Valuable Advice

Imagine you travel back in time to 1994 England. You stumble on a young woman scribbling away in a notebook in a pub. She looks familiar somehow, and so you say hello, introducing yourself as a writer. “I’m a writer, too,” she says.

“What are you working on? You look very engrossed.”

“Oh, I am. I just love this story. It came to me in a flash. It’s about this boy wizard who has to go to this wizarding school. Only it’s not set in a magical kingdom. It’s set in modern-day England.”

Not wanting to create a time paradox, you limit your response to: “Wow. Sounds great.”

“I know,” she says, but begins chewing on a fingernail. “The thing is, it’s a children’s book – which, of course, never make money, my agent said so – and I’m dead broke. On the dole, as a matter of fact. And it’s long. It’s as long as an adult novel, and children’s books should be shorter. So I’m wondering if I should switch it around. Make it shorter, and also maybe set it in a proper magical kingdom, and maybe even take out the school part, because that’s not how fantasy books are written. I love the story, but I really want some kind of success. I’m a broke, single mum who failed at journalism. I just don’t know what to do.”

What would you tell her? Would you tell her she is at this moment sitting on a treasure beyond her gaudiest dreams of avarice? Would you tell her that all she needs to do is render as accurately as possible what she sees within herself and the results will astound her? Or would you tell her to look outside herself, at the market and what other writers have written?

It’s an easy answer in hindsight. It’s easy to name something’s value once a price tag has been put on it. It is not so easy maybe when you are alone at your desk, and a story has come to you, and it is similar to other stories but also different enough to both truly interest you and leave you worried that no one else will recognize its value. Yet I would never curse a writer with a time traveling advisor. Why deprive her of the chance to learn who really decides what something is worth?

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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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Rigged Systems and the Published Authors Club

In case you missed it, there was a Presidential debate recently where one candidate warned that the coming election was rigged. When I heard this, I thought to myself, “Anyone who’s in a contest and thinks that contest is rigged against him has already lost.”

It is easy to sit in my living room and judge someone else’s paranoia; it’s another thing to live my life without ever believing The System, whatever that system may be, is rigged against me. It certainly has seemed so from time to time. Why, I used to wonder, weren’t people publishing the stories I sent them? While I didn’t really believe editors and agents had formed a dark cabal bent on keeping good-hearted writers like me from sharing a little light, the publishing world did seem impenetrable sometimes, like a club whose rules of entry were kept secret.

I should mention that I was never one to join clubs. I worried that to join a club I’d have to conform to that club’s notion of what or whom I should be. I am what I am! The problem was that I wanted to be in the Published Author Club. Of course it wasn’t a club, I mean I knew intellectually it wasn’t a club. Only, the first question anyone asked you when you told them you were a writer was had you been published. How you answered that question seemed to place you in one of two categories. You were in or you were out, which felt a lot like a club.

Oh, it was confusing. One day I found myself talking to a writer friend. As it happens, this friend, when he wasn’t writing, was very interested in changing societal systems. He didn’t feel they were fair to everyone. He was a good-hearted writer like me, you see. On this day, my friend was complaining about the publishing world. He felt it was closed to new writers, to writers with new ideas, to writers who were unknown to the publishing world.

To be fair, every complaint he shared with me I’d thought of at one time or another. But there is something so helpful about hearing someone else air my complaints. And so I heard myself saying, “I’m not going to complain about those people. I want to work with them. If I sit here and tell myself they don’t want me, I’ll never work with them.”

I think that was the moment I decided I needed to learn how to make friends with these people who seemed rather unfriendly much of the time. Systems, whether they are societal, educational, or publishing, are never perfect. I sometimes muse about how those systems could better serve us, but I am not the sort of person who is going to spend his time changing systems. I am, however, deeply interested in how I can change what I do to live my life as I wish to live it.

But the moment I conclude that nothing I think or do or say has any effect in the world, the moment I decide what other people think of me is more important than what I think of me, I have lost all my creative power. I decline the notion that any system is more powerful than any individual. No system has the power to tell me what to think. The moment I make friends with my own thought, I make friends with life, and the doors to the only club there is swing open.

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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

Motivated Characters

I got an email from an old writing friend recently with the subject heading, “Was cleaning out my closet.” The email contained a JPEG of a novel I had shared with him while we were in a writing group together. “That’s some pretty good prose,” he wrote. “You ever going to finish this story?”

It had been many years since I’d abandoned that project, enough years that, as I read the page, it was almost like reading someone else’s novel. He was right about the prose – by which I mean, while reading it, I found myself thinking, “Hey, that’s good stuff.” But a story is not just an assemblage of good prose, and I thought about his question. Why had I abandoned it?

As is often the case with memory, the first thing that came back to me was how it felt to write that story in the months leading up to the decision to abandon it. I felt lost, as if every choice was right and every choice was wrong. It’s awful feeling, a feeling no amount of craft can soothe. Then I remembered the two other novels I had abandoned after that one. The third of that trio was a great epic journey of a novel. Round about page 600 the characters started turning to one another frequently and asking, “Why are we on this journey again?”

Which, from a very practical standpoint, is why the novels were abandoned: I didn’t know what my protagonists wanted. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every character in every scene has to want something, even if it’s a glass of water.” Good advice that, yet even better advice for every writer – novelist, poet, memoirist, and screenwriter alike – is, “Pay attention to how you feel.”

I knew I wanted to write, but what I most wanted to write about did not lend itself so easily to fiction. Yet for years my identity had been that of a fiction writer. That’s who I was. If I abandoned fiction writing, who was I? It sounds silly now, but it wasn’t silly at the time. At the time, it was profoundly disorienting.

Fortunately, the same guidance system that helps me find the right word and the right story and the right life keeps speaking to me in whatever language I’m willing to hear: In my case, that lost feeling of writing stories with protagonists as unmotivated in their lives as I was in my writing. By and by, I decided that no identity was worth the suffering of telling stories I didn’t actually want to tell, and so I chose a different kind of story, and I found the motivation that never abandons 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

The Real Source of Writer’s Block

Years ago I read the Goethe quote, “The worst thing one can do is to think ill of oneself.” It seemed true enough to me at the time – I certainly thought ill of myself now and again and it never led to any good. But Goethe didn’t say thinking ill of oneself was one of the worst things you could do; he said it was the worst thing you could do. I was much younger when I read this quote, and I was inclined to question a rule when I ran into it. “What about murder?” I thought. “Certainly murdering someone is worse than thinking ill of yourself.”

I thought of Goethe’s quote again yesterday when I was talking to my wife Jen about our high school experiences. I met Jen when we were both seniors attending separate schools in the same city. She was explaining that if I had met her when we were freshman, we might not have become friends. “I spent most of my first three years in high school feeling bad about myself. That had just started changing by the time I met you.”

Interestingly, I met her because I saw her in a play, and thought, “I’ve got to get to know that person.” She was in that play because she had decided to enjoy herself her senior year. So she took a creative writing class and a theater class and auditioned for a play. Not only did this decision lead to meeting me, but it also introduced her to what would be her career. Jen went on to become a writer and artist. Until her senior year in high school, she did not even perceive herself as a creative person.

Hearing her story, I thought, “Old Goethe was right.” The worst thing I can do when I sit down to write is to think ill of myself. I will not write one word I want to share with another person if I think, “I’m not smart enough,” or, “No one cares what I have to say,” or, “I don’t have what it takes.” These simple thoughts, sometimes arriving in my mind dressed as false humility, sever my connection to creative thought, to my muse, to my imagination, and ultimately to myself. To think ill of myself is a form of instant suicide, suggesting somehow that nothing I do will be worth doing, nothing I say will be worth saying, nothing I write will be worth writing.

Fortunately, everything I most want to do, say, or write waits patiently while I’m thinking, “Why bother?” Life can seem cruel and complicated while I am asking, “Why bother?” or, “What is wrong with me?” The moment I stop asking those questions, and start asking, “What do I most want to do?” life becomes much simpler and much kinder. But I can only ask one question at a time. It is up to me to decide which question I will ask.

I cannot prove it, but I believe every murderer that has ever lived thought ill of himself long before he pulled the trigger or struck the blow. When I am thinking ill of myself, I am very likely to start blaming other people for how bad I feel. I blame the people who have rejected me, or ignored me, or disagreed with me. But when I am connected to what my self-criticism blocks, other people are no longer a problem. How could they be? No one else can answer, “What do I most want to do?” for me, nor can they prevent me from hearing that answer. Nothing can possibly come between me and my muse and my imagination other than the idea that my creative thoughts are not worth listening to.

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

Inviting Perspective

Though we have lovely brains capable of calculating the distance from Mars to Pluto or memorizing the lyrics to six dozen show tunes, human beings are first, last, and always emotional creatures. It is our feeling of fear and love, and the myriad shades between, that guide us through all our life choices, from which shirt to buy to which man to marry. Without them, we would be computers without software.

A writer cannot write his emotions exactly as he lives them. The emotions that come to us throughout our day are information, guiding us toward what will serve us and away from what will not. But these emotions are as immediate as impulse, and often extraordinarily strong, and it is impossible to render them accurately when experienced in this way. It would be like trying to paint a flower while holding it one centimeter from your face.

And yet a writer must feel what his characters are feeling, must, to the best of his ability, feel the same fear and love and jealousy and delight. As writers, we summon those same feelings at our desk, but because these feelings are not meant to guide us, we can instead behold them. This is the artist’s proper relationship to aesthetic emotion. While beholding the emotions from an artistic distance, we can paint them accurately without the bias inherent in heeding, or not heeding, their guidance.

This may seem academic, but in the end, whether we are writing or not, we are always the ones observing the feelings. We are the ones to whom the fear speaks, we are not the fear itself. Likewise, we are the ones who follow love or ignore it. Writing, whether it is poetry, memoir, suspense, or romance, becomes a discipline of elevated perspective. It is a perspective I have learned to seek away from my desk. Life, after all, is always friendliest when viewed as a whole, is always most inviting when you can see where you belong.

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 Value

I was teaching a Fearless Writing class recently in which a student talked about what is perhaps an author’s most common fear: failure. You love the story, you write the story, you try to share the story, only to have it rejected. When I asked the student why he feared failure, what he imagined that experience to be, he said, simply, “Just – emptiness.”

Which makes perfect sense. Fear of failure, for writers in particular, is a natural response to misperceiving what it actually means to share something we’ve written with other people. It is common to look to other people to assign a value to what we have done. We do it in school with grades, at work with salaries and raises, with film and books reviewers, and we do it with publishers. By accepting our work, by giving us an advance, the publishers assign our work a value. Acceptance and rejection can appear to show us whether or work is worth writing or not worth writing.

Yet we do not share our work to learn its value, we share our work to extend its value. We only write about what we find interesting, and what we find interesting is always valuable to us. We never actually doubt whether we are interested in what we are interested in. How could we? But we do sometimes doubt whether anyone else will be interested. Or, to be more accurate, we realize it is impossible to know who will be interested in what interests us.

The emptiness my student described was actually a perfectly accurate rendering of what he knows about other people’s thoughts: Nothing. So, as writers, we must direct our attention back to what we do know, back to the story we love and are interested in and find valuable, and write it until what is on the page accurately reflects the value of what we perceived in our imagination. Then we share it with other people.

Some will see our story’s value, and some will not, just as some will laugh at our jokes and some will not. Once you begin to share your work regularly it will become clear that no one can assign value to what you find valuable. Your readers are just like you. All they know is what they find valuable. Your readers will find your stories the way you found your stories, but searching first within themselves for what interests them most.

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

Cruel Shoes: Find the Story that Fits You

I worked for about twenty years as a waiter while I wrote a bunch of novels I had no luck selling. One of the toughest parts of being a waiter, especially if you want to be a writer, is that no one really cares what you think about anything, except for the occasional wine recommendation. If you want to write, and share what you have written with other people, you have believe that what you are interested in thinking about and writing about would be interesting to someone else.

When I finally left the restaurant and was hired to write storylines for a video game company, I was so happy find myself in a room with people who seemed very interested in what I thought would or would not make a good story. How nice to be valued for something other than my ability to bring someone their steak dinner in a timely fashion.

The only slight problem was that I wasn’t all that interested in the games or their stories. I considered this a minor problem, however, given how much money they were paying me. In fact, I used some of that money to buy a new pair of dress shoes. These were my power shoes. They were shiny, black, and made a satisfying clip-clop sound as I went from here to there in them.

The only slight problem was that I wasn’t sure if they actually fit. If I stood still they were fine, but if I clip-clopped from here to there my feet seemed to slide around a bit. But only a little bit. And they looked great. And sometimes shoes need to be broken in, especially power shoes made of stiff black leather. So I kept the shoes, and both loved them and feared them: my feet always felt so good when I took them off at the end of a day.

Then the video game company decided they would fly a few of us to New York to meet with a bunch of literary agents. The company had dreams of creating a line of books based on their games. How exciting! They would pay for my flights, my hotel room, all my meals, and I would I get to meet all these agents. Plus, I had just the pair of shoes for such a trip.

For some reason, my comrades decided it would be more practical to walk from agency to agency rather than take cabs. Fine with me, I said. So we started walking, and walking, and walking. By the time we left the third agency, my shoes had become instruments of torture. Every step I took was measured in pain. I stopped thinking about New York, and literary agencies, and games, and money. All I could think about were my poor, abused feet.

My happiest memory of the trip was of sitting on my bed in my hotel room slipping out of those shoes and feeling like myself again. My brother, who lived in New York at the time, came by and we went out for dinner and a few drinks. I was now wearing black sneakers with my dress slacks and blazer and I was very happy. About the same time I left the restaurant, I had gotten very interested in the relationship between spirituality and creativity. That night, I told him about my ideas. I always got very excited when I talked about these ideas.

“Why don’t you just write that stuff instead of all the novels?” he said at the end of the night.

“I can’t do that,” I told him. “No one would be interested in it.”

I was wrong about that, though it would take me a few years to learn just how wrong I was. No matter. The best piece of advice I could ever give another writer is to pay attention to how you feel. All discomfort, however slight, is guidance. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in paying attention to how you feel. That discomfort will grow and grow until you do.

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

Curiosity: The Path to Finding Your Voice

Learning the craft of writing is one thing. There are lots of classes and books that can help you understand both the fundamentals and the nuance of story, dialogue, character, and description. If you don’t like books and classes, you can also just write as much as you can and you will eventually learn that dialogue is most provocative when characters don’t say exactly what they mean, and that nouns and verbs are the bones and muscles of all descriptive writing.

Learning about voice, however, is another thing altogether. For a writer, finding what we have come to call our voice is ultimately more important than learning how to tighten a sagging middle or create believable characters. Until you have found your voice, no matter how diligently you study craft, writing will remain frustratingly unknowable, the blank page a moving target you come to fear and resent.

Yet as a writing instructor, I cannot train your voice the way a singing instructor could help you train your voice. All I can do is remind you that you have one. It’s true. That is because your voice is what interests you most. That’s it. Your voice is not a product of clever word choice, or an expansive vocabulary, or a willingness to take bold stylistic chances. Your voice is your unique interest authentically expressed, unencumbered by any thought of what anyone else thinks is interesting.

Which is why “finding your voice” has very little to do with writing and everything to do with simply being human. Everyone has to find their voice, whether they love to write, cook, garden, or play hopscotch. It is both the simplest thing and the most difficult thing. It is the simplest thing because nothing is easier, more natural, and requires less effort than laying your attention on that to which your curiosity is inherently drawn. It is as natural as eating what you find delicious or laughing at what you find funny.

But it can be the most difficult thing, because to follow your curiosity without apology or restraint means accepting that you and you alone can answer the question, “What is a good life?” To follow your curiosity you cannot worry about fitting in, or sounding smart, or doing the “right thing.” You also cannot worry about success and failure. To follow your curiosity with abandon is to accept that you will learn what your success looks like, and that it will look different than anyone else’s.

Humans love to tell each other what to do. We love to tell each other how to behave, and whom to vote for, and what to eat, and what to read, and which songs to listen to, and when and how and if we should pray. Sometimes we even punish people when they don’t do what we believe they should do. As writer, you have probably been punished at some point in your life for writing the “wrong thing.” It is possible you perceive rejection as a kind of punishment for writing the wrong thing, or maybe writing the right thing in the wrong way.

The worst punishment I have ever known is trying to live someone else’s idea of a life, to write someone else’s idea of a story. That is constant suffering, for no matter how hard I try, everything I do feels wrong, and every path I follow leads to failure. Yet all the suffering and rejection and failure I have known in my life has merely served to guide me back to myself, back to my curiosity, whose unerring guidance I have always had the option to reject or accept.

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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

Bridge Builders

I was at a writer’s conference when I fell into a conversation with an engineer husband of one of the attendees. While an avid reader, he was not a writer himself, though he considered himself creative. In fact, he had made a point of this when a writer-friend of his wife had expressed surprise that he had scored high on the creative end of some personality test.

“Of course I’m creative!” he’d explained. “I’m an engineer. My page starts out just as blank as yours.”

He couldn’t have been more right. It is easy sometimes for the artist to overlook the creativity of the scientist or the mathematician or the engineer. As he said, their pages begin more or less as blank as the writer’s. Each problem the engineer solves has never been solved before. How is that anything but creativity?

There is an important difference between the artist and the engineer, however, a difference the artist must never forget. The engineer solves problems entirely intellectually. Emotion plays no active role in the putting together of jigsaw puzzles or building bridges or solving mathematical equations. I have sometimes sought relief from my own emotional life in the puzzles of the world, the Sudoku’s and video games and even the tax forms—anything to occupy a restless mind in search of a focus.

The creative writer, meanwhile, designs bridges from fear to love again and again and again. The intellect becomes the heart’s loyal servant, hefting the stones of logic and language and placing them in an orderly fashion. The intellect has no idea where the bridge began or where it will end. In fact, the intellect doesn’t even know why the bridge exists. Nothing you can hold in your hand or eat or measure is gained from it, yet look at everyone on earth crossing that expanse, look at every soul rushing through the gate only the heart can open.

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

Unknown

In the middle of the Dark Years, when nothing I was writing was being read, I would occasionally threaten to quit writing altogether. “I will just quit it if things don’t turn around,” I told my wife.

“Really?” she asked. “And then what would you do?”

“I don’t know, but this ridiculous. I mean what’s the fricking point?”

“I get it, but what else would you do?”

It was a maddeningly unanswerable question. I was suffering. I knew this as certainly as I knew I was tired at the end of my day or thirsty after a run. But while I could sleep when tired or drink when thirsty, the power to end this suffering appeared to rest in other people’s hands. It was an unacceptable arrangement, a slave and slave master arrangement. More than to have my work read, I wanted to be free. I wanted my life to be my own.

Which is why I would threaten to quit from time to time. It was a suicidal choice, but sometimes it’s necessary to march yourself to that cliff if only ask, “Who’s making you do anything? Who’s making you breath and eat?” To take that leap is to remember the truth at last, as you fall freely into the unknown.

I’ll never be free from the unknown anymore than I can be free from blank pages. Those blank pages are my dependably unwritten future. They were also the answer to my wife’s question. When I wondered what else I would do, I perceived only a blank page, an unknown awaiting my attention, and the moment I stepped willingly into it, my life was my own 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