The Second Discipline

Writers have to be disciplined. Most writers do not begin their career with a publishing contract in hand. Instead, the writer has an idea. That is all. This idea so interests him that he sits down every day, alone, often without encouragement, always without guarantees, just him and his idea, and he writes until that idea takes the form of a story he can share with other people.

This is one form of discipline. A writer can learn this kind of discipline with his first book. In fact, the writer must learn this discipline if he ever hopes to finish anything at all. But there is a second kind of discipline that cannot be learned with a single book. This discipline must be practiced again and again, from book to book, from day to day, from sentence to sentence even.

Here’s how it goes: You’re writing along, happily focused on the story you’re telling. You’ve forgotten about all your chores and your bills and your obligations; for the moment there is only this interesting story and the effortless feeling of laying your attention upon it. It always feels good to lay your attention on what interests you most. It requires no effort in the same way that eating when you’re hungry requires no effort.

But then, in the middle of wondering what you should write next, you have a thought. You think to yourself, “I’m interested in this story. I wonder if other people will be interested in it too?” Now you have moved your attention off of what interests you most and onto a question you cannot answer. It is impossible while sitting alone at your desk to know what other people are interested in, because they aren’t there. Any answer you receive is made up.

And so, trying to answer this question does not feel good. It feels as bad as laying your attention on what interests you most feels good. In fact, this question now feels like a problem. If other people don’t like this story, why are you bothering to write it? Why write another word if no one is going to be as interested in it as you? And because you are an adult, you have learned that problems don’t solve themselves. To fix a problem, you must pay attention to it until it is solved.

Unfortunately, the more you pay attention to this kind of problem, the worse it gets. Now is when you must practice your second discipline. The only way to solve this kind of problem is to ignore it. Despite all the momentum of fear that somewhere out in the misty future there is a world where no one likes what you’ve written, you must bring your attention back to the present moment where the story you want to tell is waiting for you. No matter how real that future appears as you stare at it through the lens of your imagination, you must deny its existence and will yourself back to reality.

It took me a while to understand this practice as discipline. A disciplined person, I felt, was willing to ignore some of life’s easy pleasures to build toward some desired future, like writing every day even if you don’t necessarily feel like writing every day. But this second discipline was about choosing to feel good rather than bad, choosing effortlessness over effort. And yet the degree to which I have mastered this discipline has meant the difference between loving what I do and fearing what I love.

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

Choosing Confidence

Writing is all about making choices. I must choose every character, every storyline, every scene, every sentence, every word. Nothing happens until I make a choice. Choices can be erased, modified, or extended, but they must be made. Without choice, there is only the potential of a story, but no story itself.

However, I cannot choose something unless I know it exists. I cannot choose to use the word, say, “sesquipedalian” unless I know it exists. I had never heard of that word until I was forty. Now I choose to use it from time to time, if only for comic effect. For the forty years that I never used the word it always existed, only not in my awareness – which, as far the choices I can make are concerned, is the only reality that matters.

Which is why it’s nice to expand your vocabulary, or read about the world, or take yourself on periodic adventures, or try new wines, or listen to new music. All these things give us new choices. But maybe more useful than all this exploration is this simple question: If I could change one thing about myself, what would it be?

I used to wish I could stay calm when I was in conflict with another person. During every argument or disagreement I felt as if I were being given a test for which I neglected to study. Everything I said and did was guesswork, and all I wanted was for the argument to end so I could go back to feeling confident in my choices. And then one day my wife and I were in an argument, and I wanted it to be over so I could go back to being her friend. But on this day I tried something different. I thought, “What if, when I talk to her, I go to the same place I go when I write?”

All at once I had confidence, and the argument dissolved quickly. It was nothing short of miraculous. My confidence had always been available to me in arguments; I had just mislabeled it. What I had called imagination was really love, and I can never be more confident than when I am focused on what I love. I still forget what real confidence is, but no matter – I can choose it exactly as often as I remember where to find it.

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

Good Enough

If you are like me, you have spent a certain amount of your life waiting. Perhaps you were waiting for that first published story, or that first publishing contract, or that first award. Or maybe you have been waiting for your first true love, or first great job, or simply your first big break. The waiting can take so many forms. There’s your life as you live it every day, and then there’s the life you can see all around you – the published books, the people in love, the cool jobs. If you are like me you have always been able to feel the difference between what you are living, and what you believe you could be living.

I lived this way for so long I grew accustomed to a nameless anticipation and dissatisfaction. If you had asked me, I would have said it had something to do with publishing a book, but it went beyond that. It permeated my entire life. I woke up with it and I went to bed with it. It followed me to work and joined me in all my conversations. On most days, I felt like a prisoner who had grown accustomed to prison, who would make the best of it, but who dreamed still of life beyond the walls.

The question I never seriously asked myself during that time was, “What do I think will be different when I stop waiting?” Had I asked it honestly, I believe my answer would have been everyone’s answer: “I’ll know I’m good enough.” Somehow the publishing contract, or the lover, or the job will answer that insidious question. Unless, of course, we decide the publishing contract isn’t enough; it needs to be a three-book deal, or it needs to be a six-figure deal. Enough can keep changing.

I would like to report that I was able to answer that question definitively for myself once and for all, but I have learned I must answer it every day. When I remember that I am already good enough, something does indeed change. I see opportunity I did not perceive before. When I was waiting for the answer, I believed that only someone who knows he’s good enough could go down certain roads. On the days I answer that question for myself, the only question is which roads I wish to travel, just as I ask myself which stories I wish to tell.

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

Never Despair

I have to come think of my confidence as a kind of inner balance. It is natural, always available, but, just like my physical balance, requires my deliberate attention to maintain. It is easy to maintain my balance on a smooth and level surface, but it is more challenging, and requires greater attention, on a balance beam or a tightrope. So too my confidence: it is rather easy to maintain that inner balance doing something I love and surrounded by people I love, but it requires greater attention when the news is troubling or the rejection letters come.

If you’ve ever had a good day of writing, you’ve found this inherent confidence. You simply cannot have a happy, creative day of work if you have completely lost your balance. Writing that is alive and natural, that surprises and excites you, is a living, active expression of your confidence. That’s what your confidence sounds like. It will sound both new and familiar. It’s you, after all, but if you are like me, you spend a lot of time wobbling around the world, speaking in a voice not quite yours.

Life’s a bit of a balance beam. We prefer it that way, I think. We are never so alive as when we are giving life our full attention. But we will wobble. We will feel the pull of discontent as our attention strays to the unwritten future, to other people’s opinions, to judgment. Discontent, like the experience of imbalance, is only there to alert us that our attention has strayed. It is not punishment or proof of our inadequacy or life’s inadequacy. It is guidance back to ourselves.

Which is why I must remind myself daily to never despair. It is one thing to recognize discontent; it is another thing to pursue it. The gymnast never pursues imbalance; she adjusts. I have pursued discontent with savage determination. I have pursued it in the hope of destroying it, of wiping it from the earth. Noble of me, I know, but I always fail to eliminate what never existed. Our discontent is not a villain, it is not a problem, it is not a threat – it is the language of life, calling to us in a voice we all can hear.

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

The Stream of Life

I met a woman recently who told me there was only one obstacle between her and a fulfilling writing life: she wasn’t creative. “I’ve never written a poem or short story or a novel. I’ve never written a play. I’ve never painted a picture or composed a sonata. I’m not creative.”

I have always thought of myself as creative. I have also written poems, and plays, and screenplays, and novels, and personal essays. I’ve written sonatas and songs and mini-symphonies. I’ve made little movies and I’ve acted. I even fancied myself a cartoonist when I was a boy. That is to say, I have all the evidence of my creativity this woman believed she lacked.

But when I think of my creativity I do not think of any of the things I’ve created. I think of that place within me where I must go to answer the question, “How shall I fill this blank page?” The answer to that question changes every day, and so no sooner has one answer been given than I feel the itch of a new question forming an intriguing disturbance within me. That is my creativity. Meanwhile, all the things I’ve made are merely an expression of how often I have focused my attention on that creativity.

To think that you could be born without this same restless curiosity is to think that you could be born without a beating heart. But unlike my heart, my creativity requires my attention to function properly. Without my attention it forces itself through me in awkward ways, or keeps me up at nights, or finds me critical of other people’s creations. The moment I allow myself to consult it, to ask, “What shall we do next?” my creativity and I are moving in the same direction, flowing like blood with questions and answers within the stream of life.

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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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The True Source of a Writer’s Insecurity

I’m currently working on a book about writing fearlessly, a subject about which I have written for the last eight years, and which I have begun teaching in the last two or three. This has provided me with an unusual creative launching pad. Normally I start a book knowing very little other than something looks interesting and I would like to find out why. I felt I knew exactly why I was interested in this book when I started it. I have written and talked and written and talked about this subject so much that when my proposal was accepted I thought that all I would have to do is transcribe what I already knew into book form.

What a relief, I thought as I settled into Chapter One. So many questions that crowd around a new project already felt answered. I did not need to ask myself, “What’s this book really about?” or, “Where’s this book going?” How nice, I thought, to write one book without the quiet insecurity that hovers over a blank page.

Then I started writing. No, writing is not quite the word – typing would be more accurate. For instance, the book is filled with small, illustrative stories, many of which I’ve told dozens of times. I could type them as an actor would his lines from a play, which is just what I began doing – until I noticed I was cranky at the end of my workday. This has happened plenty of times, but only when I’ve had a crap writing session, when the story went nowhere, when nothing felt answered and I pushed myself back from the desk filled with doubt and a creeping sense of self-loathing.

Except it wasn’t a crap writing session. I’d written five perfectly good pages. I had no doubt whatsoever that I’d use them. You’re just bored, I thought as I went for a brisk walk. No matter how well you know the subject, you’ve got to leave room for discovery. You’ve got to find something new. There’s always something new.

Having bucked myself up, I returned to work the following day ready to improvise. Improvise I did, and I finished my day’s work as I always hoped to: feeling calm, rejuvenated, and interested in life. In truth, if I feel this way after a session it doesn’t matter if I’ve written five sentences or fives pages, it was a good day’s work. That wasn’t boredom I felt yesterday, I realized as I got up from the desk – that was insecurity.

I’ve heard writing described as leaping off a cliff and learning to fly on the way down. How easy it is to mistake the blank page as the source of my writer’s insecurity. Yet to simply type words onto the page requires no connection to that which answers my creative questions. My security does not come from my craft, or my readership, or my publishing contract, or my reviews, or even the surprising pleasure of discovery. My security comes entirely from what I am connected to while discovering. Everything else is a happy product of that connection but not a replacement. Contracts, reviews, and even lovely words on the page could no more replace that connection than could wings replace a desire to fly.

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

An Unconditional Home

I’ve always felt that a writer’s confidence is more important than his knowledge of craft. I can have all the craft in the world – and by this time, I have accumulated my share of it – but once I lose my confidence, the craft is more or less useless. What’s more, I can lose my confidence at any moment, but once I’ve learned my craft – once I’ve learned to show and not tell, to rely on verbs and nouns more than adjectives and adverbs – I am unlikely to forget it the same way I am unlikely to forget my times tables if am willing to forgo the calculator now and again.

My confidence is my unconditional love for the story I am telling. I must love that story as I would love my child. I cannot wait for it to show me that it is worthy of my love from praise, nor reject it when it has been criticized. I must love it from its first, vague seedling of an idea. I must love it as it struggles into shape, forming and reforming, expanding and contracting. And I must love it as I set it free into the world, where it will be loved and probably hated, understood and misunderstood, bought and returned.

I must love it without any thought of what anyone thinks about it. That is a writer’s unconditional love. That is our resting place, the home where we are loved as a family is loved, the home where our confidence is known, not in achievement or wealth or status, but in the awareness of the value that we were born to express.
It’s complete freedom, of course, but how easy it is to leave that home in search of some phantom certainty. That is a journey into Hell, the maze of a million equal opinions, which can end only in despair, and then eventually, mercifully, surrender. The surrender will feel like quitting at first, but it is just the opposite. It is another beginning, because soon afterward, I look up and there I am – home again, and nothing has been lost, and no one is wounded, and all stories are poised to be told.

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

Preacher

A student asked me an unusual question recently. I was teaching a class addressing only the emotional mastery required to be an author instead of the mastery of craft. I can get pretty animated when I teach, particularly around this subject. Confidence, after all, is not something that can be taught in the way story structure and query letters can be taught. Confidence must be found every workday within every author. As a teacher of this discipline, I can but remind my students that they have it if they choose to look for it.

After class the student asked if I had been an evangelical minister before teaching writing. We had a good laugh at this, but there was something serious beneath her question that I did not know how to answer at the time. I have lived my life as a secular man, but I have always understood the value of a good sermon. The minister, like the singer, like the poet, like the teacher, says, “Let my joy become your joy; let my belief become your belief.” This cannot be done mechanically. This transference, if it occurs, is shared only through the artistry of love.

I suppose the classroom is a kind of church to me. There is nothing holier than creation itself, whether creation takes the form of a baby, or a flower, or a memoir. In the classroom we gather to ask ourselves how we can create something on purpose, how we can look within ourselves to find something to add to the whole of creation. I know it is easy to look at what we write and think, “It’s just a little story.” But it is just as easy to look at a flower and think how it is merely one of trillions, just as one can look at a newborn and think how, despite its fresh little body, that child, like seven billion other bodies, is headed inevitably for the grave.

Numbers always fail us in this way; their values are too easily compared. Creation assigns no such hierarchy, nor does it acknowledge subtraction. Which is why the poet and the preacher and the teacher can say, “What’s mine is yours if you want it.” There’s the miracle of life – what can be given without being lost, what can evolve as it remains the same, what can be learned while it is already known.

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 Confidence Is More Important Than Craft

I edit a magazine (Author) for writers of all genres in which I have published hundreds of articles on what we call the craft of writing. I have edited and published articles on creating believable characters, on description, on beginning and middles and endings, on the use of nouns and verbs versus adjectives and adverbs. I am pleased that I had a chance to publish these articles because I know how important it is to learn our craft. It makes writing so much simpler.

One of the nice things about craft is that once I learn it I can’t really forget it unless I stop writing – and even then I quickly remember once I start writing again. I don’t have relearn not to use adverbs in dialogue descriptors every time I sit down to write. Though I continue to learn more and more about the nuances of craft every day, the lessons I learned yesterday remain with me today.

So I love craft. I’m a craft junkie. Unfortunately, all the craft I have learned over the last thirty-five years or so is totally useless to me the moment I lose track of my confidence. The moment I lose confidence that what I am writing is worth sharing with other human beings, it is as if I have forgotten how to write. I no longer know which words go where. All choices seem equally right and equally wrong.

What’s more, unlike my craft, I must find my confidence every time I sit down to write. Like my balance on a balance beam, it gets easier to find the more I find it – but I must find it still. If I get a little sloppy with my attention, I soon find myself falling into the belief that I have nothing of value to share. It happens every single time I ask, “I wonder what others will think of this?”

Because my writer’s confidence is my unconditional belief that what I’m interested in is interesting, that what I find funny is funny, and what I find profound is profound. I must believe this before I receive any praise or criticism. All of that will come in workshops, in editorial notes, and in book reviews, but first comes the writing, which must come from my confidence. I’m the only one in that room writing, after all. All those other people, whose opinions can seem so important, aren’t there. They can’t be consulted. All I have is my own imagination and my own curiosity.

Every day that I sit down to write I must remember that I am enough. I did not always know enough craft to tell the stories I wanted to tell. I had to learn it. But I have always had enough imagination and curiosity. My imagination has answered every question my curiosity has ever asked of it. The only question it cannot answer is what other people will think of what I am about to write. It could no more answer that question than I could write a poem with a calculator.

When I was a very young writer I was somewhat motivated to learn my craft so that I would not suffer the sting of shame I believed would come if I shared something that was poorly written. I can now say – with confidence – that that sting is brief and harmless compared to the suicidal suffering that waits within the belief I am not enough. To believe that I was somehow born without enough imagination and curiosity is to invent a limit to the well of life itself. I have never met that limit in reality, only in the nightmare from which I awake every time I find my confidence 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

Choosing Confidence

Writing is all about making choices. I must choose every character, every storyline, every scene, every sentence, every word. Nothing happens until I make a choice. Choices can be erased, modified, or extended, but they must be made. Without choice, there is only the potential of a story, but no story itself.

However, I cannot choose something unless I know it exists. I cannot choose to use the word, say, “sesquipedalian” unless I know it exists. I had never heard of that word until I was forty. Now I choose to use it from time to time, if only for comic effect. For the forty years that I never used the word it always existed, only not in my awareness – which, as far the choices I can make are concerned, is the only reality that matters.

Which is why it’s nice to expand your vocabulary, or read about the world, or take yourself on periodic adventures, or try new wines, or listen to new music. All these things give us new choices. But maybe more useful than all this exploration is this simple question: If I could change one thing about myself, what would it be?

I used to wish I could stay calm when I was in conflict with another person. During every argument or disagreement I felt as if I were being given a test for which I neglected to study. Everything I said and did was guesswork, and all I wanted was for the argument to end so I could go back to feeling confident in my choices. And then one day my wife and I were in an argument, and I wanted it to be over so I could go back to being her friend. But on this day I tried something different. I thought, “What if, when I talk to her, I go to the same place I go when I write?”

All at once I had confidence, and the argument dissolved quickly. It was nothing short of miraculous. My confidence had always been available to me in arguments; I had just mislabeled it. What I had called imagination was really love, and I can never be more confident than when I am focused on what I love. I still forget what real confidence is, but no matter – I can choose it exactly as often as I remember where to find it.

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