Life Ought To Be As It Is

A number of authors I have interviewed, particularly writers of commercial fiction, will in the course of discussing their maturation as writers mention a “first, horrible, autobiographical novel.” One writer described this first effort as the “worst novel ever written by anyone.” I thought nothing of it until I noticed that all these writers would go on to create works set in places, times, or professions (a magical land of wizards and dwarves, the Revolutionary War, international spy) with which they themselves had no personal acquaintance.

Most likely those first novels were fantasies. I do not mean the genre. Many of the best fantasy novels are not fantasies, which, to borrow from one of my favorite books, is “the attempt to correct in the mind a problem that does not exist.” And so a man remembers being a shy teenager, and remembers the boys that bullied him and the girls that wouldn’t date him, and writes a first novel in which a boy looking and sounding very much as he had exacts vengeance on his enemies and gets the girl.

The man had perceived a problem where one did not exist. He perceived the bullies as a problem and the girls not dating him as a problem. Within this perception of a problem he felt inadequate and incomplete, quite literally lacking, for if he had been enough the boys would not have bullied him and the girls would have desired him. And yet there was no problem. Everything that occurred with him, with the boys, and with the girls, occurred within the integrity of life. Everything that happened happened because of who he was and who the boys and girls were and where they were and when they were. To correct this is to attempt to correct life itself, and such attempts will always feel disingenuous.

If a writer wishes to write about his own past, he has must do so to remember, which is perhaps the opposite of dismember. He must see as whole what he had seen as broken. Or, he might take a version of himself, one free of the unhappy story he had once told himself in his unhappy past, and place this avatar in some foreign land so as not to be tempted to correct that with which he is too familiar, and call this avatar his hero, for that is what he is. Now this new story feels more real than the stories of what he had really known. And so he might say, “I write about life as it ought to be,” even as he is finally writing about life as it actually is.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

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A Writer’s Only Motivation

I discovered a few years to my own surprise that I love to teach. I was surprised because I had long believed that writing couldn’t be taught. I often didn’t understand how I did what I did when I wrote; in fact, my best writing always seemed to come from someplace mysterious within me. The best word, the best phrase, or the best story twist was both surprising to me and a perfect fit for the story I was telling, supposedly, on my own. How could I teach this? How could I teach how to be surprised by yourself?

It turns out I didn’t have to, because people are constantly surprising themselves. The biggest difference between most professional writers and beginning writers is that the professional writer has accepted that it is their job to be surprised by themselves, whereas the beginning writer labors under the misperception that they must know it all. The experienced writer learns that what they can’t know is the source of their inspiration.

Which is how I learned that I loved to teach. Much of my teaching is a matter reminding students of how awesome they already are. They love to hear it, I love to say it, and it also happens to be true. I also teach a few things about the craft of writing itself, about the power of contrasting one thing against its opposite, about showing and not telling, about letting the readers use their imaginations. In truth, just as with surprising yourself, most writers already know this stuff, but they just don’t know that they know it. So I remind them.

Maybe teaching isn’t even the right word, for it suggests I am offering something my students don’t already have. I am actually just clarifying what has been made confusing in the student’s mind. And nothing is more confusing to most students than motivation. A writer must have some understanding of motivation if they are going to have any success at all. Until you begin to receive contracts or assignments from editors, no one is going to be asking you to write, or paying you to write, or waiting to read what you have written. For nearly every writer, the motivation to begin the writing journey must come entirely from within.

And by the way, once you have a contract or an assignment, the motivation still comes from within, which is why it is so useful for writers to train themselves in the isolation of obscurity. Perhaps you are currently laboring in this useful obscurity; perhaps you have also heard more times than you can count that motivation must come from within. You are sick of hearing it, because when you go within yourself for a little motivation, all you find is doubt and fear about the future.

For a time, I made a mini-career out of doubting and fearing the future. This is partly a consequence of being an author, of knowing that what I am writing now is going to be – hopefully – published and read later. All the supposed results, the money and attention and success, wait for every writer out beyond the horizon. How easy it is to believe securing that future and those results is my motivation. I must write something good today or I won’t be happy tomorrow.

In truth, fear is a lousy motivator. It can get you off the couch and running for your life, but you will soon tire and believe you want to quit. Love is the only true motivator. You will never grow tired of loving what you love. That you love to write is the only motivation you will ever need if you can just leave your attention where it belongs. As soon as I began using my love of writing as my only motivation, all those results I had spent so much time fretting over began arriving. How surprising and perfect that everything I believe I need to survive tomorrow grows out of what I love today.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Doing Nothing

Writing is not thinking, it is active listening. When we are actively listening to another person, we are not just hearing their words. That is, I am not actively listening merely because I could recite back verbatim what someone else just said. Rather, just as a reader is not really reading unless he is bringing that book to life in his imagination, so too I am not actively listening unless I am brining the words of my conversational partner to life in my imagination – seeing in my mind the story he is telling and, most importantly, feeling the fear, joy, relief, or hope the story is trying to convey.

Writing is this same process in reverse. Whereas in conversation I focus on my partner’s words to allow the feelings they are trying to convey to bloom in my imagination, while writing I focus on the feeling I want to convey and allow my imagination to provide the scenes, sentences, and words that match those feelings. I am focused because the longer I keep my attention on the feeling, the easier it is for the imagination to provide what I am asking for.

Yet I am listening because I am not trying to provide the words myself. I am listening because I have asked a question: “How can I best describe that moment when I first saw Jen?” When I ask a guest on my show a question, I do not then answer it myself. So too with my writing. If I want to know how to describe that moment when I first saw Jen, I remember that moment, remember what it felt like, remember exactly what it felt like, and stay there within that feeling until the words arrive.

If I move my attention away from the feeling, the words will not come. If I doubt they will come, they will not come. If I am impatient, they will not come. If I believe a better writer would find better words, they will not come. They will only come when I stop thinking, and stop worrying, and stop doubting, and starting feeling and waiting and feeling and waiting. What a strange way to make a living. On my best days, it is as if I am being paid for doing nothing, which I suppose in a way is true.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

You Can Handle the Truth

I’ve been a fan of situation comedies my entire life. I love to laugh and I like that whatever trouble the characters get themselves into always resolves itself by the end of the story. I have, however, become sensitive over the years to the types of troubles sit-com writers sometimes dream up for their characters – in particular, the trouble that would end if only the character would tell the truth.

It’s a fairly common story trope. The son dents his father’s new sports car and spends the episode keeping the father occupied while he tries to get it fixed. Or the girlfriend forgets to pick up the tickets to the Knicks game and must spend the episode desperately trying to secure seats to that night’s game. No matter how outlandish the characters’ schemes to hide their mistakes may be, these stories always lack a certain dramatic tension. As a viewer I know from word one that in the episode’s final scene the truth will be revealed and all will be forgiven.

In the writers’ defense, this is perhaps the most realistic situation in situation comedies. I speak from experience. Several years ago I thought I might self-publish a little collection of essays about writing. To do so, I would need an ISBN, a thirteen-digit code used by booksellers and publishers to identify the book. It is, in many ways, the book’s real title. ISBNs are not free. I learned this when I went on Bowker’s website. Bowker is to the ISBN what Ingram is to books. I was stunned to learn how much ISBNs cost. They cost so much I considered checking with my wife first to see if this was really such a good idea. But I didn’t. This was my book, after all. In a rush, I grabbed my credit card and hit “Purchase.”

An hour later I was chatting with customer service at Amazon’s Createspace. “Oh, ISBNs are free,” he told me, “if you just want to publish on Amazon.” I’d intended from the start to just publish on Amazon. I hung up the phone and moaned. I’d done it again. In my marriage, the knock on Bill is that he doesn’t shop around enough. If my wife, Jen, doesn’t like one store’s price she always looks elsewhere first before buying. I don’t like this approach. I find it tedious. Yet here was proof, it seemed to me, of just how very wrong my approach was.

