The Gift

Lingering in the back of everyone’s mind is the sometimes quiet, sometimes very loud question, “Am I good enough?” We spend so much time grading, comparing, judging and ranking ourselves that I don’t know how a person could avoid asking this question at least once, if only to test how it feels. It feels lousy, if you haven’t noticed, even just to ask it. Unfortunately, it also smells like the sort of question one must be able to answer “Yes!” to, because if we’re not good enough . . . well, that would be a problem, wouldn’t it?

Writers decide to write for many reasons. Usually, they love to write. Also, they would like to make money doing what they love. But these are not always the only reasons. Sometimes writers write and submit the stories and poems they’ve written so that these stories and poems will be rejected.

Yes, to be rejected. The more often you ask if you are good enough—and it matters not what you are pretending to wonder you are good enough at, that question only ever refers to us as a whole—the more likely the answer will be no. But we can answer no so quietly, so habitually, that we will soon grow accustomed to the sustained discomfort it provides.

You will not have that luxury as the rejection letters come in. Likely as not that quiet voice that whispered no sabotaged your story for this very purpose. Now, you will have to feel self-rejection acutely, and you will feel it again and again and again until you decide you are worthy of a life free from this suffering.

Such a gift, writing. Oh, I know, this is a gift you’d like to give back. Except that you crave, beyond any agent, publishing contract or Amazon ranking, the unequivocal yes you already are. Our lives are led to hold this permanently in our hearts, though it has never been anywhere else.

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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Finding Value

I was teaching a Fearless Writing class recently in which a student talked about what is perhaps an author’s most common fear: failure. You love the story, you write the story, you try to share the story, only to have it rejected. When I asked the student why he feared failure, what he imagined that experience to be, he said, simply, “Just – emptiness.”

Which makes perfect sense. Fear of failure, for writers in particular, is a natural response to misperceiving what it actually means to share something we’ve written with other people. It is common to look to other people to assign a value to what we have done. We do it in school with grades, at work with salaries and raises, with film and books reviewers, and we do it with publishers. By accepting our work, by giving us an advance, the publishers assign our work a value. Acceptance and rejection can appear to show us whether or work is worth writing or not worth writing.

Yet we do not share our work to learn its value, we share our work to extend its value. We only write about what we find interesting, and what we find interesting is always valuable to us. We never actually doubt whether we are interested in what we are interested in. How could we? But we do sometimes doubt whether anyone else will be interested. Or, to be more accurate, we realize it is impossible to know who will be interested in what interests us.

The emptiness my student described was actually a perfectly accurate rendering of what he knows about other people’s thoughts: Nothing. So, as writers, we must direct our attention back to what we do know, back to the story we love and are interested in and find valuable, and write it until what is on the page accurately reflects the value of what we perceived in our imagination. Then we share it with other people.

Some will see our story’s value, and some will not, just as some will laugh at our jokes and some will not. Once you begin to share your work regularly it will become clear that no one can assign value to what you find valuable. Your readers are just like you. All they know is what they find valuable. Your readers will find your stories the way you found your stories, but searching first within themselves for what interests them most.

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

Why Writers Can’t Actually Fail

I ran competitively when I was in high school. I enjoyed training and the camaraderie of my teammates and even my competitors at the track meets. I liked running as fast as I possibly could, and I liked how strong my body became, and how long I could run without getting tired. But I found the finish line a strangely confusing destination. Getting across it first seemed to mean more while I was crouched at the starting line than after I’d leaned through the tape. Win or lose, the race was over, and whatever consequences I attributed to my place at the end of it always felt more or less invented, like a story I would tell about Bill the Winner or Bill the Loser.

Years later I would begin pursuing a career as a writer. As careers went, this one seemed steeped in success and failure. Just as a marathon with 1,000 competitors can have only one winner, so too the world of writers appeared separated into haves and have-nots; the haves were few, the have-nots tragically many. I was determined to win this race. This was about more than some ribbon or trophy, after all; this seemed to be my whole life, my income and identity.

This is a terrible, terrible way to do anything. Or at least it was for me. For one thing, the finish line keeps moving. First it’s getting an agent, then a publishing contract, then getting on some bestseller list, then winning some award, and then winning a better award. Worse yet, the punishment for failure seems so extreme. It’s like a kind of death, an endless hell of what might have been.

Had I been able to tell my young writer self about all the rejections I would receive, all the books I would write but wouldn’t publish, I might have said, “Then I shouldn’t do this, because that is failure, and I do not want that life.” Incredibly, I would have been wrong. I say incredibly, because to this day the runner in me can’t quite believe that a finish line doesn’t exist. No matter how disappointed I was with this or that result, my desire to live my own life and make my own choices remained wholly unchanged, and it was from this desire that writing has and always will grow.

This became clearer to me once I began to have what I had once called success. Where once I had feared that someone might tell me I wasn’t good enough, that it was possible to be shown some eternal door and barred from happiness, now I was being told I was good enough – and nothing changed at all. I didn’t feel any better about myself, and I still had to face a blank page every morning, and I was still the only one who could fill it. It would be forever so until I chose not to face it. And even if I chose to quit facing the page I still wouldn’t have failed; I’d merely have taken my curiosity and intelligence and imagination and applied them elsewhere.

I know this may be of little consolation if you are at that point in your writing life where so much seems uncertain, where there is more rejection than acceptance. It easy from that place to spin dark fantasies about your future, a science fiction dystopia where nothing you write is read. Do not be easily hypnotized by the stories with which you terrify yourself at 2 a.m. Wait until you’re at your desk to tell your story on purpose, because like me, you do not know who will read it or like it, or if it will be published, or if it will win an award, but you do know you want to write it, and believe it or not, that’s good enough.

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

Miraculous Cure

I don’t go to doctors often, but there are days I would gladly ask a doctor to cut out my eyes, if it would keep me from ever looking to anyone else to tell me if what I what I’ve written was worth writing. I’m sure there’d be some residual pain from the surgery, but nothing compared to the death feeling of trying to live for other people’s approval. Unlike the current of creation I enjoy when I forget to listen to my inner critic or care about the world of acceptance and rejection, this swamp promises a journey where every step I take leads me further from the very peace I so crave.

Fortunately, no scalpel can remove this cancer. In fact, the disease’s cause and the means of its cure are one and the same. When I am deep in the swamp, this truth feels like a fairytale fiction. Save me your platitudes and good intentions. I need results! I need to know if what I’ve done is any good. At the very least, show me a target that I might hit it.

When I am deep in the swamp, I am sure I see the very target – until I aim, and then it is gone. This is what failure feels like. This is precisely what failure feels like, and if I believe in it, if I believe in the swamp and the target, it is as if I lose the same game every moment of every day. It is unlivable.

But the gymnast’s success on the balance beam depends as much on the discomfort of imbalance as the comfort of balance. How else does she know where her attention should lie? To make a friend of my disease is to hear what it is telling me. Move my attention to balance, back into the current, and I am instantly cured. You could call it miraculous, for gone are all the symptoms, all the pain and uncertainty, having left no scar, only a brief exhalation of relief as I find myself 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

Picking and Choosing

David Laskin’s breakout bestseller The Children’s Blizzard might never have sold over 100,000 copies or been described by the Washington Post as “a vital addition to the lore of Western immigrant pioneering” if either he or his agent had listened to a certain New York editor. The book tells the true story of an epic winter storm that hit the upper Midwest in 1888 and resulted in the deaths of several children surprised by the blizzard on their way home from school. Or, in the words of that particular editor:

“It’s just about a bunch of kids who got trapped in a snowstorm and died.”

Obviously David, and his agent, and his eventual publisher, and the 100,000-plus readers who bought and supported the book thought it was about a bit more than that. The great challenge of being an author, however, is that the editor who passed on the book and all those people who loved the book were both right. It is both a tragic portrait of luck and loss, and a brutal but meaningless anecdote. Depending on who you are, what you’ve lived, what you’re interested in, what you long for, and what you’re tired of, the Children’s Blizzard could be either.

This reality lives within every author. We tell the stories we tell and in the way we tell them because of what holds our curiosity and lights our imagination. But for every heads there is always a tails. No matter how perfectly a story is told, if we turn that story over and view it through the cruel lens of “what if?” we will behold a thing familiar in form but foreign in value.

Do not believe your story’s true value is a coin flip. It was not chance that led that one editor to pass, any more than it was chance that led David to tell his story – it was life. Life and its constant and unknowable movement toward love, a movement that is sometimes mistaken for rejection and acceptance, for praise and criticism, words we use to name the picking and choosing necessary to surround ourselves with the stories and people we love the most.

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

Rejecting Stories

My wife and I have been homeschooling our youngest son for the last few years. In September we mentioned to him that the woman from the state who evaluates him thought that with a little work he’d be ready to take the G. E. D. in another year. He was very excited to hear this, and for the first time since we pulled him out of public school embraced the math, science, and social studies work we gave him.

Soon, however, his enthusiasm for this sort of formal study began to wane. He would cut off his math class after fifteen minutes, complaining he’d never use algebra in his daily life. He said the documentaries we found on American History and biology, no matter how well produced, were dull. I reminded him of his desire to pass the G. E. D., but this was ineffectual. Boring is boring, he said, and within a couple months our preparations for the G. E. D. had come to a standstill.

Then, a few weeks ago, my wife and I had a little conversation with him about the G. E. D. “What’s the point in preparing for it?” he asked. “I’m just going to fail it.” And then I understood. Of course his procrastination had nothing to do with the practicality of algebra or boring documentaries. It was that story he was telling himself. Why would anyone do anything if they “knew” they were going to fail? It makes no sense.

He has since returned to his G. E. D. studies for reasons that I will save for another day. But for that stretch when he was not studying for the test he very much wanted to pass, he reminded me of all the writers I knew who were not writing books they wanted to write. Usually these writers will complain about needy children or exhausting jobs, but they will rarely talk about the real reason: the stories they are telling about the stories they want to tell.

Having talked to and worked with hundreds of writers over the last few years, I have concluded that if a person sincerely wants to do something, the only reason they are not doing it is because of the story they are telling themselves. These are stories of impending failure, of lack of talent or of the world not being ready for their genius. We need to reject these stories as if we were editors in a journal of our own. Reject them, and tell only the stories we want to share with the world.

If you have a question, concern, or quibble you’d like addressed in this space, please, feel free to contact me. Answering other people’s question is one of those things that pleases me most.

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

The Balancing Act

Writing can happen in one place and one place only: The Present Moment. It cannot happen in the past, though we might – while in the present moment – focus our attention upon some past event for inspiration or material. But the writing itself happens in the present moment. And of course it can’t happen in the future, that sometimes near, sometimes very distant land where the story we’re writing will live when it’s finished. All creation happens in the present moment, because that is all that actually exists.

I have to remind myself of this every time I sit down to write. How easy to let my attention drift into the past, where I believe all my failures reside. Failure always lives in the past, in whose shadows, like a moss, it can thrive. In the bright hot light of the present moment – in which life is only potential, in which life is only forgiving, in which life is only curious – the concept of failure has no purchase for its hopeless roots.

And how equally easy to let my attention drift into the future, where I believe the value of what I am creating in the present moment will be revealed. I don’t want to waste my time, after all. Why write something that no one wants to read? To ask such a question is to hold my stories hostage until such time as the ransom of other people’s approval has been paid.

Which is why I have learned to ask myself two questions while I write: What do I want to say? And, Have I said it? Only the present moment can answer these questions. But keeping my attention where it needs and actually wants to be is a kind of balancing act, pulled as I am to the past and future. Drift too far either way and I will fall. No matter. The support of present moment remains ever true, and I need only return to standing to find myself where I have always been.

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

Unknown

In the middle of the Dark Years, when nothing I was writing was being read, I would occasionally threaten to quit writing altogether. “I will just quit it if things don’t turn around,” I told my wife.

“Really?” she asked. “And then what would you do?”

“I don’t know, but this ridiculous. I mean what’s the fricking point?”

“I get it, but what else would you do?”

It was a maddeningly unanswerable question. I was suffering. I knew this as certainly as I knew I was tired at the end of my day or thirsty after a run. But while I could sleep when tired or drink when thirsty, the power to end this suffering appeared to rest in other people’s hands. It was an unacceptable arrangement, a slave and slave master arrangement. More than to have my work read, I wanted to be free. I wanted my life to be my own.

Which is why I would threaten to quit from time to time. It was a suicidal choice, but sometimes it’s necessary to march yourself to that cliff if only ask, “Who’s making you do anything? Who’s making you breath and eat?” To take that leap is to remember the truth at last, as you fall freely into the unknown.

I’ll never be free from the unknown anymore than I can be free from blank pages. Those blank pages are my dependably unwritten future. They were also the answer to my wife’s question. When I wondered what else I would do, I perceived only a blank page, an unknown awaiting my attention, and the moment I stepped willingly into it, my life was my own 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.

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

Valuable Advice

Imagine you travel back in time to 1994 England. You stumble on a young woman scribbling away in a notebook in a pub. She looks familiar somehow, and so you say hello, introducing yourself as a writer. “I’m a writer, too,” she says.

“What are you working on? You look very engrossed.”

“Oh, I am. I just love this story. It came to me in a flash. It’s about this boy wizard who has to go to this wizarding school. Only it’s not set in a magical kingdom. It’s set in modern-day England.”

Not wanting to create a time paradox, you limit your response to: “Wow. Sounds great.”

“I know,” she said, but begins chewing on a fingernail. “The thing is, it’s a children’s book – which, of course, never make money, my agent said so – and I’m dead broke. On the dole, as a matter of fact. And it’s long. It’s as long as an adult novel, and children’s books should be shorter. So I’m wondering if should switch it around. Make it shorter, and also maybe set it in a proper magical kingdom, and maybe even take out the school part, because that’s not how fantasy books are written. I love the story, but I really want some kind of success. I’m a broke, single mum who failed at journalism. I just don’t know what to do.”

What would you tell her? Would you tell her she is at this moment sitting on a treasure beyond her gaudiest dreams of avarice? Would you tell her that all she needs to do is render as accurately as possible what she sees within herself and the results will astound her? Or would you tell her to look outside herself, at the market and what other writers have written?

It’s an easy answer in hindsight. It’s easy to name something’s value once a price tag has been put on it. It is not so easy maybe when you are alone at your desk, and a story has come to you, and it is similar to other stories but also different enough to both truly interest you and leave you worried that no one else will recognize its value. Yet I would never curse a writer with a time traveling advisor. Why deprive her of the chance to learn who really decides what something is worth?

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

Little Napoleon

My mother was a devoted practitioner of a Zen style of minimalist parenting, a style that suited me and my general desire not to be meddled with perfectly. Never was this style more expertly employed than when I was nine and first learning to play the flute.

The problem was the slurs. To slur, a flutist does not tongue each individual note but exhales one continuous breath so that the notes appear to run together as if they were poured out of a jug, rather than dropped one by one from your instrument. I couldn’t get it. Somehow by not pausing to articulate each note the whole business came out rushed and muddied. How disappointing: only three months into my musical expedition, and I’d reached my Waterloo.

After a particularly fruitless practice session, I marched to my mom’s bedroom where she may have been seeking refuge from the life of a single mother, and broke the news. “I can’t get the slurs,” I told her. “I’m going to quit.”

To which she replied: “Okay.”

I was caught completely off guard. I had prepared a passionate defense of my fluting ineptitude and the pain it was causing me. Did she want me to suffer through failure after failure? But the fight for which I had readied myself never came, and I turned around knowing I was not going to quit.

There is nothing failure loves more than opposition. It feeds off it. After all, if something is being opposed, then that something must exist. When your punches come back empty, you can only ask yourself what you were swinging at. I certainly did that day. This little Napoleon marched back to his music stand, victorious in his surrender.

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