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

A Valuable Lesson

I’ve interviewed enough writers to have heard this story a number of times: A fledging writer, often a would-be genre writer, takes a creative writing class. The teacher – older, frustrated, grumpy, usually with strong literary leanings – informs the student, after reading a few stories, that he/she should give up, because he/she is not a writer. He’s sorry to be the one to break the news (he’s not), but there is no point in continuing with the charade.

There are three responses to this, all of them good:

The first is that the student thinks, “You are wrong. I love to write, but you and I apparently disagree on what constitutes ‘good writing.’ You are not my audience. I will find my voice, and then my audience, and that will be that.” This is the least likely response because a writer with this awareness rarely gets told that they are not a writer, and not just because of how they write. There is an immunity that comes with such self-awareness. A teacher such as the one in this story will find someone else to condemn.

The student might also feel relief. “Thank God!” thinks the student. “He’s absolutely right. Finally, I can give up on this dream and start dancing, or singing, or baking, or accounting, or whatever it is that really pleases me. At last I am done trying to force the square peg of my interests into the round of hole of writing.”

Most common, however, is the third response – despair. The student goes home feeling as if something has been taken from her. Up until this moment, she had looked forward to her time alone at the desk with her stories, and she had dreamed of a time when she might share those stories with other people. Now she is uncertain if she has the authority to know what she likes and does not like, and she does not really know how to live if she can’t know something so fundamental as what interests her.

And she can’t, really, which is why she feels so bad, and why despair is such good news. It means the teacher was wrong, and that this writer’s guidance, the very same silent and constant guidance that guides her from story to story, from word to word, that speaks only in feelings of correct and incorrect, of effortlessness and struggle, this same guidance is now speaking just as loudly as it possible can, saying, “He does not know that he claims to know! Only you can know that.”

Eventually the writer will listen to this guidance, and the despair will pass, and she will return to writing, and the teacher, though he will never know it, will have taught her valuable lesson indeed.

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

Downstream

I had a wonderful conversation Wednesday with the writer and spiritual teacher Neale Donald Walsch (you can listen to the entire podcast here), a number of times during which we raised the question, “Why are we here?” It is a question I have been asking off and on for much of my adult life, usually without much in the way of a satisfying answer.

That question, however, reminds me of stories I am trying to write. Every story has its own energetic integrity that can only be fully understood while hot in the middle of telling it. Only then do I know for sure what belongs and what does not, from scenes, to characters, to individual words. The further I move from this story, however, the less sense it make to me, and it begins to feel like a meaningless collection of events strung together because I had nothing better to do.

When I view my stories from this distance, I find myself asking, Why bother? These stories will change nothing. They will disappear into the air like a burst soap bubble. Why did I care so much about every word? Why was I so satisfied and triumphant after a good day’s work? The stories are a sneeze in a typhoon. What a great hoax I’m playing on myself.

It’s almost enough to keep me from returning to the desk. But I find myself back the next day just same, grumpy but willing, and I slowly find the current of the story again, and then I’m in it. There is nothing better than being in it, whether it is a story I am telling, or a conversation, or a quiet walk. To be in it is to forget questions that never needed to be asked, and to ask instead as I head downstream, “What next? What next? What next?”

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 Nameless Connection

It is easy for me to enjoy life when I am writing. When the writing is going even reasonably well I feel connected. I often take for granted this feeling of connection while writing because this is what writing has become. Writing without this connection now wouldn’t be writing. In fact, when I write without this feeling of connection I become miserable, and I dislike the work and very quickly myself. But mostly I feel connected, and I while I feel connected I enjoy the work and my life.

It is also easy for me to enjoy life when I am teaching. My wife observed recently that all my writing is really just a kind preparation for my teaching. I think she might be correct. To help another person find his or her connection I must first find my own, and so these people called students serve to teach me what I have to teach them. When the teaching is going even reasonably well I feel quite clear about why I am on planet earth and why life is interesting and necessary and worth living.

But there is a lot of time one spends not writing or teaching. This time has confused and frustrated me for much of my life. I have named this time many things: boring, meaningless, difficult. Soon enough, I will give myself names as well: unimportant, unnecessary, lost, alone. And so this time is passed in unhappiness, as I have come to believe that the doors to what I seek are not merely closed but non-existent.

