Experience: The True Source of Originality

When my younger brother was eight he arrived home after a day out with my mother and announced that he was changing his name from Tommy to John. I didn’t like it. He was born John Thomas Kenower, but he’d been assigned Tommy to limit confusion because my father was also a John. This seemed practical to me, and besides, you don’t just get to change your name like a shirt. Apparently, I was wrong about that. He’s been John ever since.

A couple years after John pulled it off, I tried this trick myself. I was named after my grandfather, William Douglas Bryant, but he’d gone by Doug. I liked Doug (that’s we called him, not Grandpa but Doug, because that’s what my mom called him instead of Dad), and so I told my best friend Palmer I was thinking of changing my name. Except the very next day, during a Little League game when I was moving from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box, Palmer called out, “Crush it, Doug,” and I thought, “I am not a Doug.” I have not been a Doug ever since.

I think of these name changes sometimes when I’m having trouble describing something. Everything my imagination gives me is a cliché or something I’ve written before. If this goes on long enough, I consider the possibility that I’ve been at this writing game so long that I have run out of new things to say about falling in love or curiosity or loneliness. At that moment I feel like a botanist who has just learned that every plant on earth has been found and named.

Except I could no more run out of ways to describe love, fear, joy, or despair than the world could run out of faces for newborns. The trick at these moments is to forget about language altogether. I have to forget about the names we have given experiences. Love is just a word; the experience we have named “love” is the reality. The experience is beyond the word. The experience doesn’t know the word exists in the same way a tree doesn’t know it is a tree.

As soon as my attention has moved from language to experience, as soon as I am resting my attention on the feeling we have named love or sadness, I can begin to describe what I perceive as if it has never been described before – which it hasn’t. In the same way a tree has changed from day to day and season to season, in the same way a person changes from day to day and year to year, so too, how I experience what we have named love or sadness varies from day to day – from moment to moment, even. No two moments are ever the same, and neither are my experiences.

If I am feeling a little full of myself, I might call myself “original.” But this is inaccurate. Life itself is ceaselessly, relentlessly original. When I’m stuck on a description, it is only because I am resisting this originality. Today feels like yesterday and so will tomorrow. There’s no real comfort in this false predictability, and certainly no writing. The only comfort I have known in my creative life is the certainty that every day, I must learn again what it feels like to be alive.

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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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Why It’s Okay to Say What’s Been Said Before

Several years ago I created a short inspirational video called The Writing Spirit. It’s a sort of montage of quotes from writers I’ve interviewed like Sir Ken Robinson, Richard Bach, Gary Zukav and others about the spiritual nature of writing and the creative process. I loved making this video. I loved choosing the clips, I loved editing them, and I loved writing every note of the music that accompanied the video.

I was all tingly with excitement the day I uploaded it to YouTube. I didn’t have many followers at that time, but Ken Robinson did, and when he tweeted about it, the video went a little viral. How exciting! Then, the first comment appeared. “I call bullshit,” wrote the commenter. “This has all been said before.”

All other comments on this video would be positive, but I did not know that would be the case when I read this first opinion. For a moment, I felt the sting familiar to all artists whose work has not been appreciated. He’s wrong, I thought in my defense. This video is not bullshit. It’s lovely. He’s just too gloomy to see it, and so he’s wrong and I’m right.

Except this didn’t leave me feeling any better. Until, that is, I thought: No, he’s right. It has all been said before. But that’s okay. Everything valuable humans have to share with one another has been said before, and yet we keep saying it again and again and again. We keep telling each other to trust ourselves, and listen to our intuition, and treat others the way we would be treated, and that we’re strong enough, and that we shouldn’t fear death, and that love is the organizing principle of the universe.

We can’t say it often enough, because we all want to hear it, because we all keep forgetting it. And the reason writers keep telling the same stories over and over again of good overcoming evil, and the guy getting the girl, and justice prevailing is that the story sounds little different when a writer tells it in his or her unique voice. A writer brings just enough difference to a familiar story that a reader is able to see the story’s familiar truth anew – and that’s all we want. We just want to be reminded of what we have always known.

It’s a good job, if you ask me. I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I don’t have to redefine the narrative, or discover a new tense for verbs. Maybe I will, but I needn’t worry about it. If I’m as honest as I can be, which is always the most effortless path for whatever I’m creating, then I’ll have made something original. I can’t not, because whether I like it or not, I’m original, and so are you.

