The Connecting Thread

My son Sawyer spent the better part of the first eleven years of his life talking almost exclusively to himself. He could talk to others; he just usually chose not to, a choice that led to a diagnosis of autism. It was always somewhat of a mystery to us why he mostly talked to himself – though, as a writer, I had my suspicions. These were confirmed recently when Sawyer, now eighteen, confessed, “When I was a kid I loved you and Mom, but I just didn’t want to deal with you.”

He was like every author I know in this way, which I’ll get back to in a moment. Sawyer is now very concerned about his future. Because he’s been homeschooled for the last six years, he’s not sure he’s adequately prepared for a successful adult life. Plus, there’s still the autism thing. The other day he asked, “Is there something wrong with my brain? Sometimes I just can’t seem to put my words together.”

“There’s nothing wrong with your brain,” I said. “Your only problem is you hardly talked to other people for your first ten or eleven years. You really don’t learn how to communicate until you have to figure out how to help someone else understand what you understand. It’s never as simple as you think. You just need more practice, that’s all.”

Sawyer continues to teach me why authors become authors. I’ve kept a journal on and off for most of my adult life, and in it I talk to myself. While I often learn something in doing so, it is never as satisfying as when I write for publication. The problem is those other people who will read what I’ve published. I love them, but I don’t want to deal with their myriad likes and dislikes. Everyone is so goddamned unique. How easy it is to be misunderstood, and how frustrating when it happens. Sometimes Emily Dickenson’s choice to publish nothing at all seems like the best.

I think every author’s a little autistic in this way. To a bunch of eager introverts, comfortable being alone, the great ocean of other people can seem a tad unfriendly. Yet to this day the greatest comfort I have known has come from learning how to share what I love with those other people, whether they are my family or complete strangers. It takes a lot of practice, but to find the connecting thread of language is more than a gymnast’s triumph of mere skill – it is a reminder that to retreat from others is to retreat from myself.

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

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Useful Obscurity

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Evolution

More people are writing more often than ever before in the history of mankind. More people are also sharing that work, whether in traditionally published books, independently published books, blogs, twitter feeds, Facebook posts, emails, or even comment pages. The digital age has created a generation of writers and authors, if you define an author as anyone who has ever shared anything with another person – which I do.

If you’re a little older than, say, thirty, and if you’ve always wanted to write, and if you grew up with the dream of entering what used to seem like the rarified air of the Published Author, it is easy to view this new development grumpily. Now any clown with a keyboard and an Enter key can become an author. This publishing proliferation has cheapened the position of the author. To be an author one need be an authority on nothing other than one’s own strident opinion. Where’s the value in that?

For me the value is everywhere. Not that long ago, much of the population didn’t even know how to write, let alone publish. In this way, writing is evolutionary. Let everyone on earth meet the blank page and ask, “What would I like to see there?” What a question. To answer it is to meet one’s own creative identity as little else can. To answer it is to confront the reality of free will, the fluidity of thought, and our connection to something that has taken on many names over time.

Most of all, writing asks us to be responsible for the life we are living. The blank page simply will not fill itself. Only our choices will fill it, and we can only choose from thoughts we are thinking, and we can only think about what we are focused on – and we can focus on anything. We can focus on genocide of flowers, argument or cooperation. We are as free as our boundless imaginations. So what do you want to see on the blank page? The answer to that question is how what we have come to call reality is created.

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

Cooperative Nature

If I had never published a single word, the experience of choosing word after word and sentence after sentence would remain invaluable to me. To find a way forward with no path other than my awareness of the difference between effort and effortlessness, between the swift current of my inherent curiosity and the urgent paddling of my ego, remains an irreplaceable practice in how to live.

But I do not think I would have spent so much time finding word after word and sentence after sentence if it weren’t for the goal of someday publishing some of these words and sentences. If I weren’t interested even slightly in publishing what I’d written, I believe I would have found something else to do that I wanted to share with other people. As private as writing may be, as intimate as my relationship to my imagination will forever remain, I do not really understand the creative process without at least the concept of other people enjoying what I enjoy.

