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

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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.

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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

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.

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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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The Hard Thing

I watched a documentary a short time ago about the rise and fall of The Improv, the comedy club responsible, in many ways, for the boom in stand up comedy in the 80s and 90s. The documentary included interviews with some of the top comedians working today, including Larry David.

David explained that during one visit to The Improv he thought, “I could do that!” So he approached the manager about the possibility of going on. “Do you have any material prepared?” David did not, but figured he could just get up there and be funny. He was a funny guy, after all. The manager advised he prepare some material first, which David eventually did, and the rest, as they say, in history.

I love this story because it reminds me so much of myself. Though like a lot of writers I can be lured by the will-o’-the-wisp of perfectionism, my preferred means expression is to throw myself into things and see what happens. I begin every new venture with exactly the same question: How hard can this be? Writing a little symphony – how hard can that be? Starting a magazine – how hard can that be?

I soon get to find out how hard something can be. And of course, as soon as I learn how to do even one of the unexpected hard things associated with whatever I’ve thrown myself into, I presume I’ve got it all figured out and there is nothing more to learn. Until the next hard thing. I’m a fast learner and slow learner all at once. Fortunately, life is a patient teacher for all variety of students. I have never made a mistake from which I have not been allowed to recover. The stage remains ever open, and the mic is always on.

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Teacher and Student

I was talking to a novelist recently who, like a lot writers, teaches to help make ends meet. He likes teaching, but I know he prefers writing. Teaching writing, after all, can come with some unexpected challenges that have nothing to do with the craft of storytelling. As the novelist pointed out, there are some days he isn’t sure whether he’s a writing instructor or a social worker.

I don’t know how to teach writing and not be a part-time therapist or life coach. Because here is the truth every professional should already know: we’re born with everything we need to tell any story we will ever want to tell. As long as you possess curiosity and an imagination, you can tell a story. The rest is just refinement.

What most students are looking for has nothing whatsoever to do with craft. The student wants to believe it is possible that they can tell the story they wish to tell. Sometimes learning a few craft tricks helps us believe this. Sometimes it does not. Which is why as a teacher or coach I will spend more time telling my students and clients, in every way I can think to – yes, yes, yes, you can do this.

Fortunately, I never tire of telling people this. I can never tire of it because in order to say it convincingly I must believe it myself. And in order to believe it myself, I must go that place within myself where that delicious, friendly, hopeful, creative truth always resides. How I love to go there. I’d live there if I knew how, but I don’t yet, so I continue to teach it in the hope that one day I will learn.

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Teachers and Students

I was reminded again the other day that we only teach what we need to learn. For instance, I teach writing, or at least that’s what my class descriptions say, but I’m most interested in how people create the things they want and don’t want, and writing is one very good example of this, and so that’s what I really teach. The student might seem to be getting a raw deal in this arrangement. Why, the student might ask, should I pay to take a class from this guy who’s still figuring it all out himself? I want an expert.

It is a reality every teacher must address. Every teacher knows his or her limitations. No matter how long they’ve traveled the road they’re teaching, every teacher can feel like an eternal beginner as we train our eyes on what we wish to learn next. After all, if you learned everything, if you understand everything, the journey’s over, and you like this journey, which is why you’re on it.

Once you begin to teach, two things become clear. First, you do know something. You have been on this road asking, “How do I do this?’ and, “Why is this so?’ and, “What if happens if I . . .?” and all the while you were asking, you were getting answers which led you to your next question. A natural student, your eyes were always trained on the next question, and so you naturally disregarded what you had learned. The most interesting stuff is always what’s coming next.

And then you find yourself at the head of a classroom summoning the answers to all those questions you’ve asked, and to your surprise not everyone has asked the questions you have asked, so your answers are useful to them. But this is not really why you teach. You teach because the students have questions you have not thought to ask. They ask you, and then you ask yourself, and then the answer comes, and then you share the answer, and then everyone learns.

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Self-Taught

Though my son could always talk from about the time a person is supposed to be able to talk, for many years he did not talk that well, and sometimes not at all – at least not to us. Mostly he talked to himself, and even then in what sounded like the kind of shorthand one employs whenever there is no audience within earshot to consider.

Being his father, I of course wanted to help him learn to talk. I considered myself an expert on the activity, and so I talked and talked to him so he could see how it was done. This helped a little, but not much. I also instructed – I told him how to talk. This also helped a little, though perhaps even less. I also complained, scolded, groused, ignored, fumed, and punished. I don’t think any of these helped at all.

Yet at fourteen I find he is now every bit the talker his mother, father, and brother are, and I have decided it wasn’t my talking or teaching or complaining that helped; rather, it was my listening. To listen with sincere curiosity is to you say, Teach me why what you are feeling and thinking is interesting, and as you are taught, the speaker teaches himself by listening closely to what he wishes to share.

And so my son taught himself to speak, and my listening perhaps reminded him that what he had to say was worth saying. To believe otherwise is to condemn ourselves to a useless silence, keeping safe from the world what was only given to us to be shared.

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

To The Moon

Years ago, I was relaxing in my favorite armchair one afternoon, and Max, my oldest son, was playing on the floor at my feet. Max’s favorite toy at the time was a plastic garbage truck, but he could not find it. From my vantage, however, I could see it amongst a scrum of toys against the far wall, but I wasn’t about to leave the comfort of my chair to fetch it.

“It’s right there,” I said, and pointed.

Max had only been on the planet about two years, but I could already glean in him the beginnings of a literalist. Glad that his daddy had found his beloved truck, he looked where he believed I was telling him he could find it: at my hand.

“No,” I repeated. “There.” This time I thrust my finger in the direction of the truck, but again, Max continued to stare at my hand, hoping, I suppose, the truck would soon appear in it. I then found myself in the unpredictable position of having to explain how to follow the invisible string from the tip of my finger to that which he desired.

I did not know it at the time, but this was probably my first lesson in the unique challenge of doing what it is I now love to do. If you ask a mathematician what 2 + 2 is, he will give you the answer “4” from his hand to yours. If you ask an engineer to build you a bridge, he will open his hand and from it you may take the blueprints.

My job, as both a writer and a teacher, is to point. That is all I can do. If I wrote a poem about the moon, you could stare at that poem your whole life and the moon would never emerge from between its words. But if the poem’s trajectory is accurate, you might follow it and discover the moon in the night sky of your imagination.

Likewise, the answers to the questions I am asked when I teach lie beyond my reach. Yet I can see them just the same. Some days I point more accurately than others, but no matter. Max, after all, would have eventually found the truck on his own. In this way writing has taught me that words, in fact, are nothing, and yet have the power to collapse the distance from a hand to the moon.

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