All Writing is Rewriting

Whether we write fiction or memoir, we are usually drawn to tell stories from our painful past. Everyone I know has some painful past. Some people’s painful pasts are more dramatic than others. Some involve physical our emotional abuse, some involve incredible poverty or isolation. The circumstances that seemed to bring about the pain, however, are strangely irrelevant. The pain could stem from something as simple as losing a race or getting a D in algebra. As soon as we begin telling a story about the event that is out of alignment with the truth of who we are and have always been and always will be, we are in pain.

The pain, of course, is not punishment but information. The pain is life telling us in the only language available that our story sucks, that it is untrue, that it is a nightmare we invented in an attempt to understand what at one time appeared unacceptable. No matter. It is so easy to conflate the pain we feel remembering our story with the past itself and declare that our past is painful, and that life itself is often painful, that crap happens and it’s crappy and there’s nothing anyone can do about it except deal with it and not complain too much.

In this way, all writing is rewriting, from the very first word of the first draft of every story. We are summoned, consciously or unconsciously, to rewrite those stories. It is as if there is a pebble in our shoe, and we have been walking and walking for miles, having grown gradually accustomed to the discomfort. This, we believe, is just what it feels like to travel through life. Until we rest, and we notice how much better this feels, and we don’t want to get up and keep moving if it means enduring that same discomfort which has grown, we now realize, into a blistering pain.

Some of us decide at such times that we are done with all shoes and walking. That is okay, but most of us would like to continue the journey. This is when rewriting is required, a search, you could say, for that pebble. It is astounding, when we find it, how small a thing it is for how much trouble it has caused. Don’t look at it for too long, however. Cast it aside. It has no value or meaning. It was an accident of perception that slipped under your feet and now that it is gone you may remember who you are and what life is.

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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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Rewriting

I was a member of a writing group for a short time. Like most writing groups, we shared our stories and some wine, and went around the room critiquing those stories. We all wanted to tell the best story we could possibly tell, and we were all there to help and support one another in this otherwise lonely endeavor.

These groups have become a staple of the ever-growing writing community. Sometimes these groups are helpful to the members, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes they help the writers better understand what they have created, and sometimes they become contentious ego-fests. Either way, the goal should be the same – to help the storytellers tell the best story possible. We may not agree on what a good story is or isn’t, but we all agree that we want the stories we read and write to be as interesting and funny and profound as they can possibly be.

I started Author and this column and now the Author’s Roundtable because I wanted to bring the same level of attention to the stories we tell about writing and publishing as we bring to the stories we offer to our critique groups. While writers can be meticulous in crafting the stories they send to magazines and agents and editors, they can be quite sloppy in the stories they tell about talent and intelligence and luck and rejection. These stories deserve the exact same scrutiny. These stories deserve just as much rewriting, and have just as many darlings that ought to be killed.

I would never walk into a bookstore and pull a book at random and read it cover-to-cover whether I liked it or not. To read that book is to live that book, to surrender my immeasurably powerful imagination to its reality. The stories I tell myself about writing and publishing are no different. To tell myself a story is to live it, to experience whatever limitations or cruelty or fairness or kindness it describes. My life is not some book pulled at random from the universe; it is a story I am telling myself moment by moment, a story I can write and rewrite as long as I remember that I am the one writing 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.

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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Making Whole

I just finished rereading a draft of my book this morning, and was overall pleased with it. Of course, there were those chapters with which I was not so pleased. Not pleased at all, truthfully. It was sort of painful to read them, all those words so thoughtfully chosen doing absolutely nothing to help the book.

You might think reading those chapters that I had somehow forgotten how to write. In fact, I had not. In fact, if you were to look closely at these chapters you would see that all the skill deployed in the chapters that did work was deployed here as well. Why then, would it be so unpleasant to read?

It reminded me of watching, say, Hamlet, staged by a skilled troupe of actors. What would happen if another skilled actor stepped onto the stage in an old T-shirt portraying Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire? What if it was Marlon Brando himself come back from the dead to insert Stanley into this Shakespearean tragedy? Would all Brando’s skill make his appearance any less irritating and bizarre?

