Writing, Fame, and Kindness

When I was a young man, I wanted to be famous. It didn’t matter so much as what, though early on I recognized that writing was the most appealing path to follow. Fame, it seemed to me, meant freedom – freedom from worry, freedom from poverty, freedom from irrelevance and obscurity, and freedom ultimately from the suicidal thought that nothing I did or said actually mattered. If something I did or said reached and moved other people, then somehow this meant that what I had done or said mattered, which meant I mattered, which meant life itself mattered. So I wanted be famous.

I ended up spending about twenty years waiting tables, which was perhaps the exact opposite of my original career goal. When you’re a server, you have to forget about yourself. To do your job well, you have to forget about what you want and listen carefully to what other people want, bring it to them, and then go away. Your opinion matters little, though your patience and compassion mean everything. People come to dinner in all different moods, and from all different walks of life. To do your job well, you have to treat them all with equal kindness.

All the time I was serving people I was also writing; it’s just that no one was reading what I was writing. And yet sometimes I would come home after a shift, and there I would be, sitting alone in my living room, my wife and children already asleep, and if I didn’t think about being a waiter, or the stories I hadn’t sold, or how old I was, I found I would forget what it was I thought fame would free me from. I did not know what to make of this experience. It felt like giving up, and yet it wasn’t.

By and by I left the restaurant and was asked to start an online magazine. Now, people were reading what I was writing, which was strange because the experience did not feel significantly different than when people weren’t reading what I was writing. There is not much that can influence what it is to sit alone at your desk and translate your curiosity into essays and stories, except the unanswerable question of how to measure whether what you are doing matters. Does it matter if no one else is reading it? What if one person reads it? What if a million people read it?

A better question to ask, I learned, was, “What is the very best thing I can share with other people?” When I asked this question it was as if I was a server again, because to answer it I had to forget about myself. I had to forget about whether I was better or worse, whether I was right or wrong, and just listen. I was never as kind to myself as when I sat alone at my desk and listened. To listen was to be free from the idea that the difference between people matters.

Some days I listen better than other days. Some days I find I am just listening for what I want to hear. There is no kindness in this, only judgment. When I was younger and dreaming of fame, I would not have guessed that judgment is imprisonment and kindness is freedom. It got all mixed up as I looked and looked for what I already had.

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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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Be Kind First

You may think it is important to be disciplined. You may think it is important to get your butt in the chair. You may think it is important to wake up an hour earlier, to turn off your cell phone and your Internet. All these things are important. A book will not get written if you don’t write. A book will not get written if you do not create an environment where your imagination can focus on one single story.

But it is still more important to be kind. You are the boss and the employee. You will not work for yourself if you are cruel and demanding. Yet how easy it is to disregard kindness, this grandmother of virtues. How passive it appears, how reliable yet uncreative. Kindness is hard work’s reward, the peace you’ve earned once the unkind world of creation’s uncertainty has been tamed. The publishing world does not always appear so kind, after all. The publishing world has as many No’s in its quiver as there are manuscripts in the air.

But kindness is the soil from which creation grows. Kindness is trust in action. No wonder it seems so gentle, so receptive, for trust accepts no resistance. Kindness is the love you give yourself first, not last, the love you give without proof that a day’s work is worthy of reward. Be kind first, and the discipline of daily work will follow. Be kind first, and in the peace that kindness brings your imagination will find the focus it needs to give you what you desire. Be kind first, and you will have kindness to share with the world, rather than a plea for kindness from a world you feel is unworthy of your trust.

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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Practice

Although I rarely address it directly in this space, I have always been a student of what we call craft. Though I have avoided writing classes and books on writing, I have always read other writers with an eye out for what I think works and what I think doesn’t work. As we all know, reading is second only to writing in the necessities of this discipline.

But writing is still first, and it is here that I am practicing even as I am working. This is how we get better, yes? We ask ourselves: Is there a quicker way to say that? Could this be more honest? Could this be more accurate? Could this be funnier, or sadder, or livelier?

These are all good questions, and when answered honestly, my work improves daily. This voice is like an inner coach, goading me on with gentle, relentless dissatisfaction. But this coach must be gentle. I call upon him when rereading my work, and if he is harsh, if he asks, “Why did you write that?” I will come to fear his eye. Now I will not be able to read my work honestly, and be inclined to call what is unfinished finished simply to avoid the coach’s whip.

I felt that whip for years and yet never knew where the scars had come from. If asked, I’d say, “Oh, that time the teacher said . . .” or, “There was this older writer I knew once who said . . .” But all these people did was show me how to hold the whip and how best to crack it. As with most things in my life, I perfected my technique in private.

It is odd to finally look down and see what is in your hands. If it’s there, then it has to be there for a reason, doesn’t it? Except once you have seen the whip, once you are aware you are holding it, the reasons are strangely absent. Something about getting better . . .. You can’t remember now, and as you put it down, you discover you can practice kindness in private also.

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

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The Efficacy Of Kindness

Writers who outline often site time management as a driving force behind their decision to abandon Doctorow’s “headlights on the road at night” technique. To extend this metaphor, outliners don’t have time to travel down some dead end, back up, and find the right road again. Once they start writing, they want every word pointing them exactly where they need to go.

This is particularly true, of course, if you are expected to produce one book a year, as many commercial and/or series writers are. But not everyone can outline, myself, as I have often mentioned on this page, included. And in my experience, the greatest time saving technique a non-outliner can develop is the willingness to rip up the pages that aren’t working and start again.

By which I mean, pay attention. There are a lot of stories floating in the ether. As you write, you are tuning your antennae to the story you are currently telling. It is easy, however, when you are deciding where to go next, to tune into the wrong story. If you are feeling a bit stuck, you might leap on just such a story if for no other reason than to feel the satisfaction of writing again. Very soon, however, problems will arise: characters will become wooden, the conflicts two-dimensional. You are trying to force the square peg or your current story into the round hole of the new story, and the results are predictably awkward.

The sooner you admit what you have done, the sooner you can begin tuning your antennae again. In the end, time will be wasted not because you have made some wrong decision—everyone does this all the time—but because you were afraid to admit what has happened. You might look at the wrong turn part of your story and wonder, “What is wrong with me?” or, “Why have I forgotten how to tell a story,” or, “This novel is doomed.”

Now, not only must you get yourself back to the actual story you want to tell, but you must also recover from the terrible idea you have just sewn into your psyche. I have wasted a lot of time recovering in my life. Writing without an outline requires great discipline. You must be particularly disciplined in your kindness. If you train yourself to be as kind as possible whenever a wrong turn is taken, you develop more and more courage to race ahead, knowing as you now do, that there has never been a good time to punish yourself.

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

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Be Kind

I wanted to bring a website to your attention. If you’re a regular reader of the magazine you are probably familiar with James Thayer, who has contributed dozens of articles to Author over the past two years. Recently, Jim started Novel Pro, a blog dedicated to the nuts and bolts of novel writing.

Jim is a novelist, writing teacher, and book doctor, and is a firm believer that writing can be taught. His advice is always clear, sound, and easy to grasp. Even though I tend to eschew this kind of practical writing advice, as the editor publishing his work I nonetheless found myself checking my own work to see if I had avoided all the traps over which he’d seen so many beginning writers stumble. Needless to say, I found I still fell into a few.

Though we must remain kind. Every book on writing should begin with this way: Be kind. No book was ever finished in punishment. Jim does not offer his do’s and don’ts as whips with which you can beat yourself; he offers them with love, because he knows that when you’re in the thick of a book, when you’ve got all your attention on The Big Stuff—the narrative arc and the timing of the climax—he knows you can miss those little things like giving too many stage directions or forgetting the power of contrast.

As a writer, or merely a breathing human being, I don’t believe it is possible to be too kind to yourself. If, however, you think it might be possible, I advise you seek this supposed acceptable limit. Once you have reached it, be kinder, just to see what happens. Just when you believe you’ve gone long enough without being scolded, try another five minutes and see if you crumble into dust or lose all desire to write again.

If calamity ensues, let me say in advance I am sorry. But I feel confident you’ll survive. True kindness is not about escape; it is not a hole to hide in while the vandals ride past. True kindness reveals that there was never anything to escape from in the first place.

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

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