Bad Results

In case you missed it, the United States had a Presidential election recently. Some people were happy with the results, and some people were very, very unhappy with the results. Historically unhappy, I would say. I was one of the latter. In fact, the day after, I sat with my teenage son, who seemed as unnerved by the results as by the sight of his parents’ conspicuous despair. I explained to him that I was accustomed to thinking of the government as being like our home’s electricity, something I knew would be there to allow me to do the things I wanted to do. For the first time in my adult life I found myself wondering what life might be like if the electricity didn’t work, so to speak.

But for me, at least, this nightmare scenario passed quickly from my mind. It had to. I had too many things I was interested in doing now. Of course, I’d had a lot of practice moving on from what I thought of as devastating results. For years, every story I wrote was burdened by what I hoped it would bring me in the future. If that story brought me the result I wanted, brought acceptance rather than rejection, then I would be free to live life as I imagined I was meant to live it.

It was too much for any story to give me, and I only ever got the results I believed I didn’t want. Oh, the despair. In the time it took me to read one letter, the entire future I had constructed in my imagination collapsed. I would sit for a time in this nightmare wreckage, unable to reassemble what I thought life would be, left instead with what life actually was. It was in those moments that I often noticed how immeasurably consistent life actually was. Though I couldn’t name it, something flowed through every moment that – like electricity – responded predictably to my every thought and action. No result, good or bad, could extinguish or amplify it. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to care one whit for results. It pulsed on, available, responsive, and tireless.

I began to get the results I had so wanted when I made a friend of that flow. To do so, however, I simply could not concern myself with the future. Not even a little. This was not, and still is not, so easy. I am still drawn to dream a future many shades of miserable, or whip up some airy, cotton-candy castle of hope. But I have found through practice that the dependable, creative, evolutionary impulse in the present moment, where all writing and life actually occurs, is a far more satisfying companion than all my hopes and fears.

Which is why, for now, I am not worried about the end of democracy. For now, it is still quite alive. If a time should come that some action on my part is called for, a petition to be signed or march to be joined, I trust that I will know to do so in that moment. However, that moment, for me, has not arrived. As I said, I’ve got a lot of other things I’m interested in doing right now. I have no crystal ball, but I do have eyes that can see what is immediately before me, and if I make a friend of what I see, if I accept it, I am immediately living life as it was meant to be lived.

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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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Dream World

I rarely have trouble falling asleep. By the end of the day I’m quite done with the waking world. By the end of the day I’ve said enough and thought enough and done enough, and I cannot find within me much reason to say or think or do more. I am ready for the dream world over which I have no command, the dream world to which I must surrender and from which I draw all my strength for the waking world.

But sometimes I am pulled awake while it is still dark, and my thinking mind comes alive with premature industriousness. My poor thinking mind was made for the waking world and all its things, all its words and people and places and objects. It was made to give these things order, to arrange them to meet my desire, and the stillness of my bed confuses it. Now this mind of mine is a dog with all energy but no bone.

I lie there feeling as if something must be done. I know this cannot be, but the feeling is the same as the one I so often carry with me when the sun is up and everyone is doing something. It seems real then, why is it not real now? To surrender again to the dream world feels like I am giving up on that other dream, the dream that all I do in the waking world is very important and necessary and that I am building something permanent.

It has always been my dream that what I do matters. I have always wanted to be Bilbo heading out of The Shire on a great and important adventure. And how I have wanted just one good dragon to slay. I have wanted dragons so badly I have summoned and fought them until I, their creator, declared them slain. What an unsatisfying victory – the end of something that never was, a knight alone on the field, exhausted from fighting himself.

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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Seeing the World

For many years I looked at the world and believed nothing existed there for me until I made it. The world as I perceived it was a thing already made, and I was a creator, and until my creations took hold, nothing in the world belonged to me. I did not particularly like this arrangement, but what could I do? Questioning this reality would have been like questioning gravity, and one step off a bridge would answer that question for you in a hurry.

