Choosing Games

It is not unusual when I am teaching a workshop at a conference or interviewing a writer to find myself talking about money. These conversations always remind me of the squabbles my wife and I have over money, because those squabbles are never actually about money. Usually we’re squabbling about safety, or our own creative potential, but money is so tangible and measureable and necessary that it seems simpler just to argue about whether we should buy that new sofa than about where safety does or does not exist.

Money reminds me of a race I ran in second grade. Our teacher lined every student up at one end of the playground and told us to run as fast we could to the wall at the other end of the playground. First one there was the winner. She yelled go and I ran. I loved running. I loved harnessing all my body’s energy, and I even loved the race, as it provided a reason to do so. On that day, I was the first to reach the wall.

But as I touched the wall, and looked down the line at all the other boys and girls finishing after me, I had an unusual thought for an eight year-old: The only reason I won, it occurred to me, wasn’t that I was faster than the rest of them, but that I was the one who was most fully committed to the race. All my energy had been focused in one place and for one purpose, but from where I stood, I could feel how the other children’s energy had been split, and that made all the difference.

The problem with that race was that everyone had to run it whether they wanted to or not. In this way, though we all started and ended in the same place, it was not a fair race. Yet once it was run, everyone had to contend with the questions that always arise within us when we compare ourselves to others. Some would remember their indifference to the race and dismiss these questions; others, I am sure, did not.

Making money is a lot like a game we are all made to play. As we line ourselves up at the starting line of adulthood, money can seem to be a universal measurement upon which everyone’s value is based. After all, everyone wants it, and everyone would like more of it, and some succeed in making lots and lots of it and some do not. I was one of those who did not.

I did not because my energy was split. I am a writer. I do not write to make money. I write because I love to write. I had written stories since I was a boy. In this way, writing was like play. Earning money, meanwhile, seemed like the most adult thing I could do. And so I played a game I didn’t want to play: the game of making money for money’s sake. I thought it was a stupid game, but I was still unhappy when I lost at it.

I lost and lost and lost at it until I decided to play a different game: I would see how much money I could make doing something I would happily do for free. I knew when I began playing this game that I did not really understand the rules, nor was I very good at it. No matter. The key to any game is the wanting to play it, and I wanted to. By and by, I got better at it, and I am still playing it today.

Games are great, but it is important to remember that they’re make-believe. We create the starting line and finishing line; we make the rules and choose the prize. And no one has to play. I can quit anytime I want, and look around the playground, and see what interests me most. That interest, that ceaseless creative impulse that has traveled with me my entire life, remains the only authority to which I must listen. Only it knows which races are worth my running, and which ones can be left to others.

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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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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Bad Results

In case you missed it, the United States had a Presidential election recently. Some people were happy with the results, and some people were very, very unhappy with the results. Historically unhappy, I would say. I was one of the latter. In fact, the day after, I sat with my teenage son, who seemed as unnerved by the results as by the sight of his parents’ conspicuous despair. I explained to him that I was accustomed to thinking of the government as being like our home’s electricity, something I knew would be there to allow me to do the things I wanted to do. For the first time in my adult life I found myself wondering what life might be like if the electricity didn’t work, so to speak.

But for me, at least, this nightmare scenario passed quickly from my mind. It had to. I had too many things I was interested in doing now. Of course, I’d had a lot of practice moving on from what I thought of as devastating results. For years, every story I wrote was burdened by what I hoped it would bring me in the future. If that story brought me the result I wanted, brought acceptance rather than rejection, then I would be free to live life as I imagined I was meant to live it.

It was too much for any story to give me, and I only ever got the results I believed I didn’t want. Oh, the despair. In the time it took me to read one letter, the entire future I had constructed in my imagination collapsed. I would sit for a time in this nightmare wreckage, unable to reassemble what I thought life would be, left instead with what life actually was. It was in those moments that I often noticed how immeasurably consistent life actually was. Though I couldn’t name it, something flowed through every moment that – like electricity – responded predictably to my every thought and action. No result, good or bad, could extinguish or amplify it. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to care one whit for results. It pulsed on, available, responsive, and tireless.

I began to get the results I had so wanted when I made a friend of that flow. To do so, however, I simply could not concern myself with the future. Not even a little. This was not, and still is not, so easy. I am still drawn to dream a future many shades of miserable, or whip up some airy, cotton-candy castle of hope. But I have found through practice that the dependable, creative, evolutionary impulse in the present moment, where all writing and life actually occurs, is a far more satisfying companion than all my hopes and fears.

Which is why, for now, I am not worried about the end of democracy. For now, it is still quite alive. If a time should come that some action on my part is called for, a petition to be signed or march to be joined, I trust that I will know to do so in that moment. However, that moment, for me, has not arrived. As I said, I’ve got a lot of other things I’m interested in doing right now. I have no crystal ball, but I do have eyes that can see what is immediately before me, and if I make a friend of what I see, if I accept it, I am immediately living life as it was meant to be lived.

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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

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A More Direct Route

Most of the students and clients I work with have two competing thoughts about writing. Their first thought is that they have a story they want to tell. There is something within these stories, whether the stories are fiction, narrative non-fiction, or memoir that has grabbed hold of the writer’s curiosity. This is a fantastic feeling. This is a feeling that gives life meaning without explanation. This is a feeling that is only sought, that is completely satisfying even as it sends you seeking more.

But there is always another thought. Sometimes the thought is that writing is hard; sometimes the thought is that the story must please this reader or that editor; sometimes the thought is that if we don’t get the story exactly right no one will like it; and sometimes a writer has concocted a poisonous stew of all these and more. These thoughts, these stories about storytelling, wait like impatient bosses at our desk and usually begin talking as soon as we arrive for work.

No wonder so many newer writers believe they are lazy, or not disciplined or enough, or not focused enough. We are all meant to avoid what we dislike. We are not, however, meant to avoid what we love, to be kept from that which lights our curiosity. We are always, always, always moving toward what we love, only sometimes this movement is long and circuitous and full of many rest stops and diversions.

No matter. No one can stop moving. But it is possible to take a more direct route. Let your story about writing be the friendliest story you know. Let it be a love story with a happy ending and nothing more. Writing, after all, is a visit with someone you adore, who will answer any question and always has something interesting to say. The impatient boss, meanwhile, is an illusion, marking your time on a clock that does not exist, comparing you unfavorably to friends until everyone is an enemy.

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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

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What You Have

Ninety percent of what you need to tell the story you most want to tell you already have. It does not matter if you are eight or eighty, you already have everything you need except that other ten percent, which we have come to call craft. Many writers are taught the exact opposite – that they are born with ten percent and learn the ninety. This is not surprising; humans are forever teaching each other that we have nothing until we acquire it.

Your imagination will provide you with every idea you will ever need. It is a ceaseless and loyal servant. Your desire to communicate summons this imagination and focuses it. The clearer your desire, the more useful the ideas your imagination provides. Nothing is required of you other than to train your attention steadily on what you desire to share with other people.

Nothing, that is, except trust. This is what most writers are really learning – not character development or strong verbs or showing and not telling. Do not underestimate how quickly you can halt the flow of ideas from your imagination. Trust is the open channel through which these ideas flow. To clamp this hose is to cut ourselves off from creation, from life’s source, and the pain that accumulates from this one choice grows commensurately acute.

Until released. There is a kind of ecstasy that accompanies the return to trust. It can be addictive in its own way, and the artist must resist the temptation to recreate this artificial pleasure. The artist must accept his pleasure as the constant flow of focused thought as he must also accept himself. You were not born a blank slate. You are not clay to be molded by time and circumstance and the sharp edges of experience. You are a conduit for creation itself, ninety percent light, and ten percent shadow so the world will have some form.

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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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

Natural Light

In my day-to-day life I want only ease and happiness. I want to begin every project with enthusiasm and finish it promptly and confidently. Unfortunately, things do not always go as effortlessly as I intend. Rarely a day goes by where I do not struggle, or doubt, or become bored, or procrastinate. I am human. Still, my aim remains trained on ease and happiness, no matter how the arrow of my day may eventually fly.

On the other hand, while I enjoy my students’ and clients’ triumphs and confidence, I remain most interested in their fear and hopelessness and disappointment. It is selfish in a way. The only remedy for fear is fearlessness, just as hope is the only remedy for hopelessness, and contentment the only remedy for disappointment. Explanations, and techniques, and advice will only take you so far. In the end, there remains only the choice between one thing and another.

Which is why I so look forward to those moments when my students and clients can perceive only one choice. Now I get to choose the other. I do so for them, ostensibly, so that they can see they have another choice and then make it of their own freewill – but how could this choice not be for me as well? When is it a bad time to choose fearlessness, hope, or contentment?

I can think of none, and yet there I am from time to time choosing fear, choosing jealousy, choosing regret. I never enjoy my own darkness, and I often bitch about the inadequate light by which I must find my way. But find my way I do, and once I’ve returned I am always happy to have discovered another path back to a world where choices are mine again.

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

Mastery

Most writers begin understanding certain parts of writing better than other parts. For instance, when I was a teenager I had an instinctive understand of dialogue. I understood it well enough that when I was sixteen I explained to my younger brother that characters rarely say exactly what they mean, that it is always better when they talk about one thing – like the weather – but really mean another – like how uncertain life is. That’s advice I’d still give thirty yeas later.

What did not come so naturally to me was what we call “description.” When I encountered it in the books I read, I often found it boring, something I might skip to get to the cool parts. I knew you needed a certain amount of it so your characters weren’t wandering in a bald moonscape, but the only value I could find in writing a good description as opposed to a boring description is that the former proved what a good writer I was. It felt like a necessary showing off, as if writers were all figure skaters required to hit a certain number of triple axles.

Then shortly before I started college I picked up a collection of T. S. Eliot’s poems, and after reading them one afternoon actually said aloud, “Oh. I get it.” What I got was that “description” was actually an attempt to recreate the emotional experience of being alive and in the world. Now that was cool. What does it feel like to stand in a crowded bus station? What does it feel like to see someone you find beautiful? What does it feel like to watch a clock when you’re waiting for school to end? The words I chose to render the world were, hopefully, portals into my most intimate understanding of life.

Now I got it, meaning I understood that describing something was an act of love rather than of fear. Now I could write toward the sharing of life as I felt it rather than away from the fear that I wasn’t clever enough to stick some literary landing. I spent the ensuing years learning to master this by the exact same means I have used to master anything: by learning again and again that fear is only the belief that there is ever an answer other than love.

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

No, Not Everyone Has a Blog

I was a teaching a class recently when a student asked me, “Why should I bother starting a blog? Everyone has one?” It was a good question. As someone who spends more than the average person on writers’ websites (I interview these people, you see), it does sometime appear that nearly every writer in the world – published or otherwise – has a blog. They’re free to start, and operate with no gatekeeper other than the writer’s willingness to plunk him or herself down and tap out a few hundred words.

Which is exactly why everyone does not actually have a blog. It’s one thing to start a blog, and to post an entry or two or three or twelve, but it is another thing altogether to keep that blog alive with regular posts every week. Most of the blogs I visit on author’s websites begin with a rush of entries that soon dwindle to one every two months – if that.

This is not a criticism. Most blogs are begun, I think, because the author believes she should have a blog. Either some publicist indicated as much or the author looked around and said to herself, “What is wrong with me that I don’t have one of these? Better get going. They’re free after all. Why not?”

Because humans by and large quit doing things they have to do or are supposed to do. It takes a long time to write a book. Writers don’t write books because they should; they write books because they want to, or because they know they wouldn’t be happy if they didn’t. So if starting a blog interests you – if you think you might love plunking yourself down a couple times a week and writing something for free to share with other people – go for it. There’s always room in the world for one more person to do one more thing they love.

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

Why Writers Can’t Actually Fail

I ran competitively when I was in high school. I enjoyed training and the camaraderie of my teammates and even my competitors at the track meets. I liked running as fast as I possibly could, and I liked how strong my body became, and how long I could run without getting tired. But I found the finish line a strangely confusing destination. Getting across it first seemed to mean more while I was crouched at the starting line than after I’d leaned through the tape. Win or lose, the race was over, and whatever consequences I attributed to my place at the end of it always felt more or less invented, like a story I would tell about Bill the Winner or Bill the Loser.

Years later I would begin pursuing a career as a writer. As careers went, this one seemed steeped in success and failure. Just as a marathon with 1,000 competitors can have only one winner, so too the world of writers appeared separated into haves and have-nots; the haves were few, the have-nots tragically many. I was determined to win this race. This was about more than some ribbon or trophy, after all; this seemed to be my whole life, my income and identity.

This is a terrible, terrible way to do anything. Or at least it was for me. For one thing, the finish line keeps moving. First it’s getting an agent, then a publishing contract, then getting on some bestseller list, then winning some award, and then winning a better award. Worse yet, the punishment for failure seems so extreme. It’s like a kind of death, an endless hell of what might have been.

Had I been able to tell my young writer self about all the rejections I would receive, all the books I would write but wouldn’t publish, I might have said, “Then I shouldn’t do this, because that is failure, and I do not want that life.” Incredibly, I would have been wrong. I say incredibly, because to this day the runner in me can’t quite believe that a finish line doesn’t exist. No matter how disappointed I was with this or that result, my desire to live my own life and make my own choices remained wholly unchanged, and it was from this desire that writing has and always will grow.

This became clearer to me once I began to have what I had once called success. Where once I had feared that someone might tell me I wasn’t good enough, that it was possible to be shown some eternal door and barred from happiness, now I was being told I was good enough – and nothing changed at all. I didn’t feel any better about myself, and I still had to face a blank page every morning, and I was still the only one who could fill it. It would be forever so until I chose not to face it. And even if I chose to quit facing the page I still wouldn’t have failed; I’d merely have taken my curiosity and intelligence and imagination and applied them elsewhere.

I know this may be of little consolation if you are at that point in your writing life where so much seems uncertain, where there is more rejection than acceptance. It easy from that place to spin dark fantasies about your future, a science fiction dystopia where nothing you write is read. Do not be easily hypnotized by the stories with which you terrify yourself at 2 a.m. Wait until you’re at your desk to tell your story on purpose, because like me, you do not know who will read it or like it, or if it will be published, or if it will win an award, but you do know you want to write it, and believe it or not, that’s good 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