And so was that fellow who didn’t like my video, though he may not yet believe that. So many of us don’t. It sometimes feels safer to think you’re just like everyone else. Which you are, in that you want to love and be loved, and you prefer it when people are kind to you, and you would rather succeed than fail. We are all, in this way, inseparable members of the Tribe of Humans. But the tribe would like to hear from 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

Honestly Original

Writers mustn’t become too mesmerized by words. They aren’t actually real in the way we sometimes think they are. The word “anger” isn’t real, only the feeling it is meant to name is real. The feeling itself isn’t the word, just as a tree isn’t actually “a tree,” it is only that thing of wood and leaves growing in our yard.

A small distinction perhaps, but one of the writer’s jobs is to claim the world back from the words we have attached to it and to name this world again. It is the writer’s job to feel the story she is trying to tell without words and then find those words that match what she is feeling. This is sometimes called originality but it is really just honesty. Everyone is original. Look around you – even those we call identical twins have their differences, have their originality. But not everyone, it seems, is willing to be honest.

I have been dishonest in my life far more than I have been honest. My dishonesty was never malicious, however, nor outrageous. Usually, it was in deference to tribal loyalty, reciting when I would have rather been speaking. To speak, I feared, was to be cast out onto the savannah with the lions and hyenas. There is safety in agreement, after all, even when we are agreeing to be afraid.

This kind of safety will eventually wear thin. There is no real warmth to be found away from the fire of what you know to be true. To see that light and feel that heat and name it for yourself is to offer it to others, not so they would use your words as well – though some will – but so that they might see life new for a moment, and remember their world belongs to them.

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

An Original Idea

Editors and agents – and yes, even writers – frequently encourage beginning writers to be original. You’ve got to distinguish yourself from the crowd of other writers who are also writing paranormal vampire suspense. Why should we read your book and not someone else’s? What makes yours so special?

What a paralyzing question this can be. Sometimes we are lucky and an idea arrives wearing its originality like a new coat. Even though this conspicuously original idea begins as skeletal as all new ideas, the first details about it we recognize are its most original features. How thrilling! Filled with the vim of our own genius, we set to the page ready to make history.

More often, however, ideas do not arrive looking so brilliantly new. Instead, these ideas appear in the distance looking incredibly familiar. There is the alcoholic detective, the rakish pirate, the pure innocent ready to take up a magic sword and defeat evil. Haven’t we seen this before? Why then are we drawn to these creaky clichés? Why are we so unoriginal?

We aren’t, of course, it’s just this other kind of idea hasn’t yet bathed in that single, critical ingredient that can transform any trope into something brand new: us. Let the rakish pirate stew in your unique waters for a bit and he will change. He has to. Just as a conversation must change when you join it, so will your characters when you begin listening to them.

The tricky part, as always, is trust. You won’t know how the pirate will change until he changes. Nor will you get to choose how he changes so much as observe that he has changed. Many a book will not get written because it does not look original from the distance that is inception. Every member of a crowd looks more or less identical from the top of an office tower. So easy to forget that every head you’re looking down upon is filled with as much originality as yours.

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

Into Darkness

If you are in the business as I am of writing more or less inspirational essays everyday, it is easy to fall into what I think of as recycled language but which also gets called clichés. For instance, all I ever really say, day after day, is: Be not afraid, and follow your heart. And that would be enough, frankly, if every reader hadn’t heard this advice before. Its familiarity doesn’t make it less true, but it does make it less effective.

Yet how exactly do you say something originally? There’s the thesaurus approach. Instead of follow your heart, you might advise your reader to gamble on your gut, or surf your impulse. Neither of those are all that bad – in fact I’m already fond of surf your impulse – but I have written this way enough to know how unsatisfying this paint-by-numbers game is. Nothing new is actually found while writing this way; we have only taken an old doll and put a different coat on it.

For me, originality begins by forgetting completely about language. Instead of trying to find new words to put in place of follow your heart, I allow myself to feel, without any thought of words, what it means on that day to follow my heart. Then I begin to write as accurately as I can what that feeling sounds and looks and maybe even smells and tastes like. If I am true to that experience, what I write will be original only because this day and that feeling have never met before and I was there to record it.

But none of this will work unless I trust that there will be something new for me to see and feel within myself where my heart-following self resides. By necessity what waits for me must be unknown, which means I must allow it to be unknown, which means I must place myself once again in the role of student-of-life. How I wish sometimes that I knew it all, had seen it all, had lived it all so that I would never again have to open some door into darkness. To have such a wish granted is to find myself entombed in a world that has already served its purpose, and to immediately begin looking for any door at all to set me free.

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

An Original Idea

Editors and agents – and yes, even writers – frequently encourage the beginning writer to be original. You’ve got to distinguish yourself from the crowd of other writers who are also writing paranormal vampire suspense. Why should we read your book and not someone else’s? What makes yours so special?

What a paralyzing question this can be. Sometimes we are lucky and an idea arrives wearing its originality like a new coat. Even though this conspicuously original idea begins as skeletal as all new ideas, the first details about it we recognize are its most original features. How thrilling! Filled with the vim of our own genius, we set to the page ready to make history.

More often, however, ideas do not arrive looking so brilliantly new. Instead, these ideas appear in the distance looking incredibly familiar. There is the alcoholic detective, the rakish pirate, the pure innocent ready to take up a magic sword and defeat evil. Haven’t we seen this before? Why then are we drawn to these creaky clichés? Why are we so unoriginal?

We aren’t, of course, it’s just this other kind of idea hasn’t yet bathed in that single, critical ingredient that can transform any trope into something brand new: us. Let the rakish pirate stew in your unique waters for a bit and he will change. He has to. Just as a conversation must change when you join it, so will your characters when you begin listening to them.

The tricky part, as always, is trust. You won’t know how the pirate will change until he changes. Nor will you get to choose how he changes so much as observe that he has changed. Many a book will not get written because it does not look original from the distance that is inception. Every member of a crowd looks more or less identical from the top of an office tower. So easy to forget that every head you’re looking down upon is filled with as much originality as yours.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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Securely Original

Occasionally someone will ask me how I find something to say about writing five times a week. I ask myself this sometimes as well, but the truth is even in conversation I am prone to take any topic and begin my contribution, “You know, it’s a lot like writing . . .”

To me, everything is. I’m a bit myopic that way, and I suppose my constant writing metaphors might sound like retold war stories to my friends and family, but writing is the leans through which I have chosen to view the world this go-around and so thank heavens for this space where I am required to do what I seem to want to do all the time anyway.

But imitation is always a close enemy of the writer. First, as young writers, we might find ourselves imitating the writers we admire, and then, once we become established and we have contracts and obligations, we might imitate ourselves. If it worked once, it will work again. If you imitate yourself, you know you have allowed the work to become a job. This is not a crime; a writer should be allowed to want a good job like so many others.  But the writer who takes up the job of writing should understand what they have traded and decide for sure this is what they want.

Whether we are imitating someone else or ourselves, imitation hopes to gain security from the past, where everything is known and has happened already. It is perfectly legitimate to seek security, but true security is balance, not stasis. We are all propelled perpetually forward into the shadows on the conveyer belt of time, and perhaps our foremost task here on earth is to become accustomed to the endless movement.

As writers, as with everyone, this means making peace with the unknown. If you make peace with the unknown, you are making peace with the true source of the stories you tell. Each story begins unknown to us, but only in its form. A story’s essence, that shapeless trajectory of thought that attracted us, is known to us—if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to write it. Resist imitation, then, not so reviewers will praise your originality, not so you might sell more books, but for security. Your originality is your acceptance of the moment, which like it or not is where you are.

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Original Slavery

Slavery has found its way back into the news lately. If you missed it, Virginia’s Governor declared April Confederate History Month but neglected to mention slavery in his proclamation. There was much furor and I think he apologized. It was a myopic mistake, but I have some sympathy for the Governor. No one talks about a man’s pettiness and bad temper at his funeral, so why not the same for the antebellum South?

The Son’s and Daughters of the Confederacy will have to answer that question on their own. I have always thought that slavery was just the most extreme manifestation of a universal human vibration—namely that there is a right and a wrong way to be. Everyone wants to feel good about themselves; everyone wants to believe they are valuable and that their life has meaning. But how does one know for sure that one’s life is valuable and has meaning? Wouldn’t it be simpler if value and meaning were like a fixed point on a graph, or a suit we can wear? If it fits, if we arrive at the appointed place, we need no longer wonder.

At which point we all become the stepsisters in Cinderella, cutting off our toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper. In the time of slavery, poor whites, of which there were a great many, were said to be able to feel better about themselves because at least they weren’t black. This is how strong the desire to know unequivocally that we are at core good runs within us—we might place an entire people in the box of Less Than to avoid the shifty truth that our value lies beyond the measurable.

Freedom and equality are exactly one and the same. On the day you wake up and decide you want to write, you cannot begin by first asking what is the correct thing to write and what is the incorrect thing to write. Everything must be on the table, from romance to epic poetry. Otherwise, you are merely seeking the world’s approval. The world already approves. The world approves of all free people, because nothing lights the flame of originality within us like the sight of someone else living authentically, free of the first and original slavery, the belief that we were somehow born lacking and that life is a roulette wheel we can only pray spins our way.

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All You’ve Ever Had

I recently heard a famous (living) writer say that writing is “a war against clichés.” I understand the point, which is this: clichés are not actual emotions or thoughts but recycled ones. Fair enough. But in the end, while you can and often are inspired to create what you perceive as the opposite of what you dislike, you cannot create in the negative, by which I mean you cannot create away from something, you can only create toward something.

Imagine, for instance, that you dislike the city of Buffalo. Oh, how you hate Buffalo. You have never spent a happy minute of your life in Buffalo. You are resolved, then, to devote your life to not being in Buffalo. Trouble is, there are a lot of places that are not Buffalo—the whole world, in fact, minus Buffalo. How then do you choose where to go? You have no guide except Not Buffalo.

Plus the mind does a funny thing. If I sit down to write thinking, “No clichés! No clichés! No clichés!” what my mind actually hears is, “Clichés! Clichés! Clichés!” If I were in a war, I’d have lost.

I mention all this not to pick fights with famous writers, but because I believe this writer’s perception is a fairly common one, although more often heard as: Oh, God, don’t let me be ordinary. But this is all fear, and all fear is a lack of trust. There is no formula for original; there is only trust.

Clichés are safe because they are familiar, and we are always comfortable with what is familiar. Your original work is going to appear both familiar and unfamiliar. It will feel like you because it came from you, and so it sounds like you, and so it is familiar to you. But it will be unfamiliar to you as well, because that which was inside is now outside where it has never been before, and you know what people think about clichés, but what about this?

The opposite of clichés is trust in The New. Everyone has been at least a little afraid of that which is new. Nothing new, by definition, can come with any guarantees. If you stumble in this journey and reach for the familiar—it’s all right. Put it down gently, for once it was original too, and look around. All the world is Not Buffalo. Where do you want to go?

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True Originality

I read an article in the NY Times yesterday about Ernest Hemmingway, and as is often the case with Hemmingway, it wasn’t long before the dreaded S Word came up. I am talking of course about style. Don’t get me wrong. I know that by style we often mean the precision and originality of a writer’s language. Precision and originality are all to the good.

But there is a very slippery slope one approaches when talking about style. What begins as simply a different or more practical way to tell a story soon becomes a platform for the writers themselves. Stories become compartmentalized into sentences, each one an example of how well the writer did or did not handle a particular moment. In the end, the stories are not a vehicle for the readers’ transformation, but are instead a test of the writer’s originality and then a test of the reader’s ability to appreciate “good writing.”

Style gets a lot of play because the well-turned phrase is the moment when we as readers most often think, “Wow. That’s some very good writing.” The ego always wants all the attention it can get, and so the temptation remains, especially if you have a particular facility, to perform as many back flips as possible so that in the end you the writer will be remembered more than the story you told.

But if this style is not in absolute service to the story it is nothing. It is a cry for attention. When critics mention the style Hemmingway “discovered,” it is as if he struck out on his own and found a new route through a wintry mountain. And maybe he did, but his tracks were covered as he went. Hemmingway forged this path only because he was searching for what he most wanted to share with the world—a path in which we would all soon get lost if we attempted to follow because we would never really know when we had arrived where he was headed.

You have got to find your own path, and maybe that path will catch people’s attention as Hemmingway’s did and maybe it won’t. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether or not you are known for your style. Transformation and revelation and understanding are all. What use is all the clever language in the world if it takes you nowhere? What use is originality if it serves no purpose other than to remind people that you are original? You are always original. Life is original. The sooner you accept this as so the sooner you can forget it and get on with the business of being truly original—which is to say, just you.

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