Good Questions

My most recent book, Fearless Writing, is based on the idea that your best days of writing – the days where you sink so deeply into the story you’re telling that you lose track of time and the weather and politics, where you’re surprised by what your characters do, and where ideas come to you so quickly you have to keep up with them – these wonderful writing days always begin the moment you forget to care what anyone thinks about what you write.

I’ve had a lot of these days since I became more disciplined about what I do and do not focus on when I sit down to write. My mind, like my stories, can go absolutely anywhere. The mind is so free, is so quick and unrestrained by the limitations my slow and earthbound body must abide, that it requires some firm boundaries only I can impose on it. I must be disciplined in the questions I ask my imagination to answer. I cannot ask it about the future, or about what other people like or don’t like. I must ask it questions only about the story I’m telling. When I limit my questions in this way, I always have a good day of writing.

The problem, I’ve learned, is that the experience of a good day of writing often stands in noticeable contrast to the rest of my day. I am not, you see, nearly as disciplined in the questions I ask as I wander about the world. It is one thing to sit in the solitude of my workroom and forget to care about other people’s preferences and taste, and it is quite another to be face to face with those people and ignore the thought, “What do they think of me?”

Oh, the misery that question has sown in my life, regardless of the answer. It is almost as unpleasant as when I ask myself, “What do I think of them?” This is my retribution question, payback for all the hurt that other question has inflicted. It’s enough to keep me bound to my desk, if it weren’t for those moments in my day when I forget to ask those useless questions and I find myself once again amongst friends. This is the exact same freedom writing has shown me, the peace that love provides when I follow it rather than demand it.

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

Looking For Something Where It Isn’t

Sometimes I am like a man who needs his keys, looks for them on his bureau, doesn’t find them, and declares his keys lost. My keys might be on the mantle, they might be on the kitchen table, they might even be jangling in my pocket, but because I don’t see them at that very moment, I believe they have been swallowed into the void of all lost things.

When I lose something physical, I always tell myself the same thing: “I know it has to be somewhere.” Such is the nature of the physical world. Everything is somewhere; it’s just that that somewhere often changes. When I despair, however, when I worry about my future, I have lost track of something that never moves. I look for what I always need where it doesn’t exist, don’t find it, and believe that all hope is lost.

Writing is a great practice in remembering where to look for what I actually need. The stories I wish to tell are not in any newspaper, or on Facebook, or on television, or even in the eyes and minds of people I love. The fount from which those stories flow exists where only I can perceive it. What comes from that fount changes every moment, but its location is constant. Despite this unerring reliability, I find the quiet and dull surroundings of my workroom an ideal environment for locating that fount.

I am, I have learned, easily distracted. When I leave my workroom there are just so many things to look at. How easy it is to look for my confidence and my value in what I see – in my sales, or reviews, or visits to my website. How quickly I despair when I don’t find what I’m looking for. When I’ve misplaced my keys, I’ll sometimes replay my day to remember if I might have left them someplace unusual, like the studio or my coat pocket. This same approach sort of works when I have misplaced my well-being. The difference is that instead of remembering when I felt good, I simply remind myself what confidence and value feels like, and the moment I do, I find what I’m 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

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

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

One Enemy

Writing your first story could be disorienting if you came to it a little later in life. After all, much of the stuff that concerns or alarms or annoys us seems to be outside of us. Sometimes a politician we don’t like is in power, or a war we disagree with is being fought, or a stock we own is going down, or a friend won’t call back, or a child won’t behave. If only all these things would work themselves out we might be happy.

Then you sit down to write a story, to create something that has never existed before, to say, “This is what I think is exciting, or funny, or profound, or clever.” Now the world is yours. Now there are no other people to clutter things up with their misguided plans and wrong politics and greed and selfishness. Now there is only you and your world.

How disorienting when you find yourself just as concerned and alarmed and annoyed as if there were a whole crowd of people in your office offering you lousy story advice. There is no one to point to or to blame. There is only what you believe is lovely and valuable and interesting and your willingness to share it. Who could have predicted that this simple transference from thought to page would have the power to summon the same host of woes as the front page of any newspaper?

I can blame with the best of them. At least once a day I feel certain that I would be ceaselessly happy if only other people weren’t so ceaselessly unhappy. Then I sit down to write and I quickly run out of excuses for my mood. Doubt is the only enemy standing at the gates of my imagination. Doubt can see the end of everything before it has begun, and has come to warn me of what I might have overlooked. He’s right in a way—every story is written by looking past what could be and toward what we still believe is possible.

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

Natural Light

In my day-to-day life I want only ease and happiness. I want to begin every project with enthusiasm and finish it promptly and confidently. Unfortunately, things do not always go as effortlessly as I intend. Rarely a day goes by where I do not struggle, or doubt, or become bored, or procrastinate. I am human. Still, my aim remains trained on ease and happiness, no matter how the arrow of my day may eventually fly.

