A Common Mistake

I have always written, but for many years I also wanted to be a Writer. It was as important to me as the writing itself. The writing, after all, took place in private, but the Writer was the one who had to get about the world. If I could be a Writer, I believed, then I could feel as free in public as I sometimes felt in private.

I desperately wanted to be free. As a Writer, I would have no job. A job was something I had to do to feed and clothe and house myself. This wasn’t freedom. This was paid slavery. No, to be free I had to be paid for something I would have gladly done whether I was paid for it not. Being free meant no one could tell me what to do or when to do it. Being free meant I would listen only to that same voice that guided me through what I wrote.

What’s more, I only wanted to think and talk and do what mattered. To write a story or a poem or an essay is to focus on what matters most about life. In the solitude of writing, I was free to look beneath the dull surface of things, to see clearly what was so often obscured to me in the bright lights and hubbub of the world away from my desk. If I were a Writer, somehow such stuff would be left to other people. If I were a Writer, people would only turn to me for Very Important Things.

I never spoke of this to anyone, including myself. It seemed too narcissistic. Yet even such fantasies, summoned by the ego in moments when it was uncertain of its worth, have served as some kind of beacon for my life. I still want nothing more than to be free, to live my life as I want to live it, and I still seek to turn my attention to what I believe matters most. I had just mistaken being a Writer for being me.

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

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Free Time

It is officially summer in the Kenower/Paros household, meaning our homeschooling – such as it was – is over. Meaning, I have a lot more free time. Free time is always great in theory, but not always in practice. It is every bit the blank page of my day, except that I have far less practice filling it.

I remember the summer conversation I would have with my younger brother more or less every morning. “What do you want to do?” I’d ask. “I don’t know,” he’d reply. “What do you want to do?” “I don’t know,” I’d say. We’d spent our school year waiting for this, talking about this, filling this in our imaginations, only to be confronted with the long, muggy emptiness of it. This was our emptiness, of course, which made it better than school, but sometimes only a little.

Time has a way filling itself if you let it, which is what I usually did as a boy. I am a man now, and I have trained myself to place different expectations on my time. This is one of the great reliefs of writing. When it’s going well, I forget all about time. While I am writing, I am as unaware of time as I am the chair in which I sit. But then I am done writing, and I hear again the wall clock announcing every new second, and the chair tilts as I lean back from the desk, and I have free time to fill.

My brother has a full-time job now, so I can’t bother him. I wander to the window, and notice that the bush by the gate is looking mangy, and the clovers have begun their yearly creep. I am uninspired. Not surprising. I am looking in the wrong place for inspiration. The blank page offers no advice or direction. That the world looks like a page already written is a trick of memory, mistaking what has already been for what is possible, mistaking time for measurement rather than an invitation.

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

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Every Writer Is Their Own Lawyer

I interview writers of all genres for Author magazine and Author2Author. If I wanted to, however, I could devote an entire magazine to interviews with writers who are or who have been lawyers. More lawyers migrate from their profession to book-writing than from any other profession – more than doctors, or teachers, or even journalists, strangely. I admit that I found this a little irritating at first. Must these life-long A Students be good at absolutely everything? Gradually, however, I understood that the overlap between writers and lawyers had less to do with achievement and far more to do with stories.

Lawyers are storytellers. One lawyer looks at the facts and says, “These facts show that the accused is innocent.” Another lawyer looks at those same facts and says, “These facts show that the accused is guilty.” Same facts, different story. Of course, depending on the story the lawyer is telling, they will choose to focus on some facts more than others; they might even choose to omit certain facts altogether. Such is storytelling.

It is useful sometimes to think of myself as a lawyer and my readers as the jury. You have perhaps heard that a writer should “show and not tell.” It’s true. I build my case, so to speak, by showing my hero saving a cat stranded in a tree so that my readers might reach the verdict that he’s a good guy. If I were to simply tell them the hero’s a good guy, they would have to trust me. By showing them and allowing them to make their own conclusions, I am asking my readers to trust themselves.

Once I am done telling my story, I remain a lawyer of sorts. Lawyers are hired to tell the story the client wants them to tell. If I were accused of some crime, I would hire a lawyer to look at the facts and tell the story of my innocence. To share a story I have written with the reading world is to subject myself to a snowstorm of facts: acceptance and rejection letters, advances, reviews, Amazon rankings, and bestseller lists. At such times I require my inner lawyer to maintain a story of my innocence.

Facts, after all, can tell many different stories, including the story of my guilt. It is possible to look at the facts and find myself accused of the crime of having written a boring book, or an irrelevant book, or simply a bad book. Judgment for such crimes is often swift and severe. The guilty are condemned to a life sentence without parole, for the talentless have no place in creative society.

I have started many such prison terms in my writing life, but my inner lawyer has always come to my rescue. He’s so reassuring. He has absolutely no doubt whatsoever of my innocence. Strangely, he doesn’t even want to talk to me about facts. He tells me to forget about the facts until I remember my innocence. He reminds me that a writer must tell the story he most wants to tell. The writer cannot let himself be imprisoned by convention, or the market, or some unwritten law about what is good and what is bad. He cannot write a single word until he is free. The page is blank for a reason.

I do love this lawyer of mine. Once I’m out of prison, he says, “Leave the facts to me, will you. Just get back to work.” Which I always do. Now that my conscience is clean I can return to the page, ready to trust my readers with a story of an innocent world.

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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Freedom

We show rather than tell because we cannot expect our readers to take our word for it. For instance, if I begin a story declaring, “Springfield, WA was a terrible town to grow up in,” I’m going to have to back this up with some evidence. Was it terrible because it was poor or because it was dull? Was it terrible because it was very conservative or because it lacked a sense of community? And who thought it was terrible? Surely not everyone. In this way, the adjective “terrible” is the accusation, and the details are the evidence offered for our reader-jury to pass their judgment.

I find this often comes up when I’m teaching memoir. It is not unusual for a student to write that the church in which she was married was ugly and that her father was distant. When I ask the student what specifically made the church ugly and her father distant, she often can’t say at first. She can remember only the feeling of being in the church, and the feeling of missing her father, which is why she told us, her readers, what she perceived as a fact. But to her readers, the church’s ugliness and her father’s distance remain unsubstantiated rumors.

In this way, the reading and writing of stories is wholly democratic. The writer must trust and allow the reader to draw his own conclusions. This democratic awareness of the reader can be very liberating to the writer. It necessarily loosens our grip on the stories we tell. The stories don’t really belong to us. All that belongs to us is our feelings about the story.

Which is what we must remember to prevent the awareness of the reader from putting us back in a cage. The moment I begin to believe that every reader must understand my story exactly as I intend, I have thrown myself into a maze without an exit. A reader’s understanding does not belong to me, and I will never find it in all my writing and writing and writing. All that I can find is the understanding for which I am searching, a search that sets me free not upon its conclusion, but at its beginning.

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

A Necessary Mystery

Perhaps because the nature of my work is inspirational, and because as of this writing I am far from being a household name, nearly all the responses I receive to my blogs and Write Within Yourself are positive. And, whether from someone I meet at a writer’s conference or a comment posted online, I am always glad to learn when something I’ve written has reached and been of use to someone else.

Yet the more I hear from readers, the more I am reminded that my experience of writing something is always different than their experience of reading it. This seems obvious enough intellectually, yet this difference in our experiences, no matter how positive for both parties, often leaves me feeling as though somehow I have been misunderstood. If I wrote it and loved it, and they read it and loved it, how can there be any difference? Was I not clear enough?

Clarity rarely has anything to do with this difference. Two friends can sit side by side in the same theater watching the same movie and leave feeling equally delighted or moved, but both will have in fact watched slightly different movies. Both will have felt the story within themselves, both will have longed for loved ones to be reunited or feared the killer’s wrath within their own sovereign heart. Once they have taken that story’s journey from beginning to end, its unique emotional form belongs to the individual and the individual alone.

Or in other words, once I have finished a piece, what anyone else thinks of it is really none of my business. Am I tempted to believe otherwise? Most definitely. The lure of the fresh Amazon review is mighty. But my job is not to be understood; my job is to understand what I wish share and then share it as authentically as possible. What is actually understood by others after this translation remains a necessary mystery to retain the freedom that remains at the heart of love.

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

Nothing Wrong

My older sister, who got straight A’s (with one very notable exception) in college, who excelled in calculus, and who could whip her word-loving brother in crosswords, Boggle, and Scrabble, told me she hated her one creative writing course, in which she received her only collegiate B. “Totally annoying class,” she explained. “There are no right answers.”

How true. This can make it difficult to teach, and can make the blank page particularly daunting. Fortunately, this also means there are no wrong answers either. In the realm of creation there is no right and wrong, no good and bad, there is only what you want to create and what you don’t want to create. Outside of this single parameter, all is equal.

Which is why I encourage writers to never criticize other writers, no matter how wrong the word choices or plot choices those other writers have made may appear. The moment I criticize another writer in this way I see the world of creation as divided into right and wrong, and I am undone. Now I write not to create what I want to see, but only to avoid creating something that is wrong – and since nothing in creation is actually wrong, I write in perpetual fear.

I know that there are so many things in the world beyond stories that seem wrong, the wars and the poverty and the lies, to name only a few. But inequality exists only in the human imagination, where we perceive that which we want more of and that which we want no more of. I cannot un-create what I do not want, but I can create what I do want. To understand this difference is freedom; to forget it is to be condemned instantly to the same prison where all wrong things go, whose cell door opens only when everyone in the world agrees that I am right.

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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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

That Intelligent

When my son was three he sat down at his plastic Winnie the Pooh drum and sang the following song:

You have to get along,
But you gotta have free.

This would become the central challenge of his – and perhaps everyone’s – life. Namely, to live the life you want to live, you have to get along with all the other people trying to live the lives they want to live. But to live the life you want to live, you also have to be free to live that life however you want. Does it not seem that these two needs are often in conflict? I must write whatever I most want to write, but what if no one wants to read it or publish it?

He had forgotten ever having written the song, and he was incredulous when I reminded him of it today. No three year-old could possibly write something that intelligent, he said. A three year-old had, I assured him. He adjusted to this reality rather quickly.

As do most parents. There is an intelligence within life that will seek expression by whatever means its current vessel provides. In fact, it is the very same intelligence that allows that life to get along while also having free. From a certain distance, such a marriage can seem impossible, as impossible as a three year-old composing existential ballads. Impossible, that is, until it happens.

It’s always wondrous when it happens, as wondrous as sentences and stories falling together as if on their own. How often have you jumped back from the page and thought, “Did I write that? I’m not that intelligent.” Wondrous, too, how quickly you adjust to the idea that maybe you are.

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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Free Reign

I was reading in the New York Times yesterday about the various passions driving the current anti-western violence in the Middle East. What caught my attention was that those sympathizing with the rock-throwers and embassy-burners saw the conflict as a struggle for freedom. These men wished to be free from the pain that insults against their beliefs caused them. That America had not jailed the man responsible for this pain was commensurate with not jailing a murderer. The pain of an insult, in their perception, was equal to if not greater than the pain of physical suffering.

As a writer, this story piqued my interest. It was framed as a question of freedom of speech versus freedom from pain And in one way I have to agree with the men and women who see the pain of insult as perhaps the greatest pain humans can suffer. As Goethe said, “The worst thing a man can do is think ill of himself.”

How true. Think ill of yourself and your suffering follows you throughout your day. Think yourself worthless, cowardly, stupid, ugly, dull, or broken and with the speed of thought your value plummets, and all your actions are irretrievably diminished by your brokenness. This is the pain of a life hardly worth living, of lifelong impotence, of meaningless choices. Such thoughts condemn us for a time to a cell of our own miserable perception, within which no one has ever felt free.

I have always believed in the power of language, but if writing has taught me anything, it has taught me that it is impossible to make another human being think anything. The most I can do is recommend with compelling honesty. Many times I have wished it were otherwise, but that place within us where every choice is made remains a sovereign land. Within those borders we dwell in pristine freedom, alone with our chosen love, our chosen curiosity, and our chosen pain.

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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Your Only Choice

When I was a boy I believed that writing for a living was the only way I could ever be free.  At that time I did not know what it meant to be both an adult and free, but I believed I knew what freedom felt like, and as far as I could tell, it was the only way to live and therefore the only thing worth pursuing.

As I grew up, I continued to connect writing and freedom, though my reasons for doing so evolved. First, I believed it had to do with time. You could only be free if your time was entirely your own, and how could you call your time your own if you had to begin working when someone else told you to? Only with the complete, pristine autonomy that was the professional novelist’s life would I ever know freedom.

Then I had autonomy, and it didn’t feel anything like freedom. My autonomous time felt like every other time I’d ever had in my life, both in and out of work, time I was forever having to decide what to do with. So it must have had to do with money. Modern humans needed money to survive, so if you made this money doing something you loved, you were free.

Then I had some money, and all it freed up was the tiny part of my brain that would periodically worry about money. So perhaps it was attention. We all need a little recognition; perhaps the combination of time, money and recognition would bring me the freedom I wanted.

When I had a bit of all three, freedom still felt like a promise from an absent father. It would be here soon; the next car slowing outside the window would be his. And then one day I wrote something, and as I reread it I thought, “Yes. That’s precisely what I meant to say.” And there it was, as familiar as my own reflection. It was as if all I had been waiting for my whole life was a mirror.

Writing was my freedom because writing made me happy. There was nothing more complicated about it than that. I wanted it to be more, but it wasn’t. And in that moment of understanding, freedom became merely a choice, not a pardon, not deliverance – just a choice. The simplicity of it is humbling and confounding, and yet all the knots my mind would twist life into to find the straight rope of freedom come undone in a choice. I look in the mirror and see judge, jury, and accused and call the trial to a halt. I was never on trial, and I was always free  to choose prison or the road.

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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