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 there’s the money, so tangible and measureable and necessary, that it seems simpler just to argue about whether we should buy that new sofa than where safety does or does not exist.

Money also 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 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 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.

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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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

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True Equality

I was talking the other evening to a young woman about the concept of talent. She had heard me say that I didn’t really believe in it, that talent was just another word for love. This woman had just begun playing an organized sport for the first time in her life. It seemed quite clear to her that some people were conspicuously more talented than others. She loved to play this sport, and yet no matter how hard she worked she could not play it as well as certain women on her team.

Such is the trap we can fall into when we pit ourselves against one another on the field – a field we ourselves invented, a field that would have been nothing but a featureless expanse until we drew lines on it and said you must get here before everyone else. There is no doubt that if you tell a crowd of people to run, someone will run the fastest, and so we will call that person more talented than the others, and maybe – just maybe – infer that such talent raises that person’s value above the others.

But now imagine these people running were simply characters in a story you were writing. In the world of fiction, a loss is as valuable as a win, narratively speaking. Does the character need to learn humility? Perhaps a loss is just the thing, or maybe a close second. The outcome means nothing; the story means everything.

Why do we think life is any different? Do we really think true equality means lining up everyone, young and old, at some arbitrary starting line and then having everyone reach some arbitrary finish line at precisely the same time? Life cares nothing for your wins and losses; it cares only for you. How you will savor the story of your defeats when the time comes, relish in the meaninglessness of what you once called loss, for here you are still standing, having found more in defeat than you might have gained in victory.

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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Worthless

An artist hangs two pictures in a gallery. Both are precisely the same dimensions. One he prices at $500, the other he prices at $400. His reasons for doing so have nothing to do with the paintings’ size, frames, or the amount of paint expended on either. He simply likes one better than the other. Technically, numerically, one painting is worth less than the other.

When I was a boy I was called a bad loser, and I was. For the game to be fun it had to mean something, and for the game to mean something the ending had to mean something. But the end was where the world was divided in two, into those who had won and those who had lost. Why would the winning matter unless the loser lacked what the winner had gained in victory? By this math, was not the loser worth less than the winner?

It was easy to call my howls of loser’s pain tantrums, but they were the expression of my first attempts to align myself to that with which no one can be aligned. If it were possible that I could be worth in even one penny less than another human being, then happiness itself—a thing without shape or country but more valuable than gold or seaside property—could be incrementally denied me. In this way, if you are worth one penny less, and if that one penny is the difference between happiness and unhappiness, you might as well be worthless.

I do not consider it an interesting semantic trick that for humans “worth less” became “worthless,” that relative value became no value. Though we measure and measure and measure ourselves, though we rank ourselves, compete against ourselves, judge ourselves, our actual value is an all-or-nothing equation. It defies the laws of the physical world, but so it was meant to be. We can hang price tags on all the paintings we want, but if looking at that painting does not make us happy, it is, to us, worthless.

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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True Competitors

A true competitor’s worst opponent is one who doesn’t believe in loss. Without loss there can be no victory, just as without failure there can be so success. A true competitor seeks the most from life, but through the misperception that life can ever be less than it already is. Thus the myth of loss, the belief that something can be taken from us, can be taken from life itself, that the loser has less than the winner.

This is the agreement about life true competitors shake on before engaging in battle. It is an agreement sustained regularly throughout society but agreed upon again just to be sure, for the competitor comes to the field in hopes of vanquishing the loser within himself whom he now calls his opponent. But even in victory the loser lives on within the competitor, for without him the victory just won means nothing.

You may have guessed that I have lived as a true competitor. My wife has not. Playing backgammon with her was like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. For her loss lay elsewhere, and when I would listen to her tales of what she feared she no longer had, I would despair. She was supposed to save me from my wretchedness. Fortunately, she was unable to do so, for she could not recognize the wretch, just as I could not see what she had lost.

I was a romantic boy, and I’d heard that it was my job was to win a girl’s heart. This concept appealed to the competitor within me, but was anathema to another part of me, the part that knocked upon her door. I wished instead for her to simply give to me by choice what I believed she had, as I to her, for in love what is given is only increased. Such is the most we actually seek, the gifts from others that in receiving are returned.

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 Game of Life

I was 33, my second son was six months old, and my wife and I were starting the paperwork to purchase our first house. I was driving to work, to a job I had expected to leave before I turned 30, a job which nonetheless provided me with enough money to support my wife and now my two sons and perhaps the house we wanted to buy.

As I drove to work I thought about numbers. I thought about how much more we would pay with the mortgage, about utility bills, about picking up an extra shift now and then to pay the mortgage and the utility bills. It was like a game, these numbers. I was good at games. In games you add up your numbers – the pips on your dice, your hit points and armor class, your batting average – you add all these numbers and at the end you know if you’ve won or lost. It was very clear because your victory is measured in numbers that cannot lie.

I get it, I thought. I see how you could fool yourself into thinking this is enough. This is quite a big game, learning how to survive and provide. It’s a long and important game. I can see how I could spend 20 years playing it. You could be 40 or 50 before you understand that there is absolutely no winning, maybe longer if you’re determined to keep playing. Why, I could do it with this job. It doesn’t matter that I really don’t like the job. Liking it isn’t the point. Winning the game is the point.

I’d like to tell you I turned around at that moment and drove home, but I did not. I had a new baby and a new mortgage and I wasn’t about to leave my job. But I understood then that a life-long gamer like me had to be careful. If someone hands me dice, I want to roll them, and if someone shows me a finish line I want to be the first across it. I can’t go looking for a finish line that doesn’t exist – if I did I’d only run and run and run until I dropped.

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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Unranked

Recently I was watching a documentary on screenwriting comprised of a compilation of interviews with a lot of the top writers working in Hollywood. At one point the interviewees discussed rewriting, especially just how much of it is required to produce a finished product.  Several of the writers pointed out that Chinatown and Amadeus each took over 50 rewrites. A few went on to note, “None of us are as good as Robert Towne (Chinatown) or Peter Shaffer (Amadeus), so you know it’s going to take us at least this many rewrites to get our screenplays where they need to be.”

I reject this line of thinking categorically. Not the rewriting part. Whatever you must tell yourself so you don’t feel bad that it took you fifty or sixty or seventy drafts to finally get the story where it needs to be—fine. No, the part I reject is the “none of us are as good as (insert famous writer here).” I’m all for humility, but this is pointless. If you say you are not as good as Robert Towne, then you will never write anything as good (whatever exactly that is) as Robert Towne.

One of the reasons I started Author was that I spent lots of time writing but very little time meeting actual writers. However, as a life-long reader, I had quietly but steadily developed an unhealthy opinion of writers—namely that they behaved differently than everyone else, that all their failings were charming, and that they were always interesting and entertaining.

Author put an end to this illusion, an illusion I would have denied ever harboring, by the way. Don’t get me wrong—I love the writers I have met. I count myself as very lucky that I don’t read a book anymore unless I am going to meet or at least talk on the phone with its author. I have made friends with many of the writers, and not one enemy. That said, all these writers are people. People who love to write, but people nonetheless.  Putting Toni Morrison or Jonathan Franzen or even William Shakespeare above you, somehow, does nothing for anyone—not you, nor these other writers. No one benefits by making life a competition; eventually, everyone loses.

So forget where you or anyone else ranks. How will it help you write your next story? How will it help you say what you most want to say? If other people want to play the game of the top 100 writers or books or screenplays, let them play. You’ve got stories to tell.

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

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Plenty

Suspense author Steve Berry (The Emperor’s Tomb) made an interesting aside during our interview last week (which will appear in the January issue). He mentioned how his breakout novel, The Templar Legacy, was released the same year as Raymond Khoury’s The Last Templar. According to Steve, the two novels were, “the exact same story,” only told with different perspectives, which he felt made them completely different stories. He went on to say that the two books were not in competition; that in fact the success of one fed off the other.

I love this story for two reasons. First the story, “the plot,” is not as important as how a writer tells it, what perspective the writer brings to it. We know this is true. We know that if we handed four writers the same story outline, each would write a “different” story, even though each would follow the same order of events. I would go so far as to say that two people are incapable of telling the “same” story.

Which brings me to the second thing I love about this story: We aren’t in competition. I know there are writing contests and awards, and I know that there are only so many publishing contracts being handed our every year, but what is to be done about it? There is no finish line you can see that you must get across first. All a writer can do is tell the story he or she wishes to tell as well as he or she can tell it. No matter how derivative that story might be, for good or bad, it will still be that writer’s alone.

No one can compete with you as a writer because no one can write your story but you. And even if someone is publishing stories like yours, then that writer will only serve to attract readers to the corner of the bookstore you and he both occupy. The very idea of competition is born from the lie that there is not enough—not enough readers, money for advances, paper, ink . . ..

It is a lie. Somehow, once you tell the story you most want to tell in the way you most want to tell it, there is always enough. Somehow, there is always a publisher, readers, money. Perhaps the best question is not, “Is there enough?” but, “How much will I give?” If you can dip as far into the well of your imagination as your thought can reach, and if you offer up every ounce of what you find, the world, forever a mirror to your every gesture, will reciprocate immediately in kind.

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

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The One

I cannot watch shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. I’m sure these shows make for good drama, but the sight of people in open competition for (theoretically, anyway) love stirs in me all the worst and stingiest visions of the world. Love is the very opposite of competition. You cannot compete to love or be loved. If you love someone you may or may not marry them, but you will love them all the same, because love is an expression of all that interests you most, an interest generated entirely by you and through you. Love cannot be won or lost any more than a river must be given permission to flow.

But I understand that some people or things are perceived as so universally desirable that, given their singularity, an imaginary competition arises just the same. Take writers conferences. I will be attending the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference soon where 500 or so hopeful writers will descend upon about 25 agents. Every one of those 500 writers knows they need an agent to sell their manuscript, and every one of those writers knows that only a fraction of their number will walk away from this conference with representation. Given those statistics, and given the reality of the publishing business, is this not a competition?

Yes, if these were the only 25 agents in the world. If you are looking for an agent, and you go to a conference like the PNWC, remember that you are not looking for any agent but for the right agent. All those young women on The Bachelor should not be asking, “Oh, will he pick me?” They should be asking, “Is he right for me?” The same is true of you. You need the very best agent for what you write. Nothing less will do.

Of course, the thrill of shows like The Bachelor is that the girl who is finally chosen becomes The One. She is special. How does she know? Well, the bachelor chose her over all these other pretty and poised young women. Now it’s proven and she’ll never have to wonder again. Until she does wonder, or winds up on the cover of People.

Do not wait for the publishing world to tell you you are special. Do not wait to be The One. You already are. There is none other like you and never has been and never will be—it is impossible to be otherwise. And your job is not to convince anyone you are special, or prove to anyone, or demonstrate to anyone. Your job is to simply know, be it, and let those who love that specialness as naturally as they love everything find you.

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