On the other hand, while I enjoy my students’ and clients’ triumphs and confidence, I remain most interested in their fear and hopelessness and disappointment. It is selfish in a way. The only remedy for fear is fearlessness, just as hope is the only remedy for hopelessness, and contentment the only remedy for disappointment. Explanations, and techniques, and advice will only take you so far. In the end, there remains only the choice between one thing and another.

Which is why I so look forward to those moments when my students and clients can perceive only one choice. Now I get to choose the other. I do so for them, ostensibly, so that they can see they have another choice and then make it of their own freewill – but how could this choice not be for me as well? When is it a bad time to choose fearlessness, hope, or contentment?

I can think of none, and yet there I am from time to time choosing fear, choosing jealousy, choosing regret. I never enjoy my own darkness, and I often complain about the inadequate light by which I must find my way. But find my way I do, and once I’ve returned I am always happy to have discovered another path back to a world where choices are mine again.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Back To Life

I have a book coming out in May. In fact, I know the exact date it will be published: May 14. My editor has gone through it and made her suggestions and corrections, and the copy editor went through and made her corrections and suggestions, so I now know what will be in the book and what has been taken out. I’ve also seen the cover, so I know what it will look like. What I don’t know, however, are how many copies it will sell, what kind of reviews it will get, or what speaking opportunities it will spawn – and that is where the trouble always starts.

It was fun working on the book, because every day I did so I asked myself questions I could answer. Every day I asked, “What does it really feel like to trust?” or, “What’s the most useful thing I could say about fear?” or, “What’s a good example of a time I doubted myself?” The answers always came — and usually rather quickly. How miserable I’d have been if they hadn’t. I wouldn’t have been able to write the book. Actually, I simply wouldn’t have written the book. There’s absolutely no fun in asking a question to which the only answer is, “I don’t know.”

And yet in my idle hours, which there are more of now as I scour about for my next book project, I sometimes find myself asking questions like, “I wonder how the book will sell?” or, “Where could I give a talk about the book?” The answer to these questions is always, “I don’t know.” In these moments, I am reminded of conversations I have fallen into about death and the afterlife. For some people, the fact that we cannot know empirically what waits for us beyond that portal means that nothing waits for us. If we cannot see it, touch it, or taste it, then it simply cannot exist.

This point of view is an untenable relationship to the future for a writer, I traffic every day in stuff that cannot be seen, touched, or tasted, only imagined. In fact, that “real” world, the world where my book is published, where people can hold it in their real hands and see it with their real eyes, can seem at times more mysterious to me than the imagined world from which the book was born. That imagined world, after all, is where the questions I most like to ask are answered.

Fortunately, asking myself questions about the real world and what the future will look like there is no fun at all. Fortunately, I lose interest in it almost as soon as I begin. This loss of interest sometimes takes the form of despair or pessimism, but that is only a consequence of me trying to give meaning to the meaningless. So I sulk about, dragging a nameless weight about with me, wondering why the world is such a dull place.

Until I find myself back at my desk asking questions I can answer. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Work solves everything.” I thought it was a stupid thing to write when I first read it, but I now believe he was onto something. Work, for me, does not so much solve everything, but it does remind me there is nothing to solve. It connects to me what I have sought connection to in my despair and frustration and uncertainty, that source of answers to all the questions I ask. It brings me back to myself, back to what I know and what I know I want to learn, back to life after a short trip into the death-world of a future I am not meant to know.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

No Difference

If you’re going to write anything at all, whether it’s an epic poem or an historical romance or a cyberpunk vampire space opera, you have to be able to tell the difference between one thing and another. You must be able to tell the difference between a story that interests you and a story that does not; you must be able to tell the difference between forcing a word or a scene or a character, and allowing a word, scene, or character. This is how you really learn to write. Nothing in all the classes you take or books you read can ever replace this felt, uniquely personal understanding.

And to write anything at all, you must be able to tell the difference between love and fear, between loneliness and companionship, between confidence and insecurity. To show something we must contrast it against its opposite in the same way we most enjoy breathing immediately after holding our breath. We create danger so our reader can fully appreciate safety, despair so they can appreciate contentment.

Remember, however, that all the differences we experience and learn to perceive are ultimately a part of a flawlessly integrated whole. To walk a tightrope, you must learn the fine difference between balance and imbalance. And yet these two opposites are in service to the same goal. The discomfort we have named imbalance is there to help, not to punish. So it is with all discomfort, and with everything we have discarded in favor of a different thing. Yes cannot exist without no, as form cannot exist without shadow.

As abstract as this concept may seem as you go about the very practical business of writing your next legal thriller or your first tender coming-of-age love story, it remains the source of your creative wellbeing. The idea that your creations are but a shadow, is anathema to creativity. We are not in the business of good and bad; we are in the business of what we want and don’t want. Everything is good in the end, even that meandering first draft you scrapped. You are a better writer because of it.

Which is why you have suffered so when you believed you were no good, that what you planted could not grow. You had believed completely in the good and the bad, had demanded it of the world, and yet if you looked closely at anything that you named bad you always saw some good. And so you labeled yourself bad to maintain this useless idea. The suffering you knew even then was merely guiding you back to the truth, back to what you are, back to what you want to create.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Learning From What We Already Know

One of the biggest differences between the established writers I know and many of the writers I teach or work with as clients is that the established writers don’t worry that much about what they don’t yet know. The beginning writers, meanwhile, worry constantly about what they don’t know, believing it is symptomatic of some shortcoming. A better writer, a smarter writer, a more talented writer, would not be so hamstrung by this swarm of unanswered questions that are keeping the new writers up at night.

In these writers’ defense, there’s an awful lot you start out not knowing, whether you’re writing a book, or selling a book, or marketing a book you’ve sold. Books themselves begin as the smallest of ideas: A lonely guy spots a young woman at a coffee shop; a serial killer visits a shopping mall; a girl pirate. From these small but fertile seeds grow the tree that is a complete story, full of characters, settings, plots and subplots, none of which the author knew when the idea first arrived. All the author knew was that she wanted to tell this story.

And yet that seed of an idea was enough. Now the author has a book. But how will she sell it? She doesn’t know which agent wants it, or which publisher, or which readers. Where to go next? I have learned that the answer to every such question always resides in exactly the same place. Without exception, what I already know teaches me what I need to know.

If I know I want to write about a girl pirate, then that knowledge – which I also call interest or excitement – will teach me, show me, guide me to what I need to know. It will teach me how to write and to how to sell it and how to market it. My job is always to focus on why I know the story is worth telling and worth sharing and from there discover the next step.

But if I move my attention to what I don’t yet know, if I dwell on the ending I haven’t found, or the agent I don’t have, I will feel as lost a student arriving to class without having read the previous day’s assignment. It is the very embodiment of insecurity, believing I am required to know what I don’t. It’s like trying to build a house without hammer or nails.

This insecurity is a failing only of trust, not intelligence or ability. It is hard to believe sometimes that from something so small as an interesting idea can grow something so big a book or a career. Yet it can. What’s more, on a good day I remember how lucky I am not to know something I would like to know. All these questions I haven’t answered become delicious excuses to return to what I know I interests me, to what I know I want spend more time thinking about writing and talking about. What I don’t know sends me back to the source, and the tree keeps growing and growing.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Writing as Love Letters to Your Readers

The summer after I turned eighteen, the girl I had fallen in love with six months earlier moved with her family from Providence, RI to Seattle, WA. In 1983, before Skype and text messages and emails, that might as well have been the other side of the planet. I was devastated. I dreamed about her night after night, and spent my muggy, Providence afternoons wondering what exactly the point to life was if circumstance could arbitrarily pluck someone you loved from your world.

I went to college on Long Island while she went to school in Olympia. We started writing long letters. I wanted to feel close to her. I wanted to feel the immediacy of her company as I had known it while talking to her on her couch in her living room or when I’d walked her home after we’d gone to see The Graduate. I already knew I wanted to be a writer. Perhaps I could close that 3,000-mile gap through the power of the written word.

Being a young writer, I was also an impatient writer. I wanted my letters to travel what seemed like the fastest and easiest route between my heart and hers. To do this I would need to feel something immediately and acutely. And so I complained. I complained about how few friends I had, about how flat the stories I was writing seemed to me, about the weather on Long Island. Yet no matter how many adjectives I poured onto the page, no matter how detailed I was in chronicling my misery, I could not find again what lit in me every time she answered my knock on her front door.

Twenty-five years later I found myself writing letters of a different kind. These were called blogs, but they really were love letters to strangers. By this time, that girl and I had found each other again and married and had two boys. Circumstance, I began to understand, could not actually pluck anything of value from my world. I just needed to learn where to look for it.

I wanted the little essays and stories I wrote in my blog to inspire writers, to remind them why the very act of writing was always worthy of their time and attention regardless of rejection letters or the market or advances. I knew how easy it was for writers to bond with one other through complaint. We all dislike rejection, and we’d all like to sell more, and we’d all like the stories to come easier.

But I also knew how it felt to open the door to my imagination and find a story I loved to tell waiting for me. I knew how good it felt to spend time in the company of that story, to hear what it had to say and learn where it wanted to go. I decided to write as a kind of invitation to other writers to join me in a place where the enduring value of having a story we loved to tell was more important than the passing disappointment of rejection letters or sagging sales.

There is a kind of vulnerability and naïveté to optimism; it is not interested in fixing problems. I know how easy it is to see problems all around me, to believe that what I desire most has left my world. What a strange thing for a writer to believe. I can find what I love most while alone at my desk facing a perfectly blank page. There I remember again where to look for what I want, and remember what it feels like to find it, and that the bond of friendship is always love and never fear.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter