Back To Life

I have a book coming out in May. In fact, I know the exact date it will be published: May 14. My editor has gone through it and made her suggestions and corrections, and the copy editor went through and made her corrections and suggestions, so I now know what will be in the book and what has been taken out. I’ve also seen the cover, so I know what it will look like. What I don’t know, however, are how many copies it will sell, what kind of reviews it will get, or what speaking opportunities it will spawn – and that is where the trouble always starts.

It was fun working on the book, because every day I did so I asked myself questions I could answer. Every day I asked, “What does it really feel like to trust?” or, “What’s the most useful thing I could say about fear?” or, “What’s a good example of a time I doubted myself?” The answers always came — and usually rather quickly. How miserable I’d have been if they hadn’t. I wouldn’t have been able to write the book. Actually, I simply wouldn’t have written the book. There’s absolutely no fun in asking a question to which the only answer is, “I don’t know.”

And yet in my idle hours, which there are more of now as I scour about for my next book project, I sometimes find myself asking questions like, “I wonder how the book will sell?” or, “Where could I give a talk about the book?” The answer to these questions is always, “I don’t know.” In these moments, I am reminded of conversations I have fallen into about death and the afterlife. For some people, the fact that we cannot know empirically what waits for us beyond that portal means that nothing waits for us. If we cannot see it, touch it, or taste it, then it simply cannot exist.

This point of view is an untenable relationship to the future for a writer, I traffic every day in stuff that cannot be seen, touched, or tasted, only imagined. In fact, that “real” world, the world where my book is published, where people can hold it in their real hands and see it with their real eyes, can seem at times more mysterious to me than the imagined world from which the book was born. That imagined world, after all, is where the questions I most like to ask are answered.

Fortunately, asking myself questions about the real world and what the future will look like there is no fun at all. Fortunately, I lose interest in it almost as soon as I begin. This loss of interest sometimes takes the form of despair or pessimism, but that is only a consequence of me trying to give meaning to the meaningless. So I sulk about, dragging a nameless weight about with me, wondering why the world is such a dull place.

Until I find myself back at my desk asking questions I can answer. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Work solves everything.” I thought it was a stupid thing to write when I first read it, but I now believe he was onto something. Work, for me, does not so much solve everything, but it does remind me there is nothing to solve. It connects to me what I have sought connection to in my despair and frustration and uncertainty, that source of answers to all the questions I ask. It brings me back to myself, back to what I know and what I know I want to learn, back to life after a short trip into the death-world of a future I am not meant to know.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Saint Within

Every writer I know began as a young reader. Most read hungrily once they’d discovered the intimate pleasure of the written word. It feels like escape, this travelling through imaginary worlds. It does not matter what world you are reading about – whether it is the once-real world of Czarist Russia or the unreal world of Narnia – it is all imaginary, for your body is one place while your mind is in another.

But reading is actually the opposite of escape. No story can live without the reader’s emotional participation. The writer’s words are but directions to a place within the reader where sadness and joy and grief and curiosity and boredom and hope and despair reside. The words alone are a skeleton; the reader’s felt responses to those words are the flesh and blood of every story ever told.

What’s more, every story ever told grows from the same fertile thought: Life matters. It matters that someone fell in love or someone was crowned queen. It matters that a father and son were reunited. It matters that the killer was caught. Life is not just a bunch of meaningless crap that happens to us between birth and death. The story guides us to that place within us where we know life matters, where we know that we are interested for a reason, where we know that we matter and are living on purpose.

This is why stories and poems and songs were my church and my state growing up. I turned to them to remind me of what I so often forgot, what I so often lost track of in the hurly-burly of life’s circus. I had thought that I would need to make these heroes who’d saved me from myself less saintly, so that I could take my place beside them on the shelf. Instead, I found again the saint within me, the unblemished self who remains unaffected by my woeful stories of meaninglessness, who finishes the stories others had started, and who now begins my stories that others might finish.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Writer’s Guide to Answering, “What if?”

Most stories we write begin with one simple question: What if? What if you were forced to marry whomever the government told you to marry? What if a prince fell in love with a milkmaid? What if a ten year-old boy woke up one morning and decided he was going to run away? And how would I tell these stories?

“What” and “if” are perhaps the two most powerful words in a human’s vocabulary, and writing has taught me that I cannot use them indiscriminately. “What if” opens a door to a new reality. A new story, after all, is its own reality. It operates by its own unique rules, has its own environment of language, its own ambitions and desires and concerns. To write a new story I must believe in a reality I cannot yet see. To write that story I begin by asking the same question humans asked themselves to sail around the world, go to the moon, and create computers we can hold in the palms of our hands.

My imagination loves it when I ask it this question. It gets bored by what has already been made. It wants the door to possibility thrown wide open. Unfortunately, my imagination is so loyal and eager that it will help me dream any reality at all, even one in which I would never want to live.

And so I might find myself walking down the street one sunny afternoon idly thinking about the book I’m writing. I like the first half of the book, but I’m having trouble finding the second half. It’s a little frustrating not knowing what I want to do. It’s just frustrating enough that I casually ask myself, “What if I never finish it?”

My imagination hops to life. It loves to tell stories. So it begins to answer my question. It tells a story about the time I couldn’t complete a book I really wanted to finish. Except the more it answers my question the less it feels like a story I’m telling myself and the more it feels like reality. Now, the sunny day has been transformed into a dystopia where not just this story but every story I begin ends fractured. In ten brutal minutes I have shape-shifted from a curious writer into a has-been.

When I get home, my wife asks, “What’s wrong?” Oh, where to begin? The poor woman apparently lacks my prophetic vision. Better not to worry her with my oncoming creative apocalypse. Though I have to say, it’s good to be around other people who don’t share my reality. They help me question it. By and by, I ask, “What if I did finish that book? How would I do that?” And my imagination comes to life again.

Writing always calms me down because it requires me to think on purpose. To write I must begin by believing that I can create a reality I prefer. Shuffling about the world, this doesn’t always seem possible. I am but a cog in the churning machine of the world. But alone at my desk, attended to by a tireless imagination, facing a perfectly blank page, reality waits for me to name it.

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

Know Your Job

I used to work lunches at a restaurant in Providence. The lunches were slow enough that our entire staff most days consisted of one cook, a dishwasher, and me. For those for hours I was busboy, waiter, host, and bartender. On the days when it did get busy, when the place filled up and there were people waiting to be seated and a margarita to be blended and food sitting in the pass shelf and two orders to be taken and three tables needing to be cleared, I could feel as if I was drowning in my customers’ mounting disappointment. This was uncomfortable, but at least I knew what my job was. That I hadn’t the time to do it properly was the consequence of life’s unpredictability, not my facility.

I would eventually begin the job of professional writer. This appeared to be a simpler job than waiting tables, as there was only my story and me, and life’s unpredictability seemed to play little if no role in my work. And yet often I would find myself at my desk accompanied by a familiar discomfort. It was reminiscent of those busy days working solo lunches, only worse. It was as if I was responsible not only for serving customers, but for creating them as well. I didn’t know how to do that, but if I didn’t, I would fail. I felt some days as if I had been told to step onstage and improvise Hamlet.

It would take me years to understand that I was trying to do something that wasn’t my job. I cannot do my imagination’s job; I can only create an environment within me that permits my imagination to function most effortlessly. It is easy to forget this. My imagination is responsible for my livelihood, for my very survival, and how I wish some days I could grab hold of it and bend it to my worried needs. But grabbing my imagination is as useless as grabbing another person; I might clutch a child in my adult hands, but that child’s freewill remains entirely beyond my reach.

I must remember my job every day I sit down to work. How much easier things go when I do. The child that is my imagination wants only to play within the garden of thought, and it does not care about the past or the future or death or sex or money. I am the one that sometimes cares about those things. Meanwhile, the imagination does its only job, and awaits my return to the garden we have both enjoyed.

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

How to Think Like a Writer

I did a podcast last week called Fearless Writing. The idea is that if you want to write, if you would write whether anyone ever paid you to do so, then the only thing that can really come between you and the writing experience you most want to have is fear. Not a crowded a market place, not a busy life, not a lack of talent, but fear. Fear that you aren’t good enough, fear you have nothing original to say, fear that starting your book is just a waste of time.

It is easy to forget that fear isn’t a thing – it’s just a feeling to which we have attached a word. It’s a powerful feeling, however, It is so powerful that if I sit in my living room and imagine a killer is waiting for me outside my door, and if I begin to believe what I am imagining, I will feel the alarm bells of panic within me as if I could actually see the killer’s shadow in my window. The physical reality is irrelevant – all that matters is what I think about that reality.

Which is important to remember if you want to write, because writing is just thinking on purpose. For instance, I can’t think about football and write about elephants. I can’t think about violence and write about love. And I also can’t think how no one will want to read what I want to write while I am trying to write something I am hoping other people will read. Whether it’s elephants, love, or sharing my work, to write I must focus my attention on the ideas that serve my creative desires.

But like every single person I know, I have a habit of thinking against myself. It’s just so much easier to notice this in other people. There is my friend who talks passionately about the need for a world without bigotry, while simultaneously pointing out how much smarter he is than other people. There is my other friend who desperately wants to make more money, but only ever talks about how poor he is. Look at them, I think to myself, so busy dreaming the nightmare prisons from which they are trying to escape.

Meanwhile, my little prisons seem very real. I know they’re real because of how I feel. If I were free, I’d feel way better. That’s just science. And so I mope about, complaining quietly to myself, looking forward to the day when I have accumulated enough book sales, speaking gigs, or Facebook shares to be set free from the lonely cell of irrelevance.

Which brings me back to fear. I have wanted many things in my life, and I have come to the unavoidable conclusion at my modestly advanced age that the only thing that has ever stood between those things and me is the fear that I can’t have them. I have never experienced this more acutely, more directly, more practically than when I write. I want to finish a book, or an essay, or even a sentence. I want to, but the answer to the question, “How can I say this,” isn’t coming. I begin to worry, quietly at first, but then more actively that the answer will never come, that maybe I’m not good enough or smart or just simply enough. The more I worry, the more it doesn’t come and the more I worry.

So I stop writing, and take a walk, or take a shower, or talk to my wife, and in so doing eventually forget to worry I’m not good enough. It takes effort to worry, after all. It’s not natural. And when I’ve stopped worrying – when I’m just being, just drifting through thought without any goal other than feeling good – quite unexpectedly, the answer comes. And every time it does, the experience is always precisely the same: the answer is so obvious, is so inherent within the question, that it is as if it had been directly in front of me and I would have seen it if I had only opened my eyes – which I always do when I awaken from my private nightmares.

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

Writing and Limitless Intelligence

I used to think of a person’s intelligence like a computer. Just as some computers have bigger hard drives and faster processors and more RAM than other computers, so too some people’s brains, the supposed source of our intelligence, were faster and had more storage and were more nimble than other brains. I didn’t particularly like this view of intelligence, and ultimately, of what it is to be human, but the evidence suggested it was so. Some people certainly knew more stuff than other people, and some people seemed to understand things more quickly than other people.

While I believed this, I sometimes wondered where my brain ranked in the hierarchy of brains. I figured mine wasn’t the very best brain, nor was it near the bottom. I never could decide where I landed. I found the question of how smart I was too depressing to dwell on. The answer would inevitably mean I was limited in some way, just like some computers simply can’t run certain applications. There were far better questions on which to dwell, like, “What story would I like to tell?” and, “What’s the best way to tell it?” I could always answer these questions, and so I became a writer.

By and by I became interested in what you might call the physics of writing. Not the order of words on the page, but the means by which the ideas arrived that those words hoped to convey. My experience of the creative process, even alone at my desk, was collaborative. I asked questions, and then I listened for the answer. It would be inaccurate to say I made the answers to my questions. In fact, I was often surprised by the answers. This was what made the writing so enjoyable.

I have since revised my view of intelligence. Intelligence is like the Internet, and my imagination is like Google. I can ask it any question I like and receive an answer. Unlike the Internet, which is a vast warehouse of information, Intelligence is an infinite source of new thought. And yes, just like the Internet, everyone is connected via their imagination to the same Intelligence. Whoever you are, you have direct access to the same source of creativity and thought and ideas as Emily Dickenson and Albert Einstein.

Of course, I can’t prove this by any scientific method, but that’s okay. I find it more practical than the other view of intelligence. I don’t really want to be better than anybody else; I just don’t want to be worse. To be worse is to be limited by something other than my own unique curiosity. I have yet to actually encounter that limitation. As long as I am interested in the question I’m asking, an answer always arrives. And the answers, I’ve noticed, always beg more questions. This is how a story gets written, and this is how a life gets led.

I wouldn’t know how else to write a story or lead my life. My right answer and your right answer would not be the same. I wouldn’t know what path to follow other than my curiosity. In fact, I sometimes feel as if the only thing I know for sure is what I’m most interested in at this very moment. What I’m most interested in is what’s directly in front of me. I have known no greater pleasure than giving what I’m most interested in my full attention. All at once, life makes complete sense, for the only question that matters is the one I’m asking now.

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

The Key to Beautiful Writing: Your Reader’s Imagination

Every writer I know would like to write beautifully. I can’t think of single writer who would like to write an ugly sentence or an ugly story. All of these writers are also readers, and they will occasionally talk about having read a beautiful book, or a book that was beautifully written. Writers and readers agree universally that we like beautiful writing, though there is not universal agreement as to which writing is beautiful and which is not – a disagreement that is the true source of writing’s beauty.

When we talk about beautiful writing, we sometimes describe it as poetic. This makes sense, though not because poetic language is fancier or more elaborate, but because it requires such economy. After all, the poet simply doesn’t have as much time as the novelist to get the job done. The poet must say what he wants to say in as few words as possible. And so, instead of explaining everything in great detail, the poet uses suggestive detail to point toward what he would like to say, allowing the readers to fill in that distance with their own imagination and thereby experience the joy of discovery when they perceive it.

This why readers will sometimes say of a poem, “I don’t get it.” The poet pointed toward something, but the reader could not see it. So it goes. Every reader comes equipped with their own imagination, their own memories and desires. Every imagination is as useful and capable as every other imagination, but not every imagination has been looking, so to speak, in the same direction. Just as some people will not get certain jokes, some readers simply will not be able to perceive what the writer is trying to show them.

All of which is meant to remind you, dear writer, that there is only so much you can do. No matter how thoroughly you rewrite a passage, no matter how many writing books you read, no matter which MFA program you attended, at some point the reader will get to decide whether they find what you’ve written beautiful or not. Of course I would like to believe that I am capable of writing something so beautiful, something so exquisitely evocative, that every reader of the English language would stand up and agree that I have hit the descriptive bull’s eye. I am not immune to the dream of creative perfection.

But I am also fiercely protective of my own choices. No one else gets to tell me what is beautiful and what is not. No one gets to tell me what I should or shouldn’t read, what I should or shouldn’t write, whom I should or shouldn’t love. My choices are my life and my sovereign right, and if that means Shakespeare doesn’t float my boat, so be it. And so I must grant my readers their sovereignty as well. I must grant them the right to be bored or confused by what I’ve written, or to be entertained and inspired by what I’ve written. I must be willing to give to others whatever I want for myself.

Because in the end, more than to be called a beautiful writer, or to sell a lot of books, or to win a lot of awards – in the end what I want most is to be free. Other people can call my writing beautiful or ugly, can buy my books or give me awards, but only I can grant myself freedom. The blank page is perfect for this reason. The blank page is a perfect space in which to answer the question, “What do I find most beautiful?” To listen honestly for that answer is to be instantly free, to instantly reacquaint myself with what I have always been.

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

Why Every Writer is Smart Enough

When I was a freshman in college I took my first philosophy class. Before I took this class I thought philosophy was more akin to math – a discipline that, lacking a savant’s inherited genius, could not be understood without a teacher’s guidance. After all, I could teach myself to hit a Whiffle ball, but I certainly couldn’t teach myself geometry. But after studying Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Henri Bergson, I thought to myself, “All these guys are doing is looking around at life and saying: Here’s what I think reality is. Why should I look to them to answer that question? I’m just as alive as they were. Why can’t I just do that myself?”

I dropped out of college a year later. It was the right choice at that time, but it left the athlete in me, the achiever in me, the guy who enjoyed a little empirical evidence of his worthiness, questioning my intelligence. This was a particularly problematic perception given my ambition, which at that time was to write what we call Literary Fiction, a genre Chris Cleave succinctly described as, “Stories for smart people.”

I had toyed with Cleave’s distinction myself, dividing people up the way bookstores segregate genres. Some people certainly seemed to know things that other people didn’t know – like geometry, quantum physics, and what subprime mortgages were. But the amateur philosopher in me didn’t like this segregation. I still considered myself Aristotle’s equal, not because my brain was bigger or better than anyone else’s, but simply because I was alive. And writing, I eventually noticed, was not like school, where my job was to have the right answers to a teacher’s question. Writing was about having the right question to which an answer always, always, always arrived.

It is impossible for me now to view anyone’s intelligence the way I view computers, with their bigger and smaller hard drives and faster and slower processors. All I have ever done is asked questions. In this way, intelligence is more like Google and the Internet. Everyone has access to everything. What we access depends upon the questions we ask. The questions we ask depend upon our curiosity, and our curiosities are as unique as we are.

There are certain questions, however, that always lead me nowhere. “What if no one else likes this?” is one question to which I never receive a useful answer. I have often mistaken the radio silence that follows that question for the echo of my writing career’s death knell. At the end of that lonely conclusion, I can’t decide whom I detest more: myself for ever believing in this idiotic idea, or the rest of the world for not perceiving what is so interesting about what is so clearly interesting to me.

I have known such misery often enough to have understood that my curiosity, and by extension what we call intelligence, is limited only by my compassion. The intelligence of life cannot answer the question, “What if I am better or worse?” anymore than Google can answer, “What if 2 + 2 doesn’t equal 4?” Life loves life unconditionally. The best answers I have received always came when I asked to see others and myself more clearly, to see us as we actually are, as the same, a connection I cannot perceive without the brilliance of love.

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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 Writing

I interviewed Bernie Siegel last week, a former surgeon and #1 New York Times bestselling author whose central message for the nearly two dozen books he’s written is: Love heals. I happen to agree with this, but I am not a doctor. Medical professionals, Bernie pointed out, are less open to this idea. “They didn’t want to hear about it,” he told me. “So I’d tell ‘em stories instead. Stories, they could hear.”

The stories he told were of patients who had healed themselves. There is a miraculousness to this sort of healing that is understandably more believable when experienced than when simply reported. Which is exactly why Bernie eventually turned to stories. Stories are the closest thing humans have to experiencing what is not actually happening to us at this very moment.

Chances are you are not a surgeon trying to convince other surgeons of the healing powers of love. Chances are you are simply a writer with a story you’d like to share with other people. Perhaps it is a story of something that happened to you, or maybe it is a story you made up. It doesn’t matter. Either way, you are writing about something that isn’t happening right now. Whether based on experience or invented, the story is told by and within the imagination, a realm utterly beyond the reach of another person’s five senses.

I love my imagination, by which I mean I find it an endlessly fascinating conversational partner. These are conversations to which no one else is privy, a fact of which I am reminded whenever I go to publish something I’ve written. I often harbor a small concern that my readers might think I’m delusional. It is as if the success of whatever story I am sharing is dependent upon the reader perceiving the beauty of, say, a bird that doesn’t exist anywhere on planet Earth. The reader will never be able to touch this bird; it will never land in their window; it will never sing in their tree. And yet my story insists that its beauty exists just the same.

Fortunately, readers have imaginations as well. A reader’s imagination is exactly as fascinating to them as mine is to me. It is with this imagination that the reader recalls their first kiss as if it had occurred only the day before, or dreams with excitement of tomorrow’s rendezvous with a lover. It is also the reader’s imagination that summons the ogres of past hurts, or brings to life the dragons of future ruin and failure. There is really nothing the imagination cannot show a reader if he or she is willing to look.

In this way, sharing a story is always an act of trust. The writer trusts the reader’s imagination to bring his story to life, and the reader trusts the writer to take them somewhere beautiful or exciting or profound or funny within the infinite landscape of their imaginations. Most stories have dragons of one kind or another, and if rendered truthfully, the fright they provide can be as real as a doctor’s grim news to his patient. My favorite stories, however, do not leave me bleeding fear. My favorite stories return me to myself, whole again, and eager to find a friend I love with whom to share it.

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

Your Greatest Resource

I sometimes work with students or clients who’ve published independently and want to know how to market their novel or memoir. I rarely have the sort of answers these writers are looking for at the ready, and so I was glad when I stumbled on this post from author and blogger Molly Greene: Book Promotions That Work. If you’ve just published something, and you’re wondering what you should do next, this is a short but handy list.

It’s a good place to start, and a lot of writers need a good place to start because a lot of writers have exactly zero interest in marketing. Most writers just want to write. As well they should. Even with the good days and bad days, writing is mostly good. It feels good to sink into that dream. It feels good to forget about your day and your job and your bills and follow the stream of a story. It feels good to stop worrying what other people think about this or that and only wonder what you think of this and that.

And it feels good to listen to your imagination and intuition. They come up with such interesting ideas, ideas you would never have come up with bumping around your day, grousing about the government or your in-laws. How reassuring, when you go deep into that dream called a story and the imagination and intuition take over; how nice to know you don’t have to come up with every little idea by yourself.

Which is why, I when I teach marketing, I don’t start with lists, even good one’s like Molly’s. I don’t want any author to lose track of their greatest resource. This resource is not on any website or in any class or any writing magazine or writing book. It can be found exactly where the stories you are marketing were found, and it is always waiting there with another great idea.

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