No matter, soon what I had planted would grow, and when that happened I would see the beautiful and friendly world I frequently imagined. And so I planted and waited and planted and waited, but I perceived no growth. The world spun on indifferently, changing with every season yet remaining dependably immune to my seeds.

The world grew uglier with every day that my seeds did not flower. It grew so ugly that I began to hate it and wasn’t sure if I even wanted my lovely creations to grow here. This was not a happy position from which to create anything. I wonder, I asked myself one very dark night, if there is a different position from which to view this world?

You have to ask such a question before you can begin looking for the answer, and as soon as I began looking, I began to see. I saw the same buildings and sky, listened to the same conversations and music, lived in the same house, was married to the same woman, but I saw a different world. I even began to see the saplings of all that I’d planted. I did not care for a lot them, and so cut some down and stopped watering others. Now I have something to write about, I thought. Now I don’t have to create the world, only share 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

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A Caring God

When I was a teenager I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons. I was usually the Dungeon Master, meaning I designed the adventures – the goblin-infested castles, the dragon lairs, the haunted swamps – in which my friends played. The Dungeon Master is part referee, part storyteller, and part host, and if all goes well the game feels like a party with Doritos and polyhedron dice.

I was one of two principal Dungeon Masters in my little teenage gaming community in Providence, the other being my friend Evan. We were sort of rivals in that our games were often being compared. In my games, none of the players’ characters ever died. They were challenged, they were tested, but they were like heroes in a series whom the readers knew would always make it through to be challenged and tested in the next story.

In Evan’s world, characters died. He was an indifferent God. When the dice spoke, he and all the players listened, and if those dice spoke death, so be it. I played in his world once and I admired his indifference. The game was more exciting. Things seemed to matter more when the ultimate outcome wasn’t predetermined.

I would eventually adopt some of Evan’s indifference. Except it wasn’t indifference at all. I only wanted things to matter, whether it was a game of Dungeons & Dragons or a romantic relationship or a story I was writing. Life was better when you felt your decisions mattered, and so I would let the occasional character die for the betterment of all. Death in this way became the threat that was a gift, a focusing tool for the living, reminding them that the story is more alive when you know that it will 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

A More Direct Route

Most of the students and clients I work with have two competing thoughts about writing. Their first thought is that they have a story they want to tell. There is something within these stories, whether the stories are fiction, narrative non-fiction, or memoir that has grabbed hold of the writer’s curiosity. This is a fantastic feeling. This is a feeling that gives life meaning without explanation. This is a feeling that is only sought, that is completely satisfying even as it sends you seeking more.

But there is always another thought. Sometimes the thought is that writing is hard; sometimes the thought is that the story must please this reader or that editor; sometimes the thought is that if we don’t get the story exactly right no one will like it; and sometimes a writer has concocted a poisonous stew of all these and more. These thoughts, these stories about storytelling, wait like impatient bosses at our desk and usually begin talking as soon as we arrive for work.

No wonder so many newer writers believe they are lazy, or not disciplined or enough, or not focused enough. We are all meant to avoid what we dislike. We are not, however, meant to avoid what we love, to be kept from that which lights our curiosity. We are always, always, always moving toward what we love, only sometimes this movement is long and circuitous and full of many rest stops and diversions.

No matter. No one can stop moving. But it is possible to take a more direct route. Let your story about writing be the friendliest story you know. Let it be a love story with a happy ending and nothing more. Writing, after all, is a visit with someone you adore, who will answer any question and always has something interesting to say. The impatient boss, meanwhile, is an illusion, marking your time on a clock that does not exist, comparing you unfavorably to friends until everyone is an enemy.

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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The Stream of Life

I met a woman recently who told me there was only one obstacle between her and a fulfilling writing life: she wasn’t creative. “I’ve never written a poem or short story or a novel. I’ve never written a play. I’ve never painted a picture or composed a sonata. I’m not creative.”

I have always thought of myself as creative. I have also written poems, and plays, and screenplays, and novels, and personal essays. I’ve written sonatas and songs and mini-symphonies. I’ve made little movies and I’ve acted. I even fancied myself a cartoonist when I was a boy. That is to say, I have all the evidence of my creativity this woman believed she lacked.

But when I think of my creativity I do not think of any of the things I’ve created. I think of that place within me where I must go to answer the question, “How shall I fill this blank page?” The answer to that question changes every day, and so no sooner has one answer been given than I feel the itch of a new question forming an intriguing disturbance within me. That is my creativity. Meanwhile, all the things I’ve made are merely an expression of how often I have focused my attention on that creativity.

To think that you could be born without this same restless curiosity is to think that you could be born without a beating heart. But unlike my heart, my creativity requires my attention to function properly. Without my attention it forces itself through me in awkward ways, or keeps me up at nights, or finds me critical of other people’s creations. The moment I allow myself to consult it, to ask, “What shall we do next?” my creativity and I are moving in the same direction, flowing like blood with questions and answers within the stream of 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

Living On Purpose

I love teaching what I call Fearless Writing, though as a class it offers nothing in the way of advice about strong sentences, or believable characters, or compelling storylines. In fact, in a four-hour workshop, the students will do virtually no writing whatsoever. Mostly, they ask questions and I give answers in the form of stories. All the stories are stories about writers (usually me) who forget to care what other people think about what they’ve written, forget to wonder whether they’re good enough, and in so doing, return to the source of their creative power.

But as I said, students do not learn any craft. That’s because all the craft in the world is useless to me the moment I begin worrying what other people think about what I’ve written or whether I’m good enough. Craft can’t solve that. I can, however, choose to move my attention from these fearful questions to the creative question; “What is most interesting to me today?”

I teach this class because most people – including me – forget they have the power to move their attention from one question to another. It sometimes seems as though questions take hold of us the way a storm takes hold of a day. The moment I begin wondering whether anyone in the world is interested in what interests me, my sky is filled with storm clouds. They arrive so quickly and completely, I often do not notice what summoned them. They are simply a fact of nature, and now I must wait out the rain and thunder until some capricious creator dismisses them.

It’s as if I’ve forgotten I am an author. I alone decide what storms or sunshine inhabit my worlds. On the blank page, I can turn darkness into daylight as quickly as a thought can turn. So too those clouds of misery poisoning my day. There is no real difference between rewriting a sentence and removing doubt. Everything is thought. To write is to think on purpose, and to apply what I learn while writing is to live on purpose.

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

Nothing Wrong

My older sister, who got straight A’s (with one very notable exception) in college, who excelled in calculus, and who could whip her word-loving brother in crosswords, Boggle, and Scrabble, told me she hated her one creative writing course, in which she received her only collegiate B. “Totally annoying class,” she explained. “There are no right answers.”

How true. This can make it difficult to teach, and can make the blank page particularly daunting. Fortunately, this also means there are no wrong answers either. In the realm of creation there is no right and wrong, no good and bad, there is only what you want to create and what you don’t want to create. Outside of this single parameter, all is equal.

Which is why I encourage writers to never criticize other writers, no matter how wrong the word choices or plot choices those other writers have made may appear. The moment I criticize another writer in this way I see the world of creation as divided into right and wrong, and I am undone. Now I write not to create what I want to see, but only to avoid creating something that is wrong – and since nothing in creation is actually wrong, I write in perpetual fear.

I know that there are so many things in the world beyond stories that seem wrong, the wars and the poverty and the lies, to name only a few. But inequality exists only in the human imagination, where we perceive that which we want more of and that which we want no more of. I cannot un-create what I do not want, but I can create what I do want. To understand this difference is freedom; to forget it is to be condemned instantly to the same prison where all wrong things go, whose cell door opens only when everyone in the world agrees that I am right.

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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Seeing Beauty

When I was a teenager I was a passionate fan of music, movies, and novels. I could not, however, have been less interested in politics. This was in the late 70s and early 80s, a time still very much influenced by the upheaval of the 60s, particularly in the arts. Art and politics had gotten all tangled up in the 60s. It sometimes seemed that the job of a serious artist was to call for societal change.

I disliked this supposed mandate because I wanted to be a serious artist, but I had no desire to demand, march, or argue for change. I wanted to create stuff that left people feeling as good as I felt after I read a book, listened to a song, or watched a movie I loved. One day I found myself a reading a review of the Talking Heads album “Speaking in Tongues.” I loved this album. So did the reviewer.

However, this reviewer was particularly pleased to see that David Byrne, the band’s founder and songwriter, had clearly evolved artistically. “He’s even starting to drop in some social commentary!” she wrote. Oh, I was mad. Isn’t it enough to make something beautiful? Do you also have to tell everyone what they must do differently for the world to be a beautiful place?

I’m much older now, and my opinion of the relationship between art and politics has changed. No, I still don’t like to mix the two together. I feel about this division the way I do about the division of church and state. But I am more aware of the difference between the ugliness of how people sometimes treat one another, and the beauty of the art people are capable of creating. How much nicer it would be to read a newspaper and be as uplifted as when I read my favorite novel or poem.

But beauty, you may have heard, is in the eye of the beholder, which is as true of newspapers as it is of paintings, poems, and people. If it’s beauty I want, I must choose to look for it everywhere. And if it’s beauty I wish to share in my work, then I must see that beauty before I can render it in a story. The world, or society, can’t give me that beauty, that truth, that equality. I must learn to see it for myself.

I like this job, though I sometimes complain that the world is doing all it can to make my job more difficult. There are days I look out my window and do not like what I see: darkness and cruelty born of the blindness of hatred. Fortunately, blindness can be a temporary affliction. It is only a consequence of looking in the wrong place for what I want. The moment I turn my attention to beauty’s source, I see it everywhere. The veil we sometimes cast over it is transparent to the eye attuned to what moves us all.

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

No Little Choices

So Election Day will be upon us in just a couple days, and if you haven’t voted already, I hope you do so on the day. I did not vote in the first two Presidential elections for which I was eligible. A child of the Seventies, I’d adopted the cynical attitude toward politics typical of that time. Watergate suggested that forces were at work that could not thwarted by single ballot. What difference did my vote make? Voting felt like tossing a message in a bottle into the ocean. As a young artist, I already spent enough time worrying about my own insignificance. I didn’t need one more reminder of it.

My decision to vote for the first time also coincided with my decision to write my first novel. I’d been writing stories and poems and sketch comedy since I was a boy, but now I was going to write a book, which I understood from the outset was going to take a while. Moreover, I did not outline: I found one little idea that seemed interesting and followed it until it lead me to another idea and then another idea and by and by I’d finished a first draft.

I learned early on that I could not concern myself with all that I did not know about the book I was writing. Whenever I did, I’d feel overwhelmed and as if I’d already failed. All my security and confidence lay in paying attention to the choices that stood immediately before me – the next scene, the next sentence, the next word. The more I cared about each choice, the more I paid attention to my preference for one word over another word, the more the book made sense to me even when I couldn’t perceive its entirety.

You could say this was also how I learned to vote. I looked at the two candidates that year and could feel my preference for one over the other and I decided that that preference mattered. It mattered even though I did not live in anything close to a “battle ground” state. It mattered because acting on that preference felt better than not acting on it, in the same way writing felt better than not writing. So I voted, and did not worry about the role my single vote played in that year’s election. I couldn’t worry about it – I had a book to rewrite, and I had to pay attention to the difference between what the book was and what I wanted it to be.

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