The Show Must Go On

Many years ago, I wrote a sketch comedy show with my brother, John, and my pianist friend, Dale. It was always a lot of fun creating the show. John and I would write the sketches and then share the drafts with one another, and we’d make them funnier together. Then we’d bring in Dale and he’d add music and we’d rehearse the pieces and they’d change again, altered organically as they moved from the two-dimensional page to the three-dimensional stage.

I was a bit surprised how much I enjoyed putting the show together. I was a writer first and an actor second, so I was used to creating things alone. As a fiction writer, I was every actor, director, lighting man, and choreographer. Yet I loved working with other people, loved watching how ideas I had had in the supreme privacy of my desk took on new shape in John and Dale’s imaginations, and I loved how their ideas inspired new ideas in me, and then my new ideas inspired ideas in them.

But plays are meant to be performed, so I had my artist friend Gorham make up some posters for us that John and I tacked up all over town. Eventually the night would come, and we three would be waiting back stage, listening to the building murmur of the arriving crowd. There was always a moment, shortly before the show began, when I would think, “What have I done?” I could feel the energy of the crowd, could feel how this night I had asked for and planned for was about to be turned over to something bigger than John, Dale, and me.

And then the curtain would rise, and we’d be in the lights, and there was the audience, the final ingredient in this creative stew. The show we rehearsed was never the show we performed. It was always different, because every crowd was different. The crowd was not aware of their role in the show, but I came to understand that the separation between actor and audience was an illusion. They finished what we had started, and every night we gave away what we had called ours, gave it to them, who gave us their attention and created something new.

 

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Still Free

Writers may ply their craft from the comfort of their favorite chair, but do not mistake what we do for sedentary work. Writing is all about movement, though it is the mysterious and limitless movement of thought. Every scene, every sentence, every word is a movement in a specific direction. Because thought can travel in literally any direction, we writers spend much of our time seeking the right direction. That direction is always the effortless direction, the path that the story, poem, or essay wishes to travel.

There is no better feeling than when I have found that path and am travelling it quickly. Now, choices seem to make themselves, though in truth I am still making them, only so rapidly and so certainly that they don’t feel like choices, just the next step on a clear and interesting path. Gone is that life-draining uncertainty from which all movement seems perilous, where every step might lead to some cliff of failure obscured by the shadow of time. I am free.

It feels so good to move in this way – to be caught and running in a fast-flowing stream of thought – that I can mistake all other experiences for compromises, a life settled for rather than a life explored. Worst of all is stillness, which can feel like the end of movement, the end of choices, the end of joy; the last, dull destination on a path to nowhere.

Except stillness is like the blank page itself, the source and fertile ground for all movement. Just as it is easier to find my balance standing still than walking a balance beam, so too it is easier to find that first effortless thought from a still mind rather than a mind racing to find some movement it can call success. To sit in my chair, to face that blank page, is to reacquaint myself with effortlessness in its simplest state. Once I remember what it feels like, I can proceed with my first step, and before long I am off and running.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Form and Substance

One of my favorite writing stories is one Gary Zukav told me about the first time he tried to write. Zukav decided he wanted to be a writer. So he bought a book on How To Be A Writer, read it, sat down at the typewriter one day, rolled up his sleeves – and realized he had nothing he wanted to write about. That was the end of his first attempt.

A few years later he met some physicists who were discussing quantum physics. He thought it was fascinating. So fascinating, he kept hanging around with them, even though he was not a scientist and had never liked math. Eventually, he wrote The Dancing Wu Li Masters, which became a bestseller and won the American Book Award for Science, and his life as a writer and spiritual teacher was born.

It’s a great story, but in a way, it’s every writer’s story. Writing is only a form of expression. Like a lot of writers, Zukav recognized it as a form that would serve some greater need for him. But like some writers, he at first mistook the servant for the master, he mistook form for substance. The act of writing itself has no substance whatsoever. It has no inherent direction. Go wander a library and notice all the books there. Each is its own direction. The directions writing can take us are literally limitless – a fact that requires us to make some rather definite choices.

It is not always easy to make these choices. If you are an adult person, you have probably spent a lot time navigating the world of form – the form of jobs, the form of relationships, and the form of books themselves, these objects you can hold in your hand, and on whose cover you might one day like to see the form that is your name. This world of form seems to be where you live and love and succeed.

But to make the choice a writer must make, you must eventually direct your attention elsewhere, away entirely from the world of form and toward that which desires to be given form. It is a blessedly happy moment when you at last perceive writing and life’s true substance, but if you are like me, this choice comes with some trepidation. It can feel as if I am asking myself to walk blindly, to take my eyes off the hard edges of the world that so wounded me when I become distracted. In truth, it was the world that distracted me in the first place, and to seek writing’s source is to teach myself to see.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

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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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Learning to Listen

Writers come in every conceivable shape, size, color, and age. We tell every variety of stories. Some of us write in the middle of the night and some in the wee hours of morning. Despite all these many differences, nearly all the writers I know have this in common: we like to be alone. We’d better. With but a few exceptions, our work – before editors and proofreaders have their say – is entirely, supremely, exquisitely solitary.

And by solitary I don’t just mean we are physically alone. Some of us like to write in cafés or airport terminals. But where we’re sitting has nothing to do with where we are actually writing. Our writing always occurs in a realm utterly and forever unknowable to anyone but ourselves. Oh, the pleasure of slipping into that world from which any world can be borne, to listen to a voice only I can hear. To lose myself entirely in that world, to forget entirely about the world in which I sit, is to feel as free as I have ever felt.

Yet it is precisely because our work is so solitary, it is precisely because we must listen to voices only we can hear, that writing invites us to listen to that other voice, the voice of doubt. I sometimes feel as if my entire writing life has been one long practice in learning the difference between the one voice and the other. The results are always as clear as black and white, but those clear differences do not come until I have made a choice, a choice no can make for me, a choice only I am aware needs to be made.

The choice is always between being small and being what I actually am. After all, where those voices speak has no limits. Here, horizons are just unexplored possibilities. Doubt can feel like the swaddling a newborn craves, a boundary against endlessness, but my true safety lies in exploration. Doubt would always have me stay where I am, whereas what I am is always calling me forward toward more of myself.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

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

Discovery

Though I write only non-fiction these days (personal essays and memoir) I spent a little over two decades writing only fiction. This background served me very well from a craft standpoint – the fiction writer learns very early that he must show at every turn rather than telling – but perhaps more importantly I learned that the foundation of all writing is discovery.

Again, this is sometimes easier for the fiction writer to perceive than the non-fiction writer. After all, fiction writing is all discovery. When I wrote fiction I began with the smallest seed of an idea and then set about to discover everything that would grow from it. Most of that was discovered during the actual writing. Typically, I would begin a scene with little more than this: Joe goes to go the hardware store and meets his ex-wife and gets into an argument with her. Then I would start writing and see what happens. Sometimes Joe wouldn’t even meet his wife. That was the pleasure of it all.

But the non-fiction writer, by definition, isn’t making anything up. The non-fiction writer writes about what is. Except we aren’t, really. I write essays and memoirs to discover why it is I know what I think I know. No matter how many times I’ve told a story before I write it, no matter how thoroughly I’ve thought through an idea before I write an essay about it, I always leave room within my writer’s imagination for something new about this story or idea to come.

And almost always that something new is my role in the troubles my stories or essays are depicting. The temptation to lay all the blame for the problems of the world on others remains great. Let me tell you what’s been done to me, or let me tell you all how you should behave so that we might straighten out this mess. Such is my response when I believe the world I behold was made by others. That I must look within to find the world I perceive is more than a bumper sticker, it is the only direction my writing journeys have ever taken me.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

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 Greater Good

When I was a waiter my bosses always wanted me to “upsell.” This is the practice of talking customers into buying an appetizer they hadn’t ordered or recommending the Australian lobster tail rather than the halibut. It makes a certain sense from a business standpoint. We were a fine dining restaurant and wanted to “maximize sales” on each table. From a waiter’s standpoint it made sense also: the higher my sales, the more tips I’d make.

Yet I refused to upsell. I focused instead on helping the customers have the best possible experience they could have. I believed that if they felt as though I were trying to squeeze an extra few bucks out of them, they would feel more used than cared for. I reasoned that I could make just as much money by caring more about service than sales.

I did not know it then, but I was getting a glimpse into a dynamic that is always at play in every business arrangement – even writing. Namely, an individual’s needs versus society’s needs. Customers, or society, don’t give two figs about the restaurant’s bottom line. Customers want to enjoy themselves. A business, meanwhile, wants to make money. Whether I’m waiting tables, running a restaurant, or selling books, it can seem sometimes as though my only focus is extracting as much money from other people as possible, so that I can go on living and writing.

In a way, my choice not to upsell was a kind of experiment. What if, I reasoned, the customer’s needs could be my own? What if there was no difference between what I needed and what other people needed? As it happens, the more I focused just on service and not on sales, the more money I made. It was a happy arrangement.

But if I’m honest, the choice not to upsell served my most immediate needs as well. I didn’t like how it felt when I tried to sell rather than serve. It felt dishonest. Service, meanwhile, always felt good. After all, I was a human first and a waiter second, just as the people I was serving were humans first and customers second. Service became a means of connecting on a human level rather than a commercial level.

I started having success as a writer when I saw it as service, not sales. Instead of asking what I could write that could get someone to buy what I’d written, I asked myself what I would most like to share with other people. What if the kind of story that uplifted me, that served my life, might serve others? You already know how this story ends, because you already know that we all meet each other in our shared desire to know life as an act of love.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Inner Critic

Some writers embrace criticism, and some do not. When I spoke to Wally Lamb, he shared with me that he is a member of three writing groups, all of whom read and critique his work. Meanwhile, Louis Sachar shares not one shred of what he is writing with anyone – except the title – until the book is completely finished. I was once on a panel with Deb Caletti, Megan Chance, and Jennie Shortridge, all of whom described the outrage they first experience upon receiving a red-gashed manuscript back from their beloved editors. Compare this to N. D. Wilson who craves the “resistance” an editor’s feedback provides, without which he feels his work grows soft.

It is easy for me to become disoriented when the horns of criticism begin blaring in my ear. I write to hear myself, after all; why am I listening to these other people? Yet what is writing but sifting through thoughts until I find one that serves the story I am trying to tell? And what is a criticism but a thought that comes from someone else? Regardless of where it comes from, every thought must in the end be put to the same test—namely, measured against the shape of the story to understand if it fits.

Which is why criticism is so much more useful than how it might or might not strengthen my story. I cannot be reminded often enough of the difference between the thoughts that blow ceaselessly through my mind, and me. How often I have mistaken one for the other, and in that instant my wellbeing feels as transient as a word waiting beneath an uncertain eraser. I remember who I am the moment that word is gone and I awaken to find myself holding the pencil.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

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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

Adventures in Marketing

I was twenty-two and had written a batch of poems in a brief creative dash. It had been years since I had finished so much as a short story, and the satisfaction of having something completed, even if it was only eight lines, was addictive. Plus most of my poems were like little monologues, and I loved the theater, so it was a happy discovery that I could marry these art forms.

My mother’s friend Tina also loved poetry, so much so that she had started her own literary journal. Word trickled down to me that Tina would be hosting a poetry reading at the University of Rhode Island, and if I wanted to I could participate. I was quite nervous waiting my turn there in the classroom with all the other poets, but when the moment arrived, and I laid my poems on the lectern and started reading, it was just more theater, and it was great fun sharing these little pieces that had so pleased me with other people and seeing that these people seemed to be pleased as well.

A week after the poetry reading I got a call from Tina. What a success the reading had been! You were a hit, she said. The actor in me enjoyed that. I would do another poetry reading shortly thereafter and I enjoyed it every bit as much as the first. Then I got another call from Tina. She wanted to publish some of my poems in the upcoming edition of her journal. Would that be okay? I said it most certainly would be okay. And that was how my work was published for the first time.

Here is what I knew back then: I knew that I loved to read certain poets, and that I loved to write poetry. I loved both the freedom poetry afforded me, as well as the economy it required, and I loved the energy of performing. What I did not know was that those poetry readings were my first adventures in marketing. My poems were published because I had found a means to expose my work to other people such that opportunities that had not previously been available were now available.

Except it didn’t feel like marketing because I wasn’t trying to sell anything, or get published, or get exposure. I wasn’t trying to get anything. I just wanted to share something that felt good to share. That is all “marketing” needs to be. In fact, to call it anything else is a lie. To call it anything else is to say that I do not love what I love, and that I do not believe the world will be better off with more of what I love in it – which, though I have spent many years doubting this is so, remains the only truth to which I can reliably return.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

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

Giving and Receiving

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve recently spent more time than usual following politics. Listening to politicians reminds me of watching a skillfully written stage drama. The best dialogue always has the characters saying one thing and meaning another. The husband might say he’s angry with his wife for overcooking the broccoli, when really, he’s upset because he believes she doesn’t respect him.

With politics, all the arguments and accusations about taxes and regulations and jobs stems from the eternal, persistent, uncomfortable fact that some people have more money than other people. This bothers nearly everybody. If you don’t have as much of it as you want, you might view those who have more with deep and bitter suspicion; and if you do have more of it, you might believe that those who have less spend all their days plotting how to take yours from you.

Unfortunately, no tax code or regulation will ever cure humanity of envy and greed. Because neither the “haves” or “have-nots” actually care about money; they just want to be happy and have mistaken money for the source of that happiness. I have made this mistake myself, though not so much with money. As a writer, I envied other writers who received more attention than I had – attention from other people, that is. Attention in the form of sales, of reviews, of crowds at their readings. These things looked to me like love and appreciation. Who would not be happier with more love and more appreciation?

I was correct that those writers I envied had received more attention than I; I was just incorrect about the source of that attention. I began to see my own sales, and reviews, and crowds when I gave myself my full attention. Everything I value in my life grew from giving my full attention to what interests me most, for no other reason other than it felt good to do so. That is the magic formula for success.

Of course, one can rid oneself of greed and envy as quickly as changing one’s mind. It’s always slower when you bring more people into the equation. I must remind myself of this as I marinate in the simmering pot of daily news. Everyone wants to be happy. Many, many of us aren’t. How loud we all get when we’re unhappy, and how tempted we are to blame other people for that unhappiness. Meanwhile, what is calling to each of us waits patiently for our attention, waits for us to give so that we might in turn receive.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

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

Little Altars

When I was twenty, I tried reading James Joyce’s Ulysses for the first time. Ulysses is a big book where not a lot happens. I didn’t get very far that first time because I mistook it for a novel, when really, it is a 600-page poem. Still, I liked what I did manage to read. In fact I liked what I read because not a lot happened. In Joyce’s fictional world, nothing was inconsequential; everything, from pear soap to shaving cream to a daydream, was worthy of being rendered in complete and loving detail.

I found this inspiring. Not a lot seemed to be happening in my life then. I drank coffee, I hung out with my friends, I took walks, I tended bar. The parts of one day seemed interchangeable with the parts of the next. And yet, even within these quiet days, if my attention settled completely on the coffee or the conversation or the street I was crossing, I could feel the value and poignancy of life as completely as when I won a race or when then the girl I loved said goodbye.

But because I was still a young writer, I had put Joyce on a kind of artistic altar. He had done what only a chosen few could manage. While any moment in any city at any time could serve as a portal through which to glimpse life’s inherent beauty, not anyone could render what they viewed through that portal. Sometimes when I tried and failed to do so, I despaired, not just because I might lack that which was called talent, but because I feared that what I hoped to share didn’t actually exist. I’d imagined it. What Joyce showed me was just his genius, which belonged to him alone and could not be shared.

I would eventually reread Ulysses, and quite enjoy it, until I reached a particularly experimental chapter and had to give up. I felt as if I were translating a foreign text, and I lost interest. I did not, however, lose interest in writing about all those little moments that felt so valuable to me. In fact, Ulysses still served as a kind of inspiration. It was, after all, a story about the heroic in the everyday. I had to take Joyce off the altar on which I’d placed him, and put life on that altar instead. Now I could see more clearly what I was trying to render, and now it belonged to everyone, including me.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

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