integrity—or any integrity for that matter—is not so simple to maintain. As it turns out, money, fame, ego, boredom—all these things can pull anyone from the horse.

The problem with looking to an artist as an example is you generally only get to see the result of the artist’s integrity, not the process of maintaining it. In the end, all our heroes are going to fall, not because it is a fallen world, but because it is difficult to learn any other way. We usually meet artists as they are experiencing the first great flight of their life, freed from whatever weight they sloughed off in their early stumbles. But one can only hold the trajectory of this flight for so long, and what was once a freedom feels like a jail as the artist seeks to expand again.

Whether this expansion happens gracefully or not isn’t the point. Those public figures we admire are merely shadows of what we think we would like to become. Their stumbles are no more ours than their successes, and as soon as you think, “Bowie couldn’t stay great, how will I?” you have built yourself a prison wall. And the great irony of this fear that what befell others must befall us is that within the work of all artists we admire, within all the words and music and stories, exists one message, echoed over and over again, always heard, but so hard to follow: Be yourself.

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 Generous Reminder

I was not an industrious teenager. I considered work a joyless requirement to provide this strange stuff called money of which I never seemed to have enough. Periodically I would get some of this money and I would wonder what I should do with it. When I discovered the wicked addiction of video games, I would sometimes go down to Charlie’s Hot Weiner’s and blow the entire $10 I had just earned mowing Mrs. Allen’s lawn in a thirty minute, quarter-by-quarter, alien-killing frenzy. On such days, I would walk home from Charlie’s having gained nothing in exchange for my $10 except a vague itch to play again.

But sometimes I would take this money to a bookstore or a record store. The exchange of money for music or stories was more than fair. In fact, if it was a book or song I truly desired, I couldn’t give the cashier my money fast enough. Take it, take it, I would think. It’s nothing, and yet what you’ve given me is something, for it feels like happiness.

I know the saying about what money can buy you, and it’s true happiness was not what I had actually bought. What I had bought was a reminder for which I will always pay gladly. I think of this exchange when I am the one selling. If what I am offering is any kind of a reminder, our exchange is always a fair one. After all, I have lost nothing. Within me still burns that feeling of which I was reminded when writing. Meanwhile, with luck my customer will be reminded of something more valuable than $9.95. With luck, they will be reminded of themselves.

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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Holes

There is a temptation among certain writers to become enamored with the holes they dig. These holes are absolutely necessary to tell good stories. All the best characters need something to climb out of. In fact, in the very best stories, we will likely spend the first half or so of a tale watching our beloved hero or heroine dig and dig and dig the story’s darkest and most terrifying hole. Not only are we our own worst enemy; we are our only enemy.

The writers who dig the deepest holes understand that a story’s success is in direct proportion to the depth of the well from which it springs. Thus there’s a temptation to keep digging, believing that the darker and deeper the hole, the better, the deeper the story. And thus also the temptation to leave the character at the bottom of the hole as a kind of warning, and, we must admit, so the readers will never forget the depths to which the writer supposedly led them.

It is an ironic linguistic trick that these holes represent shallowness and not depth. Every narrative hole is the pit we find ourselves in when we dig for what cannot be found on the surface. On the surface is what we look like, and the money we make, and the houses we own, and the praise we receive, and awards we win, and the victories we name, and the enemies we hate, and the drugs we take. The surface is vast, endless, and you can dig through it all your life and never find anything. The surface is where despair thrives.

And so the character left weeping and confused at the bottom of his hole – no matter how dark, no matter how terrifying – knows nothing of depth. This character still knows only shallowness, and the writer, despite his best intentions, has shared only shallowness. The despair of shallowness is useful to remind us what life is not, but the depth of life will only be known once we have climbed out of our holes.

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 Published, Or How To Remember What You Already Have

Publishing, whether we are paid for it or not, is always an act of sharing. I have a story, and I’d like to share it with other people. It is not accurate to say I am giving the story away. It is not as if the story is a single copy of a book and I am giving that book to someone else – once I had it, now I don’t. I still have that story, as I will always have that story, even as readers make that story their own in their imaginations.

But for the writer, publication and its many consequences can often turn into wanting to acquire what we believe we don’t have. If I do not have an agent, then I will want an agent. If I have never been published, then I will want an acceptance letter when all I have are rejection letters. If I have never been on a bestseller list, or won an award, or been reviewed in the New York Times, I might want those things too.

And by want, I mean that I believe my life will be better when I have one of those things. If only I had an agent, then it would be easier to sell my books and I would be happier; if only I had a publishing contract, I would be happier; if only I had won the National Book Award, hit #1 on the list, talked to Oprah . . . on and on it goes. Why, it’s almost as if the very decision to share my stories with other people merely brings my attention to how little I actually have and how much happier I could be.

This can turn publishing into a quietly miserable pursuit, and success is impossible within this environment. I can’t create what I don’t have; I can only grow more of what I do have. When I am unhappy, all I can share is my unhappiness, for that is what I have. On the other hand, if I love science fiction, I focus on how much I love it and write a story from that place. It is not true that this story came from nowhere; it came from my love of science fiction, which exists before and after the story is written. Whether that story is published or not, I still have my love of science fiction, and I still have what I discovered in writing my story.

