Curious Discovery

Years ago, when I started writing this column on a daily basis, a regular reader asked how I found something to say about writing five days a week. I found the question difficult to answer. I didn’t actually know how I did it, I just did it, which as a teacher isn’t any kind of answer at all. So I said something about trust, which I knew was at least in the vicinity of the answer. The full answer, however, kept nagging at me like a story that wanted to be finished.

The more students and clients I’ve worked with since that reader asked me his question, the more I’ve come to understand that my first impulsive answer was in many ways the most accurate. That is, I was able to write prolifically when I understood that I didn’t have to know what I was going to write about. In creative writing, I had found a subject about which I remained interested on a daily basis. I saw the act of writing as a clear metaphor for life itself, for the every day and every moment creative act of choosing and choosing what to think and do and say next, just as I must choose and choose every next word on the page. All I needed to do was sit down and think about what had caught my attention recently, either in my domestic life or my writing life. If I’m awake, something is always catching my attention. My job then was to describe what had caught my attention and follow it where it wanted to go.

This, I know, is the part that’s hard to describe. This is the mysterious part, and the part I most look forward to while writing. This is the discovery. Without the discovery, I couldn’t stay interested. Which is why it’s so important that I not know what I am going to write specifically. It’s like imposing a kind of willful innocence on myself. As an adult, I like to think I know a lot of stuff and how to get where I’m going and what to do and why things happen. As a writer I must forget all this knowing and see the world as a child would, with a curiosity unburdened by judgment.

Though in truth I’m a bit like parent and child while writing. The parent in me knows that the answer to every question a story asks is: Everything is okay. That is something I’ve learned as an adult that I only suspected a child. Interestingly, I write a little less about writing these days because I have found a new metaphor in parenting. No matter; it’s all life anyway. My only job is to wake up and pay attention and be curious about what I’ll discover today.

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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Balancing Act

Writing can happen in one place and one place only: The Present Moment. It cannot happen in the past, though we might – while in the present moment – focus our attention upon some past event for inspiration or material. But the writing itself happens in the present moment. And of course it can’t happen in the future, that sometimes near, sometimes very distant land where the story we’re writing will live when it’s finished. All creation happens in the present moment, because that is all that actually exists.

I have to remind myself of this every time I sit down to write. How easy to let my attention drift into the past, where I believe all my failures reside. Failure always lives in the past, in whose shadows, like a moss, it can thrive. In the bright hot light of the present moment – in which life is only potential, in which life is only forgiving, in which life is only curious – the concept of failure has no purchase for its hopeless roots.

And how equally easy to let my attention drift into the future, where I believe the value of what I am creating in the present moment will be revealed. I don’t want to waste my time, after all. Why write something that no one wants to read? To ask such a question is to hold my stories hostage until such time as the ransom of other people’s approval has been paid.

Which is why I have learned to ask myself two questions while I write: What do I want to say? And, Have I said it? Only the present moment can answer these questions. But keeping my attention where it needs and actually wants to be is a kind of balancing act, pulled as I am to the past and future. Drift too far either way and I will fall. No matter. The support of the present moment remains ever true, and I need only return to standing to find myself where I have always been.

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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Peaceful Stories

The other night I spoke to a group of parents whose kids are on the autism spectrum. I had a great time and I hope to give more of these talks in the near future. I love public speaking, but normally I talk to writers about writing. This was the first time I’d ever talked to parents about parenting. Strangely, though the subject matter was different, the experience was more or less the same.

This surprised me. In the hours leading up to the talk I was nervous in a way I hadn’t been in a while. I knew I was going to tell stories I hadn’t told before, and no amount of preparation could unlock the mystery of how those stories would be received. Only experience could do that. So there was nothing to do but wait and wonder and repeat to myself over and over: “It’s going to be fine.”

As soon as I arrived for the talk I knew I was indeed going to be fine. The organizer had arranged the room just as I would have for one of my writing workshops – with a table facing the audience. I like to sit on a table when I teach, as it provides a small platform from which all the participants can see me equally. So I felt physically the same, which provided the helpful illusion that I’d done this before.

Then I started to tell stories. I love stories, whether they’re about writing or being a father. I love inviting the audience to take a journey with me. There is something magical about knowing that even though I am the one talking, and they are the ones listening, we are still somewhere together, even though none of us can actually touch or point to where we all meet. And I love that by the end of a night of stories we all feel as if we’ve been through something together.

I know that what I went through and what the audience went through was slightly different, but maybe not in any meaningful way. The real difference between audience and artist is negligible, as negligible as the difference between writing and parenting. Everything I do is a search for what can only be described as peace. To be at peace with the story as it was meant to be told, to be at peace with the child as he was meant to live, to be at peace with myself wherever I may be.

