Don’t Think About It

Like a lot of people, the first philosophical aphorism I learned was Decartes’s classic: I think therefore I am. Whenever I encounter this nugget I am reminded of the Buddha’s answer to the question: “Where do thoughts come from?” He was supposed to have said, (and I paraphrase): “If you are shot in the leg with an arrow, you don’t ask how the shaft was made, or where the feathers came from, or what its velocity was when leaving the string; when you are shot in the leg with an arrow, you pull the arrow out of your leg.”

A bit of a dodge, but more useful to be sure. And maybe more accurate. I read Eckhart Tolle recently who pointed out that Descartes had it wrong anyhow. We do not know we exist because we think; we know we exist because we are aware that we are thinking. There is a big difference. The former insinuates that we are our thoughts. The latter reminds us we are not.

All of this was running through me last night while watching The Amateurs. In this film, Jeff Bridges plays a down on his luck middle-aged man who decides to make an amateur porn movie. He wants success, you see. He’s lost his wife, he feels he’s losing his son, and all because he’s never had success.

When the movie opens we find Jeff Bridges sitting in a bar trying to think of an idea that will bring him success. Nothing is coming. He’s desperate. He’s broke. He’s out of work. His desperation grows and grows until he finally shouts, “THINK!”

It is appropriate that the idea he then thought of was a porn movie, because it is impossible to come up with a good idea merely by thinking. Thinking is how we arrange ideas, how we implement ideas – not how we come up with them. It made me sick to watch this scene. I felt as if I were in the throes of a hallucinogenic flashback. I was Jeff Bridges – or at least I had been too many times to count. How often had I tried to think my way out of despair, when it was thinking that got me there in first place? If there is a greater pain than this, than trying to solve the mystery of happiness with my brain, I have never felt it.

Fortunately the scene passed. Fortunately, I was soon back on my own couch with my wife and son. I took a deep breath, pulled the arrow out of my leg, and got back to the business of being alive.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

In The Details

Wine aficionados are notorious for their creative specificity when trying to detail precisely what a given wine smells or tastes like. There are all the usual suspects: bright, dry, sweet, black current, cherry, grapefruit, peach; and the less usual – leather around the edges, road tar, petroleum. While taking my sommelier class the fellow in front of me, after snorting a glassful of something white, felt he detected a hint of “decomposing limestone.” Decomposing, mind you.

But I once read an article by a wine writer who defended this kind of unavoidable pretension thusly: “Try to describe a cheeseburger with onions without using the words onions, cheese, or burger. Now you know the plight of the wine writer.”

How true. What would be the use of telling your readers that every wine you tried this month tasted like fermented grapes? Such is also the plight of any creative writer. Nabokov believed a writer must “caress the divine detail,” by which I have always felt he meant that good writing, whatever precisely you think that is, exists in the details. It is in the details that a writer distinguishes between, say, jealousy and envy, between love and fascination.

And by the way, you are giving life itself the attention it deserves when you draw these distinctions. In Antony and Cleopatra Mark Antony says a crocodile is “shaped like itself.” Aren’t we all? The moment you enter your work fully, seeking those details that separate one moment, one look, or one smell from all others, you are faced with the relentless individuality of creation. How can you not then count yourself amongst that?

And yet sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you find yourself in the crowded subway, sometimes you hear of the hundred daily submissions to your favorite literary magazine, sometimes you wander a bookstore packed with tens of thousands of books that aren’t yours, and you despair, feeling for a moment like a thing without detail. What a lie you’re living. And how perversely vain the ego grows in its voracious need, believing that you alone, from the seven billion souls around you, are the first to be born with no distinction whatsoever.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Time Again

Happy belated New Year one and all. What did the editor do to ring in 2012? He slept. Why did he sleep? Because he forgot it was New Years Eve. True story. I had recently returned from a vacation – a rare enough occurrence for me – and time had not yet acquired its reliable Seattle pace, and so I was out of sorts.

No matter. That holiday has never had much resonance with me. When I was 20 I read The Sound and the Fury and commenced to memorize the first three paragraphs of Part 2 – the Quentin portion, if you’re keeping track. In the first paragraph, Quentin, whom we will follow around Cambridge on the last day of his life, finds his father’s watch. “I give it to you,” his father told him, “not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now, and for a moment, and not spend the rest of your life trying to conquer it.”

Conquer it. I thought Falkner had written those words just for me. It was about this age, you see, that I first noticed time was progressing ever forward and that my allotment of it on earth was finite. Yet time was so unreal. I would attend a New Year’s Eve party that year and when the clock struck midnight and everyone whooped, all I could think was, “What is the difference between this second, the first second of 1986, and the one that preceded it? What am I cheering for?”

I was not the life of the party in those days. On my recent vacation I had the pleasure of attending several parties. Whether I was the life of those parties or not I cannot say, but I did enjoy them, and largely because I took Quentin Compson III’s father’s advice. One must surrender to do so. As someone who grew up wanting to win all he could, surrender can feel like loss until I remember Time was never the opponent but the field built to let me run as far as I desire.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Alone With Mr. King

I have been told that solitary confinement is the closest humans have devised to hell-on-earth. This does not surprise me. My wife recently read of a man who had been thus confined while a POW, and that he and a neighboring prisoner had worked out a means of communication by tapping on the wall that separated their cells. This meager exchange became the prisoner’s lifeline, what helped him endure the eight years alone in a tiny chamber.

Humans need to communicate with one another as badly as we need to dream. We are creatures that live by our imagination, and the world, and all the other creatures in it feed that imagination and is in turn fed by ours.

The insomniac’s bed is a kind of solitary confinement. If you choose not to wake your husband or wife or lover or call a friend, and if you are determined to stay in that bed until sleep comes, you are left only with the circling emptiness of the very thoughts which are keeping you from falling back asleep. I had just such a bout the other night. It was a particularly vicious round, following a particularly vicious day. I was not going to wake my wife, nor did I feel like pacing my darkened living room. Yet every time I tried to turn my attention toward any thought other than those that haunted me, I found myself, as if lost in a hedge maze, back in the center of the nightmare again.

And so I asked for help. The first person I thought to ask for help from was Martin Luther King. King began telling me that I had nothing whatsoever to worry about. He asked me what I wanted and I told him I wanted to help people and he said he felt certain I’d be able to do that but that being afraid was not going to help anyone and that there was nothing I needed to do other than what I already could do. He told me this over and over until I fell asleep.

I suppose I could have told myself these things, and I have in the past, but on this night I needed to hear it from someone else. I was tapping on the wall of my soul, and what I heard back reminded me that my loneliness was a misperception. Somewhere my imagination had come untethered and had begun to convince me I could neither hear nor be heard, and yet alone in my bed I was both.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Forward

All suffering, it seems to me, stems from one of two thoughts, both of which I have toiled under at one point or another in my work.

The first thought is, “I don’t know what I want.” Staring at the blank page of your day or your story or your life, you feel not the satisfying hum of a desire seeking its form, but the carcass of an idea. We follow many ideas that for one reason or another are stillborn within the womb of our imagination. This is a part of the experiment of life. Our pain comes when we mistake this single dead idea for our complete creative potential. Simply thinking the thought, “I don’t know what I want,” – not with a story or a moment, but at all – cuts you off immediately from everything that will ever bring you pleasure. Just like your characters, you must always want something; it is as natural to you as breathing. That you are not hearing that desire is a measure of the noise of your mind, not the curiosity of your soul.

Which brings us to the second thought, “I know what I want, but I am incapable of having it.” This is the song of the Broken You. I want love, but I am unlovable; I want to publish, but my work is unpublishable. By some cosmic toss of the die, you came up short. There’s nothing to be done. You needed to be just a little bit better.

Your desires are always simpatico with your abilities. Always. In fact, your abilities arise specifically and only to meet those desires. That you may need to acquire a few skills is irrelevant; humans are skill-acquiring machines. The delay between the desire and its fruition has everything to do with the quality of one’s attention. It is as if we have a kind of psychic bank account. Every time we think, “I can,” we put money in; and every time we think, “I can’t,” we take money out.

It is important to remember that just as it hurts to bend your finger backwards, so too will it hurt to think you cannot have what you want, or that there is nothing that you want. These thoughts run in complete contradiction to your nature. You were born wanting that next thing; your birth was your first expression of it here on earth. Go only toward; that is the direction of life.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Empty Despair

I used to fear despair. I feared it in others and I feared it in myself. Mostly, however, I feared it in myself. While in its throes I felt like a carpenter cosigned to build a house from sawdust. Despair was a story of endless hopelessness, a story whose end was as predetermined our own mortal story, life nothing but a lot of thrashing and hurrahing until the grave. Within this story, not one single step I took – not north nor south nor up nor down – not one of these steps would ever have any consequence for all of them led to precisely the same place – nowhere.

So I feared it. I feared it because despair seemed like something that could happen to me like a change in weather, not something I could or not choose. For this reason, I also feared it in others. Here I would be, whistling along, the ghouls of despair safely in their barrows, only to be ambushed by some other poor slob’s tale of misery and loss: tales of the corrupt government, the rejection letters, the cheating husband, the pedophile priest, the ruined economy. I felt as if I were being shown the empty bowl not just of his or her life, but of all life. Once you’ve seen the evidence, looking away cannot save you from the story of nothingness your imagination now dutifully finishes.

So it was for many, many years. And then one day an old man told me writing was a lonely road. It sounded to me as if he had once idealized this view of writing, that he had seen a kind of nobility in it, but by the time he shared this idea with me all the heroism had been worn out and all that was left was the loneliness. But on that day, I did not see his empty bowl as a threat, as a sad story I must now finish. Instead, I saw it as an invitation. His bowl was empty, and he was inviting me to fill it.

“I suppose,” I said. “But we’re going to walk it anyway, aren’t we?”

Whether that filled it for him or not, I cannot say, but I could never look at despair the same after that. The only way to fill the emptiness I perceived was to first summon within myself that with which I wished to fill it. In this way, his despair was a gift to me, and in the months and years to come, when I would succeed now and again in filling someone else bowl, and they would thank me, I would thank them silently to myself.

I do not mean to make myself sound holy. I still despair when I look too hard for evidence instead of faith; I still grow weary when some friend or stranger begins a tale of loss or injustice. But I also grow weary some mornings before I write, having simply forgotten that every story ever written began with an empty page.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Questioning

Not long ago I watched an interview John Updike conducted with the New York Times a year or two before he died. The subject of Updike’s age came up relative to his writing ability. “This is why I’m still writing short stories and submitting them to The New Yorker,” said the old literary giant. “It’s good to know I can still do it.”

I fully understand the appeal of passing a test. I may not be in my seventies, but I understand wanting to feel vital and relevant. As a writer, I fully understand the short thrill of the concrete, external validation that is an acceptance letter. But at what point do we get to stop asking this stupid question? After all, wasn’t Updike’s question merely a variation on the very same question any writer could ask the first time he sits down to write his first short story: “Can I do it?”

How worthless that question and how worthless the answer.  Hadn’t Updike heard the answer hundreds of times before? Hadn’t he heard the answer when he won his first and then his second Pulitzer? Hadn’t he heard it with each of the twenty or so novels he published, to say nothing of the hundreds of short stories? How many times must a question be answered before we understand it never should have been asked in the first place?

I would like to tell you that I have never asked that stupid question, but I have, and too many times to count. I have asked it and heard every answer from no to yes to every shade in between. And still I ask it again under the veil of some new story, some new challenge. The answer never means anything. Yes or no, I am always left where I began: asking myself what I would like to try next.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Behind The Rain

I am told that in dreams water usually means strong emotion. As a writer, this makes sense to me. In stories, and particularly in films, water is a sure sign that our characters have reached a moment of emotional release. How many romantic comedies have ended with our hero (or sometimes heroine) racing through the rain to reach his (or her) beloved? How many “I love yous” have been confessed through rain-streaked lips?

It just works, doesn’t it? However, add thunder and lightening and the rain becomes a threat. Now we find ourselves in the emotional storm, buffeted by winds, cowed by sudden, heavenly crashing. If you put a character in a storm, he or she is in trouble. If you put that same character in a lighted house by a fire while a storm thunders outside, he or she may be safe, but trouble rattles at the windows.

It is probably futile to try to write against these tropes. Rain alone is a bit more flexible, as it can also mean boredom to the child home alone, or irritation to the businessman ducking into the laundromat—but it’s going to mean something. Pity the sun so taken for granted. If no weather is mentioned, it is more or less sunny. Wind at least means change.

The sun will perhaps always be taken for granted because it is that against which change and action is written. As Einstein said, darkness does not actually exist; it is merely the absence of light. I think of this sometimes when I am with friends suffering in their own darkness, or raging in their own storms. You don’t have to look hard, no matter how black their mental night, to see the sun within them. I know this seems Pollyanna to some, but when someone begins ranting about a hurt that will never heal, I feel as if I am listening to a child who has stepped out into the rain for the first time, and cries because the sun has been taken from the sky.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Future That Wasn’t

I started watching Blade Runner with my wife last night. This was an absolute favorite of many of my closest friends growing up. Chris, an aspiring actor, could quote Rutger Hauer’s dove soliloquy at the end of the film. For this reason, I have fond memories of it. I can remember leaving the theater with my friends and their bubbling post-movie enthusiasm. It was cool and it was different and Ridley Scott got it. It was reassuring to know someone in Hollywood got it.

Yet the truth is, I was somewhat less smitten with the movie than they. Even then, I found myself craving a wider variety of emotions than the film seemed to think humans experienced. I knew it was cyber punk, which is a kind of futuristic noir, but still—are things really that miserable in the future?

It was my wife, the very antithesis of a science fiction fan, who noted, “The future is always unhappy.”

How right she is. Can you imagine pitching a book about how much better things are going to be in fifty years? Even though it flies in the face of the entirety of human history, even though we statistically kill each other less and love each other more, even though a person living in poverty today has more physical comforts (central heating, refrigeration, a horse-less carriage!) than a nobleman 500 years ago, we seem determined to only tell ourselves stories of our coming demise. Meanwhile, the past gets better every day.

Because now that I think about it, when Chris told me how great Hauer’s soliloquy was, I said something to the effect of, “It was drivel.” This hurt Chris’s feelings and generally lowered his opinion of me for a time. We’re still good friends, however, and probably always will be – all the way into that fearful, unknowable future.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Sea of Discontent

I was visiting an old friend in New York when the subject of happiness came up. I had not seen this friend in a while and I knew that though he was usually cheery and curious his life at that moment was not unfolding as he had hoped. I knew his marriage was not always the refuge he would have liked and that he was becoming bored with his job.

“I figured out,” he told me, “that happiness isn’t normal.”

I told him he was wrong. I told him that happiness was absolutely normal, that happiness was our natural state of being. He seemed unconvinced.

Several years later I was writing a blog. I typed the last period and sat back. For a moment, I felt that satisfaction that comes when a piece of work feels like something someone else has written that I am delighted to have discovered. For a moment, I was content.

But no sooner had I closed the file than I felt something else stirring in me – a little, glowing coal of dissatisfaction. Somewhere within that finished piece was something unfinished. Somewhere in one sentence was an idea that had surprised me, and that I had used in what I knew was only a germinal form. I could no longer think about that satisfying finished piece. It didn’t need me. As I rose from my desk, it was almost as if I had succeeded not in finishing something, but only in discovering something else that required my attention.

In this way, I think my friend was right. If happiness means never experiencing the discomfort that comes with feeling pulled toward, but not yet knowing where to find, something new and interesting, then I suppose it is most unnatural. So it goes. But if you want to know unhappiness, live for a day with nothing of interest tugging at your attention. Then you are lost in your own home, and the blank page is already full of the emptiness you are living.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter