My Whole Life

I like to remind my memoir students that the first personal essay I published in a larger magazine told the story of the only time I ate an oyster. I had been quite the picky eater for the first twenty-five years of my life, so this was no small decision on my part – but still, it was just an oyster. No one put a gun to my head to make me eat it, nor did I eat it while stranded an island. I had just gotten a job at a fancy restaurant and I had to try it as part of my training.

I share this story because while some students come to me to help them tell their tale of loss or abuse or sickness, some come with less dramatic stories. In fact, sometimes students aren’t sure what story they’d like to tell – they just know they want to write about their lives. These students are sometimes intimidated by those students who have survived cancer, or who grew up in religious cults or biked across the country. Their lives, by comparison, seem uneventful.

You would be hard pressed to find a more uneventful life than mine – at least as I’m living it now. I write, I teach, I interview people, and I talk to my wife, and occasionally to people who aren’t my wife. That’s pretty much it. Yet I write about my life to the exclusion of all other subjects. I find my life endlessly interesting. Though it’s really not my life I find interesting, but rather life itself. What I call my life is just my intimate, personal experience of life.

This may sound like semantics, but it’s not. Life, to me, is never what is happening, in the same way a story is not about what’s happening. A story is about how a character feels while something is happening, and how that character changes, and what that change reveals about all of us. A story is a current of events moving toward an inevitable conclusion, the current stronger and more meaningful than any of the events which comprise it.

Life is also a current, not a fractured collection of events, and certainly not a static object to be studied and dismantled. If I allow myself to look deeply at any event, I can perceive the current of life flowing through it. In fact, I can perceive the whole of life, though I will never be able to render this in language. It is beyond rendering. It is not, however, beyond perception nor beyond feeling, and somewhere in the exchange between writer and reader, the whole of life is shared.

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

Know Your Pedestal

Many beginning writers go to writer’s conferences or take writing classes under the practical guise of answering the question, “How do you write a book?” or, “How do you get a book published?” These are perfectly reasonable questions, but not, I believe, the real question these writers are trying to answer, which is, “Can I actually write and publish a book?”

After all, nearly every writer begins as a devoted reader, and reading is a uniquely intimate and strangely holy experience. The writer enters into creative collusion with the reader, offering the clearest and most compelling details of a story the reader must then complete with his or her own imagination. A reader may say she is reading to “escape from life,” but in fact she is only reading to escape from the fear of life. All books, all writing, all works of art, whether they are poems or mysteries or romance novels, serve the exact same purpose: to remind us, writer and reader alike, why life is good and interesting and valuable and unquestionably worth living.

No wonder then that we have a habit of putting these men and women called writers on pedestals – on daises even. What could be more generous, more profound, more holy than reminding us why the life we lead is worth living? And who of us was ever born on a dais? Are we not, every one of us, scrambling around in the pews, bumping into one another, coughing and yawning and needing to use the bathroom? How ordinary; how un-special.

Writers are, in fact, special people. Except the only thing special about writers is that they love to write. That is a writer’s gift. Meanwhile, you already know life is worth living because you are living it. You may have forgotten, but that is very different than not knowing. If you are a writer, write to remember what you know, and the moment what you have asked for returns you will discover that the pedestal on which you put the likes of Shakespeare had always been on loan from you.

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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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Vessel

When I began writing this blog on a daily basis six years ago, I quickly found myself wanting to write not just little essays about writing and creativity but to tell stories from my writing and creative life. Prior to that, all the stories I had written had been fiction. As a fiction writer, the ongoing question driving my stories was: What’s the most interesting thing that could happen next?

I could not ask this exact question when telling stories about my life. First, I already knew what was going to happen. Second, my whole life is interesting – at least to me. It’s true. To me, even those moments I had found dull in the living are interesting in retrospect, if for no other reason than to understand why I found one moment dull and another moment fun. And so instead the question I asked about these stories was: Why would someone who isn’t me or my family be interested in this story?

To answer this question honestly I had to find within my story what belonged to everyone. The stories could not simply be about what I learned, about how I went from feeling one way about myself to another way, but about how life expressed itself through me. Life, after all, guides and moves and supports everyone equally and continuously, the same as the ocean supports all boats of every size equally.

As I told more and more of these stories, I began to see my life as not belonging to me at all. My life was not some delicate treasure I kept safe and showed to friends and strangers like a ship in a bottle. My life was a vessel on the ocean, but it was the ocean I’d come for. Without the ocean, the vessel need never have existed, but give it some wind and water and meaning immediately fills its sails.

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

Preacher

A student asked me an unusual question recently. I was teaching a class addressing only the emotional mastery required to be an author instead of the mastery of craft. I can get pretty animated when I teach, particularly around this subject. Confidence, after all, is not something that can be taught in the way story structure and query letters can be taught. Confidence must be found every workday within every author. As a teacher of this discipline, I can but remind my students that they have it if they choose to look for it.

