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.

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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 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

By Myself

I may crave the moment I can finally close the door to my workroom and sit quietly at my desk and enter once again the dream of the story I have been telling, but I must never mistake this experience for loneliness. Storytellers are never alone, although we are by ourselves.

While I write I am by myself in the same way I might say I sat by a stranger on plane, or I was held by my mother as child. To write is to sit by myself, with myself, and continue a conversation I often lose track of while I bounce around the world, occasionally colliding with other storytellers, or arguing with other storytellers, or becoming envious of other storytellers. There are just so many storytellers telling so many stories.

I like some of these stories; many, I admit, I do not. I do not like the story that goes: Something is wrong and someone needs to fix it! I hear that story a lot. Some days it feels like the only story I am hearing. I admit, I sometimes tell this story myself. Whenever I tell it, I feel very alone. I know, somehow, that although I have seen the problem, I am incapable of fixing this problem. It is always too big of a problem; it is a systemic problem, a global problem, a human problem. Should I rally everyone together, form a committee, a focus group, a non-profit with a website and a mission statement?

I choose instead my workroom. At last I am by myself, and I can ask myself honestly what I think of all these problems. The question is never answered because it is not even heard. The one I sit with at my desk is deaf to problems. He is only interested in the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. And so, because I am tired of all these problems I cannot fix, and because I am tired of feeling alone, I wonder what the next thing might be, and no sooner do I ask than I hear my first answer, and the conversation continues.

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

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.

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 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