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

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The Saint Within

Every writer I know began as a young reader. Most read hungrily once they’d discovered the intimate pleasure of the written word. It feels like escape, this travelling through imaginary worlds. It does not matter what world you are reading about – whether it is the once-real world of Czarist Russia or the unreal world of Narnia – it is all imaginary, for your body is one place while your mind is in another.

But reading is actually the opposite of escape. No story can live without the reader’s emotional participation. The writer’s words are but directions to a place within the reader where sadness and joy and grief and curiosity and boredom and hope and despair reside. The words alone are a skeleton; the reader’s felt responses to those words are the flesh and blood of every story ever told.

What’s more, every story ever told grows from the same fertile thought: Life matters. It matters that someone fell in love or someone was crowned queen. It matters that a father and son were reunited. It matters that the killer was caught. Life is not just a bunch of meaningless crap that happens to us between birth and death. The story guides us to that place within us where we know life matters, where we know that we are interested for a reason, where we know that we matter and are living on purpose.

This is why stories and poems and songs were my church and my state growing up. I turned to them to remind me of what I so often forgot, what I so often lost track of in the hurly-burly of life’s circus. I had thought that I would need to make these heroes who’d saved me from myself less saintly, so that I could take my place beside them on the shelf. Instead, I found again the saint within me, the unblemished self who remains unaffected by my woeful stories of meaninglessness, who finishes the stories others had started, and who now begins my stories that others might finish.

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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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A Dragon In The Garden

I sometimes wonder if the worst misfortune that could befall a writer is to be cursed with a life of excitement and adventure. How easy, even with your own life, to become transfixed by the glitter and drama of events and lose sight of the heart that beats steadily and hopefully beneath every moment. Life may dress itself in a tuxedo, but within that coat and tie is the same naked truth to which we are all beholden.

It is the only truth toward which anyone would write, and the only truth toward which anyone would live. And yet how tempting it is to discard life like one of our own aborted ideas. Not all of life, of course – only the dull bits, the hours spent waiting, the idle hours in front of the TV, the after-dinner conversations with a spouse, the drive to work.

I have felt at times as if I am drowning in life’s dull bits. How the dirty daily business of not-dying consumes my attention. If the dull bits are discardable, why then so am I, for hasn’t my life seemed to have descended into little else? Now I look out and see nothing but empty survival, now I look out and would crave a killer at my door, if only to make that same survival worthy of a movie or at least a mention on the evening news.

How the dull bits summon the specter of meaninglessness. Now a dragon has appeared in my garden, and I am running for my life. Slay me if you can, he’ll whisper, but death has always been my friend, filling your quiet hours as he does with the haunted fantasy of an end as meaningless as the beginning and middle.

I write this column for anyone who has ever felt the pain of his own discarded life. Perhaps you did not even recognize the dragon as you looked at him. Perhaps you called him boredom, loneliness, poverty, loss, bad luck, or abuse. The dragon has many names. To live as a saint, you needn’t renounce your earthly ways, tend the children in Calcutta, or hang yourself on a cross. To live as a saint you need only see what a saint sees, to look out at the garden where the dragon breathes and know that serpent has come to save you.

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

Downstream

I had a wonderful conversation Wednesday with the writer and spiritual teacher Neale Donald Walsch (you can listen to the entire podcast here), a number of times during which we raised the question, “Why are we here?” It is a question I have been asking off and on for much of my adult life, usually without much in the way of a satisfying answer.

That question, however, reminds me of stories I am trying to write. Every story has its own energetic integrity that can only be fully understood while hot in the middle of telling it. Only then do I know for sure what belongs and what does not, from scenes, to characters, to individual words. The further I move from this story, however, the less sense it make to me, and it begins to feel like a meaningless collection of events strung together because I had nothing better to do.

When I view my stories from this distance, I find myself asking, Why bother? These stories will change nothing. They will disappear into the air like a burst soap bubble. Why did I care so much about every word? Why was I so satisfied and triumphant after a good day’s work? The stories are a sneeze in a typhoon. What a great hoax I’m playing on myself.

It’s almost enough to keep me from returning to the desk. But I find myself back the next day just same, grumpy but willing, and I slowly find the current of the story again, and then I’m in it. There is nothing better than being in it, whether it is a story I am telling, or a conversation, or a quiet walk. To be in it is to forget questions that never needed to be asked, and to ask instead as I head downstream, “What next? What next? What next?”

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 Big Time

I was twenty-four and in the middle of writing my first screenplay with my brother. We were writing it as quickly as we could so that when we arrived in Los Angeles, we’d have something to show to the agents and producers we were hoping to somehow manage to meet. I wanted to write it in the same way I’d written the sketch comedy show he and I had been performing for the last few years, which was to tap into the funny, tap into the cool, tap into the interesting I felt within me and let the funny, cool, and interesting find its way onto the page.

