Beginnings and Endings

You are probably familiar with the expression, “Happiness is within.” Whether you believe it or not, by now it is possible that when you hear that phrase you are no more inspired by its message than you are delighted by the sight of your own furniture. Language is tricky that way. A combination of words is usually – though by no means always – most powerful when read or heard for the first time. Gradually any thought can become like gum we chew past its flavor with our familiarity.

Such is the challenge of writing: our goal is to keep that gum fresh at all times. Fortunately, not all the world is as familiar to me as my furniture. As small as the circle of my life often is, I see or hear something new in it every day. Whether it’s a headline in a magazine, an overheard conversation in the produce aisle, or simply the sight of a crow perched on an iron fence, what I can see, hear, touch, taste or smell frequently inspires me, simply because it is always in motion. The flavor of the world is always fresh.

By and by I bring that inspiration to the desk. At that point, however, I can no longer depend on the world I can see, touch, taste, and smell to inspire me. I must move my attention to a world beyond the five senses. Whatever thoughts were planted in my mind reading the headline or hearing the conversation or seeing the crow must now grow from the soil of my imagination and curiosity.

Sometimes those thoughts grow quickly and effortlessly and sometimes not. I am never happier than when the thoughts are growing into essays or stories. Life never feels so on purpose, so easy, and so meaningful as when I am connecting thought to thought to thought toward a story I want to share with other people. Fortunately, I have learned over the years to be patient when the thoughts are not growing so quickly. They will – if I trust that my happiness can indeed be found within. It’s where every story starts and every story ends.

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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Remembering Fluency

Writing instruction is not like teaching, say, a foreign language. When I arrived at my first French class in seventh grade I knew absolutely nothing about the language except that one needed a beret and a small dose of existential angst to speak it authentically. Everything I learned there was new to me except this: the purpose of French was the same as my native English, to communicate with other people.

That purpose was often lost in a class that focused so much on conjugating verbs and memorizing vocabulary. It seemed sometimes as if French had been invented simply to provide new and vaguely romantic hoops for young English-speaking children to jump through. I received the first bad grade of my schooling career in that class.

Strange that I could not learn in a classroom at thirteen what a three year-old child learns effortlessly simply by being alive around other French-speaking people. Which brings me back to writing instruction. Unlike French, or English, or Russian, stories are a universal human language. They are how we talk to one another. The only real difference between the teacher and the student in a writing class is that the teacher is more aware of this.

Yet sometimes there is a temptation to teach writing as we teach a foreign language. This is understandable because it sometimes appears as if certain students have no more familiarity with stories than I do with calculus. These students, however, have simply forgotten that the only purpose of stories is to communicate. When they remember this, when they stop trying to be impressive or to get it right, their writing changes. They have remembered their native fluency.

Now, instead of asking, “What will other people think of this?” or, “Is this correct?” the student only asks, “How can I best express what I most want to express?” Sometimes a teacher can help answer this question and sometimes not. The teacher’s real job is to remind the student that this is the only question he or she need ever ask. They are already fluent in the language of life.

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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Meaningful Noises

My wife’s uncle is an inventor and a very successful businessman with hardly an artistic bone in his very fit body. You might think he and I have very little in common, but in fact he has always recognized the connection between the artist and the entrepreneur, and enjoys talking about the vagaries of writing and publishing. Once we landed on a subject where there was considerable professional crossover: writing technology. My uncle-in-law observed that there were now numerous software options for the writer. I agreed that there were.

“But does the technology actually make the writing any better?” he asked dubiously.

It was such an unexpected question that I nearly didn’t understand it. It took me a moment to understand that as an inventor he viewed a given technology’s value by its evolutionary expansion of human potential. The argument could be made that computers and writing software are doing just that, but Shakespeare wrote with a quill. There isn’t a piece of technology in the world that will tell you what word should come next, which is the biggest challenge facing every writer since writing was invented.

And I happen to believe that language remains humanity’s single greatest invention. That these noises coming out of our mouth actually mean enough to cause another human being to weep or laugh or unclench a fist is miraculous if you pause to think about it.

Sometimes I wish I didn’t spend my days wading through words; sometimes I think my life would be purer if I had been a composer. More often, however, I return willingly to these meaningful sounds. Words are the lens through which I understand life. I do not know what it is I know until I have put that abstract knowledge into words.

