Learning to Listen

Writers come in every conceivable shape, size, color, and age. We tell every variety of stories. Some of us write in the middle of the night and some in the wee hours of morning. Despite all these many differences, nearly all the writers I know have this in common: we like to be alone. We’d better. With but a few exceptions, our work – before editors and proofreaders have their say – is entirely, supremely, exquisitely solitary.

And by solitary I don’t just mean we are physically alone. Some of us like to write in cafés or airport terminals. But where we’re sitting has nothing to do with where we are actually writing. Our writing always occurs in a realm utterly and forever unknowable to anyone but ourselves. Oh, the pleasure of slipping into that world from which any world can be borne, to listen to a voice only I can hear. To lose myself entirely in that world, to forget entirely about the world in which I sit, is to feel as free as I have ever felt.

Yet it is precisely because our work is so solitary, it is precisely because we must listen to voices only we can hear, that writing invites us to listen to that other voice, the voice of doubt. I sometimes feel as if my entire writing life has been one long practice in learning the difference between the one voice and the other. The results are always as clear as black and white, but those clear differences do not come until I have made a choice, a choice no can make for me, a choice only I am aware needs to be made.

The choice is always between being small and being what I actually am. After all, where those voices speak has no limits. Here, horizons are just unexplored possibilities. Doubt can feel like the swaddling a newborn craves, a boundary against endlessness, but my true safety lies in exploration. Doubt would always have me stay where I am, whereas what I am is always calling me forward toward more of myself.

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

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Writing is the Opposite of Thinking

Writers often behave like smart people. When they’re not reading a lot of books, they’re sitting alone somewhere staring at a blank piece of paper or a computer screen or a wall. It is a very active kind of staring, meaning it looks like thinking, which is what smart people supposedly like to do most of all. Except writers really aren’t thinking – at least they shouldn’t be. If a writer is doing their job, when they aren’t typing or scribbling, they are listening.

The difference between thinking and creative listening can feel subtle, but in reality is as significant as the difference between sleeping and waking. I know I’m thinking when I’m rearranging, negotiating, or strategizing with what already exists. Whether I’m balancing my checkbook, learning how a new software application works, or planning a trip, I’m using my mind to assemble a puzzle whose pieces were created before I set to work on it.

Writing, on the other hand, always begins with a blank page. I mustn’t be fooled into believing I am thinking, simply because the words I use can all be found in dictionaries or that the hero’s journey provides the architecture for most stories. All the writing that has come before the story I would like to tell, all the writing books and writing classes, merely serve as a reminder that it is possible to create something out of nothing.

It’s easy to forget. You face that blank page and maybe you think how much simpler it would be if you just had some chess pieces to move about or a road map to follow. After all, when you leave your desk, the world you’ll roam is filled with stuff that’s already been made – television shows, and restaurants, and houses, and story upon story about all the things people have done and said. That’s reality! You’re a grown person. It’s your job to deal with reality. Kids can live easily enough in their fantasy worlds – even encourage it – but we adults must negotiate the world, and learn how things work, and make good decisions, and study the issues, and learn our history lest we repeat it.

But the blank page doesn’t care about any of that stuff that’s already been made. The blank page doesn’t want you to study or do the right thing or try to be a grown up. All the blank page wants to know is what you’re most interested in right now. What question is knocking loudest at the door to your imagination? Your job is to open the door for that question, and then ask it and ask it until you begin to hear some answers.

It’s only logical, after all. If I’m one the one asking a question like, “What should happen next in this story?” I can’t also be the one answering it. If I had the answer, why ask the question? I can’t concern myself with physical reality. I know I’m the only one in the room, but I’m listening all the same. I’m listening to what comes through the door I opened, listening so that what existed only in my desire and curiosity can join the reality we all share.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Doing Nothing

Writing is not thinking, it is active listening. When we are actively listening to another person, we are not just hearing their words. That is, I am not actively listening merely because I could recite back verbatim what someone else just said. Rather, just as a reader is not really reading unless he is bringing that book to life in his imagination, so too I am not actively listening unless I am brining the words of my conversational partner to life in my imagination – seeing in my mind the story he is telling and, most importantly, feeling the fear, joy, relief, or hope the story is trying to convey.

Writing is this same process in reverse. Whereas in conversation I focus on my partner’s words to allow the feelings they are trying to convey to bloom in my imagination, while writing I focus on the feeling I want to convey and allow my imagination to provide the scenes, sentences, and words that match those feelings. I am focused because the longer I keep my attention on the feeling, the easier it is for the imagination to provide what I am asking for.

Yet I am listening because I am not trying to provide the words myself. I am listening because I have asked a question: “How can I best describe that moment when I first saw Jen?” When I ask a guest on my show a question, I do not then answer it myself. So too with my writing. If I want to know how to describe that moment when I first saw Jen, I remember that moment, remember what it felt like, remember exactly what it felt like, and stay there within that feeling until the words arrive.

If I move my attention away from the feeling, the words will not come. If I doubt they will come, they will not come. If I am impatient, they will not come. If I believe a better writer would find better words, they will not come. They will only come when I stop thinking, and stop worrying, and stop doubting, and starting feeling and waiting and feeling and waiting. What a strange way to make a living. On my best days, it is as if I am being paid for doing nothing, which I suppose in a way is true.

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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Music Lessons

For years my wife, herself a writer, was my first and only beta reader. Every draft of every novel went under her nose, and she’d return with her likes and dislikes. It was not a peaceful arrangement. Often her dislikes outnumbered her likes. I came to hate this process. I didn’t really want her feedback; I just wanted her to love it so I could send it to agents or editors with some confidence. Eventually, I relieved her of her duty as beta reader, and there was peace in the kingdom.

About the same time I stopped showing my wife my books, I started writing music. I discovered that using Garage Band I could compose anything from a pop tune to a piano sonata to a symphony. I was thrilled. I’d wanted to compose music my entire life but I hadn’t the time nor discipline to learn to play the piano well enough to write what I heard in my mind. Now I could put little black dots into the program, press play, and hear what I’d written. Sometimes what I’d written sounded like what I heard in my mind, and sometimes it didn’t. And sometimes I liked what I’d written more than what I’d imagined and sometimes I did not. I was my own beta listener.

I was so excited when I finished a song or a little symphony. Even though I had chosen every little black dot, the song still felt a bit like something I’d discovered on the radio. I was the beta listener, after all. And since I always liked the songs, and since whenever you find a song you like you share it with someone you love, I’d play it for my wife.

At first, she was as delighted as I was. “You wrote that?” she’d ask. “Yes!” I’d say. “Isn’t that cool?” Once she’d gotten over the shock that her husband of fifteen years was now writing music, she began to listen with a more critical ear, commenting, “Oh, that beginning’s really dynamic.” Or, “The middle kind of bogs down, don’t you think?” And then one day, after listening to my latest piece: “That just doesn’t work for me. It has no center.”

And that was when a miracle occurred. I didn’t care. To my own amazement, I did not care one speck that she thought it had no center. What she or anyone thought of this or any piece could not change my relationship to it, could not change why I’d written it, or what I’d learned writing it, or what I thought of it. The two experiences were totally separate. And I thought to myself, “If I learned to write music for this lesson alone, it will have been worth it.”

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

My Real Job

I’ve been conducting video interviews for Author magazine since 2008, and hosting Author2Author, a weekly conversation on blogtalk radio, since 2012. I always learn something in every conversation, but one the most instructive interviews was the one I was least interested in conducting.

I wasn’t even supposed to do it. Jeff, my associate editor, had booked the author and was very excited about getting to interview this guy, Lee Child. I’d never heard of him. I didn’t read suspense, you see. It wasn’t my thing. Jeff did, though, and he kept telling me how lucky we were to have him for our fledgling magazine.

But the night before the interview Jeff told me he couldn’t do it. Something about a kid’s baseball game he couldn’t miss. I groused. Jeff had read everything the guy had ever written, but I hadn’t even seen a book cover. How was I going to do the interview? Jeff told me not to worry. He’d write up some questions for me. I’d be fine.

I brought the questions to the bookstore for the interview, but wasn’t sure if I wanted to use them. They weren’t my sorts of questions. While I was waiting for Child to arrive, one of the booksellers asked me excitedly if I were going to be interviewing the Lee Child. “You bet,” I said. “Hey, do you read him?”

“Of course!”

“So what are his books like? What’s the premise usually?”

He explained about Jack Reacher and how in every book he arrived in a new town and faced off against new villains and slept with a new beautiful woman. “Got it,” I said. Child arrived. He was very tall and very charming and very British. I liked him right away. When I like someone, I want to get to know him, and the best way to get to know someone is to ask him questions. I never looked at Jeff’s questions that night, and it was perhaps the best interview I’d done to that point. It was the last time I ever bothered to bring questions with me to an interview.

The questions I used to write before my interviews were always based on my concept of who the author was before I met him or her. As soon as that author said, “Hello,” however, I immediately understood they were not who I thought they were. Every time I think I know who the author is based on the combination of their book and my imagination, I am wrong. They are always more than I can imagine. It is why they are both so interesting and mysterious.

The same is true of the ideas from which stories are born. Every time I think I know what kind of a story an idea will turn into before I write it, I am wrong. I never really know what a story will be until I meet it on the blank page. That first page never ceases to humble me. I must remember it is not my job to know, but to be curious. Knowledge can certainly seem safer than curiosity, but it’s an illusion. What I call knowledge is stored in the past, but curiosity lives in the present, where everything is written and lived.

**(Author’s note: No real passwords were shared in the writing of this essay).

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

Doing Nothing

Writing is not thinking, it is active listening. When we are actively listening to another person, we are not just hearing their words. That is, I am not actively listening merely because I could recite back verbatim what someone else just said. Rather, just as a reader is not really reading unless he is bringing that book to life in his imagination, so too I am not actively listening unless I am brining the words of my conversational partner to life in my imagination – seeing in my mind the story he is telling and, most importantly, feeling the fear, joy, relief, or hope the story is trying to convey.

Writing is this same process in reverse. Whereas in conversation I focus on my partner’s words to allow the feelings they are trying to convey to bloom in my imagination, while writing I focus on the feeling I want to convey and allow my imagination to provide the scenes, sentences, and words that match those feelings. I am focused because the longer I keep my attention on the feeling, the easier it is for the imagination to provide what I am asking for.

Yet I am listening because I am not trying to provide the words myself. I am listening because I have asked a question: “How can I best describe that moment when I first saw Jen?” When I ask a guest on my show a question, I do not then answer it myself. So too with my writing. If I want to know how to describe that moment when I first saw Jen, I remember that moment, remember what it felt like, remember exactly what it felt like, and stay there within that feeling until the words arrive.

If I move my attention away from the feeling, the words will not come. If I doubt they will come, they will not come. If I am impatient, they will not come. If I believe a better writer would find better words, they will not come. They will only come when I stop thinking, and stop worrying, and stop doubting, and starting feeling and waiting and feeling and waiting. What a strange way to make a living. On my best days, it is as if I am being paid for doing nothing, which I suppose in a way is true.

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

By Myself

I may crave the moment I can finally close the door to my workroom and sit quietly at my desk and enter once again the dream of the story I have been telling, but I must never mistake this experience for loneliness. Storytellers are never alone, although we are by ourselves.

While I write I am by myself in the same way I might say I sat by a stranger on plane, or I was held by my mother as child. To write is to sit by myself, with myself, and continue a conversation I often lose track of while I bounce around the world, occasionally colliding with other storytellers, or arguing with other storytellers, or becoming envious of other storytellers. There are just so many storytellers telling so many stories.

I like some of these stories; many, I admit, I do not. I do not like the story that goes: Something is wrong and someone needs to fix it! I hear that story a lot. Some days it feels like the only story I am hearing. I admit, I sometimes tell this story myself. Whenever I tell it, I feel very alone. I know, somehow, that although I have seen the problem, I am incapable of fixing this problem. It is always too big of a problem; it is a systemic problem, a global problem, a human problem. Should I rally everyone together, form a committee, a focus group, a non-profit with a website and a mission statement?

I choose instead my workroom. At last I am by myself, and I can ask myself honestly what I think of all these problems. The question is never answered because it is not even heard. The one I sit with at my desk is deaf to problems. He is only interested in the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. And so, because I am tired of all these problems I cannot fix, and because I am tired of feeling alone, I wonder what the next thing might be, and no sooner do I ask than I hear my first answer, and the conversation continues.

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

Doing Nothing

Writing is not thinking, it is active listening. When we are actively listening to another person, we are not just hearing their words. That is, I am not actively listening merely because I could recite back verbatim what someone else just said. Rather, just as a reader is not really reading unless he is bringing that book to life in his imagination, so too I am not actively listening unless I am brining the words of my conversational partner to life in my imagination – seeing in my mind the story he is telling and, most importantly, feeling the fear, joy, relief, or hope the story is trying to convey.

Writing is this same process in reverse. Whereas in conversation I focus on my partner’s words to allow the feelings they are trying to convey to bloom in my imagination, while writing I focus on the feeling I want to convey and allow my imagination to provide the scenes, sentences, and words that match those feelings. I am focused because the longer I keep my attention on the feeling, the easier it is for the imagination to provide what I am asking for.

Yet I am listening because I am not trying to provide the words myself. I am listening because I have asked a question: “How can I best describe that moment when I first saw Jen?” When I ask a guest on my show a question, I do not then answer it myself. So too with my writing. If I want to know how to describe that moment when I first saw Jen, I remember that moment, remember what it felt like, remember exactly what it felt like, and stay there within that feeling until the words arrive.

If I move my attention away from the feeling, the words will not come. If I doubt they will come, they will not come. If I am impatient, they will not come. If I believe a better writer would find better words, they will not come. They will only come when I stop thinking, and stop worrying, and stop doubting, and starting feeling and waiting and feeling and waiting. What a strange way to make a living. On my best days, it is as if I am being paid for doing nothing, which I suppose in a way is true.

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

Two Bills

Though I am only ever in one place at one time, there are really two of me. I will call us Noisy Bill and Quiet Bill. Noisy Bill is very busy. He has a lot to do and a lot to say about what he has to do. He is good at parties, but is as irritable as he is excitable. Sometimes he feels that if he stops talking he will disappear.

Noisy Bill is aware that he is called a writer, but he feels odd about this because though he won’t admit it to anyone, he is not the one who does any writing, nor is he the one who is asked to speak publicly to groups of people. This job actually falls to Quiet Bill. Quiet Bill is not busy at all. There is nothing at all he needs to do, and so does nothing until Noisy Bill asks him to.

Sometime Noisy Bill will try to do Quiet Bill’s job because he is tempted to do everyone’s job. This leaves him feeling insecure and grumpy. He does not like the idea of surrendering such important tasks to this other Bill. Surrender is for losers and Noisy Bill fancies himself a winner. But he also dislikes his own results, and so by and by cedes the floor to his un-busy half.

Fortunately, Noisy Bill still has a job to do, which pleases him. He likes to feel needed. His job is to ask Quiet Bill questions and listen carefully to the answers and turn those answers into words. Quiet Bill cannot speak, you see. His only language is what Noisy Bill calls feelings. When Noisy Bill’s words align with Quiet Bill’s feelings, Noisy Bill is pleased, not because these words are good or exciting or funny or profound, but because for a moment and after much resistance the two at last are one.

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

True Endings

I have written in the past about the practice of “joining” that my wife and I used to help our young son who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum around age eight. The principle of joining is this: if you want someone’s behavior to change (Sawyer always preferred to talk to himself rather than other people), instead of telling that person over and over to change, you begin joining him in whatever it is he seems to prefer doing. This way, you become friends, and friends are always more willing to go someplace new together than alone.

Later I learned to listen to him. This was probably when he really learned to talk. It was our listening to him that showed him what he had to say was worth saying, and so worth learning to say. Yet listening is just another form of joining, because in listening you surrender your imagination to another person’s story. The imagination cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined, so to surrender this powerful tool to another person and his story is ultimately an act of trust.

I have sometimes been stingy with my listening. People don’t always have such good stories to tell. People will tell you stories of how we are all victims, how the government is out to get us, how love isn’t real, how the universe is mechanical and we are all machines, how the publishing world is big and unfriendly. What is one to do? Someone takes you on his narrative journey and leaves you in a hole, and now you must spend so much time finding your way out. Better sometimes just not to listen.

It was Sawyer who taught me another way to listen. What Sawyer said didn’t always make sense, and so I would ask him to clarify what sounded jumbled. All our tragic and wretched and hopeless tales are just jumbled stories. If you listen closely you hear another story beneath them that isn’t being told so clearly. It is the story of someone who wants to be at peace, but feels at war. But to hear it you must believe it yourself, and sometimes such an audience is all a storyteller needs to find his true ending.

Happy New Year!

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