Remembering Stories

When we write a memoir or simply a tell a story from our past, we say we are remembering that story – which, as Andre Dubus pointed out when discussing his memoir, Townie, means to put back together, to re-member and make whole. The storyteller is in this way reassembling what time and the imagination have fractured.

You don’t need to make anything to remember a story. Instead, you focus upon the seed of the event you can recall – how it felt or smelled, a single action or word, maybe only a name –and then wait. It is an active kind of waiting, however, as you keep your attention on what you do know, while you simultaneously leave room for what you do not. By and by the details emerge from the shadows, and your story is whole again.

I wonder if this is also true for fiction, for those stories we imagine from nothing. The experience is eerily similar. The author of fiction begins her story as if she found the end of a thread and then chose to follow it. On the best days, that thread seems to lead her steadily through the forest of story possibilities. When she loses touch with that thread, when she tries to go it alone, every way seems equal. Until she returns, until she finds and holds the thread again and that tricky plot that seemed so dense and intractable falls all at once together, and the author sighs: “Of course. What else could it have been?”

I know we can distinguish between what we have lived and what we dream, but I do not find much difference between the thread that I follow through the shadows of the past and the threads I have followed through the forest of invention. Lost is lost, and found is found. All stories seek the same resting place within me, and I will look anywhere from past to future to find that place.

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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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
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Self Promotion

I had coffee with Ingrid Ricks a few weeks after our recent interview. Hippie Boy, her memoir, was initially self-published. Ingrid is not daunted by the idea of hard work, and once she’d published Hippie Boy she set about learning how one gets reviews on the best blogs, and how to time raising and lowering the price of your book, plus many other things as well, all of which led to her indie published memoir hitting the New York Times bestseller list and netting her a contract with Berkley. “This is a great time to be an author,” she concluded.

Which got me thinking about Deb Caletti, who, after publishing eleven YA novels, was asked by Random House if she’d like to write an adult literary novel, to which she answered, “You bet!” This was a dream fulfilled for her, and during our conversation I asked her about promoting this book she had been waiting all her life to see published. What’d you do? I asked. “Nothing,” she replied. “I’m writing the next book. And this book is selling better than any other book I’ve published. I’ve learned that when a publisher like Random House really wants a book to do well – assuming it’s any good – it will do well.”

Which got me thinking about Andre Dubus. His books do well, to be sure, but Andre always goes on tour, where he does lots of interviews, and gives lots of lectures and answers lots of questions. He only recently got a website, which he largely ignores. Good luck finding him on Facebook. I’m not sure if he even knows what a tweet is.

Which got me thinking about John Green, who also goes on tour, but who has an extremely popular YouTube page and over one million Twitter followers. During his interview he told Brian Mercer, “I do Twitter because I get Twitter; I don’t do Facebook because I don’t get Facebook.”

All of these four very different approaches to book promotion have one thing in common: they are a match to the writer whose book is being promoted. Ingrid is a go-getter and enjoys having her own business; Deb just wants to write; Andre loves to lecture and answers questions; John is an entertainer and, apparently, a prolific tweeter. Just as you should write what you love, so too you should promote as you love. Saying there is only one way to promote is like saying there is only one way to write a book, which is like saying there is only one way to be a person. Write like you, promote like you, and be like you – that is the only formula for success.

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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.

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
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A Little Faith

During my last conversation with Andre Dubus, we touched briefly on the somewhat sensitive subject of faith. That very friendly word is burdened with the stink of superstition, anti-intellectualism, and even a kind of subjugation, concepts to which writers – particularly literary writers – often live their lives in opposition. Yet there we were talking about faith, primarily because it was clear we couldn’t do our work without it.

If faith is the belief in what cannot be seen or proven, then this is a writer’s first and greatest tool. Who can see your story but you? Who knows its value but you? And what proof do you have of that story’s value but a feeling within you that says this is interesting, this is exciting, this is funny or profound or scary? You get nothing but a feeling, which, if we were forced to describe it, would begin to sound eerily like the voices of angels and messengers to which mystics have listened for thousands of years.

Yet you hardly need to be a mystic or saint or even a writer to have faith in that which cannot be seen or proven. In fact, writing has merely taught me the immensely practical everydayness of faith. What do I ever actually know other than how I feel at a given moment? The rest is conjecture. The past is a dream, the future is a hunch. Meanwhile, how I feel in this moment remains as close as my own breath, and writing has taught me that this is all I need to know.

Strange, because how I feel is not an outcome. How I feel cannot be measured or compared. How I feel has absolutely no value to anyone but me. Yet it remains my truest guide, which says, “Forget the past and take your eyes off the future. I am here, and I am all you need.” Usually, I don’t believe this voice. He hasn’t the imagination for injury and shame with which I am so gifted. But the voice is as patient as it is persistent, and by and by I return to listen to his voice, which I am always pleased to find sounds strangely like my own.

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
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Standing With Dragons

In my interview with Andre Dubus, the author of The House of Sand and Fog and Townie described writing as truth telling. This seems absolutely so to me, and I believe this applies to every writer, whether she is writing romance fiction, mysteries, poetry, or memoir. The Truth, after all, is too immense to be contained in one story or one genre. In this way, everyone is doing his or her own small part to shed the light of perception on life.

And this, by the way, is all we can do. Imagine you live with someone who believes there is a dragon sitting in the basement. Your roommate spends every day in a panic that the dragon will decide to lumber up the basement stairs and devour both of you. You often come home to find boards nailed across the basement door; he has begun assembling a suit of armor in the garage; he frequently begs you to move out of the house.

What are you to do? His behavior is insane, by which I mean inconvenient, irritating, difficult, frustrating. You could try to train him to behave like someone who isn’t insane. Train him not to nail boards over the basement door or build suits of armor. Or you could restrain him so he can’t build suits of armor. Or you could medicate him so he does not see the dragon as long as the medication fills his veins.

Or you could help him see that there is no dragon. This is tricky, I know. How do you help someone see through an illusion? The best way, perhaps, would be to lead your friend into the basement and you yourself stand with the dragon. As writers, we guide our readers into danger, down into the basement where all the dragons roar, and stand together with these beasts so that within this dream of a story a friend might awaken from his nightmare.

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
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The End of Industry

I used to think that when I wrote I was looking for the right word, or the right phrase, or the right idea. I used to think that a writer’s mastery was a mastery over language, as if all those possible words were a wave I must learn to ride with grace and hopefully without drowning. Yet the more I write, the less I find myself thinking about language, and the more I find myself seeking effortlessness.

Andre Dubus described writing as truth-telling, and I certainly feel that is so for me. The truth, however, exists independently of me, exists before me and will exist after me, regardless of whether I ever write it or not. For this reason, my first job when writing is to find the most truthful perception of whatever it is I am writing about. Since there is no formula for this kind of truth, the only means I have to recognize it is whether or not I am exerting effort.

It takes effort to try to manufacture the truth, much the same as it takes effort to manufacture interest in a story or a lover in which you are not actually interested. Since the truth already exists, once I perceive it I don’t need to manufacture anything, I only need to translate what I see. But if what I am seeing is not the truth, then I must manufacture life from the ground up, and the further I am from the truth, the more effort I must exert.

Do not think, however, that The Truth is a pill we must swallow. Do not think that The Truth is hard-boiled, is joyless, or carries even the slightest whiff of hopelessness. When I am able to perceive The Truth, I do so only when I release everything hard-boiled, joyless, and hopeless I have manufactured in my own grim industry. That is my mastery then: Learning to stand empty handed and accept what is given me.

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
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Accepted Value

Andre Dubus defined a writer’s job as one of truth telling. I have to agree with this, and I believe that definition applies to all forms of writing, from romance to poetry to suspense and, yes, to fantasy. Fantasy is a tricky name for a genre, however, as it suggests perhaps the very opposite of truth telling.

A Course In Miracles defines a fantasy as an attempt to correct a problem that does not exist. I have come to understand that I wrote many novels that were fantasies, although they were all set on this planet, and not one contained a single elf or magic sword. These novels were written precisely to correct the problem of my unperceivable value. I believed that if I could write and publish a very specific sort of book then my value would be established and unquestionable.

For this reason, the books never felt real to me. They were largely shadows I hoped one day would take full form within the light of acceptance. I might as well have hoped to meet Santa Claus. Writing is an expression of value, not a pursuit of its acquisition. The writer looks within himself at what he perceives as valuable and translates it into a form that can be shared. It is never, ever the other way around.

Eventually I began to share what I knew to be of value. Immediately, the work changed. What I was writing now had the feeling of something that already existed, something I could not have created alone but which was happy to remain still long enough for me translate into words and stories. In those moments I gained what I had long believed I lacked: acceptance. It was quite surprising to learn that what I had thought was the end of a writer’s journey was actually its beginning.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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The End

I recently posted a short compilation video called “What Writing Has Taught Me.” I ask this question of every author at the end of our interview and I find that it often gets to the heart of the big writing question, namely: Why do we do this?

Andre Dubus said that his writing improved when he approached a story with “something to learn instead of something to say.” Professionally, Andre is a teacher as well as a writer, and you don’t have to sit with him long to learn that he has a great many things to say. I too write and teach, and you need only glance at the hundreds of entries in this column to know that I have plenty to say as well. Yet Andre could not be more right. No matter how convinced we are of our convictions, our work will always improve when we approach the blank page with the humility of a student rather than the certainty of an instructor.

It is strange, then, that as authors we are, technically speaking, authorities. And yes, when we write we must do so with authority – we must seek the truth and share what we have found with confidence. The seeking, however, is for us; the sharing is for our readers. But the seeking remains the important ingredient, and why, I believe, my question so often intrigues the authors I interview.

I have come to understand that “the truth” that we seek as writers is just that – a singular, though all-encompassing, it. Everyone knows this same truth. Yet it is so vast, so infinitely faceted, that each of us for our own reasons develops a kind of blindness toward one or many of the facets. The world, then, appears incomplete, perhaps ruined even, a broken place where broken people lead their broken lives, and all the doctors and journalists and politicians and judges and parents and, yes, teachers and writers, must fix it, fix it fix it so that something called happiness might be known.

You cannot fix what isn’t broken. Instead you can learn to see what is already there. In that instant of seeing, the world becomes whole; in that instant of expanded perception the writer discovers what he has forgotten, and feels – if only for a second – that holy awareness that he then calls “The End.”

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Security

Two days ago I wrote about the difference between being a writer and an author. Here is a great story to illustrate that point.

When Andre Dubus III was a small child, his father attended the Iowa Writers Program. Some evenings a man with curly hair and a mustache would come by the house and smoke cigarettes and watch Batman cartoons with Andre. That man’s name was Kurt Vonnegut.

Andre would grow up the son of a respected short story writer and essayist. His father, Andre Dubus, was what we would call a writer’s writer. When Andre was in his 20s he showed a short story he had written to his father. His father said, “Congratulations. You’re a writer.”

Andre eventually decided to submit a short story for publication. He sent to six magazines, five of which declined. The sixth, Playboy, accepted the story and paid him 2,000 1980 dollars for it. Andre would go on to publish a collection of short stories, and then a novel, and then another novel called The House Of Sand and Fog. When his always-supportive father read his second novel, he said, “Get yourself a tuxedo. You’ll be going to the National Book Award Banquet.”

The House of Sand and Fog was indeed a finalist for The National Book Award. It was also an Oprah Book Club selectee and was made into a major motion picture. All of this is described in Andre’s excellent memoir Townie (excepted here in Author). I interviewed Andre after Townie’s release. I thought it was a great book, and wanted to tell him so.

When I met him in the hotel lobby before our interview we shook hands and I asked him how the book was doing. “Great,” he said. “Really great, actually. The reviews have been fantastic, better than for any book I’ve ever written.”

“Well, that doesn’t surprise me, Andre.” I wasn’t sure how to tell him how much I liked the book. Sometimes praise can be as awkward as criticism. “Look – I really liked this book, but I don’t just want to lavish you with praise.”

“Go ahead and lavish,” he said. “I’m an insecure writer.”

I don’t believe he is an insecure writer. I believe Andre is an extremely secure writer, or else he would not have been able to write ­Townie or the House of Sand and Fog. But despite having grown up with a writer father who loved and supported him, despite selling his first short story to Playboy, being on Oprah, getting great reviews and selling lots of books and all the rest, Andre Dubus III is still an insecure author.

He is insecure for the exact same reasons you or I are insecure. No matter how much success we may or may not have had, when a story leaves our hands, it belongs to the world and not just to us. Hopefully, we loved that story; hopefully that is why we wrote it. Whether the world will love it as much is we do is not what causes our insecurity. Rather, it is the belief that if the world loves it less, we will love it less. It is the belief that something outside of us can pull us from what we love, from the only source of our security.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Author2Author

In case you’ve missed it – and if my Blogtalk Radio Listener Counts are correct you probably have – we have recently begun a new live internet radio program called Author2Author. Our first guest was the irreplaceable Frank Delaney, and our second show featured the delightful Diane Hammond.  Next I will be chatting with doctor author Carol Casella, and the week after that Andre Dubus. Though Author2Author airs live every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 PM EST, you can always listen to the shows in the archives. Starting in March, we will be archiving the shows on Author itself.

Why a radio show? Because, as much as I love interviewing writers, I thought a real dialogue between two writers could be just as interesting. So far, this has proven to be the case. But this is not surprising. Writers don’t always get to talk to other writers about writing. In fact, when they do get together, it is not unusual for conversation to quickly descend into gossip and griping about agents, advances and, of course, the Decline of Publishing. When Hemingway describes meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald for the first time in A Movable Feast, he complained that the celebrated novelist talked mostly about about, you guessed it, agents and advances. So this is a time-honored tradition.

But I love writers, and no matter how often they complain or gossip I know what moves them. Sometimes all this business talk feels like so much posturing, a kind of nervous effort to disguise the fact that what writers really know and care about is just writing. One reasonably informed question is all it takes to learn this.

It reminds me of the time I was having coffee with Frank, a friend I hadn’t seen in thirty years. He was now a professor of Southern American History, and so I mentioned I had written a novel set in the pre-Civil War South, and how I had some theories about that time and place, and I was curious what he thought of these theories. Frank leaned forward, everything about him came into focus, and he said, “Well, as a matter of fact, Bill, to really understand the South you have to know that—”

And here he paused a moment, and warned. “Now be careful. We’re about to cross the bridge to Boredom Town.”

Oh, I could sympathize. How often I’ve been at some party and wished I could really talk about what I loved, which is writing. Really talk about the blank page, and listening, and what it is when the sentence arrives fully formed and what it feels like when it doesn’t. Well, now we have a show for that. It’s a call in show, by the way: (661-449-9357), and if you catch us wandering into the dreary world of agents and advances you have my permission to call right up and tell us to knock it off.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Remembering The Fool

I have to confess that of all the stories I might tell my favorites are those in which I am the lead actor. If I must, I will chalk a certain degree of this preference up to vanity, but only as I point out that the better you know your protagonist, the better your story.

Moreover, of all the biographical stories I might tell, none are more pleasing than those in which I suffer the most. And I don’t mean stories in which some villain has wronged me, or stories in which it appears fate has taken me out at the knees. I used to like to tell such stories. I liked these stories because the cruelty of Life or Other People was always surprising and my audience would sometimes feel sorry for me. But I grew tired of these stories. You can dress complaint up in a compelling narrative—and when in the right mood I can be quite the tailor—but in the end everyone feels just a little bit worse unless they band together in mutual loathing for Mean People or Mean Life.

No, the stories I like are those in which I unravel my own happiness thread by thread. So delicious, from the safe vantage of the present, to travel back to the day when all seemed lost, when I believed a story of ruin and defeat. Bill the Fool makes a very compelling protagonist because he is always so certain of his own doom, he is always so passionate in defense of misery. So satisfying when he learns the joke was on him and he was safe all along.

Andre Dubus, when discussing his memoir Townie, pointed out that in telling our own stories we must first remember them—as in, we must put them back together. Such is the power of story. I can pull myself apart from head to toe, I can dismember my life with the unique violence of self-loathing—but I must use my own two hands to do so. Everything I tear remains with me, and when I tell the story true, all the pieces fit together perfectly.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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