Preacher

A student asked me an unusual question recently. I was teaching a class addressing only the emotional mastery required to be an author instead of the mastery of craft. I can get pretty animated when I teach, particularly around this subject. Confidence, after all, is not something that can be taught in the way story structure and query letters can be taught. Confidence must be found every workday within every author. As a teacher of this discipline, I can but remind my students that they have it if they choose to look for it.

After class the student asked if I had been an evangelical minister before teaching writing. We had a good laugh at this, but there was something serious beneath her question that I did not know how to answer at the time. I have lived my life as a secular man, but I have always understood the value of a good sermon. The minister, like the singer, like the poet, like the teacher, says, “Let my joy become your joy; let my belief become your belief.” This cannot be done mechanically. This transference, if it occurs, is shared only through the artistry of love.

I suppose the classroom is a kind of church to me. There is nothing holier than creation itself, whether creation takes the form of a baby, or a flower, or a memoir. In the classroom we gather to ask ourselves how we can create something on purpose, how we can look within ourselves to find something to add to whole of creation. I know it is easy to look at what we write and think, “It’s just a little story.” But it is just as easy to look at a flower and think how it is merely one of trillions, just as one can look at a newborn and think how, despite its fresh little body, that child, like seven billion other bodies, is headed inevitably for the grave.

Numbers always fail us in this way; their values are too easily compared. Creation assigns no such hierarchy, nor does it acknowledge subtraction. Which is why the poet and the preacher and the teacher can say, “What’s mine is yours if you want it.” There’s the miracle of life – what can be given without being lost, what can evolve as it remains the same, what can be learned while it is already known.

If you have a question, concern, or quibble you’d like addressed in this space, please, feel free to contact me. Answering other people’s question is one of those things that pleases me most.

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

My Only Problem

In every story we tell there is always a problem our hero must overcome. Sometimes the problem is a killer that needs to be caught; sometimes it is a lover who cannot be won; sometimes it is a terrible storm that must be survived; sometimes it is a dragon that must be slain. In almost every case the hero must do something, must solve a puzzle, or climb a mountain, or win a race, or learn a skill. Problems, after all, aren’t going to solve themselves.

On the other hand, the challenges we face while writing our stories are a little different. Yes, I must figure out my story, must find a plausible and entertaining beginning, middle, and end, must write and rewrite until the pieces come together. But a story isn’t a problem; nothing appeared in my way to keep me from where I wanted to go. I was one who chose to head off into the dark of my imagination until I’d found a way. That’s not a problem; that’s called life.

But sometimes while I am finding my way problems do appear to arise in my path. They often come in the form of questions, such as, “What if this story stinks?” or, “What if I never finish it?” or, “What if it’s unoriginal?” As soon as I ask such a question it is answered in my imagination, and I perceive a future in which my story stinks, or is forever unfinished, or is unoriginal. I do not like this future at all. And yet in the moment I am imagining it, this future feels more real than the present. Now, this future is a problem that needs to be fixed. I want to dismantle it and build another one.

Unfortunately, there is nothing to dismantle. The only way to solve the problem of the future is to ignore it. This is the opposite of the stories we tell, where problems are ignored at the hero’s peril. I must not mistake myself for a storybook hero. Unlike these paper kings and knights, my future remains unwritten, and my only problem remains the belief that what might happen is more important than what is.

If you have a question, concern, or quibble you’d like addressed in this space, please, feel free to contact me. Answering other people’s question is one of those things that pleases me most.

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

The Key

A reader wrote to me recently with a challenge. She’d been given an assignment by an editor but was having trouble finishing it, was worried that she wouldn’t get it right, was finding herself procrastinating when she should be writing. How, she wanted to know, does a writer deal with such pressures?

It was a good question, and one I’d confronted recently myself. I rarely write for an editor other than myself, but an opportunity had come along to write a piece for Edible Seattle (the Jan/Feb issue – on shelves now!). Even though I knew and liked the editor, and even though the editor was familiar with my work, when I sat down to actually write my essay I felt the shadow of an old hobgoblin. For whom was I writing, the editor or me? She was the one, after all, who would ultimately accept or reject the piece. How could I write it to ensure it pleased her?

The answer, of course, was I couldn’t. So I wrote for the only person whom I could please: me. I wrote it by asking the only question I could answer, “Is this what I most want to say?” It is a kind of trick, admittedly. I enter the dream of the story I am telling, a silent bubble within which I am temporarily shielded from other people’s preferences and opinions. What a pleasant place. I go there as often as I can. And on that day I went there long enough that when I emerged from the dream and realized I hadn’t once thought of the editor, I knew she’d accept it. And she did.

I do not blame my reader friend for procrastinating. Who would want the job of trying to figure out what will please someone else? There are as many right answers to that question as there are people on the planet, and each answer sealed within the vault of their imagination. Fortunately, what pleases us is readily available, is ready to be unlocked if we but apply the key of our unique curiosity.

By the way: If YOU have a question, concern, or quibble you’d like addressed in this space, please, feel free to contact me. Answering other people’s question is one of those things that pleases me most.

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 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

Where I Am

I have dedicated my last two blogs in Author (February 2 and February 3) and yesterday’s blog on No One Is Broken to the concept of unconditional love. And by love I don’t mean only one person’s love for another person, I mean love in all its manifestations – passion, curiosity, peace, forgiveness, joy, enthusiasm, humor, confidence, calm. In short, every good feeling we would ever want to experience.

If anyone ought to know that love – or, more simply, what we feel – is unconditional, it is a writer. When I write I sit at my desk where, except for the sweep of the clock’s hand or the sound of traffic on the street outside my window, the conditions of my world remain essentially unchanged. And yet I can feel anything. I can feel excited or I can feel frightened; I can feel abandoned or supported; I can feel tragic or elated. I can feel the entire spectrum of human emotions, and all that changes is what I think, where I direct the light beam of my attention.

But oh, the rejection letters! Oh, the sales! Oh, my bank account! It’s all very well and good to sit alone at your desk, away from the bright lights and noises and opinions of the world and feel whatever you want to feel, but reality and all its jostling and requirements and disappointments is out there waiting. Writing happens in the sovereign kingdom of the imagination. Meanwhile, the sun will rise and set, markets will climb and fall, people will live and die no matter where we point our attention.

So true. But even though I prefer to write in the peace and stability of my office, I could write at a café, or a train station, or even the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. It wouldn’t be as easy as at my desk, but I could still do it. I could still pull my attention from two strangers’ conversation, from the train’s piercing whistle, from the shouts and urgency of commerce, and direct it toward the story I wish to tell. And once I had, I wouldn’t be at home, or in a café, or a train station or stock exchange, I would feel where the story was taking me, and that’s where I would be.

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

My Only Job

I wrote yesterday about how we already have everything we want. However, as a friend pointed out to me, feeling good by itself, which is all I believe anyone really wants, won’t buy you groceries. This is quite true. And it is also true that it is hard to feel good when you’re starving, or living on the streets, or in the middle of a war. So maybe feeling good is actually what comes after we’ve secured groceries, and put a roof over our heads, and the cannons have ceased their thunder. Maybe feeling good is only the payoff once we have dealt with the necessary business, not of living, but simply surviving, of not-dying.

Maybe. Except that while it is hard to feel good while starving, or living on the streets, or in the middle of the war, it is not impossible, and that makes all the difference. Somewhere someone has found peace in a warzone, has found safety while homeless, has found strength while starving, the same as somewhere someone can find their balance while standing on a tightrope strung between skyscrapers. Conditions cannot control how we feel, though they can challenge us. When we surrender what we feel to our conditions, when we make our wellbeing conditional rather than unconditional, we surrender the very life we are supposedly trying to maintain in our struggle for survival.

Which is why I love the arts. What if, I asked myself many years ago, I could feed myself and keep a roof over my head simply by doing what felt good? What if my job was to feel good? What if telling stories and inspiring writers and creative people would be all I needed to do to survive? What if this story – that feeling good is only what comes after the dirty business of survival has been dealt with – is a myth we’ve been feeding ourselves since the days in the caves?

I have to answer and answer and answer this question every moment of every day, the same as I must find my balance whenever I stand. Mostly, I live on level ground, but high ledges and balances beams and even tightropes present themselves from time to time. I’m going to fall; I have accepted this. No matter. My balance remains within me, there for me to find whatever the conditions.

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

What I Have

We have everything we want. Perhaps you’ve heard this and thought, “I don’t have that publishing contract. I don’t have that car. I don’t have that beachfront property or that relationship. I have many things, but I do not have everything I want.”

But when we say we want the publishing contract, or the car, or the relationship, what we really mean is we want the emotional experience of having these things, not the thing itself. The thing itself has no value; all the value is in what we believe we will feel when we have it. Every writer knows this on some level. We do not write about the fact that our character owns beachfront property; we describe what it feels like for that character to own beachfront property. What the character feels about owning that property is his experience.

If I say I want a publishing contract, I mean I want the experience of sharing something I love with other people – with an editor, and a publisher, and eventually readers. Yet I already have that experience. I had it when I wrote it. When I wrote the story, I had the feeling of bringing it to the page, of putting it into a form that someone besides me could understand. When I publish that story, I will simply experience an expanded version of what I already have, what I felt when I wrote that story.

In this way, the publishing contract is simply a way to experience more of what I already have. But if I tell myself that I do not have what I want, then I will have to look outside myself for it. Where else could it be? Not there. All I want is to feel as interested, and excited, and calm, and curious as I possibly can, and all of that is within me. No publishing contact, no house, no car, no relationship can give me that because I already have it. Just the like the stories I tell, all these things are only portals for sharing and experiencing 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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Voice

I was watching “The Voice” the other day with my wife. If you’re unfamiliar, this is a reality/game show where a panel of four celebrity judges selects teams of would-be pop stars to coach and help compete for the title of The Voice. Before we began watching, however, my wife and I had a familiar debate. I told her how much I hated artistic competition shows because art isn’t a competition. She countered that win or lose the show provided the singers with a fantastic opportunity, both for exposure and professional guidance. Back and forth we went until I said, “Fine. We’ll just watch the thing.”

This was the episode where the judges selected their teams. The judges sit in tall chairs with their backs to the stage as the performer begins to sing. If a judge likes what he or she hears, they hit a large red button and swivel around to see whom they’ve selected. But more than one judge can hit the button, in which case each judge begins pleading his or her case as to why they are the best coach for that singer. Sometimes, none of the judges hit their button. Usually, one or two like what they hear.

On this evening, a young man stepped on stage and began his song. Right away, I noticed something unusual about his voice. All the performers could sing. Like all the performers, he could hit the right notes, and sustain his vibrato, and vary his pitch. Yet this wasn’t what I heard. Nor did I hear an outrageously clear voice, or an unusually powerful voice. I did not hear him hit a crazy high note, or a luscious low note. And yet I heard something. So did the judges. Within a few measures – Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! – each had hit their button.

The writer in me took notice. A writer’s voice is his most important tool for it is present in every word just a singer’s is present in every note. So what was I hearing? As the singer finished his song, I understood that all I was hearing was a perspective. The quality of his voice I enjoyed was the depth of his agreement with his own unique perspective. He found agreement with himself, and like magic, the judges were in agreement as well.

My wife and I had seen enough for that night, and began to get ready for bed. I was glad to have heard this young man sing, but I still didn’t like these competition shows. For a moment, I felt a familiar impulse to sway my wife to my view of things. I thought of that singer, however, and that impulse quickly passed. I would not find the agreement I was seeking in her, but in that stage within myself where judgment does not exist.

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

The Journey Back

I’ve written in this space several times about reading a passage from one of my novels to a creative writing class. The story was based on the summer after my senior year in high school, a time of tumultuous change for me, in large part because the girl I loved had just moved 3,000 miles away. I would eventually find and marry this girl, but I did not know that then, and I was very unhappy.

The chapter I read to the class depicted the evening after the narrator, Tom, said goodbye to his girlfriend. Tom is end-of-the-world distraught, and there is little his friends can do that night to cheer him up. The class was evenly divided in their response to the chapter. Half the class didn’t understand what Tom was so upset about. She’s just a girlfriend; he’s just eighteen. Life goes on and there are more fish in the sea. The other half of the class knew exactly why Tom was so upset. The girl he loved was gone. What’s not to be upset about?

I knew it was possible to help the first half of the class understand why his girlfriend leaving was a Big Problem. This would be the focus of my rewriting: to help certain people see problems where they did not previously believe they existed. Yet what a strangely diabolical job. Why must a storyteller upset his reader? If someone has a balanced view of something like love and loss, why not leave them be?

Because sometimes we do not know we have something until we are deprived of it, just as sometimes we do not know we are carrying something heavy until we are allowed to set it down. A story is not a punishment, but a reward, and the hero’s suffering is an expression of life lived without that story’s gift. It is a relief to come to the end, to return to ourselves, glad for the journey back and for what we might have found along the 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

Natural Beauty

Two weeks ago I was asked to give some lectures at the Northwest Institute for Literary Arts’ (NILA) winter residency program. The residency is held at the Captain Whidbey Inn on Whidbey Island (Washington), a spectacularly scenic locale complete with green fields, tall pines, and an unimpeded view of Penn Cove.

In fact, directly outside my little cabin’s front door was a gravel path that wound left to a tall wood and stone gazebo that could have comfortably housed a small wedding party. Beyond the path was a lawn of spotless emerald running down to a duck pond fed by a narrow inlet. A wooden bridge spanned the inlet, and beyond the bridge Penn Cove’s gray tide, and then Puget Sound, and finally the Pacific Ocean. I had packed only my black dress shoes, but the scene was so picturesque I decided to risk them for a stroll.

As I crossed the bridge it struck me that this was exactly the sort of landscape that would send a water colorist running for her canvas or poets scrambling for their pens. It has sometimes seemed to me an artist’s duty to render nature’s beauty. The ocean, the sunset, the mountain, the lake – life’s given perfection to which all human creation is aspires. Yet standing there amidst all that natural beauty, my writer’s mind drifted to the students I’d met and would soon be teaching, to their struggles with voice and confidence, and their love of language and story.

There was the landscape that moved me most – that line where the human mind and heart meet, where each of us chooses moment to moment between fear and love. The artist never paints what he sees; only what he feels when he is seeing. And in this way, aren’t I the same as any landscape artist? At my best I see within everyone I meet life without the story of suffering and worthlessness and comparison and rejection, life without good and bad, life as a beautiful as any ocean or sunset.

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