Indeed it would not. Skill is only useful when in service to what belongs. Hard to remember sometimes as we fret over words and scenes and rising tension. In another book those un-working chapters might be quite lovely, but not in the one I had written. This, then, becomes what we call rewriting, finding the parts to make whole what it is not incorrect, but merely incomplete.

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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See It

Sometimes I will read a sentence by another writer that doesn’t ring completely true. Depending on how far from the mark the writer landed, such a sentence might get labeled “bad writing,” a term that is itself as inaccurate as the writing it claims to describe. The writing wasn’t bad, it was just unfinished and the writer didn’t know it.

I have written many, many such sentences in my life, and always a part of me knew at the time of the writing that there was something closer to what I had meant. I could not understand why some lines were spot on, while others strayed again and again from their mark. It felt like luck – or worse yet, talent, as if my only bad luck was being born slightly less talented than my literary ambitions required.

All of that changed when I learned that most of the best writing has nothing to do with words and everything to do with patience. And I don’t just mean the patience to rewrite. I mean the patience to wait until you can see or hear or smell or feel what you are trying render. You must have the patience to allow the lens of your imagination to focus completely on what you are trying to translate into language. How can you possibly render it accurately if it is not clear? How can you write what you cannot see? Such writing is luck, and you have about as much chance of winning that game as you do the slots in Vegas.

Before you put one word on the page, ask yourself, “Can I see it? Can I feel it?” If you can’t see it clearly, feel it clearly, put all words aside and wait. It is critical you not dwell in words in this moment; they will only confuse you. Wait until you have focused that lens as tightly as possible on your target. Then open your mind to words, and if your focus is tight and clear they will come effortlessly. There is no luck to it. There is only the willingness to believe that if you can see it, you were meant to write it.

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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The Friendly World

If you’ve ever watched a world-class sprinter sprint, you may have noticed how relaxed his face muscles are. In fact, although a sprinter must use every muscle in his body to propel himself as fast he can, he must do so in a state of focused relaxation. In this way a sprinter allows himself to run as fast as they can run. The same is true of singers. The temptation when trying to hit the highest notes would be tighten throat, but in fact just the opposite is true: the more challenging the note, the more you must relax.

And so it goes with writing. So many times I have come to passages where I either don’t know what I want to say or am not sure how to say what I want to say and have clamped down, as if I could put my brain in a juicer and wring the right word or scene from it. Yet when I don’t know what I want next it is because I am not relaxed enough, because I am trying too hard—or simply trying period, as if writing were somehow a mountain I have been forced to climb.

In this way, writing does sometimes feel like a test of faith. Jesus said it is all very well and good to love your brother, but go and love your enemy—now you’ve really learned something. Just so it is all very well and good to be loose while it’s flowing, but can I let go when it’s not coming? Can I let go when I don’t know how the story will end, when it’s been several days since it’s flowed, when my agent wants to see the latest draft and it’s not done? Can I let go then?

When all these things are conspiring it feels as if I am on a ship being rocked by waves, and I must absolutely grab hold of the gunnel or be tossed into the ocean. If at this moment I let go without giving up, if at this moment I surrender to not knowing, writing becomes more than a means to share what I wish to share, but instead a portal through which to view life. At this moment it is exactly as if an enemy has been made a friend, that the hounds chasing me were only my loyal companions calling me home.

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Open Ended

This afternoon I was watching an episode Spectacle, Elvis Costello’s excellent interview/music program. Costello was interviewing one of my old R&R heroes, Lou Reed. Reed is a rather literary guy.  He explained in his interview that he wanted to bring the subject matter and sensibilities of the Beat Poets to popular music, and I suppose he did.

He doesn’t rewrite, however. Lyrics come to him in one shot and if he tries to go back and improve on what came initially, he feels he will only ruin it. What’s more, he writes in bursts. There will be long stretches where nothing is coming, and, as he eloquently explained, during those fallow periods he could no more build a car than write a song – he doesn’t know how.

Costello asked if he was ever troubled during such stretches, and Reed confessed that yes, it wasn’t always easy. At this point in the interview, Reed looked heavenward and said, “You know, it’s like—is that it?  Is that all I’m getting?”

Costello asked. “Is that where you think it comes from?”

“I don’t know,” said Reed. “But it certainly doesn’t come from me. I just have to get out of the way.  You know, I don’t want to sound too new age or woo-woo, but that’s how it is.”

And I thought, “Too late.  And by the way, so what?”

At some point, like it or not, every artist of every stripe—if he’s honest—winds up sounding like a mystic when discussing his work. This can be unsettling for some, as many artists – particularly writers, for some reason – want to be taken seriously, and it is very easy to disregard mystical-sounding talk as so much mumbo-jumbo. And yet there we are, talking about letting something through that is not us, coming from somewhere beyond us.

It’s all right. Let it be mystical. There isn’t one writer I’ve interviewed – from literary to romance – who hasn’t admitted that the real joy of writing are the surprises, the characters who did what they wanted to do, the phrase that arrived fully formed in the imagination as if discovered under a rock. How is it we’re surprised if we’re the ones in charge? Why, if humans can’t tickle themselves, can they make themselves laugh or cry by what they write?

No—don’t answer that question. Let the answer remain as open as your heart must stay to hear the answer the question you ask every time you sit down to write.

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

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Blood Letting

Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, whose debut YA Fantasy Beautiful Creatures has been published in 30 countries, are happy to write as a team. They feel the collaboration keeps them honest. Every chapter is passed back and forth between them and edited with such ruthless disregard for the other’s attachment to a scene or a phrase (they call it a “very bloody process”) that by the end they often don’t know who wrote what.

I can’t imagine writing a novel with anyone else, but I have to say I admire these two women. Currently, my wife is the only one to whom I show my work before it goes off to my agent, and I think she has come to dread the delivery of my latest draft. This is entirely my fault. I was not always that gracious when it came to receiving criticism, constructive or otherwise. By the time she was done telling me what she thought of what she had read I was often wondering why she had bothered marrying me.

But I have mellowed over the years, and the protectiveness I once felt for every sentence has fallen away. The beauty of Kami and Margaret’s process is that if a line or scene doesn’t serve the story, it’s gone, no questions asked. After all, that’s the only reason a line or scene was written in the first place. The trouble comes when a line isn’t written to serve the story but the writer. Not surprising in this case that a writer might snarl or crumble when someone criticizes it.

As I have said before, our work is not us, and the editing process is where we must be most clear about that. And if you have suffered the confusion of mistaking your work for you—trust me when I tell you it is a great relief to end that perception.  Not only does the work flourish, free as it is now to shed its precious but unwanted trappings, but you may rest a little easier as well knowing there isn’t some second you bouncing around New York, vulnerable to all the knives of other people’s taste.

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

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Unranked

Recently I was watching a documentary on screenwriting comprised of a compilation of interviews with a lot of the top writers working in Hollywood. At one point the interviewees discussed rewriting, especially just how much of it is required to produce a finished product.  Several of the writers pointed out that Chinatown and Amadeus each took over 50 rewrites. A few went on to note, “None of us are as good as Robert Towne (Chinatown) or Peter Shaffer (Amadeus), so you know it’s going to take us at least this many rewrites to get our screenplays where they need to be.”

I reject this line of thinking categorically. Not the rewriting part. Whatever you must tell yourself so you don’t feel bad that it took you fifty or sixty or seventy drafts to finally get the story where it needs to be—fine. No, the part I reject is the “none of us are as good as (insert famous writer here).” I’m all for humility, but this is pointless. If you say you are not as good as Robert Towne, then you will never write anything as good (whatever exactly that is) as Robert Towne.

One of the reasons I started Author was that I spent lots of time writing but very little time meeting actual writers. However, as a life-long reader, I had quietly but steadily developed an unhealthy opinion of writers—namely that they behaved differently than everyone else, that all their failings were charming, and that they were always interesting and entertaining.

Author put an end to this illusion, an illusion I would have denied ever harboring, by the way. Don’t get me wrong—I love the writers I have met. I count myself as very lucky that I don’t read a book anymore unless I am going to meet or at least talk on the phone with its author. I have made friends with many of the writers, and not one enemy. That said, all these writers are people. People who love to write, but people nonetheless.  Putting Toni Morrison or Jonathan Franzen or even William Shakespeare above you, somehow, does nothing for anyone—not you, nor these other writers. No one benefits by making life a competition; eventually, everyone loses.

So forget where you or anyone else ranks. How will it help you write your next story? How will it help you say what you most want to say? If other people want to play the game of the top 100 writers or books or screenplays, let them play. You’ve got stories to tell.

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

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Finding The Way

After five tries I have finally gotten the most recent chapter of my book headed in the right direction. Five tries is a lot for me, and in the past this might have been a cause for anxiety up to and occasionally including the soul-draining belief that I will never finish another book again in my life. Not so this time, and my equilibrium has everything to do with having learned how I write books, which is what all writers are really doing when they sit down at the desk every day.

The chapter in question involved two characters, my narrator and his friend, meeting a third character and the three of them travelling on together. I had planned from the beginning for this third character to be met and travelled with and had what I thought was a clear idea of who she was. Apparently I didn’t, because once they set off I found this trio standing in the middle of a very dangerous corner of the forest chatting away for pages at a time as if they had bumped into one another on a street corner in Mayberry.

The girl was doing most of the talking. It turns out she had a lot to tell me about herself, all of which I found quite interesting, none of which made for interesting fiction. So she would monologue for a few pages, and I would think, “Great.  Now I know her;” and start again. Only to have her keep talking. It took four rounds of this before I finally knew enough about her to actually begin the chapter. At some point perhaps she will reveal to my readers what she revealed to me. Or maybe not. She told me her secrets, and that’s all that matters.

I considered this chapter a triumph of sorts because I understood right away what was happening and so was able to go along with it without worry. I had to learn what she taught me and this was how I learned it. When I was younger I might have tried to twist that information into a full scene because I had written it and to just take it out right away would be admitting a kind of defeat. That was back before I fully understood how I write books, back when I thought there was only one way to do it and I had to learn that way. That was agony. There are as many ways to write a book as there are writers, and trying to find The Way is like searching your closet for the shirt you are already wearing.

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

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Let’s See

Here’s another writing rule I’ve instituted recently. I call it the Let’s See rule. The problem is ideas. Ideas are great. They’re a start. And everyone loves them. Everyone loves to sit around and come up with ideas for how to make everything better. As the editor of Author, I have over the years listened to a lot of ideas for how to improve the magazine. My new rule for such ideas is this: don’t bring me one unless you also have some semblance of a plan for how this idea will be implemented.

This rule is a kind of cousin to my Let’s See rule. Implementation is all. So it is in writing, so it is in life. For instance, it is impossible for me to know if an idea conceived while running or taking a shower will actually fit into my story until I begin writing it. This is true of both vague ideas and ideas that appear to come to me fully formed. I had to institute my Let’s See rule because ideas can seem so perfect out of context, and I can get so excited thinking I know just what is going to happen next, that I refuse to accept when the idea doesn’t actually fit in the story.

Once again, writing is always about trust. There are lots, and lots, and lots of ideas floating through the biosphere. When one idea comes, I step back and say, “let’s see,” reminding myself that if it doesn’t work, more will come. More always comes. Once I have committed to a story, my only allegiance is to it, not some glittering idea that might come drifting by.

We are not our ideas. It can seem that way sometimes because certain very important parts of our lives begin as ideas: I’d like to write stories; Maybe I should move to Montana; I wonder if I should join the PTA? But just as your stories area a discrete emotional current moving in one definitive direction, so too are you a unique and discrete focus of energy.

Ideas are nothing. I cannot make money as a writer is just an idea. It is not a reality, it is only a possibility that might or might not fit within the current of your life. Your only allegiance is to the story of your life, the direction toward which you feel most powerfully drawn. Every idea is a gift from the universe that you can decline or accept. The universe’s feelings are never hurt. It wants only what is best for you, but it knows only you know what is ultimately best for you, which is why the universe always asks itself when it offers every idea, “Let’s see if he likes this one.”

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

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