Unplanned

A few days ago I published this essay based on an experience I’d had working with a client. I like the essay, but it’s not what I’d meant to write about. What I had intended to write about when I sat down was how during my session with this client, while I was talking and talking to her about her inherent creativity and talent, I’d said, “You have to be relentlessly optimistic and curious.”

“Ooh,” she said, and made a note. “That’s good.”

“What’s good?”

“Relentlessly optimistic and curious. You should make T Shirts that say that.”

“Oh, right. Well that’s what you’ve got to be.” And I was on the next thing. Teaching is like writing in that when you’re cooking you’re always on to the next thing. Besides, I only said what I’d said because I was trying to help her feel her own creative potential. When we’d wrapped up our session and were headed for the door, she said, “I’m still thinking about relentlessly optimistic and curious.”

“It’s as much yours as mine, kiddo,” I said. “I wouldn’t have thought of it without you.”

That’s how it works, and why I love teaching. The student inspires the teacher who inspires the student who inspires the teacher.

So that, as I mentioned, is what I’d meant to write about. But it’s not what I wrote about. As often happens, a sentence came along early in the piece and I decided to follow it instead of where I had originally planned to go. This is what makes writing fun. I have learned to trust the surprising idea that feels more real and more interesting and more necessary than my plans. When this happens, the plan seems like the excuse my subconscious used to bring my attention to what really needed to be said.

These surprises, however, are also a big reason I am a writing coach. Many of my clients have not yet learned to fully trust these surprises more than their plans. It’s understandable. What if the surprises stop coming? What if they take you somewhere you don’t want to go? Experience has taught me that they never stop coming and they always take me somewhere I want to be – but everyone must experience and learn this for themselves.

In the meantime, I can sooth and encourage them to trust what I know is trustworthy. I have learned that teaching is most effective when I find new language to say what I have said before. Every student is different, after all, and every student is surprising. Tempting to lean on the old hits, so to speak. But better to trust that something new and something better and something inspiring will come along that neither of us had planned on but both of us needed.

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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Self-Confidence

To write as well as I can possibly write, I must tap into my self-confidence. In fact, if I have lost all track of that self-confidence, if I have looked and looked for it where it isn’t, it is as if I have forgotten how to write. Without that self-confidence I cannot find the mysterious and unique path a story must follow. Without that self-confidence, the way forward seems as unknowable to me as a winning lottery number.

However, I have found it is rather easy to become lost in this way, for the self in whom I must have confidence is totally independent of my age and gender and height and weight. More importantly, it is independent of everything I have ever done – of every game I have won or lost, every award I was or was not given, every book I’ve published, every compliment I’ve been paid. The self in whom I must have confidence is independent of absolutely everything I can point to or name or hold.

This is a little tricky because sometimes I look for myself in all of those things. I look for myself there because it seems like the easiest way to distinguish myself from everyone else. I’ve done this and that and lived here and kissed this one and lost that one and drive this car and wear these clothes. On and on. There are so many differences, and yet the more I look for myself in those differences the further and further I stray from the only thing I have ever wanted or sought or needed.

Which is why I love writing and the blank page. What a helpful reminder. The blank page is uninterested in what I’ve done and where I’ve been. It is equally uninterested in what anyone else has done. The blank page asks, “What do you want right now?” It asks this question equally of everyone and accepts everyone’s answer equally. To answer the blank page’s question honestly, I must turn to myself, to my only connection to what actually belongs to all of us.

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

Acceptable Answers

I was meeting with a client the other day that had spent many years working in PR and has decided to take a sabbatical to work on her novel. Like a lot of professionals I’ve met looking to transition into a life supported by their artistic work, she was feeling overwhelmed by the sheer uncertainty of the creative writer’s life. Could she really write the kind of books she loved to read? Did she have any talent at all? What if no one in the world wanted to buy her books?

I love working with this client precisely because she asks these kinds of questions. These are great questions, though I don’t recommend you asking them at the 2:00 in the morning in a sleepless bed as I once did. If you ask them at the wrong time and in the wrong way they’ll kill all your creativity and ambition and love of life itself. On the other hand, if you ask these questions in the right way and at the right time, they become portals to your inherent confidence.

The right way to ask these questions is the same way you ask yourself, “What should happen next in my story?” You know when you ask this question that the answer must serve your story. You will not accept a boring answer or a false answer. You will only accept answers that move your story forward in an honest and compelling direction. This is what the writer does sentence by sentence by sentence.

This is also what the writer can do when she wonders if she has any talent at all. I know you sometimes think you cannot answer this question the way you answer questions about the stories you tell, that the answer to the questions about your creative value will be determined by editors, and reviewers, and readers. But these other people cannot answer this question for you. All they know is what they value. They will never know your value as you know it, just as they will never be able to write your stories for you. As an author, you must learn that the only acceptable answer to the questions “Am I talented?” or “Will people like my books?” or “Do I have what it takes?” is, “Yes, yes, yes, yes – forever and ever yes.”

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

Experienced Storytellers

I have discovered rather late in life that I enjoy teaching. For many years I didn’t believe I was interested in teaching or being taught. If I needed to learn how to do something, I’d do it, and make mistakes, and then do it again until I could do it well. The thing I most wanted to do well was to tell stories. I loved stories whether I was the audience or the storyteller. Stories brought life into focus, narrowing it down into something knowable and interesting and sharable. I loved stories so much I couldn’t fully understand why everyone didn’t want to be a storyteller when they grew up.

Now I find myself teaching people how to tell stories. I wasn’t very good at it at first, but after making a bunch of mistakes I’ve gotten better. One of the first things I learned is that experience is the only teacher. So I say to my students, “Try doing this when you get home.” If they have success, it is because they allowed an experience to teach them something about writing or creativity or fearlessness. I was not so much the teacher as the one pointing them toward what I believed was the best classroom.

Though this is perhaps not entirely true. A lot of what I do when I teach is tell my students stories. A storyteller must leave room in his story for his audience. He must leave room for their imaginations to bring that story to life so that they can feel within themselves the excitement or worry or relief. He must leave room for the audience to draw their own conclusions, to decide who is trustworthy and who is not, to decide who is guilty and who is innocent. Ideally, by the end of the story the audience feels as if they have walked the path the storyteller carved through life’s brambles and thickets.

In this way a story is as close as we can come to two people sharing the same experience. I did not understand until I began teaching people to tell stories that all storytellers are teachers. We invite our audience to experience again the value of love or courage or compassion or peace. We all forget. We get lost down dark paths of our own creation, having told ourselves stories of our wretchedness and powerlessness and vanity. How nice when we find a friend to tell a better story to, a story that can help us forget where we were going and remember who we are.

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

Interesting Difference

When I interviewed Yann Martel several years ago he pointed out that it was his book Life of Pi that became famous, not he. Unlike an actor, Martel could easily walk the streets of his native Toronto without being recognized. This is probably a best-case scenario for the average writer, most of whom happily practice their craft in an alive solitude with only their imagination for company. We love other people, our readers most definitely included, but they are very distracting and they sometimes make a lot of noise.

I say this as someone who, once he’s done writing, loves to find other people and talk to them. Now these other people are no longer a distraction – they are an inspiration. It is easy to become so familiar with your own work that you forget why it was ever so interesting to you. Fortunately, no two people are ever interested in the same thing for exactly the same reason. Because stories are brought to life in the alive solitude of the reader’s imagination, every reader I meet seems have a read a slightly different book than the one I wrote. The difference between the book I wrote and the book they read can bring that story to life for me again.

I thought about this difference when I watched the movie version of Life of Pi. I’d taken my youngest son to see it, and at one point in the middle of the film he began to cry. I glanced down at him to make sure it was crying that I was hearing, since I was watching the same movie he was, and I was not even in the vicinity of tears. He was most certainly crying. I returned my attention to the screen, where a zebra was struggling to climb onto Pi’s lifeboat. It was then I remembered my son’s feelings about animals. I loved animals too, but I knew he identified with them in a way I did not.

During our conversation, Martel said one reader he met told him the tiger sharing the lifeboat with Pi clearly represented marriage. Martel thought the tiger represented God, but he wasn’t about to disagree with her. Ideally, I would never disagree with anyone, even when someone doesn’t like what I’ve written. To do so would be to ignore the inspiring difference between us, a constant reminder that everyone has something new to offer – including me.

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

Playtime

When I was a boy, going to school seemed divided cleanly in two. While I waited for the first bell to ring, I lived on the playground. On the playground the only question was how to have fun. Did I want to play kickball or swing on the swings? Did I want to shoot hoops alone or join a game? Did I want to wander the perimeter alone drifting in fantasy, or did I want play tag with the other boys? These were the only questions I had to answer on the playground.

Then the bell would ring, which meant that playtime was over and work-time had begun. During work-time you tried to answer questions that other people asked you. Adults asked the questions because it was understood that this schoolwork was preparation for life as it would be lived once playtime was over once-and-for-all. Work-time was not nearly as much fun as playtime, but it wasn’t supposed to be. It was work.

The work wasn’t really lacking all fun. Sometimes the work meant writing stories or drawing pictures, and this didn’t feel like work at all, this was just playing, but with paper and crayons or a pencil. I will write stories for a living, I thought to myself. I must choose work that doesn’t feel like work. I do not want to live my life waiting for the last bell of school to ring so that my time can truly be my own.

Except even as I thought this I could smell the spring air through the open window mixing with the smell of chalk dust and school lunches, and in that very moment what was outside was inside, and I found myself where the playground questions were answered. You either choose to leave those questions on the playground or you don’t. No bell can take those questions from you, just as no person can answer them for you.

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

Interesting Conversations

Writers start stories and readers finish them. Writers probably know this better than readers, who consistently underestimate their role in their own reading experience. Without the reader’s imagination to bring the characters fully to life, without the reader’s ability to feel grief and love and joy and sorrow, the story would be no more powerful to the reader than a grocery list.

Which is why the best marketing advice I ever heard was from the publicist Dan Blank who told me that writers should look upon their books, blogs, and websites – in other words, their platform – as an invitation to a conversation. This conversation can be about absolutely anything, whether its steampunk romance or spiritual parenting. All that matters is that the writer is deeply, personally, and authentically interested in having that conversation.

Years ago, before I’d thought about any of this, I became very interested in the relationship between how I write and how I live. It seemed to me that the experience of following a story’s path was identical to the experience of following my life’s path. I wanted to learn how to apply the decision making process I used choosing the right word, scene, or story to all the choices I made. This relationship between writing and life did not just seem practical, but also had an enduring and magnetic effect on my attention. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I thought about it so much I felt like I needed to talk about it or my head would burst. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anyone besides my wife who also wanted to have this conversation, and she did not want to talk about it as obsessively as I did. So I wrote about it. This was like a conversation between my imagination and me. And when that wasn’t enough, I would talk to myself about it. I did this a lot. I’d pace my office or my living room or my backyard talking and talking and talking. I looked a little crazy, I suppose, but I felt if I didn’t talk I might go crazy.

Eventually, that conversation found its way to Author magazine, this blog, the book Fearless Writing, and my clients and students. The more I have this conversation, the more people I meet who want to have it too. It’s great. But that conversation started with me, and no matter how many readers I reach or lectures I give, my connection to the conversation remains the same. My attention need never go further than my own curiosity, which guides me faithfully through every story I write and every day I live.

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

Useful Villains

Every story, like every life, requires contrast. If you want to write about love, you must write about loneliness. If you want to write about triumph, you must write about defeat. Everything is always seen more clearly against its opposite. A flashlight’s beam does not register in the middle of a sunny day, but it is a swath of clarity at midnight.

This is useful in a very practical, crafty kind of way. If you know the gift your story is trying to give in its end, then you also know the suffering through which you must first take the reader so that this gift will mean something. You must remind the reader of suffering so she can appreciate and celebrate the relief that comes when the suffering ends. In this way, the darkness of our stories is as much a gift as the light, and most writers learn to relish their stories’ darkness, as an actor often relishes playing a villain.

We do not always apply this reality to our own lives. Darkness is darkness, and in it we cannot see and are lost. Villains are villains, and their villainy is expressed in their desire to harm or obstruct us, not help us. But who better to teach you what you know than someone who disagrees with you and who requires your greatest clarity to bridge the gap of misunderstanding? And where better to perceive your own light than in your own darkness? It was there, after all, you first recognized that which you had always been shining.

And who better than a villain to teach us that we are safe? To perceive a threat where none exists and then to find the truth is to awaken to your inherent safety. It is not always so simple. After all, it is our belief in our frailty that summons a villain to us, and their arrival feels like proof of the nightmare we are dreaming. But with this villain, there is no victory or defeat; there is only the contrast between a dream and reality.

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

Beginnings and Endings

You are probably familiar with the expression, “Happiness is within.” Whether you believe it or not, by now it is possible that when you hear that phrase you are no more inspired by its message than you are delighted by the sight of your own furniture. Language is tricky that way. A combination of words is usually – though by no means always – most powerful when read or heard for the first time. Gradually any thought can become like gum we chew past its flavor with our familiarity.

Such is the challenge of writing: our goal is to keep that gum fresh at all times. Fortunately, not all the world is as familiar to me as my furniture. As small as the circle of my life often is, I see or hear something new in it every day. Whether it’s a headline in a magazine, an overheard conversation in the produce aisle, or simply the sight of a crow perched on an iron fence, what I can see, hear, touch, taste or smell frequently inspires me, simply because it is always in motion. The flavor of the world is always fresh.

By and by I bring that inspiration to the desk. At that point, however, I can no longer depend on the world I can see, touch, taste, and smell to inspire me. I must move my attention to a world beyond the five senses. Whatever thoughts were planted in my mind reading the headline or hearing the conversation or seeing the crow must now grow from the soil of my imagination and curiosity.

Sometimes those thoughts grow quickly and effortlessly and sometimes not. I am never happier than when the thoughts are growing into essays or stories. Life never feels so on purpose, so easy, and so meaningful as when I am connecting thought to thought to thought toward a story I want to share with other people. Fortunately, I have learned over the years to be patient when the thoughts are not growing so quickly. They will – if I trust that my happiness can indeed be found within. It’s where every story starts and every story ends.

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

A Caring God

When I was a teenager I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons. I was usually the Dungeon Master, meaning I designed the adventures – the goblin-infested castles, the dragon lairs, the haunted swamps – in which my friends played. The Dungeon Master is part referee, part storyteller, and part host, and if all goes well the game feels like a party with Doritos and polyhedron dice.

I was one of two principal Dungeon Masters in my little teenage gaming community in Providence, the other being my friend Evan. We were sort of rivals in that our games were often being compared. In my games, none of the players’ characters ever died. They were challenged, they were tested, but they were like heroes in a series whom the readers knew would always make it through to be challenged and tested in the next story.

In Evan’s world, characters died. He was an indifferent God. When the dice spoke, he and all the players listened, and if those dice spoke death, so be it. I played in his world once and I admired his indifference. The game was more exciting. Things seemed to matter more when the ultimate outcome wasn’t predetermined.

I would eventually adopt some of Evan’s indifference. Except it wasn’t indifference at all. I only wanted things to matter, whether it was a game of Dungeons & Dragons or a romantic relationship or a story I was writing. Life was better when you felt your decisions mattered, and so I would let the occasional character die for the betterment of all. Death in this way became the threat that was a gift, a focusing tool for the living, reminding them that the story is more alive when you know that it will end.

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