Hardly Working

The difference between writing a story I love, and writing a story I think might sell, is like the difference between being in an intimate relationship with someone I love, and being in an intimate relationship with someone I merely like and enjoy. That difference is effortlessness. To write a story I love or to be in a relationship with someone I love, I do not first have to overcome my own disinterest nor divert the river of my passion so it flows more conveniently where I need it to flow.

To write a story I love to write, or work a job I love to work, or be with a person I love, is to find the current of my passion and follow it where it is already running. But do so, I must first believe in effortlessness. Following the river of my own passion feels like so much less work than the engineering required to bend that river to my own will that it is sometimes difficult to recognize the following of my passion as a creative and productive endeavor. Mostly it just feels like Bill being Bill.

That hardly seems productive. Bill is Bill watching sports, and eating cereal, and taking a nap. On very good days what I call “working” feels deceptively similar to those idle activities. The difference is that when I am idle, I have said to myself, “No more effort! Let’s watch some soccer.” While I am writing, however, I must choose effortlessness again and again and again.

Because within my creative field swirl a myriad of choices, each as viable as the next, just as every person I pass on the street is as lovable as the next. Some of those viable ideas are quite attractive, exotically ripe with the potential for worldly success. Why, I wonder, can’t I be the sort of fellow who pursues such exotic ideas? Why must I just be Bill? The effort is my answer. The struggle to not be me is a struggle against life itself, a struggle I endure and endure and endure until at last I surrender to the current where work and rest are one and the same.

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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Golf Dreams and Nightmares

Alice Cooper liked to play golf. If you don’t know, Alice Cooper was a rock and roll star who saw his heyday in the early 70s, and is considered the godfather of Shock Rock or Glam Rock. His stage shows included fake blood, electric chairs, guillotines, and boa constrictors. He wore a lot of makeup. This is sounds tame now, but in 1971, when he hit the charts with “I’m Eighteen,” I was six years old, and my favorite song was The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”

Over the next few years, news of Alice Cooper and his macabre stage shows trickled down to me through rumor and schoolyard whispers. It sounded insane to me. The Halloween makeup and the blood and giant snakes seemed like a nightmare. As it happens, in 1975 he released his most popular album, “Welcome to My Nightmare.” I had nightmares of my own, I thought, and I didn’t like them. Why would I want to travel through his? Mind you, I had never heard a single note of any song he had written.

Twenty years later I was married with children and had new dreams and even some new nightmares. I was watching an MTV music history retrospective when who should they interview but a makeup-less, weathered-looking Alice Cooper. He was hilarious. He talked about how much he and his band liked to play golf. They had to be careful about this. They would sneak onto golf courses dressed as conservatively as possible. They had a reputation to uphold.

Growing up, I thought golf was the suburbs of sports – tame, asexual, quiet, and exclusive. It was a weenie sport for weenie people. At about the same time I learned that Alice Cooper was a secret golfer, a work friend convinced me to play nine holes with him at a public course. I loved it. Yet I never played again. Instead, I dreamt of golfing for years afterward, and in every dream, I made all the shots. I was a natural.

Oh, and I recently Googled “I’m Eighteen” and had a listen. It’s pretty good.

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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Evolution

More people are writing more often than ever before in the history of mankind. More people are also sharing that work, whether in traditionally published books, independently published books, blogs, twitter feeds, Facebook posts, emails, or even comment pages. The digital age has created a generation of writers and authors, if you define an author as anyone who has ever shared anything with another person – which I do.

If you’re a little older than, say, thirty, and if you’ve always wanted to write, and if you grew up with the dream of entering what used to seem like the rarified air of the Published Author, it is easy to view this new development grumpily. Now any clown with a keyboard and an Enter key can become an author. This publishing proliferation has cheapened the position of the author. To be an author one need be an authority on nothing other than one’s own strident opinion. Where’s the value in that?

For me the value is everywhere. Not that long ago, much of the population didn’t even know how to write, let alone publish. In this way, writing is evolutionary. Let everyone on earth meet the blank page and ask, “What would I like to see there?” What a question. To answer it is to meet one’s own creative identity as little else can. To answer it is to confront the reality of free will, the fluidity of thought, and our connection to something that has taken on many names over time.

Most of all, writing asks us to be responsible for the life we are living. The blank page simply will not fill itself. Only our choices will fill it, and we can only choose from thoughts we are thinking, and we can only think about what we are focused on – and we can focus on anything. We can focus on genocide of flowers, argument or cooperation. We are as free as our boundless imaginations. So what do you want to see on the blank page? The answer to that question is how what we have come to call reality is created.

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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Belief

Whether you are writing a book, or starting a business, or attempting a seven-foot high jump, you must first believe that it is possible to do what you are about to do. Belief is more than a self-help buzzword; it is the starting place for nearly everything humans have ever attempted and accomplished. If I believe it is impossible to do something, I will not attempt it; if I believe it is possible, I might.

In this way, belief is more important than evidence. Someone might show me evidence that it is possible to become, say, a successful writer. They might show me hundreds video interviews with writers who were themselves once upon a time nothing but young men and women who thought it would be cool to tell stories for a living. No matter how many videos I was shown, I could still choose to believe it impossible.

Likewise, someone could show me evidence that it is impossible to become a successful writer. They could quote statistics of how many writers try and fail, how many manuscripts are rejected by agents and publishers. They could tell me I have a better chance of winning the lottery and that to succeed I must be both lucky and talented. They could tell me all of this, and I could still choose to ignore that evidence and believe it possible.

I have lived most of my life taking my own belief and disbelief for granted. I had allowed the concept of belief to drift into the airy realm of superstition and desperation. Yet it is nothing less the foundation of my entire life, the only springboard from which any idea can launch. It has never been my job to accept reality, only to believe in the reality I wish to enjoy.

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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Human Stories

Ever since I could talk, I have enjoyed telling stories to friends and family and acquaintances. Yes, I’m a bit of a performer, who doesn’t mind the spotlight – but mostly I enjoy what is shared in the telling of a story. As a storyteller I must leave room for my audience’s imagination, must paint just enough of a portrait that they can complete the image in their mind. In this way, we are really both telling the story, though only one of us is talking. By story’s end, if we were successful, the audience and I meet in relief, or laughter, or understanding – kingdoms known to everyone, but ruled by no one.

I will often tell the same story to many people. Usually, the story changes depending on what I know about the person to whom I’m talking. My wife might hear a slightly different version of a story than my youngest son, who might hear a slightly different version than my oldest son, who might hear a slightly different version than my father, or one of my clients. In the art of showing and not telling, knowing what your audience already knows or doesn’t know, what they believe is true and what they think is a lot of hooey, determines which and how many details I provide in my portrait.

But when I’m writing a story for the reading public, I know almost nothing about my audience. I don’t know how old they are or whether they are a man or a woman; I don’t know how they vote or what they believe about God or science or marriage or children or taxes or death. I don’t know where they’ve lived or what they’ve lost or how they’ve suffered or when they’ve rejoiced. All I know is that they’re human.

That, I have learned, is enough. While I love telling stories to friends and family, the stories I gain the most from telling are those I share with people I may never meet. To do so, I must find something universal in that story, a narrative purpose that has nothing to do with me specifically, but which illuminates the challenges and joys of being human. It is not so difficult. All I need to do is see what remains of my experience when I ignore my name and age and occupation, ignore my unique history and my unmet desires. When I strip away these trappings, I am hopefully left with something as familiar and unadorned as a newborn, a thing of all love and all potential.

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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My Whole Life

I like to remind my memoir students that the first personal essay I published in a larger magazine told the story of the only time I ate an oyster. I had been quite the picky eater for the first twenty-five years of my life, so this was no small decision on my part – but still, it was just an oyster. No one put a gun to my head to make me eat it, nor did I eat it while stranded an island. I had just gotten a job at a fancy restaurant and I had to try it as part of my training.

I share this story because while some students come to me to help them tell their tale of loss or abuse or sickness, some come with less dramatic stories. In fact, sometimes students aren’t sure what story they’d like to tell – they just know they want to write about their lives. These students are sometimes intimidated by those students who have survived cancer, or who grew up in religious cults or biked across the country. Their lives, by comparison, seem uneventful.

You would be hard pressed to find a more uneventful life than mine – at least as I’m living it now. I write, I teach, I interview people, and I talk to my wife, and occasionally to people who aren’t my wife. That’s pretty much it. Yet I write about my life to the exclusion of all other subjects. I find my life endlessly interesting. Though it’s really not my life I find interesting, but rather life itself. What I call my life is just my intimate, personal experience of life.

This may sound like semantics, but it’s not. Life, to me, is never what is happening, in the same way a story is not about what’s happening. A story is about how a character feels while something is happening, and how that character changes, and what that change reveals about all of us. A story is a current of events moving toward an inevitable conclusion, the current stronger and more meaningful than any of the events which comprise it.

Life is also a current, not a fractured collection of events, and certainly not a static object to be studied and dismantled. If I allow myself to look deeply at any event, I can perceive the current of life flowing through it. In fact, I can perceive the whole of life, though I will never be able to render this in language. It is beyond rendering. It is not, however, beyond perception nor beyond feeling, and somewhere in the exchange between writer and reader, the whole of life is shared.

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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Meeting

Children can get tired of being told what to do pretty quickly. The novelty of being human wears off, and while there’s still a lot they don’t know about the world that all of the adults around them know, they’d rather learn about it in their own time and by the route of their own curiosity. This is why a parent’s jokes can often fall flat. It is easy as a parent to become so preoccupied with your child’s well being that even jokes become a form of care-taking, delivered like chicken soup to raise their poor little spirits.

I am happy to report that my boys laugh at a lot (though by no means all) of my jokes, and I believe this is because I never try to make them laugh. Instead, I make myself laugh and look for crossover. It’s an important distinction. I know my boys are fierce about wanting to make up their own minds, which means they must be given full permission not to laugh. The only way to give that permission is to not care whether they find it funny, only whether I find it funny.

Of course I do want them to laugh, and so this is why I look for crossover. I notice the type of humor we both find funny and aim for it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Either way I’m still laughing, sometimes to their annoyance. I married my wife because there was so much crossover. That crossover is where we really meet, usually in love, sometimes in frustration.

I’m looking for this same meeting with my readers, but I do not have the luxury of observing their reactions. Moreover, I do not want to. The page must be as open to my full curiosity as my own mind. It is the only way to meet myself, without any requirements or expectations, and when that meeting occurs I believe I have given my readers the best opportunity to find themselves.

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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Out of the Shadows

When an artist draws an image on a blank canvas, she is interested in the negative space – the shadow – as much the positive space – the object. Negative space gives objects definition and depth and dimension. More importantly, in an image composed of many objects, shadows allow the eye to differentiate between one flower and another, to understand where the sky ends and the horizon begins.

For many years I spent much of my time fixated on negative space, which in my life of romance and writing was called rejection – rejection from prospective partners and rejection from publishers. It was immensely confusing and uncomfortable. I could feel every “no” before it came. Sometimes, I wondered: if I were a better person, a better writer, would the no’s become yes’s? It was an impossible question, because I didn’t know how to be a better person, nor, in truth, a better writer. Some days I seemed to write brilliantly; the next, it was if I’d forgotten the English language.

Then one day I met a girl who seemed different to me than other girls I had met. I had no apprehension the first time I asked her out, because I knew she wouldn’t – no, couldn’t – reject me. She couldn’t, because she was interesting to me for reasons beyond gaining the approval of a yes. She was interesting to me the way a song I heard on the radio started me dancing, the way a joke made me laugh, the way a story excited my imagination. I was only seventeen, but I had stepped out of the shadows, and the difference was unmistakable.

