Unknown

In the middle of the Dark Years, when nothing I was writing was being read, I would occasionally threaten to quit writing altogether. “I will just quit it if things don’t turn around,” I told my wife.

“Really?” she asked. “And then what would you do?”

“I don’t know, but this ridiculous. I mean what’s the fricking point?”

“I get it, but what else would you do?”

It was a maddeningly unanswerable question. I was suffering. I knew this as certainly as I knew I was tired at the end of my day or thirsty after a run. But while I could sleep when tired or drink when thirsty, the power to end this suffering appeared to rest in other people’s hands. It was an unacceptable arrangement, a slave and slave master arrangement. More than to have my work read, I wanted to be free. I wanted my life to be my own.

Which is why I would threaten to quit from time to time. It was a suicidal choice, but sometimes it’s necessary to march yourself to that cliff if only ask, “Who’s making you do anything? Who’s making you breath and eat?” To take that leap is to remember the truth at last, as you fall freely into the unknown.

I’ll never be free from the unknown anymore than I can be free from blank pages. Those blank pages are my dependably unwritten future. They were also the answer to my wife’s question. When I wondered what else I would do, I perceived only a blank page, an unknown awaiting my attention, and the moment I stepped willingly into it, my life was my own again.

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 Second Discipline

Writers have to be disciplined. Most writers do not begin their career with a publishing contract in hand. Instead, the writer has an idea. That is all. This idea so interests him that he sits down every day, alone, often without encouragement, always without guarantees, just him and his idea, and he writes until that idea takes the form of a story he can share with other people.

This is one form of discipline. A writer can learn this kind of discipline with his first book. In fact, the writer must learn this discipline if he ever hopes to finish anything at all. But there is a second kind of discipline that cannot be learned with a single book. This discipline must be practiced again and again, from book to book, from day to day, from sentence to sentence even.

Here’s how it goes: You’re writing along, happily focused on the story you’re telling. You’ve forgotten about all your chores and your bills and your obligations; for the moment there is only this interesting story and the effortless feeling of laying your attention upon it. It always feels good to lay your attention on what interests you most. It requires no effort in the same way that eating when you’re hungry requires no effort.

But then, in the middle of wondering what you should write next, you have a thought. You think to yourself, “I’m interested in this story. I wonder if other people will be interested in it too?” Now you have moved your attention off of what interests you most and onto a question you cannot answer. It is impossible while sitting alone at your desk to know what other people are interested in, because they aren’t there. Any answer you receive is made up.

And so, trying to answer this question does not feel good. It feels as bad as laying your attention on what interests you most feels good. In fact, this question now feels like a problem. If other people don’t like this story, why are you bothering to write it? Why write another word if no one is going to be as interested in it as you? And because you are an adult, you have learned that problems don’t solve themselves. To fix a problem, you must pay attention to it until it is solved.

Unfortunately, the more you pay attention to this kind of problem, the worse it gets. Now is when you must practice your second discipline. The only way to solve this kind of problem is to ignore it. Despite all the momentum of fear that somewhere out in the misty future there is a world where no one likes what you’ve written, you must bring your attention back to the present moment where the story you want to tell is waiting for you. No matter how real that future appears as you stare at it through the lens of your imagination, you must deny its existence and will yourself back to reality.

It took me a while to understand this practice as discipline. A disciplined person, I felt, was willing to ignore some of life’s easy pleasures to build toward some desired future, like writing every day even if you don’t necessarily feel like writing every day. But this second discipline was about choosing to feel good rather than bad, choosing effortlessness over effort. And yet the degree to which I have mastered this discipline has meant the difference between loving what I do and fearing what I 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

Expression

Once you decide you want to write and that you want share what you’ve written with other people, there is just no getting around the fact that the more people who like your stuff, the better. I’ve yet to meet an author for whom there is any ambiguity on this issue. It’s better when someone loves your story than when someone hates it, and it’s better to sell a lot of books than no books. This constant can make the whole business of being an author very confusing. Those other people who like or don’t like what you’ve written can easily become the focus of your attention.

I am most immediately aware of this when I am speaking to groups of people. For me, there is very little distinction between speaking and writing; both expressions flow from the same tap. But speaking absolutely requires the physical presence of an audience, and it is tempting to pay attention to how that audience is responding to what I am saying, rather than what I am trying to say. The moment I do so, I become disoriented, having quite literally lost track of the path of thought I had been following.

This checking with the audience is a habit I developed a long time ago. I wanted to be impressive. Impressing people seemed like a viable goal for an artist. Or, perhaps more accurately, I wanted to leave an impression on people. I wanted to matter. I did not want to be forgotten, to dissolve into the background, a shadow subsumed by other shadows. How, I sometimes wondered, do I write so that my words to people are like my hands in damp sand?

It was a question that needed only time to reveal its answer. Every handprint in the sand is lost, and so too any impression I might or might not make on the mind of another. Which is why, when my goal becomes to express rather than impress, my own mind is righted, and I am headed where I want to go. How my work affects other people has much to do with who they are and where they are in their lives, neither of which I have control over. But I can control what I express, offering it up as part of the vast banquet of human thought, the sustenance we all require for our journey.

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

Deus Ex Machina

The best piece of writing I did in high school was also the last piece of writing I did in high school. Our principal had died suddenly in the middle of my senior year, and I was asked to say a few words about him at the graduation before giving his widow a copy of the yearbook, which we had dedicated to him. Both the knowledge that I would be speaking to the entire senior class and their families as well the solemn shadow of death cast over the occasion, focused me in a way the short stories I toiled over did not. I wrote that little speech in one shot, and when I read it to my yearbook advisor – who only a year before had suggested I make up stories and let other people write them – her voice choked when she said, “Yes. That’ll definitely do.”

A year later I wrote personal essay for my freshman composition class. I had never written a personal essay before. I found it easier than all the short stories I crafted and crafted and crafted. My professor told me it was the best essay he’d read in his fifteen years teaching the class. “Huh,” I thought, and then went back to my short stories.

I got better at writing fiction but it was never effortless. No matter. I had heard that writing was hard and I believed it. After twenty years of crafting and struggling I found myself writing personal essays again for this magazine, and they were exactly as easy for me to write as the one I wrote in Freshman Composition. But I was also teaching, and sometimes when I wrote my essays I’d get so excited by the ideas that I’d hop out of my chair and practice delivering the essays and lectures. I found that what I wrote taught me how speak, and whenever I spoke I was inspired to write more.

In my freshman year in college I also studied Aristotle. In his Poetics he said the ideal ending to a story should be “surprising but inevitable.” I have to agree. It’s no good if your reader sees the ending coming two-thirds of the way through your story, but the must all be in place. The surprising but inevitable ending was preferable, he believed, than those endings that depended on a deus ex machina, or the “machine of the gods.” Sometimes in Greek theater a machine would lower a character playing a god onto the stage in the final act, whereupon the god would sort out the mess the characters had created, punishing the bad and rewarding the good.

If you had told me twenty years ago that I’d be writing personal essays and giving inspirational talks, I’d have been very surprised. Then again, if I’d looked at the clues all about me, I might have seen how inevitable this conclusion was. But at that I was still waiting for my own deus ex machina in the form of a published novel to sort out the mess of my life. While I waited and struggled, life kept sorting itself for me, with or without my help. There is a machine of the gods, I believe, but it is always functioning in our lives. We just have to learn how to use 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

Easy

When I was a teenager, I knew just a few things for certain, one of which was that I wanted a girlfriend. I knew I wanted a girlfriend the way I knew I liked David Bowie’s album Ziggy Stardust and T. S. Eliot’s poetry, and the way I knew I liked playing football and the game Dungeons & Dragons. I knew what happiness felt like, and I knew I preferred it to the alternative, and I also knew that all those other things that made me happy could not take the place of what I believed waited for me in the unique happiness of The Girlfriend.

I say believed, because when I had girlfriends, that unique happiness never quite materialized. In its place was an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying exploration. The difference between what I could picture in my mind when I thought Girlfriend and what was actually happening was the stuff of mournful sonnets and love songs. It was my own mental clarity around the subject that confounded me. I absolutely knew this experience could be better, the way I knew what happiness felt like. So why wasn’t it better?

