The Connecting Thread

My son Sawyer spent the better part of the first eleven years of his life talking almost exclusively to himself. He could talk to others; he just usually chose not to, a choice that led to a diagnosis of autism. It was always somewhat of a mystery to us why he mostly talked to himself – though, as a writer, I had my suspicions. These were confirmed recently when Sawyer, now eighteen, confessed, “When I was a kid I loved you and Mom, but I just didn’t want to deal with you.”

He was like every author I know in this way, which I’ll get back to in a moment. Sawyer is now very concerned about his future. Because he’s been homeschooled for the last six years, he’s not sure he’s adequately prepared for a successful adult life. Plus, there’s still the autism thing. The other day he asked, “Is there something wrong with my brain? Sometimes I just can’t seem to put my words together.”

“There’s nothing wrong with your brain,” I said. “Your only problem is you hardly talked to other people for your first ten or eleven years. You really don’t learn how to communicate until you have to figure out how to help someone else understand what you understand. It’s never as simple as you think. You just need more practice, that’s all.”

Sawyer continues to teach me why authors become authors. I’ve kept a journal on and off for most of my adult life, and in it I talk to myself. While I often learn something in doing so, it is never as satisfying as when I write for publication. The problem is those other people who will read what I’ve published. I love them, but I don’t want to deal with their myriad likes and dislikes. Everyone is so goddamned unique. How easy it is to be misunderstood, and how frustrating when it happens. Sometimes Emily Dickenson’s choice to publish nothing at all seems like the best.

I think every author’s a little autistic in this way. To a bunch of eager introverts, comfortable being alone, the great ocean of other people can seem a tad unfriendly. Yet to this day the greatest comfort I have known has come from learning how to share what I love with those other people, whether they are my family or complete strangers. It takes a lot of practice, but to find the connecting thread of language is more than a gymnast’s triumph of mere skill – it is a reminder that to retreat from others is to retreat from myself.

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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No Exaggeration

My younger brother John is a natural storyteller, which is to say he is not afraid to exaggerate. When we were boys, it seemed sometimes as if he lived in an elementary school soap opera peopled with Shakespearean-sized villains and heroes. One day after school he kept me rapt with a tale of his narrow escape from a mysterious group of predatory teenagers. Sensing the totality of my hypnosis, he went so far to stop mid-yarn and declare, “Wait! I hear them. No—it was just a dog.”

My mother, slightly less gullible than I, eventually caught him in a more conspicuous exaggeration and observed, “Making life a little more interesting?” John always appreciated the delicacy with which she handled this moment. As he explained to me years later, he lived his early life feeling as if I, two years his senior, had already done everything interesting someone his age might do, a perception I am certain I did nothing to discourage.

But as I said, he’s a natural storyteller, and he wasn’t about to let something so disposable as the facts get in the way of Job One, which was entertaining his listeners – or, more to the point, telling a story that accurately reflected life as he had lived it. I don’t have to live in his or anyone’s skin to know that his life meant as much to him as mine did to me. Sometimes the storyteller is confronted with the conundrum of a day’s routine events not seeming to match the depth at which he lived them.

So I have no problem with exaggerators. But I also know that I do not have to climb Mount Everest to find a worthy view. In fact, I do not even have to leave my desk. From time to time we storytellers luck out, and an event comes along so startling on its surface that it seems to do all our work for us. More often, however, we are left with days so similar to the last they could be laid one on top of the other like pancakes. I decline to call such hours meaningless. Let the historians mark the days as big or small; I reserve the right to find meaning in them all.

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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Useful Obscurity

About a year before I started writing Author, before I began interviewing writers and, most importantly, before I began writing this blog, I started my own blog. I had just left the restaurant where I had worked for seventeen years, and I hadn’t yet found any meaningful work to replace it. And so, about three times a week, I would take my laptop to a nearby coffee shop, order a non-fat latte, and write a blog.

It is the only time in my life I’ve written in a café. I wrote there so I could get out of the house. I enjoyed my time with my latte and my blog. The blog was about creativity and spirituality. I had never written about the intersection of these two subjects, and I discovered I quite liked doing so. Perhaps my favorite part about that first blog, however, was the fact no one was reading it.

This was immeasurably helpful. I could technically publish it – that is, put it out there where anyone who wanted to could find it – without concerning myself about what anyone thought about it because, as far as I could tell, the blog remained an undiscovered treasure. I’m sure someone was reading it, but I didn’t concern myself with these phantoms. Real readers would have only gummed up the works.

Just about the time I was ready to let someone read what I was writing, I founded Author and wrote my first of many blogs for the magazine. I prefer having my work read, but I remain ever grateful for that year of Internet obscurity. In many ways, I am still writing the first blog, still pretending I am alone, so that I might hear what it was I actually want to share 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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Know Your Job

Up until the end of his fourth grade in school, getting my eldest son Max to do his homework was an exhausting exercise in parenting gymnastics. My wife invented games and songs and stories to make his work seem as friendly as possible. We created rules and rewards. We took his Gameboy away and we gave his Gameboy back. None of it worked. Every night was a competition between what he needed to do for school and what he wanted to do for himself.

One night I helped him write a report on John Adams. There was the blank page. His page was exactly as blank as mine when I sat at my desk every morning. Only he could fill it. I offered him prompts. I asked him questions about John Adams. I even suggested outlining his one page paper. By the end, I did everything but stick the pen between his fingers and move pen and fist across the page.

Then, one evening, Max took his homework into his room and did it without our assistance. When my wife asked if he needed help, he shooed her away. That was that. He eventually told us that he came to understand that school was a game he needed to play if he wanted to do certain things later in life. Now he and school were aligned, and we were no longer necessary.

Sometimes when I am trying very hard to write a book, I feel as if I am back in Max’s bedroom working on that John Adams paper. No matter how creative I was, no matter how supportive I was, I couldn’t do Max’s job. Likewise with the stories I would like to tell. My job is to be curious and open and keep asking questions; my imagination’s job is to do every thing else. I’ve tried to do both jobs and I am left feeling like a failure. No wonder. I’ve given myself an impossible task.

But when I remember my job and how simple it is, I feel like a success again. I know how to be curious, I know how to be open, and I know how to ask questions. That’s easy. In fact, it’s so easy I have to remind myself every day what my job is and what my job isn’t. And when our work is done, and if I have been disciplined about doing only my job, I leave my desk aligned with an ambition that knows only success.

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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A Perfect Companion

Every story, play, poem or essay is a journey home. Only the author knows where home is. He knew where home was the moment he set out, though in finding it again, he will know it better than before he left.

Along the way, the author will become lost in details and the endless choices open to him. At such times it will seem as though he has forgotten what home looks and feels like. In this dream of forgetting he might believe he does not actually know where he is going or how to get there. He will look to the world to tell him. The world is fantastically accurate at telling you where you are. There are landmarks and road signs; there are friends and even strangers who will tell you also. But if you ask those friends or strangers, “How do I get home?” they will begin describing the route they know to the home they know. To follow these directions is to become more lost than before.

Now the author might begin to hate the world. It and all its people are useless to him, and have abandoned him in this hour of need. He sees that the world is devoid of meaning and purpose, a giant rock where life is born just to die, and every road bends back on itself. He’s through with the world. He is done looking to it for anything.

Yet even in what he calls giving up, he discovers that he is not done looking. In fact, with his mind at rest and his attention with nowhere else to go, he soon finds the trail he’d left. Suddenly the world is useful again, telling him in one glimpse where he is in relation to where he wants to go. The world is a perfect companion, he thinks as he sets off again. It leaves him alone, but never leaves him, until he has found again his garden gate, and his wandering for the day is done.

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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Choosing Games

It is not unusual when I am teaching a workshop at a conference or interviewing a writer to find myself talking about money. These conversations always remind me of the squabbles my wife and I have over money, because those squabbles are never actually about money. Usually we’re squabbling about safety, or our own creative potential, but money is so tangible and measureable and necessary that it seems simpler just to argue about whether we should buy that new sofa than about where safety does or does not exist.

Money reminds me of a race I ran in second grade. Our teacher lined every student up at one end of the playground and told us to run as fast we could to the wall at the other end of the playground. First one there was the winner. She yelled go and I ran. I loved running. I loved harnessing all my body’s energy, and I even loved the race, as it provided a reason to do so. On that day, I was the first to reach the wall.

But as I touched the wall, and looked down the line at all the other boys and girls finishing after me, I had an unusual thought for an eight year-old: The only reason I won, it occurred to me, wasn’t that I was faster than the rest of them, but that I was the one who was most fully committed to the race. All my energy had been focused in one place and for one purpose, but from where I stood, I could feel how the other children’s energy had been split, and that made all the difference.

The problem with that race was that everyone had to run it whether they wanted to or not. In this way, though we all started and ended in the same place, it was not a fair race. Yet once it was run, everyone had to contend with the questions that always arise within us when we compare ourselves to others. Some would remember their indifference to the race and dismiss these questions; others, I am sure, did not.

Making money is a lot like a game we are all made to play. As we line ourselves up at the starting line of adulthood, money can seem to be a universal measurement upon which everyone’s value is based. After all, everyone wants it, and everyone would like more of it, and some succeed in making lots and lots of it and some do not. I was one of those who did not.

I did not because my energy was split. I am a writer. I do not write to make money. I write because I love to write. I had written stories since I was a boy. In this way, writing was like play. Earning money, meanwhile, seemed like the most adult thing I could do. And so I played a game I didn’t want to play: the game of making money for money’s sake. I thought it was a stupid game, but I was still unhappy when I lost at it.

I lost and lost and lost at it until I decided to play a different game: I would see how much money I could make doing something I would happily do for free. I knew when I began playing this game that I did not really understand the rules, nor was I very good at it. No matter. The key to any game is the wanting to play it, and I wanted to. By and by, I got better at it, and I am still playing it today.

Games are great, but it is important to remember that they’re make-believe. We create the starting line and finishing line; we make the rules and choose the prize. And no one has to play. I can quit anytime I want, and look around the playground, and see what interests me most. That interest, that ceaseless creative impulse that has traveled with me my entire life, remains the only authority to which I must listen. Only it knows which races are worth my running, and which ones can be left to 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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Away from the Mirror

I was visiting my mother a few years ago when I noticed a photo of my brother and me she’d framed. I remembered the night it had been taken. We were in our early twenties, and were relaxing in a restaurant, having just finished a show. I was rarely more relaxed in those days than just after I’d left the stage.

“Look at that,” I told my mom when she found me studying it. “I was a pretty good-looking guy back then. How come I didn’t know it?”

“Oh, I think you knew it,” she said.

She was right, of course, but there was more to this particular story. Sometimes, when I was a young man and still very single, I’d look in the mirror and think, “That’s all right.” In many ways, looking in the mirror reminded me of reading what I’d written once I was done editing a scene. It was good enough for me.

Then I’d leave the mirror, or I’d show what I’d written to someone else, and then I was reminded that what was good enough for me might not be good enough for someone else. The difference was that people didn’t tend to tell you if your looks weren’t good enough for them the way they would with something you’d written. It didn’t matter. As soon as you experience the surprise of other people shrugging at what made you laugh or cry, you learn the limitation of your own perception.

Which is why I told my mother that I didn’t really think of myself as good-looking at that time. Walking about in the world, my face on display for anyone to read, I felt sometimes as if I were in a constant workshop on my appearance. How I craved the security of just knowing, so that I might be set free, and no longer care what anyone else thought about me – or about anything.

I know why I liked how I looked in that photo. It’s not the people in the crowd who laugh at your jokes that help you relax, it’s the ones who don’t. You hear that happy sound, and even as you feel that instant connection with these strangers, you look out at the faces and notice the ones not smiling, and realize you don’t care. It was never about getting everyone to agree. It was only ever about finding something I agreed with, knowing that that was all right.

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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In My Life

When you are pursuing a dream, such as publishing a book, it is very easy to believe that success, however you describe it, will change something about you and your life. I certainly believed it. Actually, I didn’t believe that success would change something about my life, I needed it to change something about my life. I needed it to change not just how I made money, and how I spent so many of my waking hours, but the quality of those hours, whether I was working or not.

The quality of those hours, in my opinion, was not ideal. A quiet and steady despair had settled over me, one that had begun, as all despair does, in the soil of my childhood, but which had spread like a tangle of vines in the busy garden of adulthood. I experienced it so often, there were days I wondered if this was simply what it felt like to be alive. I was an optimist at heart, however, and just as I could dream stories to write, I could also dream a life free of despair. Dreaming that better life was easy. It was so easy I escaped there as often as I could.

There came a day, when I had begun to experience the smallest glimmers of what I considered to be success, that I thought, “I want to be in my life.” I had lived so long swinging from despair to escape that I had lost track of the resting comfort of existence. Strangely, I was not entirely clear what was keeping me out of my life. My life seemed like something I ought to be able to step into as easily as those dreams I summoned for escape. And yet here I was, circling around the center of where I wanted to be, like a player unready to join the game.

Which was exactly the problem. The moment I truly understood success was the moment I stopped asking the question, “What if I’m not good enough?” The instant I stopped asking that useless, brutal, suffocating question, the despair lifted as effortlessly as dreams ended. That is the question that will keep the player from playing, the writer from writing. It is a question that can’t actually be answered by acceptance letters or reviews. It is a question that cannot be answered, because it never should have been asked. It can only be released, and what remains in its absence is life as you know it can be lived.

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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What’s the Point?

My wife and I have been homeschooling our youngest son Sawyer since he was thirteen because he could not cope with the traditional classroom. Neither Jen or I had any regrets about choosing to homeschool him, but as he got older Sawyer became increasingly worried that his education was not preparing him to lead a normal, independent, successful life. Now that he is 18, he voices those concerns nearly everyday.

I must point out that Sawyer’s worries are not totally unfounded. Even by homeschooling standards his education has been very unorthodox, a situation for which he is almost entirely responsible. Sawyer, you see, simply cannot make himself do something if he doesn’t want to do it. We would start many a lesson only to have him abandon it mid-class from lack of interest. This is why traditional school was impossible. In school, we are always asking children to do something whether they feel like doing it or not. My wife and I, like a lot of people, could manage this. Sawyer could not, and so here we are.

I happen to know there is nothing wrong with where we are, but it is hard for Sawyer to see what I see. These days, in the middle of our class, he’ll bury his face in the couch cushion and moan, “What’s the point? I’ll never go to college. I’ll never be able to sit through a GED test.” The other day, instead of bucking him up, I suggested we just start our music class. “What’s the point?” he asked again.

“You like it,” I said.

“Fine” he replied, and trudged over to the piano.

One of the things I’ve seen is that Sawyer has an intuitive musical understanding. I’ve seen this since he was three, when he drummed along to Hey Jude and his rhythm was spot on. This afternoon we were working on composition, for which he also has a knack. “Don’t modulate,” I told him as he started playing. “Just for this exercise, stay in the same key.”

He agreed, and began a chord progression. In the middle of the song he stopped and looked up at me conspiratorially. “You see what I did there? I skipped over C Major. I hate C Major. It’s such a boring, vanilla chord.”

I quite like C Major, and so we began to have little debate about its value. I suspected that Sawyer, a natural contrarian, didn’t like C Major because it’s sort of the mother of all chords, making it too mainstream. I had an idea. I told him to sit on the couch while I played a series of major chords. I was so certain that his objections weren’t based on the sound of C Major, but the idea of C Major. If he didn’t know a C Major was being played, he’d have a different idea of it. So I started. A Flat Major, D Major, G Major, E Flat Major, C Major—”

“See what I mean? It’s just so boring.”

I looked at my son. He was not even mildly impressed that he could easily identify a C Major chord by ear. His attitude suggested he believed anyone could. Anyone could not. I thought of how often, when I was 18 – and 28, and 38 – I found myself asking, “What’s the point?” I just wanted some certainty that the seeds I was planting would grow into something meaningful and interesting. Yet all my plans and ideas could offer me no guarantees other than my interest in them.

I’m in my own garden now, and everything that bloomed tallest and strongest grew out of what came most easily to me, what I often assumed everyone knew and everyone could do. The point, I continue learn, is always right in front of me – in the next most interesting step, the next most interesting word.

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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Making Something

I have always thought of myself as ambitious, which, if pressed, I’d have once admitted was the steady and quiet desire to make something of myself. I would not be some idle passenger in my own life, twiddling my thumbs until they dumped me in the ground; I would grab the wheel and captain this ship to some port of my own choosing. I would go somewhere.

The problem with wanting to go somewhere and make something of myself is that I am always somewhere and I am always something. I have tried calling some places nowhere and I have looked in the mirror from time to time and thought maybe I was nothing, but these perceptions had the same unreality of the stories a writer cannot make himself write. Just as when I have found myself forcing a story somewhere it didn’t want to go, I learned eventually to step back from the mirror and let my mind return to stillness, a quiet space removed from the din of doubt and comparison.

I cannot fear this stillness. I cannot mistake it for the catastrophic termination of a shipwreck. As a writer, I have had to make a friend of that stillness as I have the blank page. That is where I must go to understand my role in my own life. I have come to see writing as my decision to join a conversation already in progress. It is a conversation that began long before I was born and will continue long after I have died. It is a conversation that only gets better and richer and more interesting as it evolves and draws in more and more participants.

Writing in this way taught me that what I call ambition is merely the decision to participate in my own inevitable evolution. The stillness of the blank page reminds me that my choices are my role in that evolution. No one can make those choices for me; stories do not write themselves. Whether I choose to write or not, however, does not stop the desire to write, that ceaseless call from life to join in the conversation. The moment I choose to heed that call, I am exactly where I want to be, and I remember again 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

Follow wdbk on Twitter