Writing, Fame, and Kindness

When I was a young man, I wanted to be famous. It didn’t matter so much as what, though early on I recognized that writing was the most appealing path to follow. Fame, it seemed to me, meant freedom – freedom from worry, freedom from poverty, freedom from irrelevance and obscurity, and freedom ultimately from the suicidal thought that nothing I did or said actually mattered. If something I did or said reached and moved other people, then somehow this meant that what I had done or said mattered, which meant I mattered, which meant life itself mattered. So I wanted be famous.

I ended up spending about twenty years waiting tables, which was perhaps the exact opposite of my original career goal. When you’re a server, you have to forget about yourself. To do your job well, you have to forget about what you want and listen carefully to what other people want, bring it to them, and then go away. Your opinion matters little, though your patience and compassion mean everything. People come to dinner in all different moods, and from all different walks of life. To do your job well, you have to treat them all with equal kindness.

All the time I was serving people I was also writing; it’s just that no one was reading what I was writing. And yet sometimes I would come home after a shift, and there I would be, sitting alone in my living room, my wife and children already asleep, and if I didn’t think about being a waiter, or the stories I hadn’t sold, or how old I was, I found I would forget what it was I thought fame would free me from. I did not know what to make of this experience. It felt like giving up, and yet it wasn’t.

By and by I left the restaurant and was asked to start an online magazine. Now, people were reading what I was writing, which was strange because the experience did not feel significantly different than when people weren’t reading what I was writing. There is not much that can influence what it is to sit alone at your desk and translate your curiosity into essays and stories, except the unanswerable question of how to measure whether what you are doing matters. Does it matter if no one else is reading it? What if one person reads it? What if a million people read it?

A better question to ask, I learned, was, “What is the very best thing I can share with other people?” When I asked this question it was as if I was a server again, because to answer it I had to forget about myself. I had to forget about whether I was better or worse, whether I was right or wrong, and just listen. I was never as kind to myself as when I sat alone at my desk and listened. To listen was to be free from the idea that the difference between people matters.

Some days I listen better than other days. Some days I find I am just listening for what I want to hear. There is no kindness in this, only judgment. When I was younger and dreaming of fame, I would not have guessed that judgment is imprisonment and kindness is freedom. It got all mixed up as I looked and looked for what I already had.

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

Gifted

I turned fifty a couple of years ago. It was a mess of a birthday. First, I had not understood how I needed to make peace with what I perceived as a somber milestone. I had celebrated my 40th birthday with verve, flying in a few friends from different corners of the country. It was a great. Not so much my 50th. In the weeks leading up to it I never quite found the time to plan something. I was sort of operating under the dream that if I didn’t pay attention to it, it might not happen.

It did, and on the day itself my wife got very sick, so instead of going to a B&B we liked, we stayed home and ordered Indian food. She rallied enough to make me a cake, which I appreciated because I do like cake, but I also felt guilty watching her cough and cough while she stirred the batter.

Then, to finish things off, I got a rejection letter. This was for a book for which I’d long been seeking a publisher. I was certain I’d found a good fit. Turns out I hadn’t. I sat there reading the email, feeling old and disappointed. I closed my laptop and thought about feeling sorry for myself. It was my birthday after all. But at 50, I had had a lot of practice feeling sorry for myself and it never really had the payoff I hoped for. It was as if I expected the universe to notice my despair and set things right for me.

“What if,” I asked myself, “this rejection letter isn’t a problem?” I’d never let myself ask this question right after getting a rejection. Usually I’d let time show me why what seemed like a problem wasn’t. Time is a very gentle and patient teacher. But I was ready to move things along that afternoon. “What if this isn’t a problem?” I asked myself again.

I felt better just asking the question. I didn’t have the kind of answer time always provided – the new idea, the new agent, the new publisher – but in asking the question I could feel within me the space for something new. I’d been teaching myself to cultivate those spaces for 50 years. It’s the writer’s first and most important job. I have to make room for new stories before they can be told, and once that space is cleared I feel again that ageless optimism and curiosity that is any day’s gift.

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