Life Story

If you wanted to learn how to lead a successful middle class American life, it would be tempting to observe from a scientific distance the form most of these lives take. With a little research, you would find that the majority of people go to school, where they do as well as they can so that they can get into the best college that they can where they study something more or less of interest to them. After college people usually get married and get a job doing this thing that interests them, and probably have children who in turn have children of their own and so the older middle class Americans now have grandchildren whom they dote upon between vacations until they– the grandparents, that is – die. The end.

Likewise, if you were to observe a typical story from a scientific distance you would also discover that most follow a familiar pattern: a hero wants something; the hero cannot have this something because of a weakness/fear/villain; the hero goes on a journey, either emotionally or physically, to learn what he or she must learn to get this thing. There will be a moment when the hero somehow faces death. Then the hero either gets the thing or doesn’t. The end.

If your life has followed the standard pattern – maybe exactly, maybe only vaguely – then you know that these connected events are not your life. No matter how closely your life resembles your neighbors’, you know that your life and your neighbors’ lives are wholly separate. You know, either consciously or unconsciously, that you must rise every day and ask the question, “Why am I leading this life?” And you know, either consciously or unconsciously, that the answer is entirely your own, and that the answer is your life.

I feel precisely the same about stories. I do not care that stories resemble one another in form. This pattern of a hero’s journey is not the story. The writer must ask himself, “Why am I telling this story?” The answer is the story – not the plot, not even the characters. Every day you sit down to write you must remember why you are writing your story, why it matters to you to tell it, and why it would matter to someone else to read it. The answer comes mysteriously every day, and we need not know why or from where, only that the story we are telling would have no life without 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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Your Job

If I was only allowed to give my writing students one piece of advice, it would this: Pay attention to how you feel. Not sure whether you should write fiction or non-fiction, romance or thrillers, literary fiction or memoir? Pay attention to how you feel when you consider each possibility. Which feels the most exciting to begin, and which feel the most effortless to return to?

Not sure if a scene is working? Pay attention to how you feel as you write and reread it. Do you feel interested as you write it, or are you just trying to get your character to the next scene? Do you actually care about this scene, or is it merely something you’ve intellectually decided belongs? It always feels better to be interested than disinterested, and your writing improves the instant you give your attention to something in which you’re authentically interested.

Not sure which word to use? Pay attention to how you feel as you choose it. Your story isn’t a jigsaw puzzle. In a jigsaw puzzle you see the piece snap into place. In a story, you either feel the word being received into the sentence, or feel yourself forcing it there. Learn the difference, honor the difference, and have the patience to wait until the right one comes along.

What a fantastic tool is our felt understanding of life. Every time we focus on something interesting and exciting we feel good, and every time we force ourselves to focus on something less interesting we feel less good. And every time we devote ourselves to what most interests us success flows to us with less and less effort, and every time we devote ourselves to what does not interest success comes slowly if at all. It is completely predictable and dependable. So that is your main job, you writers you: feel good. The rest will just come.

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

Found Authority

Every writer seeks his or her authority. It cannot be given to you as an award or a publishing contract is given to you. Your authority arises entirely from your relationship with your work, a relationship that occurs within a region unknown to anyone but you. You are the lone reporter on this battlefield, the only witness to this love affair, the sole survivor from this storm. There is no one to challenge your story, no competing point of view. We have no one to believe but you.

Do not ask us for your authority. We don’t possess it. We wouldn’t know what to give you, so we would mostly give you criticism or advice. We mean no harm, but it is uncomfortable to be asked for something you don’t have. It makes us feel inadequate. If pressed, we might describe what we believe our own authority would sound like, which would not sound like yours, and so you would believe you lack authority on anything.

What follows is an unhappy time in your life. You become quarrelsome. You notice how the world is full of lies and half-truths and imitation. You consider making a career out of complaint, assuming the thankless but apparently necessary job of reminding the world of its inadequacy. This brings you some attention but no pleasure. The more you look at it, the worse the world appears. It is a shadow realm, a cheap sound stage in which you have been asked to live a full life.

Sometimes there is no better place from which to find your authority. Once the world of form is stripped of all its meaning and all its power, what is left to you but that which is all meaning but no form? There is the true world in all its fullness, a companion that asks only that you stay long enough to remember its voice when you speak.
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

New Life

For several years in a row we grew sunflowers in our backyard. The sunflower is an impressive plant in full bloom, and from time to time I would wonder how I would render into words what I felt when I beheld them. We eventually bought a print of “Sunflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh and hung it in our living room. It seemed to me that Van Gogh had rendered with paint what I would have liked to render with words.

As I understand it, there are painters who replicate the works of The Masters, sometimes to be sold as expensive forgeries. Their technique is so refined that it generally takes an expert in the imitated artist’s work to tell whether a painting is a forgery or the real thing.

Whenever I hear artists, whether painters or writers or composers, discussing craft or technique I think of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and these highly skilled replicators. If a work of art were only a work of craft, of technique, why would anyone with such skill bother imitating what someone has already painted? Since you have the same skill as the masters, why bother with forgery?

The answer, of course, is that Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” was not a product of technique. Van Gogh perceived the beauty of the sunflowers within himself and translated this perception to the canvas. The technique aided greatly in this translation, but first and foremost came the perception. Moreover, after the perception and before the translation came the willingness to share what was neither Van Gogh’s nor the flowers’ but a marriage of the two.

This is not such a simple choice. The forger already knows how the world will receive what he is replicating. Van Gogh did not have this luxury before he dipped his brush. Such is the price you pay when creating something new. Technique without original perception is as dead as a hammer. Technique in service to perception can bring anything to 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

Learning From What We Already Know

One of the biggest differences between the established writers I know and many of the writers I teach or work with as clients is that the established writers don’t worry that much about what they don’t yet know. The beginning writers, meanwhile, worry constantly about what they don’t know, believing it is symptomatic of some shortcoming. A better writer, a smarter writer, a more talented writer, would not be so hamstrung by this swarm of unanswered questions that are keeping the new writers up at night.

In these writers’ defense, there’s an awful lot you start out not knowing, whether you’re writing a book, or selling a book, or marketing a book you’ve sold. Books themselves begin as the smallest of ideas: A lonely guy spots a young woman at a coffee shop; a serial killer visits a shopping mall; a girl pirate. From these small but fertile seeds grow the tree that is a complete story, full of characters, settings, plots and subplots, none of which the author knew when the idea first arrived. All the author knew was that she wanted to tell this story.

And yet that seed of an idea was enough. Now the author has a book. But how will she sell it? She doesn’t know which agent wants it, or which publisher, or which readers. Where to go next? I have learned that the answer to every such question always resides in exactly the same place. Without exception, what I already know teaches me what I need to know.

If I know I want to write about a girl pirate, then that knowledge – which I also call interest or excitement – will teach me, show me, guide me to what I need to know. It will teach me how to write and to how to sell it and how to market it. My job is always to focus on why I know the story is worth telling and worth sharing and from there discover the next step.

But if I move my attention to what I don’t yet know, if I dwell on the ending I haven’t found, or the agent I don’t have, I will feel as lost a student arriving to class without having read the previous day’s assignment. It is the very embodiment of insecurity, believing I am required to know what I don’t. It’s like trying to build a house without hammer or nails.

This insecurity is a failing only of trust, not intelligence or ability. It is hard to believe sometimes that from something so small as an interesting idea can grow something so big a book or a career. Yet it can. What’s more, on a good day I remember how lucky I am not to know something I would like to know. All these questions I haven’t answered become delicious excuses to return to what I know I interests me, to what I know I want spend more time thinking about writing and talking about. What I don’t know sends me back to the source, and the tree keeps growing and growing.

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 Marionette’s Song

Writers play a strange game with themselves sometimes. We sit at our desks and in one way or another ask the question, “What shall I feel today?” After all, to write about love, you must first feel love; to write about fear, you must feel fear. So too anger, frustration, shyness, curiosity, or vanity. First you feel it, then you write it. Sometimes we ask this question by wondering what our characters are feeling, and sometimes we ask this question by wondering what is going to happen in a given scene, and sometimes we ask it simply by wondering what we will write about that day.

However we ask it, the answer is always a feeling. That is what we are here to communicate: the felt knowledge of life. To forget this is to forget why we are writing.

At our desk, we choose what it is we will feel and what it is we will share. Sometimes at our desk we forget to ask what a scene or character or essay should feel like. As soon as we forget this, there are no right answers. We are lost in a forest of words and ideas without meaning.

Until we remember – and there we are again, and we finish our day’s work, and get up from the desk feeling like ourselves. Then we wander out into the world and we begin to play a strange game. We say, “There’s too much violence in the world; I must feel bad.” Or, “My boyfriend hasn’t called in two days; I must feel unlovable.” Now the world tells us how to feel. Now the world is the author of our lives, and we are its marionette characters.

So it often seems to me, I have to admit, but as any good fiction writer knows, the characters are there to tell you what will happen next, not the other way around. I can be no different. I don’t know what will happen from one moment to the next, but I know how I want to feel. The moment I remember this, I remember who I am, and the strings are cut, and I will do my dance only when it feels 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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Balancing Act

Writing can happen in one place and one place only: The Present Moment. It cannot happen in the past, though we might – while in the present moment – focus our attention upon some past event for inspiration or material. But the writing itself happens in the present moment. And of course it can’t happen in the future, that sometimes near, sometimes very distant land where the story we’re writing will live when it’s finished. All creation happens in the present moment, because that is all that actually exists.

I have to remind myself of this every time I sit down to write. How easy to let my attention drift into the past, where I believe all my failures reside. Failure always lives in the past, in whose shadows, like a moss, it can thrive. In the bright hot light of the present moment – in which life is only potential, in which life is only forgiving, in which life is only curious – the concept of failure has no purchase for its hopeless roots.

And how equally easy to let my attention drift into the future, where I believe the value of what I am creating in the present moment will be revealed. I don’t want to waste my time, after all. Why write something that no one wants to read? To ask such a question is to hold my stories hostage until such time as the ransom of other people’s approval has been paid.

Which is why I have learned to ask myself two questions while I write: What do I want to say? And, Have I said it? Only the present moment can answer these questions. But keeping my attention where it needs and actually wants to be is a kind of balancing act, pulled as I am to the past and future. Drift too far either way and I will fall. No matter. The support of the present moment remains ever true, and I need only return to standing to find myself where I have always been.

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

Privileged

If you’re a regular reader of these essays, you may have noticed that I often write about my many years spent working as a waiter. It is a rich source of material. I met a lot of people during that time, both coworkers and customers I served, and each taught me something about myself and life in ways both large and small.

Mostly, however, I write about how unhappy I was. I was unhappy because I was writing books that I couldn’t sell and because I didn’t know how to feel good about myself. I wanted something tangible I could point to as proof of my value and potential. I wanted to be proud of something I’d accomplished, and in those days, I felt I had nothing.

Which is exactly why I write so often about my time in the restaurants. And also why I like to write about some of the races I ran when I was young man. I actually won a bunch of those, for which I was awarded trophies and ribbons, but those aren’t the races I like to write about. I prefer to write about the races I lost, particularly the finals of State Championships my senior year in high school when I crashed into the second hurdle and finished last.

The first race I really remember winning was against my father. I was thirteen, and my mother suggested the competition, which my dad quickly agreed to. This was the same year my father went broke and found himself living in a slum and buying groceries with food stamps. That’s something else I like to write about.

I like to write about those times, because to write, I must sink into a dream that I make more real than the world I inhabit. I have to forget about the past and ignore the future and believe completely in something only I can perceive. To write, I must forget about what I can see and touch and call my own, and find again that intersection of curiosity and imagination, the source of everything valuable that has ever come to me.

I notice the word privilege is getting thrown around a lot lately. I understand that word is used in an attempt to level a playing field that appears, from certain perspectives, inherently unequal. But I have never trusted that word, steeped as it is in judgment. Nothing good in my life has ever grown out of judgment, whether that judgment was aimed at myself or at others.

Writing has taught me that our true equality can never be taken from us nor given to us. At some point, we all must learn that our value and potential has nothing to do with the house we live in, or the job we do, or what people think about us, or how many books we’ve sold or awards we’ve won. You can learn it in a mansion or in a tenement house. You can learn it after you’ve won the Pulitzer or after your hundredth rejection letter. The result will be the same. To learn it is to remember what you have always been and what you will always be and where to find what you have always been looking for.

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

Happy Endings

I have always been ambitious, which means I have spent a lot of time peering into the future to determine whether I am headed where I think I ought to be going. This is not unusual for writers. Though we love our time alone at the desk, though if pressed every writer easily admits there is no greater pleasure than immediate immersion in whatever story we are telling, curiosity alone can pull our attention to that dim horizon where the harvest of our labor waits.

Unfortunately, while curiosity is the tireless engine of creativity, the future, at least as I have tried to know it, is an ambition killer. My life sometimes feels like one of those stories I love to tell. When I love a story, I want to know how it’s going to end. I confess, I prefer happy endings. When it comes to my life, I require them. This is why I get so curious about the future. That’s where the ending waits for me, where I get the girl or win the race or die trying.

While my curiosity is fantastic at telling me what I’m interested in right now, it’s lousy at predicting the future. Every single time I ask myself, “What’s going to happen?” I’m met with shadows of uncertainty and specters of failure. Do this often enough and life hardly seems worth living. After all, I’ve now seen where I’m headed, and I don’t like it.

Until, of course, I find myself back at my desk, back in front of a blank page, back where my curiosity can do what it was meant to do. Asking myself to see the future is like asking a fish to climb a tree. But throw me into the water and say, “Find the current of what interests you most,” and I start swimming and swimming, happy to be where I am.

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

Dreaming Big

Like many writers I know, I had big dreams for myself when I began my first book. I imagined myself winning all the usual awards, appearing at the top of bestseller lists, and being invited to speak to thousands of people. I was embarrassed to share the specifics of these fantasies with anyone. As a writer, I knew a cliché when I saw one, and it seemed to me the story I dreamed for my life ought to be as original as I aimed to make the stories I crafted at my desk.

But what could I do? From where I stood, all I knew of the life I believed I wanted were those elements I could perceive and understand from a distance. Awards, massive sales, and large crowds seemed to match the bigness of the life I wished for myself. I was not interested in living a small life, which to me meant a limited life. There was no limit to what I could feel or desire or imagine. I had encountered no limit to how happy I could be, how interested I could be, or how curious I could be. Why then should I accept any other limit on my life?

For a very long time it seemed that all I could do was dream. I dreamt so often I got tired of dreaming. What had once served as a bright beacon for me in the night of my search had become a siren song. The more I pursued it, the less I found it. My life felt small and incomplete.

By and by, I found myself writing blogs. Blogs seemed small to me, because they weren’t books and I didn’t think anyone read them. Plus, I was writing them for a small magazine. Except the experience of writing them wasn’t small. It was the first time I’d written about creativity and spirituality and I was surprised how complete my interest was in this subject, and how peaceful I felt after I finished each little essay. That’s enough, I’d think. I was worried for myself, as it all seemed so small, but I couldn’t argue with my own contentment.

Then one day, a few months after publishing the first blog, I was sitting with a new friend. We found ourselves talking about writing when she mentioned how much she enjoyed my blogs. “You read them?” I asked. She laughed and said she had indeed read them. She went on to describe how comforted she felt after reading them. Hearing this reminded me of how I felt after I wrote them. How unexpected, I thought, and how satisfying.

I was surprised how content I felt to know that what I had written had reached and moved exactly one person. Yet it was also quite familiar. The experience of meeting this one reader was as full and complete and big an experience as a conversation with a friend, or cooking a delicious meal, or getting a new idea.

I would go on to meet more readers and sell books and speak to larger and larger groups of people. Yet no experience was really any bigger than any other, they were just different. My imagination is limitless, but it remains incapable of predicting the future. Just as I cannot perceive all the many details that make up a story until I write it, so too I cannot actually dream anything bigger and more complete than life itself.

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