I could live out my days this way and be productive and happy enough. I could write more and more, teach more and more. Yet this would be living a kind of lie, as if my entire day did not belong entirely to me. It is such a simple error we make when we name life something other than what it always is. Look how it becomes what we call it, look how we cast ourselves in a horror movie of our own creation and call that melodrama reality. And look how the lights go up and curtain falls the moment we give life no name but our own.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Seeing the World

For many years I looked at the world and believed nothing existed there for me until I made it. The world as I perceived it was a thing already made, and I was a creator, and until my creations took hold, nothing in the world belonged to me. I did not particularly like this arrangement, but what could I do? Questioning this reality would have been like questioning gravity, and one step off a bridge would answer that question for you in a hurry.

No matter, soon what I had planted would grow, and when that happened I would see the beautiful and friendly world I frequently imagined. And so I planted and waited and planted and waited, but I perceived no growth. The world spun on indifferently, changing with every season yet remaining dependably immune to my seeds.

The world grew uglier with every day that my seeds did not flower. It grew so ugly that I began to hate it and wasn’t sure if I even wanted my lovely creations to grow here. This was not a happy position from which to create anything. I wonder, I asked myself one very dark night, if there is a different position from which to view this world?

You have to ask such a question before you can begin looking for the answer, and as soon as I began looking, I began to see. I saw the same buildings and sky, listened to the same conversations and music, lived in the same house, was married to the same woman, but I saw a different world. I even began to see the saplings of all that I’d planted. I did not care for a lot them, and so cut some down and stopped watering others. Now I have something to write about, I thought. Now I don’t have to create the world, only share 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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

New Thought

When I am nervous I find that my mind is preoccupied with old thoughts. These thoughts have served their purpose, have, like the coals in a steamship’s belly, burned and moved me forward through time. If a particular thought burned very hot and took me very far it can be difficult to see it as an old thought. I feel an allegiance to it, wishing to enshrine this thought against evolution, viewing it through the fearful lens of my own mortality where I pity all things that must one day pass away.

But it is uncomfortable to sit idle in the ocean when you can feel life calling you forward. I descend into the furnace room and fan those old thoughts, enamored for a moment with the brute usefulness of action, as if I had succumbed through distraction to laziness. When my efforts yield no movement, I despair. What use is my knowledge of the seas and my skill behind the wheel? The ocean is my new master, and I am its slave.

I had forgotten in my discomfort that idleness is invention’s friend. So much easier to scan the horizon when I am not busy being enthralled by my own speed. And there it is, some spot out beyond the waves that looks interesting. Do you see it? I ask a friend. No, he does not. How strange. Still, there it is again. But how, I wonder, might I get there?

Now my boat is moving once again. I do not even notice its advancement, as my eyes are still trained on what I see. Until at last I feel the movement, and now I am behind the wheel, and I have forgotten my despair as one would a dream, and I love the ocean for all its possibilities. And in the ship’s belly, these new thoughts have caught their fire from the old, their heat requiring no fan but the wind of my curiosity.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Night Questions

One night, before I had interviewed a single author, before I had written a single blog or taught a single class, I was lying in bed not sleeping, and wondering what was wrong with me. Something had to be wrong with me. How else could I explain my circumstance of wasted potential? If I could just figure out what was wrong with me I could fix it and never feel like I was feeling at that moment ever again.

My bed had become a hive of despair. I needed something different. I slipped out of my covers and shuffled to my living room and sat in the darkness. This was not the first time I had tried to answer this question of what was wrong with me. I had asked and asked this question, and I called the silence with which I was answered failure. So on this night, I decided I would ask something different.

That’s when I remembered Richard Dawkins. He and Christopher Hitchens had just written books about the scientific improbability of God, which had restimulated the old God versus Evolution debate. Listening to this public rancor, I thought, “They’re talking about different sides of the same coin. God is Evolution.” What an interesting thought, I thought. I’ll have to think about that some more.

And so that night I asked myself, “Why does that seem so true to me? And how could I explain it to someone else?” As I asked that question, answers began arriving, and in my imagination I translated those answers for an imagined audience. I was feeling better. So I asked more questions about God and Evolution and I got more answers and I felt even better and better until I looked up from my imagined lecture and realized I could go back to sleep.

And as I walked from the couch to my bed it occurred to me that not only hadn’t I answered that first question, but I also no longer wanted to ask it. Only ten minutes before it had burned with the urgency of a house on fire. How alone I had felt as the fires raged around me, yet how quickly those flames were extinguished when I saw that my imagination would answer all my questions but one.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Nameless Connection

It is easy for me to enjoy life when I am writing. When the writing is going even reasonably well I feel connected. I often take for granted this feeling connection while writing because this is what writing has become. Writing without this connection now wouldn’t be writing. In fact, when I write without this feeling of connection I become miserable, and I dislike the work and very quickly myself. But mostly I feel connect, and I while I feel connected I enjoy the work and my life.

It is also easy for me to enjoy life when I am teaching. My wife observed recently that all my writing is really just a kind preparation for my teaching. I think she might be correct. To help another person find his or her connection I must first find my own, and so these people called students serve to teach me what I have to teach them. When the teaching is going even reasonably well I feel quite clear about why I am on planet earth and why life is interesting and necessary and worth living.

But there is a lot of time one spends not writing or teaching. This time has confused and frustrated me for much of my life. I have named this time many things; boring, meaningless, difficult. Soon enough, I will give myself names as well: unimportant, unnecessary, lost, alone. And so this time is passed in unhappiness, as I have come to believe that the doors to what I seek are not merely closed but non-existent.

I could live out my days this way and be productive and happy enough. I could write more and more, teach more and more. Yet this would be living a kind of lie, as if my entire day did not belong entirely to me. It is such a simple error we make when we name life something other than what it always is. Look how it becomes what we call it, look how we cast ourselves in a horror movie of our own creation and call that melodrama reality. And look how the lights go up and curtain falls the moment we give life no name but our own.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Back Into Life

Remember that the story isn’t over. You may be a storyteller, and you will end the stories you tell as a matter of necessity, but the story isn’t over.

How we despair when we believe the story is actually over. We jolt awake at midnight to a world condemned to darkness. We have finally crossed some divide where nothing that has left will return, no field gone fallow will ever flower again, and life is but one endless season of loss. We have always suspected it was possible, we have worried that it was possible, and now through carelessness or cruelty or the indifferent hand of fate the curtain has finally dropped.

My very liberal friends believed the story was over when George W. Bush was President. Torture and war and spying and who knew what else. But the story wasn’t over. Then my conservative friends thought the story was over when Barak Obama was elected, for we were all socialists now. But the story wasn’t over. Because then Tea Partiers were elected to Congress and my liberal friends again thought the story was over. But the story is still being told.

The stories we tell one another must have an ending. Though the story of our life is still being told and cannot stop being told, it would be dishonest to let the stories we tell go on without conclusion. What we call The End is merely the moment at which we remind our reader of what they have perhaps forgotten or taken for granted. In fact, if it is the best kind of story it is anything but an end. Rather, it is a beginning, an invitation back into the story of life.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Nothing For Me

For many years I lived in a familiar pattern. I would look at my life and see reasons for my happiness. Sometimes the reasons would be as significant as an acceptance letter or a new relationship; sometimes as small and distant as my favorite football team winning one Sunday or the discovery of an inexpensive but delicious table wine. Because I am human and I always want to feel good, I would spend my days mentally counting my happiness cards – as long as I had a full deck, as it were, life had meaning, and I was happy.

Inevitably, no matter how many cards I accumulated, a day would come when I would look at my hand and see nothing. Some days I would see no cards at all. Other days, I would see the same cards I’d held the day before, and the cards I had felt happy looking at the day before now meant nothing to me. And so I would despair. Life was a great empty string of meaningless events I had fooled myself into caring about to alleviate the repetitive misery that was life.

The odd thing about this kind of misery is you have to be disciplined about it. It’s very easy as you go about your day to stumble and become interested in something and forget to be unhappy. You have to be stern with yourself in such instances: Don’t let yourself be fooled again. You know how this always ends up.

I eventually began training myself out of the deck of happiness cards habit. And it was training. My attention was always on, always searching for something to light upon that would bring me pleasure. By and by I taught my attention to direct itself toward that which always brought me pleasure, regardless of what I drank, with whom I related, and who won on Sunday.

Still, habits stay with you long after you think you’ve broken yourself of them. From time to time I still feel a familiar hollowness and realize it’s because I spent the last day or two coveting my precious cards. I turn toward my old friend despair. But as my attention swings toward the emptiness where for so many years this friend waited, I find it is pointed exactly where I trained it to go since putting down the cards. The nothing I ran from once is now calling me back to myself.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter