What’s the Point?

My wife and I have been homeschooling our youngest son Sawyer since he was thirteen because he could not cope with the traditional classroom. Neither Jen or I had any regrets about choosing to homeschool him, but as he got older Sawyer became increasingly worried that his education was not preparing him to lead a normal, independent, successful life. Now that he is 18, he voices those concerns nearly everyday.

I must point out that Sawyer’s worries are not totally unfounded. Even by homeschooling standards his education has been very unorthodox, a situation for which he is almost entirely responsible. Sawyer, you see, simply cannot make himself do something if he doesn’t want to do it. We would start many a lesson only to have him abandon it mid-class from lack of interest. This is why traditional school was impossible. In school, we are always asking children to do something whether they feel like doing it or not. My wife and I, like a lot of people, could manage this. Sawyer could not, and so here we are.

I happen to know there is nothing wrong with where we are, but it is hard for Sawyer to see what I see. These days, in the middle of our class, he’ll bury his face in the couch cushion and moan, “What’s the point? I’ll never go to college. I’ll never be able to sit through a GED test.” The other day, instead of bucking him up, I suggested we just start our music class. “What’s the point?” he asked again.

“You like it,” I said.

“Fine” he replied, and trudged over to the piano.

One of the things I’ve seen is that Sawyer has an intuitive musical understanding. I’ve seen this since he was three, when he drummed along to Hey Jude and his rhythm was spot on. This afternoon we were working on composition, for which he also has a knack. “Don’t modulate,” I told him as he started playing. “Just for this exercise, stay in the same key.”

He agreed, and began a chord progression. In the middle of the song he stopped and looked up at me conspiratorially. “You see what I did there? I skipped over C Major. I hate C Major. It’s such a boring, vanilla chord.”

I quite like C Major, and so we began to have little debate about its value. I suspected that Sawyer, a natural contrarian, didn’t like C Major because it’s sort of the mother of all chords, making it too mainstream. I had an idea. I told him to sit on the couch while I played a series of major chords. I was so certain that his objections weren’t based on the sound of C Major, but the idea of C Major. If he didn’t know a C Major was being played, he’d have a different idea of it. So I started. A Flat Major, D Major, G Major, E Flat Major, C Major—”

“See what I mean? It’s just so boring.”

I looked at my son. He was not even mildly impressed that he could easily identify a C Major chord by ear. His attitude suggested he believed anyone could. Anyone could not. I thought of how often, when I was 18 – and 28, and 38 – I found myself asking, “What’s the point?” I just wanted some certainty that the seeds I was planting would grow into something meaningful and interesting. Yet all my plans and ideas could offer me no guarantees other than my interest in them.

I’m in my own garden now, and everything that bloomed tallest and strongest grew out of what came most easily to me, what I often assumed everyone knew and everyone could do. The point, I continue learn, is always right in front of me – in the next most interesting step, the next most interesting word.

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

Making Something

I have always thought of myself as ambitious, which, if pressed, I’d have once admitted was the steady and quiet desire to make something of myself. I would not be some idle passenger in my own life, twiddling my thumbs until they dumped me in the ground; I would grab the wheel and captain this ship to some port of my own choosing. I would go somewhere.

The problem with wanting to go somewhere and make something of myself is that I am always somewhere and I am always something. I have tried calling some places nowhere and I have looked in the mirror from time to time and thought maybe I was nothing, but these perceptions had the same unreality of the stories a writer cannot make himself write. Just as when I have found myself forcing a story somewhere it didn’t want to go, I learned eventually to step back from the mirror and let my mind return to stillness, a quiet space removed from the din of doubt and comparison.

I cannot fear this stillness. I cannot mistake it for the catastrophic termination of a shipwreck. As a writer, I have had to make a friend of that stillness as I have the blank page. That is where I must go to understand my role in my own life. I have come to see writing as my decision to join a conversation already in progress. It is a conversation that began long before I was born and will continue long after I have died. It is a conversation that only gets better and richer and more interesting as it evolves and draws in more and more participants.

Writing in this way taught me that what I call ambition is merely the decision to participate in my own inevitable evolution. The stillness of the blank page reminds me that my choices are my role in that evolution. No one can make those choices for me; stories do not write themselves. Whether I choose to write or not, however, does not stop the desire to write, that ceaseless call from life to join in the conversation. The moment I choose to heed that call, I am exactly where I want to be, and I remember again exactly what I am.

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

Life Lessons

Writing has taught me that the only real currency that people value is how we feel. As a writer I never write about what is happening, I am writing about how a character feels while something happening. I do not report on the fact of the rain, I write about what it feels like to stand in the rain, or be chased by a killer, or see the woman I love, or be stuck in traffic. The feeling is the experience. The environment – whether it’s the rain, or a killer, or traffic – are merely opportunities for the reader (and often the writer) to learn who that character is. The character that sings in traffic to cheer himself up is different than the character that angrily honks his horn at the other drivers.

As a writer – as an author – I ultimately want to sell what I’ve written. As a fellow human, I know that I buy stuff that I think is valuable. That’s why I know I’m selling my readers a feeling. I’m a feeling merchant. My readers will forget most of what I write about, but if what I’ve written resonates with them, they will remember how they felt at the end of the story. Which is why I must be deliberate in choosing what my stories feel like. The feeling the story wants to share dictates what will happen in it, never the other way around.

It took me many years, but eventually I began to apply this same awareness to my whole life. It is my job, as the author of my life, to choose how I want to feel in any situation and then use that situation to learn how to feel that way. And by the way, I only want to feel good. I only want to feel peaceful and safe and interested and valuable and loved. There has never been a single moment in my life when I have wanted to feel bored, or agitated, or valueless, or unloved. And yet I have felt that way often. And every time I did, it is because I believed the situation required it of me.

This is what happens when I forget I am the author, not a character. Characters in my stories don’t get to choose how they feel. Sometimes the story needs them to be happy and sometimes the story needs them to be sad. Their feelings are in service to something bigger, which is the gift I ultimately want to share with my readers. As the author of my life, I cannot always choose what is happening, but I can always choose how I want to feel while it is happening. No one and nothing can stop me from making that choice.

I know I won’t always succeed immediately. Some situations are more challenging than others. It is easier to feel loved when someone says, “I love you” than when they say, “I hate you.” But failure in this case is only delayed learning, just as rejection letters are delayed acceptance letters. If I choose how I want to feel, success is inevitable, though I may have to learn the many lessons time kindly provides.

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

Just Learning

I write about writing and creativity all the time, but the other thing I write about is what I learned raising a son who was diagnosed with autism (for instance, this piece in the New York Times). The two subjects are surprisingly related. The lesson, for lack of a better word, that I learned raising Sawyer, my son, is that no one is broken – not him, not me, not you, not anyone. It’s the best lesson I’ve ever learned, and one I continue to understand more deeply every day.

One thing I’ve come to understand about brokenness is that pretty much everyone believes in it – men and women, scientists and ministers, artists and stockbrokers. Sometimes it seems like the only thing people can agree on. We just don’t agree who is broken; we only agree that someone is broken. Sometimes that someone is us; often it’s somebody else. You know it when you see it.

Except you don’t really. Our belief in brokenness and wholeness has everything to do with our belief in success and failure. Which brings me back to writing. Like Sawyer, writing has taught me much, including success’s infinitely malleable definition. Your success is not my success, just as your goals are not my goals, just as your interest is not my interest. Our concept of failure, meanwhile – that death-like end of happiness and potential and growth – is a reflection of our belief that there is a universally agreed upon definition of success.

There is no success and failure; there is only learning. Nothing else ever. Just learning. As a schoolboy, I won races and lost races. For the victories I was given trophies. For the losses I was given nothing. I learned equally from the victories and the losses, though at the time I resented the learning the losses offered. No matter. Years on, I no longer have the trophies, but the learning from the victories and losses remains, as the branches in a tree remain and continue to grow.

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

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

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.

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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

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.

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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

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