Miraculous Writing

I interviewed Bernie Siegel last week, a former surgeon and #1 New York Times bestselling author whose central message for the nearly two dozen books he’s written is: Love heals. I happen to agree with this, but I am not a doctor. Medical professionals, Bernie pointed out, are less open to this idea. “They didn’t want to hear about it,” he told me. “So I’d tell ‘em stories instead. Stories, they could hear.”

The stories he told were of patients who had healed themselves. There is a miraculousness to this sort of healing that is understandably more believable when experienced than when simply reported. Which is exactly why Bernie eventually turned to stories. Stories are the closest thing humans have to experiencing what is not actually happening to us at this very moment.

Chances are you are not a surgeon trying to convince other surgeons of the healing powers of love. Chances are you are simply a writer with a story you’d like to share with other people. Perhaps it is a story of something that happened to you, or maybe it is a story you made up. It doesn’t matter. Either way, you are writing about something that isn’t happening right now. Whether based on experience or invented, the story is told by and within the imagination, a realm utterly beyond the reach of another person’s five senses.

I love my imagination, by which I mean I find it an endlessly fascinating conversational partner. These are conversations to which no one else is privy, a fact of which I am reminded whenever I go to publish something I’ve written. I often harbor a small concern that my readers might think I’m delusional. It is as if the success of whatever story I am sharing is dependent upon the reader perceiving the beauty of, say, a bird that doesn’t exist anywhere on planet Earth. The reader will never be able to touch this bird; it will never land in their window; it will never sing in their tree. And yet my story insists that its beauty exists just the same.

Fortunately, readers have imaginations as well. A reader’s imagination is exactly as fascinating to them as mine is to me. It is with this imagination that the reader recalls their first kiss as if it had occurred only the day before, or dreams with excitement of tomorrow’s rendezvous with a lover. It is also the reader’s imagination that summons the ogres of past hurts, or brings to life the dragons of future ruin and failure. There is really nothing the imagination cannot show a reader if he or she is willing to look.

In this way, sharing a story is always an act of trust. The writer trusts the reader’s imagination to bring his story to life, and the reader trusts the writer to take them somewhere beautiful or exciting or profound or funny within the infinite landscape of their imaginations. Most stories have dragons of one kind or another, and if rendered truthfully, the fright they provide can be as real as a doctor’s grim news to his patient. My favorite stories, however, do not leave me bleeding fear. My favorite stories return me to myself, whole again, and eager to find a friend I love with whom to share it.

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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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Equality of Stories

I grew up in the seventies and early eighties, when the civil rights movement and the women’s movement were still relatively new ideas. There was much talk of equality and inequality at this time. People were marching for equality, and arguing about it on the Phil Donahue Show, and writing editorials about it in newspapers. I was all for equality, but I found the current of hostility in the marches and the arguments and the editorials off-putting. Nothing I had ever wanted in my life had been achieved through hostility, no matter how well-intentioned. So I watched the marches from the sidelines.

This bothered my first girlfriend. Though she had never marched for anything herself, she was planning on doing so very soon. When that day came, she wanted me marching there beside her. “I don’t march,” I told her.

“But you have to. You have to care about things. Don’t you care about anything?”

The question confused me. I did care about things. I just didn’t want to fight or march or argue for what I cared about. I worried that this meant I had no conviction. “I care about the stories I write,” I concluded. “That’s how I’ll help people.”

“That doesn’t count.”

I believed it did count, but I didn’t yet understand why. Because at this same time I lived in a world where, for all our talk of equality, people of all political stripes seemed to spend a lot of time dividing each other up into categories and classes and ranks. In school we were graded and compared; the sports I played and followed all had winners and losers; and sometimes guys would say of certain girls, “Man, she’s out of my league.” I wanted to get good grades, and win the races I ran, and date pretty girls.

But I also wanted to tell stories. Telling a story was like creating a game where everybody won. When you told a story, the audience became whomever the story was about, whether it was a man or a woman, black or white, elf or dwarf. Though I did not love all stories equally, all stories offered an equal invitation to every reader. The only thing that could bar me from entering into a story I read or wrote was my own curiosity.

What’s more, the good feeling I got sharing a story with a friend lasted longer than the short, addictive high of getting a good grade. And the mysterious connection I felt with strangers when we laughed at the same joke or cried at the same ending was preferable to the unnatural separation from the other runners I felt when I won or lost a race. And of course, I didn’t actually want to date any pretty girl, I wanted to date the ones about whom I most curious.

I could not manufacture, control, or command my curiosity, be it for girls or stories; I could only obey it and move effortlessly, or deny it and struggle against its ceaseless current. The choice was always mine, and no one could take it from me nor make it for me. In fact, it is the only true choice I have had to make, a choice I can only assume is open equally to everyone. Perhaps someday the world of schools and politics and publishing will perfectly reflect this inherent equality, though I do not predict I’ll see it in my lifetime. No matter. I will care about the next choice I make as much as I cared about the last.

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

Waiting for the Muse

If you’ve ever read a book on writing, or been to a writer’s conference, or taken a writing class, you may have heard a variation on this very fundamental piece of advice: If you want to write a book, get your butt in the chair. In other words, books don’t get written unless you actually write them, so quit thinking about writing the book and talking about writing the book and actually write it.

If it were really this simple, of course, everyone who wanted to write a book would simply do it. I remember this every time I put my butt in the chair, which, like every writer I know, is five or six days a week. I do not wait for The Muse to call me to the chair. In almost every instance, I go there without her. Or I should say, I go there without any awareness of her. She’s around; I’ve just lost all track of her.

I lose track of her because I’m a grown person with a bunch of things I must attend to that have nothing to do with what I’m writing. I don’t mind attending to these things; I like the business of being alive and having relationships with other people and watching television and reading people’s Facebook statuses and all the other things that aren’t writing. But I also like writing, a fact I must remind myself of five or six times a week, because writing isn’t much fun without The Muse, and, as I said, I’ve usually lost track of her.

Then I put my butt in the chair. The chair isn’t magic. It cannot summon The Muse as a lamp summons a genie. Once I’m in the chair, I must wait. I must wait until my attention sinks to the level where writing occurs. When I’m attending to the business of being alive, much of my attention is on the world I can see and hear and touch and taste and smell. When I’m writing, my attention must be wholly elsewhere, for that is where what I want to write can be found.

That is also where what we call The Muse can be found, a source of inspiration and surprise and discovery that simply cannot be perceived with those other five senses. I wouldn’t bother writing if I were not inspired and surprised by the discoveries I found there. It would be boring. I’d rather be attending to the business of being alive, where I am often surprised and inspired by what I discover talking to other people and watching other people on TV or reading other people’s Facebook statuses. Other people are quite interesting if I pay attention to them.

Which is why I like waiting for what we call The Muse. She’s the one I pay attention to when I’m writing. She’s like the best friend you can imagine. If I’m willing to listen, she’s always got something very interesting to say. She has her own language, of course, and so I have to translate what she says so other people can understand it. That’s my job in this arrangement. It’s a good job. It’s the only job I’ve ever wanted.

So if you have a book you’d like to write, do put your butt in a chair somewhere. But don’t be surprised if you don’t immediately have anything you want to write. You’ll have to wait. Maybe you’ll wait a minute, or an hour, or a week, but by and by that friend will arrive, and she will have much to say, and you will want to do nothing more than listen and translate, listen and translate.

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

Your Job

If I was only allowed to give my writing students one piece of advice, it would this: Pay attention to how you feel. Not sure whether you should write fiction or non-fiction, romance or thrillers, literary fiction or memoir? Pay attention to how you feel when you consider each possibility. Which feels the most exciting to begin, and which feel the most effortless to return to?

Not sure if a scene is working? Pay attention to how you feel as you write and reread it. Do you feel interested as you write it, or are you just trying to get your character to the next scene? Do you actually care about this scene, or is it merely something you’ve intellectually decided belongs? It always feels better to be interested than disinterested, and your writing improves the instant you give your attention to something in which you’re authentically interested.

Not sure which word to use? Pay attention to how you feel as you choose it. Your story isn’t a jigsaw puzzle. In a jigsaw puzzle you see the piece snap into place. In a story, you either feel the word being received into the sentence, or feel yourself forcing it there. Learn the difference, honor the difference, and have the patience to wait until the right one comes along.

What a fantastic tool is our felt understanding of life. Every time we focus on something interesting and exciting we feel good, and every time we force ourselves to focus on something less interesting we feel less good. And every time we devote ourselves to what most interests us success flows to us with less and less effort, and every time we devote ourselves to what does not interest success comes slowly if at all. It is completely predictable and dependable. So that is your main job, you writers you: feel good. The rest will just come.

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

A Lazy Writer’s Guide to Building a Platform

My agent was getting ready to submit the first non-fiction book I’d written, which meant we were busy cobbling together a book proposal. Fiction writers – which I had been before this – don’t bother with book proposals, so I was a bit skeptical of the whole process. Somehow I had to not only explain what the book was but also demonstrate that there was a market for it. Lacking a crystal ball, I didn’t understand how this was realistically possible.

“You talk about your platform,” my agent explained. “Those are the first people who will buy the book.”

“My platform?”

“You know: Author magazine, the blog, the interviews, Author2Author, your teaching. Your platform.”

“That stuff? I don’t know if that’s a platform.”

“I deal with platforms and promotion all the time. It’s a good platform.”

“Really?”

“Yes!”

I took her word for it. Until then, I did not think I had a platform, because I had heard that an author must build a platform. Building something seemed like a lot of work. I like doing stuff, but I don’t like work. Doing stuff becomes work when I don’t want to do what has to be done. So I guess I’m lazy in that way, but it’s all right because I still get a lot of stuff done – like all the things that comprise my supposed platform. I built that platform by just doing what I wanted to do.

Just doing what I want to do is a defining preference I share with many of the writers I know. It’s a practical one too, because to write a book or a story or a poem or an essay is a discipline of asking myself over and over again, “What is most interesting to me right now?” My writing is never so alive and original and, yes, salable, as when I am hot on the trail of what interests me most. I cannot manufacture this interest; it is either present and I follow it, or it is not and I don’t.

I can’t simply turn off this practical laziness when I leave my desk, either. It has brought me too much happiness. Actually, it has brought me all my happiness. Which is why a little rebellion always stirs in my heart whenever I hear some well-intentioned expert tell me what I have to do to have success in this very competitive business. All I ever have to do is follow my curiosity. It is the only thing that has had led me anywhere I want to be.

So if you are like me, and you love to write but you are a little lazy, and you have heard that you need a platform, and you think you don’t know how build one, don’t worry. Writing has already taught you everything you need to know about building platforms. I go could go on about blogs and websites and mailing lists, but all of that is useless until you are curious. Without your curiosity – which doesn’t care about hits, or likes, or retweets, or sales – nothing you start will be finished. You will rebel, and feel bad because you haven’t done what needs to be done, and maybe even tell yourself that you aren’t getting anywhere.

And so you go back to writing, and eventually you finish something, and you wonder, “How could I share this other people?” And you find that question interesting, which is to say you are curious, and now you are on your way.

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

Friendly Math: Why Everyone Wants What You’ve Written

Every writer I know wants to share what he or she has written, and the moment we share one piece of writing with one other person we become authors. But many of the writers I meet at writers’ conferences tell me they don’t feel like authors because they haven’t yet sold something they’ve written. The problem, they tell me, is that nobody wants what they’ve written. The more of these gloomy conversations I have with writers, the more I wonder if the real problem is just the opposite.

Writers are people first, after all. Like a lot of people, I own a bunch of things. I like these things; that’s why I own them. I like my house and my car and my computer. I like the new pair of shoes I bought recently. Every time I put them on they please me. When I’m wearing these shoes, no one else can wear them. It’s just not possible. If I shared them with someone else, I wouldn’t have them to walk around in until I got them back.

Whenever I write a story or an essay, I always write about something I like. Actually, I write about something I love. Just as it is easiest to walk a long distance in a pair of perfectly-fitting shoes, so too it is easiest to write about what I love. As soon as I am done writing something I love, I want to share it with other people. I want to share it in much the same way I want to share a song I found on iTunes or a book I found at a bookstore. The only difference is that I wrote the thing I’m sharing and I might get paid to share it.

Some confusion can set in, however, when I go to share it. I know a story isn’t a pair of shoes, but there is an idea that’s been going around for about 10,000 years that goes like this: There isn’t enough. Enough wheat, enough gold, enough land, enough time. And everyone seems to want more of what there doesn’t seem to be enough. I have certainly felt some days that I didn’t have enough of what everyone wants. I don’t like thinking that I don’t have enough and that I’ll somehow have to scrabble away against all the other people to get my fair share, whatever precisely that is. It’s a friendless world, that.

Which is why it can get confusing when it’s time to share something I’ve written. Within me are thoughts of what shoes I’ll wear or what book I’ll read and or what story I’ve just written. I always want more of what I love, and I know the reading world is filled with people who want more and more and more of what they love too. If I believe for one moment we are all somehow in competition, I will tell myself it’s not ready to share, or no one will understand it, or there is no market for it, and try to protect something that cannot be lost.

Every reader will make a story their own. If they loved it, they will walk about with it in their hearts. Meanwhile, that same story will remain in mine as well. It defies the unfriendly math of a world in competition with itself, hording happiness in preparation for some end-time when it’s finally run out. Fortunately, sharing is how happiness grows, and as long as there are two people in the world, there will always be enough of 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

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.

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

Music Lessons

For years my wife, herself a writer, was my first and only beta reader. Every draft of every novel went under her nose, and she’d return with her likes and dislikes. It was not a peaceful arrangement. Often her dislikes outnumbered her likes. I came to hate this process. I didn’t really want her feedback; I just wanted her to love it so I could send it to agents or editors with some confidence. Eventually, I relieved her of her duty as beta reader, and there was peace in the kingdom.

About the same time I stopped showing my wife my books, I started writing music. I discovered that using Garage Band I could compose anything from a pop tune to a piano sonata to a symphony. I was thrilled. I’d wanted to compose music my entire life but I hadn’t the time nor discipline to learn to play the piano well enough to write what I heard in my mind. Now I could put little black dots into the program, press play, and hear what I’d written. Sometimes what I’d written sounded like what I heard in my mind, and sometimes it didn’t. And sometimes I liked what I’d written more than what I’d imagined and sometimes I did not. I was my own beta listener.

I was so excited when I finished a song or a little symphony. Even though I had chosen every little black dot, the song still felt a bit like something I’d discovered on the radio. I was the beta listener, after all. And since I always liked the songs, and since whenever you find a song you like you share it with someone you love, I’d play it for my wife.

At first, she was as delighted as I was. “You wrote that?” she’d ask. “Yes!” I’d say. “Isn’t that cool?” Once she’d gotten over the shock that her husband of fifteen years was now writing music, she began to listen with a more critical ear, commenting, “Oh, that beginning’s really dynamic.” Or, “The middle kind of bogs down, don’t you think?” And then one day, after listening to my latest piece: “That just doesn’t work for me. It has no center.”

And that was when a miracle occurred. I didn’t care. To my own amazement, I did not care one speck that she thought it had no center. What she or anyone thought of this or any piece could not change my relationship to it, could not change why I’d written it, or what I’d learned writing it, or what I thought of it. The two experiences were totally separate. And I thought to myself, “If I learned to write music for this lesson alone, it will have been worth 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