Good Questions

Writing got much easier for me when I accepted that my job was to ask questions and let my imagination bring me the answers. Sometimes my question was, “Why does the witch want to capture my hero?” or “What job does my protagonist really want?” But just as often they were questions like “How do I know I have free will?” or “What if happiness is our natural state of being?”

Every question I ever asked was answered, though it wasn’t always answered immediately. Or, more often, I wasn’t immediately ready for the answer. No matter; when I was ready I heard it, and if it was a really good question, the answer usually led to more questions. Questions are more interesting than answers. I have to remind myself of this often, because I spend a lot of time thinking all my worry would be over if I could rest in the surety of a firm conclusion. In fact, life is never duller, never less meaningful, than when I don’t have a question to ask.

Fortunately, life itself is always creating questions for us. This is good news for writers. I have had the pleasure of working with a number of clients recently whose lives have compelled them to ask fantastic questions. However, the means by which life helped them to ask these questions is what we normally call “trauma.” Like all people, the writers are tempted to believe their lives now would be better if only they could scrub their past clean of those traumatic events.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Life compelled these writers, usually at a very young age, to ask, “What is intimacy?” or “What is real strength?” or “What is unconditional love?” Once the question was asked, the answer started coming, but they were not ready to hear it, usually because they did not even know they’d asked it. So they start writing, where they could ask smaller questions on purpose, the answers trickling down to them in poems and essays and novels until gradually the answer that had been knocking and knocking on the door to their consciousness is allowed in.

I don’t want to suffer any more than you do. I want my days to go as effortlessly and undisturbed as a perfect Sunday picnic. But when I find myself wondering, “What the hell is going on?” or “What’s the point?” or “Why am I here?” I have not reached the end of my happiness. I’ve found again life’s interesting path.

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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Answered

It was one of those days where I was feeling a wee bit less than. I had been on a panel with some other women whose blogs were positively exploding and I let myself play the comparison game and of course I lost. This was a part of something called Bookfest, and after the panel I wandered over to the PNWA’s booth where I sat in a rather vacant corner of the fest and saw my life for the small and meager thing it apparently was. Why am I here? I wondered. What exactly is the point?

I was getting ready to leave in a huff when The Writer appeared. She emerged out of the crowd and asked me about writing for Author. This sounds like a simple sort of question for the Editor-in-Chief of Author answer, but neither of us could figure out what she would write for me. Soon, however, she was telling me about her life, about her career at the Post Intelligencer that ended when that paper folded; about how she had hoped to start her real writing career once she was free from the shackles of that tired job; about her husband’s sudden illness, about her mother’s sudden illness; about how just as she was getting ready start something new there were more people to take care of.

“I keep wondering when it’s going to be my turn,” she told me.

Sometimes, just as when you’re writing, if you tune into a person you feel as if they’re a character in one of your stories, and then you become like a character in your stories, and you can feel as if you’re talking from that same place where all your best stories come from that is both you and not you.

“It’s always been your turn,” I heard myself say.

“Thank you,” she said, and started to cry and laughed at herself. “I guess that’s just what I needed to hear.”

We hugged and I wished her luck and I left the fest full of optimism and enthusiasm for life’s bounty. Give me more of that, I said to no one in particular. That’s why I’m here.

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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A.R.T.

Here’s a simple acronym to help remember how writing and all of human creation works: A. R. T. Ask, Receive, Translate. That’s all we do. We ask, “What kind of trouble should my heroine get into in Chapter 6?” We ask this question of our imagination as we would another person, meaning we don’t immediately try to answer ourselves but wait to receive the answer. When the answer comes we translate it into words. That is writing.

I believe it is the receiving part that fouls most people up. Many writers believe it is the translating. It is not. That’s the easy mechanical part, the part our brains get to finally jump up and take part in. Sometimes, because we are aware that we are the ones doing the asking, we try to answer it ourselves with our brains. This never works, and is sometimes called writer’s block. Or we begin to worry that the answer just won’t come because we cannot perceive with our eyes where it comes from. Seeing is believing, we’ve been taught. Fear and impatience and mistrust temporarily halt the creative process. This is also called writer’s block.

And so we are miserable. We call ourselves a bad writer, or we phone our other writer friends and complain to them about how hard writing is. This doesn’t help either, but we are feeling bad and some part of us secretly believes this bad feeling is unnecessary and we hope complaint will drive it away. It doesn’t.

And then one morning we are taking a shower, and we are not thinking with our busy minds, and we are not impatient, and we are not mistrusting what we cannot perceive with our eyes, and as if by magic the answer appears in our minds. “Eureka!” we cry, and life is good again.

This to me is the true physics of creation. If I ask a question for which I sincerely want an answer, that answer always comes – every single time and without exception. I have come to understand that the answer must come the very same as the ball must roll down the hill and not up it. If I am quiet, the answer might come immediately. If my mind is noisy, then the answer will wait until I am done trying to answer it myself. Either way, the answer is given. Life, in this way, is like a test for which you need only invent the questions.

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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What Is Given

You may be familiar with the expression, “Ask and it is given.” I did not understand until recently how directly this applied to writing, that most of what writing has become for me is learning to ask the best and most useful questions and listen carefully to the answer.

Always writing begins with the simple question, “What should we write about today?” or, “What should happen in this scene or chapter?” An answer begins to arrive, but exactly as inchoate as the question. In today’s case I heard, “Asking.” And so the questions continue as we narrow the focus of our desire. If you are writing a scene in which characters argue, you must learn what they will argue about, and where these separate points of view originated, and how long they have been held, and how dearly they are held. Within every answer more questions arise, and so a book or story or essay or poem is written, as we ask and are given answers, ask and are given answers.

Yet the job of the writer is twofold. The power and depth of the story we tell depends upon the depth of the questions we ask, and our willingness to allow room for the answer. We cannot fill ourselves with what we already believe the answer to be. Nor can we fill ourselves with worry, or judgment of what we have not written, or comparison to others. All of these thoughts will take the place of the answer we desire. If we ask, we must remain open to receive the answer.

The creative questions we ask, however, are not demands. When I have asked, ”What is the point of all this?” or, “Why aren’t things happening faster?” I do not expect answers as they arrive in creation. I have become a boss of the universe, and am looking only for an explanation and an apology. The universe, I have noticed, does not apologize. Moreover, I am the boss of nothing, nor do I wish to be. I wish only to share the answers to the questions I have asked.

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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The Last Question

If you are reading this, then you woke up this morning; and if you woke up this morning, then you had a day’s worth of hours to spend. Spend them you will and indeed spend them you must, whether you believe in a deity or not, whatever your race, politics, gender or religion. But as any parent knows, humans are born to ask, “Why?”, and so “Why is snow white?” evolves over the years into, “Why am I doing all this stuff?”

This can turn into a rabbit hole of a question, and plenty of mental wards are filled with those still asking. But the question will hang there whether we answer it or not, and however we choose to answer it becomes, often unintentionally, the dominant perspective from which our life is led. The answer, in this way, becomes our reality.

Let us say, for instance, that some of how you spend your hours is writing. Typically, writers are told – accurately – that one writes not because one wants to but because one must. All right, but why? Where is this overseer driving us back to our desk? Well, The Writer says, I like to write, and a man must eat, and so this how I choose to feed myself, doing the thing I like.

True enough, but even within that answer resides the joyless fear of death, that all our energy and hours are spent in a ceaseless race against Time, the Reaper’s slow-moving but unerring scythe. No, we are not racing against Time, but employing it to bring into the world what did not exist before our time was employed.

Writing is one such employment, a translation of what we love – which is only a feeling, and so only within us – into words. We wish this translation to be as accurate as possible, to ensure that it is specifically what it is. To do so we must summon it from the soup of possibility and there, there in our imagination behold it in stillness. In that moment of thoughtless beholding we are brought into our most intimate proximity with what we love. This is why we write, and this is where all “Whys?” end, for you have reached yourself, and there is nowhere else to 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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Questioning

Not long ago I watched an interview John Updike conducted with the New York Times a year or two before he died. The subject of Updike’s age came up relative to his writing ability. “This is why I’m still writing short stories and submitting them to The New Yorker,” said the old literary giant. “It’s good to know I can still do it.”

I fully understand the appeal of passing a test. I may not be in my seventies, but I understand wanting to feel vital and relevant. As a writer, I fully understand the short thrill of the concrete, external validation that is an acceptance letter. But at what point do we get to stop asking this stupid question? After all, wasn’t Updike’s question merely a variation on the very same question any writer could ask the first time he sits down to write his first short story: “Can I do it?”

How worthless that question and how worthless the answer.  Hadn’t Updike heard the answer hundreds of times before? Hadn’t he heard the answer when he won his first and then his second Pulitzer? Hadn’t he heard it with each of the twenty or so novels he published, to say nothing of the hundreds of short stories? How many times must a question be answered before we understand it never should have been asked in the first place?

I would like to tell you that I have never asked that stupid question, but I have, and too many times to count. I have asked it and heard every answer from no to yes to every shade in between. And still I ask it again under the veil of some new story, some new challenge. The answer never means anything. Yes or no, I am always left where I began: asking myself what I would like to try next.

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

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A Question For You

I interview many different types of writers, and for every type of writer there is a different type of interview, but with every writer one thing remains consistent: the person matches the book. This is not to say that the writer and his or her work are one in the same. Instead, it’s as if the writer is in a life-long discussion with the world, and a book is one part of that discussion. When I meet the writer, I feel that discussion still in process, as though the writer has asked a question of the world, and the answer is coming and coming and coming.

This is particularly helpful when I read books about which I am not excited. It is easy to feel that somehow the writer has set out to waste my time. But this is only because when I read a book I am hearing it in my own voice. If the writer is posing a question which I have already answered to my own satisfaction or am simply not interested in asking myself, then what I hear in my head sounds like a song played in the wrong key.

On the other hand, once I meet the writer, and hear their voice, the question the book posed makes perfect sense—for the writer. It’s then I realize that what bothered me most was the dissonance between my voice and that of the author’s, not whether the book was any good or not.

It is impossible for me, once I meet someone, not to feel the integrity of that person’s life question. Not the integrity of their answers, for none of them are ever meant to be final, only guideposts—but the question. That is the tension of life, just as it is the tension of fiction. But it is a dynamic tension, a creative tension, and it does not matter how far from my own question the dramatic arc of another person’s life is drawn—it bends as necessarily and unstoppably forward as mine. I see this, and I am relieved. I am relieved as I am once again reminded that nothing in life can be gotten wrong, that the question is pure, and the answers are nothing more than cobblestones in the road you are paving in its pursuit.

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

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I Don’t Know Why

I knew a man once who refused to answer “why questions.” The way he said it always irritated my inner snark, and I was sorely tempted to ask, “And why is that?”

But the truth is, he had a point. Why questions are ultimately unanswerable. I am not talking about certain factual why questions, like, “Why is the sky blue?” or, “Why do helium balloons float?” Rather, I am speaking now of the personal why questions, like, “Why do you like blue cheese?” or, “Why do you write?” The only reason we do anything is because we like to do it or we think we might like to do it, and the only reason we like anything is because we like it.

My friend’s problem – or, I should say my problem with my friend – was that his refusal to answer the why questions was phrased with almost political defiance, as if he were on the witness stand pleading the fifth. But again, this is understandable. Whenever I ask myself, “Why did you do that?” I really mean, more or less, “How could you have made such a mistake?” I never ask myself why I did something when the results turn out sparkling.

Much of the job of fiction writers is to probe why their characters do what they do. Most of our characters get into trouble, but they do so with the belief that their actions will bring them happiness or at least relief from misery. We often understand our characters not as an engineer understands the physics of a skyscraper, but as a friend understands another friend – sympathetically – recognizing in ourselves the same doubt and anguish that led us to entanglements from which we had to eventually free ourselves – the stuff of good fiction.

I believe despair waits for us at the very end of every why question because the question assumes an architectural order to the universe that does not exist. Everything architectural is by necessity static, while life remains perpetually in motion. When we ask why, we are really begging to see this false order revealed so that we might stand at last on firm ground and feel safe. When the order does not emerge, we are left believing that either we are incapable of finding it, and so we have failed, or that the universe is built on sand, and safety is impossible.

The question we really want to ask of ourselves is never “Why?” but “What?” What do I most want at this moment? This we can know, and every time we answer it we learn again that it was never safety we were seeking but happiness.

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

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Why?

I knew a man once who wouldn’t answer “why questions.” Why are you going to the store? Why don’t you want a piece of cake? Why didn’t you call? If you asked him such a question, he’d respond, “I don’t answer why questions.” So you’d grit your teeth and rephrase, doing your best to drain any snark out of your voice.

But in retrospect, he may have been onto something. When I was fifteen I was nominated to attend The Future Leaders of America. Turns out, it was really Future Business Leaders of America. Nothing wrong with business leaders, but this was not really my crowd, shall we say. For instance, a group of us high achieving sophomores were sitting together waiting for the orientation to start, and to pass the time we told each other what we planned to study in college. Business, business, law, business law . . . and then me. Writing, I said. To which one of the Future Business Majors of America asked, “Why?” When I told him, “Because I like to write,” he felt I still hadn’t answered his question.

But how could I, and how could anyone? It is almost impossible to say why you do anything, because eventually the answer will circle down to, “Because I want to.” Why have you chosen to tell a particular story? You can roll out all the marketing research you want, but in the end the only reason you write anything is because you want to.

As it should be, but merely wanting to do something is not much to hold onto, at least not for that lizard part of your brain bent on keeping you alive. All the Future Leaders talked about money and prestige that day, and I understood, and I wouldn’t have talked them out of it because I’m sure their lizard brains rested satisfied in the warm sun of all that money coming their way. But I hope they liked business, or law, or business law. I hope they looked forward to the actual work of it. If they didn’t, they may have looked up from their wide mahogany desk one day and asked, “Why am I here?” And that is a why question nobody wants to answer.

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

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