A Better Story

I’ve always loved to tell stories, and for years the stories I wanted to tell were stories I invented. Now, I only want to tell stories from my own life. Of course, I’ve always done this, it’s just that now I’m doing it professionally and for readers I might never meet. This presents a unique challenge. Why would someone who will never meet me care about what happened to me?

The answer is that no reader actually cares what happened to me, but they might care what I learned about life from what happened to me. To find this lesson, this meaning, I must look at the events of my life not as something that happened to me, but simply as something that happened of which I was a part. It’s a subtle difference, but if I’m a victim in any way then nothing will be learned other than that life is unfair and that I better duck when its blade is swinging my way.

Why bother telling that story unless I want people to feel bad for me? I’ve certainly told stories like this, and all that would happen is that whoever I told the story to would immediately turn around and tell me a story about how unfairly life treated them, to which I’d think, “Hey, this isn’t a competition!” Though maybe it was. In the land of victims, the king is the always one who’s suffered the most.

So I try to tell better stories, and the only way to do so is without judgment. To tell a story about what I learned, I simply cannot judge the past, meaning I cannot judge me, or anyone, or life itself. Judgment, the idea that this is good and that is bad, that this should have happened and that shouldn’t have happened, is a filter across reality, a veil obscuring life’s full value.

It is also, I’ve come to understand, a story I invented. Unlike the stories I used to invent on the page, I always mistook my judgment for reality – the painful truth I must accept. I never fully succeeded in doing so, which for a time I called failure. Then I started telling better stories, and the veil was lifted, and I succeed from time to time in seeing life as it was, rather than what I feared it might be.

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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Why Not To Judge Your Writing

It’s that time of year when I’ll begin judging submissions for the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association’s yearly writing contest. I’m happy to lend a hand because I know the contest often serves as a valuable career steppingstone for the winners, and that all the writers value the feedback they receive on their submissions. However, the nature of contests is such that I am required to assign numerical scores to every story I read. This is always the most difficult part of my assignment. I am a writer myself before I am a judge, and the writer in me must close his eyes when the judge ranks one story as quantifiably better than the other.

The worst thing I can do as a writer is to believe in good writing and bad writing. Actually, the worst thing I can do as a writer is to believe in good and bad period. The concept of good and bad, of right and wrong, is anathema to creativity. Once I have entered the creative flow of the story I want to tell, my only concern is what belongs in that story and what does not. This requires selectivity. That is, I must select one word or sentence or character over another. Yet this does not mean that one word is actually better than another word, just as a shovel is not better than a hammer unless I want to dig a hole.

No one is capable of making these choices, these selections, but me, for I am the only who knows the story I want to tell. For this reason, I must forget about the idea of good and bad while in that creative flow. I must forget about the idea that any thought, any story, any person is better than another person. I must see the world as neutrally as the eighty-eight keys on the piano – each one necessarily different from the other, but each equally valuable, useful, and deliciously responsive to the artist’s choice as any other.

I understand this neutrality, this absolute equality, largely contradicts my experience away from the desk. I inadvertently judge things as good or bad as I go about my day. But this is only because the creative selection process does not end when I stop writing. The difference is that instead of looking at a blank page, I am looking at the world of other people and the things they say and do and write. I cannot help but notice things that I enjoy and things I do not. I cannot help but want to read one book over another or to notice that I prefer peace to violence and agreement to argument.

But that does not mean I must judge these things. To judge is to determine that something that does exist should not exist. If this is true of something I see, then why should this not be true of me? I exist, after all, how do I know if I am good or bad? When I write, I cannot fear writing something that is bad, that should not exist. There is no right answer to the question, “Is this any good?” I can only answer the question, “Is this the story I want to tell?”

Which is why, though I take the job of reading and critiquing the story submissions seriously, I know the numbers I assign say nothing of that story’s actual value. Every story has served that writer equally, whether that writer wins or loses. It has been true of every story I have ever written, whether they were published or not. Every story brought me closer to myself, to the one who knows that only good can come of what sharing what I love with other people.

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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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

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Last Laugh

Last night, my youngest son and I watched the documentary The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made. My son has recently taken an interest in other people’s failings, having discovered humanity’s capacity to bond over mutual disgust. As a boy who has come late to friend-making, he is always on the lookout for the quickest way to cross the divide between himself and anyone else. I guess nothing says you’re amongst friends quicker than agreeing how stupid some other guy is.

So we hunkered down to have a good snark. For all of my son’s desire to revel in how bad something is, he is also a bit of a naïf, even for a twelve year-old. Thus, as we watched clips of Plan 9 From Outer Space, and Frankenstein VS The Space Monster, he would turn to me and ask, “Why is that so bad?”

And my heart would sink. Suddenly, explaining to my sweet-hearted boy why something someone else made stunk was not so appealing. It started feeling like teaching him racism. It’s one thing to say, “My willing suspension of disbelief is challenged by the presence of a boom mic in the shot,” or, “I’m not feeling that Frankenstein really wants to battle the space alien,” and it’s another thing to point and laugh at someone who made the mistake of doing something less than perfectly. Yes, in these instances, much less than perfectly, but aren’t we only talking about degrees?

Don’t get me wrong. Part of how we learn is by recognizing what we feel works and doesn’t work in other people’s stories. But I don’t think artists should race to label something someone else made as “bad”, as if all works of art could have their value measured like a temperature. In doing so, you introduce the concept that there exists some external metric to measure something’s worth. Since this metric is illusory, it can easily become a diabolical weapon for your ego to wield against you in times of uncertainty.

