Believing in What You Write

Many years ago, I published a novel. It was the third novel I’d written, but the first I’d published. I loved the book. I was excited about it in a way I had not been about my first two books. The story’s voice sounded more like me than anything else I’d written. Once I’d found the story’s true beginning, the plot seemed to fall together on its own. It took place in the 1800’s, and I found myself happy to do the kind of exhaustive research I had not been willing to do for my second book, which had been set during Prohibition.

The first agent I showed it to at a writer’s conference snatched it up immediately. I was thrilled. I’d never had a real agent. In fact, I’d spent the first seven or eight years of my nascent writing career thinking how much better life would be if only I had an agent. Now I did. She was eager to send it out. Great, I said. Strangely, I couldn’t really imagine a big New York publisher actually buying it. But this was all new to me, and I wasn’t going to worry about what I couldn’t imagine.

My agent sent it out, and it came back. The editors had many complimentary things to say, but it wasn’t . . . quite . . . right. I would eventually find a tiny publisher whom I basically convinced to publish it. I had no idea if they actually liked it. When the book finally came out, after many unexplained delays, it was littered with typos, I was paid half of what I was owed, and I received exactly two copies, which I stuck on my shelf and tried to forget existed. I no longer loved the book. It was an embarrassment.

Ten years later, I found myself pulling a copy off the shelf and reading the first page. A lot had changed for me in those ten years. For instance, I no longer believed that my life would be better if only I had an agent. Also, ten years is a fantastic buffer for a writer’s memory. I had forgotten enough about the book that I could read it almost as if a stranger had written it. To my surprise, I liked it. I kept reading. I still liked it. If I had found it on a shelf in a bookstore, I’d have bought it. Period.

It ought to have been published by one of those New York publishers, I thought to myself. But I couldn’t be bitter about how it was published. I never really believed it would be published, and so, for all practical purposes, it wasn’t. My experience matched my belief perfectly. I found this comforting as I returned the book to its place on my shelf beside all the other books written by friends and strangers. I no longer believe in luck or talent or even hard work.

I believe in perception.

I will never be able to prove that what I believed, while sitting in my office in Seattle, somehow influenced an editor in her office in New York. It makes no logical sense. But I do know that I cannot write a single sentence unless I believe my story is interesting, or exciting, or profound. And I know that I cannot write about love if I am feeling hateful, and I cannot write something funny if I am feeling sad. And I know that if I perceive someone as a friend, they are friendly; and if I perceive them as an enemy, they are not friendly.

And I also know that that the only person’s mind I can change is my own. I have tried mightily to change other people’s minds, but to no avail. I cannot make anyone like what I have written, or buy what I have written, or praise what I have written. All I can do is believe that what I have written is worth sharing, and that continues to make all the difference.

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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

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A Valuable Lesson

I’ve interviewed enough writers to have heard this story a number of times: A fledging writer, often a would-be genre writer, takes a creative writing class. The teacher – older, frustrated, grumpy, usually with strong literary leanings – informs the student, after reading a few stories, that he/she should give up, because he/she is not a writer. He’s sorry to be the one to break the news (he’s not), but there is no point in continuing with the charade.

There are three responses to this, all of them good:

The first is that the student thinks, “You are wrong. I love to write, but you and I apparently disagree on what constitutes ‘good writing.’ You are not my audience. I will find my voice, and then my audience, and that will be that.” This is the least likely response because a writer with this awareness rarely gets told that they are not a writer, and not just because of how they write. There is an immunity that comes with such self-awareness. A teacher such as the one in this story will find someone else to condemn.

The student might also feel relief. “Thank God!” thinks the student. “He’s absolutely right. Finally, I can give up on this dream and start dancing, or singing, or baking, or accounting, or whatever it is that really pleases me. At last I am done trying to force the square peg of my interests into the round of hole of writing.”

Most common, however, is the third response – despair. The student goes home feeling as if something has been taken from her. Up until this moment, she had looked forward to her time alone at the desk with her stories, and she had dreamed of a time when she might share those stories with other people. Now she is uncertain if she has the authority to know what she likes and does not like, and she does not really know how to live if she can’t know something so fundamental as what interests her.

And she can’t, really, which is why she feels so bad, and why despair is such good news. It means the teacher was wrong, and that this writer’s guidance, the very same silent and constant guidance that leads her from story to story, from word to word, that speaks only in feelings of correct and incorrect, of effortlessness and struggle, this same guidance is now speaking just as loudly as it possible can, saying, “He does not know that he claims to know! Only you can know that.”

Eventually the writer will listen to this guidance, and the despair will pass, and she will return to writing, and the teacher, though he will never know it, will have taught her valuable lesson indeed.

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

An Author’s Best Support

I always find the acknowledgment and dedication pages to be tender beginnings to a book. Here the author takes a moment to mention those people who stuck by her when she doubted herself and who believed in her story when no one else did. Without their love and support, the author often suggests, the book you hold in your hand simply wouldn’t exist.

The solitary business of writing a book invites a kind of self-doubt to which few writers are immune. How nice to have the support of someone when your own confidence is lacking. How nice to say, “I think I suck,” and have that someone say, “No, you don’t.” How necessary to ask your wife, “What if this is a waste of time?” and have her ask in reply, “What if it’s not?”

Though once, at a particularly low point in my writing life, I went for a long walk to clear my head. I had turned to my wife too often already that day, and nothing she offered could undo the knot into which I had accidentally tied my mind. I was on my own. So off I went, fists jammed into my pockets, turning and turning the puzzle of my life and career like a Rubik’s Cube.

I crossed a small bridge that spanned a creek too shallow to drown oneself. I should just quit, I thought. Chuck the whole business. As I thought this, I imagined all those kind people who had supported me over the years – my wife and my parents, my brother and sister and my old friends – imagined them learning after all their support that I had given it up. “They wouldn’t even care that I quit,” I thought bitterly. “All they want is for me to be happy.”

I stopped walking and unclenched my fists. It was the first true thing I’d thought that day. It really did seem to me sometimes that my happiness required that certain specific conditions be met, and the least people who loved me could do is agree with that, since they claimed to be interested in my wellbeing. Except I would never apply this formula to anyone I loved. If I did, it wouldn’t be love I felt for them.

By the time I was home, I was ready to write again. The Rubik’s Cube hadn’t been solved, however; I’d just lost interest in playing with it. I was more interested in this story I was telling. I didn’t know how it would end, or if it would be published, or who would read it. I just knew I was interested in telling it, which at that moment was enough to call me back to my desk. It was also enough to open the door in my mind from which stories flow. I really don’t understand stories until that door is open. If that door is closed, stories are as unknowable to me as my Rubik’s Cube is unsolvable.

Fortified by a good day’s work, I returned to my family ready to support them. My wife and children had their own doubts, after all. Doubt doesn’t need a book; it can fill any little space between where you are and where you think you might be headed. How similar love is to that door I open to the stories I want to tell. I only know love when I’m with it, and I will always have its support when I choose to share it.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

An Unconditional Home

I’ve always felt that a writer’s confidence is more important than his knowledge of craft. I can have all the craft in the world – and by this time, I have accumulated my share of it – but once I lose my confidence, the craft is more or less useless. What’s more, I can lose my confidence at any moment, but once I’ve learned my craft – once I’ve learned to show and not tell, to rely on verbs and nouns more than adjectives and adverbs – I am unlikely to forget it the same way I am unlikely to forget my times tables if am willing to forgo the calculator now and again.

My confidence is my unconditional love for the story I am telling. I must love that story as I would love my child. I cannot wait for it to show me that it is worthy of my love from praise, nor reject it when it has been criticized. I must love it from its first, vague seedling of an idea. I must love it as it struggles into shape, forming and reforming, expanding and contracting. And I must love it as I set it free into the world, where it will be loved and probably hated, understood and misunderstood, bought and returned.

I must love it without any thought of what anyone thinks about it. That is a writer’s unconditional love. That is our resting place, the home where we are loved as a family is loved, the home where our confidence is known, not in achievement or wealth or status, but in the awareness of the value that we were born to express.
It’s complete freedom, of course, but how easy it is to leave that home in search of some phantom certainty. That is a journey into Hell, the maze of a million equal opinions, which can end only in despair, and then eventually, mercifully, surrender. The surrender will feel like quitting at first, but it is just the opposite. It is another beginning, because soon afterward, I look up and there I am – home again, and nothing has been lost, and no one is wounded, and all stories are poised to be told.

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

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 the 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.

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