Enough Experience

Writers are often advised to “write what you know,” which can be tricky advice if what you want to write is, say, steampunk vampire romance. You are not a vampire in love and you do not live in 1890 and fly a steam-powered helicopter. You do, however, love vampires, steampunk, and romance – in fact, you know you love these things – which is why you can write about them with authority.

But even if you are writing in a genre set in another time and place, you must still make the characters that inhabit these faraway and fantastic lands realistic – meaning they must respond to trouble and temptation and triumph the way people do. It doesn’t matter whether your characters are elves, barons, pirates, or cavemen, the universal human impulses that guide us all must guide them as well. Believability is paramount to all stories, and the moment your reader thinks, “That wouldn’t happen,” you’ve lost them.

Of course, humans are dizzyingly varied in their behavior – so varied that it can seem at times as if we are each a species of one. Which is why I have found my own experiences so invaluable. I will never know suffering, joy, confusion, or clarity better than through my own experience. Since my target audience is other people, I have come to depend on my own experiences to make what I write about seem believable to them, wherever and whoever they are.

Everything your characters feel, you have felt, and so has everyone else. I know this intellectually, but each time I sit down to write, I must remember that what I have experienced in my rather limited and quiet life is enough. It is enough to reach anyone if I can write about it clearly and honestly. It is enough to create far-off worlds, or to write essays about creativity. Because whether I’m writing about the past or some distant future, I am really writing about what it is to be alive.

We are all exactly as alive as each other, a simple fact that connects us in ways we cannot perceive as we stumble about crashing into one another and arguing and falling in and out of love. No matter. To write is to go deeply into my own experience and harvest what belongs to us all, share it, and then live some more.

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

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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 William at: williamkenower.com

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Trusted

I enjoy teaching writing, and while I do teach showing and not telling, and story structure, and contrast, often I wind up talking about trust. All this craft is useless without trust. Without trust, the whole writing operation collapses like a house of matchsticks because all writing is based on the idea that something only you can see and know would be interesting to someone else if translated accurately.

Yet only experience itself can teach us to trust. Fortunately, experience is a brilliant teacher. Experience gives perfectly consistent feedback, it never judges, and never grows tired of teaching. Experience turns words and ideas into reality, turns a concept into something you can live by. You can question an idea, but if you question your own experience, what is there left for you to believe in but someone else’s experiences?

As a mere human teacher, you quickly run up against your limits when trying to teach trust. It is as if there is a coin, and one side of the coin is everything we can all see. It is easy to talk about this side of the coin. But there is another side to this coin called reality, and if you turn the coin over you will see it. Sometimes, the rational mind feels that to turn the coin over is like being asked to believe in Santa Claus again. The rational mind wants proof that this other side of the coin exists before turning reality upside down.

The rational mind will therefore ask someone else to turn the coin over first. The rational mind debates law, history, physics. In such debates only what can be shown is valid. But no one can turn this coin over for you. It is yours to turn or not. This feels like hokum to the rational mind, but there it is all the same. Hokum is magic, after all, and what is asking to be trusted looks a bit like magic. In that moment of trust you find the only ground upon which you were meant to stand, and reality becomes something into which what you trusted may appear.

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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Old Wisdom

One of the advantages of writing a daily column is that it challenges me to avoid what I think of as the Old Man Story-Telling Syndrome. This is the habit of using the same stories so often that you end up spinning the same allegorical yarn to the same listener again and again, and then again. If you’re a really cranky old man, you think, “I doubt they were paying close attention the first time, so I’ll just forge ahead for their own good.” Since I’m not that old, and not nearly that cranky, I’d rather come up with something new.

The OMSTS is not an indicator of deterioration, however; were it so, I would already be showing signs of the onset of senility. But certain stories so encapsulate a lesson we’ve learned that it seems a shame to look elsewhere only to do the job half as well in the name of freshness. But I think it’s best not to get too attached to any stories, no matter how good they may be. They can turn you out of habit into a museum exhibit: an interesting and well-executed dust collector.

A writer I interviewed recently told me, “Your first novel is always your best.” She said it in a way that suggested this was old and accepted wisdom. It may be old, but I do not accept it as wisdom. The temptation to end our lives while we still walk and breathe follows us forever. No matter how far the light of our learning shines there remains that horizon of darkness for old and young alike. To stand at the precipice of the unknown and turn back is the path of fear, only made noble, as we grow older, with an irrefutable resume of experience.

My wife’s grandmother feared death until a few days before she passed, when this old skeptic matter-of-factly reported a visit from her own mother, telling her all was well. You can turn back, but the horizon remains whichever way you face. Even as you walk away, you resume walking toward, a traveler cursed since birth with curiosity, incapable of escaping an encounter with the unknown.

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

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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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