Following Trouble

Writers cultivate trouble. Without trouble we’d have nothing to write about. If we write fiction, we sit at our desk and imagine the most interesting trouble our beloved hero or heroine can get into. Who will threaten their life? What do they depend on that will be taken from them? And how despondent and hopeless will they become as the trouble mounts? How will they doubt themselves and how will they find themselves through this doubt?

And if we write about our own life, we begin where there was trouble. We cannot write about one sunny day after the other. If we write about our own lives, we are drawn to the darkness as a flower bends to the sun. When did it seem we had nothing? When did it appear that life was conspiring against us? When did we feel at our smallest, lowest, and least creative? Those are the moments calling for our writer’s attention.

Trouble is addictive in this way. My writer’s attention, which is just my creative attention, is always active, whether I am at my desk or making lunch. It reminds me of a child, freed from the obligation of chores and school, seeking the best game for his eager energy. How much happier that child is when the game requires all his energy. My creative attention is always searching for something to do, something calling for its eager, curious energy. It’s why I am often so happy when I write. Here is the best game of all for that attention, a blank page to be filled with whatever interests me most.

But when I am away from the desk, it easy to cast my adult eyes about for trouble. If there’s trouble, that means there’s a problem, and problems require my full creative attention if they are going to be fixed. After all, the pages of life appear full, and so this question of what interests me most seems obsolete. All that’s left to do is edit. How do I fix this story called life so that it pleases me? Where’s that problem that stands between me and that contended, effortless feeling I’ve known when I’ve reread a story and understood it was done?

If I don’t see a problem at first, I needn’t worry. I’ll see one soon enough. Other people, for instance, are always doing things I think they shouldn’t be doing. That’s a problem. The past is a problem sometimes. If only I could go back and un-say what I said, or un-do what I did. And of course, nothing’s a bigger problem than the future. Why, anything at all could happen there. How do I build a fort of the present to protect myself against the assaults of the future?

This game is not nearly as much fun as the writing game. Yes, these problems can draw my full attention, and yes, it seems that waiting somewhere at the end of this game of problem solving is some semblance of happiness, that end-of-story satisfaction – but that satisfaction, that happiness never materializes. In its place is always the next problem. Because the blank page of my life is always asking the same question, and the only trouble I ever really know is when I choose not to answer it. As soon as I do, whether at the desk or the dinner table, my creative attention has found its direction, and I will have no problem following it.

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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

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No Instructions

I was visiting my brother a few years ago in Los Angeles and decided to watch some TV while he was working out. I didn’t have cable in my own home at the time and was unfamiliar with Comcast’s immense, standard-issue remote. I looked for instructions, but could find none. I began pushing buttons. Nothing happened. I pushed more buttons. Still nothing. I became angry and pushed the same buttons again. More nothing. I gave up, and awaited my brother’s return, whereupon I explained my dilemma.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “You’ve just got to . . .” He pushed one button, and the screen came to life.

“Give me that stupid thing,” I said, and began surfing for something to watch. It was a relief to be flipping through the channels, even though I couldn’t find anything I liked. It was easy to answer the question, “Does this look interesting?” Much easier, in this case, than, “How does this work?”

Sometimes figuring out how something works is simpler than knowing what you want to do with it. It’s just a puzzle. Plus, if you lose interest in figuring it out yourself, you can find someone else who has figured it out. People love to help one another—sometimes, maybe, a little too much.

Life is not some vast, immensely complex remote control. At some very critical point, no matter how much others would like to help us, we are all on our own. We are all looking at a blank screen and wondering what we would like to see across it. Thankfully, no authentic instructions exist for such moments, including the advice in this column. At best I can remind you of what it feels like to enjoy that moment of choosing, of remembering that you cannot be wrong when you find what you 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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Rejecting Stories

For years I had two separate and apparently contradictory experiences when I wrote. Sometimes the writing was effortless. I would sink quickly into the dream of the story I was telling and find myself carried along as if in a current. When I was in this current, I was so focused on this other reality that I lost track of time in the reality where I lived. In that current, ideas always came to me; I never had to make anything up. My only job was to stay interested in whatever I was interested in and let the current do the rest.

I loved this experience. First, I loved it for practical reasons. The stuff I wrote when I was in that current was the most original and alive and authentic stuff I could write. I was also prolific. The longer I stayed in that current, the more I produced. But I also loved this experience for less practical reasons. It was fun. It didn’t feel like work at all. It was simply getting interested and following that interest, which is really just play. I always want to play; I never want to work. Finally, when I was done writing, I would be launched into the rest of my day, where all the business of life that seemed so tedious yesterday, was benign today. Why, there was nothing inherently boring about doing dishes after all!

But sometimes the writing was not effortless at all. I could not sink deeply into the dream of the story and I could not find its current at all. On these days, I felt like I had to make up everything and I everything I made up stank. All my craft and storytelling know-how was useless to me. It was as if I had forgotten what a story was.

I loved the first experience as much as I hated the second experience. These were the types of experiences I went out of my way to avoid if I could. After a session like this, games that I had enjoyed playing the day before were meaningless to me today. In fact, my whole life seemed meaningless to me – a gaudy distraction until my inevitable demise.

For years I never knew from day to day which experience I would have nor why I had the experience that I did. I’d heard that sometimes the Muse visits and sometimes she does not. I’d heard that writing was hard. I believed this story, and the evidence of my experience confirmed it. Until one day I asked myself, “What if the story isn’t true? What if these experiences aren’t random? What if they are instead a result of something I am doing?”

If you are a regular reader of this column or have listened to my Fearless Writing classes, you have probably already guessed that the reason I had these two experiences was not chance, but a consequence of whether I was wondering what other people would think of what I wrote. That’s it. If I never worried about other people, the writing was effortless; when I worried about those other people, writing was the hardest thing I’d ever tried to do.

The difference between these two experiences remains so interesting to me that I have gone on to write thousands of essays on the subject, taught classes on it, and now have a book coming out next spring called Fearless Writing. However, as glad as I am for all the material these experiences have provided me, nothing has been so instructive to me as that moment I questioned what I had previously thought of as reality. In that moment, I became the author of my life. In that moment, I rejected a story that wasn’t serving me. Once I’d rejected it, an empty space was created where I could write a story by which I actually wanted to live.

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

Remembering Reality

If you’ve ever written, and enjoyed doing it enough to want to do it again, then you probably had the experience of disappearing into the dream of whatever you were writing about. This may not happen every time you write, but it happens often enough that it brings you back to the page again and again and again. The promise of that dream we call a story or poem or essay is ostensibly to finish something and share it with other people and maybe even get paid to share it, but in truth you know that the disappearing itself is the true promise of the dream. It is a kind of happy, productive forgetting, where the world you live and work in ceases to mean anything while you give the imagined world you are creating your full attention.

And forget you must. If you’re going render this world that exists only in your imagination, you cannot be in two places at once. You cannot think about politics and learn how your hero will escape the dungeon; you cannot think about your kid’s homework and watch your heroine leave her unhappy marriage. You must choose, there at your desk, which is more important at that moment. To do this work, you must choose the dream over what we have all agreed to call reality.

This is no small choice. If you are an adult, you have likely invested much time and energy and worry into the reality of grocery stores, websites, publishing contracts, agents, money, and sex. This reality can seem like a game you must learn to play as well as possible to have success and happiness and love and friendship. And yet for all the time you’ve invested in that reality, for all the attention you’ve given it and all you’ve learned about it, the moment you forget it, the moment you give that dream your complete attention, you are released into the reality of your full creative potential.

You will never be more original and inspired and productive than when you give something your complete attention. That is you at your very best, which is to say you as you were meant to live. The reality of the world away from your desk isn’t going anywhere. But it is not waiting for you to resume your role in some vast game, dangling the carrot of victory while the game itself cannot end. That reality, like the stories you tell, is only waiting for you to choose where you will give your full attention and remember who you are.

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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

A Love Story

Before an author can find her readers, she must first find her story. She finds her story by asking herself, “What is the best story I can tell? What is so interesting to me that I cannot take my attention from it? What killer must I see brought to justice, or what woman must find love with what man?” The writer asks and answers these questions, and asks and answers these questions, until the story is told.

Now the author the needs an audience. She wrote this story to satisfy her own curiosity and then share what she found with others. The story is really not complete until someone else has read it, has filled in the blank spaces between the author’s brush strokes with their own imagination. So the author tweets about her story, blogs her story, Instagrams about her story, and travels from bookstore to bookstore talking about her story. By and by she discovers she has a readership.

And perhaps she does a little market research and asks those readers, “How did you find my story?” Some report stumbling over her book in a bookstore, others heard about it from a friend, still others from Facebook or Twitter or The New York Times. Yet all these answers are misleading. These answers say little more about how the reader really found a story than a wedding says about a marriage.

The way the reader really found the story was by asking, “What do I most want to read? What kind of story would be so interesting to me that I couldn’t put it down?” As she asks and answers this question, the reader by and by finds the story, and finishes in her own imagination what the author began in hers. The author-audience connection is in this way a love relationship, two strangers guided together by the single organizing principal of the universe.

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 Writers are Optimists

I am a glass is half-full kind of guy. I always have been, though for a while I found it difficult to maintain this optimistic outlook. This was at a time when what I was writing wasn’t being published. I really wanted to publish what I wrote. Nearly every day I thought about how much I wanted my work to be published and how it wasn’t. On most days, my publishing glass did not appear half-empty – it looked completely empty.

I was not happy with my empty glass, but I believed I was being practical. After all, I wanted that glass to be full. How was I going to fill it unless I remembered it wasn’t full? That emptiness was the hole in my happiness, and all my energy was devoted to filling it. And yet the more I stared and stared at what I didn’t have, the more it seemed I had nothing.

What a strange way for a writer to think. Every story is begun with an empty page. It is the perfect vessel for any story, poem, essay, or novel. Yet I when I look at the blank page, I do not see my story glass as completely empty or even half-empty. That’s because, though my eyes are resting on the page, my attention is focused where the story actually exists, in my imagination, that unseen realm where all stories begin. The only way for the story to move from my imagination to the page is give it my full attention. Only then will I be able to extend that story to the page in the form of my first sentence. And then extend it further with my second sentence. And then my third sentence . . .

What a miracle. Where there was nothing, there is now something. Except there is always something. Publishing is merely another extension of the story we have told, the next sentence, so to speak, in the story of how I shared something I loved with other people. That was the great secret to publishing success: giving what I’ve written my full attention, whether I’d just begun it or had finished it. The truth is, I am not even a glass half-full kind of guy. I’m a glass is always full kind of guy. That glass, like the story I’m still writing, just gets bigger and bigger and bigger.

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

Accepting Your Role

The author appears to be seeking acceptance from others. It is, in fact, our business model. Until we have received acceptance from others in the form of a publishing contract or book sales, we earn no money, nor can the story we told live in the imagination of others at it was meant to live. In this way, the author is not merely seeking acceptance but actually requires it to be an author. Without this acceptance, the author is nothing but a diarist.

For years I resented this requirement. It meant I had no power. What I thought of what I’d written seemed to mean nothing at all until someone else approved of it. During these bitter years I dreamed of my freedom, a day when I had received enough acceptance that I was no longer required to seek it. These dreams were often filled with the brief and shallow pleasure of praise and applause that was like the pleasure of drugs.

Yet even within these dreams I would also conjure an image of myself that felt both familiar and foreign. Here was a man who was done worrying about what other people thought him. If I were an actor I could have played him convincingly, could have found within myself the knowledge from which this stranger lived. But like an actor, what I had come to call reality waited for me beyond the curtain, a story of pure improvisation in which I’d taken a minor role.

I suppose I am still an actor today, except I have decided to play the role in which my dreams had cast me. If you do so long enough, it doesn’t feel like acting anymore. There are still days in which my life feels more like a performance than I would like, but this is a natural consequence of peeking at the audience. For a moment, my wandering attention disrupts the dream we had all come to the theater to believe, until I call it back, and return to the role I was born to play.

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

In the Mood for the Blank Page

Like many writers I know, I am not always in the mood to write when I sit down to write. This used to worry me some when I was younger writer. Why, I would wonder, did the story that so easily had my complete attention yesterday seem a distant and inscrutable thing today? My first and most worrisome answer was that the story had never really been all that interesting in the first place, that the Bill of Yesterday was fooled by what the Bill of Today was able to perceive clearly.

This answer creates a hostile environment for writing. If I cannot trust what interests me in the moment, how can I possibly know what to write? By and by I came to understand that my mood rarely had anything to do with the story I was writing. Rather, it was a reflection of my relationship to what that story was written on – namely, a blank page.

Most of my life does not feel like a blank page. When I’m not writing, there’s lots of stuff all around me to look at and listen to and be stimulated by. There are video games and movies and sports and lots and lots and lots of people to talk to. When I’m not writing, it can seem as if that external world is responsible for all that interests me and doesn’t interest me. I don’t have to do anything, and that world just keeps producing stuff for me to read or watch, and people for me to teach, or kiss, or have dinner with.

Then I sit down to write, and the blank page asks me, “What do you want?” In that instant the illusion dissolves, and I remember that nothing outside of me is responsible for my interest in life. Now I have connected to the authentic source, which is never on TV or across the dinner table from me. If I am not in the mood to write at that moment, it is because I am still a little hypnotized by what I’ve been seeing and hearing.

Fortunately, the blank page is as patient as it is empty. My mind can wander as far and wide as it wants, and the page will still be there with its generous question. As soon as I return from my travels, as soon as I hear the page’s question clearly, I am back at home, curious, interested, and in the mood to find again a path from myself into 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

A Writer’s Best Question: What Next?

Music was a big part of my life growing up. Though I would come to love classical music as a teenager and young adult, my first love was popular music. I was particularly interested in those musicians who wrote and performed their own songs. Though I didn’t know it at the time, these were my first artistic mentors. Unlike the authors I read, whose words I heard in my own voice, I was more aware of the musicians as actual living people, since it was always their voices I heard. As a result, I loosely followed the musicians’ careers. For instance, my first memory of a newspaper is of a headline announcing that the Beatles had broken up.

I got curious about how different bands’ music evolved – or didn’t – from album to album. I noticed how flat an album felt if the songs were too much like those from the album that preceded it. Or, if an album seemed very different, I would return to the previous one to see if I could find those songs that seemed to presage where the band was headed creatively. Why, I would sometimes wonder, did the songwriter go this way instead of that way?

With all this observation I began to notice a pattern that, for a budding artist, seemed somewhat ominous. Often a bands’ first album would be exciting, and original, and full of fresh energy. Then the second and third albums would come along and things would sort of flat-line. It seemed like the first albums were fueled by the question: “Can we make it?” Then, once that question had been answered, the songwriters were unsure which new question to ask.

Every artist has to contend with this challenge. “Can I make it?” is a fantastically compelling question. To ask that single question is to simultaneously ask questions about equality, and originality, and value, and voice, and your place in the creative world. There is no way to empirically answer that question until you have tried to make it. Every artist must go forward from the same anonymity to find their readers, their listeners, their viewers.

But the only way to really answer the question, “Can I make it?” is if you’ve always known the answer was yes. You may need some evidence to back this up, but you will never find your readers until you acknowledge you don’t require their recognition to know the value of what you have to share. Which is why, to sustain our work, we will always need some question other than “Am I good enough? Can I make it?”

As a young music fan, I had already identified the better question when I sought the trail of my favorite bands’ evolution, which is, “What next?” If I’m good enough, or talented enough, or smart enough – whatever any of that means – what next? That remains the most compelling question I can ever ask myself, though it often feels so ordinary. Anyone can ask that question, after all. Everyone on earth is asking, “What next?” whether they know it or not.

Yet the moment I decide that this everyday question is actually more important, more valuable, and more sustaining than any other, I return to the source of my creative power. That source has never cared about how many readers I have, or what the critics think, or how big my advances are. Its only interest is the next story, the next scene, the next sentence. It can see nothing else. My job as a writer is to remember that that’s all I need to see as well.

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

Instant Gratification

If there is one quality a writer must either have or acquire it’s patience. Writing a book – or even an essay or story or poem – can take a long time. Sometimes writing a single sentence can take a long time. Then, once a story is finished, finding the right agent or publisher could take months or even years. Even in the age of eBooks, there is still the production process, which is far from instantaneous. So a writer must be patient. This is not a career for anyone seeking instant gratification.

Or is it? What exactly is a writer doing while finding her story, or scene, or sentence? Optimally, the writer is resting in the feeling she wishes to share in words with her reader. If it is a story she truly wishes to tell, then that feeling, whether jealousy or desire or hope or surrender, should be interesting to her. And if it is interesting to her, it should be gratifying to rest in it. Or in other words, there is no wait at all. To write as well as she can possible write, the writer must remain as interested as she possibly can, no matter how long it takes that interest to turn into a story, scene, or sentence.

This is true even of the publication process. The impatient author is anticipating a future pleasure, comparing her current life unfavorably with what she believes awaits her when strangers begin reading her story. As gratifying as that experience can be, it is merely a reflection of the pleasure that grew within her until it took the form of her book.

I say this as a man who has lived most of his life impatiently. The world brought pleasure to me at an infuriating and unpredictable pace. At some point I threw up my hands and decided the world simply could not be counted on for something so important as my happiness. It was about this time that my writing improved dramatically. It is nice to share what I have written, to observe what had once pleased only me pleasing someone else, but that same pleasure still exists within me, available instantly should I choose to lay my attention upon 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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter