Life Lessons

Writing has taught me that the only real currency that people value is how we feel. As a writer I never write about what is happening, I am writing about how a character feels while something happening. I do not report on the fact of the rain, I write about what it feels like to stand in the rain, or be chased by a killer, or see the woman I love, or be stuck in traffic. The feeling is the experience. The environment – whether it’s the rain, or a killer, or traffic – are merely opportunities for the reader (and often the writer) to learn who that character is. The character that sings in traffic to cheer himself up is different than the character that angrily honks his horn at the other drivers.

As a writer – as an author – I ultimately want to sell what I’ve written. As a fellow human, I know that I buy stuff that I think is valuable. That’s why I know I’m selling my readers a feeling. I’m a feeling merchant. My readers will forget most of what I write about, but if what I’ve written resonates with them, they will remember how they felt at the end of the story. Which is why I must be deliberate in choosing what my stories feel like. The feeling the story wants to share dictates what will happen in it, never the other way around.

It took me many years, but eventually I began to apply this same awareness to my whole life. It is my job, as the author of my life, to choose how I want to feel in any situation and then use that situation to learn how to feel that way. And by the way, I only want to feel good. I only want to feel peaceful and safe and interested and valuable and loved. There has never been a single moment in my life when I have wanted to feel bored, or agitated, or valueless, or unloved. And yet I have felt that way often. And every time I did, it is because I believed the situation required it of me.

This is what happens when I forget I am the author, not a character. Characters in my stories don’t get to choose how they feel. Sometimes the story needs them to be happy and sometimes the story needs them to be sad. Their feelings are in service to something bigger, which is the gift I ultimately want to share with my readers. As the author of my life, I cannot always choose what is happening, but I can always choose how I want to feel while it is happening. No one and nothing can stop me from making that choice.

I know I won’t always succeed immediately. Some situations are more challenging than others. It is easier to feel loved when someone says, “I love you” than when they say, “I hate you.” But failure in this case is only delayed learning, just as rejection letters are delayed acceptance letters. If I choose how I want to feel, success is inevitable, though I may have to learn the many lessons time kindly provides.

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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Fearless Querying

I fell in love with The Beatles when I was a boy. I loved every song on every album, except one song—Paperback Writer. Mind you, it was driven by a great guitar riff and was toe-tappingly catchy, but the lyrics were too painful for my eight-year-old heart to bear. If you’re unfamiliar, the entire song is a letter to a publishing house asking—no begging—a “Sir or Madame” to read this aspiring author’s book. Though I did not yet know I would pursue a book-writing career as an adult, I could already feel my loathing for the strange form of communication that is the query letter.

Read the rest at the Writer’s Digest blog . . .

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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An Interesting Life

I reached a very low point in my life about fifteen years ago, when nothing I was writing was getting published, and I could barely remember what it felt like to believe I would ever have any kind of success in my life. I became so unhappy, it made all the unhappiness I had previously known seem like mere practice for what I was now experiencing. One night it became so acute I thought, “I have got to do something different.”

It took me less than twenty-four hours to identify what that something was: I had to stop looking for other people’s approval. I realized I had turned life into an endless game of winning approval. That was the trophy, the proof of my value, and the drug whose brief high promised to sustain me through the dull hours of my day. It’s an easy enough trap for an artist to fall into. It can seem as though your job isn’t done until someone else likes what you’ve made. Yet it also meant all my happiness and all my well-being and all my success depended ultimately to other people.

It was a disorienting realization. For a brief time it made life seem directionless. As I sat one night contemplating my New Life, I could not quite picture what would keep life interesting. A life-long game player, I no longer understood what winning meant. Where would the excitement and satisfaction come from? If life wasn’t interesting, if it wasn’t fun, I had no interest in living it.

What an interesting question, I thought to myself. Where is the satisfaction? And isn’t it interesting that life has to be fun to be worth living? I hadn’t really thought of that before. I had simply wished it was true, but now I had decided it was true. That’s interesting too – the difference between wishing and deciding. They’re actually close cousins. That’s interesting.

I had asked myself what would keep life interesting while I was sitting on my couch in the living room. I was now standing in my kitchen, but I could not remember how I got there. It was as if I’d teleported. That’s interesting too, I thought. I leaned back against the counter and noticed how I was feeling. There was that quiet calm I used to cherish when I was a younger man and I’d won a race or just come off stage. That was always victory’s true prize – the moment I reclaimed what I’d given to other people.

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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Belief

Whether you are writing a book, or starting a business, or attempting a seven-foot high jump, you must first believe that it is possible to do what you are about to do. Belief is more than a self-help buzzword; it is the starting place for nearly everything humans have ever attempted and accomplished. If I believe it is impossible to do something, I will not attempt it; if I believe it is possible, I might.

In this way, belief is more important than evidence. Someone might show me evidence that it is possible to become, say, a successful writer. They might show me hundreds video interviews with writers who were themselves once upon a time nothing but young men and women who thought it would be cool to tell stories for a living. No matter how many videos I was shown, I could still choose to believe it impossible.

Likewise, someone could show me evidence that it is impossible to become a successful writer. They could quote statistics of how many writers try and fail, how many manuscripts are rejected by agents and publishers. They could tell me I have a better chance of winning the lottery and that to succeed I must be both lucky and talented. They could tell me all of this, and I could still choose to ignore that evidence and believe it possible.

I have lived most of my life taking my own belief and disbelief for granted. I had allowed the concept of belief to drift into the airy realm of superstition and desperation. Yet it is nothing less the foundation of my entire life, the only springboard from which any idea can launch. It has never been my job to accept reality, only to believe in the reality I wish to enjoy.

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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Time to Remember

Having written well over a thousand of these things in the last nine years, I have come to the conclusion that the personal essay is the form with which I am most artistically comfortable. It took me a while to admit this because for the first thirty or so years of my writing life I saw myself as a fiction writer, poet, or playwright – that is to say, an entertainer. While personal essays can and should be entertaining, their success depends on the depth of the lesson they provide. In the end, every essay looks at something I’ve learned that I think someone else might find useful as well.

Back when I saw myself as an entertainer, the idea of offering lessons in my work not only seemed to contradict the First Law of Writing – show don’t tell – but was personally repulsive to me. I did not want anyone to teach me anything. I’ll figure it out my life, you figure out yours, and in the meantime let’s amuse one another. Though in truth, the stories and poems I loved and valued the most always did more than merely amuse me: they reminded me of something I had forgotten. In fact, no sooner was I reminded of it I would forget it and have to go looking for it again in another story, poem, song, or movie.

I suppose I finally let myself start writing the essays out of desperation. My cyclical amnesia was fatiguing, and writing required me to remember on purpose. Turns out, I could! Turns out the very best way to memorize something is through repetition. Though not, in this case, rote repetition. Every time I return to the desk, the lesson, what I’m remembering, has changed – or at least it looks different to me, like a child who grew slightly while we were apart.

You may be wondering what “it” is I’m remembering. I’m sorry, that’s private. Actually, there’s nothing private about it because it’s the only thing anyone remembers. It’s just that you’ll remember it in your own way, and I wouldn’t want to interfere with that by defining that something that can only be felt. After all, I can’t write all the time, and some day I might be wandering around the world, having once again forgotten, and you and I will meet in person or on the page, and in your own way, in your own words, you’ll remind me why life is worth living.

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 Enough

If you are like me, you have spent a certain amount of your life waiting. Perhaps you were waiting for that first published story, or that first publishing contract, or that first award. Or maybe you have been waiting for your first true love, or first great job, or simply your first big break. The waiting can take so many forms. There’s your life as you live it every day, and then there’s the life you can see all around you – the published books, the people in love, the cool jobs. If you are like me you have always been able to feel the difference between what you are living, and what you believe you could be living.

I lived this way for so long I grew accustomed to a nameless anticipation and dissatisfaction. If you had asked me, I would have said it had something to do with publishing a book, but it went beyond that. It permeated my entire life. I woke up with it and I went to bed with it. It followed me to work and joined me in all my conversations. On most days, I felt like a prisoner who had grown accustomed to prison, who would make the best of it, but who dreamed still of life beyond the walls.

The question I never seriously asked myself during that time was, “What do I think will be different when I stop waiting?” Had I asked it honestly, I believe my answer would have been everyone’s answer: “I’ll know I’m good enough.” Somehow the publishing contract, or the lover, or the job will answer that insidious question. Unless, of course, we decide the publishing contract isn’t enough; it needs to be a three-book deal, or it needs to be a six-figure deal. Enough can keep changing.

I would like to report that I was able to answer that question definitively for myself once and for all, but I have learned I must answer it every day. When I remember that I am already good enough, something does indeed change. I see opportunity I did not perceive before. When I was waiting for the answer, I believed that only someone who knows he’s good enough could go down certain roads. On the days I answer that question for myself, the only question is which roads I wish to travel, just as I ask myself which stories I 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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The Third Eye

For many years I was a writer obsessed with the form my stories and sentences took. This is also called style. I had loved certain writers whose style was so distinctive and evocative and exciting to me that I believed if I paid very close attention to the form my stories and sentences took, I would be able to write the kind of stories I loved to read. I was less aware of my stories’ content at that time. I felt that if I started writing, something cool would come out.

It didn’t work that way. Obsessing over a story’s form is a little like fussing with your hair in the mirror. There is only so much a hairstyle can communicate. But it is something I can control. I can cut it, wash it, gel it, comb it, comb it again, mess it up and comb it one more time. What I cannot do is control what anyone will think of that hair. And so I stare into the mirror, aware of this uncomfortable fact, knowing that for all my grooming, people are just going to go ahead and think whatever they want to think.

My stories became a kind of mirror I was staring into, with me fussing and fussing before the big date that was submission. I sent them out aware of some nameless deficiency, and they were predictably rejected. Had I not fussed long enough in the mirror? What was missing? What had I overlooked?

Eventually I began to focus more on my stories’ content rather than their form. It was a very different way of thinking, because the content, which was a felt awareness of life, had no form whatsoever. Love, after all, can take any form, as can grief, and joy, and doubt. My time at the desk now was spent trying to see with my writer’s third eye what love and joy and grief really looked like, without any idea of what other people thought love and joy and grief looked like. Once I felt I could see it clearly, I tried to make what I could see with words.

I love language and sentences as much as I ever did, but I spend very little time now thinking about either. It’s a relief, frankly. I look in the mirror about twice a day, and that’s enough. The rest of my time is spent living within what it feels like to be alive. That is the reality of which I am most aware. This reality is not always comfortable, but the comfort I seek does not exist in the mirror or on the page. That comfort can only be perceived with my third eye, for that is where everything I want to share resides.

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 Good Relationship

Writing got much easier for me when I began to see it as a relationship rather than something I alone was doing. To write, I asked questions, and then listened for an answer. If I perceived myself – the one who asked the question – as also responsible for the answer, one never came. So though I was physically alone whenever I wrote, the experience was of communication with something else. Though this contradicted certain concepts of reality I had been taught to believe, it was the only practical approach to doing the thing I loved to do.

But this relationship became troubled and argumentative as soon as I began worrying about other people, the ones with whom I would like to share my work. Publishing is a relationship also. I start a story and readers finish it in their imaginations. The inherent truth of all relationships is equality, and this is true of the writer-reader relationship. My reader’s interpretation of my stories is every bit as valid and important as mine. But those interpretations are none of my business.

The moment I think they are my business, the moment I begin worrying about what people will think of what I’ve written, I become lost in a desperate and endless search for approval. I have gone on that search many times, only to find myself in some bitter country of constant argument. You can either look for your story or for people’s approval – not both. The moment I return to the story and begin listening to whatever answers all my questions, I am traveling in the only direction I have ever wanted to travel.

I have learned that this rule is applicable to all relationships. Every argument I have begun with people I love stemmed from my belief that I knew what another person was thinking, or that I had to somehow guess what they were thinking. I mistook this illusory mind-melding for intimacy. Just as when I am writing, to be in good relation to another person, I must forget about what I think they’re thinking and simply speak the truth as best I can. The only way I know how to speak the truth is by listening to that same voice that answers my questions when I write.

Every argument of which I have ever been a part ended the moment I chose to be completely honest. Or, I should say, the argument ended in me, which is all I’ve ever wanted. I am still a little amazed that to feel close to someone else, I must return to what I trust most completely in myself. It seems a little contradictory, but I believe what I listen to when I write speaks to everyone. In this way, it is the true source of all our intimacy, and the more closely we listen to it, the better we know others and ourselves.

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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Never Despair

I have to come think of my confidence as a kind of inner balance. It is natural, always available, but, just like my physical balance, requires my deliberate attention to maintain. It is easy to maintain my balance on a smooth and level surface, but it is more challenging, and requires greater attention, on a balance beam or a tightrope. So too my confidence: it is rather easy to maintain that inner balance doing something I love and surrounded by people I love, but it requires greater attention when the news is troubling or the rejection letters come.

If you’ve ever had a good day of writing, you’ve found this inherent confidence. You simply cannot have a happy, creative day of work if you have completely lost your balance. Writing that is alive and natural, that surprises and excites you, is a living, active expression of your confidence. That’s what your confidence sounds like. It will sound both new and familiar. It’s you, after all, but if you are like me, you spend a lot of time wobbling around the world, speaking in a voice not quite yours.

Life’s a bit of a balance beam. We prefer it that way, I think. We are never so alive as when we are giving life our full attention. But we will wobble. We will feel the pull of discontent as our attention strays to the unwritten future, to other people’s opinions, to judgment. Discontent, like the experience of imbalance, is only there to alert us that our attention has strayed. It is not punishment or proof of our inadequacy or life’s inadequacy. It is guidance back to ourselves.

Which is why I must remind myself daily to never despair. It is one thing to recognize discontent; it is another thing to pursue it. The gymnast never pursues imbalance; she adjusts. I have pursued discontent with savage determination. I have pursued it in the hope of destroying it, of wiping it from the earth. Noble of me, I know, but I always fail to eliminate what never existed. Our discontent is not a villain, it is not a problem, it is not a threat – it is the language of life, calling to us in a voice we all can hear.

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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Adventures in Marketing

I was twenty-two and had written a batch of poems in a brief creative dash. It had been years since I had finished so much as a short story, and the satisfaction of having something completed, even if it was only eight lines, was addictive. Plus most of my poems were like little monologues, and I loved the theater, so it was a happy discovery that I could marry these art forms.

My mother’s friend Tina also loved poetry, so much so that she had started her own literary journal. Word trickled down to me that Tina would be hosting a poetry reading at the University of Rhode Island, and if I wanted to I could participate. I was quite nervous waiting my turn there in the classroom with all the other poets, but when the moment arrived, and I laid my poems on the lectern and started reading, it was just more theater, and it was great fun sharing these little pieces that had so pleased me with other people and seeing that these people seemed to be pleased as well.

A week after the poetry reading I got a call from Tina. What a success the reading had been! You were a hit, she said. The actor in me enjoyed that. I would do another poetry reading shortly thereafter and I enjoyed it every bit as much as the first. Then I got another call from Tina. She wanted to publish some of my poems in the upcoming edition of her journal. Would that be okay? I said it most certainly would be okay. And that was how my work was published for the first time.

Here is what I knew back then: I knew that I loved to read certain poets, and that I loved to write poetry. I loved both the freedom poetry afforded me, as well as the economy it required, and I loved the energy of performing. What I did not know was that those poetry readings were my first adventures in marketing. My poems were published because I had found a means to expose my work to other people such that opportunities that had not previously been available were now available.

Except it didn’t feel like marketing because I wasn’t trying to sell anything, or get published, or get exposure. I wasn’t trying to get anything. I just wanted to share something that felt good to share. That is all “marketing” needs to be. In fact, to call it anything else is a lie. To call it anything else is to say that I do not love what I love, and that I do not believe the world will be better off with more of what I love in it – which, though I have spent many years doubting this is so, remains the only truth to which I can reliably return.

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

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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