Sharing Stories

I was giving a talk in Spokane shortly after the release of Write Within Yourself. In many ways, that book and this column constitute an ongoing story about writing. I’d heard a lot stories about writing over years, stories about how hard it is, and how you have to be lucky to have success at it, and how some people have talent and some just don’t. I did not like any of these stories, nor did I find them helpful.

So I started telling a different story, which led to the book and which brought me to Spokane. During the question and answer part of my talk a woman at the back the room raised her hand and stood up. “I don’t have a question,” she said. I leaned forward. She seemed to be on the verge of tears. “I just want to say what a relief it is to hear all this!”

She sat back down. I thanked her and told her how glad I was that something I wrote to help me had also helped someone else. But I’ve thought often of that woman since I met her. It is possible she will remember me as someone who changed her relationship to writing. Yet all I did was offer her permission to stop telling a story she had never wanted to tell in the first place. She was the one who decided that night to stop telling it. I was merely a convenient excuse to do so.

And what a relief it is when we stop telling crappy stories to ourselves. What a relief to stop bending our minds into some shape we decided at some weak moment was more acceptable than the shape it wants to take. What a relief to stop believing what makes us miserable to believe. The fever of self-loathing breaks, and when the sweat dries and we feel ourselves again in our natural form, we move in the direction we were meant to move, toward a story worth sharing with others.

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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Body and Soul

It doesn’t matter whether I am interviewing an award-winning literary writer on Author2Author or talking to a group of beginning writers at a writer’s conference, by and by the subject of money will likely come up. The established writer might wonder if he will “sell through” on his latest advance, while the beginning writer will ask if it is really possible to make a living at this and at what point can one quit one’s day job.

I think all the questions around writing and money really come down to this: Can I make a living doing something I would happily do for free? By the time a writer sits down to write, and then to try to publish that first book, he has likely been earning a living in some job or another. He often – though certainly not always – wouldn’t do that job unless he was paid to do so. This was certainly true of me. I made a living as a waiter for twenty years. It was good work, it fit my writing schedule nicely, but I wouldn’t have done it for one minute without the promise of payment.

I had to train myself to live like this, a training that began in school. I liked school well enough, the teachers were nice, I had friends, the work wasn’t hard – but if a foot of snow dropped and school was cancelled, I was overjoyed. Now I was free to do what I wanted, not what I had to. But this is life. You do what you have to do. You chop wood and carry the wood because you need a fire and if you don’t, it won’t get done. It’s called being an adult.

To write for a living, we must forget this training. Writing for a living contradicts the story most adults learn to accept. To write for a living, I must be willing to admit that the story I told to keep me safe and fed in the world, the story whose acceptance defined my manhood and maturity, was never more than that – a story. To write for a living means to create no separation between love and money, between joy and survival. Every time I am paid for what I would gladly do for free, I close that unfriendly gap between body and soul, and can forget that the world ever wanted anything from me other than exactly what I am.

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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It’s Happening

Something is always happening.

How much time does a writer spend in a day where nothing appears to be happening? How many cumulative hours idle and un-writing before the keyboard? How many days with no word from editors or agents or contest judges? Nothing is happening. We wander our homes and apartments, surrounded by the exact same books and furniture as the day before. We turn on the TV, and isn’t that another rerun of Law and Order? Why isn’t anything happening? What must I do to get things to finally start happening?

Nothing. Because something is always happening. Movement is the only constant of the universe. You were not idle at the computer, you were waiting. Waiting is the silent awareness of movement and change. You cannot make anything happen, because something is always happening. You can only choose what happening you will join.

Life in this way is one endless playground, but how often has the writer wandered its periphery? How often has he stood by the fence watching the games in progress? Something is happening for them, he thinks, but not for me. Lonely me. Now an idea comes to the writer, as ideas do, and he wanders with it along the fence, and it is an interesting idea, and for a time he has forgotten to tell the story of how nothing is happening and he is not wanted.

And as the writer wanders, some player spies him by the fence. What is happening there? the player wonders. Why does it look like he’s doing something when he’s doing nothing? How wonderful that must be to live without the knowledge that this game must end, and then begins the dull, uncertain nothingness between games. How nice it would be if the game never ended, if something were always happening.

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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The Saint Within

Every writer I know began as a young reader. Most read hungrily once they’d discovered the intimate pleasure of the written word. It feels like escape, this traveling through imaginary worlds. It does not matter what world you are reading about – whether it is the once-real world of Czarist Russia or the unreal world of Narnia – it is all imaginary, for your body is one place while your mind is in another.

But reading is actually the opposite of escape. No story can live without the reader’s emotional participation. The writer’s words are but directions to a place within the reader where sadness and joy and grief and curiosity and boredom and hope and despair reside. The words alone are a skeleton; the reader’s felt responses to those words are the flesh and blood of every story ever told.

What’s more, every story ever told grows from the same fertile thought: Life matters. It matters that someone fell in love or someone was crowned queen. It matters that a father and son were reunited. It matters that the killer was caught. Life is not just a bunch of meaningless crap that happens to us between birth and death. The story guides us to that place within us where we know life matters, where we know that we are interested for a reason, where we know that we matter and are living on purpose.

This is why stories and poems and songs were my church and my state growing up. I turned to them to remind me of what I so often forgot, what I so often lost track of in the hurly-burly of life’s circus. I had thought that I would need to make these heroes who’d saved me from myself less saintly, so that I could take my place beside them on the shelf. Instead, I found again the saint within me, the unblemished self who remains unaffected by my woeful stories of meaninglessness, who finishes the stories others had started, and who now begins my stories that others might finish.

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

Current of Life

I like to remind my students and clients that I am rarely in the mood to write when it is time for me to sit down and do so. It is not unusual for less experienced writers to think they don’t “have what it takes” because they are not constantly itching to get back to their story. If you love to write, you have what it takes. But writing does require a shift in focus from where most of us reside mentally most of the time. Once this shift occurs, we are in the mood to write.

I find it is not that hard a shift to make, especially because I have had a lot of practice making it. That shift reminds me of a common experience I have when I teach. I love teaching. I love teaching memoir classes, and I especially love teaching Fearless Writing Workshops and giving talks to writing groups. I love the energy of a roomful of people, and I love the opportunity to tell uplifting stories about writing and life. If a class or workshop goes particularly well, I am often left floating on a current of optimism and gratitude for the work I get to do.

And yet nearly every time the day of a class or workshop arrives, I try to squint and see into the future to know whether I will have a good time. I can’t see anything, and so I think, “Why am I doing this? Do I really want to do this? I could be home watching television.” It’s true. But I make myself go, and I have a great time, and I think, “Can’t wait to do that again!”

This has happened often enough that I have finally started ignoring my reticence to teach the way I have learned to ignore my mood before I write. It is the practice of believing in what I have known but what I cannot currently perceive. How easy it is to doubt what I have loved doing, only because I am not doing it. Caught in the slow tide of whatever domestic chore I must complete, the swift waters of creativity and teaching seem like a dream, the kind of thing only other people get to experience every day. There are no other people. There are only all of us, and the current of life we can remember or forget.

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

The Truth

I love to teach as much as I love to write, and I teach and write for precisely the same reason. The reason I teach is not to share secrets of craft, though I am a bit of craft geek and I enjoy talking to people about narrative arcs, and showing and not telling. Nor do I teach to offer insider information on the publishing world, though I am happy to do so, if only to eradicate the idea of insiders and outsiders.

In fact, I am not really interested in teaching writing, though it serves as a handy excuse to do what I love to do, which is tell the truth. That’s why I teach and that’s why I write. To tell the truth, my words must match my feelings. If I say I am happy but I feel worried, I am not telling the truth. If I say writing is at its core effortless, but I believe and feel that it is like working in a salt mine, I am not telling the truth. To tell the truth, whether in the class or on the page, I must first feel what I wish to say.

Fortunately, most of what I teach and most of what I write boils down to this: Everything is okay. That’s it. You can all go home now. Everything is okay. Everything is okay and always has been okay. You would think that three words would not be enough to inspire the 1,000-plus blogs I’ve written nor fill a four-hour master class, but they most certainly can and have. Everything, you see, does not appear to be okay. Quite the opposite, really. And so I need constant reminding.

And what better way to remember than to tell someone else that everything is okay. To tell someone else the truth I must first find that place within me where I know that everything is okay. I lose track of it constantly. And then I find it again. And then I lose it. And then I find it again. Every time I find it, whether on the page or in the class or even watering my lawn, the world tells me the truth right back. Every time I find it, what I feel, and then what I say, and finally what I see are the same. To find that balance is the only reason I do anything.

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

The Comfort Zone

I like to simplify things, and if I had to simplify writing, I would say it’s about learning the difference between the comfort of the right word, sentence, or story, and the discomfort of the wrong word, sentence, or story. In this way, writing is a continuous and deliberate aligning with comfort and effortlessness. I am tempted to say it is a search for comfort, but this would suggest a finite destination. Rather this comfort is like balance, something I find again and again and again.

But maybe you’re familiar with the phrase, “Getting out of your comfort zone.” This seems like good advice. Quit paddling around the same old pond. There’s a whole world out there, if you’d just be willing pick up your boat and drop it in some new river. When I was feeling very stuck in my life many years ago, my wife suggested I try one new thing. “Just one,” she pleaded. So I took a writing class.

I was not a fan of writing instruction. I’d been writing all my life and I preferred hands-on learning to classrooms. Yet it was just the experience I needed. I had created a kind of cocoon for myself, within which I was safe from other people’s opinion of my work. I believed I would crumble if someone told me they didn’t like something I’d written. Turns out it was not such a big deal. In many ways, that class was the first of many changes that led me to this essay I am writing today.

I do not think, however, that the class took me out of my comfort zone. It was actually leading me toward my comfort zone. I had grown so consistently uncomfortable that I began to call it normal. Gradually, I started noticing the kind of story I felt comfortable writing, and the kind of story I was making myself write. Gradually, I decided there was no actual benefit in making myself do anything.

The beauty of true comfort zones is that they are not stationary. Growth is life’s constant, inevitable result. I couldn’t stop myself from growing any more than I could command my apple tree to stop bending toward the light. So I must wake up every day and find again what I found – or, sometimes, did not find – the day before. Though it has moved slightly, the experience of aligning with it has not changed at all. It always feels like coming home, a place where I can comfortably remember who I am.

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

Choosing Confidence

Writing is all about making choices. I must choose every character, every storyline, every scene, every sentence, every word. Nothing happens until I make a choice. Choices can be erased, modified, or extended, but they must be made. Without choice, there is only the potential of a story, but no story itself.

However, I cannot choose something unless I know it exists. I cannot choose to use the word, say, “sesquipedalian” unless I know it exists. I had never heard of that word until I was forty. Now I choose to use it from time to time, if only for comic effect. For the forty years that I never used the word it always existed, only not in my awareness – which, as far the choices I can make are concerned, is the only reality that matters.

Which is why it’s nice to expand your vocabulary, or read about the world, or take yourself on periodic adventures, or try new wines, or listen to new music. All these things give us new choices. But maybe more useful than all this exploration is this simple question: If I could change one thing about myself, what would it be?

I used to wish I could stay calm when I was in conflict with another person. During every argument or disagreement I felt as if I were being given a test for which I neglected to study. Everything I said and did was guesswork, and all I wanted was for the argument to end so I could go back to feeling confident in my choices. And then one day my wife and I were in an argument, and I wanted it to be over so I could go back to being her friend. But on this day I tried something different. I thought, “What if, when I talk to her, I go to the same place I go when I write?”

All at once I had confidence, and the argument dissolved quickly. It was nothing short of miraculous. My confidence had always been available to me in arguments; I had just mislabeled it. What I had called imagination was really love, and I can never be more confident than when I am focused on what I love. I still forget what real confidence is, but no matter – I can choose it exactly as often as I remember where to find it.

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

Life Lessons

Writing has taught me that the only real currency that people value is how we feel. As a writer I never write about what is happening, I am writing about how a character feels while something happening. I do not report on the fact of the rain, I write about what it feels like to stand in the rain, or be chased by a killer, or see the woman I love, or be stuck in traffic. The feeling is the experience. The environment – whether it’s the rain, or a killer, or traffic – are merely opportunities for the reader (and often the writer) to learn who that character is. The character that sings in traffic to cheer himself up is different than the character that angrily honks his horn at the other drivers.

As a writer – as an author – I ultimately want to sell what I’ve written. As a fellow human, I know that I buy stuff that I think is valuable. That’s why I know I’m selling my readers a feeling. I’m a feeling merchant. My readers will forget most of what I write about, but if what I’ve written resonates with them, they will remember how they felt at the end of the story. Which is why I must be deliberate in choosing what my stories feel like. The feeling the story wants to share dictates what will happen in it, never the other way around.

It took me many years, but eventually I began to apply this same awareness to my whole life. It is my job, as the author of my life, to choose how I want to feel in any situation and then use that situation to learn how to feel that way. And by the way, I only want to feel good. I only want to feel peaceful and safe and interested and valuable and loved. There has never been a single moment in my life when I have wanted to feel bored, or agitated, or valueless, or unloved. And yet I have felt that way often. And every time I did, it is because I believed the situation required it of me.

This is what happens when I forget I am the author, not a character. Characters in my stories don’t get to choose how they feel. Sometimes the story needs them to be happy and sometimes the story needs them to be sad. Their feelings are in service to something bigger, which is the gift I ultimately want to share with my readers. As the author of my life, I cannot always choose what is happening, but I can always choose how I want to feel while it is happening. No one and nothing can stop me from making that choice.

I know I won’t always succeed immediately. Some situations are more challenging than others. It is easier to feel loved when someone says, “I love you” than when they say, “I hate you.” But failure in this case is only delayed learning, just as rejection letters are delayed acceptance letters. If I choose how I want to feel, success is inevitable, though I may have to learn the many lessons time kindly provides.

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

Fearless Querying

I fell in love with The Beatles when I was a boy. I loved every song on every album, except one song—Paperback Writer. Mind you, it was driven by a great guitar riff and was toe-tappingly catchy, but the lyrics were too painful for my eight-year-old heart to bear. If you’re unfamiliar, the entire song is a letter to a publishing house asking—no begging—a “Sir or Madame” to read this aspiring author’s book. Though I did not yet know I would pursue a book-writing career as an adult, I could already feel my loathing for the strange form of communication that is the query letter.

Read the rest at the Writer’s Digest blog . . .

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