The Third Eye

For many years I was a writer obsessed with the form my stories and sentences took. This is also called style. I had loved certain writers whose style was so distinctive and evocative and exciting to me that I believed if I paid very close attention to the form my stories and sentences took, I would be able to write the kind of stories I loved to read. I was less aware of my stories’ content at that time. I felt that if I started writing, something cool would come out.

It didn’t work that way. Obsessing over a story’s form is a little like fussing with your hair in the mirror. There is only so much a hairstyle can communicate. But it is something I can control. I can cut it, wash it, gel it, comb it, comb it again, mess it up and comb it one more time. What I cannot do is control what anyone will think of that hair. And so I stare into the mirror, aware of this uncomfortable fact, knowing that for all my grooming, people are just going to go ahead and think whatever they want to think.

My stories became a kind of mirror I was staring into, with me fussing and fussing before the big date that was submission. I sent them out aware of some nameless deficiency, and they were predictably rejected. Had I not fussed long enough in the mirror? What was missing? What had I overlooked?

Eventually I began to focus more on my stories’ content rather than their form. It was a very different way of thinking, because the content, which was a felt awareness of life, had no form whatsoever. Love, after all, can take any form, as can grief, and joy, and doubt. My time at the desk now was spent trying to see with my writer’s third eye what love and joy and grief really looked like, without any idea of what other people thought love and joy and grief looked like. Once I felt I could see it clearly, I tried to make what I could see with words.

I love language and sentences as much as I ever did, but I spend very little time now thinking about either. It’s a relief, frankly. I look in the mirror about twice a day, and that’s enough. The rest of my time is spent living within what it feels like to be alive. That is the reality of which I am most aware. This reality is not always comfortable, but the comfort I seek does not exist in the mirror or on the page. That comfort can only be perceived with my third eye, for that is where everything I want to share resides.

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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No Modifiers

Writing is built on nouns and verbs. Adjectives and adverbs color, pass judgment on, and celebrate those nouns and verbs. Left on their own, adjectives and adverbs would be a collection of opinions about nothing. You could write an entire book without a single adjective and adverb, and probably someone already has.

Maybe this is why love is my favorite word. It is both a noun and a verb. Love is both an experience and expression. You can be aware of love as a feeling within you, and you can actively love someone or something. In this way, it is both things at once. It is both some thing and something you do. It is really a sentence all by itself.

Which is exactly like every living thing. Every living thing is a complete sentence. Every living thing is both a noun and a verb, for everything is doing something, even if that something is growing or dying, even if that something is nothing, for not acting is still a choice, which means it is an action. Nouns and verbs, I think, belong to God, while adjectives and adverbs belong to people. We invented every one of them and can become enormously attached to them.

It is hard to see the world without adjectives or adverbs. I’m not really used to it. Things are good or bad, ugly or beautiful, or done perfectly or imperfectly. Everything seems to require my modification, my stamp upon it. The stamp is in my mind alone. What I call beautiful another calls ugly. The stamp does not exist, only the thing it would pretend to label, which I can see truly only when I call it love.

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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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Giving Up

If I am working with a client who has never attempted a book-length project before, one of the first challenges I must help this new writer overcome is the sudden and daunting awareness of how little she actually knows about this book she would like very much like to write through to its conclusion. The writer rarely sets out on her journey with this awareness. Instead, she is just excited by some idea that has become so bright in her imagination that she cannot seem to pull her attention from it.

And so one day she decides to sit down and actually begin writing the thing. The idea has been so bright and so interesting to her that it feels as though all she needs to do is set aside a little time everyday and the story should virtually write itself. Then she begins. Sometimes it takes no more than a couple pages for the writer to understand that this story is made of around 60,000 details called words, and that she must in fact choose each of those details, and that those details must fit together as effortlessly as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

This is often a disorienting moment. The writer’s interest in the story was complete. What’s more, the feeling the story is trying to convey is complete as well. If the author is writing a story about the difference between feeling unlovable and finding love, then that profound difference is complete within her mind. But the story that is meant to share that feeling, which is made of tens of thousands of details, is so incomplete that the writer doubts if she ever knew anything.

I can sometimes be of help to these writers simply by reminding them what it is their job to know and what it is not their job to know. It is not our job to know the details. It is only our job to know we would like to find them. It is a sometimes subtle difference, but what we call failure is usually the mistaken belief that our inability to know all the pieces ahead of time means we are incomplete.

How tempting it is in the moment of this mistaken awareness to give up. The feeling of personal incompleteness is in direct opposition to the direction of life and is commensurately wretched in its expression. It is appropriate to want to give up something at this moment, but it’s not the story. Give up believing you can finish what is already whole, or fix what was never broken, and return to the business of finding what you are actually looking for.

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

Decisions, Decisions

Writing has taught me many things, but what it continues to teach me every single time I sit down at my desk is how to make decisions. After all, writing is nothing but a series of decisions, from which story to tell, to which scenes and characters and sentences to include. In fact, every single word is a decision. In this way, a book is a collection of decisions within decisions within decisions.

The first thing writing taught me about decisions is that they can’t be made intellectually. The intellect is useful at gathering and retaining information, but it is useless at knowing which stories to tell or which words go where. In the end this is a felt process, an intuitive process – or, to be more concrete, it requires the ability to differentiate effortlessness and effort. The effortless path is always the best path, the path my authentic curiosity would have me follow. It requires no effort to be curious about something; it always requires great effort to keep my attention on something about which I am not curious at all.

So this has been very useful. But perhaps more important has been the gradual understanding that there is no such thing as a wrong decision. Every decision takes me somewhere, and if that somewhere is not where I want to be, I will recognize it as such, perhaps immediately, perhaps eventually. Regardless of the time it takes for me to recognize where I am – to understand that the story isn’t working, that this job isn’t for me, that this relationship should end – the road signs, so to speak, will always be apparent the moment I choose to look for them. Sometimes it takes me a while to understand I am exerting effort and that I’m not enjoying doing so.

The concept of a “wrong decision” creates a hostile environment for decision-making. It suggests that there is some choice that could lead me out beyond the reach of my own guidance, a wilderness of failure from which I will never return, where I will live forever in misery and loneliness. I have only ever traveled to such places in my frightened imagination. In reality, as long as I can tell the difference between happiness and unhappiness, I will always find a route back to myself.

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

Slow Down

Why are writers so fond of specific details? Because details amplify emotions. There is very little emotional momentum in the sentence: John was angry. Nor: John was really angry. Nor even: John was really, really, really super angry. On the other hand: John came home, slammed the door, took one look around the living room and said, “Does anyone clean up anything in this house besides me?

The final example has the most emotional momentum, yet the word angry is never mentioned. This is what we call showing and not telling. The author is a like a lawyer, his readers the jury, and his details the evidence. A storyteller’s only currency is feeling, and specific details focus the reader’s imagination on specific feelings. The more specific the details, the greater the focus of feeling, the more likely I will receive the verdict I was seeking.

This works when we aren’t writing as well. Perhaps I am sitting at my desk and I cannot find a scene. I try one way and then another, yet neither works. I know these approaches don’t work because of how forced they feel. I do not like this forced feeling, and I recall that I have felt this way before. I begin remembering the stories I’d written that also felt forced yet I sent out anyway, and then the women I dated because I didn’t want to be lonely, and the jobs I took because I was afraid of being poor. I remember these stories, and girlfriends, and jobs in increasingly specific detail, and soon I feel like a fake, a man who has never said or written or done one genuine thing.

It is not so easy to dismiss this story of Bill the Fake because is it feels absolutely true. I am truly feeling like a fake. Yet in simply thinking, “I feel like a fake,” without any further evidence to back it up, I have already slowed my own emotional momentum. Now I might be able to think, “I want to feel genuine. To feel genuine is to feel interested. To feel interested is to feel curious. What about this scene makes me curious?”

And I am back where I belong, ready to write 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

An Authentic Reward

I don’t tend to use a lot of adjectives when I write, though this was entirely an evolution rather than a conscious choice. I say this because low-adjective writing is very much the way in MFA programs, in part because of fashion, but also for very good reasons as well.

One problem with adjectives: they often pass judgment. I might write, “It was a sunny morning,” which is a fact. If I write, “It was a glorious sunny morning,” I am now telling a story, as it were, about that morning, telling you it is glorious. Its gloriousness is entirely subjective. There’s nothing wrong with subjectivity when it is used deliberately. For instance, in the case of this aforementioned morning, I, the writer, might understand the morning is not factually glorious, but I want the reader to understand the narrator perceives it as glorious. That is a fact.

The second problem with adjectives: they are often used in place of authentic feeling. Perhaps I would like to write about that same morning. Perhaps it was a morning I had lived, and which I had found glorious. By inserting glorious I am simply remembering the fact that I once found this morning wonderful, the way I remember that 2+2=4. On the other hand, if I return to that morning in my imagination, and if I feel again what I felt then, I can share how I loved that morning, such as, “It was the first morning in months that I could recall caring that it was sunny rather than rainy, the first morning in months I stepped out my front door and wanted to thank whoever was in charge for the day.”

Writing for me is about sharing something that I feel, and the only way to share that feeling is to actually feel it, to return again and again to what I wish to share. Eventually, I dropped adjectives because I found I was using them when I didn’t trust myself. After all, feelings, unlike fact, can’t be seen or touched or measured or compared; only their expression can be observed. Their source, meanwhile, is known only to me. And so I must trust every time I write that I can find the way back to that source, a journey that remains writing’s first and only real reward.

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

Your Job

If I was only allowed to give my writing students one piece of advice, it would this: Pay attention to how you feel. Not sure whether you should write fiction or non-fiction, romance or thrillers, literary fiction or memoir? Pay attention to how you feel when you consider each possibility. Which feels the most exciting to begin, and which feel the most effortless to return to?

Not sure if a scene is working? Pay attention to how you feel as you write and reread it. Do you feel interested as you write it, or are you just trying to get your character to the next scene? Do you actually care about this scene, or is it merely something you’ve intellectually decided belongs? It always feels better to be interested than disinterested, and your writing improves the instant you give your attention to something in which you’re authentically interested.

Not sure which word to use? Pay attention to how you feel as you choose it. Your story isn’t a jigsaw puzzle. In a jigsaw puzzle you see the piece snap into place. In a story, you either feel the word being received into the sentence, or feel yourself forcing it there. Learn the difference, honor the difference, and have the patience to wait until the right one comes along.

What a fantastic tool is our felt understanding of life. Every time we focus on something interesting and exciting we feel good, and every time we force ourselves to focus on something less interesting we feel less good. And every time we devote ourselves to what most interests us success flows to us with less and less effort, and every time we devote ourselves to what does not interest success comes slowly if at all. It is completely predictable and dependable. So that is your main job, you writers you: feel good. The rest will just come.

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