Natural Boundaries

There are certain rules of craft that seem to apply to all writers. For instance, nouns and verbs will always carry more power and immediacy than adjective and adverbs. This is true in literary fiction, urban fantasy, and memoir. Every writer, no matter what they write, will have to learn these universal truths. And you will learn them the only way anyone can learn anything: through experience. I can tell you and tell you to use more nouns and verbs than adjectives and adverbs, but nothing will teach you that like the experience of writing a clear, honest sentence without one single descriptor.

But every writer must also find her own craft. What works in your stories or poems may not work in mine. These little essays I write have a craft all their own. Having written a bunch of them, I’ve learned what works in them and, probably more importantly, what doesn’t work. Knowing from experience what doesn’t work saves me a lot of time. The page always begins blank, after all; I could, theoretically, write anything. Knowing what doesn’t work narrows my focus considerably, and as I find my way through an essay I can more easily spot that path of thought that is heading nowhere.

I do not mean to suggest that success is all about what we don’t do. Success is always about what we say yes to. This is true for the whole of life. I can only live, I can only experience, what I say yes to. I’ve said yes to a bunch of things that wasted my time, that drained me of my enthusiasm and optimism. I have said yes to so many of these things that I published a whole book recently about not caring what other people think of your work. That’s something I spent a lot of time saying yes to until experience finally taught me not to bother.

Except even that book really isn’t about not doing something; it is about what’s available to us when we choose not to worry about whether other people will like our work. Just as a writer uses her craft to leave room for the reader’s imagination, so too learning not to care about what other people will think of your work leaves room for your own genius. Your genius requires complete freedom; it cannot be confined by the artificial boundaries of shame, the fear that what you have to offer might not be worth offering. The only boundaries you should honor are those imposed by your own aesthetic, the path to which life has taught you again and again to say yes.

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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Timely Stories

When I was a boy, stories were my first and preferred means of communication. I told stories to my friends and family, and for a while I did not really understand how writing might be useful for something other than storytelling or making a list of Christmas presents I wanted. My relationship to storytelling was entirely intuitive, and as such my growth as a storyteller was no more noticeable to me than my body’s growth. It just happened.

Which is why I am so grateful for the clients I work with now who are learning about storytelling as adults. It is as if I am being reacquainted with this essential art form. For instance, I did not understand until recently how stories require us to surrender to the artificial concept of time. Whether we perceive it or not, every one of us is always living in the Right Now. That’s when everything is happening. As such, everything that’s happening in the Right Now matters because it’s reality and reality is all that ever matters. Time, meanwhile, is nothing but a dream of the past and future, which by definition are never reality.

Have I lost you little? If so, this is why we have stories. The storyteller must ignore the reality of timelessness and say, “This happened and then that happened and then this and that happened, and then, finally, this really interesting and surprising and meaningful thing happened because of all the other things that happened before it.” In this way, the storyteller reduces reality to a few manageable bits, organizing these bits in such a way that life seems to make sense.

I suppose I was drawn to stories when I was a boy for this very reason. Kids live much more in the Right Now than adults. Play, a child’s most important pursuit, is very much a Right Now activity. But every child knows he will become an adult, and I could sense that something other than play would be required of me then. I was not really happy about this, but I could not stop what we called time, but was actually just change, which was just growth, which was just learning – and so I told stories to remember what I might forget if I got lost in what I learned.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Unplanned

A few days ago I published this essay based on an experience I’d had working with a client. I like the essay, but it’s not what I’d meant to write about. What I had intended to write about when I sat down was how during my session with this client, while I was talking and talking to her about her inherent creativity and talent, I’d said, “You have to be relentlessly optimistic and curious.”

“Ooh,” she said, and made a note. “That’s good.”

“What’s good?”

“Relentlessly optimistic and curious. You should make T Shirts that say that.”

“Oh, right. Well that’s what you’ve got to be.” And I was on the next thing. Teaching is like writing in that when you’re cooking you’re always on to the next thing. Besides, I only said what I’d said because I was trying to help her feel her own creative potential. When we’d wrapped up our session and were headed for the door, she said, “I’m still thinking about relentlessly optimistic and curious.”

“It’s as much yours as mine, kiddo,” I said. “I wouldn’t have thought of it without you.”

That’s how it works, and why I love teaching. The student inspires the teacher who inspires the student who inspires the teacher.

So that, as I mentioned, is what I’d meant to write about. But it’s not what I wrote about. As often happens, a sentence came along early in the piece and I decided to follow it instead of where I had originally planned to go. This is what makes writing fun. I have learned to trust the surprising idea that feels more real and more interesting and more necessary than my plans. When this happens, the plan seems like the excuse my subconscious used to bring my attention to what really needed to be said.

These surprises, however, are also a big reason I am a writing coach. Many of my clients have not yet learned to fully trust these surprises more than their plans. It’s understandable. What if the surprises stop coming? What if they take you somewhere you don’t want to go? Experience has taught me that they never stop coming and they always take me somewhere I want to be – but everyone must experience and learn this for themselves.

In the meantime, I can sooth and encourage them to trust what I know is trustworthy. I have learned that teaching is most effective when I find new language to say what I have said before. Every student is different, after all, and every student is surprising. Tempting to lean on the old hits, so to speak. But better to trust that something new and something better and something inspiring will come along that neither of us had planned on but both of us needed.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Experiencing Stories

I write what could very, very broadly be called “self-help,” meaning whether it’s a book like Fearless Writing, or these blogs, or personal essays, or lectures and classes, the aim of my work is to offer a perspective on life that I believe will help the reader or audience better understand why they are happy or unhappy, why they suffer or why they succeed. Ideally, my readers will come away feeling less tempted to believe life is just a bunch of meaningless crap that happens to us.

When I realized I wanted to do this kind of work, three things occurred to me immediately: First, I was more interested in it than in all novels I’d written. Second, I wondered who the hell would want to hear from me about all of this? I was just some guy who liked to tell stories. Third, I worried about all the people who I knew would disagree with me. I had once been one of those people who thought the stuff I was now hoping to teach was a bunch of woo-woo hooey.

As it turns out, being a guy who likes to tell stories is an excellent foundation for anyone who wants to teach. After all, I was not just a guy who liked to tell stories. I was also a guy who had lived and suffered and learned. I was a guy who had doubted and felt confident, who had been hopeless and who had been joyous, who had been outraged and who had been at peace. I might doubt whether anyone wanted to hear from me, but I could not doubt the value of what life had taught me. To doubt that would be to doubt the value of life itself.

And one of the things life has taught me is that no classroom or book can match the teaching power of experience. Fortunately, stories are a form of experience. You may not have sat with me in the hospital wondering if my son had leukemia, but if I tell you the story of the time I did, and if you allow yourself to bring that scene to life in your imagination, if you allow yourself to worry and rejoice, you may feel as if you were the one waiting for the doctors to return with the test results. In fact, hearing a story about someone else’s life is strangely similar to reliving our own memories, as both experiences summon real emotions even though the experiences exist entirely in the imagination.

Which is why I depend on stories to teach. It is easy to disagree with an idea; it is nearly impossible to disagree with an experience. I have seen again and again how stories allow people to look at life differently the way a simple declaration cannot. It is one thing to say, “Everything is okay!” and it is another thing altogether to lead the reader into the shadow of fear, and then turn them naturally, humorously, and gently toward the constant light of love.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

My Own Variety

One of the nice things about having a job – by which I mean specifically a place you go where there are other people with or for whom you do this job – is that every day you do more or less the same thing, but because you do this thing in the world of other people, every day the experience of doing the thing is different.

For instance, I worked as a waiter for many years. The job of being waiter never changed. I was always trying to bring customers their orders as quickly as possible while being as polite and friendly and cheery as possible. But each table of customers was different than the last, and every shift, with its unique periods of calm and chaos, was different than the one before. Though I would not often admit it at the time, doing the same job for different customers and on different shifts taught me and taught me and taught me about myself and kindness and service. In this way, the ceaseless and constant variety of challenges was invaluable.

Writing is similar to any job you might work. No matter what I’m writing, I’m always doing the same thing: looking for the effortless way forward. The right story is the one on which I can focus my complete attention effortlessly, and the right scenes or sentences are those that fit effortlessly into that story. This never changes. What does change are the stories I tell, but unlike waiting tables, there are no other people to provide a ceaseless and constant variety of challenges. As a writer, I must create my own challenges.

That’s good to remember, because I do not always enjoy being challenged. I might whine about how hard something is: What drill sergeant god dreamed up this arrangement? Why the obstacle course of difficulties set between me and that happiness I desire every moment of every day?

To write, I must accept that I am the drill sergeant, dreaming new challenges for myself each morning. The old challenges just won’t do. They’ve served me already, and it is time to find a new path toward to the same destination.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Just Learning

I write about writing and creativity all the time, but the other thing I write about is what I learned raising a son who was diagnosed with autism (for instance, this piece in the New York Times). The two subjects are surprisingly related. The lesson, for lack of a better word, that I learned raising Sawyer, my son, is that no one is broken – not him, not me, not you, not anyone. It’s the best lesson I’ve ever learned, and one I continue to understand more deeply every day.

One thing I’ve come to understand about brokenness is that pretty much everyone believes in it – men and women, scientists and ministers, artists and stockbrokers. Sometimes it seems like the only thing people can agree on. We just don’t agree who is broken; we only agree that someone is broken. Sometimes that someone is us; often it’s somebody else. You know it when you see it.

Except you don’t really. Our belief in brokenness and wholeness has everything to do with our belief in success and failure. Which brings me back to writing. Like Sawyer, writing has taught me much, including success’s infinitely malleable definition. Your success is not my success, just as your goals are not my goals, just as your interest is not my interest. Our concept of failure, meanwhile – that death-like end of happiness and potential and growth – is a reflection of our belief that there is a universally agreed upon definition of success.

There is no success and failure; there is only learning. Nothing else ever. Just learning. As a schoolboy, I won races and lost races. For the victories I was given trophies. For the losses I was given nothing. I learned equally from the victories and the losses, though at the time I resented the learning the losses offered. No matter. Years on, I no longer have the trophies, but the learning from the victories and losses remains, as the branches in a tree remain and continue to grow.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Time to Remember

Having written well over a thousand of these things in the last nine years, I have come to the conclusion that the personal essay is the form with which I am most artistically comfortable. It took me a while to admit this because for the first thirty or so years of my writing life I saw myself as a fiction writer, poet, or playwright – that is to say, an entertainer. While personal essays can and should be entertaining, their success depends on the depth of the lesson they provide. In the end, every essay looks at something I’ve learned that I think someone else might find useful as well.

Back when I saw myself as an entertainer, the idea of offering lessons in my work not only seemed to contradict the First Law of Writing – show don’t tell – but was personally repulsive to me. I did not want anyone to teach me anything. I’ll figure it out my life, you figure out yours, and in the meantime let’s amuse one another. Though in truth, the stories and poems I loved and valued the most always did more than merely amuse me: they reminded me of something I had forgotten. In fact, no sooner was I reminded of it I would forget it and have to go looking for it again in another story, poem, song, or movie.

I suppose I finally let myself start writing the essays out of desperation. My cyclical amnesia was fatiguing, and writing required me to remember on purpose. Turns out, I could! Turns out the very best way to memorize something is through repetition. Though not, in this case, rote repetition. Every time I return to the desk, the lesson, what I’m remembering, has changed – or at least it looks different to me, like a child who grew slightly while we were apart.

You may be wondering what “it” is I’m remembering. I’m sorry, that’s private. Actually, there’s nothing private about it because it’s the only thing anyone remembers. It’s just that you’ll remember it in your own way, and I wouldn’t want to interfere with that by defining that something that can only be felt. After all, I can’t write all the time, and some day I might be wandering around the world, having once again forgotten, and you and I will meet in person or on the page, and in your own way, in your own words, you’ll remind me why life is worth living.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

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.

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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 William at: williamkenower.com

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True Equality

I was talking the other evening to a young woman about the concept of talent. She had heard me say that I didn’t really believe in it, that talent was just another word for love. This woman had just begun playing an organized sport for the first time in her life. It seemed quite clear to her that some people were conspicuously more talented than others. She loved to play this sport, and yet no matter how hard she worked she could not play it as well as certain women on her team.

Such is the trap we can fall into when we pit ourselves against one another on the field – a field we ourselves invented, a field that would have been nothing but a featureless expanse until we drew lines on it and said you must get here before everyone else. There is no doubt that if you tell a crowd of people to run, someone will run the fastest, and so we will call that person more talented than the others, and maybe – just maybe – infer that such talent raises that person’s value above the others.

But now imagine these people running were simply characters in a story you were writing. In the world of fiction, a loss is as valuable as a win, narratively speaking. Does the character need to learn humility? Perhaps a loss is just the thing, or maybe a close second. The outcome means nothing; the story means everything.

Why do we think life is any different? Do we really think true equality means lining up everyone, young and old, at some arbitrary starting line and then having everyone reach some arbitrary finish line at precisely the same time? Life cares nothing for your wins and losses; it cares only for you. Every storyteller eventually savors the story of his defeat when the time comes, relishes in the meaninglessness of what he once called loss, for here he is still standing, having found more in defeat than he might have gained in victory.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Mastery

Most writers begin understanding certain parts of writing better than other parts. For instance, when I was a teenager I had an instinctive understanding of dialogue. I understood it well enough that when I was sixteen I explained to my younger brother that characters rarely say exactly what they mean, that it is always better when they talk about one thing – like the weather – but really mean another – like how uncertain life is. That’s advice I’d still give thirty yeas later.

What did not come so naturally to me was what we call “description.” When I encountered it in the books I read, I often found it boring, something I might skip to get to the cool parts. I knew you needed a certain amount of it so your characters weren’t wandering in a bald moonscape, but the only value I could find in writing a good description as opposed to a boring description is that the former proved what a good writer I was. It felt like a necessary showing off, as if writers were all figure skaters required to hit a certain number of triple axles.

Then shortly before I started college I picked up a collection of T. S. Eliot’s poems, and after reading them one afternoon actually said aloud, “Oh. I get it.” What I got was that “description” was actually an attempt to recreate the emotional experience of being alive and in the world. Now that was cool. What does it feel like to stand in a crowded bus station? What does it feel like to see someone you find beautiful? What does it feel like to watch a clock when you’re waiting for school to end? The words I chose to render the world were, hopefully, portals into my most intimate understanding of life.

Now I got it, meaning I understood that describing something was an act of love rather than of fear. Now I could write toward the sharing of life as I felt it rather than away from the fear that I wasn’t clever enough to stick some literary landing. I spent the ensuing years learning to master this by the exact same means I have used to master anything: by learning again and again that fear is only the belief that there is ever an answer other than love.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter