Guided

There’s a great scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon where Monroe Stahr, the titular tycoon, is walking on the beach one evening with his girlfriend. They meet an old African American fisherman and get to talking. The fisherman asks Stahr what he does and Stahr tells him he works in motion pictures (he’s actually one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood at the time). The fisherman says he never cared for motion pictures, and Starh asks him why. The fisherman shrugs and says, “They just don’t seem realistic enough.”

This observation clearly affects Starh. The fisherman then wishes Starh a good evening, and walks off down the beach, “unaware he had just changed the entire motion picture industry.”*

This scene stayed with me more than any other in the book, and for good reason I think. As an author, there is no doubt that certain people’s opinions seem to matter more than other people’s opinions. From a professional standpoint, this is undeniably so. That your cousin the dentist thinks your novel is great is just not going to have the kind of immediate effect on your career as a rave review in the Times.

But from a human standpoint no opinion is actually more important or more valid than another. Though we might enjoy donning our fancy Author Hat as we strut about the world, at the end of the day that hat comes off and we are humans first, last, and only, a reality no publishing contract or movie deal can reverse. Everything beautiful, useful interesting, and profound you will ever write flows from your humanity. And just as no one is more human than another, so too no one’s opinion is actually more important than another.

You know this because before you were an author, before you’d sold anything or been reviewed by anyone, you were just a person who knew what you liked and what you didn’t like. You weren’t famous, no one cared what you thought with the exception of your parents (maybe), and yet what you liked and didn’t like guided you through your life. It guided you to your friends and lovers, to the books read, and eventually to writing stories of your own.

The intimate and private relationship to your tastes and preferences has remained constant even as your life has changed. Now perhaps you stand in a bookstore or library, reading your story to a crowd of friendly strangers. And even though they have all come to hear you, though they have gathered in this one place because of your book, in your heart you are the same person who had never written or published a thing, just a human guided by your humanity to this place and time.

*I apparently lent my copy of The Last Tycoon to some scoundrel who neglected to return it. So this is my best recollection of that scene. Apologies in advance to Fitzgerald scholars offended by any liberties I took out of necessity.

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

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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The Best Story

Though it’s been several weeks, the events at Charlottesville have stayed with me for many reasons, some of which have to do with being a writer. Seeing angry young men with torches chanting Nazi slogans and declaring they will not be replaced fills me with a mixture of confusion, anger, and fear. What’s to be done with these people? I ask myself. Rounding them up into cattle cars and shipping them elsewhere seems appealing, but then – as the saying goes – I’d be no better than them.

Which, by the way, I am not. The worst story humans ever told is that some of us are better than others. It has been told and told and told since humans first started telling stories. The Romans and the Greeks told it, and the kings and queens and peasants of Europe told it, and of course Americans told it, despite what we’d written in our Declaration of Independence. It is the most insidious and persistent story known to us, and despite how it always ends, how we know it will end, we keep picking it up and reading it and telling it.

I believe that’s because equality – true equality – is the simplest and most challenging story to tell. To really tell it, I have to walk down the street and see everyone I pass as absolutely equal to me. No one is worse than me and no one is better than me. No one. No matter how rich or poor, old or young, thin or fat; whether they’re saying hello or chanting Nazi slogans. The temptation to compare myself to others, to learn where I rank, is so great that I find myself doing it habitually, the way my hand reaches for a bowl of potato chips at a party.

This also holds true when I walk through a bookstore. No writer is better than another. No matter how many awards a book wins, or how high the sales, the writers themselves are all absolutely equal. That some writers have received more attention is not a reflection of that writer’s value, but of how much that writer values what they share. Editors and agents and readers cannot teach you to love your work; you’ve got to learn how to do it yourself.

The good news is that loving what you want to share is as natural as breathing. Humans may be brilliant at holding their breath, but eventually, breathe we must. I don’t know how to make someone exhale their fear and anger, make them stop telling the story of how they are better or worse. But I do know that I will sit down every day to learn how to better tell the story of how we are equal. Even if I don’t get it perfect, which I never do, I can’t go wrong with that story. It will always win out over the alternative. It will win because it uplifts instead of depresses, brings together instead of dividing, loves rather than hates and, finally, because it’s the truth. Once I let myself do it, the truth is always the easiest story to tell.

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

Meeting Royalty

I watched the excellent biopic, The Queen the other night and was struck by the exacting rules of behavior one is to follow when in the presence of the queen of England: bow or curtsey when you meet her; never turn your back to her; she offers your hand, you never offer yours. A little War of Independence waged in me every time the characters marched through these formalities. I imagined myself meeting Her Highness with my hand audaciously outstretched. I’m just that much of a rebel.

In actuality, I’m sure I’d follow every behavioral rule because I want people to like me. Or maybe I wouldn’t. In truth, sometimes I don’t care one whit what anyone thinks of me, and sometimes I seem to care about nothing else. It’s a natural consequence of being human, I think, whether you’re a prince or a peasant. It must be very confusing and unnatural to treat someone as above you in every way, which is why the English have these rules. Fortunately, as a non-celebrity American, I doubt I’ll ever meet royalty – though I did come close once.

Caroline Kennedy had just edited and published a book of her favorite poems. On a lark, I shot her publicist a request for an interview and thought a mistake might have been made when I heard back five minutes later with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” I was tempted to remind the publicist that Caroline was A Kennedy, and I was but a humble editor of an online magazine for writers.

By the silent osmosis of history and television and movies, the Kennedys were like royalty in my mind. I had set them apart from everyone else, had made them just a little bit more than human. So, I could not, in the three weeks before the shoot, undo nearly fifty years of myth making. I had by this time grown pretty comfortable around other humans, but I could not picture that same comfort with A Kennedy.

On the day of the shoot, I greeted Caroline Kennedy outside the bookstore as she stepped out of her car. The very first thing I noticed was that she was dressed in a tailored grey suit and pink running shoes. I was struck more by her pink running shoes than the fact that I was shaking hands with A Kennedy. The shoes seemed at once practical and a little geeky. I couldn’t stop thinking about them until we were seated for the interview. She was starting to feel like the other humans I knew. Still, I couldn’t shake the awkwardness I’d hoped wouldn’t visit me during our conversation – laughing a little too loud, agreeing a little too immediately.

That changed, though, once we got to the subject of the interview itself. Poetry had meant a lot to me as a young man. Reading poetry was what taught me how to write. It also taught me I wasn’t as alone as I sometimes felt because someone I had never met could speak to me in what felt like the language of my inner world. Caroline Kennedy loved poetry too. When I asked her about how she had discovered poetry and what it meant to her, I left the world of kings and queens and was speaking instead from that place within me reserved for the things I loved.

The interview went much better after this, and I started sounding like myself again. The world of books and writers is filled with royalty in its own way, those lords and ladies who occupy the bestseller lists or who have contributed to The Canon. Unfortunately, I do not know how to write like a king. On my best days, I can write like myself. On my very best days, I know this has always been enough.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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A Level Field

Everything I have ever done that has been singled out, that has received the attention of others, that has for one moment been called “special,” grew out of my trust in humanity’s absolute equality. For much of my life I had neither faith nor interest in absolute equality. That is, I wanted everyone to have a fair chance, I wanted society to level the playing field as much as possible, but let’s face it – life appeared neither fair nor equal. There were winners and losers, and that being the case, I would very much prefer to be a winner.

Yet the more I saw the world filled with have and have-nots, with the talented and talentless, with the lucky and the unlucky, the harder it became for me to create anything I wanted to share, or achieve anything I wanted to remember. Instead, my attention increasingly circled around this one question: Which am I? If life is unfair and unequal, if we are not all born with the identical potential, then where do I land? Is that rejection letter a message from my upper limit? Do I or do I not have what it takes?

Then I remembered the first race I ever ran. It was in second grade, and the teacher lined up the entire class and told us to run until we reached the far wall. One, two, three, Go! And away we went. I was the first to touch that wall, but as I looked down at the row of children arriving a stride or two later than I, I understood – somehow – that I wasn’t actually faster than anyone, I was simply the one who was most completely invested in the race on that day. The result that singled me out was the consequence of my attention, and nothing else.

I cannot prove this, of course. I don’t really know about fast twitch muscles and slow twitch muscles and genetics and the rest. What I do know is that this understanding has served me well every since. If I can but remember to see the field as utterly level, ignore the great disparity in human achievement and experience, ignore awards and sales and money and age and disease, ignore everything but what I wish to create and where I wish to go, then I do not need to ask, “Which am I?” I only need to ask, “What do I want?”

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

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The Equality of Stories

I grew up in the seventies and early eighties, when the civil rights movement and the women’s movement were still relatively new ideas. There was much talk of equality and inequality at this time. People were marching for equality, and arguing about it on the Phil Donahue Show, and writing editorials about it in newspapers. I was all for equality, but I found the current of hostility in the marches and the arguments and the editorials off-putting. Nothing I had ever wanted in my life had been achieved through hostility, no matter how well-intentioned. So I watched the marches from the sidelines.

This bothered my first girlfriend. Though she had never marched for anything herself, she was planning on doing so very soon. When that day came, she wanted me marching there beside her. “I don’t march,” I told her.

“But you have to. You have to care about things. Don’t you care about anything?”

The question confused me. I did care about things. I just didn’t want to fight or march or argue for what I cared about. I worried that this meant I had no conviction. “I care about the stories I write,” I concluded. “That’s how I’ll help people.”

“That doesn’t count.”

I believed it did count, but I didn’t yet understand why. Because at this same time I lived in a world where, for all our talk of equality, people of all political stripes seemed to spend a lot of time dividing each other up into categories and classes and ranks. In school we were graded and compared; the sports I played and followed all had winners and losers; and sometimes guys would say of certain girls, “Man, she’s out of my league.” I wanted to get good grades, and win the races I ran, and date pretty girls.

But I also wanted to tell stories. Telling a story was like creating a game where everybody won. When you told a story, the audience became whomever the story was about, whether it was a man or a woman, black or white, elf or dwarf. Though I did not love all stories equally, all stories offered an equal invitation to every reader. The only thing that could bar me from entering into a story I read or wrote was my own curiosity.

What’s more, the good feeling I got sharing a story with a friend lasted longer than the short, addictive high of getting a good grade. And the mysterious connection I felt with strangers when we laughed at the same joke or cried at the same ending was preferable to the unnatural separation from the other runners I felt when I won or lost a race. And of course, I didn’t actually want to date any pretty girl, I wanted to date the ones about whom I most curious.

I could not manufacture, control, or command my curiosity, be it for girls or stories; I could only obey it and move effortlessly, or deny it and struggle against its ceaseless current. The choice was always mine, and no one could take it from me nor make it for me. In fact, it is the only true choice I have had to make, a choice I can only assume is open equally to everyone. Perhaps someday the world of schools and politics and publishing will perfectly reflect this inherent equality, though I do not predict I’ll see it in my lifetime. No matter. I will care about the next choice I make as much as I cared about the last.

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 Friendly World

If you are a writer then you are also probably a reader, and somewhere in your reading past you probably discovered a writer who inspired you, not only to pursue writing, but reconnected you to life in a way you found both surprising and necessary. You love this writer and you are vaguely in awe of this writer. You describe the author as a “great writer”; you might even call this author a genius.

It is understandable. To be inspired and reconnected to life is a holy experience – by which I mean an experience that offers a transcendent glimpse of life beyond our daily, physical struggles. It is a great relief to glimpse life from this vantage. I am always grateful and feel mildly in debt to anyone who can help me do so. I feel as though I owe them something, and because most are dead, it is tempting to worship them, to honor them as one would a saint.

But if I truly want to honor those writers who most inspire me, I must acknowledge our equality. To create a hierarchy of humanity is, in my mind, to fall from that transcendent perch, back to earth where this one makes more than that one, and some are stronger and some are weaker, and some are smarter and some are more talented. We call this Hell on Earth – or what pessimists refer to as “reality.”

Everything inspiring ever written was born from the awareness of our inescapable equality. This equality so contradicts the laws of the world we believe we live in, that it is often difficult to perceive. The stillness and quiet of the workroom is a great place to practice finding it again and again. If I can find it a hundred times when I am alone, perhaps I’ll find it once in the company of others – and in that holy moment, find the friendly world in which I have always 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

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Separated

If you are a writer, you probably have a list favorite authors, authors you discovered years ago who inspired you and who revealed to you what was possible in the written word. When I was eighteen I discovered T. S. Eliot, and after reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock I actually said aloud, “Oh, you can do that!” By “that” I meant express big ideas in simple, even conversational language. Prior to then, I thought big ideas required big language. It was through Eliot that I learned the opposite was nearly always true.

More than that, he, like many other artists I was discovering at that time, was exciting something within me. Art valued and targeted my emotional life above all other concerns, above intellectual learning and politics and right and wrong. This awareness was both intimate and universal, a yin and yang that pointed a very secular young man toward the spiritual. In this way, the artists I discovered where like holy men and women to me.

It was natural, then, to place them on pedestals, to set them apart from the mere mortals with whom I spent most of my time. The problem was that I was one of those mere mortals, and I did not know how one went about becoming deified. It turns out that the best way to “honor” an artist whose work I love is to see that artist as my equal. What I called greatness was merely one person’s exquisite recognition of our absolute and irreversible equality.

It is not so easy to do. Humans love to rank themselves, and compare themselves, and grade themselves, and divide themselves into neighborhoods, political parties, and races, and classes, and genres. At times it seems to me as if all human energy is spent ceaselessly trying to separate what cannot be separated.

As an artist, who wants to express what he sees from where he stands and what he has lived, the temptation to join in the effort to separate us all is great. How else to know what I want to say, to be heard and recognized, to get out of the pews and onto the pulpit? But after years of trying to find what set me apart, I decided to write one simple piece about what connected us. What a relief I felt when I’d finished that story, to simply follow the river rather than try to divert its waters where I believed they should flow.

“Oh,” I thought. “You can do that.”

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 Meeting Place

I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Semple in 2010, after she had published her first novel, This One Is Mine, and apparently before she had begun writing her breakout bestseller, Where’d You Go, Bernadette. She was feeling philosophical about her novel writing career that day. “I don’t know what I’m going to write next,” she said. “I might just be a one novel author. That would be okay.”

In the middle of the interview she reflected on the self-doubt she faced while writing This One is Mine. “Why would anyone be interested in this?” she found herself asking again and again. It was a debilitating and unanswerable question, a question many, many writers ask regardless of their experience level. She eventually found a novelist friend who explained that if she liked the book then someone else would like the book also. She found his answer credible enough to finish the novel and see it published.

But I suspect that that question was still following her around her Seattle apartment that day. It’s a very pesky question. I liked Maria very much. She’s naturally funny, by which I mean her humor flows in and out of whatever she’s talking about. I don’t think she knows how to speak without humor. She is also not someone, it seemed to me, overly concerned with self-control. Given the option, she’d rather let it rip, which happened to make her a very entertaining subject for an interview.

This One Is Mine was funny, but Maria let something loose in Where’d You Go, Bernadette that felt a lot like the woman I met that day. Sometimes the story I most want to tell feels so close to how I think and talk and see the world that it’s hard to imagine that story inhabiting anyone’s imagination but my own. I can no more imagine who would like to read it than imagine who would want to be me. Yet it is the very intimacy of what interests me most that becomes the portal through which I have reached the most people. I am unique, but I am not so very different than anyone else. I am continually seeking agreement with myself, and when I do, I find that place within me where all friends and strangers are welcome.

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

True Equality

I was talking the other evening to a young woman about the concept of talent. She had heard me say that I didn’t really believe in it, that talent was just another word for love. This woman had just begun playing an organized sport for the first time in her life. It seemed quite clear to her that some people were conspicuously more talented than others. She loved to play this sport, and yet no matter how hard she worked she could not play it as well as certain women on her team.

Such is the trap we can fall into when we pit ourselves against one another on the field – a field we ourselves invented, a field that would have been nothing but a featureless expanse until we drew lines on it and said you must get here before everyone else. There is no doubt that if you tell a crowd of people to run, someone will run the fastest, and so we will call that person more talented than the others, and maybe – just maybe – infer that such talent raises that person’s value above the others.

But now imagine these people running were simply characters in a story you were writing. In the world of fiction, a loss is as valuable as a win, narratively speaking. Does the character need to learn humility? Perhaps a loss is just the thing, or maybe a close second. The outcome means nothing; the story means everything.

Why do we think life is any different? Do we really think true equality means lining up everyone, young and old, at some arbitrary starting line and then having everyone reach some arbitrary finish line at precisely the same time? Life cares nothing for your wins and losses; it cares only for you. How you will savor the story of your defeats when the time comes, relish in the meaninglessness of what you once called loss, for here you are still standing, having found more in defeat than you might have gained in victory.

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
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Equal Players

I was watching the Brian DiPalma film The Untouchables the other night, and it occurred to me that there was only one actual relationship in this story – that between Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness and Sean Connery’s Malone. Malone and Ness are equals in spirit, though not rank, possessing two equal but necessary perspectives on the same problem: taking down Al Capone. The evolution of these two men’s perspective drives the story forward. The other characters are mostly personalities that serve a narrative purpose within and around this central relationship.

It was a useful observation from a writing perspective. Malone and Ness’s equality was essential for the story, and without it the relationship doesn’t really exist. In the best stories I have read or watched this equality feels present nearly every time two characters are together. Nearly, but not always, of course. The prison guard opening the cell door without a line only exists so that the door is open and not closed. He is not equal within the story.

It is easy to forget as we write our stories or as we go about our day looking out from the first person present tense perspective of our own consciousness that the equality of true relationship is actually universal. It is present even with the cashier and the stranger at the bus stop, bit players and extras in my life, but humans nonetheless in full.

I am the leading man in the story of my life, and I can still be surprised when I meet someone new who does not recognize this, who seems to believe, in fact, that it is I who has stumbled onto the set of his movie. This happens only every single time I relate to another human being, and I am still getting used to it. This, I believe, is what the political among us really mean when they talk about the “struggle for equality.” It is the struggle to write our laws to reflect the reality in which we have always existed, just as we struggle to write our stories to reflect the life we have always 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.

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