On the Wave

When people ask, I say I write about writing, but this is not completely true. Mostly I write about and teach how to get into the frame of mind in which writing is possible. This is step one for every writer, whether they are writing poetry, steampunk romance, or memoire. Of course many a story, poem, or essay has been written from a different frame of mind. I know, because I’ve done it. When people talk about writing being “hard,” this is what they mean. When I am in the wrong frame of mind, writing is like trying to get to shore by paddling and paddling, just me on my little surfboard and an ocean full of antagonistic currents.

Most of the time I couldn’t even get where I wanted to go. If I did manage to drag myself to the beach, everything I created along the way was full of the struggle and frustration and confusion I experienced on my journey. In short, I had shared a view of life I myself would not want to live. But I’d done it. I’d put words on the page. I’d acted like a writer.

On the other hand, to be in the correct frame of mind is to wait for a wave of curiosity and interest to carry me to shore. If one comes along, and if it is strong, I will need what we call craft to stay with it and not fall off. But the wave itself does most of the work. It’s bigger than me, and has more energy than me, and is going where it’s going whether I want to come along or not.

I have fallen off these sorts of waves many, many times. How disappointing it was. I had such hope for it! Yet the correct writing frame of mind has everything to do with knowing that more waves are coming. They will not — and indeed cannot — stop. It is not in their nature. But I must remember this and trust that it is true. On the ocean of creativity, waves are not perceivable until I believe they exist. Until I can believe in what will come rather than what I currently see, my world will appear flat, and all movement will be meaningless and random.

So I let my mind be still and my thoughts go quiet, and wait for what I know must come when I have cleared away the clutter and noise of doubt and worry and impatience. It is not long before I feel that slow build of energy that says a wave is coming, and then I see an image, a memory, and now words themselves, and I am on my 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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Blank Page

I read once that Ernest Hemingway called the blank page “the white bull.” I fully understand this. The blank page is mercilessly indifferent. It doesn’t care how many books you’ve written or awards you’ve won. It doesn’t care if you’re married or divorced, if a loved one just died or your first child was just born. It offers no advice or critique or clue about what you are going to write. It does not believe in right or wrong. It waits for you as it waits for anyone who has ever sat down to write.

The blank page also lays bare the role choice plays in my life. Not one thing appears on that page until I choose to put it there. I am not always happy with my life, and the unhappier I am, the more I want to blame other people for that unhappiness. Surely I wouldn’t have created this; it must be someone else’s fault. I cannot play that game with the blank page. My acceptance of creative responsibility must be as complete as the page is indifferent.

Which is why I sometimes fear it. The smaller and more insignificant I feel – the more life feels like something happening to me rather than something passing through me – the less capable I feel of accepting this responsibility. The blank page exposes me. There is nowhere to hide on the blank page, nor does it allow me to dream of a future where my potential will at last be realized. The blank page stands in the here and now, more honest than a mirror.

As my relationship with that blank page has evolved, however, I have learned to make a friend of it. I rarely feel as happy and on purpose as when I have allowed myself to enter the creative stream of a story I am telling. I cannot enter that stream without the blank page, for the stream is unique to me: it is a current of thought moving in the direction of my unique interest. How nice to begin my workday with a friend who always asks, “What do you care about most in the world? Let’s go pursue it.”

And when I am away from my desk, and I am feeling myself pulled in some dark direction, when I perceive clouds of doom gathering around my future, I have taught myself to remember that blank page. I will not be happy again, I know, until I allow my mind to become as blank as that page. To do so, I must stop telling myself stories about what I see and hear and read, must slow this current of thought enough that I might get out of my boat and take a look around.

It is literally impossible to know what I will see from this fresh place when I am caught in the shadows of despair and doubt. It is not my job to fix my life or improve my life, it is only ever my job to find that blank page and learn again what it offers, to enter the stream of life that is already flowing.

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

Authority

I don’t like to deal with words in this way often, but I will today, and the word of choice is author. You may not ever think about it, but author is, obviously, the root word for authority. That is one powerful word, authority, no matter how you define it. Either you are the one making and enforcing the rules, or you are a respected expert whose opinion on any matter is tantamount to law. If you are an authority, ideas may begin and end with you.

I don’t think most writers, especially fiction writers, feel as though they have much authority. Writers work alone. Writers must submit their work for approval and acceptance. Writers frequently have no idea how the stories they are starting will end, merely following, child-like, Doctorow’s headlights on the road.

And yet a writer wishes to become an author. When you publish a book, or a poem, or a blog, you are not just its writer, you are also its author. And I know for myself that I moved from being a writer to an author when I granted myself authority within the realm of my work.

It wasn’t easy. I was waiting, unbeknownst to myself, to be given this authority from the publishing world. I was waiting for some agent or editor to crown me king of my writing world. But no matter how many agents represented me, no matter how may editors said, “Yes,” the authority seemed to elude me. Maybe if I was praised a little more, paid a little more, read a little more . . .

And then one day, before I had ever thought of starting Author, I wrote a blog. It was the first blog I had ever written. In it I wrote what I had longed for all my writing life to hear from some God-like publishing or writing authority. Not about me, but just about writing. I’m sure someone somewhere had written this, but I had never read it until I wrote it myself. It was like writing my own acceptance letter.

And when I was done I sat back and looked at what I had written, what I had self-published, and I thought, “It can’t be as easy as that.”

But it was.

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

Mastery

Most writers begin understanding certain parts of writing better than other parts. For instance, when I was a teenager I had an instinctive understand of dialogue. I understood it well enough that when I was sixteen I explained to my younger brother that characters rarely say exactly what they mean, that it is always better when they talk about one thing – like the weather – but really mean another – like how uncertain life is. That’s advice I’d still give thirty yeas later.

What did not come so naturally to me was what we call “description.” When I encountered it in the books I read, I often found it boring, something I might skip to get to the cool parts. I knew you needed a certain amount of it so your characters weren’t wandering in a bald moonscape, but the only value I could find in writing a good description as opposed to a boring description is that the former proved what a good writer I was. It felt like a necessary showing off, as if writers were all figure skaters required to hit a certain number of triple axles.

Then shortly before I started college I picked up a collection of T. S. Eliot’s poems, and after reading them one afternoon actually said aloud, “Oh. I get it.” What I got was that “description” was actually an attempt to recreate the emotional experience of being alive and in the world. Now that was cool. What does it feel like to stand in a crowded bus station? What does it feel like to see someone you find beautiful? What does it feel like to watch a clock when you’re waiting for school to end? The words I chose to render the world were, hopefully, portals into my most intimate understanding of life.

Now I got it, meaning I understood that describing something was an act of love rather than of fear. Now I could write toward the sharing of life as I felt it rather than away from the fear that I wasn’t clever enough to stick some literary landing. I spent the ensuing years learning to master this by the exact same means I have used to master anything: by learning again and again that fear is only the belief that there is ever an answer other than love.

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

Endless Story

I’ve probably never met you. If you’re a writer, I don’t know what genre you write in or who inspired you to become a writer, nor do I know who, if anyone, told you not to bother, that it was too big a dream and the odds of success were too low. I don’t know where you’ve submitted your work, and I don’t know what fearful stories you’ve told yourself in the idle hours you passed waiting to hear back. I don’t know how many stories you had to write until you began to feel like you understood what a story was, nor do I know how many writing books you’ve read or writing classes you’ve taken.

I may never get to meet you, and I may never learn the answers to these questions, but I do know this: You can’t get it wrong. You can’t screw this up. I know you sometimes think you can. I know any work of art appears to come together or fall apart, that as you write, you hope to stitch the seams of a mysterious fabric into a recognizable whole. I know the frustration of sewing and sewing and feeling as if your thread unravels with every stitch.

But I also know that your work only appears to be made of separate pieces. It does not matter how many poems, essays, stories, or novels you’ve written, it does not matter how many projects you think you’ve started and believed you’ve finished – in the end, it is all one. You have been telling only one story your entire life, and the pieces you completed or abandoned, and the pieces you published or did not, were all a part of this single, endless story to which you return day after day after day.

You know that already, though you frequently forget it in your efforts to polish something, to mint it lovely and done. You know it because at the end of every day, no matter many pages you write, whether your work is accepted or rejected, you can feel within yourself something discovered. You discovered something in loss and in victory, in effort and in effortlessness. To deny the discovery is to deny your own life, though you deny it anyway because you would prefer to choose the exact route of your discovery.

All routes are headed in the same direction, though some are more direct than others. Travel on. I’m traveling too, and perhaps some day we’ll meet. If we do, we’ll tell each other stories of our travels, of the things we’ve made or hope to make, of our successes and failures. There is nothing I love more than a good story. If I love yours, I’ll make it mine – another piece of this mysterious whole, discovered.

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

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

No Modifiers

Writing is built on nouns and verbs. Adjectives and adverbs color, pass judgment on, and celebrate those nouns and verbs. Left on their own, adjectives and adverbs would be a collection of opinions about nothing. You could write an entire book without a single adjective and adverb, and probably someone already has.

Maybe this is why love is my favorite word. It is both a noun and a verb. Love is both an experience and expression. You can be aware of love as a feeling within you, and you can actively love someone or something. In this way, it is both things at once. It is both some thing and something you do. It is really a sentence all by itself.

Which is exactly like every living thing. Every living thing is a complete sentence. Every living thing is both a noun and a verb, for everything is doing something, even if that something is growing or dying, even if that something is nothing, for not acting is still a choice, which means it is an action. Nouns and verbs, I think, belong to God, while adjectives and adverbs belong to people. We invented every one of them and can become enormously attached to them.

It is hard to see the world without adjectives or adverbs. I’m not really used to it. Things are good or bad, ugly or beautiful, or done perfectly or imperfectly. Everything seems to require my modification, my stamp upon it. The stamp is in my mind alone. What I call beautiful another calls ugly. The stamp does not exist, only the thing it would pretend to label, which I can see truly only when I call it love.

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

Experienced Writers

I played a lot of sports when I was a boy and young man. I learned early on that to enjoy playing the game I had to care whether I won or lost. The goal line, the net, the boundaries, and the score had to mean something, or the game lost its purpose. Yet to improve at any sport, and indeed to deeply enjoy actually playing that sport, I had to forget temporarily about those very outcomes that gave the game its shape, and focus instead on the pleasure of whatever I was doing at any given moment.

For instance, one of my favorite games was football, and my favorite position in that game was wide receiver. I loved to catch balls the way a dog loves to catch Frisbees. First, I loved to run. I loved what it felt like to coordinate all the parts of my body into one fluid expression. But running with a purpose was better than plain running, and that ball became the purpose. How satisfying to be aware of both my body and this sphere travelling across the sky, to time my run so that the one aligns with the other, and then to feel that intimate moment when we arrive at the same place at the same time and my hands arrest the ball’s rotation and we are one.

That’s why I got better at football. Because I loved doing that. I did and it and did it and did it because I loved doing it. The winning and losing, the dropped passes and interceptions, were more like stories I laid over the moment-to-moment experience of playing. No outcome that I named good or bad could strip the game of its inherent pleasure – unless, of course, I paid more attention to the story than the experience.

Sports were excellent preparation for a writing life. I did not begin having any success as a writer until I stopped paying so much attention to results and started caring more about my moment-to-moment experiences. It is easy when writing to become hypnotized by acceptance letters and rejection letters, by sales and Amazon rankings. Results can offer me information about my experiences. A dropped ball told me my attention had wandered ever so slightly, and rejection letters gave me information about the people to whom I’m submitting or about the readiness of what I’ve submitted.

In the end, the writing life is composed of the experience of sitting at my desk and looking for the right sentence and the right word, or the experience of looking for the right agent or the right publisher, and then the experience of meeting those readers for whom my story was the right story. When I look upon my writing life, or my career, as an opportunity to have more and more and more experiences that I love, my career and life make sense, and grow as naturally as a tree grows. There is nothing more immediate and more knowable than experience, and there is nothing that offers greater and more instantaneous satisfaction than an experience I enjoy. An experience is what I actually have. A result is only the residue of that experience and has no lasting power in my life unless I tell a story about it.

It is tempting to tell myself triumphant stories about those results when they’re what I hoped for, but this also requires me to tell a tragic story when they are not. Better if I don’t tell any story about those results. I have to keep my attention on where I’m going if I am going to catch the stories I am meant to tell.

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

Life Story

If you wanted to learn how to lead a successful middle class American life, it would be tempting to observe from a scientific distance the form most of these lives take. With a little research, you would find that the majority of people go to school, where they do as well as they can so that they can get into the best college that they can where they study something more or less of interest to them. After college people usually get married and get a job doing this thing that interests them, and probably have children who in turn have children of their own and so the older middle class Americans now have grandchildren whom they dote upon between vacations until they– the grandparents, that is – die. The end.

Likewise, if you were to observe a typical story from a scientific distance you would also discover that most follow a familiar pattern: a hero wants something; the hero cannot have this something because of a weakness/fear/villain; the hero goes on a journey, either emotionally or physically, to learn what he or she must learn to get this thing. There will be a moment when the hero somehow faces death. Then the hero either gets the thing or doesn’t. The end.

If your life has followed the standard pattern – maybe exactly, maybe only vaguely – then you know that these connected events are not your life. No matter how closely your life resembles your neighbors’, you know that your life and your neighbors’ lives are wholly separate. You know, either consciously or unconsciously, that you must rise every day and ask the question, “Why am I leading this life?” And you know, either consciously or unconsciously, that the answer is entirely your own, and that the answer is your life.

I feel precisely the same about stories. I do not care that stories resemble one another in form. This pattern of a hero’s journey is not the story. The writer must ask himself, “Why am I telling this story?” The answer is the story – not the plot, not even the characters. Every day you sit down to write you must remember why you are writing your story, why it matters to you to tell it, and why it would matter to someone else to read it. The answer comes mysteriously every day, and we need not know why or from where, only that the story we are telling would have no life without 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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter