Realists

When I was younger and of the opinion that love was something one could find in the same manner in which a food enthusiast discovers new delights at exotic banquets, I dated an artist named Fishy. This was not her real name, but one she had adopted herself. This was a clue I ignored because I was in the habit of ignoring clues back then as they consistently interfered with my sampling of the female buffet.

Fishy was like a reverse superhero. By day she was an artist and an intellectual, who wore John Lennon glasses, spoke with a dry affect, and divided the world into those things worthy of her approval and those things that were not. By night she became just Lilly, a very wounded young woman, who was so fragile I thought she would crack in my arms. I had dated her because I was drawn to Fishy’s intellectual strength, only to discover I was actually dating Lilly’s frailty.

Before it ended, she asked me if I was an optimist or a pessimist. I told her I was an optimist, an identity a young intellectual like Fishy was not allowed to embrace, but which Lilly secretly yearned for. In retrospect, however, I was neither. I am actually a realist. I believe in reality, which in its fullness is better than the optimist’s best-case scenario. Reality, which is the whole of life, is beyond judgment, beyond suffering, beyond tragedy.

But it is also beyond my ability to perceive. Had I been able to, I would have seen past Fishy to Lilly, and would have seen past Lilly to that part of her that was incapable of being wounded. I came to understand that Lilly perceived me as someone immune to hurt. I wasn’t, of course; the little me stumbling around the world could feel just as wounded as Fishy. But Lilly must have sensed in me that which runs through all of us, that which perceives the pain but does not live it. She wanted to draw it from me for herself, but I could not give her what she already had.

Which is why I encourage writers to go toward their pain in their work, but not to write about their pain. Rather, learn in your work to see through your pain, to see beyond the veil of suffering, for it is in that space you will meet yourself, the reality you have always been seeking.

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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How to Believe in What You Write

I used to think of “reality” as what I could see and taste and touch – the stuff that has already been made and that everyone agrees exists. The more serious I became about my writing, the more impractical this concept of reality became. For instance, let’s say I woke up one morning and thought to myself, “I want to write a sweeping historical novel.” Let’s say until that morning I’d never written anything but term papers, emails, and Facebook statuses. If I asked myself, “I wonder if I could do this?” and if I looked at “reality” to answer this question, I would have to answer, “No.” Clearly I couldn’t, because I hadn’t.

Absurd, I know. If I looked to what I had done to tell me what I could do, I would never do anything, because I can’t do something until I’ve done it for the first time. But let’s say I didn’t just want to write this novel. I wanted, eventually, to make a living writing sweeping historical novels. Now, as a practical matter, I might look about at the world of writers and ask myself, “Has anyone made a living writing sweeping historical novels?”

Now what we commonly call reality can serve as an inspiration. It wouldn’t take long before I would see that, yes, people do make a living writing these books. Therefore, I might logically conclude, it is possible, and if it is possible, and if I am interested in it, then it is worthy of my full attention.

However, as inspiring as the examples of others can be, turning to the visible world requires great discipline. Because there other examples out there, examples of writers who failed to make a living, who failed even to publish a book. In fact, if I were diligent in my search for evidence, I would soon learn that there are more examples of people who did not make a living at it than of those who did.

What to do? It is as if there are two possible roads, and I won’t know which I am walking until I have reached the end. So it can seem, when I use the world I can see to tell me what I can do. But why would a writer do such a thing? I begin every story facing a blank page. The reality I can see is an empty canvas awaiting my decisions. The reality upon which my true attention is trained is the reality only I can see and know.

Which is why the true reality is not what I can see, not what has been made, but the alive potential within me from which all creation springs. It is a reality to which everyone has equal access, but which is equally unique in its expression through us. This reality is quite comforting when I can remember it. It is friendly and stable and supportive and consistent. When I’m in it, I cannot imagine wanting to leave.

But I do anyway. The world I can see and touch and taste is interesting too, and that’s where all the other people are, and it is easy to lose track of reality while we sit around debating the merits of what has been made, or fretting about what might be made. Meanwhile, there are pages and pages waiting to be filled, each of them equally blank, each of them equally open to whichever road I choose.

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

The Fall

Before my father left The Church he served as one of its ministers. If I was ever asked to sit in the pews while he delivered his Sunday address, I have no recollection of it. This was during the shadow of my early childhood, when memory is hampered by the highly fluid relationship between imagination and what I was gently being told was reality. It is hard for me to know what actually happened then and what was invented because at that time everything felt invented.

In those early days, I preferred cartoons to sermons. In cartoons, characters could travel through time or change shape, nothing died, and physical suffering was brief and hilarious. This felt like life as I lived it in my imagination, where the only meaningful boundary was what I wanted.

One afternoon I was playing in the rec room of my father’s church. There was a freestanding bookshelf in the middle of the room, and I thought it would be a good idea to try to scale its smooth back. This turned out to be impossible, but my efforts destabilized the shelf, which began to slowly topple backwards. It was at this point I decided to attempt the first scientific experiment of my young life. If the cartoons were as accurate as they felt, and if this bookshelf were to land, say, on my hands, my fingers would swell to comical proportions and then quickly return to normal. I left my hands on the floor in the path of the falling shelf, and awaited my results.

The pain sucked me into reality. I felt betrayed, though not by cartoons. It was clear there were in fact boundaries in this world, and to transgress them could mean suffering of a magnitude impossible to ignore. It was a great disappointment, though I attributed the tears I shed in my father’s lap afterwards to simple pain and humiliation. How do you explain the other? I could feel the answer within me, but not the facility to express it, a facility wed, in a language as tangible as bookshelves, to the very world that had just betrayed me.

I suppose that is the day I became a writer.

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

Unfolding

A writer can be as practical as she wants to be. She can talk about Facebook, and Twitter, and blog tours, and strong female leads, and compelling characters. She can sit in a restaurant with her best friends and discuss agents and advances and the pros and cons of indie publishing versus traditional publishing. She can have a great website and a publicist she trusts.

It’s good perhaps to be this practical, to look upon her work like so much ketchup she must sell. It’s good to go to bed at night as her body lays down for sleep in the bed she owns, covered by a roof she keeps in place by selling those books that might as well be ketchup. Because come the morning she must go to her workroom and enter a dream. If she is to keep that roof over her head, if she is to have something to tweet about and FB about, she must believe that dream. She must treat that dream as though it is as real as the chair in which she sits.

Because her readers will. Her readers will go to bookstores or Amazon or B&N and spend real money on real books so they can enter a dream and have it feel as real as the chair in which they are sitting. The writer knows this. She knows these strangers will become some kind of friends when reached by that infinite bridge of the imagination. She knows all her practical commerce is based up on a belief in dreams.

So it is good she thinks so practically. It is good to remember from time to time that she has an actual body she must feed and clothe and house. That’s sometimes easy to forget in her world of dreams. Easy to confuse realities. Easy to look up from her desk and out her window and see a story already told, instead of one unfolding.

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

Where Life is Lived

For many years, while I was writing my novels and sending them out and getting them back, I would occasionally complain to my wife, “The problem with these query letters and sample chapters is I’m not there. It’s just these words on a page.” On the face of it, this complaint made no sense. I was a writer. My job was to put words on the page and sell them to people. Nonetheless, I was nagged for years by the feeling that I was leaving something out.

I eventually understood that something I was leaving out was talking to people. Whether it was teaching or lecturing or coaching, I wanted to talk to people about the words I was putting on the page. I understood this because while I went for walks and runs, while I stood in the shower or did the dishes, I often found myself dreaming of speaking to imaginary groups. This happened so often that I stopped myself one day in the middle of one of my imaginary lectures and thought, “You need to actually go do this now. You know there’s a difference between doing something and imagining it and you’ve got to learn if you like the difference.”

