Learning From What We Already Know

One of the biggest differences between the established writers I know and many of the writers I teach or work with as clients is that the established writers don’t worry that much about what they don’t yet know. The beginning writers, meanwhile, worry constantly about what they don’t know, believing it is symptomatic of some shortcoming. A better writer, a smarter writer, a more talented writer, would not be so hamstrung by this swarm of unanswered questions that are keeping the new writers up at night.

In these writers’ defense, there’s an awful lot you start out not knowing, whether you’re writing a book, or selling a book, or marketing a book you’ve sold. Books themselves begin as the smallest of ideas: A lonely guy spots a young woman at a coffee shop; a serial killer visits a shopping mall; a girl pirate. From these small but fertile seeds grow the tree that is a complete story, full of characters, settings, plots and subplots, none of which the author knew when the idea first arrived. All the author knew was that she wanted to tell this story.

And yet that seed of an idea was enough. Now the author has a book. But how will she sell it? She doesn’t know which agent wants it, or which publisher, or which readers. Where to go next? I have learned that the answer to every such question always resides in exactly the same place. Without exception, what I already know teaches me what I need to know.

If I know I want to write about a girl pirate, then that knowledge – which I also call interest or excitement – will teach me, show me, guide me to what I need to know. It will teach me how to write and to how to sell it and how to market it. My job is always to focus on why I know the story is worth telling and worth sharing and from there discover the next step.

But if I move my attention to what I don’t yet know, if I dwell on the ending I haven’t found, or the agent I don’t have, I will feel as lost a student arriving to class without having read the previous day’s assignment. It is the very embodiment of insecurity, believing I am required to know what I don’t. It’s like trying to build a house without hammer or nails.

This insecurity is a failing only of trust, not intelligence or ability. It is hard to believe sometimes that from something so small as an interesting idea can grow something so big a book or a career. Yet it can. What’s more, on a good day I remember how lucky I am not to know something I would like to know. All these questions I haven’t answered become delicious excuses to return to what I know I interests me, to what I know I want spend more time thinking about writing and talking about. What I don’t know sends me back to the source, and the tree keeps growing and growing.

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

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Know It All

Life knows everything that I do not. It knows what is in the heart of every reader and every editor and every agent and critic. It knows who is reading what and who is watching what, and who is sleeping and who is eating, and who is talking and what they are talking about. It knows who is lonely and who is afraid, who is comforting and who is being comforted. It knows who has died and who is born. It knows both sides of every argument, what has been stolen and returned, what has been forgotten and remembered.

On a good day I feel like I know what is in my own heart. On even better days I know that this is enough. It is enough to write what I want to write, say what I want to say, and be where I want to be, which is always where I am. On these days I think I will never leave where I am, and I will never make the mistake again of believing I must know more than this.

Until my attention drifts, and there I am wondering what other people think, or wanting to know the end before I have arrived. On these days I do not even know what is in my own heart. On these days I know only that I had once oversimplified things and now I must untie the immense knot of the world’s complexity. But there is just so much to know, and how do you take even a single step until you know it all?

I ask this question in confusion and despair until I am led back to the blank page of not knowing and, if I am quiet enough, to my own heart again. For a time it had seemed like a fickle lover, abandoning me over the smallest misstep, stranding me in a world of right and wrong answers. Yet here it is, exactly where I left it, the only correct to that question called me.

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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Know Nothing

I have had to accept recently that I know nothing. I have no idea what anyone else is going to do or like. I have no idea how well a book will sell, or how many reads a given blog will receive. I don’t know when a publishing trend will end, and I don’t know what the next publishing trend will be.

More to the point, I don’t even know what is in my best interest. I have spent my life believing I know exactly what is in my best interest. I have been certain that it would be a good thing if this agent or that editor said yes, and it would be a bad thing if they said no. I have had plans and goals, hatched in nervous hours, my future hardly something I was willing to leave to the die-roll of fate. Yet the future always arrived unscheduled and having ignored my script. My plans were a fantasy. I might as well have been planning to be a space pirate.