“I won’t tell her,” I thought. “No. I can’t tell her. I pay all the bills. She never has to know.” I do not keep secrets from Jen. There’s no need. Jen and I have both made our mistakes, lost our tempers, blamed the other for what wasn’t their fault, and all these transgressions have been forgiven. Forgiveness was the really the foundation of our marriage. Or it had been, at least. In my mind, it was as if I’d had an affair.

As it turned out, I found a small publisher for the book. I asked the publisher about ISBNs. “I got lots of ‘em!” he said. The book was published and I forgot about the purchase. Years went by and, as sometimes happens, the publisher folded. The rights reverted back to me, and I decided to self-publish it. “What a hassle,” I thought. “Now I’m going to need an ISBN.” It was at that moment that I remembered that I already had one waiting for me on Bowker. It had been so long since I’d bought it that it felt free.

That night after dinner I told Jen that I had a story I needed to tell her. She thought it was a very funny story. Jen, by the way, is also a fan of situation comedies.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Stories We Tell

The gas station nearest my house happens to face a strip club. It is apparently a very successful strip club, as they could afford to install a LCD screen on their roof that might be visible from the Space Station. It’s certainly visible from the gas station. At some point my eyes will drift up while pumping gas, and there will be a one-story image of a young woman in some stage of near-undress.

I’ve been getting my gas here for over a decade, however, so by now the sign does not have what I am sure is the strip club owner’s desired effect on me. For instance, as I was getting some gas this morning I again noticed the screen and its image. I wondered for the first time what a woman pumping gas thought when she looked at that screen. Though it would depend on the woman, I thought. A woman who had once been an exotic dancer herself would certainly look at that image differently than a Catholic nun. For that matter, a twenty-eight year-old single mom would probably look at it differently than a sixty-eight year-old widowed grandmother. Or, an eighteen year-old deciding if she wants to become a dancer would look at it differently than an eighteen year-old college freshman deciding between majoring in biology or comparative literature.

Then again, the men who work at the gas station would look at it differently than the boys who go to the nearby high school. Same goes for the teachers who teach at that school, just as the same goes for me. The image would look different to each of us. And when I say look different, I mean we would be seeing what amounts to a different image. For while the young woman’s pose and attire that I see are identical to the pose and attire that every other man, woman, and child sees, the story that image tells me is told uniquely by me, by my own ideas about sex and women and advertising and maybe even gas stations.

The image is nothing; the story is everything. Good to remember if you’re a writer. Writers don’t report the facts. The fact that there is a strip club with a giant LCD screen blazing near-nudity for all to see means nothing in reality. All that ever matters is what a person believes when they look upon it. What a person believes is the terrain of the storyteller.

And by the way, it is the only terrain of the storyteller. Storytellers, whether they are conscious of it or not, wish to alter reality. We are not so interested in changing the image that flashes on the great LCD screen of the world. Mostly that’s beyond our control. We could march, or protest, or fill out petitions to get the screen changed, but it’s faster, ultimately, to tell ourselves a story about what we see there.

I sometimes forget I have to power to change that story. My mind drifts as idly from thought to thought as my eyes drift from gas pump to pinup. What occurs in this exchange between the world I look upon and the story I tell can happen so fast, can be so habitual, that I can lose track of who is telling the story I am hearing. The moment I remember, the moment I see my mind as a blank page on which to write my life, I am the author once more, and my life is mine 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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Lessons in Disappointment

Mrs. Katzman was renowned throughout Summit Elementary School for her strict rules and her impatient old-lady temper. I had come to believe that the student’s first job was to please the teacher, but I did not always understand the rules of Mrs. Katzman’s temper, and so pleasing her seemed like a game of chance.

For instance, my classmates and I were each assigned a different country for which we were to write a report. As a part of this report, we were to draw a picture of its flag on a large piece of construction paper. I drew a black bar down one side of the page (the pole) from which extended a perfect rectangle in which I drew Canada’s (my country) maple leaf and colors. I showed my masterpiece to Mrs. Katzman.

She took one short, shocked look and declared, “This isn’t a flag. A flag has waves. Where are the waves?” She turned and held the drawing up to the class. “Class, look at this. Where are the waves? Why didn’t he draw any waves?”

I returned to my desk and drew a flag with waves.

So it went with Mrs. Katzman. I wanted to be liked, but I gave up trying to solve the riddle of being liked by this woman. And though it was agreed on the playground she was nothing but a mean old teacher, a part of me felt responsible for her meanness, as if my un-waving flag was the final piece of evidence needed to condemn her world to a place guaranteed to disappoint. After my parents divorced and my father moved to Florida, I did not wish to contribute to anyone’s disappointment.

Then the evening came that I accompanied my mother to Parent Teacher Night. I had decided it would be acceptable to endure Mrs. Katzman’s capricious temper from behind the shelter of my mother’s unconditional acceptance. But when we marched into the room together – my mother having been fully prepared for what was to come – Mrs. Katzman turned from her desk, saw me, and her face broke into a grandmother’s joyous smile.

“He’s so wonderful!” she cooed. “He’s just a delight to have in class.” She was beaming down at me as if I were the hero of her favorite story. All my offenses flashed through my mind, and yet I could not find them in her eyes. How mysterious. You might even say disappointing. I returned home that night with the strangest feeling that she’d been smiling at me thus the entire year, and now I would never be able to tell tale of the cruel schoolmarm unless I was willing to lie about the end.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Free Time

It is officially summer in the Kenower/Paros household, meaning our homeschooling – such as it was – is over. Meaning, I have a lot more free time. Free time is always great in theory, but not always in practice. It is every bit the blank page of my day, except that I have far less practice filling it.

I remember the summer conversation I would have with my younger brother more or less every morning. “What do you want to do?” I’d ask. “I don’t know,” he’d reply. “What do you want to do?” “I don’t know,” I’d say. We’d spent our school year waiting for this, talking about this, filling this in our imaginations, only to be confronted with the long, muggy emptiness of it. This was our emptiness, of course, which made it better than school, but sometimes only a little.

Time has a way filling itself if you let it, which is what I usually did as a boy. I am a man now, and I have trained myself to place different expectations on my time. This is one of the great reliefs of writing. When it’s going well, I forget all about time. While I am writing, I am as unaware of time as I am the chair in which I sit. But then I am done writing, and I hear again the wall clock announcing every new second, and the chair tilts as I lean back from the desk, and I have free time to fill.

My brother has a full-time job now, so I can’t bother him. I wander to the window, and notice that the bush by the gate is looking mangy, and the clovers have begun their yearly creep. I am uninspired. Not surprising. I am looking in the wrong place for inspiration. The blank page offers no advice or direction. That the world looks like a page already written is a trick of memory, mistaking what has already been for what is possible, mistaking time for measurement rather than an invitation.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

All Writing is Rewriting

Whether we write fiction or memoir, we are usually drawn to tell stories from our painful past. Everyone I know has some painful past. Some people’s painful pasts are more dramatic than others. Some involve physical our emotional abuse, some involve incredible poverty or isolation. The circumstances that seemed to bring about the pain, however, are strangely irrelevant. The pain could stem from something as simple as losing a race or getting a D in algebra. As soon as we begin telling a story about the event that is out of alignment with the truth of who we are and have always been and always will be, we are in pain.

The pain, of course, is not punishment but information. The pain is life telling us in the only language available that our story sucks, that it is untrue, that it is a nightmare we invented in an attempt to understand what at one time appeared unacceptable. No matter. It is so easy to conflate the pain we feel remembering our story with the past itself and declare that our past is painful, and that life itself is often painful, that crap happens and it’s crappy and there’s nothing anyone can do about it except deal with it and not complain too much.

In this way, all writing is rewriting, from the very first word of the first draft of every story. We are summoned, consciously or unconsciously, to rewrite those stories. It is as if there is a pebble in our shoe, and we have been walking and walking for miles, having grown gradually accustomed to the discomfort. This, we believe, is just what it feels like to travel through life. Until we rest, and we notice how much better this feels, and we don’t want to get up and keep moving if it means enduring that same discomfort which has grown, we now realize, into a blistering pain.

Some of us decide at such times that we are done with all shoes and walking. That is okay, but most of us would like to continue the journey. This is when rewriting is required, a search, you could say, for that pebble. It is astounding, when we find it, how small a thing it is for how much trouble it has caused. Don’t look at it for too long, however. Cast it aside. It has no value or meaning. It was an accident of perception that slipped under your feet and now that it is gone you may remember who you are and what life is.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Experience: The True Source of Originality

When my younger brother was eight he arrived home after a day out with my mother and announced that he was changing his name from Tommy to John. I didn’t like it. He was born John Thomas Kenower, but he’d been assigned Tommy to limit confusion because my father was also a John. This seemed practical to me, and besides, you don’t just get to change your name like a shirt. Apparently, I was wrong about that. He’s been John ever since.

A couple years after John pulled it off, I tried this trick myself. I was named after my grandfather, William Douglas Bryant, but he’d gone by Doug. I liked Doug (that’s we called him, not Grandpa but Doug, because that’s what my mom called him instead of Dad), and so I told my best friend Palmer I was thinking of changing my name. Except the very next day, during a Little League game when I was moving from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box, Palmer called out, “Crush it, Doug,” and I thought, “I am not a Doug.” I have not been a Doug ever since.

I think of these name changes sometimes when I’m having trouble describing something. Everything my imagination gives me is a cliché or something I’ve written before. If this goes on long enough, I consider the possibility that I’ve been at this writing game so long that I have run out of new things to say about falling in love or curiosity or loneliness. At that moment I feel like a botanist who has just learned that every plant on earth has been found and named.

Except I could no more run out of ways to describe love, fear, joy, or despair than the world could run out of faces for newborns. The trick at these moments is to forget about language altogether. I have to forget about the names we have given experiences. Love is just a word; the experience we have named “love” is the reality. The experience is beyond the word. The experience doesn’t know the word exists in the same way a tree doesn’t know it is a tree.

As soon as my attention has moved from language to experience, as soon as I am resting my attention on the feeling we have named love or sadness, I can begin to describe what I perceive as if it has never been described before – which it hasn’t. In the same way a tree has changed from day to day and season to season, in the same way a person changes from day to day and year to year, so too, how I experience what we have named love or sadness varies from day to day – from moment to moment, even. No two moments are ever the same, and neither are my experiences.

If I am feeling a little full of myself, I might call myself “original.” But this is inaccurate. Life itself is ceaselessly, relentlessly original. When I’m stuck on a description, it is only because I am resisting this originality. Today feels like yesterday and so will tomorrow. There’s no real comfort in this false predictability, and certainly no writing. The only comfort I have known in my creative life is the certainty that every day, I must learn again what it feels like to be alive.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Leaving Room

The suspense novelist G. M. Ford is an outliner. He’s a practical man, and he believes in plotting a journey before you begin. However, during our conversation several years ago, he described his process this way: “Yeah, you got to plot it out. You got to know where you’re going, and what your beginning and end are. But you don’t want to plot too much. You want to leave room for the magic!”

The magic is the only real reason I write. Even in these little essays, which are always about one small idea and often an idea I’ve thought about and talked about and thought about some more, I leave room for the magic. And leaving room is exactly what I must do. The magic – the unplanned, inspired, original, alive thought – needs space. It cannot coexist with my old thoughts, no matter how inspired they were once upon a time.

But leaving room requires trust. The empty space I clear in my imagination, which is the invitation to the new and inspired thought, cannot be perceived as a threat to my self-worth. I’m a man of action, after all. I like to do stuff and get stuff done and then do some more. Oh, the satisfaction I feel after a productive day, and how grumpy I can become after a day spent drifting and not creating, my mind sent spinning into circular stories of the nothing my life is in danger of becoming.

So the empty space I must allow to invite the magic is not the natural impulse for a fellow like me. Yet it is as essential to creation as the blank page is to writing. What’s more, it is the true peace for which I am searching in all my doing. There is no anxiety in the room I leave for the magic, nor is there doubt or indecision or comparison. There is only love and the asking for more love, a garden that will grow itself as long as there is room to grow.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter