Know Your Pedestal

Many beginning writers go to writer’s conferences or take writing classes under the practical guise of answering the question, “How do you write a book?” or, “How do you get a book published?” These are perfectly reasonable questions, but not, I believe, the real question these writers are trying to answer, which is, “Can I actually write and publish a book?”

After all, nearly every writer begins as a devoted reader, and reading is a uniquely intimate and strangely holy experience. The writer enters into creative collusion with the reader, offering the clearest and most compelling details of a story the reader must then complete with his or her own imagination. A reader may say she is reading to “escape from life,” but in fact she is only reading to escape from the fear of life. All books, all writing, all works of art, whether they are poems or mysteries or romance novels, serve the exact same purpose: to remind us, writer and reader alike, why life is good and interesting and valuable and unquestionably worth living.

No wonder then that we have a habit of putting these men and women called writers on pedestals – on daises even. What could be more generous, more profound, more holy than reminding us why the life we lead is worth living? And who of us was ever born on a dais? Are we not, every one of us, scrambling around in the pews, bumping into one another, coughing and yawning and needing to use the bathroom? How ordinary; how un-special.

Writers are, in fact, special people. Except the only thing special about writers is that they love to write. That is a writer’s gift. Meanwhile, you already know life is worth living because you are living it. You may have forgotten, but that is very different than not knowing. If you are a writer, write to remember what you know, and the moment what you have asked for returns you will discover that the pedestal on which you put the likes of Shakespeare had always been on loan from you.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Demolition Critic

A friend of mine published her eleventh novel last year, and in so doing, surrendered her work to the critics, both professional and casual. One of those casual critics did not care for her book. In lieu of a written review on Amazon, he simply posted a video of him blowing up the book.

I have not seen the video, and I have no idea if the author saw it either. A mutual friend brought it to my attention. Whether she sees the video or not, I am sure she will be okay. The fellow who blew up her book, however, has a longer road to travel back to okay. I fully understand the temptation to blow up a book. When I was nineteen I read a 700-page novel whose ending I found so profoundly unsatisfying – the author left me wondering whether the man and the woman would get together, and the last sentence was an untranslated Latin phrase – that I threw it across the room.

The book did not care that I threw it. It wouldn’t have cared if I had burned it. A book is just a giant thought, and you cannot kill a thought. A thought cannot be sent to the electric chair or develop cancer. You can march and march against a thought until your feet are swollen, you can shout until your voice is gone, but the thought will live on. A thought is a road, and you either travel it or not. If you don’t like where it’s going, then turn around and find another one.

It is both that simple and that complicated. My friend loved her book, and love has no opposite, not even a bomb. What the Demolition Critic wanted would not appear magically out of the ashes of my friend’s book. The Demolition Critic would have to look in precisely the same place my friend looked when she found her book. In this place, nothing burns and nothing is rejected. It is all acceptance until the moment you wonder what anyone else would think of what you’ve found. That is the moment you understand the true meaning of rejection: that listening too closely to your critics is suicide, and forgetting them is 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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Write What You Really Know

Contrast is a storyteller’s best friend. It helps us show what it is we want our readers to see. Just as a flashlight’s beam is clearly visible on a starless night, but virtually invisible on a bright sunny day, so too peace is easier to perceive when contrasted against war. So, if you are writing a love story, you will likely have your heroine feeling alone and unlovable for the majority of the story. That way, when she finally does find love, the reader will hopefully experience the same release of tension she feels when she finally believes she is worth of love.

I must remember the power and simplicity of contrast whenever I find myself trying to “figure out a story.” I hate figuring out stories. Whenever I start figuring out a story, I feel as if I’m in math class and someone has handed me a 70,000-word equation for which there is only one right answer, which is known only by acquisitions editors in New York. Unlike a lot of writers I know, I was pretty good in math, and it was fun to find the right answer, but I became a writer because I wanted to make a living asking question to which only I knew the answer.

Which is why I must remember contrast. Stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, can start seeming pretty complicated when I think they’re about what happens. That means I’m trying to untangle a knot of plot points and characters and settings. But stories aren’t about what happens. Stories about what it feels like when something is happening. Your readers won’t remember ninety percent of what took place in the stories you tell. But they will remember how that story left them feeling, because that is all that matters to any of us ever. We all want to feel good. Whether we believe it’s possible or not, we still want it. We arrange all the details of our lives with the sole intention of creating a life, like a story, that leaves us feeling as good as we can feel.

I know that because I’m human. I know that, because I know I would always rather feel good than bad. I would always rather feel curious than bored; I would always rather feel happy than unhappy; inspired rather than depressed. This never, ever changes. It is the one absolute, unending, never-dimming constant in my life. It’s so constant, I take it for granted. It’s so constant, I can start to believe life and all the people in it are far more complicated than they actually are.

If I can remember the simplicity of contrast, life and stories begin to make sense again. In the end a story is about the difference between one feeling and another. Stories are about the difference between feeling like I have no voice and knowing that I have a voice; or the difference between feeling weak and feeling strong; or feeling powerless and powerful. When I tell a story, I choose a difference I have known and experienced. Once I have known the difference between weakness and strength, between fear and love, between violence and peace, that knowledge is unquestionable; it is the resting place for my restless mind.

Write your stories about the feelings you know. If you have lived, you have learned the difference between one feeling and another. Your questions about your stories are usually questions about what you already know to be true. When you accept the simplicity of the difference between fear and love or hate and compassion, your stories will come together on their own, finding their form the way you find yourself when you cease to doubt what you have always 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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Finding Your Readers

I was giving a reading once, talking about writing the way I like to – which is to say encouraging everyone just to do it and ignore all the noise about how hard it is to get published and the shrinking markets and rejections and snappy openings and so on – when a woman raised her hand and said, “This is such a relief.”

Which I share not to brag but because I had found a like soul. This column has been a relief to me. For years I worked against the current of a story that went thus: Writing and publishing are hard. You have to be lucky or talented or preferably both, and don’t forget it’s a business, and be original but make sure your work fits into a category, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I hated this story, but I believed it was reality.

The more I wrote while believing this story, however, the more I felt the mounting discomfort of working against what I secretly felt to be true and useful. The discomfort – which I sometimes called failure, or writers block, or a bad day’s work – was actually a form of asking. The discomfort was saying, “Not this. It isn’t working. Go find something better.” And so the discomfort grew and grew until at last I started a magazine and allowed myself to tell a different story, and in the answering of my own question the strain and weight of working against myself were relieved.

It is important as a writer to remember that out there in the reading wilderness are strangers looking for what you have written. I suppose this woman was. Whatever suffering had been relieved that night had been her asking. I am sure she did not recognize it as such. I am sure she called it a bitter pill of reality she must swallow if she wanted to pursue this dream. In this way, my answer was her answer, my relief was her relief, and my story was her story.

And that, I believe, is what we call finding your readers.

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

Everyone Has What It Takes

Several weeks ago I published an essay in the New York Times about how my son, who’d been diagnosed on the autism spectrum when he was seven, taught me that no one is broken. The premise of the piece was that the only way I could be of any use to my son at all was if I stopped trying to fix him. The only way to stop trying to fix him was if I stopped seeing him as broken. But the only way I could stop seeing him as broken was if I stopped seeing anyone as broken, including me.

I recently interviewed the romance writer Sheila Roberts. We were discussing the importance of writers trusting their own curiosity, knowing that their solitary interest in a story idea was enough to warrant turning that idea into a novel to share with the reading world. For Sheila, the inherent value of her curiosity was natural to accept because she believed that “In God’s eyes we’re all important, and everyone has something to say that will help and encourage someone.”

Or, if you’re a secular type: everyone’s talented, everyone’s smart, and everyone has something to say. Much of the suffering I experienced as a young writer grew out of this single thought: Some have what it takes, and some don’t. The evidence that there were writing haves and have-nots seemed overwhelming. There were those books I read that I loved, and those books I read that I couldn’t stand. There were the notoriously depressing rejection rates at magazines and publishing houses. And of course there were those rejection letters I found in the mailbox and the inbox week after week. If everyone in the world was really talented, why this conspicuous division of publishing spoils?

The division of those spoils has nothing to do with talent or intelligence, but is rather a reflection of a person’s willingness to accept that they have always been talented and intelligent. By the time those rejection letters turned into acceptance letters, I began to understand that the only way I could be absolutely certain I had something worth sharing with the world was if everyone had something worth sharing with world. If I believed for a moment that certain people were special and certain people were ordinary, that certain people were talented and certain people were talentless, I ceased to be able to answer the question, “What would I love to share with the world?” Instead, I only became lost in the question, “Am I have or a have-not?”

You will never answer that question to your satisfaction, no matter how many novels you publish, or awards you win. No trophy or publishing contract will confirm once and for all that your voice matters, that your curiosity matters, that you matter. The question that hovered over my son for years was always, “Will he be all right?” The answer, of course, was that he already was all right because everyone was all right, whether they were young or old, sick or thriving, published or unpublished. Our wholeness cannot be perceived in what we’ve done or said or accomplished. It is the light beneath the veil of behavior and circumstance.

So too with my writing. Like most artists I know, I have dreamed of recognition, to be singled out as unique among the many. When that finally happened, I understood that the many who were singling me out were merely recognizing in me what they were resisting in themselves, just as I had done with all those artists I had grown up admiring. My writer’s brittle ego was a tad disappointed, but the rest of me was greatly relieved. I no longer had to answer the unanswerable. Instead, I could return to my curiosity, which is all my creative self has ever had or needed.

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

Rewriting the Rules of Success

For many, many, many years nothing I wrote was published. This was a very difficult period of writing in my life. I am a naturally happy person. I look for excuses to be happy. But I am also an ambitious person. An ex-athlete, I expected to be successful at whatever I applied myself to. Writing success, namely publication, felt every bit like those trophies I trained and ran for as a schoolboy, only more valuable. Publication seemed to carry not just the glittering public triumph of victory, but also a financial security tied to something beyond my dull, daily labor – the freedom of being paid for what I would do for free. Writing success was a portal to life as I wished to lead it.

But I could not open that portal. Or that portal would not open for me. Or I couldn’t find the portal. It was hard to tell which it was. All I knew is I was where I was and not where I thought I should be. And so I was unhappy. I had to be. That was the rule: to be happy I had to be successful. I could not imagine myself both happy and unsuccessful. Trying to imagine a happy life without success was like trying to imagine a happy life without food or shelter or friends. So I was unhappy. Unless I forgot the rule, and got interested something, which always makes me happy – until I’d remember that I wasn’t successful, and I’d be unhappy once more.

By and by, little successes began trickling in. I was glad for them, but I still felt more or less as I always had. Clearly, these successes were too small to open that portal. Then one day, I learned that a publisher had offered me a contract for a book. I stood for a moment after hearing this news, surrounded in a strange silence. It was like the fresh peacefulness after a thunderstorm. Thunderstorms don’t create that peacefulness, though they do remind me what it sounds like.

So this is what life feels like without the noise of failure, I thought. How easy it would have been at that moment to attribute the peace of success to my contract. Yet to do so would have merely assured the noise would return if I didn’t like how many copies my book sold, or if I didn’t sell my next book, or if I didn’t win some award. The rules of success can always be rewritten so that happiness remains something to be desired and attained rather than something I own and express.

I didn’t actually have to be unhappy during those long dry years. In fact, what brought me the most happiness was also my path toward those acceptance letters I so desired. But I couldn’t have been convinced of that then. The rules were the rules were the rules, and I was certain I hadn’t written them. I had just been following orders and dreaming of the freedom I already had.

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

A Common Mistake

I have always written, but for many years I also wanted to be a Writer. It was as important to me as the writing itself. The writing, after all, took place in private, but the Writer was the one who had to get about the world. If I could be a Writer, I believed, then I could feel as free in public as I sometimes felt in private.

I desperately wanted to be free. As a Writer, I would have no job. A job was something I had to do to feed and clothe and house myself. This wasn’t freedom. This was paid slavery. No, to be free I had to be paid for something I would have gladly done whether I was paid for it not. Being free meant no one could tell me what to do or when to do it. Being free meant I would listen only to that same voice that guided me through what I wrote.

What’s more, I only wanted to think and talk and do what mattered. To write a story or a poem or an essay is to focus on what matters most about life. In the solitude of writing, I was free to look beneath the dull surface of things, to see clearly what was so often obscured to me in the bright lights and hubbub of the world away from my desk. If I were a Writer, somehow such stuff would be left to other people. If I were a Writer, people would only turn to me for Very Important Things.

I never spoke of this to anyone, including myself. It seemed too narcissistic. Yet even such fantasies, summoned by the ego in moments when it was uncertain of its worth, have served as some kind of beacon for my life. I still want nothing more than to be free, to live my life as I want to live it, and I still seek to turn my attention to what I believe matters most. I had just mistaken being a Writer for being me.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Storyteller’s Dream

My dreams often float in and out lucidity, where, as when I am writing a story at my desk, one moment I am living in the dream as I would in life, and the next I am observing that dream and am aware of my manipulation of it—until I reenter it and am living it again.

I had perhaps the best dream of my life two years ago. I was with my youngest son Sawyer, and we were in a terrible place. It was a warzone of a city filled with armed men hunting down their enemies. In this dream, the armed men found us, and lined Sawyer and me up against a wall. The leader began drawing X’s on the wall behind us, to better help the executioners’ in aim. “We don’t have much time,” I thought, and became lucid, my eye a camera now swooping over the scene looking for my way out or how to disarm the men, when I heard Sawyer say, “Don’t worry. I know what to do.”

I was back living the dream, and the men aimed, cocked their rifles, and I understood the moment before it happened that it was Sawyer’s plan to let them kill us. The order was given, and the muzzles flared, and I felt the bullets strike me, and Sawyer and I were not in our bodies anymore. As I moved further from my body, what I was became nothing but a darker and darker shade of blue, which I now saw was the same color as everything else in the world. Soon the world and I had no form at all, only color. “We’re going into the blue, Sawyer,” I said.

And as my own shade reached its darkest, deepest blue, as there at last was no difference between Sawyer and me and everything that was, I heard, “This is the world without any stories.” You would think a storyteller like me would believe he was looking on hell, but it was exactly the opposite. No sooner was I given this glimpse of perfection than Sawyer and I were fading into lighter and lighter blue until we were back in our bodies and walking together in a world made friendly 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

The Protector

It doesn’t matter what I’m writing, whether it’s a memoir or an essay or a poem or novel, in order to write honestly and sincerely I must forget myself. I must forget the Bill who looks in the mirror, who checks his followers on Twitter, who squints at the scale in the morning, who replays past conversations in his mind, who gloats over praise and agonizes over criticism. This Bill has many opinions, particularly about what I’ve written. He believes most of what I’ve written is brilliant or horrible. There is very little in between.

I have to forget about him, though it’s not always so easy at first, because he believes he’s looking out for my well-being. He’s a protector of sorts. He’s just not exactly clear what he’s protecting me from. No matter, his vigilance is one of his most endearing qualities. He knows a threat when he sees it, so he keeps his eyes outward, hoping to find trouble before it finds us.

Which is why I like writing in the isolation of my workroom. There’s nothing to see here, just the same four walls, the same windows and clock, the same blank screen. I know immediately when my protector has gone off duty. The room grows immediately quieter. Now I can hear the answers to the questions the steady hum of vigilance had distorted. I cannot hear those answers until I forget to care how anyone else would answer them.

Now I’m writing. And now I experience a lovely transparency. I am not worried about what the protector was protecting because it doesn’t exist. Forgotten are all requirements, all bills and arguments and comparisons and grievances. Now light just passes through. I can only write for so long, however, before I realize I can hear the clock ticking and the cars on the street outside my window. I’m back in the world, and I remember I can be seen again.

It’s not long before I meet my protector again, but the more I write, the less I seem to need him. The older I get, the closer he gets to retirement. I won’t throw him a party or buy him a gift when he’s done. In fact, I doubt I’ll recognize his passing until I look in the mirror and realize I am actually looking back at myself.

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

How Writing Saved My Marriage

I married a writer. Even though she and I approach our writing differently, I have often said that I could not imagine being married to anyone who didn’t write. On one occasion, however, those differences were nearly our undoing.

Jen and I were planning a trip to La Jolla for her uncle and aunt’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. We would be there for four days, and Jen went into planning motion. She researched things to do in La Jolla and San Diego; she read reviews of those things; she found out how much each thing would cost and how long it took to get there. Then she wanted my feedback. Read all this stuff I’ve found, she said, and tell me what you think so we can decide what we’ll do.

I hated all the stuff she showed me. I hated reading it and I hated thinking about it. It’s not that I didn’t want to do any of it, I just hated thinking about it ahead of time. It made no sense to me. I didn’t know now what I would want to do then. Plans change. I wanted to handle this vacation the way I handled the stories I wrote: I’d figure it out when I got there.

A week before we were scheduled to leave we got into a horrible argument. She was beyond irritated with me for dragging my feet and I wanted her just to make her list of possibilities and leave it at that. It got ugly. If you did not know us well, you might have thought this was the end of a twenty-year marriage.

And then, right in the middle of this blowup, in one of the few pauses in the yelling, I thought: Wait. Jen’s an outliner. I’m not an outliner. That’s all this is about. Like all outliners, she needed her plan for the future, even though she knew that plan would change. I confessed to her that I never like to make plans, the same way I didn’t like to outline. I don’t understand how to make it work, but if she would sit with me now we could look at all the stuff together. Neither of us, it turned out, was wrong, and once we remembered that, we could be friends 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