Writing, Fame, and Kindness

When I was a young man, I wanted to be famous. It didn’t matter so much as what, though early on I recognized that writing was the most appealing path to follow. Fame, it seemed to me, meant freedom – freedom from worry, freedom from poverty, freedom from irrelevance and obscurity, and freedom ultimately from the suicidal thought that nothing I did or said actually mattered. If something I did or said reached and moved other people, then somehow this meant that what I had done or said mattered, which meant I mattered, which meant life itself mattered. So I wanted be famous.

I ended up spending about twenty years waiting tables, which was perhaps the exact opposite of my original career goal. When you’re a server, you have to forget about yourself. To do your job well, you have to forget about what you want and listen carefully to what other people want, bring it to them, and then go away. Your opinion matters little, though your patience and compassion mean everything. People come to dinner in all different moods, and from all different walks of life. To do your job well, you have to treat them all with equal kindness.

All the time I was serving people I was also writing; it’s just that no one was reading what I was writing. And yet sometimes I would come home after a shift, and there I would be, sitting alone in my living room, my wife and children already asleep, and if I didn’t think about being a waiter, or the stories I hadn’t sold, or how old I was, I found I would forget what it was I thought fame would free me from. I did not know what to make of this experience. It felt like giving up, and yet it wasn’t.

By and by I left the restaurant and was asked to start an online magazine. Now, people were reading what I was writing, which was strange because the experience did not feel significantly different than when people weren’t reading what I was writing. There is not much that can influence what it is to sit alone at your desk and translate your curiosity into essays and stories, except the unanswerable question of how to measure whether what you are doing matters. Does it matter if no one else is reading it? What if one person reads it? What if a million people read it?

A better question to ask, I learned, was, “What is the very best thing I can share with other people?” When I asked this question it was as if I was a server again, because to answer it I had to forget about myself. I had to forget about whether I was better or worse, whether I was right or wrong, and just listen. I was never as kind to myself as when I sat alone at my desk and listened. To listen was to be free from the idea that the difference between people matters.

Some days I listen better than other days. Some days I find I am just listening for what I want to hear. There is no kindness in this, only judgment. When I was younger and dreaming of fame, I would not have guessed that judgment is imprisonment and kindness is freedom. It got all mixed up as I looked and looked for what I already had.

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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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Nothing Lost

The stories we write are not unlike children we raise. We grow them with love and attention in our home and then send them out into the world where they will grow yet again. What becomes of your child will always be rooted in how that child’s life began in your care. So too with the stories you write. The relationship your stories eventually form with your reads began in your heart and your mind. But that relationship, strangely, has very little to do with you.

Imagine you had a child who became very famous. Once you said, “Sing Mommy another song. You sing just like a angel.” Once you argued with her, and laughed with her, and asked her what kind of cereal she wanted for breakfast. Now she stands on a stage and sings for ten thousand people. Those people might dress like her, might read about her life in magazines or fantasize of meeting her someday. To those people, she is like a dream, and at times it feels as if she is singing just for them, her songs speaking so directly to the longing and loss in their very distant lives.

And perhaps the story you write will becomes famous. Perhaps ten million people will read it, will give over hours and hours of their life to this story, will suffer and rejoice with your characters and see the worlds you wrote in their own unique imagination. If these people love that story, they will feel as if you’ve written it just for them, as if they had summoned it in answer to some question. To them, it will be their story, for it was their life it altered in some small way.

Or perhaps only a few people will read it. How many people read your book will affect certain experiences you have after you finished the story, but it will not change your relationship to that story. That is as intimate and personal as your readers’ relationship to your story. What changed in you in the writing of the story cannot be undone by sales or awards or reviews any more than a young woman could lose her adulthood when her mother tells her again how she sings like an angel.

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

Imagine It

I am reading Gary Zukav’s Spiritual Partnership in anticipation of our upcoming interview. In it, he briefly describes the emotional turmoil that plagued the sculptor Michelangelo. Apparently, the older Michelangelo got, the angrier he got, until, in his eighties, he rarely finished a work, preferring instead to smash the sculptures with hammers.

Now that I think of it, Mark Twain apparently grew hard and bitter in his waning years. This is due in part, it is said, to the death of his daughter—but a lot of people have lost daughters and not drawn the curtain on hope.

It is sometimes important for artists to hear stories like these, grim as they sound. In his song “Star”, David Bowie sings, “I could fall asleep at night as a rock ‘n roll star/I could fall in love all right as a rock ‘n roll star.” Quite honest, that. Everyone, artists and non-artists alike, are frequently warned that success solves nothing, but everyone rarely listens.

So I don’t want to wag my finger. The warnings about fame and success and the rest are so often filled with the sour scowl of disappointment that it is hard to hear them clearly. What is so bad about millions of people reading your books or listening to your music? Why, nothing at all, of course.

But Bowie had it right, especially the falling asleep part. As with anything we long for to solve all our problems, we are seeking that universal stamp of approval that will free us once and for all from want. That is, wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t need anything to be happy? Yes, it would, except in the fantasy of fame, those who are not famous often forget that once this fame is attained they can never lose the fame or they would also lose their happiness.

The important thing to remember is the not-needing-anything-to-be-happy part. The desire is correct, but not the means of achieving that desire. The beauty of not needing anything to be happy is anyone can achieve it at any time. So when you look at another person and they seem free because they are beautiful or successful or famous or wealthy, you are actually a step closer to what you seek. If you had no idea of freedom, you would never be able to identify it incorrectly in another person. Forget the trappings you dressed it in, and seek the feeling for itself, because as every artist knows, if you can imagine something, it is only a matter of time before you find it.

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Shut The Door

Tomorrow I’ll be interviewing Henry Winkler, co-author of 14 children’s books and, for those born after 1985, the actor who portrayed Arthur Fonzarelli in the 1970’s sit-com Happy Days. Sometimes when I tell someone what I do they will get a blank look on their face as they try to think of something to ask me about my job. Invariably, they come up with this: “Who’s the most famous person you’ve ever interviewed?”

I suppose come Saturday I’ll have my answer to that. Truth is, the words “famous” and “writer” don’t usually belong in the same sentence, at least not as the idea of fame has evolved over the last half century. Yan Martel made this point during our recent interview. His book, Life of Pi, was a kind of famous book – sold millions worldwide, beloved, and so on – but Yan Martel retained his anonymity.

Yet beyond that, writers can sell millions and millions of books and even their name would still be completely unknown to the vast majority reading-age Americans. For instance, I think you would be hard pressed to find five people under 60 who aren’t aware that Twilight is about vampires. You would be hard pressed to find five people under 60 (at least non-writers) who know who Stephanie Meyer is.

All for the better I think. I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with fame, especially if you have chosen a career that puts you in front of a camera or on stage. In fact, if you can pass through the crucible of fame and come out the other side with your humanity and humility intact, you will only be better off for it.

But writing is a solitary business. You cannot love writing unless you also love to be alone. There are certainly those writers who also love to be in front of audiences, and they will hopefully find a means to do so, but most writers require long periods of isolation. I certainly do. As I’ve gotten older, I find I need more of it. I cannot write unless I can hear what it is I wish to say, and the noise of the public square can distract. Nothing, after all, is more distracting than wondering what someone else will think of what you have written, even if that someone has loved your work before. Shut your door to the outside world. You can open it when you’re done, but in the meantime allow the world through you in fertile silence—only there can everything you might want to say possibility exist.

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The Price of Fame

A confession. I had never, until starting this magazine, met a “famous writer.” Not even close. Now I have, though famous, for writers, is quite the relative concept. Which is to say, a writer can sell millions of books but still, name-wise, be less known than a the latest Hollywood ingénue. No matter – at least writers needn’t worry about paparazzi.

But I’m a writer, so I pay attention to certain things, and if someone has been on “The List” or won this or that award or spoken to Oprah, to me, at least, they qualify as famous. And the first time I met such a person, I have to admit, I was a little nervous. But I needed to be a professional, so I stowed my awkward awe and tried to behave as if this person were just a stranger whom I had invited into my home for a friendly chat.

I’ve since gotten over the shock of meeting famous writers, and all for the better. It will not do to put anyone on any kind of pedestal. Andre Dubus (coming Monday in our July issue) talked about how some people feel that they are called to writing the way someone is called to the priesthood.

I could relate. I was not raised with any sort of religion, but I was quite the spiritual kid, and so writers took the place of the saints. Where others had Jesus and Moses and Psalms, I had Eliot and Cummings and Faulkner. You have to get it somewhere. Trouble is, I had elevated these writers to sainthood because I needed them there, up on Olympus where Truth resided.  Then when it came time for me to write . . . well, I was no saint, obviously.

This is why meeting famous writers was so valuable.  They were, in fact, just people. So yes, the mantel “Writer” belongs to anyone who would choose to claim it. But Andre Dubus made another very important distinction, which is that at the desk, he is a better man—more patient, more compassionate, less judgmental. This, I think is why we love the writers we do, because we are seeing their best side. We all have a best side. Greatness arises when you understand that being fallen some of the time does not negate the beauty and wisdom you feel and share the rest of time.

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