That Gift

Lingering in the back of everyone’s mind is the sometimes quiet, sometimes very loud question, “Am I good enough?” We spend so much time grading, comparing, judging and ranking ourselves that I don’t know how a person could avoid asking this question at least once, if only to test how it feels. It feels lousy, if you haven’t noticed, even just to ask it. Unfortunately, it also smells like the sort of question one must be able to answer “Yes!” to, because if we’re not good enough . . . well, that would be a problem, wouldn’t it?

Writers decide to write for many reasons. Usually, they love to write. Also, they would like to make money doing what they love. But these are not always the only reasons. Sometimes writers write and submit the stories and poems they’ve written so that these stories and poems will be rejected.

Yes, to be rejected. The more often you ask if you are good enough—and it matters not what you are pretending to wonder you are good enough at, that question only ever refers to us as a whole—the more likely the answer will be no. But we can answer no so quietly, so habitually, that we will soon grow accustomed to the sustained discomfort it provides.

You will not have that luxury as the rejection letters come in. Likely as not that quiet voice that whispered no sabotaged your story for this very purpose. Now, you will have to feel self-rejection acutely, and you will feel it again and again and again until you decide you are worthy of a life free from this suffering.

Such a gift, writing. Oh, I know, this is a gift you’d like to give back. Except that you crave, beyond any agent, publishing contract or Amazon ranking, the unequivocal yes you already are. Our lives are led to hold this permanently in our hearts, though it has never been anywhere else.

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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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

How To Accept Rejection

Most writers view rejection as their professional enemy. A writing career requires acceptance, after all. If a writer received nothing but rejection, that writer wouldn’t have a career at all. Except writers cannot hate rejection. And no, not just because it is often a part of the submission cycle. Rejection is actually a crucial aspect the writing process itself.

For instance, here’s a typical storyteller’s brainstorming session: What should my hero do for a living? A lawyer? No, he’s not that successful. But he is in front of people. How about a teacher? No, too altruistic. Also, he enjoys the spotlight. Ah, he’s an actor! An unemployed actor. No – not totally unemployed. He got one gig in a commercial playing a guy with hemorrhoids. Perfect.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. This is how writers find their stories. And it really doesn’t matter whether we are writing fiction or non-fiction. Even the memoirist sifts through the past and decides what to put in and what to leave out. And yet, if you look again you will notice that the above example is filled with rejection. Our author could not arrive at his final Yes without the guidance of a great many No’s.

Writing is all about learning to say, “Yes.” Every word on the page is a word to which I’ve said, “Yes.” But I cannot find the words and sentences and scenes and stories I wish to share unless I also know what I do not wish to share. It would be impossible to say yes if I couldn’t say no. No is like the feeling of imbalance the gymnast experiences as she seeks the Yes of balance. These opposites are actually the allied yin and yang of my creative life.

It just never felt that way to me when the rejection letters came in. Whereas I called the comfort and discomfort that guides me in the choice of words and sentences and so on information, those rejections letters felt every bit like unwanted, unhelpful, discouraging, depressing closed and barred doors to what I wanted most. What’s so useful about that?

Everything, if I listen to what those rejections are telling me. When I write, the worst thing I can try to do is force a word or sentence in where it’s not wanted. The best thing to do when I feel this resistance is pull back and try something else. This is what the resistance is telling me. Many times, however, I felt this resistance and soldiered on. Yet what I thought of as writing by force of will was actually self-rejection. It was uncomfortable, but such is adulthood – or so I’d heard. The sting I felt when the stories I’d written in this fashion were rejected was merely an echo of the pain of self-rejection I’d inflicted on myself by ignoring my own inherent guidance.

That’s right, to find acceptance in the publishing world you must first accept yourself. I take that back – you need only practice accepting yourself. You practice this every single time you sit down to write, every single time you choose a word that feels right or wrong for no other reason than you like it or don’t like it. That’s self-acceptance. You don’t need to climb a mountain and meditate for the rest your life to find it. You find it as you find your balance, with every step and every choice.

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

Why Everyone Has Time To Write

Many of the students I meet at writers’ conferences complain that they don’t have enough time to write. These men and women have fulltime jobs, marriages, children, hobbies, parties to attend, and favorite television shows to follow. How in an already full life are they expected find one or two hours a day to write a book?

It’s a good question, and the simple, honest, but ultimately unhelpful answer is this: Every writer who has ever written a book has had a full life within which that book was written. If you need “more time,” get up an hour earlier every day. That’s what a lot of writers do. Or they go to bed an hour later. But usually they get up earlier. There. Problem solved.

Except this really solves nothing, just as telling a smoker to simply stop smoking solves nothing. The question most writers are really asking isn’t, “How do I find time to write?” but, “Is writing a waste of time?” Going to college probably didn’t feel like a waste of time because it would, in theory, lead to a career. And going to work probably doesn’t feel like a waste of time because it provides an income and a social network and a bit of an identity. Even crashing in front of the TV doesn’t feel like a waste of time because everyone needs some downtime.

But is writing a waste of time? It is relatively easy for the imagination to perceive the connection between enrolling in college and a successful career in, say, high tech, even though many years and many choices and many unplanned turns and reversals wait between one and the other. The path one walks for this career, has, in many ways, been cleared by those who walked it before you, like a paint-by-number life. How comforting. Do this and that and then this and then that and you will be safe and fed and housed and respected and have health care and a time-share in Maui.

As soon as we sit down to write, we understand how blank our canvas really is. Not only do we not know if that book will ever be published, we don’t even know what that book will like when it’s done. All we can really perceive is what is directly before us: that blank canvas called a page. And so we sit alone with this simple question, “What would I most like to put here?” That’s the writer’s first and last guarantee, that we will get to answer that question as often as we ask it.

That may not seem like much at first compared to the apparent security of a color-coded life, but the moment a writer decides that getting up an hour earlier every day just to ask and answer that question, he or she has discovered the holy secret to writing and publishing success. I will never get up an hour earlier to ask, “Why bother?” I would sooner sleep the entire day. At least then I could dream. So if you feel you need time to write, don’t begin by trying to clear away an hour of clutter from your day’s schedule. Instead, clear space within your mind; clear away all the useless questions of talent and money and comparison, and you will find the blank space that has always belonged to you.

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

Friendly Math: Why Everyone Wants What You’ve Written

Every writer I know wants to share what he or she has written, and the moment we share one piece of writing with one other person we become authors. But many of the writers I meet at writers’ conferences tell me they don’t feel like authors because they haven’t yet sold something they’ve written. The problem, they tell me, is that nobody wants what they’ve written. The more of these gloomy conversations I have with writers, the more I wonder if the real problem is just the opposite.

Writers are people first, after all. Like a lot of people, I own a bunch of things. I like these things; that’s why I own them. I like my house and my car and my computer. I like the new pair of shoes I bought recently. Every time I put them on they please me. When I’m wearing these shoes, no one else can wear them. It’s just not possible. If I shared them with someone else, I wouldn’t have them to walk around in until I got them back.

Whenever I write a story or an essay, I always write about something I like. Actually, I write about something I love. Just as it is easiest to walk a long distance in a pair of perfectly-fitting shoes, so too it is easiest to write about what I love. As soon as I am done writing something I love, I want to share it with other people. I want to share it in much the same way I want to share a song I found on iTunes or a book I found at a bookstore. The only difference is that I wrote the thing I’m sharing and I might get paid to share it.

Some confusion can set in, however, when I go to share it. I know a story isn’t a pair of shoes, but there is an idea that’s been going around for about 10,000 years that goes like this: There isn’t enough. Enough wheat, enough gold, enough land, enough time. And everyone seems to want more of what there doesn’t seem to be enough. I have certainly felt some days that I didn’t have enough of what everyone wants. I don’t like thinking that I don’t have enough and that I’ll somehow have to scrabble away against all the other people to get my fair share, whatever precisely that is. It’s a friendless world, that.

Which is why it can get confusing when it’s time to share something I’ve written. Within me are thoughts of what shoes I’ll wear or what book I’ll read and or what story I’ve just written. I always want more of what I love, and I know the reading world is filled with people who want more and more and more of what they love too. If I believe for one moment we are all somehow in competition, I will tell myself it’s not ready to share, or no one will understand it, or there is no market for it, and try to protect something that cannot be lost.

Every reader will make a story their own. If they loved it, they will walk about with it in their hearts. Meanwhile, that same story will remain in mine as well. It defies the unfriendly math of a world in competition with itself, hording happiness in preparation for some end-time when it’s finally run out. Fortunately, sharing is how happiness grows, and as long as there are two people in the world, there will always be enough of it.

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 Law of Response: Where Acceptance and Rejection Begin

One evening, when I was still feeling rather low about all the books I hadn’t published and all the money I hadn’t made, I was having dinner with my wife and two sons and fell into a discussion about respect, about who deserved it and who did not. I was of the opinion that everyone deserved it.

My oldest son, Max, then twelve, was not so sure. “For instance,” he offered, “I don’t respect you, Dad, because you’re not a success.”

To be clear, Max is actually a very kind person. But he had the habit, particularly at that age, of blurting out the name of whatever elephant was currently clogging up the room. Which is why, though I was tempted to give a swift and harsh fatherly lecture about how you talk to people, I chose instead to say absolutely nothing. I had a very clear thought at that moment, a thought clearer than all those I’d ever had about success and failure: “You think you’re a failure much of time. When you stop thinking it, he’ll stop saying it.”

This turned out to be absolutely true. A few years later, when I was interviewing authors and speaking to writing organizations and generally loving all the different things I was doing, Max’s talk of failure quickly dried up. It was a satisfying arc of experience, but one I often felt I could have had only with Max. He had a quirky directness I rarely encountered elsewhere. Most people, I figured, don’t notice if you bring an elephant to a dinner party.

If only that were so. Since then I’ve noticed that everyone talks about whatever elephant I’ve dragged into the room; they just talk about it differently. Some respond to the elephant graciously, others nervously; some are commiserative, others are hostile. However precisely they respond, everyone always treats me exactly the way I expect to be treated. Which is to say, I find I like the things people say to me when I’m liking myself, and I do not like the things people say to me when I’m not liking myself. It is as predictable as gravity.

This law of response extends even to agents and editors and readers, which is a little mystifying because these people are so far away. For reasons that cannot be explained by any of Newton’s laws, whatever I offer the reading world is accepted or appreciated to the exact degree that I have accepted and appreciated it. Luck, I’ve decided, has got absolutely nothing to do with it.

If this is a little too woo-woo for you, I understand. Most authors I know try to be as practical as possible. It’s just that authors have a strange relationship to other people. We need them for everything we do. We need them to buy our books and edit our books and review our books. Without those other people, we’d have no career, no livelihood, no one with whom to share our work.

Yet none of those other people are there with us in the room when we write our stories and poems and essays. We are completely, necessarily, delightfully alone. Which is why the most impractical thing I can do in the creative solitude of my workroom is to start trying to guess whether anyone will like what I am writing. All I can ever know is what I think of what I’m writing. So whether I like it or not, whether it’s woo-woo or not, the only way to gain the attention of all these readers and reviewers, all these other people spread far and wide over the entire world, is to sit alone at my desk and pay very close attention to myself.

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

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Effortless Acceptance

For the first twenty years or so of my writing life, I experienced mostly rejection. For the last five or so years, I’ve experienced mostly acceptance. In the midst of all that rejection, why something was or was not accepted seemed very complicated to me. I have since reduced rejection and acceptance down to this: rejection is always an expression of effort, and acceptance is always an expression of effortlessness.

It takes great effort to force a story to be what I want it to be instead of what it wants to be. Characters must be corralled and directed. Some characters want to be heard while I want to silence them; other character want to die while I want to keep them alive; some characters want break up while I want them to stay together. A story’s effortless path is always its most honest, compelling, surprising, and satisfying. To follow this path is to accept that the story always knows more than I do. What a relief when I stop trying to build a flower and instead help it grow.

It also takes great effort to tell a story I am not thoroughly interested in telling. Every story is a question and an answer. It takes effort to train my attention on questions that do not interest me. It takes no effort to leave my attention on interesting questions. I don’t know why some questions interest me more than others. I don’t know why people aren’t always interested in the questions I find so very, very interesting. But I do know that I need to trust my curiosity. I must accept that it always leads me someplace interesting and alive, and that is always reason enough to follow it.

It also takes effort to withhold a story. Once I’ve written a story I love, that story wants to be shared. All its energy is pulling away from me. But I know that to share the story is to give it away, to let the readers make it their own. Tempting to keep what I deem valuable to myself. Too late for that. The story is like a child craving to get out of the house. Our relationship can remain intact even as it forms new relationships out in the world.

It also takes effort to believe you are not good enough when you were born good enough. It takes effort to believe you are not talented when you are exactly as talented as you need to be to tell the story you want to tell. It takes effort to believe you aren’t smart enough, clever enough, lucky enough, or connected enough. It always takes effort to reject yourself, to believe you are broken, that you were somehow born without the equipment necessary to complete the journey you most want to make.

If you’ve lived a lot of rejection, that first experience of acceptance might feel ecstatic, the way simply breathing is so pleasing in those first moments after a fever breaks. Soon, however, the effortlessness of acceptance becomes the norm. There is no effort required to be myself, there is only the determination necessary to remember that nothing else has ever been required of me.

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

Two Fearful Companions

I have just returned from the 60th Pacific Northwest Writers Conference. It was a particularly immersive conference for me, including several hours of one-on-one coaching, moderating, and teaching, and culminating in a two-hour workshop on Sunday. By the time I arrived home I felt as though I never wanted to talk to another writer about writing ever again.

This feeling lasted about twelve hours, and now here I am back at my desk, writing about writing, and happy to do so. I love being around people – particularly writers. I find the writer’s desire, vulnerability, doubt, and conviction consistently moving. But I also must be alone for hours at a stretch or I become exhausted. Fortunately, most of my job requires me to do just that.

For many years I was confused about my need to be alone. I assumed it was a kind of defect, an anti-social shyness indicative of a guy who could hit beautiful three-pointers in his driveway, but who got lost in a game of five-on-five. Life seemed at times like a game to me, a game that could only be won in the company of others.

But to write in a way that is even remotely satisfying is to abandon the notion of games themselves. The very concept of winning and losing is incompatible with the dream of storytelling. Likewise, other people. Should I have the pleasure of sharing my stories, the dream other people called readers will make of it will be entirely their own and have virtually nothing to do with me and my dream.

This may seem like a lonely transaction, but it is just the opposite. I would never have sought the solitude of writing if it left me feeling lonely. It is there – and in writing’s quiet cousin, reading – that I have truly learned to be myself. To bring anyone else to the game is to have nothing to offer, to present some puppet conceived to amuse or impress, and then leave feeling unseen and unheard – the two companions a writer fears most.

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

Guided By No

Most writers will have their work rejected. Sometimes this rejection is a product of work being submitted prematurely, but usually it is a consequence of being human. To be sane, a human must be able to say No. And although I love it when people say Yes to me, writing has taught me that my freedom and security are in direct proportion to my willingness to let people say No to me.

My goal is to write stories that I love to write, teach classes that I love to teach, share perspectives that I love to share. No one in the world can tell me what to love, and no in the world can tell me that I don’t love something. No one in the world can tell me what to teach or write or what to focus my attention upon. I am necessarily alone in that decision, for that decision is the most important decision I will ever make.

I tried for a very long time to write stories that I did not love to write. I did not understand at the time that I did not love to write them. I was like a man who had lived in a loveless marriage for years and did not understand there was any other kind of marriage in which one could live. Fortunately, the agents and editors to whom I sent these stores said No. I was a very determined fellow, and so I got to hear a lot of No’s, and I was not happy about any of them.

Eventually, all the No’s guided me back to the Yes I had been looking for. Now there is no longer the question of whether I am good enough, or talented enough, or smart enough; now there is only the question of how I will share what I had found. Now I am free to say No to all the stories I had once believed I had to tell, which freed me to say Yes to the ones I do want to tell.

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

Numbers Usually Lie

It was the first writers conference I had ever attended and Michael Curtis, then the fiction editor for the Atlantic Monthly, was sharing some numbers with my fellow writers and me. The Atlantic published one short story per issue, and received, on average, 12,000 submissions a year—meaning what was the then the most prestigious venue for aspiring literary fiction writers had a literal 99.9% rejection rate.

The conference room’s occupants let out a plaintive moan, and my heart clenched. I hated those numbers. It wasn’t just that the mathematical odds of getting published in the Atlantic were worse than winning a scratch lottery ticket, it was the idea that chance had anything to do with success and failure in the game of writing. On good days, writing felt like a game I could only win, for it was played entirely within me and I could change the rules as it pleased me. On bad days, of which there were plenty back then, it felt exactly like a game of chance I was merely waiting to lose.

Curtis smiled and raised a reassuring hand. “Of those 12,000 submissions,” he continued, “about 10,000 should never have been sent. I know within one paragraph it’s not for us. Another 1,000 are decent enough stories, but still needing a lot work. When you get down to it, we probably only receive 250-300 that are really in the ballpark. I know that many of those will go on to be published elsewhere if I reject them. Some will certainly be anthologized.” He shrugged. “That’s how it goes. I can only choose twelve.”

What pleased me about the whole story was not that the numbers got substantially better by the end, but that the numbers had been deceiving. I would rather know that numbers lied so that I could ignore the story they appeared to be telling me, and get back to one I wanted to tell myself.

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