Adventures in Marketing

I was twenty-two and had written a batch of poems in a brief creative dash. It had been years since I had finished so much as a short story, and the satisfaction of having something completed, even if it was only eight lines, was addictive. Plus most of my poems were like little monologues, and I loved the theater, so it was a happy discovery that I could marry these art forms.

My mother’s friend Tina also loved poetry, so much so that she had started her own literary journal. Word trickled down to me that Tina would be hosting a poetry reading at the University of Rhode Island, and if I wanted to I could participate. I was quite nervous waiting my turn there in the classroom with all the other poets, but when the moment arrived, and I laid my poems on the lectern and started reading, it was just more theater, and it was great fun sharing these little pieces that had so pleased me with other people and seeing that these people seemed to be pleased as well.

A week after the poetry reading I got a call from Tina. What a success the reading had been! You were a hit, she said. The actor in me enjoyed that. I would do another poetry reading shortly thereafter and I enjoyed it every bit as much as the first. Then I got another call from Tina. She wanted to publish some of my poems in the upcoming edition of her journal. Would that be okay? I said it most certainly would be okay. And that was how my work was published for the first time.

Here is what I knew back then: I knew that I loved to read certain poets, and that I loved to write poetry. I loved both the freedom poetry afforded me, as well as the economy it required, and I loved the energy of performing. What I did not know was that those poetry readings were my first adventures in marketing. My poems were published because I had found a means to expose my work to other people such that opportunities that had not previously been available were now available.

Except it didn’t feel like marketing because I wasn’t trying to sell anything, or get published, or get exposure. I wasn’t trying to get anything. I just wanted to share something that felt good to share. That is all “marketing” needs to be. In fact, to call it anything else is a lie. To call it anything else is to say that I do not love what I love, and that I do not believe the world will be better off with more of what I love in it – which, though I have spent many years doubting this is so, remains the only truth to which I can reliably return.

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

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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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Giving and Receiving

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve recently spent more time than usual following politics. Listening to politicians reminds me of watching a skillfully written stage drama. The best dialogue always has the characters saying one thing and meaning another. The husband might say he’s angry with his wife for overcooking the broccoli, when really, he’s upset because he believes she doesn’t respect him.

With politics, all the arguments and accusations about taxes and regulations and jobs stems from the eternal, persistent, uncomfortable fact that some people have more money than other people. This bothers nearly everybody. If you don’t have as much of it as you want, you might view those who have more with deep and bitter suspicion; and if you do have more of it, you might believe that those who have less spend all their days plotting how to take yours from you.

Unfortunately, no tax code or regulation will ever cure humanity of envy and greed. Because neither the “haves” or “have-nots” actually care about money; they just want to be happy and have mistaken money for the source of that happiness. I have made this mistake myself, though not so much with money. As a writer, I envied other writers who received more attention than I had – attention from other people, that is. Attention in the form of sales, of reviews, of crowds at their readings. These things looked to me like love and appreciation. Who would not be happier with more love and more appreciation?

I was correct that those writers I envied had received more attention than I; I was just incorrect about the source of that attention. I began to see my own sales, and reviews, and crowds when I gave myself my full attention. Everything I value in my life grew from giving my full attention to what interests me most, for no other reason other than it felt good to do so. That is the magic formula for success.

Of course, one can rid oneself of greed and envy as quickly as changing one’s mind. It’s always slower when you bring more people into the equation. I must remind myself of this as I marinate in the simmering pot of daily news. Everyone wants to be happy. Many, many of us aren’t. How loud we all get when we’re unhappy, and how tempted we are to blame other people for that unhappiness. Meanwhile, what is calling to each of us waits patiently for our attention, waits for us to give so that we might in turn receive.

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

Eyes on the Road

I have been spending way more time reading and watching political news these days than I normally do. I feel a little guilty about this, the way I do when I gawk at an accident as I’m driving by. But I’m human, and if the scene is particularly compelling, it is hard to keep my eyes on where I want to go. In fact, one night, many years ago, I was biking home from work and became distracted by the swirling lights and dented steel of a recent head-on collision – and crashed square into a tree.

Politics, as necessary as it is, often reminds me of my bike accident. Just as accidents can cause more accidents, animosity – the bent fenders of political debate – usually breeds more animosity. And sometimes not merely animosity, but full-blown hatred. I see it in others as they march and hold their signs and demand answers, and I feel it in myself as I wonder about the nefarious motives of certain players in this gaudy, historic drama.

Hatred can sometimes serve as the first, hot, alarm-bell impulse to do something. It’s true in politics and it’s true in writing. Reading or watching or listening to something I profoundly dislike can be just the motivation I need to write something I like. What I like is always on the opposite side of what I dislike, just as what I love is always on the opposite side of what I believe I hate.

Except I don’t really hate anything. What I have come to call hatred is just the natural consequence of seeing something I disagree with, something whose very opposite I would prefer to be looking at, and then continuing to stare at it and stare it and stare at it until I crash into a tree. When I feel like I hate something, I am listening to the same guidance system that tells me which words, scenes, and characters belong in a story and which do not, only it is speaking very, very loudly. If I knew I didn’t want a particular scene in my story, but I kept reading it and rereading it and rereading it, I’d eventually come to hate that scene as if it were my sworn enemy.

Which is why I have to remember to turn off the news. When I start hating people, it’s time to lift my head and look where I’m going. Travelling my road does not require me to argue with all the roads I don’t travel. Those roads are inconsequential to my journey, even while they are certainly vital to someone else’s. Though it requires me to ignore much of what is going on around me, the choice to look where I want to go is the very opposite of putting my head in the sand. It is the choice to open my eyes to the life I wish to lead, rather than the one others are leading.

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

Mastery

Most writers begin understanding certain parts of writing better than other parts. For instance, when I was a teenager I had an instinctive understand 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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Endless Story

I’ve probably never met you. If you’re a writer, I don’t know what genre you write in or who inspired you to become a writer, nor do I know who, if anyone, told you not to bother, that it was too big a dream and the odds of success were too low. I don’t know where you’ve submitted your work, and I don’t know what fearful stories you’ve told yourself in the idle hours you passed waiting to hear back. I don’t know how many stories you had to write until you began to feel like you understood what a story was, nor do I know how many writing books you’ve read or writing classes you’ve taken.

I may never get to meet you, and I may never learn the answers to these questions, but I do know this: You can’t get it wrong. You can’t screw this up. I know you sometimes think you can. I know any work of art appears to come together or fall apart, that as you write, you hope to stitch the seams of a mysterious fabric into a recognizable whole. I know the frustration of sewing and sewing and feeling as if your thread unravels with every stitch.

But I also know that your work only appears to be made of separate pieces. It does not matter how many poems, essays, stories, or novels you’ve written, it does not matter how many projects you think you’ve started and believed you’ve finished – in the end, it is all one. You have been telling only one story your entire life, and the pieces you completed or abandoned, and the pieces you published or did not, were all a part of this single, endless story to which you return day after day after day.

You know that already, though you frequently forget it in your efforts to polish something, to mint it lovely and done. You know it because at the end of every day, no matter many pages you write, whether your work is accepted or rejected, you can feel within yourself something discovered. You discovered something in loss and in victory, in effort and in effortlessness. To deny the discovery is to deny your own life, though you deny it anyway because you would prefer to choose the exact route of your discovery.

All routes are headed in the same direction, though some are more direct than others. Travel on. I’m traveling too, and perhaps some day we’ll meet. If we do, we’ll tell each other stories of our travels, of the things we’ve made or hope to make, of our successes and failures. There is nothing I love more than a good story. If I love yours, I’ll make it mine – another piece of this mysterious whole, discovered.

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

A More Direct Route

Most of the students and clients I work with have two competing thoughts about writing. Their first thought is that they have a story they want to tell. There is something within these stories, whether the stories are fiction, narrative non-fiction, or memoir that has grabbed hold of the writer’s curiosity. This is a fantastic feeling. This is a feeling that gives life meaning without explanation. This is a feeling that is only sought, that is completely satisfying even as it sends you seeking more.

But there is always another thought. Sometimes the thought is that writing is hard; sometimes the thought is that the story must please this reader or that editor; sometimes the thought is that if we don’t get the story exactly right no one will like it; and sometimes a writer has concocted a poisonous stew of all these and more. These thoughts, these stories about storytelling, wait like impatient bosses at our desk and usually begin talking as soon as we arrive for work.

No wonder so many newer writers believe they are lazy, or not disciplined or enough, or not focused enough. We are all meant to avoid what we dislike. We are not, however, meant to avoid what we love, to be kept from that which lights our curiosity. We are always, always, always moving toward what we love, only sometimes this movement is long and circuitous and full of many rest stops and diversions.

No matter. No one can stop moving. But it is possible to take a more direct route. Let your story about writing be the friendliest story you know. Let it be a love story with a happy ending and nothing more. Writing, after all, is a visit with someone you adore, who will answer any question and always has something interesting to say. The impatient boss, meanwhile, is an illusion, marking your time on a clock that does not exist, comparing you unfavorably to friends until everyone is an enemy.

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

Living On Purpose

I love teaching what I call Fearless Writing, though as a class it offers nothing in the way of advice about strong sentences, or believable characters, or compelling storylines. In fact, in a four-hour workshop, the students will do virtually no writing whatsoever. Mostly, they ask questions and I give answers in the form of stories. All the stories are stories about writers (usually me) who forget to care what other people think about what they’ve written, forget to wonder whether they’re good enough, and in so doing, return to the source of their creative power.

But as I said, students do not learn any craft. That’s because all the craft in the world is useless to me the moment I begin worrying what other people think about what I’ve written or whether I’m good enough. Craft can’t solve that. I can, however, choose to move my attention from these fearful questions to the creative question; “What is most interesting to me today?”

I teach this class because most people – including me – forget they have the power to move their attention from one question to another. It sometimes seems as though questions take hold of us the way a storm takes hold of a day. The moment I begin wondering whether anyone in the world is interested in what interests me, my sky is filled with storm clouds. They arrive so quickly and completely, I often do not notice what summoned them. They are simply a fact of nature, and now I must wait out the rain and thunder until some capricious creator dismisses them.

It’s as if I’ve forgotten I am an author. I alone decide what storms or sunshine inhabit my worlds. On the blank page, I can turn darkness into daylight as quickly as a thought can turn. So too those clouds of misery poisoning my day. There is no real difference between rewriting a sentence and removing doubt. Everything is thought. To write is to think on purpose, and to apply what I learn while writing is to live on purpose.

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

Rigged Systems and the Published Authors Club

In case you missed it, there was a Presidential debate recently where one candidate warned that the coming election was rigged. When I heard this, I thought to myself, “Anyone who’s in a contest and thinks that contest is rigged against him has already lost.”

It is easy to sit in my living room and judge someone else’s paranoia; it’s another thing to live my life without ever believing The System, whatever that system may be, is rigged against me. It certainly has seemed so from time to time. Why, I used to wonder, weren’t people publishing the stories I sent them? While I didn’t really believe editors and agents had formed a dark cabal bent on keeping good-hearted writers like me from sharing a little light, the publishing world did seem impenetrable sometimes, like a club whose rules of entry were kept secret.

I should mention that I was never one to join clubs. I worried that to join a club I’d have to conform to that club’s notion of what or whom I should be. I am what I am! The problem was that I wanted to be in the Published Author Club. Of course it wasn’t a club, I mean I knew intellectually it wasn’t a club. Only, the first question anyone asked you when you told them you were a writer was had you been published. How you answered that question seemed to place you in one of two categories. You were in or you were out, which felt a lot like a club.

Oh, it was confusing. One day I found myself talking to a writer friend. As it happens, this friend, when he wasn’t writing, was very interested in changing societal systems. He didn’t feel they were fair to everyone. He was a good-hearted writer like me, you see. On this day, my friend was complaining about the publishing world. He felt it was closed to new writers, to writers with new ideas, to writers who were unknown to the publishing world.

To be fair, every complaint he shared with me I’d thought of at one time or another. But there is something so helpful about hearing someone else air my complaints. And so I heard myself saying, “I’m not going to complain about those people. I want to work with them. If I sit here and tell myself they don’t want me, I’ll never work with them.”

I think that was the moment I decided I needed to learn how to make friends with these people who seemed rather unfriendly much of the time. Systems, whether they are societal, educational, or publishing, are never perfect. I sometimes muse about how those systems could better serve us, but I am not the sort of person who is going to spend his time changing systems. I am, however, deeply interested in how I can change what I do to live my life as I wish to live it.

But the moment I conclude that nothing I think or do or say has any effect in the world, the moment I decide what other people think of me is more important than what I think of me, I have lost all my creative power. I decline the notion that any system is more powerful than any individual. No system has the power to tell me what to think. The moment I make friends with my own thought, I make friends with life, and the doors to the only club there is swing open.

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

No Instructions

I was visiting my brother a few years ago in Los Angeles and decided to watch some TV while he was working out. I didn’t have cable in my own home at the time and was unfamiliar with Comcast’s immense, standard-issue remote. I looked for instructions, but could find none. I began pushing buttons. Nothing happened. I pushed more buttons. Still nothing. I became angry and pushed the same buttons again. More nothing. I gave up, and awaited my brother’s return, whereupon I explained my dilemma.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “You’ve just got to . . .” He pushed one button, and the screen came to life.

“Give me that stupid thing,” I said, and began surfing for something to watch. It was a relief to be flipping through the channels, even though I couldn’t find anything I liked. It was easy to answer the question, “Does this look interesting?” Much easier, in this case, than, “How does this work?”

Sometimes figuring out how something works is simpler than knowing what you want to do with it. It’s just a puzzle. Plus, if you lose interest in figuring it out yourself, you can find someone else who has figured it out. People love to help one another—sometimes, maybe, a little too much.

Life is not some vast, immensely complex remote control. At some very critical point, no matter how much others would like to help us, we are all on our own. We are all looking at a blank screen and wondering what we would like to see across it. Thankfully, no authentic instructions exist for such moments, including the advice in this column. At best I can remind you of what it feels like to enjoy that moment of choosing, of remembering that you cannot be wrong when you find what you 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 William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Love Story

Before an author can find her readers, she must first find her story. She finds her story by asking herself, “What is the best story I can tell? What is so interesting to me that I cannot take my attention from it? What killer must I see brought to justice, or what woman must find love with what man?” The writer asks and answers these questions, and asks and answers these questions, until the story is told.

Now the author the needs an audience. She wrote this story to satisfy her own curiosity and then share what she found with others. The story is really not complete until someone else has read it, has filled in the blank spaces between the author’s brush strokes with their own imagination. So the author tweets about her story, blogs her story, Instagrams about her story, and travels from bookstore to bookstore talking about her story. By and by she discovers she has a readership.

And perhaps she does a little market research and asks those readers, “How did you find my story?” Some report stumbling over her book in a bookstore, others heard about it from a friend, still others from Facebook or Twitter or The New York Times. Yet all these answers are misleading. These answers say little more about how the reader really found a story than a wedding says about a marriage.

The way the reader really found the story was by asking, “What do I most want to read? What kind of story would be so interesting to me that I couldn’t put it down?” As she asks and answers this question, the reader by and by finds the story, and finishes in her own imagination what the author began in hers. The author-audience connection is in this way a love relationship, two strangers guided together by the single organizing principal of the universe.

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