Why Not To Judge Your Writing

It’s that time of year when I’ll begin judging submissions for the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association’s yearly writing contest. I’m happy to lend a hand because I know the contest often serves as a valuable career steppingstone for the winners, and that all the writers value the feedback they receive on their submissions. However, the nature of contests is such that I am required to assign numerical scores to every story I read. This is always the most difficult part of my assignment. I am a writer myself before I am a judge, and the writer in me must close his eyes when the judge ranks one story as quantifiably better than the other.

The worst thing I can do as a writer is to believe in good writing and bad writing. Actually, the worst thing I can do as a writer is to believe in good and bad period. The concept of good and bad, of right and wrong, is anathema to creativity. Once I have entered the creative flow of the story I want to tell, my only concern is what belongs in that story and what does not. This requires selectivity. That is, I must select one word or sentence or character over another. Yet this does not mean that one word is actually better than another word, just as a shovel is not better than a hammer unless I want to dig a hole.

No one is capable of making these choices, these selections, but me, for I am the only who knows the story I want to tell. For this reason, I must forget about the idea of good and bad while in that creative flow. I must forget about the idea that any thought, any story, any person is better than another person. I must see the world as neutrally as the eighty-eight keys on the piano – each one necessarily different from the other, but each equally valuable, useful, and deliciously responsive to the artist’s choice as any other.

I understand this neutrality, this absolute equality, largely contradicts my experience away from the desk. I inadvertently judge things as good or bad as I go about my day. But this is only because the creative selection process does not end when I stop writing. The difference is that instead of looking at a blank page, I am looking at the world of other people and the things they say and do and write. I cannot help but notice things that I enjoy and things I do not. I cannot help but want to read one book over another or to notice that I prefer peace to violence and agreement to argument.

But that does not mean I must judge these things. To judge is to determine that something that does exist should not exist. If this is true of something I see, then why should this not be true of me? I exist, after all, how do I know if I am good or bad? When I write, I cannot fear writing something that is bad, that should not exist. There is no right answer to the question, “Is this any good?” I can only answer the question, “Is this the story I want to tell?”

Which is why, though I take the job of reading and critiquing the story submissions seriously, I know the numbers I assign say nothing of that story’s actual value. Every story has served that writer equally, whether that writer wins or loses. It has been true of every story I have ever written, whether they were published or not. Every story brought me closer to myself, to the one who knows that only good can come of what sharing what I love with other people.

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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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

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A Level Field

Everything I have ever done that has been singled out, that has received the attention of others, that has for one moment been called “special,” grew out of my trust in humanity’s absolute equality. For much of my life I had neither faith nor interest in absolute equality. That is, I wanted everyone to have a fair chance, I wanted society to level the playing field as much as possible, but let’s face it – life appeared neither fair nor equal. There were winners and losers, and that being the case, I would very much prefer to be a winner.

Yet the more I saw the world filled with have and have-nots, with the talented and talentless, with the lucky and the unlucky, the harder it became for me to create anything I wanted to share, or achieve anything I wanted to remember. Instead, my attention increasingly circled around this one question: Which am I? If life is unfair and unequal, if we are not all born with the identical potential, then where do I land? Is that rejection letter a message from my upper limit? Do I or do I not have what it takes?

Then I remembered the first race I ever ran. It was in second grade, and the teacher lined up the entire class and told us to run until we reached the far wall. One, two, three, Go! And away we went. I was the first to touch that wall, but as I looked down at the row of children arriving a stride or two later than I, I understood – somehow – that I wasn’t actually faster than anyone, I was simply the one who was most completely invested in the race on that day. The result that singled me out was the consequence of my attention, and nothing else.

I cannot prove this, of course. I don’t really know about fast twitch muscles and slow twitch muscles and genetics and the rest. What I do know is that this understanding has served me well every since. If I can but remember to see the field as utterly level, ignore the great disparity in human achievement and experience, ignore awards and sales and money and age and disease, ignore everything but what I wish to create and where I wish to go, then I do not need to ask, “Which am I?” I only need to ask, “What do I want?”

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Every Writer Is Their Own Lawyer

I interview writers of all genres for Author magazine and Author2Author. If I wanted to, however, I could devote an entire magazine to interviews with writers who are or who have been lawyers. More lawyers migrate from their profession to book-writing than from any other profession – more than doctors, or teachers, or even journalists, strangely. I admit that I found this a little irritating at first. Must these life-long A Students be good at absolutely everything? Gradually, however, I understood that the overlap between writers and lawyers had less to do with achievement and far more to do with stories.

Lawyers are storytellers. One lawyer looks at the facts and says, “These facts show that the accused is innocent.” Another lawyer looks at those same facts and says, “These facts show that the accused is guilty.” Same facts, different story. Of course, depending on the story the lawyer is telling, they will choose to focus on some facts more than others; they might even choose to omit certain facts altogether. Such is storytelling.

It is useful sometimes to think of myself as a lawyer and my readers as the jury. You have perhaps heard that a writer should “show and not tell.” It’s true. I build my case, so to speak, by showing my hero saving a cat stranded in a tree so that my readers might reach the verdict that he’s a good guy. If I were to simply tell them the hero’s a good guy, they would have to trust me. By showing them and allowing them to make their own conclusions, I am asking my readers to trust themselves.

Once I am done telling my story, I remain a lawyer of sorts. Lawyers are hired to tell the story the client wants them to tell. If I were accused of some crime, I would hire a lawyer to look at the facts and tell the story of my innocence. To share a story I have written with the reading world is to subject myself to a snowstorm of facts: acceptance and rejection letters, advances, reviews, Amazon rankings, and bestseller lists. At such times I require my inner lawyer to maintain a story of my innocence.

Facts, after all, can tell many different stories, including the story of my guilt. It is possible to look at the facts and find myself accused of the crime of having written a boring book, or an irrelevant book, or simply a bad book. Judgment for such crimes is often swift and severe. The guilty are condemned to a life sentence without parole, for the talentless have no place in creative society.

I have started many such prison terms in my writing life, but my inner lawyer has always come to my rescue. He’s so reassuring. He has absolutely no doubt whatsoever of my innocence. Strangely, he doesn’t even want to talk to me about facts. He tells me to forget about the facts until I remember my innocence. He reminds me that a writer must tell the story he most wants to tell. The writer cannot let himself be imprisoned by convention, or the market, or some unwritten law about what is good and what is bad. He cannot write a single word until he is free. The page is blank for a reason.

I do love this lawyer of mine. Once I’m out of prison, he says, “Leave the facts to me, will you. Just get back to work.” Which I always do. Now that my conscience is clean I can return to the page, ready to trust my readers with a story of an innocent world.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

How To Get The Best Results

One afternoon many years ago I was driving through Seattle to pick up a friend who was visiting from Los Angeles. I was looking forward to seeing him, and so as I drove I found myself imagining our happy hello, and going out for drinks, and laughing at the funny stories he always told. In fact, his stories were always so interesting and funny I wondered if I would have any interesting and funny stories to tell him, and began planning what I might share—

Until I looked up and noticed that I was still driving and that I was about to run a red light. I slammed on the brakes, took a breath, and thought to myself, “I absolutely live my life for results.”

You couldn’t really blame me for doing so. I wanted a career as a writer. At that point the books I sent out always came back. Those were not the results I was hoping for. If the results didn’t change, I wouldn’t have a career. Caring about those results was just practical, and I have always wanted to make the most practical choice.

The problem with focusing and focusing and focusing on results is that they don’t yet exist. That’s the nature of results. When I spend all my time thinking about something I don’t have, it can seem as if I have nothing because that’s all I see. It’s dispiriting and, as any writer ought to know, highly impractical.

Because every time I begin a story, whether long or short, I have the same result in mind: to finish that story. But I will never finish a story by sitting down at my desk and thinking, “I need to finish this story. I need to finish this story. Oh, my God, the story isn’t finished yet. When is it going to be finished? What’s wrong with me?” No, the only way to finish a story to is to sit down at my desk, open a blank page, and ask, “What would I most like to say at this moment? What is one interesting sentence?”

Books are finished one interesting sentence at a time. There’s simply no other way to do it. The most practical question I can ask, whether I’m writing a book or building a career, is, “What is the most interesting choice I can make at this moment?” This simple question can feel a little reckless, I know. To ask it is to forget about the future, where all those very important results are waiting for me. To ask it sincerely is to believe that where I am is always more important than where I’m going.

I managed to make it to my friend safely that afternoon, and we did in fact have drinks, and tell each other stories, though I did not tell any of the ones I had planned. Somehow better ones came to me once we were together. There’s just no way to plan a successful conversation. The best I can do is show up and enjoy myself. It’s much easier to enjoy myself where I am, where all the traffic lights and streets signs actually exist to guide me where I want to go.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

How To Accept Your Readers

I wrote in this space recently about the relationship between self-acceptance and publishing acceptance. There is an immediate and almost tangible practicality to the practice of accepting myself – choosing to share the words and scenes and stories in which I am interested, for no other reason than I am interested in those words, scenes, and stories. There is, however, another less tangible and immediate group of people I must also practice accepting, just as regularly, if I hope to have any publishing success – namely, everyone else.

I am an author, meaning that unless I am writing in my journal, everything I write is written to be read by other people. While those other people are, thankfully, not in the room with me while I’m writing, I have occasionally gotten out of the house over the last fifty years, and whenever I do, I meet some of these folks and notice that each of them has their own idea about what is funny and what is not, and what is cool and what is not, and what is sexy and what is not. In other words, everyone has their own imagination, which is the final destination of everything conceived within my imagination.

As soon as I shared one thing I’d written with one other person, even someone I knew very well, I noticed this strange phenomenon: what I wrote and what they read were not precisely the same thing. Within the sanctity of their own imaginations, my readers ignored details I considered important while focusing on those I considered trivial. Readers would hate characters I loved and love characters I hated. No matter how carefully I crafted my story, no matter how many drafts I wrote or editors I hired, readers continued committing the unfortunate mistake of making up their own minds about what my story meant.

I had not understood, until I began sharing my work regularly, how much this difference between what I thought I had written and what my readers read had served as a quiet impediment to getting published. As a writer, I considered being misunderstood a kind of failure. Strangely, my job is not to be understood. My job is to write as clearly and honestly as I can, and then allow the reader to take whatever they need most from what I have written.

But to do so I must accept that everyone is on an equally important journey, and that everyone is their own best guide toward where they are going. This is not always so easy for me to accept. Sometimes as I go about my day, I see or meet people doing or saying things that make no sense to me. It is tempting at such times to think, “What is wrong with them that they would do that?” or, “What is wrong with me that I don’t understand them?”

The answer in both cases is always “Nothing,” but to accept that answer I must trust in something I cannot immediately perceive. Fortunately, I do this all the time. I cannot perceive the success of a story while I am writing it. All I know is that I want to write it. On most days, that is enough. I trust that what I want for that story will come. It will come in the form of other people finding it, guided to the story by precisely the same means I wrote it.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Where Your Will Go

Having a successful day of writing never comes from having a great story to tell; it doesn’t come from reading a hundred books on writing; it doesn’t come from a knowledge of craft; it doesn’t come from the encouragement of acceptance letters or in retaliation to rejection letters. A successful day of writing occurs when and only when you allow yourself to enter your true writing state of mind.

Some writers get there by sitting down and typing as quickly as possible. The first page or two will be thrown away but by page three they’re in it. Some writers get there with a ritual cup of tea and a prayer. Some writers reread what they wrote the day before. Other writers cross their fingers and hope.

It doesn’t matter how you get there. You’ll know when you’ve arrived. You’ve stopped thinking and you’ve started listening. You’ve stopped watching the clock because time is a measure of what’s come before and what will happen next and the story you’re telling is being told in the right here and now. You’ve stopped going to get ideas and are letting them come to you. You’ve stopped worrying and started becoming curious. You’ve stopped trying to answer and you’ve started asking.

And suddenly all the classes and seminars and books and blogs and magazines are so immensely beside the point. There is nothing but this place and you know there isn’t one human on earth who could show you how to get there because this place belongs exclusively to you because in fact it is you. It is you without the story of why you shouldn’t or can’t or won’t or aren’t, it is you free of everything that has never been you, it is you not just alive but aware at last exactly how alive you have always been.

That is where every successful day of writing has ever come from. There is no other place it can come from. If you get there today, wonderful, and if you don’t, that’s okay too, because where you need to go will follow you everywhere from now until you are done telling stories.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

How To Accept Rejection

Most writers view rejection as their professional enemy. A writing career requires acceptance, after all. If a writer received nothing but rejection, that writer wouldn’t have a career at all. Except writers cannot hate rejection. And no, not just because it is often a part of the submission cycle. Rejection is actually a crucial aspect the writing process itself.

For instance, here’s a typical storyteller’s brainstorming session: What should my hero do for a living? A lawyer? No, he’s not that successful. But he is in front of people. How about a teacher? No, too altruistic. Also, he enjoys the spotlight. Ah, he’s an actor! An unemployed actor. No – not totally unemployed. He got one gig in a commercial playing a guy with hemorrhoids. Perfect.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. This is how writers find their stories. And it really doesn’t matter whether we are writing fiction or non-fiction. Even the memoirist sifts through the past and decides what to put in and what to leave out. And yet, if you look again you will notice that the above example is filled with rejection. Our author could not arrive at his final Yes without the guidance of a great many No’s.

Writing is all about learning to say, “Yes.” Every word on the page is a word to which I’ve said, “Yes.” But I cannot find the words and sentences and scenes and stories I wish to share unless I also know what I do not wish to share. It would be impossible to say yes if I couldn’t say no. No is like the feeling of imbalance the gymnast experiences as she seeks the Yes of balance. These opposites are actually the allied yin and yang of my creative life.

It just never felt that way to me when the rejection letters came in. Whereas I called the comfort and discomfort that guides me in the choice of words and sentences and so on information, those rejections letters felt every bit like unwanted, unhelpful, discouraging, depressing closed and barred doors to what I wanted most. What’s so useful about that?

Everything, if I listen to what those rejections are telling me. When I write, the worst thing I can try to do is force a word or sentence in where it’s not wanted. The best thing to do when I feel this resistance is pull back and try something else. This is what the resistance is telling me. Many times, however, I felt this resistance and soldiered on. Yet what I thought of as writing by force of will was actually self-rejection. It was uncomfortable, but such is adulthood – or so I’d heard. The sting I felt when the stories I’d written in this fashion were rejected was merely an echo of the pain of self-rejection I’d inflicted on myself by ignoring my own inherent guidance.

That’s right, to find acceptance in the publishing world you must first accept yourself. I take that back – you need only practice accepting yourself. You practice this every single time you sit down to write, every single time you choose a word that feels right or wrong for no other reason than you like it or don’t like it. That’s self-acceptance. You don’t need to climb a mountain and meditate for the rest your life to find it. You find it as you find your balance, with every step and every choice.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Why Everyone Has Time To Write

Many of the students I meet at writers’ conferences complain that they don’t have enough time to write. These men and women have fulltime jobs, marriages, children, hobbies, parties to attend, and favorite television shows to follow. How in an already full life are they expected find one or two hours a day to write a book?

It’s a good question, and the simple, honest, but ultimately unhelpful answer is this: Every writer who has ever written a book has had a full life within which that book was written. If you need “more time,” get up an hour earlier every day. That’s what a lot of writers do. Or they go to bed an hour later. But usually they get up earlier. There. Problem solved.

Except this really solves nothing, just as telling a smoker to simply stop smoking solves nothing. The question most writers are really asking isn’t, “How do I find time to write?” but, “Is writing a waste of time?” Going to college probably didn’t feel like a waste of time because it would, in theory, lead to a career. And going to work probably doesn’t feel like a waste of time because it provides an income and a social network and a bit of an identity. Even crashing in front of the TV doesn’t feel like a waste of time because everyone needs some downtime.

But is writing a waste of time? It is relatively easy for the imagination to perceive the connection between enrolling in college and a successful career in, say, high tech, even though many years and many choices and many unplanned turns and reversals wait between one and the other. The path one walks for this career, has, in many ways, been cleared by those who walked it before you, like a paint-by-number life. How comforting. Do this and that and then this and then that and you will be safe and fed and housed and respected and have health care and a time-share in Maui.

As soon as we sit down to write, we understand how blank our canvas really is. Not only do we not know if that book will ever be published, we don’t even know what that book will like when it’s done. All we can really perceive is what is directly before us: that blank canvas called a page. And so we sit alone with this simple question, “What would I most like to put here?” That’s the writer’s first and last guarantee, that we will get to answer that question as often as we ask it.

That may not seem like much at first compared to the apparent security of a color-coded life, but the moment a writer decides that getting up an hour earlier every day just to ask and answer that question, he or she has discovered the holy secret to writing and publishing success. I will never get up an hour earlier to ask, “Why bother?” I would sooner sleep the entire day. At least then I could dream. So if you feel you need time to write, don’t begin by trying to clear away an hour of clutter from your day’s schedule. Instead, clear space within your mind; clear away all the useless questions of talent and money and comparison, and you will find the blank space that has always belonged to you.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Unreal Journey

I quit college when I was twenty-one to become a writer. That was the plan, anyway. I didn’t need to spend tens of thousands of dollars at a university to write; I could do it for free at my desk. The problem was that although I loved to write and had a naturally diligent work ethic, the plan to become a writer felt entirely like a fantasy. I could not feel the sequential connection between the reality of sitting at my desk typing words onto a blank page and the reality of those words being read by strangers in a published book.

It made the supposed job of writer confusing. The job of writer felt nothing like the other job I took to earn money. Nothing about the job of waiting tables at a café and then a BBQ joint felt anything like a fantasy. That was reality, baby. That was a time card, and cash in my hands, and actual living people to laugh with and complain about. The job of waiting tables felt like life as I already understood it.

The fantasy of the job called writing did not. The act of writing felt like reality because I’d been doing that all my life. But the job of writing, of author, felt as unreal as a city I had never visited. Post cards and guidebooks and movies cannot begin to simulate the experience of living in the city itself. And so it was as if I was on a journey, but because I could not see my destination, every step I took felt as unreal as my imagination’s rendering of the city to which I believed I was headed.

Strange, but I needed to look to no further than the very stories I was telling to know how to get where I wanted to go. A book is written one word at a time, each word the best the writer can choose at that moment. There is no other way. So too that unreal journey. I never needed to know what the city looked like or what I would do when I got there. The only one question I have ever needed ask is, “What is the best step I can take at this very moment?” The answer is reality; the rest is a dream.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Decisions, Decisions

Writing has taught me many things, but what it continues to teach me every single time I sit down at my desk is how to make decisions. After all, writing is nothing but a series of decisions, from which story to tell, to which scenes and characters and sentences to include. In fact, every single word is a decision. In this way, a book is a collection of decisions within decisions within decisions.

The first thing writing taught me about decisions is that they can’t be made intellectually. The intellect is useful at gathering and retaining information, but it is useless at knowing which stories to tell or which words go where. In the end this is a felt process, an intuitive process – or, to be more concrete, it requires the ability to differentiate effortlessness and effort. The effortless path is always the best path, the path my authentic curiosity would have me follow. It requires no effort to be curious about something; it always requires great effort to keep my attention on something about which I am not curious at all.

So this has been very useful. But perhaps more important has been the gradual understanding that there is no such thing as a wrong decision. Every decision takes me somewhere, and if that somewhere is not where I want to be, I will recognize it as such, perhaps immediately, perhaps eventually. Regardless of the time it takes for me to recognize where I am – to understand that the story isn’t working, that this job isn’t for me, that this relationship should end – the road signs, so to speak, will always be apparent the moment I choose to look for them. Sometimes it takes me a while to understand I am exerting effort and that I’m not enjoying doing so.

The concept of a “wrong decision” creates a hostile environment for decision-making. It suggests that there is some choice that could lead me out beyond the reach of my own guidance, a wilderness of failure from which I will never return, where I will live forever in misery and loneliness. I have only ever traveled to such places in my frightened imagination. In reality, as long as I can tell the difference between happiness and unhappiness, I will always find a route back to myself.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter