Communists of the Heart

My friend Laura Munson recently published an article in The Week about her choice to step back from a familial leaning toward hoarding. It’s a funny and touching piece in which she describes a frank conversation with her daughter about the habit to keep everything from a 50-year-old pair of socks to bottles that can someday be reused as vases. I don’t believe it gives too much away to tell you that the article ends with Laura and her daughter taking a long overdue trip to Goodwill to give away all that had been stored in crawl spaces, closets, and forgotten corners of her garage.

The piece deals with physical things, of course, but it reminded me of another story she had told me years before. Laura is the author of This Is Not the Story You Think It Is, a memoir she published after having written and not published fourteen novels. In one of our many interviews, she confessed that she didn’t even submit all the novels she wrote. She worked and worked on them, loved them, and then kept them to herself.

This is a more common impulse for a creative person than you might think. Eventually, every writer learns that the story doesn’t really belong to her. The moment another person reads our story, they make it their own, using their own imaginations to complete the scenes we painted with only a few strokes. Moreover, it is the reader feeling the heroine’s fear and loss and love and joy. What is more personal to us than what we feel? It doesn’t matter that what we feel grows from a story someone else wrote: that experience is ours, and so that story is ours as well.

Which is why an author gives away every story he or she writes. You may get paid, but you are still giving it away, casting it from the nest to a world where anyone who wants it can make it their own. In this way, we are all Communists of the heart. When an author gives away her story, she remembers that just as what had seemed like hers now belongs to everyone, what had also appeared to belong to others now belongs to her. There is always enough, because everything that matters already belongs to everyone.

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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.

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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Share Alike

Today’s column is a blog within a blog within a blog. I had the good fortune of being invited to contribute to Laura Munson’s fabulous blog this weekend, and so I thought I would share both that essay, and Laura’s lovely preamble to it, with you today. Enjoy.

Read the essay.

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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Haven In Writing

Today I welcome guest blogger and friend of Author Laura Munson. Laura is a great writer, a great teacher, and a great person. Enjoy.

MunsonI’ve been writing novels, memoirs, short stories, personal essays, and magazine articles since 1988 when I graduated from college and claimed my life as a writer.  Some of the stuff I’ve written has been published.  A lot of it hasn’t.  It doesn’t stop me.  I write to understand.  I write to sit at the intersection of heart and mind and craft.  I write to provide relief for myself and others.  I don’t know many writers who have persevered through fourteen unpublished novels.  (Not all good ones, mind you.  But fourteen completed novels, nonetheless).  If I’m an expert at anything, it’s perseverance.  And if I’ve cut my teeth on anything in this life, it’s rejection.

A few years ago, I was looking down the barrel of a nowhere career.  I was falling between the cracks.  My agent wasn’t sending out my work because I didn’t have a large shiny “platform.”  I was making minimal money publishing short pieces in regional magazines.  It seemed like for all my efforts, in the way of “success,” I wasn’t going to show much for myself.  And the damndest thing about the whole thing…was that I knew I could write.  It comes so easily to me.  I can’t balance my checkbook to save my life, or get on my treadmill, or vacuum under my bed, or keep my laundry pile under control…but I could write my way out of a circle of hungry hyenas.  At least that’s what I told myself.  And then, lo, I wrote something that ended up in the New York Times, went oddly and dumb-luck-edly viral, and landed me a huge book deal.  Since then, my life has been quite different in the way of readers, fans, writing opportunities for glossy magazines etc., but the writing life is still the same.  I sit here in this little dark office in Montana with my dogs at my feet and mice in the walls…and write, just like I always have.

Then one day, after answering so many questions from so many people about the writing life, I realized that I had a wealth of information for people about all of the above.  About the mythic trenches of “failure,” and the mythic altitude of “success.”  I realized that in all my touring and interviews and deadlines, that it was all about just one thing:  the work.  And I know how to do the work.  It’s my practice, my prayer, my meditation, my way of life, and sometimes my way to life.  I found myself standing at podiums where I was supposed to be talking about my book, instead, whirling off advice to would-be writers, about how to live the writing life.  Without knowing it, I realized I was on a mission.  So I heeded the call and started my Haven Writing Retreats in Montana.  Five times a year, I gather up to twelve people from all over the place to spend four days being inspired and challenged in wordplay in the hills of Montana.

Each time, I watch the miracle of what happens when people take this stand for their creativity in such a nurturing and safe environment.  That’s my job.  To hold people in what is often the daunting and uncomfortable realm of self-expression.  Over and over, breakthroughs happen.  People come in stuck, and they leave wide-eyed, with new purpose and new practice to bring into their daily lives.  The story:  I want to write, but I can’t—I’m no good—who do I think I am, turns into: I am a writer and here’s why and here’s how that’s going to look in my daily life.  I designed the retreat to meet people wherever they need to be met.  Some consider themselves writers.  Others haven’t written a thing since college.  It doesn’t matter.  The experience is so powerful, that I am committed to continuing my Haven Retreats indefinitely.  Here’s the sort of things people say about them:  “Laura cracked me open in ways I so needed—both personally and as a writer—and created a space that was both safe and challenging at the same time.  I left Montana forever changed.”  Wow.  It blows me away every time.  It’s not that I am personally causing these epiphanies.  It’s the retreat itself and the people who are brave enough to come to Montana, tuck into the hills, and write!

The intention behind the retreat is the same as the work my friend Bill Kenower does here.  We are saying to people, “Let’s go into this heartbreaking and beautiful wilderness together.  I’ll hold the torch.  Maybe I’m just a bit braver than you, but probably not by much.  Hold my hand.  Maybe we’ll find something here together.”  I’m happy to hold that torch and those hands if it means people will find their way to their creative voice and in-so-doing, help others to do the same.

For more information about Haven Writing Retreats, go here:  June is full, but there are spaces in August and both September dates.  Take this stand for your creativity!

Laura Munson is the author of the New York Times and international bestselling memoir This Is Not The Story You Think It Is:  A Season of Unlikely Happiness (Amy Einhorn/Putnam 2010) which Book of the Month Club named one of the best books of the year.  It has been published in nine countries and has been featured in Vanity Fair, Elle, Redbook, Time, Newsweek, Washington Post, Publisher’s Weekly and many other newspapers, magazines, and online venues across the globe.

Laura is the founder of Haven Writing Retreats and speaks and teaches on the subjects of empowerment, personal responsibility, and emotional freedom at conventions, universities and schools, artist retreat centers, and wellness centers.

Her work has been published in the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, O. Magazine, The Week, Huffington Post, Redbook, Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, More Magazine, The Sun, The Shambhala Sun, Big Sky Journal and others.  She has appeared on Good Morning America, The Early Show, WGN, many NPR stations, Hay House radio, as well as other media including London’s This Morning and Australia’s Sunrise.  She lives in Montana with her family.

The Value of Success

It was not until I had lived with my wife for a few years that I fully understood that beauty was to women what success was to men. This is not to say that we men do not worry about our bald spots and our abs and our back hair, or that women cannot catch a full-blown case of the success disease (just ask Laura Munson). But the similarity between women’s impossible relationship to physical beauty, and men’s suicidal relationship to success is the Ying and Yang of human suffering.

At least for women a dialogue about beauty has begun. It started with the outrage of early feminism, but has since moved on to subtler questions of power and femininity and mothers and safety and on and on. Women’s attempt to untangle their value from their cup size or waistline may take generations, but I have hope, given the current trajectory, that such a time may come.

It is quite a different story for men. The subject of success is virtually taboo. It is discussed only in terms of its absolute necessity. We are in this way very much like lifelong athletes, with success being victory in our chosen game. The athlete cannot question the value of winning; it is why the game is played. It is also only natural to compare one’s victories (if you have any) to the other athletes to know your relative value in this endless sport.

Success is our physical safety and our emotional safety. Success will determine where we live, if and what we eat, how high we believe we can hold our head at a party, and even whom we marry. It can become the whole measurement of our lives, and it is virtually meaningless. There is no finish line. The Pulitzer Prize winner can feel a failure for never having won a Nobel.

In the end, however, men and women’s agony remains exactly the same. Measuring your value by success or beauty is like measuring your feet to find your hat size. You will only come away wondering why you cannot find the answer. You could have sworn you had been told you would find it there. Strange also that as soon as you cease your measuring something akin to value speaks to you, in a tone you have long recognized, saying, “Stop looking and you will find me.”

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

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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Voice of Safety

My son got Fifty Shades of Grey for my wife as a joke. She didn’t open it, but I thumbed through it and was surprised that the first page I chose at random had a most graphic encounter between the heroine and her millionaire sexual overlord. As I understand it, this should not have surprised me in the least.

My mother was visiting last week and we found ourselves chatting about this very book, and arrived at much the same conclusion that my friend Laura Munson did in a recent article on the Huffington Post: women secretly long to be taken care of by a man. Or, more to the point, women secretly believe that being taken care of by a man in the chivalrous tradition would be wonderful.

This fact began to dawn on me in my late teens and early twenties when I was dating in earnest, and I was none too pleased by it. I had spent my childhood bombarded by the public fury of the women’s movement, and feeling vaguely guilty simply because I would be a grown man some day. Oh, the arguments I had in my head with those old school feminists. Oh, how glad I am now that I left those arguments in my head.

For the record, I am also glad for the women’s movement because I am lousy at chivalry. I like women as I like any friend, and chivalry seems to turn them into sexual children for which I am responsible. I am not interested in this particular responsibility, but there is one responsibility to which I remain committed: listening. I don’t know where listening lands on chivalry’s to-do list, but it ought to be on the top.

The older I get and the better I become at listening the more I understand that I would like to be better at it still. Listening is humanity’s starting point. I love words, and I love to use them, but talking without listening is a form of insanity. It is no surprise that a number of the women I have interviewed say that writing has taught them they have a voice. These women did not hear that voice in the words they chose for the page. They heard this voice by listening to that which speaks to us when we write. No prince’s arms will ever hold you as gently and kindly as that voice, which guides us forever toward the safety that is life.

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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With Friends Like These

Today on Author2Author I will be chatting with Laura Munson (This is Not the Story You Think it is). It is easy to talk to Laura because she is a friend – by which I mean like my wife, and my brother, and my old pal Chris K., and (fortunately) many others, Laura and I have tuned the frequency of our attention to very similar channels. This translates to the sorts of conversations where I am understood even when I speak casually and am a bit unclear; like all my friends, she is able to fill in what I mean.

Which is why it’s easy to talk to her. It is nice sometimes to be understood without bringing your full attention to bear. And so we seek out people of like minds, surrounding ourselves with people we understand and who understand us. It would take me many years to see the real value in those people who didn’t understand me. In fact, for years I quite resented their misinterpretation. Chris understood me, why can’t you?

I have a friend, I will call him Fred, with whom I would frequently find myself in conflict. These conflicts grew so consistent and so unpleasant that I began looking for reasons to leave a room when Fred entered it. And then one day I made a deal with myself to bring my full attention to our next conversation. I would speak slowly, being as deliberate with him as I am with my readers, doing all I could to say precisely what I mean. It was the best conversation we had ever had.

Fred, I saw, was doing precisely what my close friends were doing: filling in those gaps I had left when speaking casually. Unlike my friends, who were closely tuned to my frequency, Fred filled in those gaps with the exact opposite of what I had meant. And so the arguments would ensue.

This was not the easiest conversation I have ever had, but in certain ways it was more satisfying than those I have had with closer friends. I had to show up completely for him to see me, and when I did, I saw myself. I would still rather talk to my wife, who sees me completely even when I say nothing, but the value in friends like Fred is the awareness that, if I am willing, the bridge between us can always be me.

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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Listen Carefully

This morning, as I do almost every day after my morning writing, I went for a run. I run because I have been athletic my whole life and it would seem unnatural now to be otherwise, because I would like to stay trim without resorting to an all wheat germ diet, and because I always feel better on the days that I have run than on the days that I have not. And to be alone. I chose my route in part because it follows a course rarely traveled by other people at this time of day. I sweat and grow fatigued alone. No need to make a spectacle of it.

I had much to think about during this morning’s run. I had lunch with (among other people) Laura Munson yesterday, and we had talked about memoirs, and inspiring readers and how much that meant to us. But my mind had been very busy since our lunch, and a busy mind is not always a useful mind. A busy mind can question whether you will ever be able to touch even one more person ever again – for where is the proof of what is to come?  A busy mind likes proof.

But as I reached the halfway point in my run and started home, I remembered something I had said during that lunch about brass rings. I had been thinking about a merry-go-round I used to ride at the Roger Williams Park Zoo when I was as child, and I saw how this ride would make a perfect metaphor for a blog. Then, as sometimes happens, I began to write the blog in my head as I ran home, the whole thing coming as if already written by someone else, and I began to feel hopeful and connected and happy because I would go home and type up what I had already written.

And as I was near the end of my run, I heard my blog’s last paragraph, its last sentence, and I thought, “Yes.  That’s the gift!” And as I thought this, at the very moment the final words came to me, a woman stepped out of a parked car and said,

“You inspire me!”

I looked at her, puzzled, and she mimed running. “Running,” she said. “I should be running.”

“You can!” I said.

Then, in case I had missed the point, as I jogged past a bus stop one block from my house, a teenage boy waiting there called out, “Whoah.  Determination!”

Sometimes you speak to the world, and sometimes it speaks to you.

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

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Living Adjustment

I think the motto for all writers should be: Do the best you can, put it out there, see what happens, and adjust. I wrote about criticism yesterday, and for a while my fear of criticism was so paralyzing that I believed everything I wrote had to be perfect or else someone might criticize it and I would dissolve into dust. This despite having spent most of my life putting things out there, seeing what happens, and then adjusting.

Because whether you’re getting published or rejected, being well reviewed or panned, selling or not selling, this is all you’re going to do. You’re going to see what happens and adjust. No matter how well a book does you’re going to learn from what you’ve written and try to write a better one. It’s what we do. This is why Laura Munson has written so eloquently about success. Once she had “success”, that which she had spent her life craving, she finally saw it was a myth. It’s a myth because it presupposes an end. Nothing ends. We keep putting it out there and adjusting no matter what happens. It will only end when and if we retire.

For this reason, goals can be debilitating. It’s good to use goals as targets for the trajectory of your attention. But I think it’s very easy for goals to become proof that what we’re doing is worth doing, that once we reach these places or plateaus we’ll really know. You already know. It’s worth it. Put it out there, see what happens, and adjust.

After all, the fun of this game is doing the next thing. Everything else has already been done. We don’t want to finish. We want to keep going and going and going. That’s the only pleasure. So we put out, see what happens, and adjust to do the next thing, which is our next pleasure, which is the continuation of life. You no more want to get it perfect than you want to die.

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

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Bellybutton And All

I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Laura Munson this weekend, and the author of This is Not the Story You Think it Is gave me some astute advice, most notably: Everyone has a bellybutton. This is apropos to Laura because she had spent twenty years writing – and not selling – fourteen novels before authoring her breakout bestselling memoir. Like a lot of writers, those twenty years in the publishing wilderness were spent squinting at that distant spec of light called “success.”

Or so she thought. Because now, by a writer’s definition, she is a success. That is, she got a good advance, she found herself on Good Morning America, and she is being asked to speak all over the country. Success, right? But soon after we’d met she stopped me as if we could not take another step or speak another word until she had shared the following: “Bill, I got it,” she declared. ”There is no such thing as success!”

To some people this is defeat. To Laura, and to me, this is pure victory. First, because of the sudden attention she and her book have attracted, Laura now finds herself in some fairly distinguished company – at least by literary standards. And all these Great Writers she is getting to meet do indeed have bellybuttons, just as you do. Secondly, she is still Laura. She is who she always has been and hopefully always will be.

There is nothing in the world wrong with wanting to sell your work, or have lots of readers, or make plenty of money. Except none of those things, as you have often heard, will make you happy – but what you may not have heard is that to think they will actually draws you away from the very source of your happiness.

To place your would-be happiness out on the horizon is to condemn yourself to wanting and wandering. So romantic to glimpse it and yearn for it, but happiness can only be postponed for so long before life reveals this yearning for what it actually is: fear. Fear that this, this life we stand in now at this moment, bellybutton and all, is actually all that life ever is or was. Fear that it should be more. And it will be more – at the exact moment you accept that life has always been more than wanting, and that success is not some destination but the grace to allow through what you have always known.

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

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