Inner Critic

Some writers embrace criticism, and some do not. When I spoke to Wally Lamb, he shared with me that he is a member of three writing groups, all of whom read and critique his work. Meanwhile, Louis Sachar shares not one shred of what he is writing with anyone – except the title – until the book is completely finished. I was once on a panel with Deb Caletti, Megan Chance, and Jennie Shortridge, all of whom described the outrage they first experience upon receiving a red-gashed manuscript back from their beloved editors. Compare this to N. D. Wilson who craves the “resistance” an editor’s feedback provides, without which he feels his work grows soft.

It is easy for me to become disoriented when the horns of criticism begin blaring in my ear. I write to hear myself, after all; why am I listening to these other people? Yet what is writing but sifting through thoughts until I find one that serves the story I am trying to tell? And what is a criticism but a thought that comes from someone else? Regardless of where it comes from, every thought must in the end be put to the same test—namely, measured against the shape of the story to understand if it fits.

Which is why criticism is so much more useful than how it might or might not strengthen my story. I cannot be reminded often enough of the difference between the thoughts that blow ceaselessly through my mind, and me. How often I have mistaken one for the other, and in that instant my wellbeing feels as transient as a word waiting beneath an uncertain eraser. I remember who I am the moment that word is gone and I awaken to find myself holding the pencil.

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

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Nothing Wrong

My older sister, who got straight A’s (with one very notable exception) in college, who excelled in calculus, and who could whip her word-loving brother in crosswords, Boggle, and Scrabble, told me she hated her one creative writing course, in which she received her only collegiate B. “Totally annoying class,” she explained. “There are no right answers.”

How true. This can make it difficult to teach, and can make the blank page particularly daunting. Fortunately, this also means there are no wrong answers either. In the realm of creation there is no right and wrong, no good and bad, there is only what you want to create and what you don’t want to create. Outside of this single parameter, all is equal.

Which is why I encourage writers to never criticize other writers, no matter how wrong the word choices or plot choices those other writers have made may appear. The moment I criticize another writer in this way I see the world of creation as divided into right and wrong, and I am undone. Now I write not to create what I want to see, but only to avoid creating something that is wrong – and since nothing in creation is actually wrong, I write in perpetual fear.

I know that there are so many things in the world beyond stories that seem wrong, the wars and the poverty and the lies, to name only a few. But inequality exists only in the human imagination, where we perceive that which we want more of and that which we want no more of. I cannot un-create what I do not want, but I can create what I do want. To understand this difference is freedom; to forget it is to be condemned instantly to the same prison where all wrong things go, whose cell door opens only when everyone in the world agrees that I am right.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Demolition Critic

A friend of mine published her eleventh novel last year, and in so doing, surrendered her work to the critics, both professional and casual. One of those casual critics did not care for her book. In lieu of a written review on Amazon, he simply posted a video of him blowing up the book.

I have not seen the video, and I have no idea if the author saw it either. A mutual friend brought it to my attention. Whether she sees the video or not, I am sure she will be okay. The fellow who blew up her book, however, has a longer road to travel back to okay. I fully understand the temptation to blow up a book. When I was nineteen I read a 700-page novel whose ending I found so profoundly unsatisfying – the author left me wondering whether the man and the woman would get together, and the last sentence was an untranslated Latin phrase – that I threw it across the room.

The book did not care that I threw it. It wouldn’t have cared if I had burned it. A book is just a giant thought, and you cannot kill a thought. A thought cannot be sent to the electric chair or develop cancer. You can march and march against a thought until your feet are swollen, you can shout until your voice is gone, but the thought will live on. A thought is a road, and you either travel it or not. If you don’t like where it’s going, then turn around and find another one.