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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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

Unplanned

A few days ago I published this essay based on an experience I’d had working with a client. I like the essay, but it’s not what I’d meant to write about. What I had intended to write about when I sat down was how during my session with this client, while I was talking and talking to her about her inherent creativity and talent, I’d said, “You have to be relentlessly optimistic and curious.”

“Ooh,” she said, and made a note. “That’s good.”

“What’s good?”

“Relentlessly optimistic and curious. You should make T Shirts that say that.”

“Oh, right. Well that’s what you’ve got to be.” And I was on the next thing. Teaching is like writing in that when you’re cooking you’re always on to the next thing. Besides, I only said what I’d said because I was trying to help her feel her own creative potential. When we’d wrapped up our session and were headed for the door, she said, “I’m still thinking about relentlessly optimistic and curious.”

“It’s as much yours as mine, kiddo,” I said. “I wouldn’t have thought of it without you.”

That’s how it works, and why I love teaching. The student inspires the teacher who inspires the student who inspires the teacher.

So that, as I mentioned, is what I’d meant to write about. But it’s not what I wrote about. As often happens, a sentence came along early in the piece and I decided to follow it instead of where I had originally planned to go. This is what makes writing fun. I have learned to trust the surprising idea that feels more real and more interesting and more necessary than my plans. When this happens, the plan seems like the excuse my subconscious used to bring my attention to what really needed to be said.

These surprises, however, are also a big reason I am a writing coach. Many of my clients have not yet learned to fully trust these surprises more than their plans. It’s understandable. What if the surprises stop coming? What if they take you somewhere you don’t want to go? Experience has taught me that they never stop coming and they always take me somewhere I want to be – but everyone must experience and learn this for themselves.

In the meantime, I can sooth and encourage them to trust what I know is trustworthy. I have learned that teaching is most effective when I find new language to say what I have said before. Every student is different, after all, and every student is surprising. Tempting to lean on the old hits, so to speak. But better to trust that something new and something better and something inspiring will come along that neither of us had planned on but both of us needed.

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

Self-Confidence

To write as well as I can possibly write, I must tap into my self-confidence. In fact, if I have lost all track of that self-confidence, if I have looked and looked for it where it isn’t, it is as if I have forgotten how to write. Without that self-confidence I cannot find the mysterious and unique path a story must follow. Without that self-confidence, the way forward seems as unknowable to me as a winning lottery number.

However, I have found it is rather easy to become lost in this way, for the self in whom I must have confidence is totally independent of my age and gender and height and weight. More importantly, it is independent of everything I have ever done – of every game I have won or lost, every award I was or was not given, every book I’ve published, every compliment I’ve been paid. The self in whom I must have confidence is independent of absolutely everything I can point to or name or hold.

This is a little tricky because sometimes I look for myself in all of those things. I look for myself there because it seems like the easiest way to distinguish myself from everyone else. I’ve done this and that and lived here and kissed this one and lost that one and drive this car and wear these clothes. On and on. There are so many differences, and yet the more I look for myself in those differences the further and further I stray from the only thing I have ever wanted or sought or needed.

Which is why I love writing and the blank page. What a helpful reminder. The blank page is uninterested in what I’ve done and where I’ve been. It is equally uninterested in what anyone else has done. The blank page asks, “What do you want right now?” It asks this question equally of everyone and accepts everyone’s answer equally. To answer the blank page’s question honestly, I must turn to myself, to my only connection to what actually belongs to all of us.

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

Acceptable Answers

I was meeting with a client the other day that had spent many years working in PR and has decided to take a sabbatical to work on her novel. Like a lot of professionals I’ve met looking to transition into a life supported by their artistic work, she was feeling overwhelmed by the sheer uncertainty of the creative writer’s life. Could she really write the kind of books she loved to read? Did she have any talent at all? What if no one in the world wanted to buy her books?

I love working with this client precisely because she asks these kinds of questions. These are great questions, though I don’t recommend you asking them at the 2:00 in the morning in a sleepless bed as I once did. If you ask them at the wrong time and in the wrong way they’ll kill all your creativity and ambition and love of life itself. On the other hand, if you ask these questions in the right way and at the right time, they become portals to your inherent confidence.

The right way to ask these questions is the same way you ask yourself, “What should happen next in my story?” You know when you ask this question that the answer must serve your story. You will not accept a boring answer or a false answer. You will only accept answers that move your story forward in an honest and compelling direction. This is what the writer does sentence by sentence by sentence.

This is also what the writer can do when she wonders if she has any talent at all. I know you sometimes think you cannot answer this question the way you answer questions about the stories you tell, that the answer to the questions about your creative value will be determined by editors, and reviewers, and readers. But these other people cannot answer this question for you. All they know is what they value. They will never know your value as you know it, just as they will never be able to write your stories for you. As an author, you must learn that the only acceptable answer to the questions “Am I talented?” or “Will people like my books?” or “Do I have what it takes?” is, “Yes, yes, yes, yes – forever and ever yes.”

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

Playtime

When I was a boy, going to school seemed divided cleanly in two. While I waited for the first bell to ring, I lived on the playground. On the playground the only question was how to have fun. Did I want to play kickball or swing on the swings? Did I want to shoot hoops alone or join a game? Did I want to wander the perimeter alone drifting in fantasy, or did I want play tag with the other boys? These were the only questions I had to answer on the playground.

Then the bell would ring, which meant that playtime was over and work-time had begun. During work-time you tried to answer questions that other people asked you. Adults asked the questions because it was understood that this schoolwork was preparation for life as it would be lived once playtime was over once-and-for-all. Work-time was not nearly as much fun as playtime, but it wasn’t supposed to be. It was work.

The work wasn’t really lacking all fun. Sometimes the work meant writing stories or drawing pictures, and this didn’t feel like work at all, this was just playing, but with paper and crayons or a pencil. I will write stories for a living, I thought to myself. I must choose work that doesn’t feel like work. I do not want to live my life waiting for the last bell of school to ring so that my time can truly be my own.

Except even as I thought this I could smell the spring air through the open window mixing with the smell of chalk dust and school lunches, and in that very moment what was outside was inside, and I found myself where the playground questions were answered. You either choose to leave those questions on the playground or you don’t. No bell can take those questions from you, just as no person can answer them for you.

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

Interesting Conversations

Writers start stories and readers finish them. Writers probably know this better than readers, who consistently underestimate their role in their own reading experience. Without the reader’s imagination to bring the characters fully to life, without the reader’s ability to feel grief and love and joy and sorrow, the story would be no more powerful to the reader than a grocery list.

Which is why the best marketing advice I ever heard was from the publicist Dan Blank who told me that writers should look upon their books, blogs, and websites – in other words, their platform – as an invitation to a conversation. This conversation can be about absolutely anything, whether its steampunk romance or spiritual parenting. All that matters is that the writer is deeply, personally, and authentically interested in having that conversation.

Years ago, before I’d thought about any of this, I became very interested in the relationship between how I write and how I live. It seemed to me that the experience of following a story’s path was identical to the experience of following my life’s path. I wanted to learn how to apply the decision making process I used choosing the right word, scene, or story to all the choices I made. This relationship between writing and life did not just seem practical, but also had an enduring and magnetic effect on my attention. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I thought about it so much I felt like I needed to talk about it or my head would burst. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anyone besides my wife who also wanted to have this conversation, and she did not want to talk about it as obsessively as I did. So I wrote about it. This was like a conversation between my imagination and me. And when that wasn’t enough, I would talk to myself about it. I did this a lot. I’d pace my office or my living room or my backyard talking and talking and talking. I looked a little crazy, I suppose, but I felt if I didn’t talk I might go crazy.

Eventually, that conversation found its way to Author magazine, this blog, the book Fearless Writing, and my clients and students. The more I have this conversation, the more people I meet who want to have it too. It’s great. But that conversation started with me, and no matter how many readers I reach or lectures I give, my connection to the conversation remains the same. My attention need never go further than my own curiosity, which guides me faithfully through every story I write and every day I live.

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

Useful Villains

Every story, like every life, requires contrast. If you want to write about love, you must write about loneliness. If you want to write about triumph, you must write about defeat. Everything is always seen more clearly against its opposite. A flashlight’s beam does not register in the middle of a sunny day, but it is a swath of clarity at midnight.

This is useful in a very practical, crafty kind of way. If you know the gift your story is trying to give in its end, then you also know the suffering through which you must first take the reader so that this gift will mean something. You must remind the reader of suffering so she can appreciate and celebrate the relief that comes when the suffering ends. In this way, the darkness of our stories is as much a gift as the light, and most writers learn to relish their stories’ darkness, as an actor often relishes playing a villain.

We do not always apply this reality to our own lives. Darkness is darkness, and in it we cannot see and are lost. Villains are villains, and their villainy is expressed in their desire to harm or obstruct us, not help us. But who better to teach you what you know than someone who disagrees with you and who requires your greatest clarity to bridge the gap of misunderstanding? And where better to perceive your own light than in your own darkness? It was there, after all, you first recognized that which you had always been shining.

And who better than a villain to teach us that we are safe? To perceive a threat where none exists and then to find the truth is to awaken to your inherent safety. It is not always so simple. After all, it is our belief in our frailty that summons a villain to us, and their arrival feels like proof of the nightmare we are dreaming. But with this villain, there is no victory or defeat; there is only the contrast between a dream and reality.

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