A Perfect Companion

Every story, play, poem or essay is a journey home. Only the author knows where home is. He knew where home was the moment he set out, though in finding it again, he will know it better than before he left.

Along the way, the author will become lost in details and the endless choices open to him. At such times it will seem as though he has forgotten what home looks and feels like. In this dream of forgetting he might believe he does not actually know where he is going or how to get there. He will look to the world to tell him. The world is fantastically accurate at telling you where you are. There are landmarks and road signs; there are friends and even strangers who will tell you also. But if you ask those friends or strangers, “How do I get home?” they will begin describing the route they know to the home they know. To follow these directions is to become more lost than before.

Now the author might begin to hate the world. It and all its people are useless to him, and have abandoned him in this hour of need. He sees that the world is devoid of meaning and purpose, a giant rock where life is born just to die, and every road bends back on itself. He’s through with the world. He is done looking to it for anything.

Yet even in what he calls giving up, he discovers that he is not done looking. In fact, with his mind at rest and his attention with nowhere else to go, he soon finds the trail he’d left. Suddenly the world is useful again, telling him in one glimpse where he is in relation to where he wants to go. The world is a perfect companion, he thinks as he sets off again. It leaves him alone, but never leaves him, until he has found again his garden gate, and his wandering for the day is done.

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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Sharing Stories

I was giving a talk in Spokane shortly after the release of Write Within Yourself. In many ways, that book and this column constitute an ongoing story about writing. I’d heard a lot stories about writing over years, stories about how hard it is, and how you have to be lucky to have success at it, and how some people have talent and some just don’t. I did not like any of these stories, nor did I find them helpful.

So I started telling a different story, which led to the book and which brought me to Spokane. During the question and answer part of my talk a woman at the back the room raised her hand and stood up. “I don’t have a question,” she said. I leaned forward. She seemed to be on the verge of tears. “I just want to say what a relief it is to hear all this!”

She sat back down. I thanked her and told her how glad I was that something I wrote to help me had also helped someone else. But I’ve thought often of that woman since I met her. It is possible she will remember me as someone who changed her relationship to writing. Yet all I did was offer her permission to stop telling a story she had never wanted to tell in the first place. She was the one who decided that night to stop telling it. I was merely a convenient excuse to do so.

And what a relief it is when we stop telling crappy stories to ourselves. What a relief to stop bending our minds into some shape we decided at some weak moment was more acceptable than the shape it wants to take. What a relief to stop believing what makes us miserable to believe. The fever of self-loathing breaks, and when the sweat dries and we feel ourselves again in our natural form, we move in the direction we were meant to move, toward a story worth sharing with others.

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 Saint Within

Every writer I know began as a young reader. Most read hungrily once they’d discovered the intimate pleasure of the written word. It feels like escape, this traveling through imaginary worlds. It does not matter what world you are reading about – whether it is the once-real world of Czarist Russia or the unreal world of Narnia – it is all imaginary, for your body is one place while your mind is in another.

But reading is actually the opposite of escape. No story can live without the reader’s emotional participation. The writer’s words are but directions to a place within the reader where sadness and joy and grief and curiosity and boredom and hope and despair reside. The words alone are a skeleton; the reader’s felt responses to those words are the flesh and blood of every story ever told.

What’s more, every story ever told grows from the same fertile thought: Life matters. It matters that someone fell in love or someone was crowned queen. It matters that a father and son were reunited. It matters that the killer was caught. Life is not just a bunch of meaningless crap that happens to us between birth and death. The story guides us to that place within us where we know life matters, where we know that we are interested for a reason, where we know that we matter and are living on purpose.

This is why stories and poems and songs were my church and my state growing up. I turned to them to remind me of what I so often forgot, what I so often lost track of in the hurly-burly of life’s circus. I had thought that I would need to make these heroes who’d saved me from myself less saintly, so that I could take my place beside them on the shelf. Instead, I found again the saint within me, the unblemished self who remains unaffected by my woeful stories of meaninglessness, who finishes the stories others had started, and who now begins my stories that others might finish.

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 Truth

I love to teach as much as I love to write, and I teach and write for precisely the same reason. The reason I teach is not to share secrets of craft, though I am a bit of craft geek and I enjoy talking to people about narrative arcs, and showing and not telling. Nor do I teach to offer insider information on the publishing world, though I am happy to do so, if only to eradicate the idea of insiders and outsiders.

In fact, I am not really interested in teaching writing, though it serves as a handy excuse to do what I love to do, which is tell the truth. That’s why I teach and that’s why I write. To tell the truth, my words must match my feelings. If I say I am happy but I feel worried, I am not telling the truth. If I say writing is at its core effortless, but I believe and feel that it is like working in a salt mine, I am not telling the truth. To tell the truth, whether in the class or on the page, I must first feel what I wish to say.

Fortunately, most of what I teach and most of what I write boils down to this: Everything is okay. That’s it. You can all go home now. Everything is okay. Everything is okay and always has been okay. You would think that three words would not be enough to inspire the 1,000-plus blogs I’ve written nor fill a four-hour master class, but they most certainly can and have. Everything, you see, does not appear to be okay. Quite the opposite, really. And so I need constant reminding.

And what better way to remember than to tell someone else that everything is okay. To tell someone else the truth I must first find that place within me where I know that everything is okay. I lose track of it constantly. And then I find it again. And then I lose it. And then I find it again. Every time I find it, whether on the page or in the class or even watering my lawn, the world tells me the truth right back. Every time I find it, what I feel, and then what I say, and finally what I see are the same. To find that balance is the only reason I do anything.

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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Golf Dreams and Nightmares

Alice Cooper liked to play golf. If you don’t know, Alice Cooper was a rock and roll star who saw his heyday in the early 70s, and is considered the godfather of Shock Rock or Glam Rock. His stage shows included fake blood, electric chairs, guillotines, and boa constrictors. He wore a lot of makeup. This is sounds tame now, but in 1971, when he hit the charts with “I’m Eighteen,” I was six years old, and my favorite song was The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”

Over the next few years, news of Alice Cooper and his macabre stage shows trickled down to me through rumor and schoolyard whispers. It sounded insane to me. The Halloween makeup and the blood and giant snakes seemed like a nightmare. As it happens, in 1975 he released his most popular album, “Welcome to My Nightmare.” I had nightmares of my own, I thought, and I didn’t like them. Why would I want to travel through his? Mind you, I had never heard a single note of any song he had written.

Twenty years later I was married with children and had new dreams and even some new nightmares. I was watching an MTV music history retrospective when who should they interview but a makeup-less, weathered-looking Alice Cooper. He was hilarious. He talked about how much he and his band liked to play golf. They had to be careful about this. They would sneak onto golf courses dressed as conservatively as possible. They had a reputation to uphold.

Growing up, I thought golf was the suburbs of sports – tame, asexual, quiet, and exclusive. It was a weenie sport for weenie people. At about the same time I learned that Alice Cooper was a secret golfer, a work friend convinced me to play nine holes with him at a public course. I loved it. Yet I never played again. Instead, I dreamt of golfing for years afterward, and in every dream, I made all the shots. I was a natural.

Oh, and I recently Googled “I’m Eighteen” and had a listen. It’s pretty good.

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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Human Stories

Ever since I could talk, I have enjoyed telling stories to friends and family and acquaintances. Yes, I’m a bit of a performer, who doesn’t mind the spotlight – but mostly I enjoy what is shared in the telling of a story. As a storyteller I must leave room for my audience’s imagination, must paint just enough of a portrait that they can complete the image in their mind. In this way, we are really both telling the story, though only one of us is talking. By story’s end, if we were successful, the audience and I meet in relief, or laughter, or understanding – kingdoms known to everyone, but ruled by no one.

I will often tell the same story to many people. Usually, the story changes depending on what I know about the person to whom I’m talking. My wife might hear a slightly different version of a story than my youngest son, who might hear a slightly different version than my oldest son, who might hear a slightly different version than my father, or one of my clients. In the art of showing and not telling, knowing what your audience already knows or doesn’t know, what they believe is true and what they think is a lot of hooey, determines which and how many details I provide in my portrait.

But when I’m writing a story for the reading public, I know almost nothing about my audience. I don’t know how old they are or whether they are a man or a woman; I don’t know how they vote or what they believe about God or science or marriage or children or taxes or death. I don’t know where they’ve lived or what they’ve lost or how they’ve suffered or when they’ve rejoiced. All I know is that they’re human.

That, I have learned, is enough. While I love telling stories to friends and family, the stories I gain the most from telling are those I share with people I may never meet. To do so, I must find something universal in that story, a narrative purpose that has nothing to do with me specifically, but which illuminates the challenges and joys of being human. It is not so difficult. All I need to do is see what remains of my experience when I ignore my name and age and occupation, ignore my unique history and my unmet desires. When I strip away these trappings, I am hopefully left with something as familiar and unadorned as a newborn, a thing of all love and all potential.

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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My Whole Life

I like to remind my memoir students that the first personal essay I published in a larger magazine told the story of the only time I ate an oyster. I had been quite the picky eater for the first twenty-five years of my life, so this was no small decision on my part – but still, it was just an oyster. No one put a gun to my head to make me eat it, nor did I eat it while stranded an island. I had just gotten a job at a fancy restaurant and I had to try it as part of my training.

I share this story because while some students come to me to help them tell their tale of loss or abuse or sickness, some come with less dramatic stories. In fact, sometimes students aren’t sure what story they’d like to tell – they just know they want to write about their lives. These students are sometimes intimidated by those students who have survived cancer, or who grew up in religious cults or biked across the country. Their lives, by comparison, seem uneventful.

You would be hard pressed to find a more uneventful life than mine – at least as I’m living it now. I write, I teach, I interview people, and I talk to my wife, and occasionally to people who aren’t my wife. That’s pretty much it. Yet I write about my life to the exclusion of all other subjects. I find my life endlessly interesting. Though it’s really not my life I find interesting, but rather life itself. What I call my life is just my intimate, personal experience of life.

This may sound like semantics, but it’s not. Life, to me, is never what is happening, in the same way a story is not about what’s happening. A story is about how a character feels while something is happening, and how that character changes, and what that change reveals about all of us. A story is a current of events moving toward an inevitable conclusion, the current stronger and more meaningful than any of the events which comprise it.

Life is also a current, not a fractured collection of events, and certainly not a static object to be studied and dismantled. If I allow myself to look deeply at any event, I can perceive the current of life flowing through it. In fact, I can perceive the whole of life, though I will never be able to render this in language. It is beyond rendering. It is not, however, beyond perception nor beyond feeling, and somewhere in the exchange between writer and reader, the whole of life is shared.

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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Forgetting Stories

Starting stories is usually a lot of fun, but finishing one can be a little disorienting. And I don’t mean the process of finding the story’s best ending. The story and I are still in active conversation while I’m finding its ending. While we may be looking for the perfect moment to say goodbye, we are still talking to one another, and there is more I have to learn about the story, and there is still more the story has to teach me.

But then the day, the hour, the moment comes when there is no more for us to say to one another. That story, hopefully, is going to go have other conversations with other people called readers, but those conversations are by and large none of my business. They will happen in other homes and other cities and in the sanctity of other minds, and to wonder about those conversations is to burden my imagination with an unsolvable mystery.

In this way, I must forget about the story. This is not easy, maybe, since I loved the story. That’s why I wrote it. I loved meeting it at my desk and seeing where we went that day. Forgetting can feel like rejection. Writers don’t like rejection. It lives as a shadowy enemy for much of our life. I want that story to find acceptance somewhere. I want everything I love to be accepted.

This forgetting is not rejection, but rather making room for another story. I can only have one conversation at a time if I want to give that conversation my full attention. I never feel better than when I am giving life my full attention. To do so, I must temporarily forget everything else: other stories, other obligations, even my loved ones. I’ll remember everything by and by, but in the meantime, like a reader picking up a new book, I must clear my mind of memories and what might or might not happen in the shadowed future. For now, I must accept that this next story is as important as the last story, is as important as any story, and so a new conversation begins.

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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Giving Up

If I am working with a client who has never attempted a book-length project before, one of the first challenges I must help this new writer overcome is the sudden and daunting awareness of how little she actually knows about this book she would like very much like to write through to its conclusion. The writer rarely sets out on her journey with this awareness. Instead, she is just excited by some idea that has become so bright in her imagination that she cannot seem to pull her attention from it.

And so one day she decides to sit down and actually begin writing the thing. The idea has been so bright and so interesting to her that it feels as though all she needs to do is set aside a little time everyday and the story should virtually write itself. Then she begins. Sometimes it takes no more than a couple pages for the writer to understand that this story is made of around 60,000 details called words, and that she must in fact choose each of those details, and that those details must fit together as effortlessly as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

This is often a disorienting moment. The writer’s interest in the story was complete. What’s more, the feeling the story is trying to convey is complete as well. If the author is writing a story about the difference between feeling unlovable and finding love, then that profound difference is complete within her mind. But the story that is meant to share that feeling, which is made of tens of thousands of details, is so incomplete that the writer doubts if she ever knew anything.

I can sometimes be of help to these writers simply by reminding them what it is their job to know and what it is not their job to know. It is not our job to know the details. It is only our job to know we would like to find them. It is a sometimes subtle difference, but what we call failure is usually the mistaken belief that our inability to know all the pieces ahead of time means we are incomplete.

How tempting it is in the moment of this mistaken awareness to give up. The feeling of personal incompleteness is in direct opposition to the direction of life and is commensurately wretched in its expression. It is appropriate to want to give up something at this moment, but it’s not the story. Give up believing you can finish what is already whole, or fix what was never broken, and return to the business of finding what you are actually looking for.

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

Discovering Stories

Every writer is a teacher of some kind, though most do not see themselves that way. Most writers see themselves as entertainers – meaning it is not their job to instruct their readers, but rather to engage them, amuse them, frighten them, or inspire them. To do so, writer and reader go on a journey together, and though the writer may be the guide for this journey, may have mapped its route and chosen its destination, the discoveries the reader makes along the way belong entirely to him. If a reader says he loves a story, it is those discoveries he loves, discoveries he may attribute to the writer, but for which he is ultimately responsible.

Yet that journey begins where only the writer can perceive it. Its value and potential are known only to the writer. The writer has made a discovery, you see. The writer has discovered a new love story, or a new adventure, or a new poem. The writer made this discovery in the idle dreaming of his days – picked up a magazine, or looked out the window, or overheard a conversation; and where one moment the writer was looking at the world, the next he was seeing the beginning of a story. A seed has found its soil.

A writer may experience the full pleasure of discovery before putting a single word to a page. As satisfying as this can be, the writer must be willing to transform his discovery to share it. The story must take a form everyone can see, so that everyone can have can have the opportunity to perceive its value. Sometimes it feels as if something is lost in this transformation, that the form our story takes is a pale shade of the rich discovery we made.

This is a trick of our eyes. That story began where even our eyes could not see it. Teachers help their students see what they have not yet seen, whether it is a mathematical formula, or a mother’s and daughter’s reconciliation. It is always a little mysterious why some students easily see what others do not, but what we writers discover is mysterious as well. The best discoveries always feel as if they were right in front of us our whole lives. How, we wonder, could we not have seen them? It does not matter. Life, everyone’s first teacher, showed us, and now can’t stop looking at it until it is a story everyone can see.

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