Writing taught me this. How often on one of those very same walks had I imagined a scene and been certain it would be perfect for whatever story I was writing, only to discover, upon actually writing it, that it was not as interesting on the page as in my mind. As bright and happy and curious as my mind may be, it cannot predict the future, it cannot know in advance every word of the stories it believes I will enjoy telling, and a single, innocent word can sometime reroute the entire direction of 400-page book.

As it turns out, I do enjoy talking to people, though the experience is in fact different than the dream. That difference is where my life is lived, where dream and experience meet. Sometimes it feels like a collision, other times like a union, but the result is always the same. I get to meet myself once again, both the intention and the result, both the dreamer and the dream.

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

Dark Stories

I was playing catch with my son yesterday – a sentence I doubted I would ever have the privilege to write five years ago – when he asked me why I don’t like dark movies any more. “You used to think China Town was the best movie ever made. Now you say you can’t watch Sopranos or Goodfellas. What’s happened to you? You’re losing your edge.”

It was a good question, and one I hadn’t thought sufficiently about to be able to construct an answer before his attention strayed. Yet I continued to turn the question over as we finished our game of catch and went inside and did a little math work. Then we were on to separate things, and I stopped thinking about him, until my wife poked her head into my office. “Where’s Sawyer?”

“Oh, Jesus,” I said. “Has he gone on another walkabout?” Our homeschooled son has grown restless of late, and will occasionally disappear without a word. All for the good, really, except his solo adventures are not like those of typical teenagers, and his parents are left to wonder if he will ever return. He did on this occasion, bursting through the back door, announcing, “I’m back!”

So he was. It was then I remembered his question, and I thought, “The only thing I want to share with the world, the only thing I want to write about, talk about, and teach, is that everything is okay even though it appears as though everything is most definitely not okay.” I have to learn this every day, and I do not find what we call dark stories, stories about how everything is not okay but somehow we will struggle through it, useful in this regard. I say this as someone who spent many, many, many years telling that very story over and over again.

I only want to see past the darkness now, particularly as I sit on my couch and wonder if that boy will ever walk through the door again. In such moments, my storyteller’s imagination is tempted to see a future not just without my son, but without happiness itself. There is no darker story a mind can tell. What if all the light left the world: what and how would we see? Such a world seems impossible to live in – which, fortunately, it always is.

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

Unreal Journey

I quit college when I was twenty-one to become a writer. That was the plan, anyway. I didn’t need to spend tens of thousands of dollars at a university to write; I could do it for free at my desk. The problem was that although I loved to write and had a naturally diligent work ethic, the plan to become a writer felt entirely like a fantasy. I could not feel the sequential connection between the reality of sitting at my desk typing words onto a blank page and the reality of those words being read by strangers in a published book.

It made the supposed job of writer confusing. The job of writer felt nothing like the other job I took to earn money. Nothing about the job of waiting tables at a café and then a BBQ joint felt anything like a fantasy. That was reality, baby. That was a time card, and cash in my hands, and actual living people to laugh with and complain about. The job of waiting tables felt like life as I already understood it.

The fantasy of the job called writing did not. The act of writing felt like reality because I’d been doing that all my life. But the job of writing, of author, felt as unreal as a city I had never visited. Post cards and guidebooks and movies cannot begin to simulate the experience of living in the city itself. And so it was as if I was on a journey, but because I could not see my destination, every step I took felt as unreal as my imagination’s rendering of the city to which I believed as I was headed.

Strange, but I needed to look to no further than the very stories I was telling to know how to get where I wanted to go. A book is written one word at a time, each word the best the writer can choose at that moment. There is no other way. So too that unreal journey. I never needed to know what the city looked like or what I would do when I got there. The only one question I have ever needed ask is, “What is the best step I can take at this very moment?” The answer is reality; the rest is a dream.

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

The Holiday Season

It is very hard to try to do two things at once. It is very hard to love someone while simultaneously believing you must protect yourself from them, or that you must always be right, or that there are good people in the world and bad people in the world. Likewise it is hard to listen to your creative potential, your muse, your imagination if you simultaneously believe that you must write perfectly, or that you must know that what you’re creating now will succeed later, or that no one wants to hear from someone like you.

Be glad it is hard to do two things at once. All these stories of protecting ourselves and being right, all these stories of writing perfectly and success, are our invention. They are not real, and so can only be maintained by our constant attention. The truth, meanwhile, requires nothing of us. Love cannot be manufactured, only perceived. Our imagination cannot be commanded, only received. How kind life is to make suffering exhausting.

Eventually, everyone must rest. We will complain about it first, and march in protest about how hard it is, and form committees to determine why it is so hard, but by and by, because these stories are not actually a part of reality, we will either forget to tell them or grow weary of telling them. Either way, the truth of love, the truth of our creative potential, will be waiting for us when we do.

We will celebrate such moments. “The good stuff was really coming today,” we’ll say. Or we’ll say, “I had a great time with my wife. No arguments, no debate. Just fun.” These are like holiday seasons, respites of pleasure from the grind of life. But the other day a cashier asked me if I was looking forward to the weekend. “My life’s a weekend,” I confessed. And I didn’t realize until I said it that it was true.

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.

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 Storyteller

Sometimes I wander about the world as a storyteller, and sometimes as someone having a story told to him by the world. I look to the world for the story it is telling me only when I forget I am a storyteller, but this forgetting happens quietly, quickly, and frequently. I do not always mind the story I believe the world is telling me. It can be funny or exciting or even flattering. I particularly enjoy the flattering stories the world is telling about me. How nice that the entire world holds me in such high regard!

But often I do not like the story the world is telling me at all. It is such a depressing story, a story of happiness being something known only when the pieces of the world arrange themselves for brief trembling moments that can be enjoyed until chance, or inertia, or gravity, or evolution pull them apart. It is a story of greed, and violence, and lust, and vengeance. I must grab and cling to all the happiness I can before my time runs out.

I soon become a critic. If the world is bent on telling me these crappy stories, and if I am forced to listen to these stories—and how can I not be, since I am only one man and the world is huge and loud, and while I must rest, it talks on and on and on?—then by God I will do what I can to change that story. So I criticize and reject and complain. Then I do it some more. Yet still the world tells its depressing story, and I can but listen and watch.

It is nice at such times to retreat to my desk where the page is blank and I can ask, “What is the best story I can tell myself today?” How quickly my mood changes with that simple question. How optimistic and curious I become. And how I love that blank page, how it erases all the stories I told myself about the world and returns me to my natural state—a storyteller choosing a happy ending for the world he makes.

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.

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

What Is Real

If write your story accurately, no one will ever see any of its characters, yet every reader will know what these protagonist looks like. If you write your story with compassion, nobody will actually die, but your reader will feel the loss of death when your heroine’s best friend succumbs to cancer. If you write your story with joy, no one will actually get married, but your reader will know the satisfaction of consummated love.

Our stories don’t exist in the material world. At best, the books in which they are printed could be torched for a little heat; at worst, with digital readers, not even that. You can hold a book, but you cannot hold the story. You can read the word “fire” with your seeing eyes, but the heat it gives burns only in the furnace of your imagination. Writers traffic in thought and dreams and possibility.

Yet a thought, a story, can last longer than any building, longer even than some mountains. Rivers might go dry while a story is still being told. It is tempting to write with this idea of immortality in mind, thinking that somehow if future strangers are still whispering your name in libraries and classrooms you will somehow avoid what is often seen as the travesty of death.

Perhaps we write with another idea of immortality in mind. Perhaps we write to forget what is absolutely going to die and remember what cannot. If a thought, if a story, can endure through time, if that story is immune to wind and plague and bombs, where are you going when you “find your characters?” As you enter that story, as you lose track of time, is this retreat a forgetting of what is real, or a remembering of what you are?

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.

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter