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

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Time to Remember

Having written well over a thousand of these things in the last nine years, I have come to the conclusion that the personal essay is the form with which I am most artistically comfortable. It took me a while to admit this because for the first thirty or so years of my writing life I saw myself as a fiction writer, poet, or playwright – that is to say, an entertainer. While personal essays can and should be entertaining, their success depends on the depth of the lesson they provide. In the end, every essay looks at something I’ve learned that I think someone else might find useful as well.

Back when I saw myself as an entertainer, the idea of offering lessons in my work not only seemed to contradict the First Law of Writing – show don’t tell – but was personally repulsive to me. I did not want anyone to teach me anything. I’ll figure it out my life, you figure out yours, and in the meantime let’s amuse one another. Though in truth, the stories and poems I loved and valued the most always did more than merely amuse me: they reminded me of something I had forgotten. In fact, no sooner was I reminded of it I would forget it and have to go looking for it again in another story, poem, song, or movie.

I suppose I finally let myself start writing the essays out of desperation. My cyclical amnesia was fatiguing, and writing required me to remember on purpose. Turns out, I could! Turns out the very best way to memorize something is through repetition. Though not, in this case, rote repetition. Every time I return to the desk, the lesson, what I’m remembering, has changed – or at least it looks different to me, like a child who grew slightly while we were apart.

You may be wondering what “it” is I’m remembering. I’m sorry, that’s private. Actually, there’s nothing private about it because it’s the only thing anyone remembers. It’s just that you’ll remember it in your own way, and I wouldn’t want to interfere with that by defining that something that can only be felt. After all, I can’t write all the time, and some day I might be wandering around the world, having once again forgotten, and you and I will meet in person or on the page, and in your own way, in your own words, you’ll remind me why life is worth living.

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 Third Eye

For many years I was a writer obsessed with the form my stories and sentences took. This is also called style. I had loved certain writers whose style was so distinctive and evocative and exciting to me that I believed if I paid very close attention to the form my stories and sentences took, I would be able to write the kind of stories I loved to read. I was less aware of my stories’ content at that time. I felt that if I started writing, something cool would come out.

It didn’t work that way. Obsessing over a story’s form is a little like fussing with your hair in the mirror. There is only so much a hairstyle can communicate. But it is something I can control. I can cut it, wash it, gel it, comb it, comb it again, mess it up and comb it one more time. What I cannot do is control what anyone will think of that hair. And so I stare into the mirror, aware of this uncomfortable fact, knowing that for all my grooming, people are just going to go ahead and think whatever they want to think.

My stories became a kind of mirror I was staring into, with me fussing and fussing before the big date that was submission. I sent them out aware of some nameless deficiency, and they were predictably rejected. Had I not fussed long enough in the mirror? What was missing? What had I overlooked?

Eventually I began to focus more on my stories’ content rather than their form. It was a very different way of thinking, because the content, which was a felt awareness of life, had no form whatsoever. Love, after all, can take any form, as can grief, and joy, and doubt. My time at the desk now was spent trying to see with my writer’s third eye what love and joy and grief really looked like, without any idea of what other people thought love and joy and grief looked like. Once I felt I could see it clearly, I tried to make what I could see with words.

I love language and sentences as much as I ever did, but I spend very little time now thinking about either. It’s a relief, frankly. I look in the mirror about twice a day, and that’s enough. The rest of my time is spent living within what it feels like to be alive. That is the reality of which I am most aware. This reality is not always comfortable, but the comfort I seek does not exist in the mirror or on the page. That comfort can only be perceived with my third eye, for that is where everything I want to share resides.

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

Discovering Stories

Every writer is a teacher of some kind, though most do not see themselves that way. Most writers see themselves as entertainers – meaning it is not their job to instruct their readers, but rather to engage them, amuse them, frighten them, or inspire them. To do so, writer and reader go on a journey together, and though the writer may be the guide for this journey, may have mapped its route and chosen its destination, the discoveries the reader makes along the way belong entirely to him. If a reader says he loves a story, it is those discoveries he loves, discoveries he may attribute to the writer, but for which he is ultimately responsible.

Yet that journey begins where only the writer can perceive it. Its value and potential are known only to the writer. The writer has made a discovery, you see. The writer has discovered a new love story, or a new adventure, or a new poem. The writer made this discovery in the idle dreaming of his days – picked up a magazine, or looked out the window, or overheard a conversation; and where one moment the writer was looking at the world, the next he was seeing the beginning of a story. A seed has found its soil.

A writer may experience the full pleasure of discovery before putting a single word to a page. As satisfying as this can be, the writer must be willing to transform his discovery to share it. The story must take a form everyone can see, so that everyone can have can have the opportunity to perceive its value. Sometimes it feels as if something is lost in this transformation, that the form our story takes is a pale shade of the rich discovery we made.

This is a trick of our eyes. That story began where even our eyes could not see it. Teachers help their students see what they have not yet seen, whether it is a mathematical formula, or a mother’s and daughter’s reconciliation. It is always a little mysterious why some students easily see what others do not, but what we writers discover is mysterious as well. The best discoveries always feel as if they were right in front of us our whole lives. How, we wonder, could we not have seen them? It does not matter. Life, everyone’s first teacher, showed us, and now can’t stop looking at it until it is a story everyone can see.

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

Inner Critic

Some writers embrace criticism, and some do not. When I spoke to Wally Lamb, he shared with me that he is a member of three writing groups, all of whom read and critique his work. Meanwhile, Louis Sachar shares not one shred of what he is writing with anyone – except the title – until the book is completely finished. I was once on a panel with Deb Caletti, Megan Chance, and Jennie Shortridge, all of whom described the outrage they first experience upon receiving a red-gashed manuscript back from their beloved editors. Compare this to N. D. Wilson who craves the “resistance” an editor’s feedback provides, without which he feels his work grows soft.

It is easy for me to become disoriented when the horns of criticism begin blaring in my ear. I write to hear myself, after all; why am I listening to these other people? Yet what is writing but sifting through thoughts until I find one that serves the story I am trying to tell? And what is a criticism but a thought that comes from someone else? Regardless of where it comes from, every thought must in the end be put to the same test—namely, measured against the shape of the story to understand if it fits.

Which is why criticism is so much more useful than how it might or might not strengthen my story. I cannot be reminded often enough of the difference between the thoughts that blow ceaselessly through my mind, and me. How often I have mistaken one for the other, and in that instant my wellbeing feels as transient as a word waiting beneath an uncertain eraser. I remember who I am the moment that word is gone and I awaken to find myself holding the pencil.

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

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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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Little Altars

When I was twenty, I tried reading James Joyce’s Ulysses for the first time. Ulysses is a big book where not a lot happens. I didn’t get very far that first time because I mistook it for a novel, when really, it is a 600-page poem. Still, I liked what I did manage to read. In fact I liked what I read because not a lot happened. In Joyce’s fictional world, nothing was inconsequential; everything, from pear soap to shaving cream to a daydream, was worthy of being rendered in complete and loving detail.

I found this inspiring. Not a lot seemed to be happening in my life then. I drank coffee, I hung out with my friends, I took walks, I tended bar. The parts of one day seemed interchangeable with the parts of the next. And yet, even within these quiet days, if my attention settled completely on the coffee or the conversation or the street I was crossing, I could feel the value and poignancy of life as completely as when I won a race or when then the girl I loved said goodbye.

But because I was still a young writer, I had put Joyce on a kind of artistic altar. He had done what only a chosen few could manage. While any moment in any city at any time could serve as a portal through which to glimpse life’s inherent beauty, not anyone could render what they viewed through that portal. Sometimes when I tried and failed to do so, I despaired, not just because I might lack that which was called talent, but because I feared that what I hoped to share didn’t actually exist. I’d imagined it. What Joyce showed me was just his genius, which belonged to him alone and could not be shared.

I would eventually reread Ulysses, and quite enjoy it, until I reached a particularly experimental chapter and had to give up. I felt as if I were translating a foreign text, and I lost interest. I did not, however, lose interest in writing about all those little moments that felt so valuable to me. In fact, Ulysses still served as a kind of inspiration. It was, after all, a story about the heroic in the everyday. I had to take Joyce off the altar on which I’d placed him, and put life on that altar instead. Now I could see more clearly what I was trying to render, and now it belonged to everyone, including me.

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

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Wine Story

The wine critic Robert Parker is supposed to have said, “Twenty years of experience can go out the door with a brown paper bag.” By which he meant you might think you know how to taste a wine when you can read the label, when you know how old it is and who made it and where the grapes came from—when, in essence, you know the wine’s story. But then taste that wine when you can’t see the label, when all you know is that you have a red wine or a white wine. Then you’re really tasting it, just the wine, not the story of the wine.

One night when I was waiting tables a man and his date sat in my section. The man was rich, and his date was fifteen years younger than he and beautiful. He was not so beautiful. First he ordered a bottle of Dom Perignon, at a $120 a pop, just to get things started.

“And I want you to get a bottle of Penfolds Grange breathing.”

“The Grange?” I said, just to be sure.

“The Grange,” he confirmed.

This was the most expensive bottle we had on the menu, which at that time was around $350. Penfolds Grange was an Australian Shiraz whose 1994 vintage was named Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator. It was, in wine parlance, a huge wine, meaning rich, full of tannin, and packing a fruity wallop in your mouth. It was the kind of wine that needed air to release the tannins, and it was also the kind of wine, not made so much anymore, that needed a few years to lay down, to let all those huge flavors coalesce and relax. I don’t know how wine does this, but it does.

I opened the Grange. He was very excited just to see the bottle. He told his date about it. She was very impressed. After it had breathed for a while he told me to get a glass. Tom, my manager and a very astute taster, was summoned as well. The man happily poured us each a taste and we toasted and raised our glasses to our lips.

“What do you think?” he asked, beaming. He was doing it, you see. He was actually drinking Penfolds Grange!

“Delicious,” I said.

“Isn’t it?” he said. “God. I could die happy right now.”

Tom and I thanked him again for the taste and took the rest of our wine back to the waiter’s station. Tom looked at me for a moment.

“It’s horrible,” he said.

“Yep,” I said. “Green as a Granny Smith apple.”

The wine was so in need of laying down, was so sour and tight, that it was virtually undrinkable. I had tasted green wines before, but nothing this green.

“Should we tell him?” I asked.

“Why?” asked Tom. “He’s loving it.”

That he was. He cooed over very drop. And for years afterward he and his lovely date would be able to tell the story of the night they drank the most delicious wine they had ever had in their life.

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

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Whole Story

I was watching the mini-series The People vs. OJ Simpson the other night, and there was one character in particular I was looking forward to seeing. Not OJ, or Johnnie Cochran, or Robert Shapiro, though they were all very well portrayed. I’d become familiar with them while I followed that bizarre trial with the rest of America. No, the character I wanted to see was the prosecuting attorney Marcia Clark. I had recently learned something about Clark that changed my perception of her as well as, in certain of ways, everyone associated with the trial.

You see I’d had a chance to interview Marcia Clark on my show Author2Author a few months ago. Clark is now a suspense novelist. Prior to our conversation, I knew, of course, about her surprise celebrity and that she’d published a book about the trial and then went on to write fiction. I assumed she’d written the book about the trial because that’s what a lot of people do when they are a part of something so sensational, and then, perhaps because of the unwanted exposure of the trial, decided that practicing law was just too complicated and so made the switch to novels, capitalizing, to some degree, on her name.

I was wrong about that. Early in the interview Clark revealed that since she’d been a girl her dream had been to be a novelist. But, like a lot of smart, academically inclined, hardworking, ambitious people, she was worried about the uncertainty of the writer’s life, and so chose to pursue the law. What’s more, once she made the switch to novelist, her name was more of liability than an asset. Like me, a lot of people assumed she wasn’t really a writer, just a curious celebrity looking for more outlets.

As I watched The People Vs. OJ Simpson and Marcia’s character appeared on screen, what I saw was an aspiring novelist working a high-paying, high-profile day job. I saw the childhood she described briefly to me, and the career waiting for her. And then Marcia would begin talking to Christopher Darden, or Robert Shapiro, and I realized I had written a story in my mind about those characters as well.

I have to admit that my backstories about the other characters weren’t particularly kind. I disliked the OJ trial with all its racial overtones and scandal, a dislike that had seeped into my perception of all those associated with it. All those, that is, except one. For a moment, I found myself wishing I could know every character’s true backstory, all the surprising choices from childhood forward that had led them to that place and time. Barring this, I would have to settle for the understanding that everyone’s complete story is always kinder than what I can imagine.

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

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

News of the Day

For about ten years starting in my late twenties I became a news devotee. On Sundays I would sit with the New York Times and scour the Book Review, and the magazine, and the Week in Review, and Op Ed, and the front page. If you had asked me, I would have told you I wanted to know “what happened.”

Of course “what happened” had never happened to me directly; in all my years of New York Times reading never once did I read about the comings and goings of Bill Kenower, which seems like a missed opportunity on their part. In any case, I’m sure I would have been disappointed if my life ever had been reported on. I’m sure I would have read it and thought, “But that’s not what really happened.” As every writer eventually learns, what really happened, happened inside of me. What I – or our characters – think and feel about an event is the event. That is all that matters.

Which brings me back to why I was actually reading the New York Times. I wasn’t trying to find out what happened; I was trying to find out who agreed with me and who disagreed with me. When I found a writer or the subject of a story who agreed with me, I felt as though I could rest, for the world needed no correction. When I found someone who disagreed with me, I felt uncomfortable, for now the world needed correction.

On and on it went. The world, I observed, was in constant disagreement, and no sooner did we grow tired of disagreeing about one thing than we began disagreeing about another. The child in me was waiting for all the grownups to come to a firm decision. By and by I had to put the paper down and accept that I was one of those adults and see if I could come to an agreement with myself.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter