Instant Gratification

If there is one quality a writer must either have or acquire it’s patience. Writing a book – or even an essay or story or poem – can take a long time. Sometimes writing a single sentence can take a long time. Then, once a story is finished, finding the right agent or publisher could take months or even years. Even in the age of eBooks, there is still the production process, which is far from instantaneous. So a writer must be patient. This is not a career for anyone seeking instant gratification.

Or is it? What exactly is a writer doing while finding her story, or scene, or sentence? Optimally, the writer is resting in the feeling she wishes to share in words with her reader. If it is a story she truly wishes to tell, then that feeling, whether jealousy or desire or hope or surrender, should be interesting to her. And if it is interesting to her, it should be gratifying to rest in it. Or in other words, there is no wait at all. To write as well as she can possible write, the writer must remain as interested as she possibly can, no matter how long it takes that interest to turn into a story, scene, or sentence.

This is true even of the publication process. The impatient author is anticipating a future pleasure, comparing her current life unfavorably with what she believes awaits her when strangers begin reading her story. As gratifying as that experience can be, it is merely a reflection of the pleasure that grew within her until it took the form of her book.

I say this as a man who has lived most of his life impatiently. The world brought pleasure to me at an infuriating and unpredictable pace. At some point I threw up my hands and decided the world simply could not be counted on for something so important as my happiness. It was about this time that my writing improved dramatically. It is nice to share what I have written, to observe what had once pleased only me pleasing someone else, but that same pleasure still exists within me, available instantly should I choose to lay my attention upon it.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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A Patient Friend

Your genius is waiting for you. She waits for you at your desk like the best friend you will ever know. She is immensely patient and impeccably consistent. She is always ready to talk if you are ready to listen, and she loves to answer any question to which she knows the answer. And of course she is interesting. She never repeats herself and she always surprising. You love her, and she loves you too.

But she is not the sort of friend who will commiserate with you over all your grievances. You cannot meet her at the bar to drink and complain about your enemies. She is unwilling to call this one right and this one wrong. She does not criticize. She does not think you are any better or any worse than anyone else. On all of this she is absolutely inflexible.

She is so inflexible, so stonily silent on matters of comparison and doubt and vengeance, that it can often appear as though she has abandoned you when you need her most. Here you are, feeling alone and unlovable, and the very person you would most like to hear form has gone suddenly and utterly silent. How is that love?

Remember that she is only silent because she has absolutely nothing to say about your fear and your jealousy and your doubt. You are speaking in a foreign language when you ask her about these things. She only understands what you love. She is the world’s foremost authority on this subject. She could go on and on and on about it if you’d let her.

But it is all right if you don’t let her go on and on. It is all right if you want to complain and compare for a while. She isn’t going anywhere. She has nothing else to do. She lives exclusively for the opportunity to chat with you, it is her only pleasure, and she will wait as long as it takes for you to remember what you truly sound like.

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

Instant Gratification

If there is one quality a writer must either have or acquire it’s patience. Writing a book – or even an essay or story or poem – can take a long time. Sometimes writing a single sentence can take a long time. Then, once a story is finished, finding the right agent or publisher could take months or even years. Even in the age of eBooks, there is still the production process, which is far from instantaneous. So a writer must be patient. This is not a career for anyone seeking instant gratification.

Or is it? What exactly is a writer doing while finding her story, or scene, or sentence? Optimally, the writer is resting in the feeling she wishes to share in words with her reader. If it is a story she truly wishes to tell, then that feeling, whether jealousy or desire or hope or surrender, should be interesting to her. And if it is interesting to her, it should be gratifying to rest in it. Or in other words, there is no wait at all. To write as well as she can possible write, the writer must remain as interested as she possibly can, no matter how long it takes that interest to turn into a story, scene, or sentence.

This is true even of the publication process. The impatient author is anticipating a future pleasure, comparing her current life unfavorably with what she believes awaits her when strangers begin reading her story. As gratifying as that experience can be, it is merely a reflection of the pleasure that grew within her until it took the form of her book.

I say this as a man who has lived most of his life impatiently. The world brought pleasure to me at an infuriating and unpredictable pace. At some point I threw up my hands and decided the world simply could not be counted on for something so important as my happiness. It was about this time that my writing improved dramatically. It is nice to share what I have written, to observe what had once pleased only me pleasing someone else, but that same pleasure still exists within me, available instantly should I choose to lay my attention upon 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

A Storyteller’s Patience

To wander a bookstore is to choose a world I would like to live in for a time. It is a temporary exchange of this world for another, but if I choose well the exchange will be nearly complete. I will suffer and rejoice with the characters, I will want what they want, and I will be glad when they have found what they were looking for as if it was I who had found it. All that will be missing is to see these new friends with my eyes, and touch them with my hands. This is a minor difference. When I close this book, it will be as if these friends have left my house, and what remains within me is exactly what remains when any friend has said goodbye.

And when I tell a story I am also choosing the world I would like to live in for a time. It does not matter if that story is something I have lived or something wholly invented. Choosing this world is a process of trial and error. I have chosen so many different worlds over the years that I have learned to recognize rather quickly the many worlds I know I do not want to visit. This is where what we call originality occurs. I say to myself, “I know I don’t want to go there, or there, or there. So where do I want to go?” This is the most creative question I can ask myself.

A conversation is like choosing a world too. My wife and I love to talk. After twenty-plus years of talking and talking to each other, we realized that as much as we loved to talk and we loved each other, we were not always happy after our conversations. It was as if a topic had chosen us and not the other way around, as if we were dropped into a world we would never have chosen to live in.

You would think for a couple people who choose worlds all the time at their desks choosing one together would be a simple matter. It was not. Even in the relatively tranquil and steady environment of our living room or kitchen, our world can feel like a story already written that we have been assigned to read. To see a different world requires a storyteller’s patience. We had to agree to put the old story down, and ask, “Where do we want to go?” and then wait together for that answer.

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

See It

Sometimes I will read a sentence by another writer that doesn’t ring completely true. Depending on how far from the mark the writer landed, such a sentence might get labeled “bad writing,” a term that is itself as inaccurate as the writing it claims to describe. The writing wasn’t bad, it was just unfinished and the writer didn’t know it.

I have written many, many such sentences in my life, and always a part of me knew at the time of the writing that there was something closer to what I had meant. I could not understand why some lines hit spot on, while others strayed again and again from their mark. It felt like luck – or worse yet, talent, as if my only bad luck was being born slightly less talented than my literary ambitions required.

All of that changed when I learned that most of the best writing has nothing to do with words and everything to do with patience. And I don’t just mean the patience to rewrite. I mean the patience to wait until you can see or hear or smell or feel what you are trying render. You must have the patience to allow the lens of your imagination to focus completely on what you are trying to translate into language. How can you possibly render it accurately if it is not clear? How can you write what you cannot see? Such writing is luck, and you have about as much chance of winning that game as you do the slots in Vegas.

Before you put one word on the page, ask yourself, “Can I see it? Can I feel it?” If you can’t see it clearly, feel it clearly, put all words aside and wait. It is critical you not dwell in words in this moment; they will only confuse you. Wait until you have focused that lens as tightly as possible on your target. Then open your mind to words, and if your focus is tight and clear they will come effortlessly. There is no luck to it. There is only the willingness to believe that if you can see it, you were meant to write it.

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

Silent Friend

Every writer deals with feeling blocked a little differently. Wally Lamb says that if it gets really bad he goes down to a river near his house where his proximity to the flow of the current loosens something within him. Ridley Pearson, meanwhile, just writes his way through it, figuring whatever junk comes out can be rewritten because within junk is often something valuable in its rawest form.

I have learned to wait. This is fitting, I suppose, since I am a naturally impatient spirit. But I have learned over many, many trials and errors that there is no point in me putting words on the page until my attention is at least near what I am wanting to share. So I wait. And as I wait, I am like the ophthalmologist changing lens after lens in that monstrous vision contraption. “Which is better, one or two? Now which is better, one or two?” Each lens is a different perspective on the same idea, and gradually my vision clears and I see what I have been waiting for and I can begin to write.

Sometimes the wait is long and sometimes it is short. A few months ago, when I was still working on my memoir, I waited two hours to begin a new chapter. This was unprecedented. If I am not careful, the waiting can become a kind of solitary confinement where the mind offers stories of my cruel isolation and imminent creative demise. But this did not happen. For two hours I sat exactly where I am sitting now, and waited and waited, changing lens after lens, until I’d found it.

I wrote one sentence that day, leaving the rest for the following morning, but I considered it one of my best writing days of recent years. As writers, we encounter all levels of silence. Words hold their own pleasant sounds, and these words are our tools and our friends, and the silence, if there is enough of it, can feel like our enemy. But silence is the soil from which every story grows, the emptiness we need to see the world without comparison. To make an enemy of it is to make an enemy of myself, as if I am just my words, as if I am nothing but noise and gesture, and that I may cease to exist when I close my eyes to enter the fertile silence of dreams.

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

The Bottomless Well

Some days the writing comes quickly and some days it does not. It is easy to know what to do when it is coming quickly: just keep up with what is coming. But on other days the job is a little different. What does one do when it is not coming so quickly?

Some writers like to write their way through the uncertainty. The idea here to start putting words on the page with the understanding that most of it will be thrown away but with the hope that some germ of a genuine idea or character or anything might appear also. Others simply get away from the desk. Wally Lamb described going to a nearby stream when he felt stuck; sometimes the ceaseless current loosened something in him.

For years I used both of these methods with very limited success. When I tried to write my way out of feeling stuck I only dug myself into a deeper and unhappier hole, and when I left the desk I always did so out of anger and despair. Now when nothing is coming, I sit there. And wait. And wait. A few weeks ago I waited two hours, and it wasn’t until the last five minutes of a work session that I saw what I had been looking for.

I considered that day a triumph of sorts. How easy it would have been to panic. On that day, at least, I did not, and I came away feeling as though I had learned something valuable indeed. Every time I believe I have reached the end of what I need to learn about the patience required to write I am wrong. This is a bottomless well, and I have never once regretted diving more deeply into it, though I have feared nearly every descent. No matter. It waits for me too; waits while I believe I am unworthy, or unable; waits until I can once again accept the friendship of my own imagination.

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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Looking For Where I’ve Been

Writing always involves a certain amount of waiting. Sometimes there is very little. Sometimes you need only wait until you are at your desk and then away you go. But just as often, you must wait while at the desk itself.

I am an impatient soul, and so this has always been the most challenging part of writing for me. When things are going poorly I watch the clock, and I can’t remember what it feels like to write something I am actually interested in, and I start writing too soon just so I can have the feeling of writing, a choice that usually leads me to write something I am not actually interested in which makes writing feel like homework with no right answer but a teacher who can mark you wrong all the same.

The problem is always where I have chosen to wait. There is a friendly place within me where all my stories and blogs reside. I know I am there because it so pleasant I almost don’t care whether I write or not. Inevitably, however, I do write, because one need only stay there so long before you wish to share this friendly place with other people. It could be mistaken for a hiding place, but it is not. We hide to avoid discovery; here, we have sought just the opposite.

You would think I would never want to leave such a place, but I have, and for long periods of time. When I leave, it can seem impossible to find again. I begin to believe it is the Luxembourg of my interior life—tiny and of little significance. Yet once I am there, it feels as expansive as the sea. And still, I leave again. It is as if the house is so beautiful I must find the one who built it and learn how to build one myself.

It is impossible to build such a place, and my search always leads to confusion and despair and a kind of resentment.  What is the use of it if I can’t make it myself? Such thoughts can keep me away for days and months and even years. Then I grow weary of the search and return home, mildly surprised to find the door open and inviting as ever, as if all my wandering hurt nothing, as if all my fear were instantly forgiven.

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

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Five Rules

A regular reader of this space may have observed that I eschew writing rules. While I am a full proponent of showing instead of telling and decent grammar and so on, I think it best to let folks find their own way. Chances are we will all arrive at more or less the same place. That said, I have accrued my own vague lists of rules that I try to follow each time I sit down to work. Here they are:

1. Feel first; Write Second. When I find myself hating what I am writing it is always because I am not feeling anything. If I feel nothing, then there is actually nothing to write, and so what I am writing is just an imitation of what I sounded like when I did feel something. Sometimes I need to feel the energetic flow of the story, and sometimes I need to feel what the characters in a scene are feeling – either way, until I feel something interesting, it’s best to avoid writing anything. Of course this wouldn’t be a problem if I followed rule number 2 . . .

2. Be Patient. Stories take time, characters take time, even sentences can take time. Like most writers, I enjoy writing, only so much so that I get myself into trouble by diving in before I actually have something I want to say; or I beat myself up for not finishing a book in six drafts; or for only writing two pages in a day. There is a profound difference between procrastination and patience: one is avoiding, the other is waiting.

3. Be Humble. When I’m on the beam and the good stuff comes, I say, “Thank you,” and back away. Writing is a hands-off operation. When I start congratulating myself I get my hands all over what I’m trying to do, and this only gets in the way of more good stuff coming.

4. Be Compassionate. Every time I criticize someone else’s work, I am criticizing my own work. Every time I allow someone else to make their own mistakes, I allow myself to make my own mistakes.

5. Stick the Landing. Good stories are about good endings. The ending is the gift and the reason the story is being told. I am never finished telling a story until I know why I am telling it.

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

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Your Life’s Work

It took Karl Marlantes over thirty years to see his debut novel Matterhorn published. The publishing world is filled with awards, but a new one should be christened to commemorate this triumph of patience and determination.

Of course, Marlantes would be the first to admit he wasn’t always patient. In fact, he very much wanted to publish Matterhorn in 1977, the first time he “finished” the novel. In those days, it was 1,600 pages long, as opposed to the slim 600-page volume he eventually did publish. He also wanted it published in the 80’s, when publishers said no one wanted to read about Viet Nam, and he wanted it published in the 90’s and early 00’s, when publishers wanted to move the story to Iraq or Afghanistan.

But he published Matterhorn in 2010, nearly 40 years after he began writing it. A lot of writers will probably think, “Hey, isn’t it that great? Now please, God, never let that happen to me.” Not to worry, it probably won’t. The moral of Marlantes’s story is not that you must be willing to wait thirty years to publish a novel. But Marlantes made the point in our interview that had the book been published in 1977 it probably would have come and gone very quickly and been forgotten.

Matterhorn represents a kind of literary life’s work for Karl Marlantes, and so is definitely a special case. But in another way, his story is everyone’s story. Had he not believed in the value of the story he wanted to tell, he certainly would have given up long ago—most likely in 1977. That his story remained the same story is what makes Matterhorn unique. For most of us, that which we wish to share with the world will be spread out over many stories, but the challenge remains the same.

The only thing that will sustain you through the dry years, if indeed you encounter any, is a fundamental belief in what you have to share—not your talent, not your desire for approval and money. It doesn’t matter whether what you want to share are stories of young women falling in love or a First Lieutenant’s struggle to find courage in the jungles of Viet Nam, the current of interest that drew you to your stories must remain unassailable. Patience will bring the story to its desired form and audience, whether in three months or thirty years.

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