Worse yet, for a born-again memoirist, I don’t really know what happened yesterday. It’s a shadow play of feeling and image and thought, so near to a dream I would need only the memory of flying from my window or debating modern medicine with Count Dracula to call it that. It’s just material, is all it is. I call it reality because in retelling the past, it feels real again.

Which is all I really know: how I am feeling right now. That I know for sure, but then again only if I pay close attention. If my attention strays to the shadows of the past or my fantasies of the future, I become lost in a changing sea of what I cannot and will never know. But when I pay attention to what I am feeling right now, whether I am writing or taking a shower, I am found again, surrounded and supported by everything I 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.

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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What the Pigeons Knew

There is a PBS documentary called “A Glorious Accident,” in which a Norwegian filmmaker interviews a series of celebrated scientists and philosophers, including Steven Jay Gould, the Harvard paleontologist responsible for the documentary’s title. The question the documentary posed was, Why us? What is the glorious accident called man?

One of those esteemed thinkers was a scientist who studied homing pigeons. He wanted to find out how it was that these birds could always find their way back to the same spot, apparently from anywhere on earth. Simple enough, he figured. He would simply experiment with them until he’d found a condition under which they couldn’t find their way home (blind, confused, etc) which would in turn tell him why they could. Trouble was, no matter what he did, the pigeons always found their way home. Always.

The last part of the documentary was a roundtable discussion amongst all the participants. Here these thinkers of various disciplines would explain why we were what we were. First, however, they had to deal with those pigeons. These thinkers were scientists, and so their thinking had a mechanical quality to it: this happened because of that. So the pigeons had to be able to find their way home because . . .

But there was no because. According to the scientist who’d conducted the study the pigeons . . . just knew. Of course, the other scientists all said, “But did you try X?” Yes, he tried X. And he tried Y. And Z, and A, B, C, D. He was no slouch. He’d tried everything. No matter what he tried, the pigeons just knew.

The esteemed thinkers spent an inordinate amount of time on the pigeons. Finally, they gave up and moved on to other ideas, figuring that someday someone would figure out the precise mechanical reason those pigeons knew what they knew.

I loved those pigeons. I wanted one to fly through that room of bearded men, with the beating of their wings asking, “Why did you become scientists?” The answer, of course—the only answer anyone can ever give to such a question—would be, “Because I wanted to.” And how did they know they wanted to be scientists? Well, they don’t know how they knew, they just knew.

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

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You Know

It was Frank Delaney who first pointed out to me that all writers create problems to which they already know the answers. It can often seem the exact opposite. It can seem, in those jungle-dark days deep in the middle of an unmoving story, that this problem has been handed to you by an evil master who delights in both your failure and your wasted time. Unfortunately, you are that master, and no one handed you this problem – you chose it willingly.

What we often forget when we are in that troublesome middle was how our stories began. An idea comes to us, and we think, “Now that is interesting.” We think this before we could possibly know why. But we know it all the same. We know it without an explanation or a diagram or an outline. Our knowledge is as complete and immediate as it is mysterious, and so we write so that we can learn what it is we know.

Except that we human beings are in the habit of waiting for other people to tell us when something is correct. We have created critics and teachers and editors and parents and coaches and judges all charged with that duty. It’s very tempting to ask someone else if the problem has been solved. What’s more, we writers want lots and lots of people to be as interested in our stories as we are. You, the writer, are only one person. That’s not much of a readership.

Unfortunately there is one thing all those other people will never know: Why you started writing this story in the first place. No one can ever know why something is of interest to you. No one can ever know what you know or why you know it. You can ask them all you want, but they will never be able to answer. You are alone with the knowledge of what you love – until you write it. And then all those other people can read it, and they will know too.

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

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Something Remembered

I have heard it said, often by entertainers themselves, that the job of the artist, of the entertainer, is to help people forget their troubles. It’s a tough and uncertain world out there, goes this thinking, and it is always good to get away from all the conflict and woe and for an hour or two hand your life over to someone who in a song or a story can take you someplace happier where good triumphs over evil and the guy gets the girl. The entertainer helps us forget.

I have never felt the entertainer’s job was to help his audience forget, but to help his audience remember. In this way, entertainers are like teachers. Everyone already knows everything there is to know, but most of us forget, and so teachers are people who have remembered something important and wish to help other people remember it too. This is what entertainers do. They help people remember what happiness feels like.

Because we already know that our job in this life is not to get it right; we already know that our job is not to be a success; we already know that our job is not to marry the right man or get the right publishing contract; we already know our job is not to be a good Republican or Democrat or Christian or Jew or son or daughter or husband or wife. We already know that our only job in this life is to be happy. We know this, but we frequently forget it.

And so the artist helps us remember. The artist shows and doesn’t tell so that the happiness he, the artist, has found can be discovered and remembered in the audience. And when it is, that happiness, which had belonged to the artist, now belongs to the audience, it is theirs, for it always was—and now that they have remembered they might go forward from the library, from the theater, from the concert hall, they might go out with that happiness still in them and it will feel at once new and familiar, something they have remembered, and if they are paying very close attention, they might even think, “This feels exactly like me.”

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

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What I Know

The first real, long term girlfriend relationship I ever had began inauspiciously. It was 1980. Remember that year. Our date consisted of hanging around Thayer Street, the strip of retail stores and restaurants that cuts through Brown University in Providence, RI. We decided to browse Goldie Records. “I could use a Beatles album,” I said.

“The Beatles . . .?” she replied. “Aren’t they the ones who use all those sound effects?”

Remember this is 1980. The Beatles had only been broken up for ten years. John Lennon had died only few months before.

“No,” I said. “They’re The Beatles.  The Beatles.”

That didn’t help, and she didn’t care that she didn’t know who they were. And why should she have cared? Everyone has to learn everything for the first time at some point, and that was the night she learned who The Beatles were. Plus, they did use sound effects.

Perhaps this is why we stayed together. I had always been very shy about what I knew and didn’t know, a debilitating condition that can turn conversations into mine fields. I can’t remember when I decided it was a crime to not know something I was supposed to already know, but I am guessing it began around age twelve, the year the veil of childhood was lifted and I looked about at all the other children and thought, “I wonder what they think of me?”

That question remained unanswered for thirty-plus years. It is still unanswered, though it is less frequently asked. It is part of writing’s great appeal. It is so much easier to forget to wonder what other people think of me when they aren’t around. Sometimes the ghosts of their opinions hover over my desk when I am working, and that is what in technical terms is called a bad day of writing. But more often I feel as if I am on a private search for something and it is not until I have found it does it occur to me that someone else might be interested in it too.

I would like to live all of my life this way, and perhaps someday I will. As I write this, it seems entirely possible. Sometimes writing can seem like a retreat from real life, but I wonder if it’s the other way around? It seems more likely that I stand on the street and dream a cruel circus world where I live and die by ten thousand thumbs of ten thousand emperors, whereas at my desk I remain safe within the very real search for what interests me most—the only thing I have ever known for sure.

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

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Know It

We are all familiar, I’m sure, with old adage, “Write what you know.” This concept is loosely attributed to Hemingway, and for two reasons. One he had a habit of writing about things he did. Watch bull fighting, writing a couple of books about bull fighting. Go to war and like fishing, write stories about war and fishing.

The other reason, however, is that in A Moveable Feast he discusses making a decision to write a story about one thing he knows for sure. It is easy to think that he meant something he had experienced personally, but I believe in this instance he was referring to what he knew to be true.

And this is all any writer could and should do. After all, many writers will be called to write about things they have never done. There are entire genres—science fiction, fantasy, perhaps romance—where this is the case. But the doing isn’t the point.  What matters is what you know.

I think it was Carl Jung who said, and I paraphrase, “I don’t believe anything.  I either know it or I don’t.” I like this, and it’s a good motto for a writer. Believing is hedging your bets.  Know what you know.  Claim it.  And then write about it. It doesn’t matter whether that story is set in 21st century Seattle or on Gallagon Nine, your story will always be better if it is built on the bones of what you know in your heart to be true.

And if some day you decide something different is true, so be it.  You can only know what you know at the moment.  If you wait until you know absolutely everything before you write a book, you will be one very old writer indeed.  So stake your flag.  Choose one thing that you know for sure and write about it.  And people will either agree with you or not—that’s none of your concern. Your only concern is finding the next thing you know for sure.

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What We Know

I had the great pleasure of speaking to a chapter of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) this weekend. The event was extremely well organized, and its sponsors did much-appreciated legwork to drum up what was a surprisingly large crowd for a Saturday afternoon. So let me extend and official Author thank you to Mary and her dedicated team.

This was a new presentation, and it was fairly long (two hours), and while I had a power point presentation to serve as a guide for the lecture, I did not and really could not memorize the entire thing. Still, I did what I thought you ought to do in this instance and wrote up some notes on 3 X 5 cards for each slide. That way, you see, if I didn’t know what to say I could just look at the card there would be some ideas.

Funny I even bothered.  Once I was actually speaking to the audience, it was as if I had contracted a severe case of dyslexia. I couldn’t read the cards. I tried looking down at them once and they might as well have been written in Latin. In fact, the exact same thing has happened every time I have written notes for any kind of public speaking, and it wasn’t until this weekend that I understood why.

For me, everything I need or want to say resides within me – all the stories, examples, and ideas are already there. The notes, however, are outside of me, and simply by looking them I am taken away from where I need to go to find what I want to say. At the end of the presentation, a young woman came up to me and thanked me and mentioned how something I had said had resonated with her.

“It’s like I had known it,” she explained, “but I didn’t understand it until you said it.”

She was absolutely right. She did already know it. We always know everything, but we need constant reminding. The cards were intended to remind me, but it is always the experience of the audience that reminds me instead, for it is from them that I am guided into myself to find what I feel most needs to be said at that moment. So in this way, the audience reminds me of that which they themselves wish to be reminded.

All to the good. When it goes well, everyone is happy, for everyone is glad to learn again what they have always known, just as our closest friends remind us of who we are.

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

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Desire For Knowledge

Once upon a time I was a wine guy. That’s what we called the sommelier in the restaurant where I worked: the wine guy. As a wine guy, I would walk around the restaurant in a tuxedo and recommend wines and answer questions about wine and open wine and pour wine. It was really all about wine.

My mentor was a senior wine guy named Jim Donovan, who as of this writing is still opening wine and answering questions about wine in a very popular Seattle steak house. His first and most astute piece of advice to me was this: “Your worst nightmare is the lawyer who’s just gotten his first issue of Wine Spectator. He thinks he knows everything, even though he actually knows nothing.”

How right he was. It is said that knowledge is power, which is why the lawyer reading Wine Spectator was so eager to share what knowledge he might or might not have. Everyone wants power. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Everyone has power. Our power, however, hardly resides in what we know – what grape is used in a Chablis; who holds the world record in the long jump; what does parsimonious mean? This is just information. It’s nothing. Anyone with Google can answer these and millions of other questions in ten seconds. What a meaningless life if our power was based on how good we are at Trivial Pursuits.

Our power, of course, resides in our ability to create. Sometimes, in order to create something, we need a little knowledge (a sand castle), or a lot of knowledge (a space station). But it’s simply a matter of degrees. What’s more, everyone is equally capable of creating anything they want. Not anything, mind you, but anything they want. In this way your desire is your power. Your desire is the fuel that drives the engine of your curiosity, the clicking in your brain seeking the means of making real that which you have only imagined. Before the knowledge that built towers, that launched rockets, that wrote books, there was always desire, the flame of life, that which made you yourself, and which makes all things.

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

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