The answer, of course, was that I was only seeing half a picture in my mind. I was seeing Me with Somebody. I could see me quite clearly; I just didn’t understand that the Somebody couldn’t be just Anybody. Then I met Jen, and I understood. I hadn’t wanted A Girlfriend. I had wanted to be with Jen, but I just hadn’t met her yet.

I made this same mistake with writing for a very long time. I knew I wanted to publish a book, the way I had once known I wanted a girlfriend. I had the exact same mental clarity around the subject, as well as the same confusion. Part of the reason I had wanted A Girlfriend was that any girl who said “Yes” to me could help me believe I was desirable. A published book, I hoped, would have the same effect. It took me many interesting but ultimately unsatisfying explorations to conclude that I didn’t want to publish just any book.

It was when I asked myself, “What book do you desire to publish?” that the experience of writing and publishing matched the pleasure I had believed it could bring me. It was like that first date with Jen. We sat there eating chocolate cake at Penguin’s Cafe, talking and talking and talking, and I thought, “This is easy.” It was, to that point, the easiest thing I’d ever done. Nothing was required of me other than following my own curiosity, which always led me right back to Jen.

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

My Own Variety

One of the nice things about having a job – by which I mean specifically a place you go where there are other people with or for whom you do this job – is that every day you do more or less the same thing, but because you do this thing in the world of other people, every day the experience of doing the thing is different.

For instance, I worked as a waiter for many years. The job of being waiter never changed. I was always trying to bring customers their orders as quickly as possible while being as polite and friendly and cheery as possible. But each table of customers was different than the last, and every shift, with its unique periods of calm and chaos, was different than the one before. Though I would not often admit it at the time, doing the same job for different customers and on different shifts taught me and taught me and taught me about myself and kindness and service. In this way, the ceaseless and constant variety of challenges was invaluable.

Writing is similar to any job you might work. No matter what I’m writing, I’m always doing the same thing: looking for the effortless way forward. The right story is the one on which I can focus my complete attention effortlessly, and the right scenes or sentences are those that fit effortlessly into that story. This never changes. What does change are the stories I tell, but unlike waiting tables, there are no other people to provide a ceaseless and constant variety of challenges. As a writer, I must create my own challenges.

That’s good to remember, because I do not always enjoy being challenged. I might whine about how hard something is: What drill sergeant god dreamed up this arrangement? Why the obstacle course of difficulties set between me and that happiness I desire every moment of every day?

To write, I must accept that I am the drill sergeant, dreaming new challenges for myself each morning. The old challenges just won’t do. They’ve served me already, and it is time to find a new path toward to the same destination.

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

Unburdened

For many years I wrote under great pressure. Because I had not published a book, and I was in my thirties and then my forties, and because I worked as a waiter to support my family, and because I was often ashamed to talk about what I did for a living, and because most evenings I drove to work wondering why I felt trapped in the life I’d created, I had come to see writing as my ticket to freedom. Freedom from shame, freedom from the burden of joyless labor, and freedom finally from the ceaseless threat of failure – that dark and final verdict on the value of my entire life.

So when I sat down every day to write, I wasn’t merely telling a story. I was trying to save my life. This made writing very difficult on most days. I knew how to tell stories, but I didn’t really know how to save my life – this thing I was already living. Some days, of course, I’d forget that my life needed saving, and I’d simply write. The work went effortlessly on those days, and for an hour or two I’d feel relieved from worry, and I’d step away from the desk at the end of my work with the vague sense that all my problems would soon be solved. Then I’d go to the job, and the shame and fear would creep back in, and the next day’s writing would be burdened once again.

Most of the clients I work with aren’t simply writing. They’re writing and trying to prove their value, or that they’re intelligent, or that they have a voice. My primary job as their coach is to guide them to the understanding that what they most want from the writing will come to them the moment they allow themselves to simply do the thing they want to do without any other requirement.

When they visit me in my office, I sit two feet from where I used to write, where I used to try to save my life. It is a useful reminder of what I am teaching. All the burdens we put on our work are like static obscuring the answers to our creative questions. How easy to misinterpret that static for lack of talent, or a story that’s not worth telling. How easy to believe the value of a life must be proven in accomplishment, rather than known in the joy of doing what I’ve always loved.

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