Not the money, mind you, nor the attention, nor the approval – just other people’s pleasure in what pleases me. I cannot extricate the creative process from this awareness any more than I can live my day-to-day life without other people’s cooperation, without other people stopping at stop lights, and stocking shelves in grocery stores, and writing books for me to read. Life is cooperative – it cooperates in sun, rain, soil, and flowers, and in writers, agents, publishers, and readers.

There is a reason solitary confinement is our most severe punishment besides execution. It is our attempt to deprive the flower of sun and rain. But even in this environment, the soil of consciousness remains. You can try to confine yourself in a silent cell, safe from winds of other people’s pleasure, but you cannot keep yourself from growing. You will either suffer in your resistance, or flourish in your cooperation – either way, you will grow and grow, from word to word and sentence to sentence.

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

Back To Life

I have a book coming out in May. In fact, I know the exact date it will be published: May 14. My editor has gone through it and made her suggestions and corrections, and the copy editor went through and made her corrections and suggestions, so I now know what will be in the book and what has been taken out. I’ve also seen the cover, so I know what it will look like. What I don’t know, however, are how many copies it will sell, what kind of reviews it will get, or what speaking opportunities it will spawn – and that is where the trouble always starts.

It was fun working on the book, because every day I did so I asked myself questions I could answer. Every day I asked, “What does it really feel like to trust?” or, “What’s the most useful thing I could say about fear?” or, “What’s a good example of a time I doubted myself?” The answers always came — and usually rather quickly. How miserable I’d have been if they hadn’t. I wouldn’t have been able to write the book. Actually, I simply wouldn’t have written the book. There’s absolutely no fun in asking a question to which the only answer is, “I don’t know.”

And yet in my idle hours, which there are more of now as I scour about for my next book project, I sometimes find myself asking questions like, “I wonder how the book will sell?” or, “Where could I give a talk about the book?” The answer to these questions is always, “I don’t know.” In these moments, I am reminded of conversations I have fallen into about death and the afterlife. For some people, the fact that we cannot know empirically what waits for us beyond that portal means that nothing waits for us. If we cannot see it, touch it, or taste it, then it simply cannot exist.

This point of view is an untenable relationship to the future for a writer, I traffic every day in stuff that cannot be seen, touched, or tasted, only imagined. In fact, that “real” world, the world where my book is published, where people can hold it in their real hands and see it with their real eyes, can seem at times more mysterious to me than the imagined world from which the book was born. That imagined world, after all, is where the questions I most like to ask are answered.

Fortunately, asking myself questions about the real world and what the future will look like there is no fun at all. Fortunately, I lose interest in it almost as soon as I begin. This loss of interest sometimes takes the form of despair or pessimism, but that is only a consequence of me trying to give meaning to the meaningless. So I sulk about, dragging a nameless weight about with me, wondering why the world is such a dull place.

Until I find myself back at my desk asking questions I can answer. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Work solves everything.” I thought it was a stupid thing to write when I first read it, but I now believe he was onto something. Work, for me, does not so much solve everything, but it does remind me there is nothing to solve. It connects to me what I have sought connection to in my despair and frustration and uncertainty, that source of answers to all the questions I ask. It brings me back to myself, back to what I know and what I know I want to learn, back to life after a short trip into the death-world of a future I am not meant to know.

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

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Accepting Your Role

The author appears to be seeking acceptance from others. It is, in fact, our business model. Until we have received acceptance from others in the form of a publishing contract or book sales, we earn no money, nor can the story we told live in the imagination of others at it was meant to live. In this way, the author is not merely seeking acceptance but actually requires it to be an author. Without this acceptance, the author is nothing but a diarist.

For years I resented this requirement. It meant I had no power. What I thought of what I’d written seemed to mean nothing at all until someone else approved of it. During these bitter years I dreamed of my freedom, a day when I had received enough acceptance that I was no longer required to seek it. These dreams were often filled with the brief and shallow pleasure of praise and applause that was like the pleasure of drugs.

Yet even within these dreams I would also conjure an image of myself that felt both familiar and foreign. Here was a man who was done worrying about what other people thought him. If I were an actor I could have played him convincingly, could have found within myself the knowledge from which this stranger lived. But like an actor, what I had come to call reality waited for me beyond the curtain, a story of pure improvisation in which I’d taken a minor role.

I suppose I am still an actor today, except I have decided to play the role in which my dreams had cast me. If you do so long enough, it doesn’t feel like acting anymore. There are still days in which my life feels more like a performance than I would like, but this is a natural consequence of peeking at the audience. For a moment, my wandering attention disrupts the dream we had all come to the theater to believe, until I call it back, and return to the role I was born to play.

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

You Can Handle the Truth

I’ve been a fan of situation comedies my entire life. I love to laugh and I like that whatever trouble the characters get themselves into always resolves itself by the end of the story. I have, however, become sensitive over the years to the types of troubles sit-com writers sometimes dream up for their characters – in particular, the trouble that would end if only the character would tell the truth.

It’s a fairly common story trope. The son dents his father’s new sports car and spends the episode keeping the father occupied while he tries to get it fixed. Or the girlfriend forgets to pick up the tickets to the Knicks game and must spend the episode desperately trying to secure seats to that night’s game. No matter how outlandish the characters’ schemes to hide their mistakes may be, these stories always lack a certain dramatic tension. As a viewer I know from word one that in the episode’s final scene the truth will be revealed and all will be forgiven.

In the writers’ defense, this is perhaps the most realistic situation in situation comedies. I speak from experience. Several years ago I thought I might self-publish a little collection of essays about writing. To do so, I would need an ISBN, a thirteen-digit code used by booksellers and publishers to identify the book. It is, in many ways, the book’s real title. ISBNs are not free. I learned this when I went on Bowker’s website. Bowker is to the ISBN what Ingram is to books. I was stunned to learn how much ISBNs cost. They cost so much I considered checking with my wife first to see if this was really such a good idea. But I didn’t. This was my book, after all. In a rush, I grabbed my credit card and hit “Purchase.”

An hour later I was chatting with customer service at Amazon’s Createspace. “Oh, ISBNs are free,” he told me, “if you just want to publish on Amazon.” I’d intended from the start to just publish on Amazon. I hung up the phone and moaned. I’d done it again. In my marriage, the knock on Bill is that he doesn’t shop around enough. If my wife, Jen, doesn’t like one store’s price she always looks elsewhere first before buying. I don’t like this approach. I find it tedious. Yet here was proof, it seemed to me, of just how very wrong my approach was.

“I won’t tell her,” I thought. “No. I can’t tell her. I pay all the bills. She never has to know.” I do not keep secrets from Jen. There’s no need. Jen and I have both made our mistakes, lost our tempers, blamed the other for what wasn’t their fault, and all these transgressions have been forgiven. Forgiveness was the really the foundation of our marriage. Or it had been, at least. In my mind, it was as if I’d had an affair.

As it turned out, I found a small publisher for the book. I asked the publisher about ISBNs. “I got lots of ‘em!” he said. The book was published and I forgot about the purchase. Years went by and, as sometimes happens, the publisher folded. The rights reverted back to me, and I decided to self-publish it. “What a hassle,” I thought. “Now I’m going to need an ISBN.” It was at that moment that I remembered that I already had one waiting for me on Bowker. It had been so long since I’d bought it that it felt free.

That night after dinner I told Jen that I had a story I needed to tell her. She thought it was a very funny story. Jen, by the way, is also a fan of situation comedies.

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 Herd

Writers sometimes make reluctant capitalists, but whether we wish to discuss it or not, we are responsible for creating a product that we must in turn sell to the general public. The knock on capitalism, generally speaking, is its cold heartedness, a necessarily unfeeling engine of commerce whose deity, The Market, rights all wrongs through a Darwinian winnowing of the entrepreneurial herd. We writers, meanwhile, usually like to view ourselves as caring, empathetic people. Empathy is more or less in the creative writer’s job description; how else to render believably all those people who aren’t us?

But there is something beautifully democratic about capitalism that every business owner, including writers, at some point understands. We all have our own crowd. We all have the people we eat and drink with, the people we seek out at parties. Society, in some ways, remains an extension of the high school cafeteria, with everyone gravitating to their respective tables. It’s not always inspiring, but it’s practical; easier to talk to people you like than to those you don’t.

But then you become a writer, and someone from another lunch table does something unexpected: they buy your book. In fact, you might look up to realize that only people from other lunch tables are buying your book. Now these people aren’t so bad after all. And not merely because they’re putting quarters in your pocket. When you meet your readers you discover for whom, beside yourself, you were actually writing.

Though I was the sort who bounced between different lunch tables, I have my preferences. While it is gratifying in a way to learn that someone I know and perhaps admire likes my work, there is something singularly uplifting about a stranger finding comfort in it. On the savannah, herd animals seek safety in numbers. Writers must go it alone to do our work, and our safety, in the end, depends on our willingness to accept all comers, to welcome round us anyone whose questions match our own. You see life then for what it is: a collection of curiosity, whose form must yield by and by to the answers received.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Generous Reminder

I was not an industrious teenager. I considered work a joyless requirement to provide this strange stuff called money of which I never seemed to have enough. Periodically I would get some of this money and I would wonder what I should do with it. When I discovered the wicked addiction of video games, I would sometimes go down to Charlie’s Hot Weiner’s and blow the entire $10 I had just earned mowing Mrs. Allen’s lawn in a thirty minute, quarter-by-quarter, alien-killing frenzy. On such days, I would walk home from Charlie’s having gained nothing in exchange for my $10 except a vague itch to play again.

But sometimes I would take this money to a bookstore or a record store. The exchange of money for music or stories was more than fair. In fact, if it was a book or song I truly desired, I couldn’t give the cashier my money fast enough. Take it, take it, I would think. It’s nothing, and yet what you’ve given me is something, for it feels like happiness.

I know the saying about what money can buy you, and it’s true happiness was not what I had actually bought. What I had bought was a reminder for which I will always pay gladly. I think of this exchange when I am the one selling. If what I am offering is any kind of a reminder, our exchange is always a fair one. After all, I have lost nothing. Within me still burns that feeling of which I was reminded when writing. Meanwhile, with luck my customer will be reminded of something more valuable than $9.95. With luck, they will be reminded of themselves.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Getting Published, Or How To Remember What You Already Have

Publishing, whether we are paid for it or not, is always an act of sharing. I have a story, and I’d like to share it with other people. It is not accurate to say I am giving the story away. It is not as if the story is a single copy of a book and I am giving that book to someone else – once I had it, now I don’t. I still have that story, as I will always have that story, even as readers make that story their own in their imaginations.

But for the writer, publication and its many consequences can often turn into wanting to acquire what we believe we don’t have. If I do not have an agent, then I will want an agent. If I have never been published, then I will want an acceptance letter when all I have are rejection letters. If I have never been on a bestseller list, or won an award, or been reviewed in the New York Times, I might want those things too.

And by want, I mean that I believe my life will be better when I have one of those things. If only I had an agent, then it would be easier to sell my books and I would be happier; if only I had a publishing contract, I would be happier; if only I had won the National Book Award, hit #1 on the list, talked to Oprah . . . on and on it goes. Why, it’s almost as if the very decision to share my stories with other people merely brings my attention to how little I actually have and how much happier I could be.

This can turn publishing into a quietly miserable pursuit, and success is impossible within this environment. I can’t create what I don’t have; I can only grow more of what I do have. When I am unhappy, all I can share is my unhappiness, for that is what I have. On the other hand, if I love science fiction, I focus on how much I love it and write a story from that place. It is not true that this story came from nowhere; it came from my love of science fiction, which exists before and after the story is written. Whether that story is published or not, I still have my love of science fiction, and I still have what I discovered in writing my story.

As you send out your query letters, as you wait to hear from your agent, as you check your ranking on Amazon, remember where the stories you are sharing came from. Whether you sell a hundred copies or a million copies, the source of those stories will not change or move or dim. You will always have it. You couldn’t get rid of it if you tried.

I say this, having known the misery of believing I have nothing. I have stared and stared and stared at what I don’t have until my world looked empty. What a strange trick to play on myself. It’s like looking at a garden ripe with planted seeds and calling it a desert because nothing has bloomed. When the flowers finally come – and they always do – the relief I feel is like waking from a nightmare. The order of creation is still intact, and I need only choose which seed of a story I will water with my attention.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter