Experienced Writers

I played a lot of sports when I was a boy and young man. I learned early on that to enjoy playing the game I had to care whether I won or lost. The goal line, the net, the boundaries, and the score had to mean something, or the game lost its purpose. Yet to improve at any sport, and indeed to deeply enjoy actually playing that sport, I had to forget temporarily about those very outcomes that gave the game its shape, and focus instead on the pleasure of whatever I was doing at any given moment.

For instance, one of my favorite games was football, and my favorite position in that game was wide receiver. I loved to catch balls the way a dog loves to catch Frisbees. First, I loved to run. I loved what it felt like to coordinate all the parts of my body into one fluid expression. But running with a purpose was better than plain running, and that ball became the purpose. How satisfying to be aware of both my body and this sphere travelling across the sky, to time my run so that the one aligns with the other, and then to feel that intimate moment when we arrive at the same place at the same time and my hands arrest the ball’s rotation and we are one.

That’s why I got better at football. Because I loved doing that. I did and it and did it and did it because I loved doing it. The winning and losing, the dropped passes and interceptions, were more like stories I laid over the moment-to-moment experience of playing. No outcome that I named good or bad could strip the game of its inherent pleasure – unless, of course, I paid more attention to the story than the experience.

Sports were excellent preparation for a writing life. I did not begin having any success as a writer until I stopped paying so much attention to results and started caring more about my moment-to-moment experiences. It is easy when writing to become hypnotized by acceptance letters and rejection letters, by sales and Amazon rankings. Results can offer me information about my experiences. A dropped ball told me my attention had wandered ever so slightly, and rejection letters gave me information about the people to whom I’m submitting or about the readiness of what I’ve submitted.

In the end, the writing life is composed of the experience of sitting at my desk and looking for the right sentence and the right word, or the experience of looking for the right agent or the right publisher, and then the experience of meeting those readers for whom my story was the right story. When I look upon my writing life, or my career, as an opportunity to have more and more and more experiences that I love, my career and life make sense, and grow as naturally as a tree grows. There is nothing more immediate and more knowable than experience, and there is nothing that offers greater and more instantaneous satisfaction than an experience I enjoy. An experience is what I actually have. A result is only the residue of that experience and has no lasting power in my life unless I tell a story about it.

It is tempting to tell myself triumphant stories about those results when they’re what I hoped for, but this also requires me to tell a tragic story when they are not. Better if I don’t tell any story about those results. I have to keep my attention on where I’m going if I am going to catch the stories I am meant to tell.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Bad Results

In case you missed it, the United States had a Presidential election recently. Some people were happy with the results, and some people were very, very unhappy with the results. Historically unhappy, I would say. I was one of the latter. In fact, the day after, I sat with my teenage son, who seemed as unnerved by the results as by the sight of his parents’ conspicuous despair. I explained to him that I was accustomed to thinking of the government as being like our home’s electricity, something I knew would be there to allow me to do the things I wanted to do. For the first time in my adult life I found myself wondering what life might be like if the electricity didn’t work, so to speak.

But for me, at least, this nightmare scenario passed quickly from my mind. It had to. I had too many things I was interested in doing now. Of course, I’d had a lot of practice moving on from what I thought of as devastating results. For years, every story I wrote was burdened by what I hoped it would bring me in the future. If that story brought me the result I wanted, brought acceptance rather than rejection, then I would be free to live life as I imagined I was meant to live it.

It was too much for any story to give me, and I only ever got the results I believed I didn’t want. Oh, the despair. In the time it took me to read one letter, the entire future I had constructed in my imagination collapsed. I would sit for a time in this nightmare wreckage, unable to reassemble what I thought life would be, left instead with what life actually was. It was in those moments that I often noticed how immeasurably consistent life actually was. Though I couldn’t name it, something flowed through every moment that – like electricity – responded predictably to my every thought and action. No result, good or bad, could extinguish or amplify it. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to care one whit for results. It pulsed on, available, responsive, and tireless.

I began to get the results I had so wanted when I made a friend of that flow. To do so, however, I simply could not concern myself with the future. Not even a little. This was not, and still is not, so easy. I am still drawn to dream a future many shades of miserable, or whip up some airy, cotton-candy castle of hope. But I have found through practice that the dependable, creative, evolutionary impulse in the present moment, where all writing and life actually occurs, is a far more satisfying companion than all my hopes and fears.

Which is why, for now, I am not worried about the end of democracy. For now, it is still quite alive. If a time should come that some action on my part is called for, a petition to be signed or march to be joined, I trust that I will know to do so in that moment. However, that moment, for me, has not arrived. As I said, I’ve got a lot of other things I’m interested in doing right now. I have no crystal ball, but I do have eyes that can see what is immediately before me, and if I make a friend of what I see, if I accept it, I am immediately living life as it was meant to be lived.

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

How To Get The Best Results

One afternoon many years ago I was driving through Seattle to pick up a friend who was visiting from Los Angeles. I was looking forward to seeing him, and so as I drove I found myself imagining our happy hello, and going out for drinks, and laughing at the funny stories he always told. In fact, his stories were always so interesting and funny I wondered if I would have any interesting and funny stories to tell him, and began planning what I might share—

Until I looked up and noticed that I was still driving and that I was about to run a red light. I slammed on the brakes, took a breath, and thought to myself, “I absolutely live my life for results.”

You couldn’t really blame me for doing so. I wanted a career as a writer. At that point the books I sent out always came back. Those were not the results I was hoping for. If the results didn’t change, I wouldn’t have a career. Caring about those results was just practical, and I have always wanted to make the most practical choice.

The problem with focusing and focusing and focusing on results is that they don’t yet exist. That’s the nature of results. When I spend all my time thinking about something I don’t have, it can seem as if I have nothing because that’s all I see. It’s dispiriting and, as any writer ought to know, highly impractical.

Because every time I begin a story, whether long or short, I have the same result in mind: to finish that story. But I will never finish a story by sitting down at my desk and thinking, “I need to finish this story. I need to finish this story. Oh, my God, the story isn’t finished yet. When is it going to be finished? What’s wrong with me?” No, the only way to finish a story to is to sit down at my desk, open a blank page, and ask, “What would I most like to say at this moment? What is one interesting sentence?”

Books are finished one interesting sentence at a time. There’s simply no other way to do it. The most practical question I can ask, whether I’m writing a book or building a career, is, “What is the most interesting choice I can make at this moment?” This simple question can feel a little reckless, I know. To ask it is to forget about the future, where all those very important results are waiting for me. To ask it sincerely is to believe that where I am is always more important than where I’m going.

I managed to make it to my friend safely that afternoon, and we did in fact have drinks, and tell each other stories, though I did not tell any of the ones I had planned. Somehow better ones came to me once we were together. There’s just no way to plan a successful conversation. The best I can do is show up and enjoy myself. It’s much easier to enjoy myself where I am, where all the traffic lights and streets signs actually exist to guide me where I want to go.

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

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Never Disappointing

There are the results I want and then there are the results I get. For years, I called the latter disappointment. I believed that growing up was about learning to accept the difference between expectation and reality. Though we still want what we want as much the child wants an ice cream cone, the adult understands this is not how life works. Life, in this way, becomes an exercise in managed disappointment.

Yet how often does the story we finish differ from the story we first expected? For that matter, how often does the scene we write differ from the one we first imagined? I have learned too well not to expect too much from my ideas. They are enough only to be bring me to the desk where my imagination meets the blank page, and that intersection becomes the reality known as a story.

There is usually much discomfort between idea and reality. There are those narrative roads I travel that don’t work, and sometimes I must go a long way down a certain path before I understand that the growing irritation under my boots is the story telling me turn back. I do not always want to listen to the story. I want what I want. This is my story, isn’t it?

It’s hard to tell sometimes. If I’m very honest, when I get to the end of a story, I am most pleased when that story feels like something I followed and found, not something I made. I cannot make the truth, after all, any more than I can make my life. I can only follow my life, and think how grateful I am, long after the fact, for all the burrs in my boots.

“Why, wasn’t it good luck,” I said to my wife the other night, “that Penguin didn’t buy that book of mine twelve years ago? How could I have ever done the work I’m doing now?” I could vaguely remember the disappointment I felt at the time. I’d been so close. Only now I cannot even see what it was I thought I’d been close to, any more than I can stand beside a dream after I awaken.

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