Everything deserves to be made if someone wants to make it. Not everyone has to read it or watch it, and certainly everyone doesn’t have to like it, but that does not mean it shouldn’t exist. Let he who is without sin, I say, because the one they may be laughing at someday could be me.

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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Right and Wrong

There is nothing quite so exhausting as telling yourself that what someone else is doing is wrong. Most people who aren’t, say, the Dalai Lama, probably do it at least once-a-day. What President Obama is doing is wrong; what the Republicans are doing is wrong; what your husband, your daughter, your mother, your neighbor, your boss, or your agent, is doing is wrong. These people are too loud or too quiet; too forceful or too timid; too gaudy or too plain.

All you want is for these people to stop doing what they are doing – which, again, is wrong – and start doing what is right. What is so bad about that? Why is it that merely thinking this for longer than thirty seconds is so fatiguing?

Any thirteen year-old will give you the answer, perhaps followed by a slammed door: Those other people aren’t you. As soon as we think, “He must stop doing that or I cannot be happy,” all our lovely, pure, creative energy is poured down the sinkhole that is trying to change someone else. No matter how right we are, no matter detailed our argument, no matter how invective-filled our pleas, these other people remain infuriatingly, resiliently, unalterably free to do whatever they want to do.

And so we are left with ourselves once again. Because nothing feels so good as taking that energy wasted trying to change someone else and directing it where it wants to go. Nothing feels so good as stepping away from the desk after a long session of asking again and again, “What do I most want say?” of feeling all the energy summoned to grow and grow that answer, stepping away from the desk both physically tired and filled with what you have planted and asking, “What shall I do now?”

Now you remember what it feels like to be alive. Now you don’t care about all those other people and all the wrong things they’re doing or not doing because none of them are you and none of them can answer the only question you have ever wanted to ask.

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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Stay Low

All writers need something to guide them through the story they are telling. For some it is an outline. For me, it is a mantra of sorts: Stay low, and follow the trail.

This may not seem like much, but it has served me very well. Especially the staying low part. There is a scene in the filmed version of Lord of Rings where Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas come upon the scene of a large battle. They have been looking for Merry and Pippin, who had been captured by orcs, and Gimili and Legolas begin to despair, presuming their friends dead. But Aragorn crouches low and discovers a footprint here, a cut rope there, and soon, amid the maelstrom of orc and horse prints in the grass, he is able to sort out Merry and Pippin’s tracks and discern that the two hobbits escaped into the forest.

This is how writing often feels to me. When I view my story from an intellectual distance, I see only the chaos of footprints, any of which could be the thread I am to follow. All those footprints can feel like a problem, and so there is a great temptation to begin thinking, for thinking is how we are taught to solve problems. Only stories aren’t problems, and thinking will only create a problem that thinking can’t solve. I need to get low and follow that trail.

I have lived much of my life at a dizzying intellectual height from which everything looks puny and meaningless, though all the easier to judge. It is an endless Ferris wheel ride of a life.  The crowded, sticky-sweet carnival may have pretty lights and noises, but one can too easily become lost and overlooked while in it. Yet that is where all the stories are being told, where all promises are made and broken, and all love is lost and found.

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

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The Present

I was guest lecturing at a writing class recently when a student asked a question about one of my seven rules of writing: Feel first. Write Second. What, she wanted to know, should you do if you’re trying to write a scene but can’t seem to feel it?

The first answer, of course, is we don’t actually want to write the scene, and our not feeling it is telling us so. More often, however, we do want to write a scene but are having trouble entering it. One of the best things to do in this instance is to find one detail that feels genuinely present in the scene – no matter how insignificant – and write it. The key is not to judge what you see. If you are trying to write a fight scene between your CIA agent and his nemesis but the only thing you notice is the pen in your agent’s pocket, write the pen. Perhaps the pen will be used in the fight; perhaps it won’t. Either way, it will serve as an opening, a crack through which you can enter the scene and then observe it, rather than try to make it all up from the outside in, to invent it with your thinking mind.

I thought of this the other day while having a meeting with my son’s teacher. It was a long meeting and there was a lot to talk about, not all of it the sort thing a father wants to hear. As the meeting progressed, my thinking mind, in its desperation to paint the world black or white and know with certainty whether this woman was capable of helping my son, began, as they say, to play tricks on me. One moment the teacher was a well-meaning professional with a heart of gold, the next a bumbling, taxed, depressed public servant just trying to get through a day without the children killing themselves.

Then I remembered what I had learned when writing, that I should never judge a scene through my thinking mind but behold it with my feeling mind, that it was my job to observe, not to decide. When I observed the teacher in this way, I was able understand, for reasons too many and too gray for my thinking mind to comprehend, that if she did her best, she would be fine.

It is the difference between a character and a caricature. The thinking mind must judge to draw its conclusions, but a true person is never all guilty or all innocent. You know this about yourself, and so you know it about others as well. The wholeness of life can never be known in thought. Yes, there are stories where certain characters, for narrative purposes, must wear their metaphorical white hat or black hat, but even here let the writer use these fictional poles to suggest what lies between. Whether we like it or not, we live within the wholeness of life – which is good news. A world without good or evil is the only place our heart will ever know peace.

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

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