As you send out your query letters, as you wait to hear from your agent, as you check your ranking on Amazon, remember where the stories you are sharing came from. Whether you sell a hundred copies or a million copies, the source of those stories will not change or move or dim. You will always have it. You couldn’t get rid of it if you tried.

I say this, having known the misery of believing I have nothing. I have stared and stared and stared at what I don’t have until my world looked empty. What a strange trick to play on myself. It’s like looking at a garden ripe with planted seeds and calling it a desert because nothing has bloomed. When the flowers finally come – and they always do – the relief I feel is like waking from a nightmare. The order of creation is still intact, and I need only choose which seed of a story I will water with my attention.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Our Full Attention

I had the pleasure of interviewing Nora Ephron about five years after she had published a collection of personal essays. She was funny and smart and had many interesting things to say about writing and movies and stories in general. After the interview, I walked with her through the bookstore to pass her off to the folks running her event. Small talk seemed in order. “Are you working on another movie?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” she said wearily. “They always want another one.”

It was the last thing she said to me before we parted ways. I don’t know how much of her weariness was a product of the grind of a book tour or the cancer that would take her a few years later. What I do know is that it had not occurred to me that a person could grow weary at the prospect of having to write and direct yet another major Hollywood movie. The only stories I ever heard about Hollywood and moviemaking and screenwriting were of struggle and triumph. As Ephron pointed out in the interview, movies cost a lot of money to make. They also require a lot people to say, “Yes.” Hear enough of these stories and it can feel as if making a movie requires an alignment of both celebrity and celestial stars.

And yet, as I made my way to my car, I realized I was glad for Ephron’s weariness. It made more sense to me than all those heroic stories of Hollywood success. I do not mean to suggest that life itself is wearisome and that none of our successes are worthy of a little celebration. But dangling in my writer’s imagination was the notion that there existed an Ephron-like level of success beyond which waited only the ceaseless pleasure of creative freedom undampened by the vagaries of other people’s approval.

Meanwhile, in my day-to-day experience, anything – absolutely anything at all – was potentially wearisome. No event, however dramatic, can by itself light the fire of my enthusiasm. The moment I withdraw my full attention, leaving behind just enough to do what needs to be done, or to write what needs to be written, or to climb what needs to be climbed, life becomes a burden to be shouldered against my will. Recall that attention, and I find again that interest is what I bring to an experience, not what I extract from it.

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

Exercising Your Writing Muscle

When I was ten and my brother John was eight, we both set school records for our age group for the standing broad jump. Mind you, this was for tiny Summit Elementary School, but a record is a record, and it was nice to be recognized. It was also surprising. Neither of us had any idea we had frog legs. Turns out we did.

The standing broad jump was one of several tests students were asked to pass at this time as a part of something called the President’s Physical Fitness Award. Neither John nor I won this award, however, because it included pushups and chin-ups. John and I may have been fast and springy, but we were skinny. Such is the roulette wheel of genetics, I concluded, but John was not so resigned. The next summer he decided to begin a regimen of upper body workouts to prepare himself for the coming year’s test.

I decided to join him, though I was skeptical. “What about the chin-ups?” I asked. “What are we going to do about those?”

He looked at me, as he sometimes did when he was surprised to learn that his older brother did not actually know as much as he often claimed to know. “We’ll buy a chin up bar and practice.”

I thought to myself, “I wonder if that will work?” My reasoning was this: We hadn’t practiced jumping; we hadn’t done any squats or power lifts. We’d both stepped up to the line and jumped very far. We just had it. We did not have what was apparently needed to do ten chin-ups and forty pushups. Could we really acquire it? Yes, we could, by using the muscles in our chests and arms and backs that had gone largely unused for the first decade of our lives.

I think about John’s chin-up bar sometimes when I hear writers talking about talent. Who has it and who doesn’t? The short answer is everyone, just as everyone has muscles in their arms and legs. The longer answer is that not everyone’s been using their writing muscle – a powerful combination of curiosity and imagination – because they’re not entirely sure it exists.

You can’t see it, after all. If I do pushups every day for a month I will look different and feel different. I’ll be able to lift things I couldn’t lift a month before. If I write every day for a month, my brain will remain exactly the same size. I won’t have grown any more hair or improved my eyesight. In fact, the only noticeable change in me is that some days I’ll emerge from my workroom gloomy, and other days triumphant.

The biggest change that occurs within anyone who exercises their writing muscle is not how they appear, but how they see the world. The writing muscle is a seeing muscle that can’t be seen. When I use my writing muscle, I look at the world, at the challenges and battles and the suffering, and ask myself, “Can I see that world through the eyes of love?” It is often easier to see it through the eyes of judgment and fear, of right and wrong and good and bad, of the talented and the talentless.

But to see that same world through the eyes of love is to see a story unfolding equally for everyone. It always feels better to see the world through the eyes of love. You wouldn’t think seeing the world in a way that always leaves me feeling better would require any practice, but it does. I must practice it at my desk and I practice it going to the grocery store. I practice it talking to my wife and sons and I practice it talking to myself. The practice never ends because the story never ends: it goes on and on, always changing, but never disappointing when I see it as it was meant to be seen.

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