Giving and Receiving

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve recently spent more time than usual following politics. Listening to politicians reminds me of watching a skillfully written stage drama. The best dialogue always has the characters saying one thing and meaning another. The husband might say he’s angry with his wife for overcooking the broccoli, when really, he’s upset because he believes she doesn’t respect him.

With politics, all the arguments and accusations about taxes and regulations and jobs stems from the eternal, persistent, uncomfortable fact that some people have more money than other people. This bothers nearly everybody. If you don’t have as much of it as you want, you might view those who have more with deep and bitter suspicion; and if you do have more of it, you might believe that those who have less spend all their days plotting how to take yours from you.

Unfortunately, no tax code or regulation will ever cure humanity of envy and greed. Because neither the “haves” or “have-nots” actually care about money; they just want to be happy and have mistaken money for the source of that happiness. I have made this mistake myself, though not so much with money. As a writer, I envied other writers who received more attention than I had – attention from other people, that is. Attention in the form of sales, of reviews, of crowds at their readings. These things looked to me like love and appreciation. Who would not be happier with more love and more appreciation?

I was correct that those writers I envied had received more attention than I; I was just incorrect about the source of that attention. I began to see my own sales, and reviews, and crowds when I gave myself my full attention. Everything I value in my life grew from giving my full attention to what interests me most, for no other reason other than it felt good to do so. That is the magic formula for success.

Of course, one can rid oneself of greed and envy as quickly as changing one’s mind. It’s always slower when you bring more people into the equation. I must remind myself of this as I marinate in the simmering pot of daily news. Everyone wants to be happy. Many, many of us aren’t. How loud we all get when we’re unhappy, and how tempted we are to blame other people for that unhappiness. Meanwhile, what is calling to each of us waits patiently for our attention, waits for us to give so that we might in turn receive.

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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Eyes on the Road

I have been spending way more time reading and watching political news these days than I normally do. I feel a little guilty about this, the way I do when I gawk at an accident as I’m driving by. But I’m human, and if the scene is particularly compelling, it is hard to keep my eyes on where I want to go. In fact, one night, many years ago, I was biking home from work and became distracted by the swirling lights and dented steel of a recent head-on collision – and crashed square into a tree.

Politics, as necessary as it is, often reminds me of my bike accident. Just as accidents can cause more accidents, animosity – the bent fenders of political debate – usually breeds more animosity. And sometimes not merely animosity, but full-blown hatred. I see it in others as they march and hold their signs and demand answers, and I feel it in myself as I wonder about the nefarious motives of certain players in this gaudy, historic drama.

Hatred can sometimes serve as the first, hot, alarm-bell impulse to do something. It’s true in politics and it’s true in writing. Reading or watching or listening to something I profoundly dislike can be just the motivation I need to write something I like. What I like is always on the opposite side of what I dislike, just as what I love is always on the opposite side of what I believe I hate.

Except I don’t really hate anything. What I have come to call hatred is just the natural consequence of seeing something I disagree with, something whose very opposite I would prefer to be looking at, and then continuing to stare at it and stare it and stare at it until I crash into a tree. When I feel like I hate something, I am listening to the same guidance system that tells me which words, scenes, and characters belong in a story and which do not, only it is speaking very, very loudly. If I knew I didn’t want a particular scene in my story, but I kept reading it and rereading it and rereading it, I’d eventually come to hate that scene as if it were my sworn enemy.

Which is why I have to remember to turn off the news. When I start hating people, it’s time to lift my head and look where I’m going. Travelling my road does not require me to argue with all the roads I don’t travel. Those roads are inconsequential to my journey, even while they are certainly vital to someone else’s. Though it requires me to ignore much of what is going on around me, the choice to look where I want to go is the very opposite of putting my head in the sand. It is the choice to open my eyes to the life I wish to lead, rather than the one others are leading.

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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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.

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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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A Little Truth

If I were asked whether I was for or against mixing art and politics, I would have to say “against.” Wait! Before you stop reading this column completely and forever, let me explain.

Politics reminds me of the discussions and arguments I have with my wife. In one way, these conversations, however heated, are about what is happening at exactly this moment – how I seemed to stop listening in the middle of her story, how we always have the same things for dinner – and in another way they have absolutely nothing to do with what is happening at exactly that moment.

I have never had an argument with my wife that was not about the past, about a story we began telling ourselves about life long ago that neither of us liked, but we both felt required to keep telling if we were going to be good human beings. When we are arguing, we are really just saying, “Do we have keep telling this crap story? I don’t want to keep telling it, do you?” The argument ends when we both agree we can stop telling it, if only for the time being.

Art, meanwhile, is the end of the argument. Art’s arrow is aimed toward the truth that the argument was and is an illusion. Art creates arguments called stories so we can feel the truth of peace against the lie of war. For this reason, I have always turned to art to remind me what is true – not who is right.

Which reminds me of the rule my wife came up with the first year we were together: no one wins. That is, neither of us was allowed to win an argument. No one can create an argument by himself, and so the argument is never over until we both see how we contributed equally to it. I loved this rule, and have lived happily by it with her ever since. Arguments, in this way, are not competition, but a search for the truth, and the truth is always that we love each other.

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
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Just Cause

I was almost entirely apolitical until I was 26. I disliked everything about politics. There was the conspicuous phoniness, the hyperbole, the competitiveness, and the consistent low burning reek of corruption from which neither party seemed immune. All of this was bad enough, but above all there was the hostility. Everyone seemed to simply hate everyone on the other team, and since politics was where society was supposed to work together to solve its problems, I found little solace in the tenor of political debate.

And then in 1991 I heard Dan Quayle say something about “family values,” which sounded just a bit too Orwellian even for my pallet, and I became political. I read The New York Times, I watched Sunday news programs, and I cheered for my team and complained about the fools across the aisle. It brought me a lot of misery, frankly, but I am glad I did it. Before, I was scared of politics; eventually I learned that politics was as human as any endeavor as any on earth. Though it would be funny to say otherwise, humans do not actually scare me.

Over the last five years – since I started this magazine, in fact – my daily intake of political news has dropped precipitously. I thought of this Tuesday when I spoke with Erica Bauermeister on Author2Author. Erica likes to write from numerous characters’ points of view, an approach that quickly becomes a discipline of empathy. The writer, she pointed out, must love all her characters equally, regardless of whether she would agree with them or not.

I want all the world’s problems solved as much as anyone else, but not at the expense of empathy. In fact, it has been my observation that humanity suffers most when it disregards its natural and powerful impulse toward empathy. To do otherwise, even in the name of justice and equality, is to deny what we actually are. It is this choice—the denial, not the insults or injuries or injustice but the denial of self that is a withholding of empathy—that inflicts the pain we regularly attribute to outside causes.

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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Platforms

Although I enjoy speaking to crowds, I think I would make a lousy politician. The popularity contest that is an election would bring out my most craven qualities, and I would end up like a writer changing his story’s ending for every reader. Still, this hasn’t prevented me from developing my own bipartisan platform, which, lacking a convention, I will share with you now:

First, conservatives always preach the importance of self-reliance, and so would I. The finest people in the world to hang around with are those who best understand that they alone are responsible for their own wellbeing. If I think you can do or say something that will make me unhappy, then I must control you, mustn’t I? After all, I only want to be happy, to be at peace, and if you can gum that up somehow, then you’ve got to be dealt with. Plus, have you ever tried to make someone happy? It’s exhausting and frustrating. No matter how beautifully you sing, no matter how funny your jokes are, that other person can still choose to be unhappy. Completely ungrateful, but there it is.

Meanwhile, liberals preach the power of community and shared responsibility, and so would I. The only true form of self-reliance is love. In fact, all we ever rely on for our happiness is love, which arrives as soon as it is asked for. Love defies the laws of physics; it has no cause and effect—it simply is.

Moreover, as James Joyce noted, “Love loved loves to love.” This is an economical expression of the unique physics of love. In the material world, if I give you a dollar, I have one less dollar; if I give you my coat, I have one less coat. In the world of love, the moment I give love I have more love. We can only ever want more love, it is impossible for us to want less of it, and so if you understand that you have love, you will be in a constant search for a means to share love.

I don’t know how this would translate into policy – either foreign or tax – but it would be the only platform upon which I could honestly stand. I have heard, however, that writers are now encouraged to seek platforms from which to share their work. I’m not sure if the aforementioned is what publishers are referring to. They probably mean something more like an online magazine, to which I say: Same thing.

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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Adventures In Politics

I was a freshman in college and my inaugural assignment for the school newspaper was to cover the bi-weekly meeting of the student congress. I had no experience with politics to that point, I had not even voted in so much as a school board election, and my first thought after the gavel had sounded was, “What is wrong with these people?”

Everyone was very upset with someone. Everyone was shouting as if they were defending their right to shout. Everyone, that is, except Tipper, the Student Body President. Tipper was a young Republican type with a banker’s hairdo and an eerily unflappable disposition that suggested he knew more than he should. No matter how loudly the mustachioed liberal from the Economics department bellowed at him, Tipper only blinked and tapped his pen on the tabletop.

I asked to be taken off that assignment, but politics would find its way into even the holy House of Creative Writing. I received a call from a stranger who had heard on good reports that I was a writer. Did I want to join the newly forming school literary journal? Why, yes I did. He told me his name and said I should mention that he had sent me when I attended the planning meeting to be held the following week. He repeated that it was important that I mention his name.

The small room where the meeting was to be held was crowded when I arrived. Soon a young woman appeared in the doorway. She was dressed all in black. This was at a time when young women were dressing mostly in bright colors and leg warmers. The woman in black looked unhappy. She said, “So you’re all writers?”

We muttered that we were, but this only upset her further. She marched straight to me. “So you’re a writer?”

I reaffirmed that I was indeed a writer. I told her who had sent me. She actually rolled her eyes at me. I was confused. She was so certain I wasn’t a writer that I began to doubt it myself.

It was then that my benefactor arrived. I recognized him as one of those men from the congress, one who had mostly been screamed at. Now the woman in black was screaming at him. She said that she knew what he was up to. She waved her finger at me and the other fake writers and said she knew he had recruited us only so that he could take over the literary journal. Money was somehow involved. I had to admit that he looked a bit like someone who would hatch such a nefarious scheme.

I snuck out and made my way back to my dorm room and to my mirror. Did I really look that unlike a writer? I had been told once I looked like a sincere politician. I blinked and reminded myself vaguely of Tipper. I stepped quickly away from the mirror. “What is wrong with me?” I thought. I did not know then that this was the worst question you could ever ask yourself.

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

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Some Have It Thrust Upon Them

When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher had the temerity to suggest I enter politics. I looked at her as if she had recommended I become a porn star. Didn’t we all agree that politics was for soulless ladder-climbers? This teacher, who was prone to melodrama, winced at my response and cried, “But if not young men like you, Bill, then who?  Who will lead us?”

I didn’t know, and I didn’t care. But the very fact that she had suggested I consider politics made me uneasy. At this time the other job for which my teachers agreed I was best suited was television news anchor. A news anchor, it seemed to me, had all the polished shallowness of a politician only without the pretense of convictions.

This was a strange time in my life. Adults were hurling accolades my way, all of which had to do with leadership, none of which had to do with writing. I was chosen to attend leadership conferences; I was given leadership awards. I was made the editor of the school newspaper, co-edited the yearbook, and read the news on the school radio. It was all very flattering, but also a little bewildering. I didn’t want to be a damn leader. I wanted to be a writer. Leave me alone.

Many years later I wrote a very autobiographical novel based loosely on the summer between my senior year in high school and my freshman year in college. I was very protective of this book, and was finding the submission process particularly difficult. At this time, my wife had taken to pulling “angel cards,” little cards inscribed with a single word, on whose meaning you were supposed to reflect. Whenever I pulled one, the card that came up most often was Leadership.

“Lead what?” I thought. I had told the world to leave me alone, and it had—quite completely. Now I found myself in the position of asking that same world to invite me back to the party. I sensed those angel cards were right. If not me, then who? Who could lead me back to the world but the one who had led me away from it?

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

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Anarchists

In the 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back, we see a very young Dylan in a limo having a review read to him. The reviewer calls Dylan an anarchist because he “doesn’t offer any solutions.” To which I thought at the time, “Yes, that’s exactly the point.”

Art’s strength is always the fertile open space afforded the audience. When I interviewed Yan Martel the other night, he described meeting a woman who was certain that his mega-bestseller Life of Pi was about the difficulties of marriage. Marriage hadn’t, in fact, been what he had in mind when he put a boy alone on a raft with a tiger, but if your metaphors are rich enough, readers easily supply their own meaning. Apparently, for this one reader, marriage was the tiger she had long been trying to tame.

This is why I have always found political art problematic. Despite the easy joke here, politics are about solutions—we may not always like the solutions, we may grow tired of the histrionics and talking-point-rhetoric that accompany those solutions, but the fact remains politics is the business of deciding exactly what to do next as a society. Bravo, I say, and thank God someone else wants to do it.

A human’s life always boils down to two questions: “What do I want to do?” and, “How will I do it?” Politics, and science also, deal largely with the second. Art, and religion in the broadest sense, try to answer the first. How does art help answer the first? By guiding us to that place where all authentic choices reside. You cannot do this by supplying solutions. No two people’s solutions to the question, “Whom do I love?” or, “What kind of book shall I write?” are precisely the same. Yet how those questions are answered authentically seems quite universal.

Perhaps that reviewer was right in a way. In the end, we all resist solutions provided by another. We may try them out, but eventually another person’s choices prove inadequate. This to me is the final stage of adulthood—complete responsibility. Only in taking responsibility for everything we think, everything we feel, everything that is our life itself, do we find the freedom that eludes us when we turn our happiness over to another, whether following some list of prescribed rules to prove that we are right, or crying victim to show how we were wronged.

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Politics As Usual

I indulged myself this morning and watched some of the recent conversation between Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly, and as often happens when I drink from the political talk Kool Aid, I wound up depressed and depleted. This is no criticism of the two men themselves – their back and forth was, as they say, spirited and, for my taste at least, refreshingly civil. Nor did either of them say anything that left me worried about the imminent demise of Western Culture or the free market or public education or whatever the worry of the day might be.

No, my brief despair was brought about by my own desire to see one of these two men proved wrong. What a lousy place to be. There are happy truisms, and then there are truisms you perhaps wish were only sometimes-truisms, for instance: Anything you do to another, you do to yourself. So as I wished for one man’s defeat, I was also wishing for my own.

When I was a senior in high school my English teacher suggested I go into politics. In response I looked at her as if she had suggested I open a bordello. But she was persistent. “If not you, Bill, then who will lead us?” I took this for the compliment it was intended, but worried that she secretly perceived a glaring character flaw, namely that I believed, “Yes everyone is right in their own way, but some of us are more right than others.”

The arts would be my oasis from this sort of poison. But that it were so simple. Sometimes listening to writers talk about other writers is like listening to a Republican talk about a Democrat (or visa-versa, of course). It is why I find the actual writing such a needed antidote. In order to even come close to saying what I want to say, I have to open my heart. I know what I write is not for everyone, but I sit down feeling as if it is. Everyone wants to love; everyone wants to thrive; everyone wants to live in peace. The gift of democracy, it occurs to me, is the people we don’t agree with. A tyrant would force us to get along, but in Democracy we must choose to do so—just as the writer must accept his rejection without hatred, just as the reader must accept the bestseller status of a novel she would never enjoy.

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