Write What You Really Know

Contrast is a storyteller’s best friend. It helps us show what it is we want our readers to see. Just as a flashlight’s beam is clearly visible on a starless night, but virtually invisible on a bright sunny day, so too peace is easier to perceive when contrasted against war. So, if you are writing a love story, you will likely have your heroine feeling alone and unlovable for the majority of the story. That way, when she finally does find love, the reader will hopefully experience the same release of tension she feels when she finally believes she is worth of love.

I must remember the power and simplicity of contrast whenever I find myself trying to “figure out a story.” I hate figuring out stories. Whenever I start figuring out a story, I feel as if I’m in math class and someone has handed me a 70,000-word equation for which there is only one right answer, which is known only by acquisitions editors in New York. Unlike a lot of writers I know, I was pretty good in math, and it was fun to find the right answer, but I became a writer because I wanted to make a living asking question to which only I knew the answer.

Which is why I must remember contrast. Stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, can start seeming pretty complicated when I think they’re about what happens. That means I’m trying to untangle a knot of plot points and characters and settings. But stories aren’t about what happens. Stories about what it feels like when something is happening. Your readers won’t remember ninety percent of what took place in the stories you tell. But they will remember how that story left them feeling, because that is all that matters to any of us ever. We all want to feel good. Whether we believe it’s possible or not, we still want it. We arrange all the details of our lives with the sole intention of creating a life, like a story, that leaves us feeling as good as we can feel.

I know that because I’m human. I know that, because I know I would always rather feel good than bad. I would always rather feel curious than bored; I would always rather feel happy than unhappy; inspired rather than depressed. This never, ever changes. It is the one absolute, unending, never-dimming constant in my life. It’s so constant, I take it for granted. It’s so constant, I can start to believe life and all the people in it are far more complicated than they actually are.

If I can remember the simplicity of contrast, life and stories begin to make sense again. In the end a story is about the difference between one feeling and another. Stories are about the difference between feeling like I have no voice and knowing that I have a voice; or the difference between feeling weak and feeling strong; or feeling powerless and powerful. When I tell a story, I choose a difference I have known and experienced. Once I have known the difference between weakness and strength, between fear and love, between violence and peace, that knowledge is unquestionable; it is the resting place for my restless mind.

Write your stories about the feelings you know. If you have lived, you have learned the difference between one feeling and another. Your questions about your stories are usually questions about what you already know to be true. When you accept the simplicity of the difference between fear and love or hate and compassion, your stories will come together on their own, finding their form the way you find yourself when you cease to doubt what you have always known.

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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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All or Nothing

As I’ve mentioned recently in this column, contrast in stories is irreplaceable. Without hopelessness we cannot understand hope; without loneliness we cannot understand love; without vengeance we cannot understand forgiveness. Contrast is what gives our stories definition and clarity, what allows us to see the light from the dark.

In this way, writing becomes an excellent exercise in valuing what we would otherwise abolish or condemn. Nobody wants war in their life, but we might very well want it in our stories so the peace our characters find feels like a relief. Nobody wants to be poor, but we might want our hero to find himself living on the street so his prosperity is all the more meaningful.

In my own life, I often find I am much annoyed by the contrast all around me. It is one thing to learn about a pig virus sweeping the Midwest and think, “I don’t want that! I don’t like that! I wish that didn’t exist!” It is another, however, to stand in line at the USCAN, as I did the other day, and see a bus driver wearing a pair of “shorts” cut somewhere between the calf and ankle, and think, “I hate those shorts. They don’t deserve to be called shorts. In fact, I wish they did not exist. They are a mistake no one is willing to admit has been made.”

I did not feel so good leaving the grocery store in my pants that went all the way down to my shoe tops. I didn’t feel guilty about disliking the bus driver’s shorts; I disliked them every bit as much as the moment I saw them. It was the believing they shouldn’t exist that was troubling me. Why couldn’t I apply the rules for diseases to ugly pants? I wondered. If one thing shouldn’t exist, why not another?

But as I got into my car and thought about pig viruses, which I still didn’t want, I found there was no pleasure in wishing they didn’t exist either. So that’s how it is, isn’t it? I thought. All or nothing. Given the choice, I would have to take all. Otherwise, that which you don’t want and that which you do want will amount to exactly the same – nothing.

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

Imagined Worlds

I wrote recently about the need for contrast in our work, how that which we wish to share will always be seen most clearly against its opposite. In fact, a neuroscientist was attending a writing workshop of mine recently and pointed out that human beings seem to require contrast to make any sense out of the world. It’s always nice to be backed up by science.

Yet I have come to understand that the thing I seek most, which assumes many names but is actually always love, has no opposite. Fear would seem to be love’s opposite, but imagine love like the sun. All around the sun is the empty blackness of space, which we shall call fear. All that emptiness is equally not the sun, whether a mere inch of it, or 10,000 miles of it. Meanwhile, the light of the sun can either be observed or not observed, obscured or received.

It may seem like semantics, but to say love has an opposite is to believe that opposite is as real as love. Truth has no opposite. The only opposite of truth is illusion, which is all that fear has ever been. We stand in the present moment, safe and bright, while the empty space of the past and the future appeals to our imagination. We fill that emptiness with stories of our wretchedness or loss or doom, and then call that fear real and declare that it dwells beside us.

Which is why stories are so often about our hero’s shift in perception. Nothing really changes but his view of the world he inhabits. I have heard well-meaning people say how they would like to change the world. I appreciate that such activists are seeking to bring justice where there is injustice, kindness where there is cruelty, hope where there is hopelessness. Yet all those changes we would march for arrive the instant we cease to believe in the world we have imagined, and see the world in which we actually live.

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

Life In Contrast

Why is it so easy to read words on a printed page? Contrast. We put black letters on white pages to create contrast because you will always see a thing most clearly when placed against or alongside its opposite. Contrast is in many ways a writer’s best friend, for it is always our job to help our readers see clearly the value of what we have already perceived.

I first observed this when I discovered the power of language. I had always wanted to write, but in those days I just wanted to get the story out as quickly as possible, and language was simply how these stories would be gotten out. And then I stumbled across The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and those famous lines: Water, water everywhere/And all the boards did shrink/Water, water everywhere/Nor any drop to drink.

There are a lot of reasons this couplet works so well, but prime among them is contrast. Water is everywhere, and yet the boards of the ship are drying up and shrinking; water is everywhere, and yet there is nothing to drink. Coleridge used the contrast of growing thirst in the midst of undrinkable water to capture the hellishness of the stranded sailors’ plight.

A story itself is merely an exercise in the contrast between conflict and resolution. Falling in love means more when discovered in the wasteland of loneliness; safety means more following the threat of death. As a storyteller, it can seem sometimes as if our happiness is inconsequential without suffering. As a storyteller, it can seem sometimes as if the suffering is almost more important than the happiness.

This is perhaps a misperception, though an understandable one. I have interviewed two authors whose careers, you could say, really began after a bout with cancer. Upon viewing their life against the contrast of death, these two writers saw with singular clarity what mattered and what did not. For these two authors, what mattered was telling the stories they had put off telling.

I cannot say that deciding to tell the stories they most wanted to tell cured their cancer. I am sure they would both say it was the chemo. But whether we are fresh out of the womb or lying wasted in a hospital bed, life will always be led toward and never away from. To know this is to find your way, to better see where you are going, and not stumble as if by accident into death.

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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