But I couldn’t write this screenplay like that. It had to be able to impress agents and producers who, as I understood it, thought in terms millions of viewers and tens of millions of dollars, whereas my sketch comedy show on a good night performed to around 80 people and earned us slightly more than nothing. I had to write for The Big Time, and I wasn’t sure what that meant. I was not sure if my funny, cool and interesting was funny, cool, and interesting enough. So I smoked a lot of cigarettes plus a few other things, and didn’t sleep much, and caught a cold, and began to hear a great clock in the sky ticking its way down to the end of my creatively viable youth.

Then one evening my brother was at work and I wasn’t, and instead of writing more of the screenplay, I decided to describe what it felt like to catch a pass from my father. In one longish paragraph I wrote about the pleasure of running flat out down an open field, tracing the path of the ball in the sky and timing my run and my extended arms so that the ball and I would meet. I wrote about how I couldn’t do this often enough, and that even though I was technically practicing for our Sunday touch football games, was technically getting better so our team could win, the pleasure was all in the running and finding how my father and I were connected through that ball.

I spent an hour writing that paragraph, and when I’d finished, I sat back in my chair and felt something I hadn’t in quite some time. I didn’t want to leave the chair, in fact, because as soon as I did, I knew I’d be caught up once again in the momentum of my day, of which that screenplay was now a part. I wished for a moment that that this was the momentum of my day – the quiet, profitless knowing after writing something just to write it, of catching a ball just to catch it, of living a life just to live 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.

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

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

Dream World

I rarely have trouble falling asleep. By the end of the day I’m quite done with the waking world. By the end of the day I’ve said enough and thought enough and done enough, and I cannot find within me much reason to say or think or do more. I am ready for the dream world over which I have no command, the dream world to which I must surrender and from which I draw all my strength for the waking world.

But sometimes I am pulled awake while it is still dark, and my thinking mind comes alive with premature industriousness. My poor thinking mind was made for the waking world and all its things, all its words and people and places and objects. It was made to give these things order, to arrange them to meet my desire, and the stillness of my bed confuses it. Now this mind of mine is a dog with all energy but no bone.

I lie there feeling as if something must be done. I know this cannot be, but the feeling is the same as the one I so often carry with me when the sun is up and everyone is doing something. It seems real then, why is it not real now? To surrender again to the dream world feels like I am giving up on that other dream, the dream that all I do in the waking world is very important and necessary and that I am building something permanent.

It has always been my dream that what I do matters. I have always wanted to be Bilbo heading out of The Shire on a great and important adventure. And how I have wanted just one good dragon to slay. I have wanted dragons so badly I have summoned and fought them until I, their creator, declared them slain. What an unsatisfying victory – the end of something that never was, a knight alone on the field, exhausted from fighting himself.

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

Real Tigers

For a writer, there is necessary ambiguity, and unnecessary ambiguity. The best stories I read are the ones finished inside me after what the writer calls The End. In this way, the writer is pointing me toward what he wishes to share, and allowing me to find it in my own thoughts and feelings, thereby making it my own.

But this way of sharing a story comes with unavoidable ambiguity. What will the reader take away? Yann Martel told me how once a reader was eager to thank him for Life of Pi. “It’s just so perfect,” she told him. “The tiger is obviously a marriage.”

“It is?” he asked.

“Of course. I’m married and that tiger is a marriage.”

So it was for her. It is almost frightening for an author to learn how varied your readers’ responses can be. A thousand people will read a thousand different stories all with the same title. And yet we pour our attention onto the page so that we may say precisely what we mean. Why bother?

Because of the alternative. Do not be distracted by all this interpretation. Do not be seduced by the witchcraft of meaninglessness: “Life is ambiguous; so too shall be my endings. Who am I to say what is real and what is not?”

You are the author. Pick what you know to be valuable and write it. Know what you know and do not be afraid it, nor that other people will not understand it, nor that they will find something valuable in your work that you did not first see. It is your intention that lights their imagination. It is your desire to share something meaningful and remind readers where the value of life dwells that allows them turn tigers inter marriages.

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

Life As I Felt It

Like a lot of young men who grew up to be writers, around seventeen I become philosophical. I wanted to know why we were here and what this was all about. A lot of people had been asking this question for a long time, but I was uninterested in their answers. Though we were all people who had lived or were living, other people’s answers were like the songs and stories and they had loved, and I wanted to know my answer like I knew and songs and stories I loved.

In attempt to answer this question, I looked about at the world. Life was all around me, after all. All the other people and what they said and did were life; all the trees and oceans and fishes and birds were life; and all that had come before me was life, all the history and all the stories and all the wars and accomplishments and failures – all of it was life. If I wanted to understand life, there it was.

Yet the more I stared at it, the less it meant. I could not tell the good from the bad. Things died and were replaced by things that were born, and all the mourning and ceremony around these events were our invention, while life itself looked on undisturbed. I became bitter and moody. What a meaningless dustbin of accidents.

But of course I kept making things, all of which I happily added to the dustbin. Making things pleased me. To make something I had to move my attention from life as I saw it, to life as I felt it. Everything I would make—every song, story, play, gesture, or kiss—was nothing but a conduit for feeling. I had been correct not to look to others for my answer. In fact, I didn’t need to look at all to understand life, I only needed to remember what I already was.

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