New Life

For several years in a row we grew sunflowers in our backyard. The sunflower is an impressive plant in full bloom, and from time to time I would wonder how I would render into words what I felt when I beheld them. We eventually bought a print of “Sunflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh and hung it in our living room. It seemed to me that Van Gogh had rendered with paint what I would have liked to render with words.

As I understand it, there are painters who replicate the works of The Masters, sometimes to be sold as expensive forgeries. Their technique is so refined that it generally takes an expert in the imitated artist’s work to tell whether a painting is a forgery or the real thing.

Whenever I hear artists, whether painters or writers or composers, discussing craft or technique I think of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and these highly skilled replicators. If a work of art were only a work of craft, of technique, why would anyone with such skill bother imitating what someone has already painted? Since you have the same skill as the masters, why bother with forgery?

The answer, of course, is that Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” was not a product of technique. Van Gogh perceived the beauty of the sunflowers within himself and translated this perception to the canvas. The technique aided greatly in this translation, but first and foremost came the perception. Moreover, after the perception and before the translation came the willingness to share what was neither Van Gogh’s nor the flowers’ but a marriage of the two.

This is not such a simple choice. The forger already knows how the world will receive what he is replicating. Van Gogh did not have this luxury before he dipped his brush. Such is the price you pay when creating something new. Technique without original perception is as dead as a hammer. Technique in service to perception can bring anything to 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.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Seeing Beauty

When I was a teenager I was a passionate fan of music, movies, and novels. I could not, however, have been less interested in politics. This was in the late 70s and early 80s, a time still very much influenced by the upheaval of the 60s, particularly in the arts. Art and politics had gotten all tangled up in the 60s. It sometimes seemed that the job of a serious artist was to call for societal change.

I disliked this supposed mandate because I wanted to be a serious artist, but I had no desire to demand, march, or argue for change. I wanted to create stuff that left people feeling as good as I felt after I read a book, listened to a song, or watched a movie I loved. One day I found myself a reading a review of the Talking Heads album “Speaking in Tongues.” I loved this album. So did the reviewer.

However, this reviewer was particularly pleased to see that David Byrne, the band’s founder and songwriter, had clearly evolved artistically. “He’s even starting to drop in some social commentary!” she wrote. Oh, I was mad. Isn’t it enough to make something beautiful? Do you also have to tell everyone what they must do differently for the world to be a beautiful place?

I’m much older now, and my opinion of the relationship between art and politics has changed. No, I still don’t like to mix the two together. I feel about this division the way I do about the division of church and state. But I am more aware of the difference between the ugliness of how people sometimes treat one another, and the beauty of the art people are capable of creating. How much nicer it would be to read a newspaper and be as uplifted as when I read my favorite novel or poem.

But beauty, you may have heard, is in the eye of the beholder, which is as true of newspapers as it is of paintings, poems, and people. If it’s beauty I want, I must choose to look for it everywhere. And if it’s beauty I wish to share in my work, then I must see that beauty before I can render it in a story. The world, or society, can’t give me that beauty, that truth, that equality. I must learn to see it for myself.

I like this job, though I sometimes complain that the world is doing all it can to make my job more difficult. There are days I look out my window and do not like what I see: darkness and cruelty born of the blindness of hatred. Fortunately, blindness can be a temporary affliction. It is only a consequence of looking in the wrong place for what I want. The moment I turn my attention to beauty’s source, I see it everywhere. The veil we sometimes cast over it is transparent to the eye attuned to what moves us all.

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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Natural Beauty

Two weeks ago I was asked to give some lectures at the Northwest Institute for Literary Arts’ (NILA) winter residency program. The residency is held at the Captain Whidbey Inn on Whidbey Island (Washington), a spectacularly scenic locale complete with green fields, tall pines, and an unimpeded view of Penn Cove.

In fact, directly outside my little cabin’s front door was a gravel path that wound left to a tall wood and stone gazebo that could have comfortably housed a small wedding party. Beyond the path was a lawn of spotless emerald running down to a duck pond fed by a narrow inlet. A wooden bridge spanned the inlet, and beyond the bridge Penn Cove’s gray tide, and then Puget Sound, and finally the Pacific Ocean. I had packed only my black dress shoes, but the scene was so picturesque I decided to risk them for a stroll.

As I crossed the bridge it struck me that this was exactly the sort of landscape that would send a water colorist running for her canvas or poets scrambling for their pens. It has sometimes seemed to me an artist’s duty to render nature’s beauty. The ocean, the sunset, the mountain, the lake – life’s given perfection to which all human creation is aspires. Yet standing there amidst all that natural beauty, my writer’s mind drifted to the students I’d met and would soon be teaching, to their struggles with voice and confidence, and their love of language and story.

There was the landscape that moved me most – that line where the human mind and heart meet, where each of us chooses moment to moment between fear and love. The artist never paints what he sees; only what he feels when he is seeing. And in this way, aren’t I the same as any landscape artist? At my best I see within everyone I meet life without the story of suffering and worthlessness and comparison and rejection, life without good and bad, life as a beautiful as any ocean or sunset.

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

Time For A Party

My friend Will Green passed away suddenly yesterday. Will was an immensely gentle man who had a gift for celebrating what he enjoyed most about life. Though he will be missed, it seemed entirely appropriate to me that he would leave this party the way he did. He always knew when it was time to move on.

In his honor, I’d like to rerun this piece I wrote last year:

My friend Will was a waiter who had, over the years, transformed the yard around his one bedroom house into something of a floral wonderland, a lush little forest of flowers and bushes and vines and terraces. To tend a yard or garden is to bring something to life and then sustain it for as long as time will permit. Unlike a carpenter, the gardener produces no final product. Instead, he oversees a bell curve of life, whose peak is achieved through strategic cooperation with nature.

Will celebrated that peak with a once-a-year garden party. This was a major event, a dinner party with two-dozen tables, a bartender, and colored lamps. The garden itself was extraordinary. Everywhere your eye landed was life at its greenest, reddest, bluest, and purple-est. If this garden were a woman she was perfectly dressed. Will was her tailor, his hand evident in the checkerboard lawn of grass and granite, the trellises, the paths, the trimmed curve of the bush, but not so evident as to claim the beauty for his own. He merely helped reveal the beauty belonging to the flowers themselves.

It was an easy party to enjoy. Everyone had decided ahead of time they were going to have fun, and the garden would not permit disappointment. It was summer, and it was warm, and we were outside, and there was wine, and we were celebrating nothing more specific than the beauty of life. This was easier than celebrating New Year’s, or Christmas, or birthdays, wed as they are to the artifice of time. There was nothing artificial about the garden, it was just life being life, and we were not required to pretend that this moment was more important than any other moment.

Because no sooner had the wine glasses been cleared than the garden began her gradual retirement. Tired from her long summer, she undressed leaf by leaf through the autumn, requiring less of Will’s attention every day, until Will himself awoke one cool morning to find that beauty had silently entered into the long white dream of 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.

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Time For A Party

My friend Will was a waiter who had, over the years, transformed the yard around his one bedroom house into something of a floral wonderland, a lush little forest of flowers and bushes and vines and terraces. To tend a yard or garden is to bring something to life and then sustain it for as long as time will permit. Unlike a carpenter, the gardener produces no final product. Instead, he oversees a bell curve of life, whose peak is achieved through strategic cooperation with nature.

Will celebrated that peak with a once-a-year garden party. This was a major event, a dinner party with two-dozen tables, a bartender, and colored lamps. The garden itself was extraordinary. Everywhere your eye landed was life at its greenest, reddest, bluest, and purple-est. If this garden were a woman she was perfectly dressed. Will was her tailor, his hand evident in the checkerboard lawn of grass and granite, the trellises, the paths, the trimmed curve of the bush, but not so evident as to claim the beauty for his own. He merely helped reveal the beauty belonging to the flowers themselves.

It was an easy party to enjoy. Everyone had decided ahead of time they were going to have fun, and the garden would not permit disappointment. It was summer, and it was warm, and we were outside, and there was wine, and we were celebrating nothing more specific than the beauty of life. This was easier than celebrating New Year’s, or Christmas, or birthdays, wed as they are to the artifice of time. There was nothing artificial about the garden, it was just life being life, and we were not required to pretend that this moment was more important than any other moment.

Because no sooner had the wine glasses been cleared than the garden began her gradual retirement. Tired from her long summer, she undressed leaf by leaf through the autumn, requiring less of Will’s attention every day, until Will himself awoke one cool morning to find that beauty had silently entered into the long white dream of winter.

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Greatest Clarity

When I was a waiter there was often the challenge of being heard as the restaurant got busy. One did not want to have to repeat the specials or ask again how the gentleman would like his porterhouse prepared. Fortunately, I could bellow with the best of them, and so for years, when the decibels around me began to rise, so did my own volume.

By and by I grew tired of all the shouting over more shouting and I began a little experiment. What if, I wondered, there was a way to be heard through the noise without raising my voice? Speaking more slowly and enunciating helped, but it wasn’t enough. That was when I learned to imagine my words like a razor, sharp and precise and bright, and my voice seemed to cut through the hum and clamor of the restaurant. I cannot tell you how did this, only that it worked, and I never shouted again. I had found my waiter’s voice.

Much is made of a writer’s voice, and many hours of sleep have been lost wondering if ours will ever be heard within the din of voices clamoring for attention. How tempting it is to shout. How tempting to break out bigger plots, bigger action, bigger words, bigger technical risks. But all of this noise assumes a competition where none exists. Clarity has no opponent. Once a thing has become perfectly clear it has emerged into itself were it stands sovereign and complete.

Such clarity reminds us of ourselves, or at least the selves we have forgotten and instead of remembering try to improve. No improvement is necessary, only greater clarity. To learn to see yourself clearly and as you actually are is to discover beauty again and again and again, and to know that ugliness is only life seen through the fog of forgetting.

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Value of Success

It was not until I had lived with my wife for a few years that I fully understood that beauty was to women what success was to men. This is not to say that we men do not worry about our bald spots and our abs and our back hair, or that women cannot catch a full-blown case of the success disease (just ask Laura Munson). But the similarity between women’s impossible relationship to physical beauty, and men’s suicidal relationship to success is the Ying and Yang of human suffering.

At least for women a dialogue about beauty has begun. It started with the outrage of early feminism, but has since moved on to subtler questions of power and femininity and mothers and safety and on and on. Women’s attempt to untangle their value from their cup size or waistline may take generations, but I have hope, given the current trajectory, that such a time may come.

It is quite a different story for men. The subject of success is virtually taboo. It is discussed only in terms of its absolute necessity. We are in this way very much like lifelong athletes, with success being victory in our chosen game. The athlete cannot question the value of winning; it is why the game is played. It is also only natural to compare one’s victories (if you have any) to the other athletes to know your relative value in this endless sport.

Success is our physical safety and our emotional safety. Success will determine where we live, if and what we eat, how high we believe we can hold our head at a party, and even whom we marry. It can become the whole measurement of our lives, and it is virtually meaningless. There is no finish line. The Pulitzer Prize winner can feel a failure for never having won a Nobel.

In the end, however, men and women’s agony remains exactly the same. Measuring your value by success or beauty is like measuring your feet to find your hat size. You will only come away wondering why you cannot find the answer. You could have sworn you had been told you would find it there. Strange also that as soon as you cease your measuring something akin to value speaks to you, in a tone you have long recognized, saying, “Stop looking and you will find me.”

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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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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The Known Path

The more choices I make, the more I understand that the best ones cannot be made intellectually. Take the choice of what kind of story you would like to write. Let us assume your goal in making this choice is to arrive at a place where the stories you write will find the agent, editor, publisher, and readership that will allow you flourish creatively and financially. There are many paths to this destination: literary fiction, women’s fiction, thrillers, YA paranormal, and on and on.

Perhaps you think, “I know there is a path called YA paranormal that leads to this place called a flourishing writing career. I know it because I have seen the books in the bookstores, and I have watched interviews with these authors on Author magazine.” What’s more, you have heard this path described to you in writing magazines and at writing conference. As you take notes on the sorts of protagonists and antagonists, the types of conflicts and settings and so on that work best in YA paranormal, you believe you are learning how to follow this path toward a flourishing writing career.

And yet in my own life it has never been enough to know intellectually that a path exists, nor has it been enough to have this path described to me—nor, for that matter, to have followed that path once in the past. To follow a path successfully, I must see it for myself at the moment of choice, and the only way to see it, is to feel it. The moment I feel it, the path opens before me, and it does not matter if no one has ever walked it before, or if I have only heard rumors that it exists. If I feel it, I can see it, and so it is clear, and so it exists.

What’s more, until I see a path in this way, I never understand why I am on it, nor do I truly understand why this path will take me somewhere I want to go. No matter how beautiful a destination is made to sound, I know too well that beauty must be seen to be known – and even then, in a crowd of ten thousand surrounding the same statue, there will exist ten thousand beauties. All eyes pointed in the same direction; all eyes on a different path.

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

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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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Love’s Mirror

I have on a few occasions discussed with the authors I’ve interviewed the trouble with trying to convince your reader that a character in question is unequivocally attractive. It is not so easy. In fact, I think it is impossible. Yes, you can offer the “tussled hair” or “cleft chin,” or “gymnast’s physique” or whatever else you’ve got, but what does it add up to? A list of qualities your reader may or may not personally find attractive.

Plus there is this. There is a kind of trick of vision I believe we all possesses, a conscious near-sightedness. If you are a man looking at a woman, say, you can focus your attention only on her surface where all the greatest differences between you and all women lie. This is the quickest and easiest way to be attracted to someone, and you are likely to find the most number of people attractive seeing them in this way.

And who wouldn’t want to be attracted to someone? Attraction is a form of desire and desire feels good. It is desire that brings you to the page to write, to the table to eat, and to your lover’s bed. The deeper the well of desire, the stronger pull toward, the better the feeling. For this reason many of us unconsciously go about wearing goggles that limit our vision to the surface where the highest chance of attraction lies.

But if you shift your focus beyond the foreground, as it were, the illusion of attraction often dissolves. Now you are seeing the person, not the man or the woman, and the person comes replete with qualms and quirks and preferences and phobias and all the myriad choices, big and small, that make us exactly who we are. It is this, the person, that can make someone attractive one moment unattractive the next if paired with the wrong person. It is the person that spoils the lie of pornography, or intercedes in girlhood fantasies of love.

We are all so strangely similar under the coat of personality and gender and class and race that it can threaten to bore us right out of love. Differences are exciting, because they offer a false possibility, and we race toward that which seems both different and attractive in the hopes that embracing him or her will commence the change we have longed to feel. Then reality arrives and we are looking at ourselves, and the ones we are most deeply attracted to remind us of what we have always loved most about being alive.

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Clearly Beautiful

The Editor is on vacation. What follows is an older post. Enjoy, and I’ll see you next week.

I have a good friend who is a veterinarian and a father of four school-aged children. All his children are bright and get good grades and generally make their parents proud, but my friend was for some reason dissatisfied with their writing skills. The writing, he complained to me, wasn’t beautiful enough. How could he get them to write beautifully, not merely functionally?

I tried gently pointing out that not one of his children had ever expressed an interest in writing beyond what was practically necessary to do well in school. But he wouldn’t hear it. Beautiful writing, he was certain, could be taught. What, he wanted to know, was the writerly secret to beautiful writing?

Unfortunately, the secret is never what men like my friend want to hear. What we call beautiful writing only occurs when the writer cares about what he or she is writing. It is not really the product of training or practice or careful reading, although all of that helps in the long run, or helps certainly when the writer is not particularly compelled by what they are writing, like in, say, a school writing assignment.

But the beauty comes from specificity not stylishness, and the specificity comes from the writer’s commitment to express precisely what they mean, not something else which is perhaps only a shade lighter but completely different nonetheless. There is far more beauty in clarity than raw originality, although sometimes in seeking clarity we are forced beyond the boundaries of the conventional to find exactly what we mean.

I realized this when I looked back at all the writing I used to call beautiful when I was a young man. It wasn’t the writer’s gymnast-like ability to pick an original word that drew my attention, but their underlying commitment to honesty and clarity that expressed itself in a way that was, to me at least, memorable.

So do not think about writing beautifully, think only about writing clearly and about what you care most. Let the words take the shape of whatever your clarity demands and then let it go. If you manage to say precisely what you mean, you will have provided another person the opportunity to share in what you love, and there is little in the world more beautiful than that.

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