For there, in language, knowledge becomes something outside of me and knowable to another human being. No matter how often I do this, I still find this sharing of thought through words beautiful and mysterious. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does. I’m sure the first words invented were “Fire” or “Run!” but this couldn’t have satisfied for long. Even squatting in a cave, one of us must have thought, “Wooly mammoth. Yum.” And one of us must have looked across the cave at the other cave squatters and found a prehistoric word for “delicious.”

But why? Because it would help us live longer? Because it would keep us warm in the winter? No, one of us would have said this only because it was true, which always has been and always will be reason enough to say anything.

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

See It

Sometimes I will read a sentence by another writer that doesn’t ring completely true. Depending on how far from the mark the writer landed, such a sentence might get labeled “bad writing,” a term that is itself as inaccurate as the writing it claims to describe. The writing wasn’t bad, it was just unfinished and the writer didn’t know it.

I have written many, many such sentences in my life, and always a part of me knew at the time of the writing that there was something closer to what I had meant. I could not understand why some lines were spot on, while others strayed again and again from their mark. It felt like luck – or worse yet, talent, as if my only bad luck was being born slightly less talented than my literary ambitions required.

All of that changed when I learned that most of the best writing has nothing to do with words and everything to do with patience. And I don’t just mean the patience to rewrite. I mean the patience to wait until you can see or hear or smell or feel what you are trying render. You must have the patience to allow the lens of your imagination to focus completely on what you are trying to translate into language. How can you possibly render it accurately if it is not clear? How can you write what you cannot see? Such writing is luck, and you have about as much chance of winning that game as you do the slots in Vegas.

Before you put one word on the page, ask yourself, “Can I see it? Can I feel it?” If you can’t see it clearly, feel it clearly, put all words aside and wait. It is critical you not dwell in words in this moment; they will only confuse you. Wait until you have focused that lens as tightly as possible on your target. Then open your mind to words, and if your focus is tight and clear they will come effortlessly. There is no luck to it. There is only the willingness to believe that if you can see it, you were meant to write it.

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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Meaningful Noises

My wife’s uncle is an inventor and a very successful businessman with hardly and artistic bone in his very fit body. You might think he and I have very little in common, but in fact he has always recognized the connection between the artist and the entrepreneur, and enjoys talking about the vagaries of writing and publishing. Once we landed subject where there was considerable professional crossover: writing technology. My uncle-in-law observed that there were now numerous software options for the writer. I agreed that there were.

“But does the technology actually make the writing any better?” he asked dubiously.

It was such an unexpected question that I nearly didn’t understand it. It took me a moment to understand that as an inventor he viewed a given technology’s value by its evolutionary expansion of human potential. The argument could be made that computers and writing software are doing just that, but Shakespeare wrote with a quill. There isn’t a piece of technology in the world that will tell you what word should come next, which is the biggest challenge facing every writer since writing was invented.

And I happen to believe that language remains humanity’s single greatest invention. That these noises coming out of our mouth actually mean enough to cause another human being to weep or laugh or unclench a fist is miraculous if you pause to think about it.

Sometimes I wish I didn’t spend my days wading through words; sometimes I think my life would be purer if I had been a composer. More often, however, I return willingly to these meaningful sounds. Words are the lens through which I understand life. I do not know what it is I know until I have put that abstract knowledge into words.

For there, in language, knowledge becomes something outside of me and knowable to another human being. No matter how often I do this, I still find this sharing of thought through words beautiful and mysterious. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does. I’m sure the first words invented were “Fire” or “Run!” but this couldn’t have satisfied for long. Even squatting in a cave, one of us must have thought, “Wooly mammoth. Yum.” And one of us must have looked across the cave at the other cave squatters and found a prehistoric word for “delicious.”

But why? Because it would help us live longer? Because it would keep us warm in the winter? No, one of us would have said this only because it was true, which always has been and always will be reason enough to say anything.

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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Follow wdbk on Twitter

The N Word

When I was sixteen I walked out of my front door to discover our kindly, retired neighbor, Mr. Hall, cutting the overgrown bushes that separated our yards. Because my parents were divorced this man had helped me build my soapbox racecar and had affixed a basketball hoop to our garage. I was getting ready to thank him, when he turned his red face my way. I knew then he had been waiting and waiting for us to take care of this.

“Your yard looks like a nigger yard.”

I was stunned.  Even though this was 1981 and that word was still largely in circulation, I had never heard it from an adult.

“You people need to quit playing so many games and get to work.”

Had Mr. Hall not used the word nigger, I might have accepted this little lecture as I had so many from adults before. But he had crossed a line and revealed his own fear and smallness and was no longer an adult. Something in me stood up.

“Maybe there are more important things in the world than bushes,” I said.

I marched off feeling as if I had just heard myself clearly for the first time. It was such a new sensation speaking those words to that old man. It was as if a hole had opened up when he said nigger, a hole that grew wider when he told me my family needed to get to work. I would say later that I was speaking My Truth, but really I was only trying to fill that hole I believe he had unintentionally opened.

In this way, it wasn’t my truth at all, was it? Perhaps it was his. Perhaps I only heard what he had forgotten could close the gap between that word and him.

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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What The Silence Tells Us

I have an apple tree in my backyard, and it being April, the apple blossoms are in full bloom. I look forward to this time of year for this very reason. The lawn beneath the tree, watered for weeks with spring rain, is never greener, and the view from my back steps of that carpet of jewel green dappled with the white petals looks like a scene out of a fairy tale or the creation of a Hollywood set designer.

Yet it is quite real. As a writer, of course, two things usually come to mind when I look at my backyard: First, Beautiful; and second, How would I write it? Or perhaps it is the other way around. My rendering above, for instance, while perfectly serviceable, just won’t do. Perhaps you can see it, but I doubt you can feel it, which is all the point. Also, I’m wary of the word “dappled,” though it beats “sprinkled” in this case, and “littered” wouldn’t work, and after that we’re into “painted,” or “spotted,” and so on, which sends me back to dappled.

Kind of drains all the magic out of it, doesn’t it? It’s hard to believe sometimes that something so fussy as writing can result in anything beautiful. I have decided that if I’m going to enjoy my life away from the keyboard, I must learn from time to time to shut my writer’s eye. It’s really a kind of addiction, this reducing the whole of something into a few choice words. You can become like the ten year-old boy who won’t put down his Rubics Cube. The world is always offering you new scenes, after all, both beautiful and ugly and everything in between, that call out for your concise reduction.

At least I don’t dream of writing. Paul McCartney was supposed to have heard the melody for “Yesterday” in a dream, and while it’s nice to be struck by creative lightening, it’s best, for me at least, to have a time away from words. The world isn’t words. The world is the world. After all, language is merely my vehicle of choice to share what the world has given me. Before then, before I speak or write or think a word, there is the necessary silence. It is that silence I wish to share, and if I never listen to it, what will I ever have to say?

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What’s In A Name?

I got an early Christmas present from my wife this weekend – a cat. This was a happy occasion for our family, as it was our first pet that didn’t have scales and live in a bowl of water. However, my wife and I made the mistake of not naming our new family member on the way home from the adopt-a-cat center, which meant my two sons would be included in the naming debate. Baby naming books were consulted, ballots drawn up, and then in the end my wife chose the name anyway because apparently the men in the family didn’t seem to care one way or the other.

As it should have been. My wife is the type of writer who spends much time deliberating over her characters’ names, and with good results. I, meanwhile, am terrible at remembering people’s names and am impatient when naming my characters. I even allowed my friends to change my name. I was Billy until I reached high school where my new friends called me Bill and that was that.

As I understand it, Buddhists don’t say, “This is a tree,” they say, “We call this a tree.” It is more accurate, of course. That fellow on the throne is a just a man we call a king. Everything in the world already is what it is before we name it. But the creative process is always about re-translating. If everyone went to the same party, everyone would tell a different story about that party and everyone’s title for their story would be different.

Still, there is much to be said for agreement. I could have stuck to my guns and remained Billy, but my friends had recognized something in me that I had not yet recognized in myself, and Bill fit that new thing better than Billy. Every word we use to communicate is the result of a massive, centuries-old agreement, an agreement that changes incrementally every day. From the stories we tell to the words we use to tell them, everything is an inheritance, but like all inheritances, what was once someone else’s becomes ours—and thus in our hands lies the future, for cats and kings alike.

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