Already There

If you have ever birthed, held, or simply beheld a newborn child, you have glimpsed the curious simplicity of perfection. This is what we say of newborn children: She is perfect. He is perfect. To view a newborn child as perfect is effortless. To view a newborn child as imperfect requires an effort of mind, an effort that brings no reward other than to sustain the lie that something is imperfect because of what it can or cannot do.

Because the newborn child can do virtually nothing. The newborn child cannot talk or laugh or smile or sit up or walk or write a novel. The newborn child is helpless and without skill. And still we see it as perfect. We see it as perfect even as it begins to change. One moment it can only lie on its back, the next it can sit up. The child was perfect when it couldn’t sit up, and it was perfect when it could.

This reality runs in exactly the opposite direction of one of humanity’s most common and revered ideas: that we must seek perfection. We seek it through hard work, through better government, through therapy, and then through more hard work. We work and work to perfect what we do, because what we do is what we are, and the more perfect our work, the more perfect ourselves.

At what point did we cease to be perfect? At one? At thirteen? At twenty-one? When was this threshold of imperfection crossed? How is a newborn more perfect than its mother? And yet it is easier to see the newborn as perfect because it has not yet begun to describe itself as imperfect. This it will learn to do by and by.

I love to do stuff, I love to make stuff and show it to other people and have other people show me the stuff they made. This is part of the fun of being human. But to seek perfection in my work is to deny its existence. To seek it is to suggest it is not already there. Our skill does not increase our perfection, does not bring us any closer to perfection. Like the newborn, it merely expands where perfection will go.

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!
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Permanent Student

One of the best teachers I’ve ever met is a Hindu Swami named Radanath. He sat with me one day while I was waiting to introduce him at his book signing and he listened attentively while I told him story after story. I told him about how Beethoven was deaf when he wrote his 9th symphony, about thinking my cat had been killed, about how writing is like prayer sometimes.

I’d heard him lecture and I considered him a master teacher. He ran an ashram in India that ministered to 10,000 people. He had been invited to speak all over the world. And yet he sat during my stories and listened and smiled and asked me for more stories. When we were done he said, “Thank you. That was excellent teaching.”

This meant a lot to me, but I will never forget the quality of his attention while he listened and I “taught.” Even as I was telling my stories, I was thinking, “When you can listen as well as that, you will be a master teacher too.” That was where his true teaching mastery lay, in the humility and curiosity of his eternal student’s heart.

I’ve learned a lot about writing. I’ve put in my 10,000 hours and then some. And I’ve learned a lot about people – in my writing, in my day-to-day life, in my interviews. Yet the more I learn, the more I must remember to frame every experience as learning. Most of all, as a writer, I must remember to replace the concept of perfection with learning, to replace the concept of failure with learning, and to replace even the concept of success with learning.

It is the most effortless relationship to life. How monstrously overwhelming to think I could or will or must know it all. To believe such a fiction is to live in the despair of permanent failure. Meanwhile, life is ceaselessly learning about itself. We call this evolution. When I accept my role as student, even while teaching, I am living what is actually happening. When I forget, I feel like a fraud, leading a party by a map I have never learned to read.

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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Already There

If you have ever birthed, held, or simply beheld a newborn child, you have glimpsed the curious simplicity of perfection. This is what we say of newborn children: She is perfect. He is perfect. To view a newborn child as perfect is effortless. To view a newborn child as imperfect requires an effort of mind, an effort that brings no reward other than to sustain the lie that something is imperfect because of what it can or cannot do.

Because the newborn child can do virtually nothing. The newborn child cannot talk or laugh or smile or sit up or walk or write a novel. The newborn child is helpless and without skill. And still we see it as perfect. We see it as perfect even as it begins to change. One moment it can only lie on its back, the next it can sit up. The child was perfect when it couldn’t sit up, and it was perfect when it could.

This reality runs in exactly the opposite direction of one of humanity’s most common and revered ideas: that we must seek perfection. We seek it through hard work, through better government, through therapy, and then through more hard work. We work and work to perfect what we do, because what we do is what we are, and the more perfect our work, the more perfect ourselves.

At what point did we cease to be perfect? At one? At thirteen? At twenty-one? When was this threshold of imperfection crossed? How is a newborn more perfect than its mother? And yet it is easier to see the newborn as perfect because it has not yet begun to describe itself as imperfect. This it will learn to do by and by.

I love to do stuff, I love to make stuff and show it to other people and have other people show me the stuff they made. This is part of the fun of being human. But to seek perfection in my work is to deny its existence. To seek it is to suggest it is not already there. Our skill does not increase our perfection, does not bring us any closer to perfection. Like the newborn, it merely expands where perfection will go.

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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Chasing Perceptions

While I was visiting Northern California last week I met a friend whom I have known online but never in person. Not long into our conversation she mentioned how disorienting she found my appearance. “You look like an ex-jock who went to Yale and then had every advantage in life. You look like you could be Mitt Romney’s son.”

For the record, I am an ex-jock, or an ex-athlete as I like to think of it. The rest of it, however, not true. But the perception is understandable. I am one of the most traditional looking men you will ever meet. If I had continued to pursue acting I would have been cast as a faithfully married doctor on a soap opera. I am even a Taurus, whose primary trait is dependability. How dull, how workmanlike, how traditional.

In high school, I had to keep reminding my teachers I wanted to be a writer. When they looked at me they saw a television news anchor or a politician. This worried me a little. Was this shell of mine a truly accurate reflection of what lay within it? In many ways, it was. At that time I had secretly harbored the belief that one was either perfect or broken, with nothing in between. Given these choices, I would do all I could to be perfect. Why, there were days I felt like I could almost pull this off – but oh, the days when I absolutely couldn’t.

It is a hard way to live, and an equally hard way to write. One of the gifts this column has given me is the understanding that perfection is impossible and unnecessary. Because I had to write one every day, I made the decision to abandon perfection within the essays. Freed from this burden, I wrote as well as I have ever written.

Perfection had always been elusive, after all. It was like a shadow of a unicorn I was chasing through the forest. It’s hard to describe it honestly in words if you never really see it. But if all I had to do was the best I could do that day – this I understood. This was right before me. I could stop chasing and look around me. To my surprise, I quite liked what I saw. This would do. This looked like me.

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

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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Perfection

I have come down with a case of Olympic Fever, finding myself pinned to the couch to see if the women’s water polo team will win their preliminary match against China, and if so by how much because point differential matters. I cannot turn off the beach volleyball, or the synchronized diving, or the rowing, and now that track and field has begun I must give up all pretense of living life as I would normally live it.

Within me, of course, there still lives a young athlete who trained daily so that I might come in first. Sometimes when you came in first you were given a ribbon or a trophy, or in very big races, a gold medal. The simplicity of one’s objective in sports is clarifying. Moreover, the unique drama of the starting line, the hushed severity of the officials, validated the hours of tedious repetition needed to perfect what was ultimately a simple task.

Watching the runners, my wife asked me if I missed it and I admitted I did not. I do not miss coming in first or second or third or fourth. I quit running when I understood that winning or losing did not actually matter to me any more. At that time, I had begun writing in earnest, had begun to glimpse what the artist in me longed for and which was mysteriously accessible through written words.

There, for me, was the actual gold, and no medal would ever match it. And yet I love to watch these athletes. I love their desire for elusive perfection. I love the singularity of their focus, their camaraderie, their mastery. Humans are such beautiful creatures when they care about what they are doing. It is hard to watch them sometimes when they do not win their medal, when they stand at the finish line in exhausted disappointment, the blank question of their face as they trying to reassemble the meaning of all they have worked for.

I know that look so well. It asks, “Why is it I feel gold within me but do not see it in my hand?” It is a question every human is born to ask, and it is all our desire to understand the perfection of the empty hand.

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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Heresy

During the one writing class I took as an adult, our professor instructed us to read and analyze The Great Gatsby as if it were a manuscript we had just been handed by our classmates. In other words, take the novel down off the shelf where canonized works are preserved and see it for what it was – a story written by a human being, a professional writer, who did not know at the time he had penned The Great American Novel.

That was the plan anyway, but what followed was two weeks of serialized extolling of Fitzgerald’s literary perfection. Admittedly, I wasn’t entirely opposed to this. I quite liked the book on a number of levels, and I found the concept of literary perfection appealing. After all, if the reading world could agree that Fitzgerald had been perfect – for one book at least – why not Kenower? What a tempting destination, Perfection. There and there alone could I stand protected from the arrows of criticism, whose repeated sting, I was certain, had forced me into a bunker of my own design.

This class was my first tentative step out of that bunker. I suppose it was for this reason I found myself bristling during one of our Gatsby sessions. We had come to the scene where Gatsby is showing Daisy and Nick around his mansion and begins showering them with his silken, multi-colored shirts. As the shirts rain down on Daisy, she clutches at one and says breathlessly, “They’re just so beautiful.”

This moment posed a problem for the class. Daisy’s remarks seemed a bit melodramatic and out of sync with the rest of the scene. The instructor and my classmates began floating theories explaining why Daisy’s remarks were as perfect as the rest of the book. It was at this time that I recalled our supposed purpose in reading Gatsby. I raised my hand to join the discussion.

“Maybe,” I offered, “it was a just a choice he made that really didn’t work but that he and Perkins left in because at the time they thought it did work.”

My remark was met with silence from my classmates and a confused stare from my instructor. I let the matter drop. Though I never took a poll, I would have bet we were a devoutly secular bunch in that class. Yet we weren’t. We had traded in one religion and its pantheon of saints for another. It wasn’t until that moment that I understood how accidental and benign heresy was. Sometimes without intending to you slip and perceive your own divinity through the cracks of our necessarily imperfect creations.

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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Nothing Is Broken

My brother married his first wife when he was much too young. It was one of those situations where the rest of the family sensed the marriage was a bad idea from the get go but decided silently amongst ourselves to let John figure that out for himself. Predictably, it didn’t take long for things to start going sideways. A year or two in he shared some of the troubles with me in a long phone conversation. A week later it was his birthday and during my annual well-wishing call I asked how things were with his wife.

“We had a couple drinks and hashed things out and everything is better now,” he explained.

Oh, how smug I felt knowing that everything was not in fact all better. But I should know. I have often felt the lure of that drug that is, “Now everything is all better.” I do not mean to insinuate that nothing ever gets better. Quite the opposite, as I wrote a few days ago.  But the idea that I can fix my book, or my marriage, or myself assumes that things are broken to begin with.

No one is broken. Not one person on the planet. Ideas are broken – that is, they lead you away from where you naturally want to travel, which is always towards love – but people themselves are not broken.  The only thing wrong with my brother’s relationship to his wife was that he shouldn’t have been married to her. Once they divorced, their relationship found its true form – polite, cordial, and in different cities.

And so on it goes. Stories aren’t broken, they just haven’t found their full form, or their true author. Sometimes stories come to us but we aren’t the ones meant to tell them, and so back they go into the communal story stew. I understand this is a trick of perception, but it’s a trick worth learning. Everything you do is an idea, a possibility, and all ideas are expendable. No matter how many ideas you try out and dispose, no matter how many roads lead to dry valleys, you remain intact as ever before, a perfect light seeking its fullest form.

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

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Forge Ahead

I was reminded again of how impressed I am by carpenters as I watched two young men install my new kitchen cabinets.  What agonizing precision. I listened to them going back and forth about 1/16 of an inch and thought, “How?  How can you possibly get it right?  Sneeze and the whole thing is wonky.”

The lead carpenter was a very meticulous fellow. I could tell it as soon as he shook my hand. He was the kind of man who would never rest until everything was lined up exactly and without a centimeter’s discrepancy. He said to me at one point about my refrigerator, “Everything will be fine. You’ve got easily 1/8 of an inch to spare.” To him, 1/8 of an inch was a gap wide enough to fall through.

But I worried for this young man. Watching him, I wondered if he believed nothing would work out if it were 1/8 of an inch off. I’ve certainly been through that in my writing, especially toward the end of a project. Here, I’m getting down to the tiny details; here, I’m toiling over a ten-word sentence in the middle of a 100,000-word novel. As I work and work that sentence, I begin believing that if it doesn’t come out right, the whole book is shot.

In carpentry, this is somewhat the case. If one cabinet is 1/16 of an inch off, all the cabinets are 1/16 of an inch off, and eventually you may have more cabinet than kitchen. Obviously, this is not so in a novel. But let us not demonize this eagle-eyed carpenter/writer for his narrow demand on one sentence. Within that absurd focus is a desire for accuracy. The belief that the entire novel hangs in the balance is a mirage, the product of fear and fatigue at the end of a long journey. But often the stuff we can’t seem to get right is a sign of where we’re headed.

Often, what is so confounding is not that our skill and desire has abandoned us, but that somewhere in our artist’s psyche a new desire has hatched, the route to which we have yet to discover. And so, what would have sufficed yesterday seems cheap and dull today. Rejoice! You have lifted your head to view the horizon and determined that where you are will no longer do. What other pleasure is there for an explorer like you than to know there are more paths to forge?

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