It is both that simple and that complicated. My friend loved her book, and love has no opposite, not even a bomb. What the Demolition Critic wanted would not appear magically out of the ashes of my friend’s book. The Demolition Critic would have to look in precisely the same place my friend looked when she found her book. In this place, nothing burns and nothing is rejected. It is all acceptance until the moment you wonder what anyone else would think of what you’ve found. That is the moment you understand the true meaning of rejection: that listening too closely to your critics is suicide, and forgetting them is life.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Music Lessons

For years my wife, herself a writer, was my first and only beta reader. Every draft of every novel went under her nose, and she’d return with her likes and dislikes. It was not a peaceful arrangement. Often her dislikes outnumbered her likes. I came to hate this process. I didn’t really want her feedback; I just wanted her to love it so I could send it to agents or editors with some confidence. Eventually, I relieved her of her duty as beta reader, and there was peace in the kingdom.

About the same time I stopped showing my wife my books, I started writing music. I discovered that using Garage Band I could compose anything from a pop tune to a piano sonata to a symphony. I was thrilled. I’d wanted to compose music my entire life but I hadn’t the time nor discipline to learn to play the piano well enough to write what I heard in my mind. Now I could put little black dots into the program, press play, and hear what I’d written. Sometimes what I’d written sounded like what I heard in my mind, and sometimes it didn’t. And sometimes I liked what I’d written more than what I’d imagined and sometimes I did not. I was my own beta listener.

I was so excited when I finished a song or a little symphony. Even though I had chosen every little black dot, the song still felt a bit like something I’d discovered on the radio. I was the beta listener, after all. And since I always liked the songs, and since whenever you find a song you like you share it with someone you love, I’d play it for my wife.

At first, she was as delighted as I was. “You wrote that?” she’d ask. “Yes!” I’d say. “Isn’t that cool?” Once she’d gotten over the shock that her husband of fifteen years was now writing music, she began to listen with a more critical ear, commenting, “Oh, that beginning’s really dynamic.” Or, “The middle kind of bogs down, don’t you think?” And then one day, after listening to my latest piece: “That just doesn’t work for me. It has no center.”

And that was when a miracle occurred. I didn’t care. To my own amazement, I did not care one speck that she thought it had no center. What she or anyone thought of this or any piece could not change my relationship to it, could not change why I’d written it, or what I’d learned writing it, or what I thought of it. The two experiences were totally separate. And I thought to myself, “If I learned to write music for this lesson alone, it will have been worth 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

Shadows

A writer friend of mine wondered aloud recently why he never experienced anything resembling “writer’s block” in conversation. He’s still using words; he’s still trying to communicate. Where’s the inner critic then?

It was a good question, one I couldn’t answer at that moment and have been thinking about ever since. Yet it wasn’t the only question we shared that day. We talked for a couple hours, sitting at a curbside table at a coffee shop, strangers wandering by in conversations of their own, the sun moving across the sky, the shadows retreating toward the wall until it was too hot to sit and we walked into the cool of a bookstore. He showed me some novels he wanted to read, but I can’t remember their titles. I do remember he told me a story about the last book he’d sold and how hard he’d worked on the proposal.

And then it was time to say goodbye and I was thinking again on the drive home about inner editors and the difference between conversation and writing. The day exists in fragments in my imagination, anchored in that single question, and his story, and his profile at the table as he sipped his tea while the day grew hotter. The rest of it and everything we said is gone, like the strangers who passed us, like the face of the barista, or the name of the café, or the color of his shirt.

Or like all the details I’ve forgotten of every novel or memoir or poem I’ve ever read. Each are anchored in my imagination by a few choice moments – the rest are the shadows into which stories and days dissolve. So it is for every reader and every story, except for the illusion of permanence the page provides. The threat of forever is the inner critic’s weapon of choice – a future where nothing can change and nothing is forgiven, a land where we must get it right or be doomed in history by some imperfect thought.

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

The Storyteller

Sometimes I wander about the world as a storyteller, and sometimes as someone having a story told to him by the world. I look to the world for the story it is telling me only when I forget I am a storyteller, but this forgetting happens quietly, quickly, and frequently. I do not always mind the story I believe the world is telling me. It can be funny or exciting or even flattering. I particularly enjoy the flattering stories the world is telling about me. How nice that the entire world holds me in such high regard!

But often I do not like the story the world is telling me at all. It is such a depressing story, a story of happiness being something known only when the pieces of the world arrange themselves for brief trembling moments that can be enjoyed until chance, or inertia, or gravity, or evolution pull them apart. It is a story of greed, and violence, and lust, and vengeance. I must grab and cling to all the happiness I can before my time runs out.

I soon become a critic. If the world is bent on telling me these crappy stories, and if I am forced to listen to these stories—and how can I not be, since I am only one man and the world is huge and loud, and while I must rest, it talks on and on and on?—then by God I will do what I can to change that story. So I criticize and reject and complain. Then I do it some more. Yet still the world tells its depressing story, and I can but listen and watch.

It is nice at such times to retreat to my desk where the page is blank and I can ask, “What is the best story I can tell myself today?” How quickly my mood changes with that simple question. How optimistic and curious I become. And how I love that blank page, how it erases all the stories I told myself about the world and returns me to my natural state—a storyteller choosing a happy ending for the world he makes.

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

The Protector

It doesn’t matter what I’m writing, whether it’s a memoir or an essay or a poem or novel, in order to write honestly and sincerely I must forget myself. I must forget the Bill who looks in the mirror, who checks his followers on Twitter, who squints at the scale in the morning, who replays past conversations in his mind, who gloats over praise and agonizes over criticism. This Bill has many opinions, particularly about what I’ve written. He believes most of what I’ve written is brilliant or horrible. There is very little in between.

I have to forget about him, though it’s not always so easy at first, because he believes he’s looking out for my well-being. He’s a protector of sorts. He’s just not exactly clear what he’s protecting me from. No matter, his vigilance is one of his most endearing qualities. He knows a threat when he sees it, so he keeps his eyes outward, hoping to find trouble before it finds us.

Which is why I like writing in the isolation of my workroom. There’s nothing to see here, just the same four walls, the same windows and clock, the same blank screen. I know immediately when my protector has gone off duty. The room grows immediately quieter. Now I can hear the answers to the questions the steady hum of vigilance had distorted. I cannot hear those answers until I forget to care how anyone else would answer them.

Now I’m writing. And now I experience a lovely transparency. I am not worried about what the protector was protecting because it doesn’t exist. Forgotten are all requirements, all bills and arguments and comparisons and grievances. Now light just passes through. I can only write for so long, however, before I realize I can hear the clock ticking and the cars on the street outside my window. I’m back in the world, and I remember I can be seen again.

It’s not long before I meet my protector again, but the more I write, the less I seem to need him. The older I get, the closer he gets to retirement. I won’t throw him a party or buy him a gift when he’s done. In fact, I doubt I’ll recognize his passing until I look in the mirror and realize I am actually looking back at 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

The Friendliest Part of Me

Here’s a secret: you don’t actually care what anyone else thinks about your work. I know you think you do. I know your day has been ruined by what one person said or wrote about your stories or poems, and I know that another day brightened the moment you learned that someone liked what you’d written. I know you share your work with your writing group, or your editor, or beta readers to find out what they think of it. I know how anxiously you read your Amazon reviews or your New York Times reviews. I know all the time and energy you’ve spent wondering and worrying about what other people think of your work – but the truth, the final truth, the only truth is that you don’t actually care and never have.

You don’t care because you know it doesn’t matter. It can’t matter. Those other people don’t live where your writing occurs, which is a friendly place within you accessible only to you. You want to share what you find there. Because others can’t see or hear or know this place, you have to translate what you find there into words. Sometimes people understand the translation. Sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, you can try to retranslate it. Or not. It’s up to you.

So it can be a little helpful to know whether other people understand your translation; translation is imprecise, to say the least. But it is not even slightly helpful to know what other people think about it. It is not helpful to know how your story reminds them of their ex-husband, or that they prefer it when characters use smaller words. It is not helpful to know how they would have written it, or what they believe your story says about the human condition. It is not helpful to know any of the thousands of thoughts that cross another person’s mind when they read your story. Those are none of your business and they cannot help you tell your stories.

It is very uncomfortable to try to make myself care about something I don’t really care about. It seems as though the only way to control what another person thinks about what I have written is to care what they think; that if I take very seriously what another person thinks, the next time I write something I will write it in such a way that I will already know what everyone – I mean absolutely everyone – already thinks about it and thereby not suffer the misery of waiting to learn and having to make myself care all over again. It is as exhausting as it is distressing. Because I don’t care and never have and neither do you, and remembering this is the friendliest way I know to share something I found in the friendliest part of me.

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

A Way Back

For about four years in my early forties, I composed dozens of songs on my computer. What began as simple pop tunes quickly evolved into symphonic pieces. While I did have a rudimentary understanding of music theory, most of what I had to learn to compose the more complex pieces, I learned not from a book or a class, but from trial and error. As I look back at that time I am still surprised at how quickly an unschooled fellow like me went from composing for two instruments to fifteen instruments, a progression I attribute primarily to one factor: I never criticized myself.

I mention this because this was the polar opposite of the approach that I took for my writing. There I survived on a steady diet of self-criticism, which I felt served to keep me on the straight and narrow. Yet never – and I mean absolutely never – was it so with the music. I was just thrilled I could do it. I had dreamed all my life of being able to write symphonic music, and now I was.

At first, my wife, with whom I would share every song or sonata, felt the same way. “Wow,” she’d say. “That is so cool that you wrote that.” By and by, however, she got used the fact that I was writing music, and her responses changed. One day, after I played a new piece for her, she shrugged and commented, “That one really doesn’t come together.” Had she said this about a story I’d written, I’d have been furious or depressed. Yet with this sonata, I realized I didn’t actually care what she thought about it. I knew I’d learned something writing it, and that hadn’t changed because she couldn’t get into it.

This was an experience at once wholly foreign and intimately familiar. In the past, when opinions about something I had made arrived at my doorstep, I was used to viewing these messages as a command to head out in search of some treasure that would please everyone. Yet in this instance, I stayed home. That, after all, is where the music was being written and where all the pleasure I’d gained from it was known.

As an artist, I am still disoriented from time to time by this relationship between home and the world outside my door. What I create in here is meant to travel out there. I, however, am meant to stay home. It is tempting to try to follow those stories to ensure their safe travel, but I lose sight of them the moment I cross my threshold, and am left instead to search for a way back to where I belong.

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

Inner Critic

Some writers embrace criticism, and some do not. When I spoke to Wally Lamb, he shared with me that he is a member of three writing groups, all of whom read and critique his work. Meanwhile, Louis Sachar shares not one shred of what he is writing with anyone – except the title – until the book is completely finished. Last year I was on a panel with Deb Caletti, Megan Chance, and Jennie Shortridge, all of whom described the outrage they first experience upon receiving a red-gashed manuscript back from their beloved editors. Compare this to N. D. Wilson who craves the “resistance” an editor’s feedback provides, without which he feels his work grows soft.

It is easy for me to become disoriented when the horns of criticism begin blaring in my ear. I write to hear myself, after all; why am I listening to these other people? Yet what is writing but sifting through thoughts until I find one that serves the story I am trying to tell? And what is a criticism but a thought that comes from someone else? Regardless of where it comes from, every thought must in the end be put to the same test—namely, measured against the shape of the story to understand if it fits.

Which is why criticism is so much more useful than how it might or might not strengthen my story. I cannot be reminded often enough of the difference between the thoughts that blow ceaselessly through my mind, and me. How often I have mistaken one for the other, and in that instant my well being feels as transient as a word waiting beneath an uncertain eraser. I remember who I am the moment that word is gone and I awaken to find myself holding the pencil.

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