Choosing Games

It is not unusual when I am teaching a workshop at a conference or interviewing a writer to find myself talking about money. These conversations always remind me of the squabbles my wife and I have over money, because those squabbles are never actually about money. Usually we’re squabbling about safety, or our own creative potential, but money is so tangible and measureable and necessary that it seems simpler just to argue about whether we should buy that new sofa than about where safety does or does not exist.

Money reminds me of a race I ran in second grade. Our teacher lined every student up at one end of the playground and told us to run as fast we could to the wall at the other end of the playground. First one there was the winner. She yelled go and I ran. I loved running. I loved harnessing all my body’s energy, and I even loved the race, as it provided a reason to do so. On that day, I was the first to reach the wall.

But as I touched the wall, and looked down the line at all the other boys and girls finishing after me, I had an unusual thought for an eight year-old: The only reason I won, it occurred to me, wasn’t that I was faster than the rest of them, but that I was the one who was most fully committed to the race. All my energy had been focused in one place and for one purpose, but from where I stood, I could feel how the other children’s energy had been split, and that made all the difference.

The problem with that race was that everyone had to run it whether they wanted to or not. In this way, though we all started and ended in the same place, it was not a fair race. Yet once it was run, everyone had to contend with the questions that always arise within us when we compare ourselves to others. Some would remember their indifference to the race and dismiss these questions; others, I am sure, did not.

Making money is a lot like a game we are all made to play. As we line ourselves up at the starting line of adulthood, money can seem to be a universal measurement upon which everyone’s value is based. After all, everyone wants it, and everyone would like more of it, and some succeed in making lots and lots of it and some do not. I was one of those who did not.

I did not because my energy was split. I am a writer. I do not write to make money. I write because I love to write. I had written stories since I was a boy. In this way, writing was like play. Earning money, meanwhile, seemed like the most adult thing I could do. And so I played a game I didn’t want to play: the game of making money for money’s sake. I thought it was a stupid game, but I was still unhappy when I lost at it.

I lost and lost and lost at it until I decided to play a different game: I would see how much money I could make doing something I would happily do for free. I knew when I began playing this game that I did not really understand the rules, nor was I very good at it. No matter. The key to any game is the wanting to play it, and I wanted to. By and by, I got better at it, and I am still playing it today.

Games are great, but it is important to remember that they’re make-believe. We create the starting line and finishing line; we make the rules and choose the prize. And no one has to play. I can quit anytime I want, and look around the playground, and see what interests me most. That interest, that ceaseless creative impulse that has traveled with me my entire life, remains the only authority to which I must listen. Only it knows which races are worth my running, and which ones can be left to others.

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

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The End of Tyranny

For the last week I’ve been playing the classic puzzle-solving video game Myst with my youngest son, Sawyer. I played Myst to its conclusion almost 20 years ago, so I could remember little of the game and its many ingenious puzzles except this: all the puzzles are indeed solvable. I had to remind myself of this on the several occasions Sawyer and I appeared to have reached a dead-end. Sawyer had not played the game through, however, and so when we reached these impasses he did what most people normally do when confronted with what looks like an insurmountable obstacle—he complained.

“This game is flawed!” he concluded. “It’s poorly designed.”

To be clear, I would have complained as well had I not known, empirically, that the problem was not the game’s design but the players’ perception. It was a kind of foggy hindsight, which, while obscuring the solutions, revealed complaint in all its uselessness. The complainer says, “There are no solutions!” and so none are perceived. His complaints actually prevent him from seeing the very thing he complains does not exist.

It was a rare treat in my life as a father. I was able to say, “Trust me, we’ll figure it out,” with a time-traveler’s authority. But I do not need to replay my trials every decade or so to know the roles of trust and complaint in my life. What can feel like a declaration of independence from the tyranny of an unjust world is actually a sentence to a prison of my own design. Fortunately, I can leave as soon as I remember that the key to that cell is not the solution to some problem but only the belief that one exists.

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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.

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 Center of Creation

My father had a couple of heart attacks this week, though as of this writing I am happy to report that he is still walking the earth and, by all accounts, should continue to do so for the near future. I do not view death as a pile of ash and bones, but as life transitioning, though this is a transition I have had to understand through my imagination as I have yet to experience it myself. Which is to say, it was disorienting for a few hours as I saw that I might not be able to pick up the phone at any time and hear my dad’s voice on the other end of the line.

When I learned that dad had had his first and then second heart attack, I thought of my friend Will, who had passed recently. I had not seen or spoken to Will in several years, and so in an odd way my experience of Will before he passed and after he passed remained essentially the same: I still loved him, I still thought of him, I still told stories about him and remembered what it was to be in his company and what I learned from him; and the fact that he had died did not and could not change that.

So it will be should my father go before I do, but it is disorienting because I am his son. Dad and I shared a lot, notably a love of games. Talking to him on the phone after the first heart attack, I kept thinking of those games in the shadow of his mortality. In this shadow, it is clear the game is not what we often think it is. If the scoreboards were turned off, I wondered, and if the referees went home and the crowd dispersed—would the players still play? Would the game go on if we saw that we had drawn every line we believed we had to cross, that we invented every rule we were not allowed to break?

I think many a book is written to answer precisely this question. I don’t think we’re actually afraid of this boogieman called oblivion our rational selves invented sometime ago. I think we are afraid to learn that the game means nothing. And indeed it doesn’t, except, like the stories we tell, when you are playing it. Like the stories we tell, you find the meaning as soon as you find the game, for there you are at the center of creation, with nowhere to go but where you are.

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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A Game in a Rented House

I gathered with a group of friends recently for a long weekend of eating and drinking and talking and playing a game around which we had all met when we were boys. Our adulthoods have taken us to different corners of the country, and our arrivals are staggered. Those first hours are filled with reacquaintance. Each freind you meet again is different because you are resuming your relationship where it left off, and yet each friend you meet is similar because there is something about meeting a friend that is always like meeting yourself as well.

That first night time is irrelevant. It is Thursday, and Monday morning is too distant to concern your imagination. Still, it is possible to let yourself dwell on it. It will come, after all. You arrived here knowing it would come. This weekend is like a cocoon within the rest of your life, and you can feel that life pulsing at the edges of the house you’ve rented. That other life is fine, but you’re here now, and dwelling on ending would only spoil the pleasure of beginning.

And then there is the game. The game means nothing unless you let it mean something. The worst thing you can do is think about the game. If you think about the game, you believe it is absurd that you are even playing it. It’s just a game. The best thing to do is enjoy it. Some enjoy the story of it, some the strategy, others the jokes, others the camaraderie. There are many ways to enjoy the game, but you must enjoy it only as you enjoy it. That is why you play it.

The ending begins before Monday morning. Cleaning the house Sunday night feels like a half-goodbye. You talk about who will be catching which flights and to where. When the morning comes, everyone leaves at different times. Saying goodbye you cannot believe it is already over, and yet you are ready for something else. The last hour before you leave is the hardest. There is always a moment of surprising and profound despair. For a moment, the weekend feels like a waste. It came and went and nothing seems to have changed. But to stay would be feel worse than leaving, and so you are out the door, and the rented house and the game are just a story now as you return again to your family.

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
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A Great Game

I have written often in this space – and particularly lately – about winning and losing. This is in part because my father was a devoted gamer, and games were how we spent much of our time together when I was young. We played these games to have fun, but part of the having fun was caring whether you won or lost, and this was not always so pleasant and did not always bring out the best in me.

My mother did not play games, however, and when it was just she and my brother and sister and I we liked to tell each other stories. I loved stories because here a group of people could join one another through the shared portal of their separate imagination, and by the end of the story you had arrived someplace together you hopefully all wanted to be.

One day when I was twelve my father came home with a new game. It was called Dungeons & Dragons. This was different than any other game. Sure there were dice and rules and pieces you moved around, but in this game there was no winning and losing. In this game, which was really like a story you were all telling together, the only goal was to have fun. If you had fun, everybody won.

My two worlds had come together and I, along with a lot of other teenage boys in the late 70s and early 80s, became obsessed with the game. My obsession has since faded, albeit so slowly that I would still be playing enough as an adult to more or less get paid to do so, but my admiration for the game remains. Yes it’s geeky, yes you end up saying things like, “I think Silence should actually be a 3rd level spell,” but this is beside the point. This game celebrated play, which is the mutual pursuit of happiness, which is actually a celebration of life.

Everything in life we think we want – the publishing contract, the house, the girlfriend, the big promotion – all of it we want because we believe having it will make us happy. Even those things we don’t want to do, those tasks and jobs and obligations about which we complain the most, we do because we believe we will suffer, and therefore be less happy, if we don’t do them. What a great game indeed: a story told for the pleasure, where anyone can be whatever he or she wants, and where it doesn’t really matter when you die.

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 Game of Life

I was 33, my second son was six months old, and my wife and I were starting the paperwork to purchase our first house. I was driving to work, to a job I had expected to leave before I turned 30, a job which nonetheless provided me with enough money to support my wife and now my two sons and perhaps the house we wanted to buy.

As I drove to work I thought about numbers. I thought about how much more we would pay with the mortgage, about utility bills, about picking up an extra shift now and then to pay the mortgage and the utility bills. It was like a game, these numbers. I was good at games. In games you add up your numbers – the pips on your dice, your hit points and armor class, your batting average – you add all these numbers and at the end you know if you’ve won or lost. It was very clear because your victory is measured in numbers that cannot lie.

I get it, I thought. I see how you could fool yourself into thinking this is enough. This is quite a big game, learning how to survive and provide. It’s a long and important game. I can see how I could spend 20 years playing it. You could be 40 or 50 before you understand that there is absolutely no winning, maybe longer if you’re determined to keep playing. Why, I could do it with this job. It doesn’t matter that I really don’t like the job. Liking it isn’t the point. Winning the game is the point.

I’d like to tell you I turned around at that moment and drove home, but I did not. I had a new baby and a new mortgage and I wasn’t about to leave my job. But I understood then that a life-long gamer like me had to be careful. If someone hands me dice, I want to roll them, and if someone shows me a finish line I want to be the first across it. I can’t go looking for a finish line that doesn’t exist – if I did I’d only run and run and run until I dropped.

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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The Game Of Life

I was 33, my second son was six months old, and my wife and I were starting the paperwork to purchase our first house. I was driving to work, to a job I had expected to leave before I turned 30, a job which nonetheless provided me with enough money to support my wife and now my two sons and perhaps the house we wanted to buy.

As I drove to work I thought about numbers. About how much more we would pay with the mortgage, about utility bills, about picking up an extra shift now and then to pay the mortgage and the utility bills. It was like a game, these numbers. I was good at games. In games you add up your numbers – the pips on your dice, your hit points and armor class, your batting average – you add all these numbers and at the end you know if you’ve won or lost. It was very clear because your victory is measured in numbers that cannot lie.

I get it, I thought. I see how you could fool yourself into thinking this is enough. This is quite a big game, learning how to survive and provide. It’s a long and important game. I can see how I could spend 20 years playing it. You could be 40 or 50 before you understand that there is absolutely no winning, maybe longer if you’re determined to keep playing. Why, I could do it with this job. It doesn’t matter that I really don’t like the job. Liking it isn’t the point. Winning the game is the point.

I’d like to tell you I turned around at that moment and drove home, but I did not. I had a new baby and a new mortgage and I wasn’t about to leave my job. But I understood then that a life-long gamer like me had to be careful. If someone hands me dice, I want to roll them, and if someone shows me a finish line I want to be the first across it. I can’t go looking for a finish line that doesn’t exist – if I did I’d only run and run and run until I dropped.

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

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A Losing Formula

In the late 70’s, my father brought home a strategy football game. The game was quite simple. Whoever was on defense had a deck of cards, each with a different defensive alignment. The game’s board was a grid, along the top of which were 20 or so different offensive plays, from Dive to Razzle Dazzle (my brother’s favorite).  The defenses ran along the side. The player on offense would announce which play he was running, and the player on defense would reveal which alignment he had selected, the two choices would be cross-referenced like finding coordinates on an X-Y plane, and you would learn the result of that play.

In this way, it was really a guessing game, not a strategy game. It became an intuitive, psychological struggle to read the other player’s mind and proclivities. There was a lot of, “He thinks I’ll throw a bomb, but I’ll actually run a dive – unless he thinks I think he thinks I’ll run a dive in which case I’ll throw the bomb.” You were always better off going with your first instinct.

At this time, my father had begun to learn how to program computers. He looked at this game and began to hatch a scheme. He believed he could come up with a program that would tell which play or defense would have the highest rate of success given the down, distance, and so on. He dreamt of having his children go to a big gaming tournament armed with a stack of computer printouts and whipping all the adult competitors.

Fortunately, the permutations proved too expansive for either my father’s know-how or actual interest in the project. I believe it was probably the latter. It seemed emblematic of his struggle at that time: a doomed search for a means by which the straight line of intellect could triumph over the reasonless nudge of intuition.

I was glad to see this plan die. My heart always sank when he painted the image of our theoretical triumph. On the one hand he was my father, and he had so many dreams; it would have been nice to have just one not come up well short of where he imagined it might take him. On the other hand, intuition seemed like the great equalizer in human endeavor, available to all regardless of age or income. Why look to triumph over it?

I cannot blame him for wanting a world that could be won with computer programs. Like all fathers, he wanted his children to be safe, and I do not believe he understood where safety could be found outside the clear perimeters of logic. But where is the safety in a life stripped of choice? That safety is a seed still buried, hiding beneath a world where anything is possible.

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

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Uncertain Victory

I come from a family of gamers. Growing up we played everything from whiffle ball and football, to Monopoly and Canasta, to the more obscure Rail Baron and 1776, to the iconic Dungeons & Dragons. My childhood sometimes felt like a search from one game to the next, those open, shapeless hours in between remarkable for their shameless lack of formal purpose.

In many ways, our lives are like games. That is, we make up the rules. Every single society is a great collection of rules of our own invention, both written and unwritten, that we choose, more or less, to follow just as the baseball player agrees to round the bases counter-clockwise. Following the rules allows one to play the game, and playing the game allows one to create. I play by the current rules of the English language, for instance, not because I am afraid of receiving a bad grade from God but because I wish to have what I write understood by others.

Where games diverge from life is in the winning. In actual games, the winning gives the games a focus and a direction. The clarity of goal lines and checkmates is addictive. Why can’t life itself have such clarity? There are days I have yearned for one eternal competitor to defeat, a foe against whom to hurl all my creative energies and whose demise will bring about a triumph of everlasting contentment, as if I had enacted my own private Second Coming.

Writing can provide such illusory goals. The agent, the publishing deal, the award—each objective can appear trophy-like from a distance. Yet the moment I view any part of life itself as a game to be won I feel the hollowness of loss. In that moment I lose the freedom to create, for I have called the world a place where any creation can be judged as valuable or valueless. Now I am no longer free. Now I must win to be happy, for those are the new rules of the game. The price we pay for such imposed certainty is far worse than the hours of boredom or uncertainty; now it is as if we have chained our wrists to the bedpost so as not to risk painting something ugly.

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

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The Winners

Everyone has their skeletons, and mine involve games. I was raised, in part, by a gaming aficionado, and so if your father wants to play games whenever you’re together, as a child you are unlikely to say no. Games are wonderfully clear. There are rules not only for what you are allowed to do and not do, but also an obvious reasons why you are doing what you are doing – to win. If you have the sort of brain that likes to solve puzzles, which mine sometimes does, the addiction is immediate.

Also, gamers—as people like my father and I are known—take games seriously. You have to. If the outcome doesn’t matter then why are you pouring all this effort into the mastering of the game? For the fun of it? No, sir. Something greater must be at stake.

Except that nothing ever is at stake. That is, you will never be changed by the winning or the losing, you will only be changed by your efforts exerted in the winning or the losing. But the opposite seems temptingly possible, and as I looked up from the game board, it seemed to me that life itself was governed by the same principles as the games my father I played.

One of the hardest addictions to set down is that life is a game of winners and losers. It seemed so to me once upon a time, and if it was, then by God I would be one of those winners. Which I was until I couldn’t bear the emptiness of it all, and so began losing without, unfortunately, understanding why I was losing, and so only felt like a loser.

Although we are constantly measuring ourselves in every way possible, no one is actually any better at anything than anyone else. If what you are doing pleases you, then no one else could possibly do it any better. Nothing in the world can be measured against anything but that—our own contentment. The lie of so much suffering is the idea that we have come up short in some universal game. Every game is our own invention, even life itself, and what we call failure is not losing but believing anything is more important than ourselves.

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