Rigged Systems and the Published Authors Club

In case you missed it, there was a Presidential debate recently where one candidate warned that the coming election was rigged. When I heard this, I thought to myself, “Anyone who’s in a contest and thinks that contest is rigged against him has already lost.”

It is easy to sit in my living room and judge someone else’s paranoia; it’s another thing to live my life without ever believing The System, whatever that system may be, is rigged against me. It certainly has seemed so from time to time. Why, I used to wonder, weren’t people publishing the stories I sent them? While I didn’t really believe editors and agents had formed a dark cabal bent on keeping good-hearted writers like me from sharing a little light, the publishing world did seem impenetrable sometimes, like a club whose rules of entry were kept secret.

I should mention that I was never one to join clubs. I worried that to join a club I’d have to conform to that club’s notion of what or whom I should be. I am what I am! The problem was that I wanted to be in the Published Author Club. Of course it wasn’t a club, I mean I knew intellectually it wasn’t a club. Only, the first question anyone asked you when you told them you were a writer was had you been published. How you answered that question seemed to place you in one of two categories. You were in or you were out, which felt a lot like a club.

Oh, it was confusing. One day I found myself talking to a writer friend. As it happens, this friend, when he wasn’t writing, was very interested in changing societal systems. He didn’t feel they were fair to everyone. He was a good-hearted writer like me, you see. On this day, my friend was complaining about the publishing world. He felt it was closed to new writers, to writers with new ideas, to writers who were unknown to the publishing world.

To be fair, every complaint he shared with me I’d thought of at one time or another. But there is something so helpful about hearing someone else air my complaints. And so I heard myself saying, “I’m not going to complain about those people. I want to work with them. If I sit here and tell myself they don’t want me, I’ll never work with them.”

I think that was the moment I decided I needed to learn how to make friends with these people who seemed rather unfriendly much of the time. Systems, whether they are societal, educational, or publishing, are never perfect. I sometimes muse about how those systems could better serve us, but I am not the sort of person who is going to spend his time changing systems. I am, however, deeply interested in how I can change what I do to live my life as I wish to live it.

But the moment I conclude that nothing I think or do or say has any effect in the world, the moment I decide what other people think of me is more important than what I think of me, I have lost all my creative power. I decline the notion that any system is more powerful than any individual. No system has the power to tell me what to think. The moment I make friends with my own thought, I make friends with life, and the doors to the only club there is swing open.

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

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The Real Source of Writer’s Block

Years ago I read the Goethe quote, “The worst thing one can do is to think ill of oneself.” It seemed true enough to me at the time – I certainly thought ill of myself now and again and it never led to any good. But Goethe didn’t say thinking ill of oneself was one of the worst things you could do; he said it was the worst thing you could do. I was much younger when I read this quote, and I was inclined to question a rule when I ran into it. “What about murder?” I thought. “Certainly murdering someone is worse than thinking ill of yourself.”

I thought of Goethe’s quote again yesterday when I was talking to my wife Jen about our high school experiences. I met Jen when we were both seniors attending separate schools in the same city. She was explaining that if I had met her when we were freshman, we might not have become friends. “I spent most of my first three years in high school feeling bad about myself. That had just started changing by the time I met you.”

Interestingly, I met her because I saw her in a play, and thought, “I’ve got to get to know that person.” She was in that play because she had decided to enjoy herself her senior year. So she took a creative writing class and a theater class and auditioned for a play. Not only did this decision lead to meeting me, but it also introduced her to what would be her career. Jen went on to become a writer and artist. Until her senior year in high school, she did not even perceive herself as a creative person.

Hearing her story, I thought, “Old Goethe was right.” The worst thing I can do when I sit down to write is to think ill of myself. I will not write one word I want to share with another person if I think, “I’m not smart enough,” or, “No one cares what I have to say,” or, “I don’t have what it takes.” These simple thoughts, sometimes arriving in my mind dressed as false humility, sever my connection to creative thought, to my muse, to my imagination, and ultimately to myself. To think ill of myself is a form of instant suicide, suggesting somehow that nothing I do will be worth doing, nothing I say will be worth saying, nothing I write will be worth writing.

Fortunately, everything I most want to do, say, or write waits patiently while I’m thinking, “Why bother?” Life can seem cruel and complicated while I am asking, “Why bother?” or, “What is wrong with me?” The moment I stop asking those questions, and start asking, “What do I most want to do?” life becomes much simpler and much kinder. But I can only ask one question at a time. It is up to me to decide which question I will ask.

I cannot prove it, but I believe every murderer that has ever lived thought ill of himself long before he pulled the trigger or struck the blow. When I am thinking ill of myself, I am very likely to start blaming other people for how bad I feel. I blame the people who have rejected me, or ignored me, or disagreed with me. But when I am connected to what my self-criticism blocks, other people are no longer a problem. How could they be? No one else can answer, “What do I most want to do?” for me, nor can they prevent me from hearing that answer. Nothing can possibly come between me and my muse and my imagination other than the idea that my creative thoughts are not worth listening to.

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

All Writers are Optimists

I am a glass is half-full kind of guy. I always have been, though for a while I found it difficult to maintain this optimistic outlook. This was at a time when what I was writing wasn’t being published. I really wanted to publish what I wrote. Nearly every day I thought about how much I wanted my work to be published and how it wasn’t. On most days, my publishing glass did not appear half-empty – it looked completely empty.

I was not happy with my empty glass, but I believed I was being practical. After all, I wanted that glass to be full. How was I going to fill it unless I remembered it wasn’t full? That emptiness was the hole in my happiness, and all my energy was devoted to filling it. And yet the more I stared and stared at what I didn’t have, the more it seemed I had nothing.

What a strange way for a writer to think. Every story is begun with an empty page. It is the perfect vessel for any story, poem, essay, or novel. Yet I when I look at the blank page, I do not see my story glass as completely empty or even half-empty. That’s because, though my eyes are resting on the page, my attention is focused where the story actually exists, in my imagination, that unseen realm where all stories begin. The only way for the story to move from my imagination to the page is give it my full attention. Only then will I be able to extend that story to the page in the form of my first sentence. And then extend it further with my second sentence. And then my third sentence . . .

What a miracle. Where there was nothing, there is now something. Except there is always something. Publishing is merely another extension of the story we have told, the next sentence, so to speak, in the story of how I shared something I loved with other people. That was the great secret to publishing success: giving what I’ve written my full attention, whether I’d just begun it or had finished it. The truth is, I am not even a glass half-full kind of guy. I’m a glass is always full kind of guy. That glass, like the story I’m still writing, just gets bigger and bigger and bigger.

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 Protector

It doesn’t matter what I’m writing, whether it’s a memoir or an essay or a poem or novel, in order to write honestly and sincerely I must forget myself. I must forget the Bill who looks in the mirror, who checks his followers on Twitter, who squints at the scale in the morning, who replays past conversations in his mind, who gloats over praise and agonizes over criticism. This Bill has many opinions, particularly about what I’ve written. He believes most of what I’ve written is brilliant or horrible. There is very little in between.

I have to forget about him, though it’s not always so easy at first, because he believes he’s looking out for my well-being. He’s a protector of sorts. He’s just not exactly clear what he’s protecting me from. No matter, his vigilance is one of his most endearing qualities. He knows a threat when he sees it, so he keeps his eyes outward, hoping to find trouble before it finds us.

Which is why I like writing in the isolation of my workroom. There’s nothing to see here, just the same four walls, the same windows and clock, the same blank screen. I know immediately when my protector has gone off duty. The room grows immediately quieter. Now I can hear the answers to the questions the steady hum of vigilance had distorted. I cannot hear those answers until I forget to care how anyone else would answer them.

Now I’m writing. And now I experience a lovely transparency. I am not worried about what the protector was protecting because it doesn’t exist. Forgotten are all requirements, all bills and arguments and comparisons and grievances. Now light just passes through. I can only write for so long, however, before I realize I can hear the clock ticking and the cars on the street outside my window. I’m back in the world, and I remember I can be seen again.

It’s not long before I meet my protector again, but the more I write, the less I seem to need him. The older I get, the closer he gets to retirement. I won’t throw him a party or buy him a gift when he’s done. In fact, I doubt I’ll recognize his passing until I look in the mirror and realize I am actually looking back at myself.

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

Why Every Writer is a Visionary

I have a friend who was deeply involved in education in the early ‘70s. He had started two alternative high schools, and he described to me how, in the months leading up to the first school’s opening, he would lay in bed and picture how the school would look, and which classes would go where, and where the kids would eat lunch and where they’d hang out. He could see it all, he said, as if it were already finished and he was merely retracing in his imagination steps he’d already taken in the physical world.

My friend is what I would call a visionary, meaning he had a vision for schools and for education that was different than what a person could see with their eyes at that time. He had been able to see the school long before it existed. In fact, without his vision, the schools would never have been. Yet, as with all new projects, once the schools were created – once the first draft had been written, so to speak – there remained the long journey of seeing them through to their full potential. This required the help of other people, other teachers and bureaucrats and politicians, and this where the trouble started.

Those other people couldn’t yet see what he could see. All they could see was what their eyes showed them, which was something very different than what they were used to seeing and which was not yet expressing its full potential. These other people were dubious and critical and my friend became frustrated and soon left the schools to those other people.

I think of my friend often when I listen to writers talk about their latest idea for a new book. Every writer is a visionary in their own way. Our stories, like my friend’s schools, begin in a place where only we can see them. It is so exciting, it is so life-affirming, to perceive something tangibly before it exists. At such times we are in touch with life’s complete creative potential. It is as if we can perceive, not just the apple tree, but also all the apples it will produce.

The problem are all those other people who can’t yet see the apples we can see, those other people with whom we would very much like to share the fruits of our vision. It is easy to become frustrated and depressed when those other people say, whether in critique groups or rejection letters, that they cannot see what we can see. In fact, some of them might even suggest that what we see does not actually exist, that our story’s value isn’t real, that it’s “all in our imagination.”

How right they are. The profound frustration I often felt when people could not see what I believed I was showing them was merely my own fear that what I had believed was real, was not. If I could not believe in what my imagination showed me, how could I do what I loved to do? It took me a very long time, but I eventually learned that writing’s true pleasure was not just the vision, but the practice of translating that vision so other people could perceive it. That translation required my complete belief despite other people’s doubt, which was just their way of saying, “I can’t see it . . . I can’t see it . . . Now I can see it!”

I still feel a little sigh of relief when readers tell me they can see what I was trying to show them. This relief passes quickly, however. Soon enough, I return to my natural state, the constant in and out of imagining and translating. To doubt my own imagination is to doubt life’s full creative potential, to doubt the summer’s harvest, simply because my eyes behold an apple tree’s barren limbs in winter.

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 Gift and Challenge of Writers’ Conferences

In a couple weeks I’ll be teaching at the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference. If you write and you live in the Northwest, I highly recommend it. If you write and you live elsewhere, I recommend you find a conference near you and attend it. Though be warned: the very thing that makes writers’ conferences so inspiring, grounding, and rewarding is also what makes them so very terrifying to most of the writers I meet there – namely, other people.

First, it’s great to learn or remember that there are other people like you, other writers who must find time between work and children and husbands and wives and girlfriends and boyfriends to write; other writers who would rather write than market what they’ve written; other writers who feel blocked sometimes; other writers who feel strangely alone when they try to talk to non-writers about the characters who talk to them when they’re alone at their desk.

And you’ll meet writers who are maybe more established than you, who have seen their books climb to the tippy-top of bestseller lists, or have won prestigious awards, and you will discover you have more in common with these writers than you imagined. They too worry that no one will be interested in what they’ve written; they too find themselves in the middle of a story with no idea how to reach its end; they too freak out when a manuscript comes back from their editor slashed with red ink.

And you’ll meet editors and agents, those otherwise faceless gatekeepers, and you will learn that they are more like you than you imagined. If you listen closely, you will notice that the publishing world, the world of acceptance and rejection, of advances and sales, is a world run on preference and intuition and hunches. You will learn that an agent or editor can’t predict the future (though they might claim they can), and that their choices are guided by taste and desire the same as your book was written through the pursuit of your taste and desire.

All of which will be tremendously helpful in putting this writing business into its proper human perspective, if you can resist the temptation to compare yourself to any of those people. In my experience, the temptation to do so is immense. The writing world is filled with comparison. We compare ourselves when we give awards, when we glance at our Amazon ranking, when we learn what another writer received as an advance. We compare ourselves when we edit other writers in our imaginations, thinking what we would have done and wondering why they did what they did.

This comparison is always as frightful as it is useless. Everything wonderful you have ever written or created or thought or loved or hoped for has flowed from a place within you, where the only comparison that occurs is the understanding of the difference between that which is in service to your story and that which is not. Writing’s dreamlike pleasure is freedom from that other comparison, within which lurks the quiet thought that when your score is tallied, you’ll come up short. This is the assassin of fears: What if I’m not good enough? To even ask the question is to kill your desire to create anything.

Fortunately, the question is unanswerable, so it need never have been asked. In fact, you can stop asking it anytime you want, and you’ll find its death grip on your imagination is instantly loosed. I know it is less dramatic to have always been good enough, to see victory and loss as just scenes in a drama of our invention, but it remains the only understanding from which you can create. And in truth, it is not so hard to look around a writers’ conference at all the other people worrying and rejoicing, arguing and agreeing, and see writers whose stories are varied, but whose love of storytelling shines equally bright.

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

How to Happily Write a Query Letter

If you’ve written a book, and you’d like to publish it traditionally, then you will probably want to find an agent. The best way to find an agent is by recommendations from writers who already have representation. Chances are, you don’t know a writer, and so your next best option is to attend writers’ conferences where you can pitch your book to an agent in person. But if conferences aren’t an option, or are an option you have already exhausted, you will have to write a query you can send to prospective agents – and if you are like ninety percent of the writers I know, you will dislike this experience profoundly.

I was one such writer. I loved writing books; I loved talking to people about the books I’d written, but I found the query letter an awkward and unnatural form of communication. How can I possibly condense the rich tapestry of my novel into two paragraphs that could excite a complete stranger? I griped about the query letters I had to write, I doubted their efficacy, and was never surprised when sample chapters were not requested. What was most frustrating was that when I met agents at conferences and shared my enthusiasm for my book like a human being, rather than some ad in a catalogue, they always requested sample chapters. The problem, I told myself, was the letters. They were just too short.

The problem was not the letters. The problem was that I believed my job was to know what other people liked. That was the whole point of the letters, wasn’t it – to excite enthusiasm in an agent? Yet I had no idea what anyone else liked. I never have. I know what I like; I know what excites me and what holds my attention. Everyone else’s desires and curiosities, my friends and family included, remain necessarily mysterious to me. What other people like, ultimately, is none of my business.

Eventually I decided to write my query letters exactly the way I wrote my stories. I would write the letters to please me. I would write two paragraphs about why I loved my book, about why I spent two or three years of my creative life working on it. To do so, I would have to forget the agents and remember why the book had been so interesting to me. When I wrote from this place, I found confidence I had only previously believed was possible while writing stories.

The results were immediate – by which I mean I immediately enjoyed writing the letters. In fact, I enjoyed writing the letters enough that I had to remind myself why I had written them. By and by I sent them out and got those other results. But by then I understood the order of things and so was as unsurprised when the agents asked for chapters as I had once been when they had not.

We writers like to be alone for good reasons. To do this work we must turn our attention toward what we know best: ourselves. As much as we love to share our work with other people, those other people can become debilitating distractions if we let them. It’s not their fault, of course; it’s ours. To believe we must know more than what it is we love makes us lose sight of the story life delivered us here 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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Creating Opportunities

You may have heard the expression, “create your own opportunities.” To me, this sort of tidy aphorism sometimes feels lovely in its can-doism, but dubious in its application. An opportunity is something that comes to you and upon which you act; how can you create something that comes to you? Here’s how.

A few years ago I was interviewed on The Back Porch Writer, a Blogtalk Radio show hosted Kori Miller. This opportunity came about after Kori wrote me to thank me for one of my recent episodes of Author2Author. After a friendly back-and-forth I mentioned I had a book out and would she like me to be a guest on her show. She said yes, and we scheduled our interview.

But that was not how I actually created this opportunity. I had actually created this opportunity, unbeknownst to me, about a year earlier. Kori began our interview by asking me what had motivated me to start Author2Author, and I explained about wanting to expand the format of my interviews and so on. Then Kori told me that she had stumbled on Author2Author one day, liked what she heard, and thought, “I want to do what he’s doing!” And so she started Back Porch Writer. This was how I “created my own opportunity.” I did what I loved and offered it to people through the means available to me, and acted in a timely fashion when that love was returned to me.

After hearing Kori’s story, I was reminded again of what I can do and what I can’t do. Madness waits for anyone certain he must build his every opportunity board-by-board. Creation is always a group effort, a fact I frequently ignore. I awake from uneasy dreams full of doubt and pessimism, the field of possibility an inscrutable and unfriendly bog. Oh, the misery of forgetting. To stand in loneliness, convinced I must make the world alone, while feeling an emptiness that is actually other people’s efforts and then calling myself incomplete.

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

Meeting Royalty

I watched the excellent biopic, The Queen the other night and was struck by the exacting rules of behavior one is to follow when in the presence of the queen of England: bow or curtsey when you meet her; never turn your back to her; she offers your hand, you never offer yours. A little War of Independence waged in me every time the characters marched through these formalities. I imagined myself meeting Her Highness with my hand audaciously outstretched. I’m just that much of a rebel.

In actuality, I’m sure I’d follow every behavioral rule because I want people to like me. Or maybe I wouldn’t. In truth, sometimes I don’t care one whit what anyone thinks of me, and sometimes I seem to care about nothing else. It’s a natural consequence of being human, I think, whether you’re a prince or a peasant. It must be very confusing and unnatural to treat someone as above you in every way, which is why the English have these rules. Fortunately, as a non-celebrity American, I doubt I’ll ever meet royalty – though I did come close once.

Caroline Kennedy had just edited and published a book of her favorite poems. On a lark, I shot her publicist a request for an interview and thought a mistake might have been made when I heard back five minutes later with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” I was tempted to remind the publicist that Caroline was A Kennedy, and I was but a humble editor of an online magazine for writers.

By the silent osmosis of history and television and movies, the Kennedys were like royalty in my mind. I had set them apart from everyone else, had made them just a little bit more than human. So, I could not, in the three weeks before the shoot, undo nearly fifty years of myth making. I had by this time grown pretty comfortable around other humans, but I could not picture that same comfort with A Kennedy.

On the day of the shoot, I greeted Caroline Kennedy outside the bookstore as she stepped out of her car. The very first thing I noticed was that she was dressed in a tailored grey suit and pink running shoes. I was struck more by her pink running shoes than the fact that I was shaking hands with A Kennedy. The shoes seemed at once practical and a little geeky. I couldn’t stop thinking about them until we were seated for the interview. She was starting to feel like the other humans I knew. Still, I couldn’t shake the awkwardness I’d hoped wouldn’t visit me during our conversation – laughing a little too loud, agreeing a little too immediately.

That changed, though, once we got to the subject of the interview itself. Poetry had meant a lot to me as a young man. Reading poetry was what taught me how to write. It also taught me I wasn’t as alone as I sometimes felt because someone I had never met could speak to me in what felt like the language of my inner world. Caroline Kennedy loved poetry too. When I asked her about how she had discovered poetry and what it meant to her, I left the world of kings and queens and was speaking instead from that place within me reserved for the things I loved.

The interview went much better after this, and I started sounding like myself again. The world of books and writers is filled with royalty in its own way, those lords and ladies who occupy the bestseller lists or who have contributed to The Canon. Unfortunately, I do not know how to write like a king. On my best days, I can write like myself. On my very best days, I know this has always been enough.

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 True Source of a Writer’s Insecurity

I’m currently working on a book about writing fearlessly, a subject about which I have written for the last eight years, and which I have begun teaching in the last two or three. This has provided me with an unusual creative launching pad. Normally I start a book knowing very little other than something looks interesting and I would like to find out why. I felt I knew exactly why I was interested in this book when I started it. I have written and talked and written and talked about this subject so much that when my proposal was accepted I thought that all I would have to do is transcribe what I already knew into book form.

What a relief, I thought as I settled into Chapter One. So many questions that crowd around a new project already felt answered. I did not need to ask myself, “What’s this book really about?” or, “Where’s this book going?” How nice, I thought, to write one book without the quiet insecurity that hovers over a blank page.

Then I started writing. No, writing is not quite the word – typing would be more accurate. For instance, the book is filled with small, illustrative stories, many of which I’ve told dozens of times. I could type them as an actor would his lines from a play, which is just what I began doing – until I noticed I was cranky at the end of my workday. This has happened plenty of times, but only when I’ve had a crap writing session, when the story went nowhere, when nothing felt answered and I pushed myself back from the desk filled with doubt and a creeping sense of self-loathing.

Except it wasn’t a crap writing session. I’d written five perfectly good pages. I had no doubt whatsoever that I’d use them. You’re just bored, I thought as I went for a brisk walk. No matter how well you know the subject, you’ve got to leave room for discovery. You’ve got to find something new. There’s always something new.

Having bucked myself up, I returned to work the following day ready to improvise. Improvise I did, and I finished my day’s work as I always hoped to: feeling calm, rejuvenated, and interested in life. In truth, if I feel this way after a session it doesn’t matter if I’ve written five sentences or fives pages, it was a good day’s work. That wasn’t boredom I felt yesterday, I realized as I got up from the desk – that was insecurity.

I’ve heard writing described as leaping off a cliff and learning to fly on the way down. How easy it is to mistake the blank page as the source of my writer’s insecurity. Yet to simply type words onto the page requires no connection to that which answers my creative questions. My security does not come from my craft, or my readership, or my publishing contract, or my reviews, or even the surprising pleasure of discovery. My security comes entirely from what I am connected to while discovering. Everything else is a happy product of that connection but not a replacement. Contracts, reviews, and even lovely words on the page could no more replace that connection than could wings replace a desire to fly.

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