The Fall

Before my father left The Church he served as one of its ministers. If I was ever asked to sit in the pews while he delivered his Sunday address, I have no recollection of it. This was during the shadow of my early childhood, when memory is hampered by the highly fluid relationship between imagination and what I was gently being told was reality. It is hard for me to know what actually happened then and what was invented because at that time everything felt invented.

In those early days, I preferred cartoons to sermons. In cartoons, characters could travel through time or change shape, nothing died, and physical suffering was brief and hilarious. This felt like life as I lived it in my imagination, where the only meaningful boundary was what I wanted.

One afternoon I was playing in the rec room of my father’s church. There was a freestanding bookshelf in the middle of the room, and I thought it would be a good idea to try to scale its smooth back. This turned out to be impossible, but my efforts destabilized the shelf, which began to slowly topple backwards. It was at this point I decided to attempt the first scientific experiment of my young life. If the cartoons were as accurate as they felt, and if this bookshelf were to land, say, on my hands, my fingers would swell to comical proportions and then quickly return to normal. I left my hands on the floor in the path of the falling shelf, and awaited my results.

The pain sucked me into reality. I felt betrayed, though not by cartoons. It was clear there were in fact boundaries in this world, and to transgress them could mean suffering of a magnitude impossible to ignore. It was a great disappointment, though I attributed the tears I shed in my father’s lap afterwards to simple pain and humiliation. How do you explain the other? I could feel the answer within me, but not the facility to express it, a facility wed, in a language as tangible as bookshelves, to the very world that had just betrayed me.

I suppose that is the day I became a writer.

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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Waiting With An Answer

The imagination is as loyal and tireless and non-judgmental as a companion can be. Suppose you sit down to write a story about a one-eyed detective. You feel there is something interesting about a character looking for clues with only one eye. It’s a little obvious on the surface, but maybe once you get deeply into it you’ll find something meatier.

So you begin. You ask your imagination, “How did my detective lose his eye?” and, “Does wearing his eye patch make him feel dangerous and mysterious, or self-conscious and inadequate?” and, “How could I express his different way of seeing the world in all that he does?” The imagination loves these kinds of connected questions as they allow it to build up its moment in a way the scattered questions of day-to-day life do not.

But the imagination does not judge the questions you ask it. It will help you tell any story you wish. And so if you also ask, “Who’s going to want to read this book?” it will show you a world in which no one wants to read your book. And if you ask, “Why did I bother to start this?” it will show you a world in which you should never start anything.

And while you dream your own private dystopia, your imagination awaits your next question. Your imagination is not frightened of the worlds it helped you create because it knows nothing of good and bad. All it knows is waiting and answering. And so it waits where no clock can tick, waits while you choose which story you truly wish to tell.

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 Visit with an Old Friend

When Fearless Writing was published in May of this year, I found myself in my local Barnes & Noble where, against my better judgment, I drifted over to the Writing and Publishing section to see if my book was in stock. Bookstores, you see, even larger bookstores like B&N, don’t stock every single published book. Like a lot of writers, I’ve had a lifelong conversation with Disappointment, who for a time seemed to be a constant companion of mine. I hadn’t heard from him in a while, but maybe he was wandering the bookstore now, ready to resume our dialogue.

To my mild surprise the book was there – and shelved face out, rather than spine out. Well, I reasoned, they probably do that with all the new books. As it happens, the shelf on which it was displayed was visible from the escalator, so that the next time I was in the store I could peer “casually” in that direction without risking running square into Disappointment, who would be standing exactly where the book used to be. Yet there it was, still face out. I worried for a moment that it was there only because it wasn’t selling, but my inner Publishing Professional quickly talked me down off that ledge.

A couple months later I was back in the store, and there was the book, still face out on the same shelf. This time, however, I noticed that this was not just any shelf. This was the “Top Picks in Writing and Publishing” shelf. They must know I’m local, I thought, and so they’re doing me a favor.

Then recently I was in the store again, and there was the book, still on that shelf, still face out. I found a bookseller and asked her about the Top Picks. Were those books chosen by this particular store? “Oh no,” she told me. “Those books are chosen by Corporate depending on what’s selling well nationally.”

“Nationally?” I said.

“That’s correct.”

