Interesting Difference

When I interviewed Yann Martel several years ago he pointed out that it was his book Life of Pi that became famous, not he. Unlike an actor, Martel could easily walk the streets of his native Toronto without being recognized. This is probably a best-case scenario for the average writer, most of whom happily practice their craft in an alive solitude with only their imagination for company. We love other people, our readers most definitely included, but they are very distracting and they sometimes make a lot of noise.

I say this as someone who, once he’s done writing, loves to find other people and talk to them. Now these other people are no longer a distraction – they are an inspiration. It is easy to become so familiar with your own work that you forget why it was ever so interesting to you. Fortunately, no two people are ever interested in the same thing for exactly the same reason. Because stories are brought to life in the alive solitude of the reader’s imagination, every reader I meet seems have a read a slightly different book than the one I wrote. The difference between the book I wrote and the book they read can bring that story to life for me again.

I thought about this difference when I watched the movie version of Life of Pi. I’d taken my youngest son to see it, and at one point in the middle of the film he began to cry. I glanced down at him to make sure it was crying that I was hearing, since I was watching the same movie he was, and I was not even in the vicinity of tears. He was most certainly crying. I returned my attention to the screen, where a zebra was struggling to climb onto Pi’s lifeboat. It was then I remembered my son’s feelings about animals. I loved animals too, but I knew he identified with them in a way I did not.

During our conversation, Martel said one reader he met told him the tiger sharing the lifeboat with Pi clearly represented marriage. Martel thought the tiger represented God, but he wasn’t about to disagree with her. Ideally, I would never disagree with anyone, even when someone doesn’t like what I’ve written. To do so would be to ignore the inspiring difference between us, a constant reminder that everyone has something new to offer – including me.

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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Useful Villains

Every story, like every life, requires contrast. If you want to write about love, you must write about loneliness. If you want to write about triumph, you must write about defeat. Everything is always seen more clearly against its opposite. A flashlight’s beam does not register in the middle of a sunny day, but it is a swath of clarity at midnight.

This is useful in a very practical, crafty kind of way. If you know the gift your story is trying to give in its end, then you also know the suffering through which you must first take the reader so that this gift will mean something. You must remind the reader of suffering so she can appreciate and celebrate the relief that comes when the suffering ends. In this way, the darkness of our stories is as much a gift as the light, and most writers learn to relish their stories’ darkness, as an actor often relishes playing a villain.

We do not always apply this reality to our own lives. Darkness is darkness, and in it we cannot see and are lost. Villains are villains, and their villainy is expressed in their desire to harm or obstruct us, not help us. But who better to teach you what you know than someone who disagrees with you and who requires your greatest clarity to bridge the gap of misunderstanding? And where better to perceive your own light than in your own darkness? It was there, after all, you first recognized that which you had always been shining.

And who better than a villain to teach us that we are safe? To perceive a threat where none exists and then to find the truth is to awaken to your inherent safety. It is not always so simple. After all, it is our belief in our frailty that summons a villain to us, and their arrival feels like proof of the nightmare we are dreaming. But with this villain, there is no victory or defeat; there is only the contrast between a dream and reality.

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 Different Angle

I was in Los Angeles recently teaching at writer’s conference and visiting my brother and an old friend, both of whom work in television and film. Going to Los Angles, to Hollywood, is always a tricky proposition for me. I love seeing my brother and my old pal, and I certainly love teaching, but I also feel a bit how a recovering alcoholic might if he spent the night hanging out in a bar with friends. It is not just the proximity to temptation, but the memory of having yielded to temptation in exactly that location.

Though I had lived in LA for only nine months twenty-seven years ago, that time remains etched vividly in my psyche. For someone transfixed by the societal ladder of success and failure for much of his early life, Hollywood provided constant opportunities to measure how close to the top or bottom I resided. There were so many beautiful people in beautiful clothes driving beautiful cars to beautiful homes, and there were so many movie studios with iron gates and security guards keeping out the riff raff, and there were so many conversations with other writers and actors trying, trying, trying to make it. All of this and also the merciless Southern California sun, and the dry Los Angeles River, and the sprawling heartless freeways, and the men selling oranges at traffic lights, and the strip clubs, the people you’d meet who looked every bit like you who’d say, “You have be lucky or willing to sell your body in this town.”

So I was glad to leave that place, but the ladder can follow you everywhere. Back walking those palm tree-lined streets, feeling that weird Los Angeles sun, and everyone sparkly and ambitious, I felt the temptation to measure myself again. I was relieved to retreat to the hotel, and to the cool conference rooms where I could teach a little fearless writing. When I’m doing what I love it is easy to forget what I was never meant to love. After the class, sitting with my brother on his balcony, he asked, “When you’re teaching, what do you do when you look out and see all their fear and self-doubt? Doesn’t it freak you out a little bit?”

“Not when I’m teaching,” I said. “It’s like I can look right through it to who they really are.”

“Good trick,” he said.

“Yeah. Now, if I could just do that always.”

I glanced out over North Hollywood. The sun had set and it was cool enough for sweaters. I knew the Hollywood itself sign wasn’t far, that from a different angle I might be able to spot it through the palm trees lit by the city’s neon glow. I was just as happy then not to find that angle, and as usual that made all the difference.

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 Fall

Before my father left The Church he served as one of its ministers. If I was ever asked to sit in the pews while he delivered his Sunday address, I have no recollection of it. This was during the shadow of my early childhood, when memory is hampered by the highly fluid relationship between imagination and what I was gently being told was reality. It is hard for me to know what actually happened then and what was invented because at that time everything felt invented.

In those early days, I preferred cartoons to sermons. In cartoons, characters could travel through time or change shape, nothing died, and physical suffering was brief and hilarious. This felt like life as I lived it in my imagination, where the only meaningful boundary was what I wanted.

One afternoon I was playing in the rec room of my father’s church. There was a freestanding bookshelf in the middle of the room, and I thought it would be a good idea to try to scale its smooth back. This turned out to be impossible, but my efforts destabilized the shelf, which began to slowly topple backwards. It was at this point I decided to attempt the first scientific experiment of my young life. If the cartoons were as accurate as they felt, and if this bookshelf were to land, say, on my hands, my fingers would swell to comical proportions and then quickly return to normal. I left my hands on the floor in the path of the falling shelf, and awaited my results.

The pain sucked me into reality. I felt betrayed, though not by cartoons. It was clear there were in fact boundaries in this world, and to transgress them could mean suffering of a magnitude impossible to ignore. It was a great disappointment, though I attributed the tears I shed in my father’s lap afterwards to simple pain and humiliation. How do you explain the other? I could feel the answer within me, but not the facility to express it, a facility wed, in a language as tangible as bookshelves, to the very world that had just betrayed me.

I suppose that is the day I became a writer.

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 End of Tyranny

A few years ago I played the classic puzzle-solving video game Myst with my youngest son, Sawyer. I played Myst to its conclusion almost 20 years ago, so I could remember little of the game and its many ingenious puzzles except this: all the puzzles are indeed solvable. I had to remind myself of this on the several occasions Sawyer and I appeared to have reached a dead-end. Sawyer had not played the game through, however, and so when we reached these impasses he did what most people normally do when confronted with what looks like an insurmountable obstacle—he complained.

“This game is flawed!” he concluded. “It’s poorly designed.”

To be clear, I would have complained as well had I not known, empirically, that the problem was not the game’s design but the players’ perception. It was a kind of foggy hindsight, which, while obscuring the solutions, revealed complaint in all its uselessness. The complainer says, “There are no solutions!” and so none are perceived. His complaints actually prevent him from seeing the very thing he complains does not exist.

It was a rare treat in my life as a father. I was able to say, “Trust me, we’ll figure it out,” with a time-traveler’s authority. But I do not need to replay my trials every decade or so to know the roles of trust and complaint in my life. What can feel like a declaration of independence from the tyranny of an unjust world is actually a sentence to a prison of my own design. Fortunately, I can leave as soon as I remember that the key to that cell is not the solution to some problem but only the belief that one exists.

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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Useful Obscurity

About a year before I started writing Author, before I began interviewing writers and, most importantly, before I began writing this blog, I started my own blog. I had just left the restaurant where I had worked for seventeen years, and I hadn’t yet found any meaningful work to replace it. And so, about three times a week, I would take my laptop to a nearby coffee shop, order a non-fat latte, and write a blog.

It is the only time in my life I’ve written in a café. I wrote there so I could get out of the house. I enjoyed my time with my latte and my blog. The blog was about creativity and spirituality. I had never written about the intersection of these two subjects, and I discovered I quite liked doing so. Perhaps my favorite part about that first blog, however, was the fact no one was reading it.

This was immeasurably helpful. I could technically publish it – that is, put it out there where anyone who wanted to could find it – without concerning myself about what anyone thought about it because, as far as I could tell, the blog remained an undiscovered treasure. I’m sure someone was reading it, but I didn’t concern myself with these phantoms. Real readers would have only gummed up the works.

Just about the time I was ready to let someone read what I was writing, I founded Author and wrote my first of many blogs for the magazine. I prefer having my work read, but I remain ever grateful for that year of Internet obscurity. In many ways, I am still writing the first blog, still pretending I am alone, so that I might hear what it was I actually want to share with others.

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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Away from the Mirror

I was visiting my mother a few years ago when I noticed a photo of my brother and me she’d framed. I remembered the night it had been taken. We were in our early twenties, and were relaxing in a restaurant, having just finished a show. I was rarely more relaxed in those days than just after I’d left the stage.

“Look at that,” I told my mom when she found me studying it. “I was a pretty good-looking guy back then. How come I didn’t know it?”

“Oh, I think you knew it,” she said.

She was right, of course, but there was more to this particular story. Sometimes, when I was a young man and still very single, I’d look in the mirror and think, “That’s all right.” In many ways, looking in the mirror reminded me of reading what I’d written once I was done editing a scene. It was good enough for me.

Then I’d leave the mirror, or I’d show what I’d written to someone else, and then I was reminded that what was good enough for me might not be good enough for someone else. The difference was that people didn’t tend to tell you if your looks weren’t good enough for them the way they would with something you’d written. It didn’t matter. As soon as you experience the surprise of other people shrugging at what made you laugh or cry, you learn the limitation of your own perception.

Which is why I told my mother that I didn’t really think of myself as good-looking at that time. Walking about in the world, my face on display for anyone to read, I felt sometimes as if I were in a constant workshop on my appearance. How I craved the security of just knowing, so that I might be set free, and no longer care what anyone else thought about me – or about anything.

I know why I liked how I looked in that photo. It’s not the people in the crowd who laugh at your jokes that help you relax, it’s the ones who don’t. You hear that happy sound, and even as you feel that instant connection with these strangers, you look out at the faces and notice the ones not smiling, and realize you don’t care. It was never about getting everyone to agree. It was only ever about finding something I agreed with, knowing that that was all right.

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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No Illusions

A writer must have no illusions.

A writing life cannot be supported by fantasies of genius. Our little fantasies are at best shadows of our actual genius, which, when freed from doubt, feels as normal to us as breathing. Our fantasies, meanwhile, are like the dreams of breathing that a man has while he is drowning.

A writer must have no illusions about talent. The illusion that some are talented and some are not, that some have it what takes and some do not, turns the page into an unfriendly proving ground where the writer must inevitably fail. The writer must accept that talent is an expression of our curiosity unfettered by judgment, not the result of some cosmic game of genetic roulette.

A writer must have no illusions about the value of what’s been written. Any number we assign, high or low, is a fantasy of speculation, a long, hard look in a fun house mirror. What number would we assign to that holy instant a reader becomes lost in the same dream we dreamed while writing?

For what is a writer but a hypnotist, and what is the reader but a willing subject? Both surrender to a reality beyond the world they can see and touch, a reality given life in a realm as limitless as it is private. The more complete the surrender, the more satisfying the journey. It is a journey where author and reader meet regardless of the dull and tiny specifics of time and space. It is a journey where we forget our name, and we forget our past, and we forget all the stories we tell ourselves as we tramp around the world we can see and touch.

It is a journey, finally, to a life without end. We close the book, we finish the story, but nothing is over. Reader and writer are always left with something both complete and still growing. To see it otherwise is to believe too fully in the world we can see and touch, a world where things fall apart, and have price tags, and are argued over. The writer must have no illusions about that world. It is no more real than the words on the page, empty marks brought to life where all reality is born.

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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Golf Dreams and Nightmares

Alice Cooper liked to play golf. If you don’t know, Alice Cooper was a rock and roll star who saw his heyday in the early 70s, and is considered the godfather of Shock Rock or Glam Rock. His stage shows included fake blood, electric chairs, guillotines, and boa constrictors. He wore a lot of makeup. This is sounds tame now, but in 1971, when he hit the charts with “I’m Eighteen,” I was six years old, and my favorite song was The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”

Over the next few years, news of Alice Cooper and his macabre stage shows trickled down to me through rumor and schoolyard whispers. It sounded insane to me. The Halloween makeup and the blood and giant snakes seemed like a nightmare. As it happens, in 1975 he released his most popular album, “Welcome to My Nightmare.” I had nightmares of my own, I thought, and I didn’t like them. Why would I want to travel through his? Mind you, I had never heard a single note of any song he had written.

Twenty years later I was married with children and had new dreams and even some new nightmares. I was watching an MTV music history retrospective when who should they interview but a makeup-less, weathered-looking Alice Cooper. He was hilarious. He talked about how much he and his band liked to play golf. They had to be careful about this. They would sneak onto golf courses dressed as conservatively as possible. They had a reputation to uphold.

Growing up, I thought golf was the suburbs of sports – tame, asexual, quiet, and exclusive. It was a weenie sport for weenie people. At about the same time I learned that Alice Cooper was a secret golfer, a work friend convinced me to play nine holes with him at a public course. I loved it. Yet I never played again. Instead, I dreamt of golfing for years afterward, and in every dream, I made all the shots. I was a natural.

Oh, and I recently Googled “I’m Eighteen” and had a listen. It’s pretty good.

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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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

Follow wdbk on Twitter