Time in the Desert

It took a couple years of writing this column before I allowed myself to mention the years I spent working in a restaurant writing the novels I couldn’t sell. I was happy to write about my childhood, or the sketch comedy show I wrote and performed with my brother in my early twenties, or the brief time I spent in Hollywood trying to be a screenwriter. I would also write about my relationship with my wife and the experience raising two boys. But I didn’t want to touch that time in the restaurant.

That time was twenty years. I was vaguely ashamed of how long I’d spent as a waiter, and how many books I’d written that I hadn’t sold. I say vaguely because I didn’t spend my days after leaving restaurants living in fear that someone would find out about my dark past. I just didn’t know how to talk about that time in a way that would be useful to someone else. I still had the feeling that it shouldn’t have gone that way, that I shouldn’t have taken so long to sell something, or that I should have woken up and gotten out of the restaurants after a year. While I was still new to writing personal essays, I had learned that you couldn’t write about something until it you saw its value.

To write about your own past you have to accept that nothing should have gone any differently than it did. To tell the truth, you have to forgive yourself, and life, and other people completely. On the other side of forgiveness is always appreciation of the very thing you resented and resisted and devalued. I am at the point in my life now where I am eager to write about those twenty dry years. To be clear, I am extremely appreciative of where I am now. I don’t want to go back to the desert. But I can’t really imagine knowing how to write what I do now without those twenty years.

There is nothing like dying of thirst to appreciate a simple glass of water, and there is nothing like living with failure to understand it can’t kill you and that success can’t save you. It is impossible for me to say now that things should have gone differently for those twenty years. Sometimes the shame I used to feel is replaced by guilt, as if the storyteller in me willed all that suffering on my younger self. It doesn’t last long however. I remember that Younger Bill only suffered when he thought he should be someone other than himself, that even then the desert bloomed as soon as I changed my mind.

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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Current Events

One of the more unexpected decisions I made in the middle of my life was to shift from writing fiction to creative non-fiction. That I could sit alone in a room and make stuff up, could imagine a world not my own, had been one of the most reliable and reassuring practices I’d discovered as a boy and young man. I didn’t need anyone or anything to do this. It didn’t matter who was president or what wars were being fought or what the stock market was doing. It didn’t matter if I had a girlfriend or not, if I’d won or lost the race, or if I’d been invited to the party. All that mattered were the cool, interesting, unexpected stories that came to me if I asked for them. Those stories were like gold – more valuable to me than anything the world could offer.

At that time I didn’t care one whit about current events. It was a lot of noise and I couldn’t control any of it. I knew theoretically that current events were like the story of the world, but it seemed like a story without an ending and whose purpose was to remind me that something wasn’t right, that something needed to change. What a crappy story. The stories I asked for reminded me why it was interesting to be alive. That’s why they were valuable. They certainly weren’t bringing me any money. Rather, they left me feeling better than before I imagined them, unlike current events, which left me feeling worse.

But as a creative person, you must be aware of what fascinates you on such a granular level that no detail is too small to warrant your complete attention. For me, the business of plot and character were never that fascinating. I noticed this once I began writing essays where I could happily meditate on a single word choice for longer than I had previously believed possible. Once you’ve experienced this there’s no going back. Except not writing fiction felt like abandoning not just the dream of being a novelist, but the dreams called stories upon which I had so depended for most of my life.

I am happy to report that nothing has actually been abandoned. There is gold everywhere. I look for it most often in my own experiences, usually stuff I did some time ago. Meanwhile, I find I’m a little more interested in current events. This is no coincidence. If you practice looking at your own life, looking past what you had once judged as good and bad, cruel and kind, hopeful and hopeless, and seeing instead the value in all of it, every stitch and grain of sand, it becomes easier to do the same with what it is in front of you right now. While it’s not as easy as when you’re alone in your room where the past is a dream for your telling, with a little concentration you can control not what is happening but what you see, and that makes all the difference.

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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If You Were Born To Write

If you were born to write, you were born with curiosity and an imagination. You did not know you were born with these things because, unlike your fingers and toes, you could not see them, you could only use them. But just like your fingers and toes, you often used them even when you didn’t realize you were using them. Still, whatever your curiosity asked, your imagination answered; and whatever your imagination answered led to more interesting questions for your curiosity.

If you were born to write you probably liked to daydream. You may not have called it daydreaming. One moment you were watching television or listening to your teacher, and the next you had thought of some question, and when the answer came it was more interesting to you than what was happening in the world around. In fact, the distinction between the world inside you and the world outside of you was not so clear, because so often what happened inside was triggered by what happened outside. One fed the other, and each, you understood very early, was as important as the other.

If you were born to write you probably liked to read. Reading engaged your imagination in much the same way as play and daydreaming. You could see what you were reading as you read it, and you could feel the hero’s fear and jubilation, and you worried for his safety as if he were your friend. Sometimes you even imagined he was your friend, he felt so real to you. After all, someone else had dreamed him first, and so he was like those people you called friends who lived in that world outside of you, the world that so often sent you dreaming. What was called real and what was called imagined blended easily sometimes.

And if you were born to write at some point a separation of sorts occurred. You decided to try writing a story of your own. This was even more exciting than reading a story because now the questions, and the answers, and the daydreaming, and the heroes of stories all came together into one activity. It was hard to imagine a better activity, and yet you noticed not everyone was this interested in writing. Some people even called it boring.

You also noticed that not everyone liked to read the same stories, just as not everyone liked to watch the same movies or loved the same person. You noticed people in this way because other people were the ones with whom you wanted to share your stories. It was impossible to know who would be curious about your stories and who would not. But if you were born to write, you wanted to share what you had written, often for reasons you didn’t fully understand. There was money, and there was praise and attention, but then there was something else.

If you were born to write you knew that the something else had to do with the inseparable and ceaselessly creative link between curiosity and imagination. It was the one thing you could not see, and yet it was the one thing upon which so much depended. It was the one thing you could never touch in another, and yet the one thing you would always have in common with a stranger. It was what you thought of when you thought of yourself, and what you hoped to reach in others through your stories. Still, you don’t fully know why you wrote, other than you were born to, and that it felt like the easiest way to keep being 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

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The Emperor

My wife was reading to me recently from The Emperor’s Handbook, a collection of the meditations of Marcus Aurelius – short, incisive thoughts on the nature of what it means to be human. If you’re unfamiliar, Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome from 161 AD until he was assassinated in 180 AD. That, by my reckoning, was a long time ago, which is always one of the first things I think after she reads me a particularly wise and useful passage.

A lot has changed since Aurelius recorded his meditations. For that matter, a lot was changing while he recorded them. The Empire over which he ruled was beginning its slow, inexorable unraveling. In a hundred years it would split in half; two hundred years after that Rome would fall. But the world would keep spinning, and there would be plagues, and new wars, new empires and new religions, science, art, trips to the moon, and Super Bowls. There would also be bookstores, and if Aurelius were to come staggering back from the dead and wander into one of them, he would likely feel as if he had been transported to another world. And yet there amongst all that was so utterly foreign to him would be something wholly familiar, his meditations still intact after nearly two thousand years.

I know writers can be tempted to create with their eye on some concept of immortality. I may pass away, but my works and legacy will live on! Except writing has taught me that immortality is best understood in the act of creating itself, not in the longevity of whatever our creativity produces. Aurelius’s work has endured because what it means to be human has never changed. He turned his creative attention toward his essential self, toward that which was shared by slaves and emperors alike, and translated honestly what he found there.

This still seems like an unusual practice for an emperor. To be so aware of what cannot change even as his days were spent overseeing ceaselessly changing currents of human striving and conflict and woe. Though maybe we are all emperors. Love and loss and kindness and fear are the same for me today as they were yesterday, though this morning brought new stories, new concerns, new interests, and new doubts. How easy it is to feel pulled and buffeted and abused by that current of change, until I turn my attention toward the self that cannot change, and I remember that the current and I are moving together as one.

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

Your Genius

I’ve got good news and maybe a little bad news. The good news is you have a genius. You’ve always had it, and you always will have it. The sort of bad news is so does everybody else. I don’t mean to suggest that you would not wish success or happiness for anyone else. You’re a nice person. But maybe you’ve heard that some people are geniuses and some people are not geniuses. It certainly looks that way sometimes, doesn’t it? Some people seem positively dense, as if they have committed their lives to never uttering a single original thought. That, they seem to believe, would be dangerous; that would be heresy.

I’ve spent much of my life drifting between trusting and fearing my own heretical impulses. I’ve wanted to be recognized but not ostracized, acknowledged but not singled out. It often seemed like an impossible balance – you could do one or the other. Unfortunately, heresy seemed like certain death, and as an adult I had to survive, to navigate the world of jobs and money and threats, both physical and emotional.

My genius, your genius, everyone’s genius, always says the same thing: You don’t have to navigate anything. Just trust me. How good it felt when I did, how effortless, how inspired. But where was it leading me, and what of those dangers? What about the rejection letters, what about the bills, what about the shame of failure? The Genius says: Trust me and you’ll be fine. I just wasn’t sure about that, so one day I trusted, and the next three I wouldn’t, back and forth and back and forth.

I’m a slow learner, willing as I am to endure much suffering. It seemed like the grownup thing to do. Fortunately, I seem to have grown less tolerant of suffering as I’ve gotten older. The Genius doesn’t want me to suffer except when I’m not listening to it. Then suffer I will. There is heaven and hell, there is pain and there is relief. The only heresy is ignoring what is speaking, and if I but listen, and if I but translate faithfully, honestly, humbly, others can hear in me what they are listening for in themselves – just as I heard in others what I often ignored in 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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

In These Troubled Times

I really need to stop watching the news, but for reasons I’m sure I don’t need to explain here I return and return and return to it. News is just a story, and I know that there is a difference between a story and the whole of reality. Reality is every single thing there is, including every single word spoken, and every thought that is thought. A story is but a fraction of all that is, but a fraction intended to point the audience toward something larger. The best stories, to me, are like keyholes through which my own imagination can spy the whole of life.

I must remind myself of this as I watch the news. The storyteller in me knows there is more to the story than what the journalists can share. The journalists know this too, and so they scuttle about turning over rock after rock for more details. How do you know what someone thought? How do you know what is motivating someone? What was really said in that meeting? What did he say to his wife in bed? What did he write in his journal, or in the letter to his childhood friend? The truth always lies beneath and beneath and beneath the surface, in the sealed hearts of the men and women who appear like actors across this drama played in real time.

Which is why I sometimes wish I could meet some of those characters in person. That would answer quite a bit for me. While it is true that another person’s mind is opaque to me, that another person’s history is locked tight in their inscrutable memory, if I can stand with someone and manage to look upon them without judgment – which is how I wish to see myself – I can glimpse the whole of that person just as I can I glimpse the whole of life through the keyhole of a story.

Every person is living a great and meaningful and important story. When I read a story, I read it for wholly selfish reasons: to understand life as I’ve lived it. Whether it’s a memoir, a mystery, or a romance, that story is always about me. When I stand with another person, their story makes no sense to me until I remember their story is my story. The details are different, but the struggle is the same because love is the same, and loss is the same, and desire is the same, and loneliness is the same, and no one wants to be a villain, and everyone is a hero heading home.

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