After class the student asked if I had been an evangelical minister before teaching writing. We had a good laugh at this, but there was something serious beneath her question that I did not know how to answer at the time. I have lived my life as a secular man, but I have always understood the value of a good sermon. The minister, like the singer, like the poet, like the teacher, says, “Let my joy become your joy; let my belief become your belief.” This cannot be done mechanically. This transference, if it occurs, is shared only through the artistry of love.

I suppose the classroom is a kind of church to me. There is nothing holier than creation itself, whether creation takes the form of a baby, or a flower, or a memoir. In the classroom we gather to ask ourselves how we can create something on purpose, how we can look within ourselves to find something to add to whole of creation. I know it is easy to look at what we write and think, “It’s just a little story.” But it is just as easy to look at a flower and think how it is merely one of trillions, just as one can look at a newborn and think how, despite its fresh little body, that child, like seven billion other bodies, is headed inevitably for the grave.

Numbers always fail us in this way; their values are too easily compared. Creation assigns no such hierarchy, nor does it acknowledge subtraction. Which is why the poet and the preacher and the teacher can say, “What’s mine is yours if you want it.” There’s the miracle of life – what can be given without being lost, what can evolve as it remains the same, what can be learned while it is already known.

If you have a question, concern, or quibble you’d like addressed in this space, please, feel free to contact me. Answering other people’s question is one of those things that pleases me most.

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

The Vessel

When I began writing this blog on a daily basis five years ago, I quickly found myself wanting to write not just little essays about writing and creativity but to tell stories from my writing and creative life. Prior to that, all the stories I had written had been fiction. As a fiction writer, the ongoing question driving my stories was: What’s the most interesting thing that could happen next?

I could not ask this exact question when telling stories about my life. First, I already knew what was going to happen. Second, my whole life is interesting – at least to me. It’s true. To me, even those moments I had found dull in the living are interesting in retrospect, if for no other reason than to understand why I found one moment dull and another moment fun. And so instead the question I asked about these stories was: Why would someone who isn’t me or my family be interested in this story?

To answer this question honestly I had to find within my story what belonged to everyone. The stories could not simply be about what I learned, about how I went from feeling one way about myself to another way, but about how life expressed itself through me. Life, after all, guides and moves and supports everyone equally and continuously, the same as the ocean supports all boats of every size equally.

As I told more and more of these stories, I began to see my life as not belonging to me at all. My life was not some delicate treasure I kept safe and showed to friends and strangers like a ship in a bottle. My life was a vessel on the ocean, but it was the ocean I’d come for. Without the ocean, the vessel need never have existed, but give it some wind and water and meaning immediately fills its sails.

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

A Nameless Connection

It is easy for me to enjoy life when I am writing. When the writing is going even reasonably well I feel connected. I often take for granted this feeling of connection while writing because this is what writing has become. Writing without this connection now wouldn’t be writing. In fact, when I write without this feeling of connection I become miserable, and I dislike the work and very quickly myself. But mostly I feel connected, and I while I feel connected I enjoy the work and my life.

It is also easy for me to enjoy life when I am teaching. My wife observed recently that all my writing is really just a kind preparation for my teaching. I think she might be correct. To help another person find his or her connection I must first find my own, and so these people called students serve to teach me what I have to teach them. When the teaching is going even reasonably well I feel quite clear about why I am on planet earth and why life is interesting and necessary and worth living.

But there is a lot of time one spends not writing or teaching. This time has confused and frustrated me for much of my life. I have named this time many things: boring, meaningless, difficult. Soon enough, I will give myself names as well: unimportant, unnecessary, lost, alone. And so this time is passed in unhappiness, as I have come to believe that the doors to what I seek are not merely closed but non-existent.

I could live out my days this way and be productive and happy enough. I could write more and more, teach more and more. Yet this would be living a kind of lie, as if my entire day did not belong entirely to me. It is such a simple error we make when we name life something other than what it always is. Look how it becomes what we call it, look how we cast ourselves in a horror movie of our own creation and call that melodrama reality. And look how the lights go up and curtain falls the moment we give life no name but our own.

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

Surrounded by Life

I was watching a documentary about a forest in Japan that has become a hauntingly popular destination for suicides. The filmmakers followed a geologist who, because of his work monitoring the volcanic rumblings of nearby Mt. Fuji, wound up a kind of forest suicide ranger, both uncovering the bodies of those who succeeded in killing themselves, and counseling those strangers camped far off the trails who remained uncertain which path they would follow, so to speak.

The geologist explained that most people who come to the forest hang themselves, making the tall, old growth trees unwitting accomplices in the final act. To accentuate this point, the filmmakers paused to pan slowly up a tree from roots to branches. The pan was accompanied by an appropriately spooky soundtrack. The soundtrack was so spooky that I was expecting the camera to find a dangling, lifeless body amid the branches.

Only it didn’t. It was just a tree, and a beautiful one at that. For a moment during that slow, creepy shot, I imagined that tree without a soundtrack. That’s the artist’s hand, I thought. We decide what everything means. The tree means nothing by itself, but pan slowly with some cellos droning in a minor key, and you have a monster.

I believe the documentary was intended to be sort of real life horror movie, only it fell short of this for me because of its lead character. The geologist was a reassuring guide through this forest of death. He talked about how important it was for people to spend time with one another, to find meaning in relationships. Somehow, his daily trips through the world of suicide had only connected him further to the life in which he was surrounded in that quiet, beautiful forest.

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

A Game in a Rented House

I gathered with a group of friends recently for a long weekend of eating and drinking and talking and playing a game around which we had all met when we were boys. Our adulthoods have taken us to different corners of the country, and our arrivals are staggered. Those first hours are filled with reacquaintance. Each freind you meet again is different because you are resuming your relationship where it left off, and yet each friend you meet is similar because there is something about meeting a friend that is always like meeting yourself as well.

That first night time is irrelevant. It is Thursday, and Monday morning is too distant to concern your imagination. Still, it is possible to let yourself dwell on it. It will come, after all. You arrived here knowing it would come. This weekend is like a cocoon within the rest of your life, and you can feel that life pulsing at the edges of the house you’ve rented. That other life is fine, but you’re here now, and dwelling on ending would only spoil the pleasure of beginning.

And then there is the game. The game means nothing unless you let it mean something. The worst thing you can do is think about the game. If you think about the game, you believe it is absurd that you are even playing it. It’s just a game. The best thing to do is enjoy it. Some enjoy the story of it, some the strategy, others the jokes, others the camaraderie. There are many ways to enjoy the game, but you must enjoy it only as you enjoy it. That is why you play it.

The ending begins before Monday morning. Cleaning the house Sunday night feels like a half-goodbye. You talk about who will be catching which flights and to where. When the morning comes, everyone leaves at different times. Saying goodbye you cannot believe it is already over, and yet you are ready for something else. The last hour before you leave is the hardest. There is always a moment of surprising and profound despair. For a moment, the weekend feels like a waste. It came and went and nothing seems to have changed. But to stay would be feel worse than leaving, and so you are out the door, and the rented house and the game are just a story now as you return again to your family.

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

No Lies

Imagine you are like a character in a story you are writing. In the case of the story you are living, you are the hero, and life is the author. As in a story you are writing, what you ask for and what you appear to get are often not one in the same, although in fact they always are.

Perhaps you desire a lover. You say to yourself, I feel so lonely and unlovable. If I had a lover to share my bed I know I would feel lovable as I looked across the pillow and thought, “Yes, I am lovable for there is the proof snoring gently beside me.”

Such is your prayer, but life isn’t paying any attention whatsoever to what you say with your words, life is only interested in what you say with your feelings. In this case, what you are really saying is, “I want to feel lovable.” You have your solution as to how to achieve this; life has its solution. Perhaps life’s solution is to provide no lover whatsoever. What better way to help you learn you always have been lovable?

You see you cannot lie to life. To lie is to say one thing while you feel another. Since life doesn’t pay attention to what you say, you are always telling life the truth, whether you understand that truth or not. It is a good lesson for writers to remember. Writing at its best has always felt like truth-telling. In that moment when word and true feeling align, you release at last the exhaustive belief that the truth was ever yours to decide.

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

My Enemy

I used to tell a sad story about my love life. I was a kind of tragic hero, who sought love, who knew its value, but who was doomed by the uncaring hand fate to be denied its enduring company. Case in point: When I was seventeen I saw a girl in a play and thought, “She’s the one.” And she was. I knew this from our first date. Six months later her family moved 3,000 miles away, and she was gone, Seattle as distant as the afterlife if you’re a teenager living in Providence.

For seven years I told the sad tragic story of love and fate. I had been telling it casually before, but I told it now in earnest, for life had revealed herself to me. She giveth and taketh without regard. Let the dust called humans blow about in the desert; they’re all headed to the same grave anyhow.

Until Jen and I found ourselves together again. Until I moved across the country and called her, and I was single and she was single, and wasn’t it strange that just a week before I called she had told her best friend, “I think I should date someone like this guy Bill Kenower I used to know.” Yes, how strange. And wasn’t it strange how we both agreed that it was best we had been apart seven years. Wasn’t it strange that we needed to date other people and do other things apart from one another, and wasn’t it stranger still how ready we were to be together when I made that call.

To call our time apart and eventual reuniting chance is to lose the gift that story offered me. To call life tragic, unkind, unfair and indifferent even as it arranged itself for me. I had no other words for what I was seeing. I was a character in a story, and the author loved me and sought the best for me for I was her hero, but I wanted her to hurry up and get to the end already, which she most compassionately would not.

I remain in that same story even now. I still find my author’s pacing irritatingly slow, find her obstacles and antagonists uncalled for, and yet have come to love her endings, where Time, my greatest enemy, collapses into the moment and becomes my friend again.

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