The Big Time

I was twenty-four and in the middle of writing my first screenplay with my brother. We were writing it as quickly as we could so that when we arrived in Los Angeles, we’d have something to show to the agents and producers we were hoping to somehow manage to meet. I wanted to write it in the same way I’d written the sketch comedy show he and I had been performing for the last few years, which was to tap into the funny, tap into the cool, tap into the interesting I felt within me and let the funny, cool, and interesting find its way onto the page.

But I couldn’t write this screenplay like that. It had to be able to impress agents and producers who, as I understood it, thought in terms millions of viewers and tens of millions of dollars, whereas my sketch comedy show on a good night performed to around 80 people and earned us slightly more than nothing. I had to write for The Big Time, and I wasn’t sure what that meant. I was not sure if my funny, cool and interesting was funny, cool, and interesting enough. So I smoked a lot of cigarettes plus a few other things, and didn’t sleep much, and caught a cold, and began to hear a great clock in the sky ticking its way down to the end of my creatively viable youth.

Then one evening my brother was at work and I wasn’t, and instead of writing more of the screenplay, I decided to describe what it felt like to catch a pass from my father. In one longish paragraph I wrote about the pleasure of running flat out down an open field, tracing the path of the ball in the sky and timing my run and my extended arms so that the ball and I would meet. I wrote about how I couldn’t do this often enough, and that even though I was technically practicing for our Sunday touch football games, was technically getting better so our team could win, the pleasure was all in the running and finding how my father and I were connected through that ball.

I spent an hour writing that paragraph, and when I’d finished, I sat back in my chair and felt something I hadn’t in quite some time. I didn’t want to leave the chair, in fact, because as soon as I did, I knew I’d be caught up once again in the momentum of my day, of which that screenplay was now a part. I wished for a moment that that this was the momentum of my day – the quiet, profitless knowing after writing something just to write it, of catching a ball just to catch it, of living a life just to live 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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Balancing Act

Writing can happen in one place and one place only: The Present Moment. It cannot happen in the past, though we might – while in the present moment – focus our attention upon some past event for inspiration or material. But the writing itself happens in the present moment. And of course it can’t happen in the future, that sometimes near, sometimes very distant land where the story we’re writing will live when it’s finished. All creation happens in the present moment, because that is all that actually exists.

I have to remind myself of this every time I sit down to write. How easy to let my attention drift into the past, where I believe all my failures reside. Failure always lives in the past, in whose shadows, like a moss, it can thrive. In the bright hot light of the present moment – in which life is only potential, in which life is only forgiving, in which life is only curious – the concept of failure has no purchase for its hopeless roots.

And how equally easy to let my attention drift into the future, where I believe the value of what I am creating in the present moment will be revealed. I don’t want to waste my time, after all. Why write something that no one wants to read? To ask such a question is to hold my stories hostage until such time as the ransom of other people’s approval has been paid.

Which is why I have learned to ask myself two questions while I write: What do I want to say? And, Have I said it? Only the present moment can answer these questions. But keeping my attention where it needs and actually wants to be is a kind of balancing act, pulled as I am to the past and future. Drift too far either way and I will fall. No matter. The support of present moment remains ever true, and I need only return to standing to find myself where I have always been.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

An Authentic Reward

I don’t tend to use a lot of adjectives when I write, though this was entirely an evolution rather than a conscious choice. I say this because low-adjective writing is very much the way in MFA programs, in part because of fashion, but also for very good reasons as well.

One problem with adjectives: they often pass judgment. I might write, “It was a sunny morning,” which is a fact. If I write, “It was a glorious sunny morning,” I am now telling a story, as it were, about that morning, telling you it is glorious. Its gloriousness is entirely subjective. There’s nothing wrong with subjectivity when it is used deliberately. For instance, in the case of this aforementioned morning, I, the writer, might understand the morning is not factually glorious, but I want the reader to understand the narrator perceives it as glorious. That is a fact.

The second problem with adjectives: they are often used in place of authentic feeling. Perhaps I would like to write about that same morning. Perhaps it was a morning I had lived, and which I had found glorious. By inserting glorious I am simply remembering the fact that I once found this morning wonderful, the way I remember that 2+2=4. On the other hand, if I return to that morning in my imagination, and if I feel again what I felt then, I can share how I loved that morning, such as, “It was the first morning in months that I could recall caring that it was sunny rather than rainy, the first morning in months I stepped out my front door and wanted to thank whoever was in charge for the day.”

Writing for me is about sharing something that I feel, and the only way to share that feeling is to actually feel it, to return again and again to what I wish to share. Eventually, I dropped adjectives because I found I was using them when I didn’t trust myself. After all, feelings, unlike fact, can’t be seen or touched or measured or compared; only their expression can be observed. Their source, meanwhile, is known only to me. And so I must trust every time I write that I can find the way back to that source, a journey that remains writing’s first and only real reward.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Creators

You’ve heard the argument, I’m sure, regardless of where you stand on the subject. “If there is a divine and loving creator, then how the hell do you explain this mess?”

It’s an odd question, however, for a writer or even devoted reader to ask. Can you imagine writing a story or reading a story without any suffering? Can you imagine a story without cruelty, or loss, or death, or disease, or corruption? In fact, it wouldn’t be a story at all. It would be one of those sterile holiday letters from a polite relative.

We love the characters we write, and yet we absolutely require them to suffer. Without the suffering, how would they learn? Without loss, how would they know love? Without slavery, how would they understand freedom? If our characters already understood freedom, love, compassion, surrender, charity, honor, and humility completely and without error, their story, for our purposes, would already be over. After all, we read these stories because we are all still seeking to learn these things.

And if we are seeking to learn them, why then should we not expect to experience what we call suffering? Why then should we expect not to know the emptiness of loneliness when we have lost sight of love? Why should we expect not to feel the cage of slavery when we have forgotten that we are already free? And if it is so for us, why not for everyone the world over?

I would not wish suffering on anyone, I would not cheer and celebrate their suffering, but I will not mourn it either, any more than I would ask someone to mourn mine. To mourn it would be to call life cruel and random and indifferent, when in fact the exact opposite appears true. Life only wants for me what I want for myself, and so it speaks in the only language available, a language I have learned slowly over the years to translate into the story of my life.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Preference

Buddhists believe that happiness is the absence of want. This has always made sense to me. If you have everything you want, what is there to be unhappy about? But this is not really what they mean, of course. The absence of want refers to the perception that there is nothing you require, that you want, in order to be happy. That is the absence of want.

Except I have lived my entire life with a continuous creative impulse that I have always called want or desire. An idea forms in my mind of something I would like to experience, a book I would like to write, a meal I would like to eat, a relationship I would like to have. Immediately, I experience a kind of delicious discomfort – a desire in want of fulfillment. Such impulses have been the source of my most satisfying creative experiences. How is this not want? And how is it not a good thing?

It is only recently that I have come to understand that what I called want was actually preference. Imagine you walk into a bookstore and begin reading one novel after another: suspense, women’s fiction, science fiction, memoir. And then you pick up a cozy mystery. Those other novels were nice, but this is just delicious. This is just so cozy and mysterious. You want more. Fortunately, you are in a bookstore, and you can have more. All you have to do is pick out another one, and then another one, and then another one.

And then perhaps one day you feel a new itch. As you drive to the bookstore to buy another cozy mystery, you begin imagining one of your own. The feeling of creating your own cozy mystery is similar to the feeling of reading a cozy mystery, only more intense, because to summon the new story you must steep your attention all the more in the coziness and mysteriousness. You realize you would prefer to read these stories and write these stories.

Now comes the moment where an author must choose to see this evolving impulse as preference or want. It is easy to call choosing one book over another preference, for most of the creative work was done for us ahead of time. It is another thing to call the writing of that book preference because the author’s book is still unwritten. It appears not to exist. And so perhaps she believes she must want it, want what she does not have, even while the very seed of what she claims she does not have is planted in her heart.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Kings and Queens

I was talking to an author yesterday and mentioned that I write four to five of these essays a week and that I usually write them in no more than forty-five minutes because I don’t want to spend more than that writing them. He began to moan. “Writing is like pulling teeth for me,” he said. “How can you do that?”

Mind you, this author has published ten books, including one and now maybe two national bestsellers, and he is a regular contributor The New York Times, the Seattle Times, as well as USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. And yet, upon hearing that I could write an essay (or blog, if you must) for an online magazine for writers in forty minutes he despaired. Just as every writer secretly fears, somehow or other he was doing it wrong.

Therein lies the secret to writing something quickly. I have made a casual career of comparing myself to others. I have compared how I look and how I talk; I have compared how I dress and what I eat; and I have certainly compared what I have written. Sometimes I appear to come out the better, sometimes I don’t. No matter, in the end I always lose. The moment I compare, I give away the only thing I was ever meant to call my own.

But while I am writing this column, as well as the weekly essay on No One Is Broken, I don’t compare. Other people’s opinions are irrelevant for that forty-five minutes. Without these phantom editors, I can’t get it wrong, because only I know if it is right. My writing is not a democracy; it is a kingdom enslaved to my curiosity. That curiosity, and my sovereign right to decree whether it has been satisfied, belongs solely to me. The work it produces, and the opinions it does or does not incite, belongs to everyone. The kingdom’s borders, however, remain intact as long as I recognize that they are the only real difference between all the other kings and queens and me.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Honestly Original

Writers mustn’t become too mesmerized by words. They aren’t actually real in the way we sometimes think they are. The word “anger” isn’t real, only the feeling it is meant to name is real. The feeling itself isn’t the word, just as a tree isn’t actually “a tree,” it is only that thing of wood and leaves growing in our yard.

A small distinction perhaps, but one of the writer’s jobs is to claim the world back from the words we have attached to it and to name this world again. It is the writer’s job to feel the story she is trying to tell without words and then find those words that match what she is feeling. This is sometimes called originality but it is really just honesty. Everyone is original. Look around you – even those we call identical twins have their differences, have their originality. But not everyone, it seems, is willing to be honest.

I have been dishonest in my life far more than I have been honest. My dishonesty was never malicious, however, nor outrageous. Usually, it was in deference to tribal loyalty, reciting when I would have rather been speaking. To speak, I feared, was to be cast out onto the savannah with the lions and hyenas. There is safety in agreement, after all, even when we are agreeing to be afraid.

This kind of safety will eventually wear thin. There is no real warmth to be found away from the fire of what you know to be true. To see that light and feel that heat and name it for yourself is to offer it to others, not so they would use your words as well – though some will – but so that they might see life new for a moment, and remember their world belongs to them.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Nameless

I have heard of certain spiritual teachers who will sit their students down and ask only one question: “Who are you?” No matter how many times the student answers – Bill, writer, husband father, American, human – the teacher keeps asking, “Who are you?”

There are days it seems I am none of the above but only the thoughts I think. I think a lot of them, and those thoughts can send me into the pit of apathy or to the height of anticipation. There are new thoughts and old thoughts, naughty thoughts and practical thoughts, and all of them streaming through me so ceaselessly that my life is surely nothing but an interior monologue occasionally interrupted by the knocking of the world at my mental door. That’s who I am: the thoughts I think.

Yet look how those thoughts change as the light beam of my attention shifts. Here I am focused on a story I am telling, and all my thoughts have been marshaled for that sole purpose. But now the phone rings and it is my brother and my thoughts have moved to our plans for October. Our conversation over, my eyes stray to my bulletin board where I notice a note about local teachers, and now my thoughts are planning a school visit. So I am not my thoughts after all. I am my attention – that which summons and directs my thoughts.

Except the light beam of my attention, while pulled and startled by the colors and noises of the world, does not move by chance. There remains still that which chooses where it shines, that which is neither my attention nor my thoughts nor the body through which both must pass. He is the answer to the teacher’s question, but what to call him? He is not Bill, but the one who sees Bill in the mirror, a foreigner at home in any land, all that is left when you have stripped away everything we can name.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Immeasurable World

My only job on this planet, from dawn to dusk, is so simple it often eludes me. A busy and fussy part of me does not trust such simplicity. This is Bill The Engineer, who must construct his entire world from all its disparate pieces. Bill The Engineer is keenly aware of the complex integrity of stable structures, and Bill The Engineer must live in a solid house where all his doors close firmly against the wind he can neither summon nor dismiss.

Yet it has never been my job to build my home, my only job is to return to it. Within the home I cannot make exists not the comfort of the hearth or the bed, but the knowing of value that surpasses measurement. Bill The Engineer must measure before he knows. He finds comfort only in the precision of his instruments and the formulas to which those measurements can be ritualistically applied. The immeasurable is but a fairy tale to him; within his knowing nothing can be made from that which cannot be measured, and so that which is immeasurable is unreal and does not exist.

There is no arguing with Bill The Engineer; argument is his favorite means of communication. All that can be done is to return home, to cross the threshold that is the actual boundary between the real and the unreal. Once home, Bill The Engineer vanishes like a thought. Once home, I feel again the comfort of the immeasurable: for that whose value cannot be measured cannot be compared; that whose value which cannot be measured cannot be lost or broken; that whose value cannot be measured is a well with no bottom.

To dwell here is to stand at the river’s mouth from which all creation flows. Here is where the world is actually made. Here is the only reality, where the lies of loss, brokenness, and comparison are dispelled. To write a story from such a place is to offer a way home to yourself and another. This is my only job – to awaken again and again from the fantasy of the measured world and find my way back to the reality that imagined it.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Nothing New

About two years ago I created a short compilation of my video interviews called, “The Writing Spirit.” I loved the piece because I felt it spoke so clearly to the intersection of writing/creativity and human beings’ inherent spirituality. This intersection is the starting point for Author, this column, Author2Author, and really all my work for the last six years.

It has remained one of my most popular videos, and the comments, with one notable exception, have been unanimously positive. That one exception was the very first comment, posted only hours after I uploaded The Writing Spirit to YouTube. The anonymous viewer posted: “I call bullshit. This has all been said before.”

He (it just felt like a he) was right, of course. It had all been said before. Jesus had said it, and Buddha had said it, and Beethoven had said it, and John Lennon and said it, and now Byron Katie and Abraham-Hicks and Eckharte Tolle and Anne Lamott and many, many others are all saying it and saying it and saying it. Everyone is saying the same thing, only slightly differently.

Everyone is saying it because everyone needs to hear it, and everyone is saying it differently because not every teacher can speak to every student. The world fits together in many places and at many angles. So too with your stories. It is said, depending on whom you ask, that there are only 7, or 5, or 3 stories to be told. The number is irrelevant. When the old stories pass through the original you they come out new.

I admit I was a little miffed that my lovely video was met so rudely by the grumpy world, and I promptly deleted the comment. Maybe I should have left it. It is good to remember that none of what we learn here is actually new. It is good to remember that what we are forever discovering what has always existed, and we are continually relieved to find it is still there.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter