Little Altars

When I was twenty, I tried reading James Joyce’s Ulysses for the first time. Ulysses is a big book where not a lot happens. I didn’t get very far that first time because I mistook it for a novel, when really, it is a 600-page poem. Still, I liked what I did manage to read. In fact I liked what I read because not a lot happened. In Joyce’s fictional world, nothing was inconsequential; everything, from pear soap to shaving cream to a daydream, was worthy of being rendered in complete and loving detail.

I found this inspiring. Not a lot seemed to be happening in my life then. I drank coffee, I hung out with my friends, I took walks, I tended bar. The parts of one day seemed interchangeable with the parts of the next. And yet, even within these quiet days, if my attention settled completely on the coffee or the conversation or the street I was crossing, I could feel the value and poignancy of life as completely as when I won a race or when then the girl I loved said goodbye.

But because I was still a young writer, I had put Joyce on a kind of artistic altar. He had done what only a chosen few could manage. While any moment in any city at any time could serve as a portal through which to glimpse life’s inherent beauty, not anyone could render what they viewed through that portal. Sometimes when I tried and failed to do so, I despaired, not just because I might lack that which was called talent, but because I feared that what I hoped to share didn’t actually exist. I’d imagined it. What Joyce showed me was just his genius, which belonged to him alone and could not be shared.

I would eventually reread Ulysses, and quite enjoy it, until I reached a particularly experimental chapter and had to give up. I felt as if I were translating a foreign text, and I lost interest. I did not, however, lose interest in writing about all those little moments that felt so valuable to me. In fact, Ulysses still served as a kind of inspiration. It was, after all, a story about the heroic in the everyday. I had to take Joyce off the altar on which I’d placed him, and put life on that altar instead. Now I could see more clearly what I was trying to render, and now it belonged to everyone, including me.

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

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Platforms

Although I enjoy speaking to crowds, I think I would make a lousy politician. The popularity contest that is an election would bring out my most craven qualities, and I would end up like a writer changing his story’s ending for every reader. Still, this hasn’t prevented me from developing my own bipartisan platform, which, lacking a convention, I will share with you now:

First, conservatives always preach the importance of self-reliance, and so would I. The finest people in the world to hang around with are those who best understand that they alone are responsible for their own wellbeing. If I think you can do or say something that will make me unhappy, then I must control you, mustn’t I? After all, I only want to be happy, to be at peace, and if you can gum that up somehow, then you’ve got to be dealt with. Plus, have you ever tried to make someone happy? It’s exhausting and frustrating. No matter how beautifully you sing, no matter how funny your jokes are, that other person can still choose to be unhappy. Completely ungrateful, but there it is.

Meanwhile, liberals preach the power of community and shared responsibility, and so would I. The only true form of self-reliance is love. In fact, all we ever rely on for our happiness is love, which arrives as soon as it is asked for. Love defies the laws of physics; it has no cause and effect—it simply is.

Moreover, as James Joyce noted, “Love loved loves to love.” This is an economical expression of the unique physics of love. In the material world, if I give you a dollar, I have one less dollar; if I give you my coat, I have one less coat. In the world of love, the moment I give love I have more love. We can only ever want more love, it is impossible for us to want less of it, and so if you understand that you have love, you will be in a constant search for a means to share love.

I don’t know how this would translate into policy – either foreign or tax – but it would be the only platform upon which I could honestly stand. I have heard, however, that writers are now encouraged to seek platforms from which to share their work. I’m not sure if the aforementioned is what publishers are referring to. They probably mean something more like an online magazine, to which I say: Same thing.

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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Immortal Diamond

The first sentence of Chapter 3 in James Joyce’s Ulysses begins with this half of a compound sentence: “The ineluctable modality of the visible.” When I first read this, I thought, “What?” So I reached for my dictionary and came to learn that Joyce was referring to the inescapable and continuous (ineluctable) compartmentalization (modality) of the visual world: my hand, my fingers, my fingernails, my right pinky fingernail, and so on. All the world is broken into more and more and more smaller and smaller and smaller parts, right down to our neutrons, protons, and electrons.

Which is a long way to say what Joyce expressed in six words—so bravo that lesson in economy. Still, Ulysses is a book filled with a lot of interesting and economical sentences, but that one, perhaps above all others, has stayed with me for the twenty years since I first read it. I thought of it again this morning when I was listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” whose last verse contains the line, “You can add up the parts, you won’t find the sum.”

I have to admit that for some time I was enamored with how fancy Joyce’s sentence was, and as I grew older and wiser I became a bit ashamed of my continued fascination with it. Until I listened to Cohen. Stephen Dedalus makes his modality observation when he is sitting on a beach, and you could no more understand that beach pebble-by-pebble than you could understand a story word-by-word.

It is hard sometimes to be a person blessed with a brain capable of breaking the world down into its microscopic components. It is hard to see reality as the physicist sees light—as both a particle and a wave. And yet it is so. All separation is a necessary illusion so we can get about and tell stories in the world. But it is good from time to time to remember it is in fact only an illusion, to remember that what actually separates each of us – and the animals, and the plants, and the pebbles on the beach – is a desire to see life new, and that the whole cannot be shattered, only faceted like a diamond.

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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Yes

I had the pleasure of hanging around with Andre Dubus when he was in Seattle for the recent Pacific Northwest Writers Conference. I had asked him to be the Key Note speaker based on my impression of him during our interview a year ago. He did not disappoint.

And yet, as eloquent and inspiring as his speech was, amid all the stories and wisdom he shared what stayed with me the most was a single, rather off-handed comment he made soon after he’d hopped up on stage. In describing his experience as a writer, he confessed, “Man, I love this life. I don’t ever want it to end.”

It made me very happy to hear that, and not just because I liked Andre and wanted the best for him. You cannot argue with joy, it is a truth that stands alone unsupported by evidence, rooted only in itself. Words and words and words are great, and they are generally my tool of choice, but joy knows every language—just ask Beethoven—from the piano to the poem, and I will never hear enough of it.

It should be no surprise that the composer’s last symphony ended with the Ode, or that Joyce’s Ulysses concluded, “ . . . yes I said yes I will yes.”  Saying no is a requirement to managing your time and life—there is too much that could be done to try and do it all—but yes is the only engine forward.

As a young girl, my wife spent most of her days saying no in an attempt to barricade herself from a world she viewed as constantly encroaching on her peace of mind, and so her world grew increasingly empty. Eventually she said yes to art school, and yes to writing stories, and even yes to me. But she wasn’t actually saying yes to me, she was saying yes to life, which is what Andre did that evening at the conference. Life forever awaits your yes, and when you hear it in another, you are actually hearing it in yourself, because you cannot know what you have not already seen, and you cannot love what you have not always known.

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Know Success

It’s conference week here in the Seattle area. Tomorrow begins the 2010 Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, and there is much envelope and folder stuffing going on in anticipation of the big event. If you are attending, I will of course be there, in many roles, helping and pointing and explaining and probably apologizing too.

One of the problems we have run into in planning the conference is knowing in which rooms to put which speakers. Some rooms are bigger than others, and there is no way to tell for sure who will draw the largest crowds. So you guess, and you are wrong. There is always some grumbling because who wants to stand and listen to an hour presentation, but really writers of all people should understand. Brando Skyhorse, who gave an excellent interview for this month’s issue, spent ten years in publishing before selling his first novel. He spoke about how often publishers and writers are surprised by the success of a given book. How do you plan for such things? I don’t think you can.

Though I do remember working with someone years ago who’s motto was, “Prepare for success.” I always liked this. It certainly beats preparing for failure, as I explained yesterday. But how do you really do that? James Joyce, as he was awaiting word on Dubliners, his first collection of short stories, told his brother to join in him Trieste, as they were soon going to be living luxuriously off his royalties. Didn’t work out that way.

So Joyce was counting his chickens, which always seems to invite disappointment. I am always happiest and most grounded when I prepare for the best possible thing to happen without deciding ahead of time what that will be. More wiggle room that way. Also, if you are so certain ahead of time that success means Agent A representing you, you might not take the time to talk to Agent B, who would actually be a better fit.

We know what success is when we feel it. Success is the lining up of events with desire, that sweet connection of thought and action. Your job is the desire; it is really all you have control over anyway. And you will never know success, as it were, unless you are listening to the constant current of your desire. Not that you won’t have success, you simply won’t know you are having it.

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