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.

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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

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.

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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

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.

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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

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.

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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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

New Life

For several years in a row we grew sunflowers in our backyard. The sunflower is an impressive plant in full bloom, and from time to time I would wonder how I would render into words what I felt when I beheld them. We eventually bought a print of “Sunflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh and hung it in our living room. It seemed to me that Van Gogh had rendered with paint what I would have liked to render with words.

As I understand it, there are painters who replicate the works of The Masters, sometimes to be sold as expensive forgeries. Their technique is so refined that it generally takes an expert in the imitated artist’s work to tell whether a painting is a forgery or the real thing.

Whenever I hear artists, whether painters or writers or composers, discussing craft or technique I think of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and these highly skilled replicators. If a work of art were only a work of craft, of technique, why would anyone with such skill bother imitating what someone has already painted? Since you have the same skill as the masters, why bother with forgery?

The answer, of course, is that Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” was not a product of technique. Van Gogh perceived the beauty of the sunflowers within himself and translated this perception to the canvas. The technique aided greatly in this translation, but first and foremost came the perception. Moreover, after the perception and before the translation came the willingness to share what was neither Van Gogh’s nor the flowers’ but a marriage of the two.

This is not such a simple choice. The forger already knows how the world will receive what he is replicating. Van Gogh did not have this luxury before he dipped his brush. Such is the price you pay when creating something new. Technique without original perception is as dead as a hammer. Technique in service to perception can bring anything to life.

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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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Balancing Act

Writing can happen in one place and one place only: The Present Moment. It cannot happen in the past, though we might – while in the present moment – focus our attention upon some past event for inspiration or material. But the writing itself happens in the present moment. And of course it can’t happen in the future, that sometimes near, sometimes very distant land where the story we’re writing will live when it’s finished. All creation happens in the present moment, because that is all that actually exists.

I have to remind myself of this every time I sit down to write. How easy to let my attention drift into the past, where I believe all my failures reside. Failure always lives in the past, in whose shadows, like a moss, it can thrive. In the bright hot light of the present moment – in which life is only potential, in which life is only forgiving, in which life is only curious – the concept of failure has no purchase for its hopeless roots.

And how equally easy to let my attention drift into the future, where I believe the value of what I am creating in the present moment will be revealed. I don’t want to waste my time, after all. Why write something that no one wants to read? To ask such a question is to hold my stories hostage until such time as the ransom of other people’s approval has been paid.

Which is why I have learned to ask myself two questions while I write: What do I want to say? And, Have I said it? Only the present moment can answer these questions. But keeping my attention where it needs and actually wants to be is a kind of balancing act, pulled as I am to the past and future. Drift too far either way and I will fall. No matter. The support of the present moment remains ever true, and I need only return to standing to find myself where I have always been.

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

Dream World

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

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

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

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

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Seeing the World

For many years I looked at the world and believed nothing existed there for me until I made it. The world as I perceived it was a thing already made, and I was a creator, and until my creations took hold, nothing in the world belonged to me. I did not particularly like this arrangement, but what could I do? Questioning this reality would have been like questioning gravity, and one step off a bridge would answer that question for you in a hurry.

No matter, soon what I had planted would grow, and when that happened I would see the beautiful and friendly world I frequently imagined. And so I planted and waited and planted and waited, but I perceived no growth. The world spun on indifferently, changing with every season yet remaining dependably immune to my seeds.

The world grew uglier with every day that my seeds did not flower. It grew so ugly that I began to hate it and wasn’t sure if I even wanted my lovely creations to grow here. This was not a happy position from which to create anything. I wonder, I asked myself one very dark night, if there is a different position from which to view this world?

You have to ask such a question before you can begin looking for the answer, and as soon as I began looking, I began to see. I saw the same buildings and sky, listened to the same conversations and music, lived in the same house, was married to the same woman, but I saw a different world. I even began to see the saplings of all that I’d planted. I did not care for a lot them, and so cut some down and stopped watering others. Now I have something to write about, I thought. Now I don’t have to create the world, only share 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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Seeing Beauty

When I was a teenager I was a passionate fan of music, movies, and novels. I could not, however, have been less interested in politics. This was in the late 70s and early 80s, a time still very much influenced by the upheaval of the 60s, particularly in the arts. Art and politics had gotten all tangled up in the 60s. It sometimes seemed that the job of a serious artist was to call for societal change.

I disliked this supposed mandate because I wanted to be a serious artist, but I had no desire to demand, march, or argue for change. I wanted to create stuff that left people feeling as good as I felt after I read a book, listened to a song, or watched a movie I loved. One day I found myself a reading a review of the Talking Heads album “Speaking in Tongues.” I loved this album. So did the reviewer.

However, this reviewer was particularly pleased to see that David Byrne, the band’s founder and songwriter, had clearly evolved artistically. “He’s even starting to drop in some social commentary!” she wrote. Oh, I was mad. Isn’t it enough to make something beautiful? Do you also have to tell everyone what they must do differently for the world to be a beautiful place?

I’m much older now, and my opinion of the relationship between art and politics has changed. No, I still don’t like to mix the two together. I feel about this division the way I do about the division of church and state. But I am more aware of the difference between the ugliness of how people sometimes treat one another, and the beauty of the art people are capable of creating. How much nicer it would be to read a newspaper and be as uplifted as when I read my favorite novel or poem.

But beauty, you may have heard, is in the eye of the beholder, which is as true of newspapers as it is of paintings, poems, and people. If it’s beauty I want, I must choose to look for it everywhere. And if it’s beauty I wish to share in my work, then I must see that beauty before I can render it in a story. The world, or society, can’t give me that beauty, that truth, that equality. I must learn to see it for myself.

I like this job, though I sometimes complain that the world is doing all it can to make my job more difficult. There are days I look out my window and do not like what I see: darkness and cruelty born of the blindness of hatred. Fortunately, blindness can be a temporary affliction. It is only a consequence of looking in the wrong place for what I want. The moment I turn my attention to beauty’s source, I see it everywhere. The veil we sometimes cast over it is transparent to the eye attuned to what moves us all.

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