Unreal Journey

I quit college when I was twenty-one to become a writer. That was the plan, anyway. I didn’t need to spend tens of thousands of dollars at a university to write; I could do it for free at my desk. The problem was that although I loved to write and had a naturally diligent work ethic, the plan to become a writer felt entirely like a fantasy. I could not feel the sequential connection between the reality of sitting at my desk typing words onto a blank page and the reality of those words being read by strangers in a published book.

It made the supposed job of writer confusing. The job of writer felt nothing like the other job I took to earn money. Nothing about the job of waiting tables at a café and then a BBQ joint felt anything like a fantasy. That was reality, baby. That was a time card, and cash in my hands, and actual living people to laugh with and complain about. The job of waiting tables felt like life as I already understood it.

The fantasy of the job called writing did not. The act of writing felt like reality because I’d been doing that all my life. But the job of writing, of author, felt as unreal as a city I had never visited. Post cards and guidebooks and movies cannot begin to simulate the experience of living in the city itself. And so it was as if I was on a journey, but because I could not see my destination, every step I took felt as unreal as my imagination’s rendering of the city to which I believed as I was headed.

Strange, but I needed to look to no further than the very stories I was telling to know how to get where I wanted to go. A book is written one word at a time, each word the best the writer can choose at that moment. There is no other way. So too that unreal journey. I never needed to know what the city looked like or what I would do when I got there. The only one question I have ever needed ask is, “What is the best step I can take at this very moment?” The answer is reality; the rest is a dream.

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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Dreaming of Reality

The day after I sat down to write my first novel, I began picturing myself speaking to groups of people about it. This fantasy did not aid in the writing of the book, but it did not stop either. Eventually I wrote poetry and sketch comedy, both of which put me in front of audiences, but when I returned to novels, so did my fantasies of speaking to groups of people about the books I’d written.

It is not quite accurate to call my daydreams of speaking to people fantasies; they felt more like preparation. Sometimes, I would rehearse exactly what I would say about a certain subject, rewording the important parts of my lecture just as I would rewrite the novels I sent to agents and editors. The only thing missing in this experience was the audience, those other people to whom I would speak. It was their absence that kept this dream feeling like a fantasy, something a better version of myself might do in a different life.

Until one day I was taking a walk and speaking once again in my imagination to a group of people about creativity and fear and free will, when I stopped. I had learned by this time that it was one thing to have an idea for a story, but another thing altogether to write that story. It was only in the actual experience of writing a story that I would learn if it were truly a story I was interested in telling. As powerful as it is, the imagination cannot fully simulate lived reality.

You actually have to do it, Bill, I said to myself. It was the first and only time in my life that I had given myself this ultimatum. More importantly, on that day I allowed for the possibility that the reality of speaking to people would be less appealing than the dream of speaking to people. It was just another story, after all. If I didn’t want to live the story of Bill Who Spoke to Groups of People, I could find another one.

As it turns out, this was a story I wanted to tell. And as is always the case, the lived reality was more delicious, more stimulating, and more satisfying than the fantasy. Reality is always complete and always growing, eager to give life to those seeds we call dreams.

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

Accepted Value

Andre Dubus defined a writer’s job as one of truth telling. I have to agree with this, and I believe that definition applies to all forms of writing, from romance to poetry to suspense and, yes, to fantasy. Fantasy is a tricky name for a genre, however, as it suggests perhaps the very opposite of truth telling.

A Course In Miracles defines a fantasy as an attempt to correct a problem that does not exist. I have come to understand that I wrote many novels that were fantasies, although they were all set on this planet, and not one contained a single elf or magic sword. These novels were written precisely to correct the problem of my unperceivable value. I believed that if I could write and publish a very specific sort of book then my value would be established and unquestionable.

For this reason, the books never felt real to me. They were largely shadows I hoped one day would take full form within the light of acceptance. I might as well have hoped to meet Santa Claus. Writing is an expression of value, not a pursuit of its acquisition. The writer looks within himself at what he perceives as valuable and translates it into a form that can be shared. It is never, ever the other way around.

Eventually I began to share what I knew to be of value. Immediately, the work changed. What I was writing now had the feeling of something that already existed, something I could not have created alone but which was happy to remain still long enough for me translate into words and stories. In those moments I gained what I had long believed I lacked: acceptance. It was quite surprising to learn that what I had thought was the end of a writer’s journey was actually its beginning.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite 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

Accepted Value

Andre Dubus defined a writer’s job as one of truth telling. I have to agree with this, and I believe that definition applies to all forms of writing, from romance to poetry to suspense and, yes, to fantasy. Fantasy is a tricky name for a genre, however, as it suggests perhaps the very opposite of truth telling.

A Course In Miracles defines a fantasy as an attempt to correct a problem that does not exist. I have come to understand that I wrote many novels that were fantasies, although they were all set on this planet, and not one contained a single elf or magic sword. These novels were written precisely to correct the problem of my unperceivable value. I believed that if I could write and publish a very specific sort of book then my value would be established and unquestionable.

For this reason, the books never felt real to me. They were largely shadows I hoped one day would take full form within the light of acceptance. I might as well have hoped to meet Santa Claus. Writing is an expression of value, not a pursuit of its acquisition. The writer looks within himself at what he perceives as valuable and translates it into a form that can be shared. It is never, ever the other way around.

Eventually I began to share what I knew to be of value. Immediately, the work changed. What I was writing now had the feeling of something that already existed, something I could not have created alone but which was happy to remain still long enough for me translate into words and stories. In those moments I gained what I had long believed I lacked: acceptance. It was quite surprising to learn that what I had thought was the end of a writer’s journey was actually its beginning.

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

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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Human Reality

I’ll be going on vacation next week, and when I return I’ll be spending a day or so at the PNWA’s Summer Conference, including teaching an “Author’s Master Class” Saturday morning (July 21). I’ve always enjoyed the conference, which I’ve been attending since long before I started Author. I was only in my twenties when I attended my first conference to pitch the first novel I’d finished. I had exactly one appointment with one agent.

I had no idea what to expect. When I imagined this conversation, the agent was cruel and dismissive. She wanted to know why I was wasting her time. Didn’t I know who she was? This seemed very uncalled for, and so I delivered an imaginary speech to this imaginary agent about the real money I’d spent on the conference, and about the real value of every writer’s voice. When my speech was done, I thought, “That was unpleasant. I wonder how it will really go?”

How it went was she was very nice and interested in my book. I left the meeting reminded again of the difference between fantasy and reality. When we think of fantasy, we are usually referring to an ideal vision of the world, one arranged neatly for our success or pleasure. But fantasies take all shapes, including evil literary agents. We call these nightmares, but they are fantasies just the same.

Which is why I like writers conferences so much. Every year they ground me again in the human reality of writing and publishing. What a continuous mess my fantasies make of the world. What monsters those agents and editors become; what clownish parodies those other writers. And then I attend a conference and breath the reassuring air of human reality. No monsters or clowns here, only people.

Good to remember before I head back to my desk. My job now keeps me in more constant contact with those people called writers and agents and editors, but I can always use another dose of human reality. Good to see again the fullness of life in a stranger’s face across the conference hall. Good to remember and then feel it again in myself.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Life Ought To Be As It Is

A number of authors I have interviewed, particularly writers of commercial fiction, will in the course of discussing their maturation as writers mention a “first, horrible, autobiographical novel.” One writer described this first effort as the “worst novel ever written by anyone.” I thought nothing of it until I noticed that all these writers would go on to create works set in places, times, or professions (a magical land of wizards and dwarves, the Revolutionary War, international spy) with which they themselves had no personal acquaintance.

Most likely those first novels were fantasies. I do not mean the genre. Many of the best fantasy novels are not fantasies, which, to borrow from one of my favorite books, is “the attempt to correct in the mind a problem that does not exist.” And so a man remembers being a shy teenager, and remembers the boys that bullied him and the girls that wouldn’t date him, and writes a first novel in which a boy looking and sounding very much as he had exacts vengeance on his enemies and gets the girl.

The man had perceived a problem where one did not exist. He perceived the bullies as a problem and the girls not dating him as a problem. Within this perception of a problem he felt inadequate and incomplete, quite literally lacking, for if he had been enough the boys would not have bullied him and the girls would have desired him. And yet there was no problem. Everything that occurred with him, with the boys, and with the girls, occurred within the integrity of life. Everything that happened happened because of who he was and who they were and where they were and when they were. To correct this is to attempt to correct life itself, and such attempts will always feel disingenuous.

If a writer wishes to write about his own past, he has must do so to remember, which is perhaps the opposite of dismember. He must see as whole what he had seen as broken. Or, he might take a version of himself, one free of the unhappy story he had once told himself in his unhappy past, and place this avatar in some foreign land so as not to be tempted to correct that with which he is too familiar, and call this avatar his hero, for that is what he is. Now this new story feels more real than the stories of what he had really known. And so he might say, “I write about life as it ought to be,” even as he is finally writing about life as it actually is.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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The Whole Planet

At some point today (if it hasn’t already occurred), the new issue of Author will go live, included in which is my interview with Lev Grossman. Besides being the book critic for TIME magazine, Lev is the author of the bestselling YA fantasy genre-bender The Magicians, and its sequel, The Magician King.

Lev is also the son of the award-winning poet and professor Allen Grossman, as well as the novelist/critic/professor Judith Grossman. As Lev put it in his interview, in order to write The Magicians, his third novel but his first in the fantasy genre, he had to “come out” to himself as a lover of magic and monsters. After all, he was raised in a temple to literature, where writing about wizards – not ironic wizards, not metaphorical wizards, but actual wizards – can be seen as a kind of heresy.

Good thing he did. I love that which gets called literature. In fact, if I were to call anywhere home, both as a reader and as a writer, it would be literature. But to me, if literature has but one aspiration it should be to remind readers that life is worth living no matter any circumstantial evidence to the contrary—and the only life worth living is one that most pleases he who is doing the living.

And anyway, I dislike all these genres. I know we need them to sell books, and a bookstore, virtual or otherwise, is a big place, so there’s no going back. But could anyone put you into a genre? They could put your career into a genre, your ethnicity into a genre, perhaps your religious beliefs into a genre—but what about you? All of you? Where do you really belong but here in the great, open bookstore known as Planet Earth? Only the whole of Planet Earth will suffice for the whole of you—not this city, not this family, not this genre—because like Lev Grossman you reserve the right to change your mind, and when you do, the rest of Planet Earth will be waiting for you.

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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Tyranny’s Fantasy

I wrote yesterday about the difference between imagining and fantasizing. Another way to view works of fantasy as opposed to imagination is that the imagination works with life’s potential to allow through events aligned with the desire summoning them. In other words, the imagination doesn’t care which events it allows, it only cares that those events align with the feeling or the desire.

So in fiction, say, you start with a feeling of love or danger or conspiracy or whatever interests you, and very quickly images and characters and conflicts are brought to you and you sort through these potential stories until you find the one most aligned with the feeling you wish to share. It doesn’t matter whether you work in a genre or literary fiction. If you love to write thrillers, then you will always be holding and seeking the feeling of suspense and those suspenseful ideas will keep coming and coming to you.

So while telling a story from the imagination, whether with or without an outline, the only objective is to maintain the desired feeling or feelings – as stories are usually about an evolution or shift of perspective and the feelings that accompany these shifts. What are not so important are events. That is, if a character you love must die to fit the feeling you truly desire, then that character must die.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is all about events. It is saying, “How can I get this man with that woman?” It is saying, “How can I get this woman to defeat that villain, while her parents look on in new found pride?” Instead of the events arising from a desired feeling, the writer presumes given events will arouse certain feelings, even though he or she did not feel those feelings themselves when concocting the events.

I have had a lot of fantasies in my life, but not one of them has ever come true. Dreams, yes; fantasies, no. The fantasy is not interested in working with life, it just wants what it wants, and so life, not surprisingly, works only begrudgingly with it. A tyrant lives in a fantasy world, demanding his subjects suppress their will in order to act out some rigid vision of life the tyrant believes he requires to feel safe.

The mistake of the tyrant as with the writer or the parent or the child, is to confuse events for feelings. All feelings exist within all events, within the mundane and the heroic, and our job as storytellers is to reveal this truth to our readers—reveal love in war, loss in lovemaking. In so doing, we help dispel the myth that anyone is ever required to feel anything at any given moment. That would be slavery, the key to whose chains is held only by the imagination.

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

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Imagined World

Like a lot of writers, I spend a good part of my waking hours daydreaming. These daydreams tend to fall into two categories: fantasies and imaginings. I much prefer the imaginings to the fantasies, though it is not often clear where I’m headed at first, though some obvious signs quickly emerge.

In my fantasies people I disagree with always come around to my point of view. Usually, this takes a few tries—a number rewrites, as it were—but eventually I get it just right and they have no choice but to change their misguided ways. This is always strangely unsatisfying. By the time I am finished with whoever it is that opposes me they no longer seem like themselves, so I do not have the sense of having revealed anything to anyone. In fact, there is usually a dream-like moment at the end of these fantasies where I look up and discover I am actually alone.

In my imaginings I usually don’t bother with other people. I am aware that my pretend audience is just a prop to allow me to work out how best to say something I have never tried to say before. When I am done I feel satisfied because I understand something I did not when I began the imagining.

In my fantasies, I arrange events in my future like dominoes of convenience. The roulette wheel of life always lands so that I am immediately and generously rewarded. In my fantasies, I am far more interested in where I end up than I how I will get there. The excitement I feel is the false excitement of believing life will be better when . . .

In my imaginings, I see potential connections between where I am and what is possible. Often, I have missed these connections simply because I have never looked for them, or because I believed someone when they told me the connections did not exist. The excitement I feel is like that of the engineer, eager to see if his new design will fly.

When I am writing, I am careful to imagine and not to fantasize. It is tricky, as I said, for one can slip into the other. But the clues are always there. Fantasy characters never surprise me. They aren’t allowed to. They are pawns in a preconceived narrative conspiracy. Imagined characters are the lights that guide me through the darkness of a world I have asked to see.

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

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Leaving Fantasy Land

I have never been a fan of American Idol, and in particular I have never enjoyed the cutting assessments of would-be contestants who do not make it past that first audition. Not being a regular viewer, I would catch an ad for the up-coming season now and then, and there would be Simon Cowell saying the sorts of things to these young hopefuls that sound funny in theory but indulgent and cruel in person. What a mean man, I thought. What a mean show.

And then one day I found myself watching a kind of American Idol retrospective made up almost entirely of these first auditions, and my opinion was changed completely. What I saw was this: a parade of young men and women completely out of touch with reality. It wasn’t just that these people weren’t particularly strong singers yet, it was that they were still singing to themselves in front of the mirror. Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell’s remarks were usually, it seemed to me, the result of the exhausting job of having to tell person after person that they were essentially living in a fantasy world and that fantasy was now over.

There is a difference between imagination and fantasy. Imagination is the engine of change and all progress. But the imagination is interested in the connection of all things, as it pulls from what has been to create what will be. While the imagination pulls you ever forward, it is firmly routed in the moment, for that is the source of all its creativity.

In fantasy, we wish to skip ahead. We are uninterested in the journey from Here to the Fantasy Land, we just want to get there, without all the bother of learning how.  What those delusional American Idol contestants learned in one machete remark was that they did not in fact ever want to be singers. Being a singer was an idea they decided to finally test for the first time on national television.

I feel for these people, however, because I have spent more than my share of time in Fantasy Land. It’s an unsatisfying place. But I only traveled there when I told myself the road to some city I desired to reach might prove too difficult. What if, by luck or a fatal lack of ability, I never arrived? Safer, it seemed, to invent the city myself. Eventually, however, I left Fantasy Land forever when I realized that it wasn’t that I was worried that I couldn’t get to where I wanted to go, it was that I might I never have wanted to go in the first place. That was a chance I was willing to take.

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