Know Your Job

Up until the end of his fourth grade in school, getting my eldest son Max to do his homework was an exhausting exercise in parenting gymnastics. My wife invented games and songs and stories to make his work seem as friendly as possible. We created rules and rewards. We took his Gameboy away and we gave his Gameboy back. None of it worked. Every night was a competition between what he needed to do for school and what he wanted to do for himself.

One night I helped him write a report on John Adams. There was the blank page. His page was exactly as blank as mine when I sat at my desk every morning. Only he could fill it. I offered him prompts. I asked him questions about John Adams. I even suggested outlining his one page paper. By the end, I did everything but stick the pen between his fingers and move pen and fist across the page.

Then, one evening, Max took his homework into his room and did it without our assistance. When my wife asked if he needed help, he shooed her away. That was that. He eventually told us that he came to understand that school was a game he needed to play if he wanted to do certain things later in life. Now he and school were aligned, and we were no longer necessary.

Sometimes when I am trying very hard to write a book, I feel as if I am back in Max’s bedroom working on that John Adams paper. No matter how creative I was, no matter how supportive I was, I couldn’t do Max’s job. Likewise with the stories I would like to tell. My job is to be curious and open and keep asking questions; my imagination’s job is to do every thing else. I’ve tried to do both jobs and I am left feeling like a failure. No wonder. I’ve given myself an impossible task.

But when I remember my job and how simple it is, I feel like a success again. I know how to be curious, I know how to be open, and I know how to ask questions. That’s easy. In fact, it’s so easy I have to remind myself every day what my job is and what my job isn’t. And when our work is done, and if I have been disciplined about doing only my job, I leave my desk aligned with an ambition that knows only success.

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

Uncomplicated

I sold a piece recently to a parenting magazine about the difference between parenting my older son and my younger son. The point of the story was that even though one was diagnosed with autism and one was not, and one had to be homeschooled and the other was on his high school debate team, in truth I parented them in precisely the same way: by answering the question, “What is the best thing I can do at this very moment?”

It’s a somewhat unusual essay in that it is divided into two distinct parts. The first half set up how different my two sons are and how differently it appears I parented them. The second half looks at what it means to parent in the here and now, to not worry about the future and trust your kids and yourself. When I got my edits back, I found that the editor had done considerable line editing on the first half but very little on the second half. In fact, her edits on the first half were so substantial that in places it was as if she had just rewritten the story.

I was a little grumpy about this until I began rereading the second half and realized why it had needed fewer edits: it was the only part of the essay I was actually interested in writing. I had written the first half more or less mechanically, just getting it down so I could get to the good stuff. Once I got to that good stuff I slowed down, for now there was something to enjoy and be surprised by and discover.

It was a good reminder that no amount of craft can ever replace the quality of attention I bring to my work when I deeply interested in it. I cannot manufacture in the laboratory of my intellect what my imagination and sincere curiosity produce organically. One is a product of necessity, the other of love. How uncomplicated this job actually is. I need only get very, very interested and the rest will take care of itself. Yet every day I must remember this simple rule. Every day I must remember to notice the difference between doing and loving.

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

Back To Life

I have a book coming out in May. In fact, I know the exact date it will be published: May 14. My editor has gone through it and made her suggestions and corrections, and the copy editor went through and made her corrections and suggestions, so I now know what will be in the book and what has been taken out. I’ve also seen the cover, so I know what it will look like. What I don’t know, however, are how many copies it will sell, what kind of reviews it will get, or what speaking opportunities it will spawn – and that is where the trouble always starts.

It was fun working on the book, because every day I did so I asked myself questions I could answer. Every day I asked, “What does it really feel like to trust?” or, “What’s the most useful thing I could say about fear?” or, “What’s a good example of a time I doubted myself?” The answers always came — and usually rather quickly. How miserable I’d have been if they hadn’t. I wouldn’t have been able to write the book. Actually, I simply wouldn’t have written the book. There’s absolutely no fun in asking a question to which the only answer is, “I don’t know.”

And yet in my idle hours, which there are more of now as I scour about for my next book project, I sometimes find myself asking questions like, “I wonder how the book will sell?” or, “Where could I give a talk about the book?” The answer to these questions is always, “I don’t know.” In these moments, I am reminded of conversations I have fallen into about death and the afterlife. For some people, the fact that we cannot know empirically what waits for us beyond that portal means that nothing waits for us. If we cannot see it, touch it, or taste it, then it simply cannot exist.

This point of view is an untenable relationship to the future for a writer, I traffic every day in stuff that cannot be seen, touched, or tasted, only imagined. In fact, that “real” world, the world where my book is published, where people can hold it in their real hands and see it with their real eyes, can seem at times more mysterious to me than the imagined world from which the book was born. That imagined world, after all, is where the questions I most like to ask are answered.

Fortunately, asking myself questions about the real world and what the future will look like there is no fun at all. Fortunately, I lose interest in it almost as soon as I begin. This loss of interest sometimes takes the form of despair or pessimism, but that is only a consequence of me trying to give meaning to the meaningless. So I sulk about, dragging a nameless weight about with me, wondering why the world is such a dull place.

Until I find myself back at my desk asking questions I can answer. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Work solves everything.” I thought it was a stupid thing to write when I first read it, but I now believe he was onto something. Work, for me, does not so much solve everything, but it does remind me there is nothing to solve. It connects to me what I have sought connection to in my despair and frustration and uncertainty, that source of answers to all the questions I ask. It brings me back to myself, back to what I know and what I know I want to learn, back to life after a short trip into the death-world of a future I am not meant to know.

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

Cruel Shoes: Find the Story that Fits You

I worked for about twenty years as a waiter while I wrote a bunch of novels I had no luck selling. One of the toughest parts of being a waiter, especially if you want to be a writer, is that no one really cares what you think about anything, except for the occasional wine recommendation. If you want to write, and share what you have written with other people, you have believe that what you are interested in thinking about and writing about would be interesting to someone else.

When I finally left the restaurant and was hired to write storylines for a video game company, I was so happy find myself in a room with people who seemed very interested in what I thought would or would not make a good story. How nice to be valued for something other than my ability to bring someone their steak dinner in a timely fashion.

The only slight problem was that I wasn’t all that interested in the games or their stories. I considered this a minor problem, however, given how much money they were paying me. In fact, I used some of that money to buy a new pair of dress shoes. These were my power shoes. They were shiny, black, and made a satisfying clip-clop sound as I went from here to there in them.

The only slight problem was that I wasn’t sure if they actually fit. If I stood still they were fine, but if I clip-clopped from here to there my feet seemed to slide around a bit. But only a little bit. And they looked great. And sometimes shoes need to be broken in, especially power shoes made of stiff black leather. So I kept the shoes, and both loved them and feared them: my feet always felt so good when I took them off at the end of a day.

Then the video game company decided they would fly a few of us to New York to meet with a bunch of literary agents. The company had dreams of creating a line of books based on their games. How exciting! They would pay for my flights, my hotel room, all my meals, and I would I get to meet all these agents. Plus, I had just the pair of shoes for such a trip.

For some reason, my comrades decided it would be more practical to walk from agency to agency rather than take cabs. Fine with me, I said. So we started walking, and walking, and walking. By the time we left the third agency, my shoes had become instruments of torture. Every step I took was measured in pain. I stopped thinking about New York, and literary agencies, and games, and money. All I could think about were my poor, abused feet.

My happiest memory of the trip was of sitting on my bed in my hotel room slipping out of those shoes and feeling like myself again. My brother, who lived in New York at the time, came by and we went out for dinner and a few drinks. I was now wearing black sneakers with my dress slacks and blazer and I was very happy. About the same time I left the restaurant, I had gotten very interested in the relationship between spirituality and creativity. That night, I told him about my ideas. I always got very excited when I talked about these ideas.

“Why don’t you just write that stuff instead of all the novels?” he said at the end of the night.

“I can’t do that,” I told him. “No one would be interested in it.”

I was wrong about that, though it would take me a few years to learn just how wrong I was. No matter. The best piece of advice I could ever give another writer is to pay attention to how you feel. All discomfort, however slight, is guidance. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in paying attention to how you feel. That discomfort will grow and grow until you do.

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

Curiosity: The Path to Finding Your Voice

Learning the craft of writing is one thing. There are lots of classes and books that can help you understand both the fundamentals and the nuance of story, dialogue, character, and description. If you don’t like books and classes, you can also just write as much as you can and you will eventually learn that dialogue is most provocative when characters don’t say exactly what they mean, and that nouns and verbs are the bones and muscles of all descriptive writing.

Learning about voice, however, is another thing altogether. For a writer, finding what we have come to call our voice is ultimately more important than learning how to tighten a sagging middle or create believable characters. Until you have found your voice, no matter how diligently you study craft, writing will remain frustratingly unknowable, the blank page a moving target you come to fear and resent.

Yet as a writing instructor, I cannot train your voice the way a singing instructor could help you train your voice. All I can do is remind you that you have one. It’s true. That is because your voice is what interests you most. That’s it. Your voice is not a product of clever word choice, or an expansive vocabulary, or a willingness to take bold stylistic chances. Your voice is your unique interest authentically expressed, unencumbered by any thought of what anyone else thinks is interesting.

Which is why “finding your voice” has very little to do with writing and everything to do with simply being human. Everyone has to find their voice, whether they love to write, cook, garden, or play hopscotch. It is both the simplest thing and the most difficult thing. It is the simplest thing because nothing is easier, more natural, and requires less effort than laying your attention on that to which your curiosity is inherently drawn. It is as natural as eating what you find delicious or laughing at what you find funny.

But it can be the most difficult thing, because to follow your curiosity without apology or restraint means accepting that you and you alone can answer the question, “What is a good life?” To follow your curiosity you cannot worry about fitting in, or sounding smart, or doing the “right thing.” You also cannot worry about success and failure. To follow your curiosity with abandon is to accept that you will learn what your success looks like, and that it will look different than anyone else’s.

Humans love to tell each other what to do. We love to tell each other how to behave, and whom to vote for, and what to eat, and what to read, and which songs to listen to, and when and how and if we should pray. Sometimes we even punish people when they don’t do what we believe they should do. As writer, you have probably been punished at some point in your life for writing the “wrong thing.” It is possible you perceive rejection as a kind of punishment for writing the wrong thing, or maybe writing the right thing in the wrong way.

The worst punishment I have ever known is trying to live someone else’s idea of a life, to write someone else’s idea of a story. That is constant suffering, for no matter how hard I try, everything I do feels wrong, and every path I follow leads to failure. Yet all the suffering and rejection and failure I have known in my life has merely served to guide me back to myself, back to my curiosity, whose unerring guidance I have always had the option to reject or accept.

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

A Writer’s Best Question: What Next?

Music was a big part of my life growing up. Though I would come to love classical music as a teenager and young adult, my first love was popular music. I was particularly interested in those musicians who wrote and performed their own songs. Though I didn’t know it at the time, these were my first artistic mentors. Unlike the authors I read, whose words I heard in my own voice, I was more aware of the musicians as actual living people, since it was always their voices I heard. As a result, I loosely followed the musicians’ careers. For instance, my first memory of a newspaper is of a headline announcing that the Beatles had broken up.

I got curious about how different bands’ music evolved – or didn’t – from album to album. I noticed how flat an album felt if the songs were too much like those from the album that preceded it. Or, if an album seemed very different, I would return to the previous one to see if I could find those songs that seemed to presage where the band was headed creatively. Why, I would sometimes wonder, did the songwriter go this way instead of that way?

With all this observation I began to notice a pattern that, for a budding artist, seemed somewhat ominous. Often a bands’ first album would be exciting, and original, and full of fresh energy. Then the second and third albums would come along and things would sort of flat-line. It seemed like the first albums were fueled by the question: “Can we make it?” Then, once that question had been answered, the songwriters were unsure which new question to ask.

Every artist has to contend with this challenge. “Can I make it?” is a fantastically compelling question. To ask that single question is to simultaneously ask questions about equality, and originality, and value, and voice, and your place in the creative world. There is no way to empirically answer that question until you have tried to make it. Every artist must go forward from the same anonymity to find their readers, their listeners, their viewers.

But the only way to really answer the question, “Can I make it?” is if you’ve always known the answer was yes. You may need some evidence to back this up, but you will never find your readers until you acknowledge you don’t require their recognition to know the value of what you have to share. Which is why, to sustain our work, we will always need some question other than “Am I good enough? Can I make it?”

As a young music fan, I had already identified the better question when I sought the trail of my favorite bands’ evolution, which is, “What next?” If I’m good enough, or talented enough, or smart enough – whatever any of that means – what next? That remains the most compelling question I can ever ask myself, though it often feels so ordinary. Anyone can ask that question, after all. Everyone on earth is asking, “What next?” whether they know it or not.

Yet the moment I decide that this everyday question is actually more important, more valuable, and more sustaining than any other, I return to the source of my creative power. That source has never cared about how many readers I have, or what the critics think, or how big my advances are. Its only interest is the next story, the next scene, the next sentence. It can see nothing else. My job as a writer is to remember that that’s all I need to see as well.

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

Real Genius

I was having coffee with Frank, a childhood friend. We hadn’t seen each other in many, many years, and so there was a lot to catch up on. For instance, since the last time we spoke he’d become a tenured American History professor and I’d written a few novels. One of those novels was set in the antebellum South on the eve of the Civil War. Frank’s area of expertise, the focus of his life’s study and the subject of several academic books he’d written, just so happened to be the antebellum South.

I mentioned that I was surprised to discover, during my research, that historians weren’t in one hundred percent agreement that slavery was the fundamental cause for the Civil War. It seemed pretty obviously the case.

“Well, actually,” said Frank, sitting up in his chair with fresh enthusiasm, “there were also a number of economic factors that played just as large a role—”

Frank paused, cleared his throat, and leaned across the table seriously. “Now we have to be careful, Bill. We’re getting ready to cross the bridge to Boring Town.”

I laughed and assured him I was willing to risk that journey. I thought about the bridge to Boring Town long after Frank and I said goodbye. I had led my friends across that very bridge in conversation a few times. It often happened accidentally. We’d be chatting along about this and that and then we would stumble on some subject about which I had a long and abiding passion, and the next thing I knew I was in the middle of a dissertation about the imagination or unconditional love.

It is a problem, I think, common for many writers – or for anyone who has allowed himself to get interested in something. I’ve come to understand that what we call intelligence is just a function of curiosity, and what we call genius is an expression of our curiosity indulged. And by indulged I mean pursuing my curiosity without any thought of whether anyone else shares that curiosity; pursuing it without any thought of where it’s leading me or if it’s practical; pursuing it simply because it feels good to do so.

Indulging my curiosity is not generally considered polite behavior, a fact that becomes strangely relevant if, as a writer, I wish to share the fruits of my passion with other people. Being an author is a form of socializing, albeit at a distance. The last thing I want to do as a writer is bore my readers, as I have sometimes bored my friends.

Yet for much of my life my number one complaint about my days was that they were boring. Why, I wanted to know, wasn’t there anything interesting to do? That was before I began really indulging my curiosity. Once I began indulging it, I found I was rarely bored. My curiosity, after all, followed me everywhere. My curiosity was a friend who was always interesting and interested.

The nice thing about being an author is that people can simply stop reading what I’ve written without one thought of whether it’s impolite to do so. This freedom allows readers to indulge their curiosity. What an ideal relationship. Now we can meet somewhere we both very much want to be, having freely crossed a bridge to our shared genius.

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 Writing Requires Our Full Attention

On Friday, my agent told me a publisher had made an offer on a book. How exciting! Though there were still a couple of other publishers to hear from, all indicators pointed toward this publisher. We’ll know for sure by Tuesday, she told me. I spent the weekend with many questions running through my mind. Would one of the other publishers make a counter offer? Who would my editor be? Would I be able to finish it by August, as they requested? What were their marketing plans?

Monday morning came and I decided I might as well do what I always do – write one of these essays. I’d been writing one nearly every morning for eight years. It’s what I did. So I opened a new file and waited. And waited. By and by a little idea came, and I started in, but something was missing. I liked the idea, but I couldn’t get close to it. I forged ahead, hoping to draw closer to it by sheer will. The more I wrote, the further from the idea I felt.

A mild panic began to set in. The book was based on these essays. I’d been writing and writing about creativity and spirituality and inspiration for eight years. What if I was used up? I wisely decided to stop writing. The moment I begin to worry that my creative well is dry is the moment I need to do something else. Yet a new question had entered my mind. Why could I do it nearly every other morning, but not this one? What was different? Unlike the idea I’d been trying to write, this question had my full attention.

It wasn’t long before the very obvious answer arrived: I can only ask and answer one question at a time. For instance, I cannot simultaneously ask, “What would I like to write about this morning?” and, “Who’s going to buy the book?” That I could not actually answer the second question did not make it any less compelling. Nor did it matter that I wasn’t literally thinking the words, “Who’s going to buy the book?” The questions I’d been asking all weekend continued to occupy my imagination passively, like a radio left on so long I forgot it could be turned off.

I like writing for a lot of reasons. I like language, I like solitude, I like discovery, but most of all I like that writing requires my full attention. When I give writing my full attention, I am as interested in being alive as I can possibly be. But when I attempt to write with a divided mind, life itself feels like one long assignment that must be completed before the fun begins.

That these two experiences couldn’t be any more different infuses writing with an unavoidable uncertainty. That is not to say that what we call luck has a hand in whether I experience a good day of writing or a bad day of writing. Quite the opposite. I must choose to give writing my full attention. If I do, it goes well; if I don’t, it doesn’t. Nothing in the world, no book contract or agent or editor, can make me give it my full attention. That power belongs to me alone – and just as the page is blank, so too are tomorrow’s choices yet unmade, and life yet to be lived.

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

Ordinary Genius

Like anyone else, writers are likely to take for granted their most valuable creative asset – namely, their curiosity. After all, everyone is curious about something. Being curious does not require any particular talent. Nor does being curious require hard work or dedication. Curiosity, being interested, is simply a consequence of being alive, and aware that certain things naturally attract my attention and other things do not. My curiosity is as familiar to me as my reflection in the mirror.

It is different than, say, looking at a painting I love. Something comes to life in me with a speed that is as surprising as the painting is original. Though my experience of that painting belongs entirely to me, I cannot ignore that someone else was responsible for every brush stroke on the canvas. This intersection of what came to life in me and the awareness of another person’s role in that holy experience is what I have come to name genius. Which is to say, genius is something most easily perceived in others.

In fact, it is so much easier to perceive in others that it is natural to believe that genius is forever a resident of a foreign country. My occasional attempts to attribute that quality to myself and my creations were profoundly disappointing. I could feel my starving ego hard at work, building and building what should be able to stand alone without effort. It’s too much work living in search of constant praise, without which all my value collapses.

So much easier just to be interested in something. To be interested requires no approval from other people. To be interested requires no training or effort. In fact, true interest is identified by its effortlessness. That is how I know I’m interested – that my attention has moved magnetically toward an idea where it can remain, held effortlessly by the weight of my curiosity. The only diligence necessary is the willingness to proceed without ever asking the question, “Will anyone else be interested in this too?”

That is the only worthy effort I ever exert while writing. Because this question of whether anyone else will love what I love has its own magnetism. Why? The answer only seems to foretell my very future. Although I have learned, slowly, by considerable trial and error, that despair waits inevitably for me every time I ask this question, still I can feel the itch to ask it again. And so I must go forward, learning again and again with every word, the difference between curiosity and fear, two strangely similar impulses pointing in thoroughly opposite directions.

Fortunately, in the end there is only one choice I can actually make. There is only choice that actually leads anywhere, there is only one choice that satisfies, one choice that enlivens, one choice that encourages, one choice that leaves me as curious as when I began. When I make that choice I never care whether it’s called genius or not, I only care that I’ve made it, that I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of what I thought I knew so well.

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