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.

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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The Holiday Season

It is very hard to try to do two things at once. It is very hard to love someone while simultaneously believing you must protect yourself from them, or that you must always be right, or that there are good people in the world and bad people in the world. Likewise it is hard to listen to your creative potential, your muse, your imagination if you simultaneously believe that you must write perfectly, or that you must know that what you’re creating now will succeed later, or that no one wants to hear from someone like you.

Be glad it is hard to do two things at once. All these stories of protecting ourselves and being right, all these stories of writing perfectly and success, are our invention. They are not real, and so can only be maintained by our constant attention. The truth, meanwhile, requires nothing of us. Love cannot be manufactured, only perceived. Our imagination cannot be commanded, only received. How kind life is to make suffering exhausting.

Eventually, everyone must rest. We will complain about our suffering first, and march in protest about how hard it is, and form committees to determine why everything is so hard, but by and by, because these stories are not actually a part of reality, we will either forget to tell them or grow weary of telling them. Either way, the truth of love, the truth of our creative potential, will be waiting for us when we do.

We will celebrate such moments. “The good stuff was really coming today,” we’ll say. Or we’ll say, “I had a great time with my wife. No arguments, no debate. Just fun.” These are like holiday seasons, respites of pleasure from the grind of life. But the other day a cashier asked me if I was looking forward to the weekend. “My life’s a weekend,” I confessed. And I didn’t realize until I said it that it was true.

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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Between Words

When I was a boy I wanted to disappear into stories and music. The books I read couldn’t be long enough and the songs I listened to couldn’t be loud enough. I certainly loved playing football and Whiffle ball and Dungeons & Dragons, but no game I played, no single thing I did in the world seemed to be able to match the purity of stories and songs. While the games I played or the races I ran were tainted with the unfriendly yearnings of achievement and comparison, stories and songs offered no treasure greater than enjoyment for enjoyment’s sake.

I resolved early in my life that I would write stories to make a living, thereby coming as close as possible to living daily in the chaste and friendly confines of art. Unfortunately, I still had to get about in a world that seemed burdened with money and argument and loss. In fact, it was where I spent most of my time. I could not fully reconcile the uncomfortable difference between art and what I called life, and so I lived with a permanent, if noble, melancholy. It seemed like the only honest response.

Then what happened is I fell in love. Though really, I don’t think anyone falls in love. What actually happened is that I was moping about the world when I spotted someone and recognized something in her that I had been looking for more of in myself. It was as pure an experience as any song or story. Her company gained me nothing or won me nothing except her company, and that was treasure enough.

I have to admit it was hard to let go of the melancholy. I had become mildly addicted to its nobility. Yet it was increasingly hard to square with loving someone. I was tempted to put romantic love into the same special category as art, a pure experience removed from the dirty daily business of mere survival, but to do so would be to ignore that what I saw in her and I had begun to see in everyone and everything.

In fact, the closer I looked, the less difference I perceived between the world in which I survived and the stories and songs into which I had once wanted to disappear. The closer I looked, the more everything blurred together, the more everything seemed to grow from the same garden, until what separated us seemed no more meaningful than the space between words on a page.

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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Half-Told Tales

My cat Charlie died yesterday. He was still a young cat, who seemed completely healthy and whom I had anticipated spending many more years feeding, petting, and having the kind of one-sided conversations to which cats seem amenable. But then he got very sick very quickly, and the next thing we knew the vet was telling us it was probably best to put him down.

I loved Charlie as much as I could love a cat, and as it became clear to me where we might be headed, I found myself starting something that I practice every day I sit down to work. I write about how much I love life. That’s my job. To do so, however, I mustn’t become too fixated on any of life’s transient details, not the things I use and see nor even the people and animals I know and love. To write about how much I love life, I must focus simply on life itself, that which flows through everything everywhere always. If I look too hard at the shape that life takes, I begin to lose sight of what I love so much about it.

Driving home from the veterinary hospital I found myself remembering why I actually loved life. I had to; it was either that or fall into the bottomless hole of loss. I do not think death is the opposite of life. I don’t think life has an opposite, except fear maybe, which is really just mistaking shadows for something permanent. But death does require me to focus in a way I normally do not while bopping around the world of people and animals and trees. It requires me to focus as if I were sitting down to write a love story whose ending I do not yet know.

I am always happiest than when I focus in this way. I have never read nor told a satisfying story that ended with acquisition of any kind. The hero might get the girl or win the trophy, but to do so he cannot confuse what he can see and touch for what he values most. If he makes that mistake, he is only prolonging his inevitable despair. Such a story is actually only half-told. The true end to every story is when the hero learns what he is and has always been, that he has lost nothing except the fear there is something to lose.

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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A Wholesome Love Affair

Although I don’t often mention it here, I am actually an editor. That is, people send me articles and I read them and decide if I will publish them. I read differently as an editor than as a civilian, shall we say. Sometimes, I simply love an article as I would love anything I might read. I have to publish these articles, and I hope our readers will gain as much as I have from reading them.

More often, however, I try to gauge whether the article is a good fit for Author. Here, I am dabbling in the uncertain art of prognostication. I have a fair idea of what flies with our readers, but this is not a hard science. I am frequently wrong, and sometimes surprised by how right I am. But what else can I do? I have a magazine to publish every month and I do the best I can.

Such is the plight of all publishing professionals. It’s the rare agent or editor who deals only with books they adore. Mostly, we are squinting toward the future. This is in direct contrast to readers, whose attention is entirely in the present. A reader has bought your book or discovered your essay online and wants to enjoy it. A reader is seeking something not that she hopes will be successful, but which she hopes will connect her to something valuable within herself.

I’ve always felt this was a more honest relationship with an artist. There is a gambler’s pleasure as an editor when I pick right, but it hardly compares to the satisfaction of having found a book or story I love. If I love the story, I don’t care whether anyone else ever has or ever will read it. It’s a love affair in this way, I suppose, and as such a private matter. But it is a love affair in which I cheat on no one, where I am in fact guided toward that which I would share with everyone.

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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The Dream Ends

If you’re a regular reader of this column you may have noticed that there are two signature elements of my life that I write about again and again: my relationship with my wife, and my relationship to being an author. Both these relationships were for some time largely driven by yearning.

I was a very romantic boy who spent his childhood quietly yearning to meet a certain kind of girl. Then he met such a girl, fell in love with her, only to have her move far away six months later. I spent the next seven years pining for her, dreaming of what life might be like if we together again, and grousing about cruel and indifferent fate that separated me from her. Then I found her again, and we have been together ever since.

In addition to being a romantic boy, I was also a boy who loved to write. Once I moved in with my now wife I began writing stories in earnest and sending them off to agents and publishers. For many, many years those agents and publishers all said, “No, thank you.” My days were marked by long hours dreaming of what life would be like when I’d found success as an author, and dark hours fearing that success would never come.

Now that I am living every day with Jen, my wife, and writing books and talking to people about those books, I am confronted with a new challenge: I must live without yearning. Romantics like me secretly enjoy yearning. There is a kind of delicious agony you can maintain by wanting and never quite having. That wanting seems to be what drives your story forward. The having means the credits role, and there is nothing more to tell.

It’s why it took me so long to kiss Jen. I’d go to her house and sit in her living room and talk and talk, and then we’d stand in her doorway saying goodbye, and I’d think, “Kiss her. Kiss! Her!” But I wouldn’t. I knew I loved her as I hadn’t my other girlfriends, and I knew that kissing her would turn dreaming into reality. What if reality was no different?

When we finally kissed, I said to Jen, “Well, that took a while.” She replied, “You could have done that a long time ago.” Such is always the case. Everything I have ever yearned for had long been available to me, even publishing success. There is no point in yearning for love. It’s what I’m made of. I can, however, look for it where it isn’t, and dream of the day I’ll find what I’ve always had.

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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Easy

When I was a teenager, I knew just a few things for certain, one of which was that I wanted a girlfriend. I knew I wanted a girlfriend the way I knew I liked David Bowie’s album Ziggy Stardust and T. S. Eliot’s poetry, and the way I knew I liked playing football and the game Dungeons & Dragons. I knew what happiness felt like, and I knew I preferred it to the alternative, and I also knew that all those other things that made me happy could not take the place of what I believed waited for me in the unique happiness of The Girlfriend.

I say believed, because when I had girlfriends, that unique happiness never quite materialized. In its place was an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying exploration. The difference between what I could picture in my mind when I thought Girlfriend and what was actually happening was the stuff of mournful sonnets and love songs. It was my own mental clarity around the subject that confounded me. I absolutely knew this experience could be better, the way I knew what happiness felt like. So why wasn’t it better?

The answer, of course, was that I was only seeing half a picture in my mind. I was seeing Me with Somebody. I could see me quite clearly; I just didn’t understand that the Somebody couldn’t be just Anybody. Then I met Jen, and I understood. I hadn’t wanted A Girlfriend. I had wanted to be with Jen, but I just hadn’t met her yet.

I made this same mistake with writing for a very long time. I knew I wanted to publish a book, the way I had once known I wanted a girlfriend. I had the exact same mental clarity around the subject, as well as the same confusion. Part of the reason I had wanted A Girlfriend was that any girl who said “Yes” to me could help me believe I was desirable. A published book, I hoped, would have the same effect. It took me many interesting but ultimately unsatisfying explorations to conclude that I didn’t want to publish just any book.

It was when I asked myself, “What book do you desire to publish?” that the experience of writing and publishing matched the pleasure I had believed it could bring me. It was like that first date with Jen. We sat there eating chocolate cake at Penguin’s Cafe, talking and talking and talking, and I thought, “This is easy.” It was, to that point, the easiest thing I’d ever done. Nothing was required of me other than following my own curiosity, which always led me right back to Jen.

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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The Truth

I love to teach as much as I love to write, and I teach and write for precisely the same reason. The reason I teach is not to share secrets of craft, though I am a bit of craft geek and I enjoy talking to people about narrative arcs, and showing and not telling. Nor do I teach to offer insider information on the publishing world, though I am happy to do so, if only to eradicate the idea of insiders and outsiders.

In fact, I am not really interested in teaching writing, though it serves as a handy excuse to do what I love to do, which is tell the truth. That’s why I teach and that’s why I write. To tell the truth, my words must match my feelings. If I say I am happy but I feel worried, I am not telling the truth. If I say writing is at its core effortless, but I believe and feel that it is like working in a salt mine, I am not telling the truth. To tell the truth, whether in the class or on the page, I must first feel what I wish to say.

Fortunately, most of what I teach and most of what I write boils down to this: Everything is okay. That’s it. You can all go home now. Everything is okay. Everything is okay and always has been okay. You would think that three words would not be enough to inspire the 1,000-plus blogs I’ve written nor fill a four-hour master class, but they most certainly can and have. Everything, you see, does not appear to be okay. Quite the opposite, really. And so I need constant reminding.

And what better way to remember than to tell someone else that everything is okay. To tell someone else the truth I must first find that place within me where I know that everything is okay. I lose track of it constantly. And then I find it again. And then I lose it. And then I find it again. Every time I find it, whether on the page or in the class or even watering my lawn, the world tells me the truth right back. Every time I find it, what I feel, and then what I say, and finally what I see are the same. To find that balance is the only reason I do anything.

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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Uncomplicated

I sold a piece recently to a parenting magazine about the difference between parenting my older son and my younger son. The point of the story was that even though one was diagnosed with autism and one was not, and one had to be homeschooled and the other was on his high school debate team, in truth I parented them in precisely the same way: by answering the question, “What is the best thing I can do at this very moment?”

It’s a somewhat unusual essay in that it is divided into two distinct parts. The first half set up how different my two sons are and how differently it appears I parented them. The second half looks at what it means to parent in the here and now, to not worry about the future and trust your kids and yourself. When I got my edits back, I found that the editor had done considerable line editing on the first half but very little on the second half. In fact, her edits on the first half were so substantial that in places it was as if she had just rewritten the story.

I was a little grumpy about this until I began rereading the second half and realized why it had needed fewer edits: it was the only part of the essay I was actually interested in writing. I had written the first half more or less mechanically, just getting it down so I could get to the good stuff. Once I got to that good stuff I slowed down, for now there was something to enjoy and be surprised by and discover.

It was a good reminder that no amount of craft can ever replace the quality of attention I bring to my work when I deeply interested in it. I cannot manufacture in the laboratory of my intellect what my imagination and sincere curiosity produce organically. One is a product of necessity, the other of love. How uncomplicated this job actually is. I need only get very, very interested and the rest will take care of itself. Yet every day I must remember this simple rule. Every day I must remember to notice the difference between doing and loving.

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

Hardly Working

The difference between writing a story I love, and writing a story I think might sell, is like the difference between being in an intimate relationship with someone I love, and being in an intimate relationship with someone I merely like and enjoy. That difference is effortlessness. To write a story I love or to be in a relationship with someone I love, I do not first have to overcome my own disinterest nor divert the river of my passion so it flows more conveniently where I need it to flow.

To write a story I love to write, or work a job I love to work, or be with a person I love, is to find the current of my passion and follow it where it is already running. But do so, I must first believe in effortlessness. Following the river of my own passion feels like so much less work than the engineering required to bend that river to my own will that it is sometimes difficult to recognize the following of my passion as a creative and productive endeavor. Mostly it just feels like Bill being Bill.

That hardly seems productive. Bill is Bill watching sports, and eating cereal, and taking a nap. On very good days what I call “working” feels deceptively similar to those idle activities. The difference is that when I am idle, I have said to myself, “No more effort! Let’s watch some soccer.” While I am writing, however, I must choose effortlessness again and again and again.

Because within my creative field swirl a myriad of choices, each as viable as the next, just as every person I pass on the street is as lovable as the next. Some of those viable ideas are quite attractive, exotically ripe with the potential for worldly success. Why, I wonder, can’t I be the sort of fellow who pursues such exotic ideas? Why must I just be Bill? The effort is my answer. The struggle to not be me is a struggle against life itself, a struggle I endure and endure and endure until at last I surrender to the current where work and rest are one and the same.

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