I would be much, much older before I learned to apply this way of living to writing. I continued to fear rejection the way I feared death. Rejection, for me as a writer, seemed like death: an end with no more beginnings. I was not surprised that the first time I chose to tell a story only because it was interesting to me and not because I hoped it would be accepted, that I had the same feeling as I did the first time I asked out that girl who is now my wife. I was just surprised at how long it took me to step into that creative light. I knew, as surely as I knew I would now seek it every time I sat at my desk, that it had been shining and shining all those years, waiting for nothing but my acceptance.

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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Free Time

If you were to visit my personal website, and if you poked around the interviews, and the Author2Author archives, and my books, and my blog, and Author magazine, and my coaching and workshops, you might conclude that I’m a pretty busy guy. This is an illusion I must maintain as a respectable adult. Most days I am not even a little busy, which is exactly how I like it. When I actually do get busy, if I have a chapter to finish and two clients to meet and an interview to shoot all in the same day, I feel as if my life has been hijacked.

Mind you, I like doing all this stuff. I wouldn’t have agreed to do it otherwise. The problem is I agreed to do these things the day, or the week, or the month before. Now the day itself has arrived and I find myself yearning for free time, for a great blank page of an afternoon where I may ask myself, “What would please me most at this very moment?” I am nothing if not responsible, however, so I suck it up, and follow my schedule, and then collapse in the evening as if I’ve just spent the day laboring in a coal mine.

It’s a happy kind of collapse, honestly, since I enjoyed doing everything I did. It’s very confusing being me sometimes. Because the only thing I dislike more than being busy is being bored. You see the problem? The solution, if you can call it that, is a kind of practice I learned from writing. Writing is all about filling blank pages. Every single moment on the page, every chapter, paragraph, and sentence is different than what has been written before. The only way to succeed, to enjoy, to thrive while writing is to give the scene or sentence I am crafting my complete attention.

And by complete attention I mean disciplined forgetting. I must forget about the past and all my grievances with it; I must forget about the future and what I fear might happen there; I must forget about other people and what they like and don’t like; I must forget about my chores and my children and all my loved ones; I must forget about everything but the story I’m telling. In such a holy instant I meet life completely, neither bored nor fatigued, just aware and alive and interested. Time, no matter what I’m doing, is not actually an impediment to such an experience – there can never be too much or too little of it. The only impediment remains my attention, a thing so free it can lead me at any moment into heaven or hell.

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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Time to Remember

Having written well over a thousand of these things in the last nine years, I have come to the conclusion that the personal essay is the form with which I am most artistically comfortable. It took me a while to admit this because for the first thirty or so years of my writing life I saw myself as a fiction writer, poet, or playwright – that is to say, an entertainer. While personal essays can and should be entertaining, their success depends on the depth of the lesson they provide. In the end, every essay looks at something I’ve learned that I think someone else might find useful as well.

Back when I saw myself as an entertainer, the idea of offering lessons in my work not only seemed to contradict the First Law of Writing – show don’t tell – but was personally repulsive to me. I did not want anyone to teach me anything. I’ll figure it out my life, you figure out yours, and in the meantime let’s amuse one another. Though in truth, the stories and poems I loved and valued the most always did more than merely amuse me: they reminded me of something I had forgotten. In fact, no sooner was I reminded of it I would forget it and have to go looking for it again in another story, poem, song, or movie.

I suppose I finally let myself start writing the essays out of desperation. My cyclical amnesia was fatiguing, and writing required me to remember on purpose. Turns out, I could! Turns out the very best way to memorize something is through repetition. Though not, in this case, rote repetition. Every time I return to the desk, the lesson, what I’m remembering, has changed – or at least it looks different to me, like a child who grew slightly while we were apart.

You may be wondering what “it” is I’m remembering. I’m sorry, that’s private. Actually, there’s nothing private about it because it’s the only thing anyone remembers. It’s just that you’ll remember it in your own way, and I wouldn’t want to interfere with that by defining that something that can only be felt. After all, I can’t write all the time, and some day I might be wandering around the world, having once again forgotten, and you and I will meet in person or on the page, and in your own way, in your own words, you’ll remind me why life is worth living.

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