Valuable Experience

Many years ago, Jen, my girlfriend at that time, visited me for a week in California. She was an art student and so I decided to take her to an art gallery. As it happens, the Getty Museum was not far from where I lived, and I’d heard there was a special exhibit currently on display. I was glad there was a special exhibit because I was not an art fan – which is to say, going to museums had not yet been added to my mental list of things I enjoyed doing. What did appear on this list was the vague concept of Special Things, and so we headed straight for the exhibit once we’d paid for our tickets.

The Getty had acquired a Van Gogh. A very small Van Gogh: it was about the size of a square dinner plate. It was, however, so incredibly valuable that the museum had cordoned off a 20-foot perimeter in front of the painting so that the viewing public wouldn’t be tempted to touch it or breathe on it. The distance made it difficult to appreciate the painting for its aesthetic value, but it certainly reinforced the painting’s specialness. It was like being in the presence of a celebrity. Leaning over the rope with the crowd, I had the sense that the painting was somehow worth more than the throng that had come to see it.

I didn’t enjoy the experience. It was easier once Jen and I moved on to the other exhibits. Now we could get close and look at the brush strokes and decide for ourselves whether we liked a painting or not. I didn’t really think I had that option with the Van Gogh. Plus, we could talk freely with one another, now that we weren’t in the hushed presence of greatness. None of these other paintings seemed more important than our relationship.

Driving home we talked some about the Van Gogh. It was more fun to talk about it than to see it. It was fun to learn what she experienced while she looked at it and it was fun to share what I experienced when I looked at it. I realized I valued fun above all other experiences. This seemed like a child’s view of life, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t choose what I valued any more than I could choose who I loved – which is how I knew I wanted to write about what I experienced, and why I knew I would marry Jen.

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

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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A. R. T.

Here’s a simple acronym to help remember how writing and all of human creation works: A. R. T. Ask, Receive, Translate. That’s all we do. We ask, “What kind of trouble should my heroine get into in Chapter 6?” We ask this question of our imagination as we would another person, meaning we don’t immediately try to answer it ourselves but wait to receive the answer. When the answer comes we translate it into words. That is writing.

I believe it is the receiving part that fouls most people up. Many writers believe it is the translating. It is not. That’s the easy mechanical part, the part our brains get to finally jump up and take part in. Sometimes, because we are aware that we are the ones doing the asking, we try to answer it ourselves with our brains. This never works, and is sometimes called writer’s block. Or we begin to worry that the answer just won’t come because we cannot perceive with our eyes where it comes from. Seeing is believing, we’ve been taught. Fear and impatience and mistrust temporarily halt the creative process. This is also called writer’s block.

And so we are miserable. We call ourselves a bad writer, or we phone our other writer friends and complain to them about how hard writing is. This doesn’t help either, but we are feeling bad and some part of us secretly believes this bad feeling is unnecessary and we hope complaint will drive it away. It doesn’t.

And then one morning we are taking a shower, and we are not thinking with our busy minds, and we are not impatient, and we are not mistrusting what we cannot perceive with our eyes, and as if by magic the answer appears in our minds. “Eureka!” we cry, and life is good again.

This to me is the true physics of creation. If I ask a question for which I sincerely want an answer, that answer always comes – every single time and without exception. I have come to understand that the answer must come the very same as the ball must roll down the hill and not up it. If I am quiet, the answer might come immediately. If my mind is noisy, then the answer will wait until I am done trying to answer it myself. Either way, the answer is given. Life, in this way, is like a test for which you need only invent the questions.

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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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Surrounded by Life

I was watching a documentary about a forest in Japan that has become a hauntingly popular destination for suicides. The filmmakers followed a geologist who, because of his work monitoring the volcanic rumblings of nearby Mt. Fuji, wound up a kind of forest suicide ranger, both uncovering the bodies of those who succeeded in killing themselves, and counseling those strangers camped far off the trails who remained uncertain which path they would follow, so to speak.

The geologist explained that most people who come to the forest hang themselves, making the tall, old growth trees unwitting accomplices in the final act. To accentuate this point, the filmmakers paused to pan slowly up a tree from roots to branches. The pan was accompanied by an appropriately spooky soundtrack. The soundtrack was so spooky that I was expecting the camera to find a dangling, lifeless body amid the branches.

Only it didn’t. It was just a tree, and a beautiful one at that. For a moment during that slow, creepy shot, I imagined that tree without a soundtrack. That’s the artist’s hand, I thought. We decide what everything means. The tree means nothing by itself, but pan slowly with some cellos droning in a minor key, and you have a monster.

I believe the documentary was intended to be sort of real life horror movie, only it fell short of this for me because of its lead character. The geologist was a reassuring guide through this forest of death. He talked about how important it was for people to spend time with one another, to find meaning in relationships. Somehow, his daily trips through the world of suicide had only connected him further to the life in which he was surrounded in that quiet, beautiful forest.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

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

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

This morning I had the pleasure of talking to a high school senior in Missouri who’s recently completed and is hoping to publish a book for middle grade readers. This young woman is a big chemistry fan, and the book is intended to introduce middle school girls to the pleasures of science. She had a lot of questions about the publishing process, to which I mostly answered, “It’s hard to say, but if you really love this book, you’re in good shape.”

The scientist-artist is an interesting combination. Science is largely and examination of what is, whereas the artist must focus on what might be. There are times I envy the scientist. Some days I wish I could pick up a rock, crack it open, look at it very, very, very closely and find in its crevasses that day’s essay.

But there is nothing to pick up or crack open. In fact, it is that very nothingness that is the source of all the pleasure and terror that comes with the arts. This thing wasn’t there before and now it is, all because I laid my attention upon it for a period of time. How real all of life feels in that moment, both what is and what could be, the line between what we call dream and reality narrowing to a thought.

But oh, the terror that can come from looking at what is, while what holds my interest is yet to be. Now my dream feels like fantasy because I can’t touch it. Now all of life is reduced to the rubble I suddenly mistake for reality, a heap of old ideas through which I find myself sorting for some evidence of what might be. There is nothing there. Only the imagination could resurrect these bones, only that spark could light the fire we all know as life.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

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

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

The other afternoon my wife was giving our son Sawyer his Language Arts class when he told her he wanted to draw a portrait of a space terrorist. How this fit into Language Arts, I don’t know, but when you are homeschooling Sawyer it is best to follow whatever stream presents itself.

He hunkered over a piece of paper and produced his first effort. He had drawn only the head. It was round, like Charlie Brown’s head, there was a kind of gray mask across the too-large eyes, and then something black over the ears reminiscent of ear muffs. There was no mouth or hair or helmet. The lines were uneven.

He was dissatisfied. His drawing didn’t look like a space terrorist at all. It looked like a child’s cartoon. It was neither threatening nor militaristic. Jen suggested he Google images of soldiers. For fifteen minutes he looked at pictures of marines and paratroopers and astronauts. He decided to give it another try.

The difference was startling. He drew the second portrait beside the first. Now the space terrorist appeared in profile, and there was the chin, and the nose beneath a mask, and the helmet with a kind of brim, and goggles and headphones with antennae. The lines were crisp and straight and everywhere was detail. Instead of a child’s cartoon it looked like something a comic book artist might have drawn.

If you had not known the truth of it, you would have guessed the images were drawn by an older and younger brother. Or you might have thought Sawyer’s artist mother had given him a lesson, as I had when he first showed me the two portraits. Yet he had received no lessons at all. All that had changed was his perception. The first drawing was vague, as if he had seen the space terrorist through an unfocused telescope; the second drawing as clear as what he had Googled.

I know how important it is to learn craft, and to hone our sentences, and trim our paragraphs, but an artist’s job first and foremost is always to see clearly. No matter how good a writer you may be, if you cannot see what you wish to write, you cannot write it. Instead you will write a vague imitation of what you wish to write, and you will dress the imitation in the fine robes of craft, and wonder why no one else can perceive your genius.

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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Picasso’s Sun

My wife shared a great Picasso quote with me last night: “Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot; others transform a yellow spot into the sun.”

He got it exactly right, of course. No artist, whether he paints with oils, words, or gestures, can create the sun. The artist’s sun is two-dimensional. The artist’s sun gives neither light nor heat. The yellow spot on the page is merely a symbol placed by the artist to represent the sun.

But if the artist allows himself to believe it is possible he can, as Picasso said, transform that yellow spot into something that feels like the sun. This is the power we do have. The world is too big for any artist. Love, the only true feeling, is too big for the mind to hold. But we can feel it, and that is enough. That is enough to create a fertile open space through which love naturally passes, both yours and your readers’.

It’s useful to remember. We can’t do it all.  Our stories and poems and essays are fractions of reality. Love, which is all anyone has ever really wanted to write about, exists outside the thin reality of time and space, where we must muck about every day. Love has no form because it is every form, and love has no time because it is always. Reality may seem like a fixed thing, but if you burned it down to its ashes you would be left with nothing but love.

It’s too much, and so we seek the one gesture that suggests the entire dance, the streak of sunlight that suggests the entire day. It is a happy enough game when you accept the rules. Why, it’s almost cheating. How strange that in one sentence we can provide a crack through which all of life is visible.

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

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Life and Death

I once watched a documentary about the death penalty, a large portion of which was spent following a lawyer whose sole focus was defending death row inmates. During the course of the show, the lawyer was desperately trying to salvage an appeal for a man sentenced to die within days, and then hours, and then minutes.

To be honest, I don’t remember whether or not he saved the man’s life. All I can remember is the lawyer. He ran everywhere he went, his brow beaded with sweat, his tie coming undone, his shirttail hanging out of his pants. He cursed a lot. He chain-smoked. He yelled at people. At one point, a coworker suggested he take a breath, to which the lawyer responded, “I’m trying to save a man’s life, damn it!”

There’s no doubt he was trying to save a man’s life, but to me the lawyer declared his intentions with the false conviction of a soap opera actor. It seemed to me he had allowed the drama of the story he was telling himself about himself to overtake the reality of his life. The story was that he was saving people’s lives and that this required his complete focus. This story meant he could treat everyone around him however he wanted because his mission was more important than the fragile sensibilities of a few paralegals.

I doubt I would have remembered the lawyer so clearly if I hadn’t seen a bit of myself in him. Like a lot of artists, I sometimes fancy myself a kind of hero, a knight on a holy quest for artistic purity. The ticky-tacky business of everyday life be damned! I’m onto something bigger than grocery lists and library fines.

Yet all my swagger and self-absorption, like the lawyer’s frenzy, is born from a fear that maybe nothing matters. Maybe a novel is no more important than a grocery list. All paper burns. You try to nail meaning to the wall, and the wall disappears, and there you are swinging your hammer at nothing. Life begs you to release your hammer; the inmate will die or live, the book will be written or forgotten. The things of life can only drown you if you hold them, and meaning always waits for you downstream.

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

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Sweet Sound

Many of the authors I interview compare writing to listening. A regular reader of this page may have noticed me making the comparison myself from time to time. I was reminded of this while watching Aretha Franklin sing Amazing Grace to Oprah Winfrey at the climax of her farewell bonanza. Think of the first lines of that song: Amazing grace/how sweet the sound/that saved a wretch like me.

The sound?  Not the action, not even the word—but the sound. But it makes perfect sense to me. We are never guided by anything more directional than a sound. The pleasure of life, of writing, of all creation, is giving that sound form, turning that sound into stories, into businesses, into meals and kisses and conversations. If everything we wanted already had its form, where would be the pleasure in life? The next thing will always be more compelling than the last thing.

Sometimes I find myself in a room full of conversation and I feel as if all I can hear is the sound of disappointment. The needle of conversation becomes stuck on what can’t be made and the failure of what has been made. In my desperation to hear something different, I imagine I am a great singer, and I pull a guitar out of my pocket and I fill the room with a song too beautiful, too joyous, too poignant to resist. I sing the misery away and remind us all why we want to be alive.

Such is the dream of every artist, I suppose. Tune your instrument to me and we shall all be happy. Except it is no business of mine what anyone else is hearing. It is no business of mine how grumpy anyone else might get on their way along the road. My only business is to hear what I am listening for and tune my instrument accordingly. I have never been unhappy while in tune, and it was only while deafened by the sound of my own complaint that I thought I needed to hear something other than what was already playing.

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

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Soul Matters

I interviewed Gary Zukav this past Friday for our June issue. His latest book, Spiritual Partnership, deals – as have all his books since the publication of his evergreen bestseller Seat of the Soul – with matters of the soul.

The world “soul” means different things to different people. For some, it is a staple of their daily conversation, a reminder of life’s inarguable value; for others, it is yet another in a list of superstitious hokum floating meaninglessly above hard, observable reality. Although I was raised without any organized religion, I took to the word quite early, largely because it was used so freely by the artistic types I looked up to and whose lives I wished to someday emulate. Poetry or music or books were said to either have soul or not, and always the more soul a work of art had the better.

I came to see that artistic soul usually meant art that expressed itself without intellectual self-consciousness, which is always a grand thing. But as a concept, this idea of soul was too laden with accomplishment, as if soul is yet another by-product of craft. There seemed to me a deeper value to the word, and one that spoke more directly to the creative life.

My soul is that to which my interest attunes itself. My interest has no logic, it can never be proven, and yet it is the guiding force of my life, responsible for the woman I married, the food I choose to eat, the city in which I live, and the magazine through which I write to you now. The intellect sorts through the data of the physical world, interprets it, and arrives at logical conclusions, like how to make a boat buoyant. That which I call the soul has its own logic, whose only desired conclusion is my own contentment.

I cannot create without this concept of the soul. If I remain bound to the physical world, that which I can see and taste and hear and so on, then nothing I create makes any sense. There is nothing within the physical world that will tell me what to write next. Only the inherent logic of my own desire shows me a path through the infinite choices before me. Without my soul, I am little more than a rubber ball, buffeted meaningless by events; with it, I am a creature of action, an engine in the service of love.

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