I had to make sure I’d heard it right. Disappointment can be an annoying fellow. He’ll be jabbering in your ear and you mistake a No for a Yes. It happens. I thanked her and headed for the escalator, and as I glanced once more toward the shelf, there was my old friend, arms folded, shaking his head. He was smiling though. We’ve gotten to know each other pretty well over the years. I knew I’d meet him every time I tried to predict my happy future, and he, I believe, had always known I would be fine however the future unfolded.

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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Blameless

I wrote the other day about the power of very good questions. Here’s an example of a not-so-good question: “What’s wrong with me?” Whenever I used to ask this question – which, for a time, was pretty often – it seemed like absolutely the most practical question to which I could put my mind. I only asked the question because something was wrong, by which I mean I was unhappy. If you’re a writer I don’t need to tell you what was wrong. It’s always the same for all writers – rejection and failure. These are not small and discrete problems, however. Their scope can be all consuming.

Which is why I asked this not-so-good question. I was an adult, after all, and as an adult when something is wrong, you fix it. The problem was that every time I asked myself – and by “myself” I mean my imagination, which answered all my questions, creative or otherwise – whenever I asked this question I got no answer. There was only silence, the void. It reminded me hauntingly of my worst fears about death. In fact, this thought of death seemed every bit like the life of failure, an endless absence of joy and discovery.

By and by (and by and by and by; I was a very slow learner with this one), I learned that whenever something was happening that I didn’t like, I would ask myself, “If nothing’s wrong with me, and if nothing’s wrong with anyone else, and if nothing’s wrong with Life, why is this happening?” I had to phrase it this way because I was sorely tempted to simply assign blame for my troubles. Blame stops all questioning without providing a real answer.

So I’d ask this question. It’s a good one, but you sometimes have to be patient with the answer. No matter. Just as I can sit quietly at my desk waiting for the next sentence to come, so too I can sit quietly in my car or at the kitchen table for that question to be answered. I could wait because now I wasn’t solving the Problem of Bill, now I was just thinking creatively, which is the happy pursuit of an expanded perception of life.

The answer, by the way, was always the same: I’d misunderstood. I mistook a rejection letter for my career’s death knell, feeling stuck with a story for a lack of talent. I’d made these mistakes and accepted them as reality. Do not accept death as an answer. The void is just a case of temporary blindness, of looking for what is wrong when there is nothing wrong and no one to blame.

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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Friendly Idea

If you listen to my podcast Author2Author, you may have heard me say “What it takes to write the book you most want to write is also what it takes to lead the life you most want to lead.” This little nugget occurred to me long before I could explain it to anyone, though I knew it had something do with making choices. Fortunately, the more I write and teach about the intersection of writing and my everyday life, the more I understand just how true it is.

I don’t mean to brag – this is just how life and creativity works. Something occurs to me, whether it’s a story idea or Big Life Idea, and then I have to learn about it. I have to learn about ideas because they are just seeds that need consistent attention to bloom into something shareable with other people. Sometimes I learn about an idea by doing research or by talking to friends, but mostly I learn by mulling it over as I go about my day. I ask myself a question about the idea and I start getting answers, which usually leads to more questions and so on.

And by “answers” I mean thoughts – lots and lots and lots of thoughts. A book is nothing but a series of connected thoughts we call sentences. For most of my life I did not understand the singular role thought played in every aspect of my life. Thoughts were just the non-material stuff rattling around in my head that kept me interested in quiet moments. Meanwhile, reality was all the stuff I was dealing with outside of me. That’s where my success and happiness lay – out there. That’s where the jobs were and the relationships were and the money and houses and – well, everything. It was all out there.

What I have come to understand is that everything I have ever wanted, I found, achieved, met, or acquired through thought. Just as I have learned to follow my curiosity and the thoughts it attracts to write an essay or a book, so too thought led to me to the woman I married, to the work I do, to the house in which I live. I listen to thoughts and I ignore thoughts, just as I keep sentences and delete sentences. Whether writing or living, my job is always to learn the difference between thoughts worth pursuing and thoughts I should ignore.

I remind myself of this every day because thoughts still seem like nothing. They can’t be seen or touched, and yet they are the surest guides through the world away from my writing desk. This is good because I need a guide. I have no idea how the future will unfold, whether tomorrow or an hour from now. But thoughts come to me in this very moment, and by some friendly mysterious means they always know the way toward what I want.

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 Little Help

Writers often have a love-hate relationship with their work. In truth it’s a love-love relationship, but it’s not always easy to see it that way. That thing with which we are in relation cannot speak to us as directly as we believe we would like it to, though it is speaking to us all the time. Its only means of communication is feeling, and this is where the confusion and the hate in this relationship often comes in.

What is speaking to you only wants the best for you. It only wants you to create what you most want to create, say what you most want to say. It only wants you to evolve and expand. It has no motive other than your happiness and success. To this end, when the story you are telling is being told within the current of your true desire, you will feel good. You might call this feeling effortless, or exciting, or interesting, or important. The name can vary, but its root meaning is always Yes.

Sometimes, however, the story you are telling is not in service to your true desire. Sometimes it has wandered afield. Or maybe you have quietly begun telling a story about your story, a terrible prophecy of rejection and doom. It does not matter how you strayed, the result will always be the same. You will receive a feeling whose only meaning is: Not that way. If you are very far afield, the feeling will be commensurately strong; if you are still close to the current of your true desire, the feeling will be mild. Either way, the feeling is only there to help you.

But it is not a feeling we normally associate with help. When we are feeling it, particularly when it is very strong, we say we are feeling bad, as if we have caught the virus of unfair life, or we have at last understood the unhappy truth about ourselves. These are just more stories, however, for which we will receive further guidance until we can no longer bear the guidance and surrender to where it is pointing us. Then it is as if we have awakened from a fever, and the world is clear again, and it is hard to remember where we have been because we are so interested in where we are going.

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 End of Tyranny

A few years ago I played the classic puzzle-solving video game Myst with my youngest son, Sawyer. I played Myst to its conclusion almost 20 years ago, so I could remember little of the game and its many ingenious puzzles except this: all the puzzles are indeed solvable. I had to remind myself of this on the several occasions Sawyer and I appeared to have reached a dead-end. Sawyer had not played the game through, however, and so when we reached these impasses he did what most people normally do when confronted with what looks like an insurmountable obstacle—he complained.

“This game is flawed!” he concluded. “It’s poorly designed.”

To be clear, I would have complained as well had I not known, empirically, that the problem was not the game’s design but the players’ perception. It was a kind of foggy hindsight, which, while obscuring the solutions, revealed complaint in all its uselessness. The complainer says, “There are no solutions!” and so none are perceived. His complaints actually prevent him from seeing the very thing he complains does not exist.

It was a rare treat in my life as a father. I was able to say, “Trust me, we’ll figure it out,” with a time-traveler’s authority. But I do not need to replay my trials every decade or so to know the roles of trust and complaint in my life. What can feel like a declaration of independence from the tyranny of an unjust world is actually a sentence to a prison of my own design. Fortunately, I can leave as soon as I remember that the key to that cell is not the solution to some problem but only the belief that one exists.

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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Good Questions

Writing got much easier for me when I accepted that my job was to ask questions and let my imagination bring me the answers. Sometimes my question was, “Why does the witch want to capture my hero?” or “What job does my protagonist really want?” But just as often they were questions like “How do I know I have free will?” or “What if happiness is our natural state of being?”

Every question I ever asked was answered, though it wasn’t always answered immediately. Or, more often, I wasn’t immediately ready for the answer. No matter; when I was ready I heard it, and if it was a really good question, the answer usually led to more questions. Questions are more interesting than answers. I have to remind myself of this often, because I spend a lot of time thinking all my worry would be over if I could rest in the surety of a firm conclusion. In fact, life is never duller, never less meaningful, than when I don’t have a question to ask.

Fortunately, life itself is always creating questions for us. This is good news for writers. I have had the pleasure of working with a number of clients recently whose lives have compelled them to ask fantastic questions. However, the means by which life helped them to ask these questions is what we normally call “trauma.” Like all people, the writers are tempted to believe their lives now would be better if only they could scrub their past clean of those traumatic events.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Life compelled these writers, usually at a very young age, to ask, “What is intimacy?” or “What is real strength?” or “What is unconditional love?” Once the question was asked, the answer started coming, but they were not ready to hear it, usually because they did not even know they’d asked it. So they start writing, where they could ask smaller questions on purpose, the answers trickling down to them in poems and essays and novels until gradually the answer that had been knocking and knocking on the door to their consciousness is allowed in.

I don’t want to suffer any more than you do. I want my days to go as effortlessly and undisturbed as a perfect Sunday picnic. But when I find myself wondering, “What the hell is going on?” or “What’s the point?” or “Why am I here?” I have not reached the end of my happiness. I’ve found again life’s interesting path.

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 Best Story

Though it’s been several weeks, the events at Charlottesville have stayed with me for many reasons, some of which have to do with being a writer. Seeing angry young men with torches chanting Nazi slogans and declaring they will not be replaced fills me with a mixture of confusion, anger, and fear. What’s to be done with these people? I ask myself. Rounding them up into cattle cars and shipping them elsewhere seems appealing, but then – as the saying goes – I’d be no better than them.

Which, by the way, I am not. The worst story humans ever told is that some of us are better than others. It has been told and told and told since humans first started telling stories. The Romans and the Greeks told it, and the kings and queens and peasants of Europe told it, and of course Americans told it, despite what we’d written in our Declaration of Independence. It is the most insidious and persistent story known to us, and despite how it always ends, how we know it will end, we keep picking it up and reading it and telling it.

I believe that’s because equality – true equality – is the simplest and most challenging story to tell. To really tell it, I have to walk down the street and see everyone I pass as absolutely equal to me. No one is worse than me and no one is better than me. No one. No matter how rich or poor, old or young, thin or fat; whether they’re saying hello or chanting Nazi slogans. The temptation to compare myself to others, to learn where I rank, is so great that I find myself doing it habitually, the way my hand reaches for a bowl of potato chips at a party.

This also holds true when I walk through a bookstore. No writer is better than another. No matter how many awards a book wins, or how high the sales, the writers themselves are all absolutely equal. That some writers have received more attention is not a reflection of that writer’s value, but of how much that writer values what they share. Editors and agents and readers cannot teach you to love your work; you’ve got to learn how to do it yourself.

The good news is that loving what you want to share is as natural as breathing. Humans may be brilliant at holding their breath, but eventually, breathe we must. I don’t know how to make someone exhale their fear and anger, make them stop telling the story of how they are better or worse. But I do know that I will sit down every day to learn how to better tell the story of how we are equal. Even if I don’t get it perfect, which I never do, I can’t go wrong with that story. It will always win out over the alternative. It will win because it uplifts instead of depresses, brings together instead of dividing, loves rather than hates and, finally, because it’s the truth. Once I let myself do it, the truth is always the easiest story to tell.

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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Simple Solution

I have a theory that a truism’s value is in direct proportion to how difficult it is to hear when you most need to hear it. For instance: all problems are like gifts that arrive containing their own solution. Writing more than anything else has taught me that this is definitely true, though you shouldn’t remind me of this when I’m deep in the middle of some problem. You might get punched.

On the other hand, I cannot write unless I remember this truth in some way. I noticed this repeatedly with my students and clients. Many of them are writing memoirs, all of which are based on a period in their lives where they experienced great difficulty. These writers all believe that their lives have taught them something valuable that they’d like to share with their readers. For obvious reasons, most of these writers do not want to dwell too long on their troubled pasts. Many want to hurry to the solution.

I find myself again and again reminding them to go back to their supposed problem. From a very practical standpoint, this is essential so that the reader can fully receive the gift the author is trying to share. If you want to share your understanding of unconditional love, you must show what is like to live for twenty years believing that you are unlovable unless you’re married or win the State Wrestling Championship. The reader must fully experience the suffering, so they might fully experience the relief.

Yet just as important is what authors learn in writing about their problems. The experience of writing about their troubles teaches the author how to write about the solution. The very language and metaphors used to describe the problem are almost always used to express the solution. What’s more, the author invariably finds the moment that they created the problem themselves, the moment they believed in their own limitation, or ignored their own guidance.

We are always the creators of our own troubles. Again, I don’t really want to hear this when I’m in the middle of my trouble. I’m usually pretty certain that if other people would just get their act together, my life would be fine. Or, on darker days, I think there’s nothing anyone can do to fix my sorry condition. I’ve already tried and tried to fix myself, and nothing’s worked. I want to give up – but then I must choose what to give up: living or fixing. The moment I give up fixing, living gets much simpler.

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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