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 William at: williamkenower.com

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Natural Beauty

Two weeks ago I was asked to give some lectures at the Northwest Institute for Literary Arts’ (NILA) winter residency program. The residency is held at the Captain Whidbey Inn on Whidbey Island (Washington), a spectacularly scenic locale complete with green fields, tall pines, and an unimpeded view of Penn Cove.

In fact, directly outside my little cabin’s front door was a gravel path that wound left to a tall wood and stone gazebo that could have comfortably housed a small wedding party. Beyond the path was a lawn of spotless emerald running down to a duck pond fed by a narrow inlet. A wooden bridge spanned the inlet, and beyond the bridge Penn Cove’s gray tide, and then Puget Sound, and finally the Pacific Ocean. I had packed only my black dress shoes, but the scene was so picturesque I decided to risk them for a stroll.

As I crossed the bridge it struck me that this was exactly the sort of landscape that would send a water colorist running for her canvas or poets scrambling for their pens. It has sometimes seemed to me an artist’s duty to render nature’s beauty. The ocean, the sunset, the mountain, the lake – life’s given perfection to which all human creation is aspires. Yet standing there amidst all that natural beauty, my writer’s mind drifted to the students I’d met and would soon be teaching, to their struggles with voice and confidence, and their love of language and story.

There was the landscape that moved me most – that line where the human mind and heart meet, where each of us chooses moment to moment between fear and love. The artist never paints what he sees; only what he feels when he is seeing. And in this way, aren’t I the same as any landscape artist? At my best I see within everyone I meet life without the story of suffering and worthlessness and comparison and rejection, life without good and bad, life as a beautiful as any ocean or sunset.

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 understanding 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 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.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
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What The Silence Tells Us

I have an apple tree in my backyard, and it being April, the apple blossoms are in full bloom. I look forward to this time of year for this very reason. The lawn beneath the tree, watered for weeks with spring rain, is never greener, and the view from my back steps of that carpet of jewel green dappled with the white petals looks like a scene out of a fairy tale or the creation of a Hollywood set designer.

Yet it is quite real. As a writer, of course, two things usually come to mind when I look at my backyard: First, Beautiful; and second, How would I write it? Or perhaps it is the other way around. My rendering above, for instance, while perfectly serviceable, just won’t do. Perhaps you can see it, but I doubt you can feel it, which is all the point. Also, I’m wary of the word “dappled,” though it beats “sprinkled” in this case, and “littered” wouldn’t work, and after that we’re into “painted,” or “spotted,” and so on, which sends me back to dappled.

Kind of drains all the magic out of it, doesn’t it? It’s hard to believe sometimes that something so fussy as writing can result in anything beautiful. I have decided that if I’m going to enjoy my life away from the keyboard, I must learn from time to time to shut my writer’s eye. It’s really a kind of addiction, this reducing the whole of something into a few choice words. You can become like the ten year-old boy who won’t put down his Rubics Cube. The world is always offering you new scenes, after all, both beautiful and ugly and everything in between, that call out for your concise reduction.

At least I don’t dream of writing. Paul McCartney was supposed to have heard the melody for “Yesterday” in a dream, and while it’s nice to be struck by creative lightening, it’s best, for me at least, to have a time away from words. The world isn’t words. The world is the world. After all, language is merely my vehicle of choice to share what the world has given me. Before then, before I speak or write or think a word, there is the necessary silence. It is that silence I wish to share, and if I never listen to it, what will I ever have to say?

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

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Infinite Precision

Whenever people talk about “good writing” they are invariably talking about what I think of as “micro writing.” That is, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, the quotes pulled out by reviewers to show what a good—or, sometimes, bad—writer the author is. This is largely because the well-turned phrase or the elegant paragraph is where readers are most likely to notice what the writer is doing. And after all, everyone, if only in conversation, has at some point tried to say exactly what they mean. So satisfying when we succeed, so elusive and frustrating when we don’t.

As I wrote a year ago in this space, beautiful writing, compelling writing, or good writing, if you must, is about accuracy, not cleverness. That is, how well we are able to identify precisely what we mean to say, as opposed to something very much like it.

Or to put it another way: Imagine what you are trying say as a target. If your target were, say anger, just anger in the broadest sense, you would have painted yourself a very large bull’s eye. This is often where writers begin. On the other hand, if the target were not merely anger but jealousy, the target will have gotten slightly smaller. If the target were jealousy mixed with regret and tinged with self-loathing . . . now we need a very steady hand.

The important thing to remember about these targets is that no one really gets to say whether we hit the mark but us, the ones who painted the target in the first place. Only we know what we are trying to say, and only we know when we have said it. As I have improved my accuracy, my pleasure has come in giving myself a smaller and smaller target at which to aim. I do this not out of some athletic desire to scale the highest and furthest mountain, but because in narrowing the focus of my expression, life, a thing of infinite and varied precision, reveals itself more fully to me.

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

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False Limitation

When I was a young writer, I did what a lot of other young writers do and looked to those writers I most admired to guide me to where I wanted to go. That was the theory, anyway, but mostly I just imitated. This is somewhat useful to learn about form, but only for a short time. Eventually, both in the kind of stories you tell and how you tell them, you have to go your own way, and the sooner you do so the better.

I reached a point, in fact, where I simply stopped reading other fiction writers. If a writer had a distinctive and compelling voice I inevitably found myself parroting him or her when I set to my own work. The result was some Frankenstein amalgamation of our voices, as clumsy and unattractive as the monster himself.

Because of this job I am reading fiction again, and I happy to report I seem to have inoculated myself against the affects other voices.  More to the point, I am now able to learn from these writers. For instance, at the time I was reading Karl Marlantes’s debut masterpiece Matterhorn, I was finishing the last draft of m own novel. Matterhorn follows a platoon of American soldiers through the jungles of Viet Nam. Marlantes did as good a job as I have ever encountered of rendering the relentless physical discomfort of the soldiers. The rain, the heat, and the humidity became like a musical score against which the action was played out.

My novel wasn’t set in Viet Nam, but my characters were out of doors and they were travelling.  That it was cold in my book instead of hot as it was in his didn’t matter. What he showed me was not how to render cold or hot, but that if you do so thoughtfully and purposefully the results can be effective. Until reading Matterhorn, I avoided this sort of description in my fiction because I thought it simply bogged down the story as the writer constantly reminded the reader where the characters were standing. I don’t think that anymore.

Marlantes was like a track athlete who cracked some time barrier that I, at least, had never broken. I do not need to study his training regimen or copy his running style to reach that time myself—that it can be done is enough. This is all humans have ever needed. Once the dike of limitation is breached, we flood through in masses.

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Give It Form

A little writing lesson today from Emily Dickinson and the instructors at Kaplan’s SAT Prep. My oldest son is taking the Kaplan class and was told that the reason he received a low mark on his first essay was that he did not give enough concrete examples.

Dickinson would have agreed. Take poem #258. It begins with her saying, basically, “Sometimes you’re just depressed for no good reason—you know?” We do know, probably, but merely saying so does not allow us to see this formless despair nor feel it. So she offers, with all her odd punctuation:

There’s a certain Slant of light
Winter Afternoons—
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes

Dickinson takes the abstract idea, and shows it to us by contrasting something so mundane as a slant of slight with the grandiosity of a cathedral tune. She assumes we’ve seen slants of light and heard cathedral tunes and lets us fill in the rest. She concludes the poem by saying of despair:

When it comes, the Landscape listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death—

Here she presents what is entirely her opinion as an observed action. She anthropomorphizes the landscape and shadows, making them actors in her play, and then—her flick of genius—the word “distance.” In choosing that word she makes the abstract idea of a death stare measurable, but in one word, and does it surprisingly so we can see it anew. But again, she is relating this as if she is merely observing a scene, when in fact there is nothing to observe at all but a feeling.

This to me is what the craft of writing is all about. I don’t care what you write, whether it’s poetry or courtroom dramas or SAT essays, you’re doing the same thing—you’re seeking the measureable within the unmeasured. Remember, life itself is an idea made real—every action, ever word, every building, story, or child begins first as an idea that is eventually given form. So too is it with your writing. Give it a form. As I told my son after he got his disappointing first grade: every shapeless idea has its physical brother—go find it.

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It’s Not the Heat, it’s the Character

For the record, if you live in the Pacific Northwest, and you are reading this somewhere without air conditioning, you are probably sweating. Strange thing with weather, however, is that stories of heat waves or cold streaks are about as inspiring as stories of someone coming down with and then getting over a cough. One thing everyone knows for certain about weather—it will change. That is hot or cold or wet or dry on a given day is almost never of any consequence to anyone other than the one who is hot or cold or wet or dry.

Unless, that is, the hot or cold or wet or dry precipitated some kind of change within the person experiencing it. Now we have a story. If someone were climbing a mountain, say, the extreme cold of the mountain becomes one more thing the climber must endure, and perhaps he begins bitter but by the end of his climb comes to accept the cold the way a character in a different story might come to accept death.

Weather is also useful when it serves as a (hopefully) subtle reminder of something the character is feeling. In A Farewell to Arms it is always raining when something bad happens. In Finding Nouf, a mystery set in modern day Saudi Arabia, Zoë Ferraris fills the novel with the relentless heat of the desert, which serves as a nice backdrop for the suffocating social requirements central to the novel.

All of which reminds me yet again that setting description simply for description sake is never as compelling as descriptions that in some way reveal what a character is feeling. Feeling is all.  Weather is yet another physical fact surrounding your characters, the same as the peeling paint, the barking dog, and the green grass. What you choose to describe has everything to do with what the characters exposed to it are feeling at the moment.

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