A Way Back

For about four years in my early forties, I composed dozens of songs on my computer. What began as simple pop tunes quickly evolved into symphonic pieces. While I did have a rudimentary understanding of music theory, most of what I had to learn to compose the more complex pieces, I learned not from a book or a class, but from trial and error. As I look back at that time I am still surprised at how quickly an unschooled fellow like me went from composing for two instruments to fifteen instruments, a progression I attribute primarily to one factor: I never criticized myself.

I mention this because this was the polar opposite of the approach that I took for my writing. There I survived on a steady diet of self-criticism, which I felt served to keep me on the straight and narrow. Yet never – and I mean absolutely never – was it so with the music. I was just thrilled I could do it. I had dreamed all my life of being able to write symphonic music, and now I was.

At first, my wife, with whom I would share every song or sonata, felt the same way. “Wow,” she’d say. “That is so cool that you wrote that.” By and by, however, she got used the fact that I was writing music, and her responses changed. One day, after I played a new piece for her, she shrugged and commented, “That one really doesn’t come together.” Had she said this about a story I’d written, I’d have been furious or depressed. Yet with this sonata, I realized I didn’t actually care what she thought about it. I knew I’d learned something writing it, and that hadn’t changed because she couldn’t get into it.

This was an experience at once wholly foreign and intimately familiar. In the past, when opinions about something I had made arrived at my doorstep, I was used to viewing these messages as a command to head out in search of some treasure that would please everyone. Yet in this instance, I stayed home. That, after all, is where the music was being written and where all the pleasure I’d gained from it was known.

As an artist, I am still disoriented from time to time by this relationship between home and the world outside my door. What I create in here is meant to travel out there. I, however, am meant to stay home. It is tempting to try to follow those stories to ensure their safe travel, but I lose sight of them the moment I cross my threshold, and am left instead to search for a way back to where I belong.

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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An Old Companion

The suspense writer Chelsea Cain says that all her life she has felt safe. This safety had nothing to do with the company she kept, the economy, or locks on her door. It was simply something she understood about herself the same as she understood she was a writer. This, I have noticed, is an unusual quality amongst suspense writers, whom, in the course of our conversations, often talk about the threats lurking in the shadows of the world: terrorists, tornados, bad luck, bad people.

When I was a waiter I used to walk at night from the restaurant to my car through a small park in downtown Seattle. It was a lovely park by day, but it was rather shadowy at night. One evening, as I left the office tower in which the restaurant was housed, a young woman appeared from behind a wall. It was summer, and it was still warm, and she was dressed in a sleeveless shirt. She was quite young. She was out of high school, I suspected, but not by much.

She asked me if I knew how to get to a certain street and I said I did. “Good,” she said, “I’ll walk with you.” She wasn’t a prostitute. I mention this because these women would occasionally approach me, and always their invitations were both predatory and distant, and this girl had neither of these qualities.

My new companion began talking about what a cool city Seattle was as if we were old friends. She named a band she had seen. I found I was worried for this girl. She shouldn’t be walking through the park with me, I thought. She didn’t know me at all. Plus she had a woman’s body but a girl’s vulnerability. Even that she was wearing a sleeveless shirt concerned me. There was too much of her exposed.

Soon we reached the end of the park and she thanked me and told me to have a nice night and wandered off toward her destination. I couldn’t stop thinking about her as I found my car and drove home. One part of my mind wanted to continue worrying about her, but another part couldn’t. The girl couldn’t have chosen a more trustworthy companion for a walk through a shadowy park. Worried Bill wanted to call this luck. Unworried Bill knew the truth of it, and as always he would spend the drive home comforting his old companion.

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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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

An Old Companion

The suspense writer Chelsea Cain says that all her life she has felt safe. This safety had nothing to do with the company she kept, the economy, or locks on her door. It was simply something she understood about herself the same as she understood she is a writer. This, I have noticed, is an unusual quality amongst suspense writers, whom, in the course of our conversations, often talk about the threats lurking in the shadows of the world: terrorists, tornados, bad luck, bad people.

When I was a waiter I used to walk at night from the restaurant to my car through a small park in downtown Seattle. It was a lovely park by day, but it was rather shadowy at night. One evening, as I left the office tower in which the restaurant was housed, a young woman appeared from behind a wall. It was summer, and it was still warm, and she was dressed in a sleeveless shirt. She was quite young. She was out of high school, I suspected, but not by much.

She asked me if I knew how to get to a certain street and I said I did. “Good,” she said, “I’ll walk with you.” She wasn’t a prostitute. I mention this because these women would occasionally approach me, and always their invitations were both predatory and distant, and this girl had neither of these qualities.

My new companion began talking about what a cool city Seattle was as if we were old friends. She named a band she had seen. I found I was worried for this girl. She shouldn’t be walking through the park with me, I thought. She didn’t know me at all. Plus she had a woman’s body but a girl’s vulnerability. Even that she was wearing a sleeveless shirt concerned me. There was too much of her exposed.

Soon we reached the end of the park and she thanked me and told me to have a nice night and wandered off toward her destination. I couldn’t stop thinking about her as I found my car and drove home. One part of my mind wanted to continue worrying about her, but another part couldn’t. The girl couldn’t have chosen a more trustworthy companion for a walk through a shadowy park. Worried Bill wanted to call this luck. Unworried Bill knew the truth of it, and as always he would spend the drive home comforting his old companion.

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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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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Voice of Safety

My son got Fifty Shades of Grey for my wife as a joke. She didn’t open it, but I thumbed through it and was surprised that the first page I chose at random had a most graphic encounter between the heroine and her millionaire sexual overlord. As I understand it, this should not have surprised me in the least.

My mother was visiting last week and we found ourselves chatting about this very book, and arrived at much the same conclusion that my friend Laura Munson did in a recent article on the Huffington Post: women secretly long to be taken care of by a man. Or, more to the point, women secretly believe that being taken care of by a man in the chivalrous tradition would be wonderful.

This fact began to dawn on me in my late teens and early twenties when I was dating in earnest, and I was none too pleased by it. I had spent my childhood bombarded by the public fury of the women’s movement, and feeling vaguely guilty simply because I would be a grown man some day. Oh, the arguments I had in my head with those old school feminists. Oh, how glad I am now that I left those arguments in my head.

For the record, I am also glad for the women’s movement because I am lousy at chivalry. I like women as I like any friend, and chivalry seems to turn them into sexual children for which I am responsible. I am not interested in this particular responsibility, but there is one responsibility to which I remain committed: listening. I don’t know where listening lands on chivalry’s to-do list, but it ought to be on the top.

The older I get and the better I become at listening the more I understand that I would like to be better at it still. Listening is humanity’s starting point. I love words, and I love to use them, but talking without listening is a form of insanity. It is no surprise that a number of the women I have interviewed say that writing has taught them they have a voice. These women did not hear that voice in the words they chose for the page. They heard this voice by listening to that which speaks to us when we write. No prince’s arms will ever hold you as gently and kindly as that voice, which guides us forever toward the safety that is life.

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 Herd

Writers sometimes make reluctant capitalists, but whether we wish to discuss it or not, we are responsible for creating a product that we must in turn sell to the general public. The knock on capitalism, generally speaking, is its cold heartedness, a necessarily unfeeling engine of commerce whose deity, The Market, rights all wrongs through a Darwinian winnowing of the entrepreneurial herd. We writers, meanwhile, usually like to view ourselves as caring, empathetic people. Empathy is more or less in the fiction writer’s job description; how else to render believably all those people who aren’t us?

But there is something beautifully democratic about capitalism that every business owner, including writers, at some point understands. We all have our own crowd. We all have the people we eat and drink with, the people we seek out at parties. Society, in some ways, remains an extension of the high school cafeteria, with everyone gravitating to their respective tables. It’s not always inspiring, but it’s practical; easier to talk to people you like than to those you don’t.

But then you become a writer, and someone from another lunch table does something unexpected: they buy your book. In fact, you might look up to realize that only people from other lunch tables are buying your book. Now these people aren’t so bad after all. And not merely because they’re putting quarters in your pocket. When you meet your readers you discover for whom, beside yourself, you were actually writing.

Though I was the sort who bounced between different lunch tables, I have my preferences. While it is gratifying in a way to learn that someone I know and perhaps admire likes my work, there is something singularly uplifting about a stranger finding comfort in it. On the savannah, herd animals seek safety in numbers. Writers must go it alone to do our work, and our safety, in the end, depends on our willingness to accept all comers, to welcome round us anyone whose questions match our own. You see life then for what it is: a collection of curiosity, whose form must yield by and by to the answers received.

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

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A Moment’s Safety

Everyone who has lived even a short time on this planet has suffered something. It’s the rare person who makes it to high school without the divorce, the alcoholic parent, the distant parent, the needy parent, the bully, the breakup, the poverty, the sterile wealth. Anything at all in our life has the potential to form a kind of question whose answer, ungiven, becomes the hole around which our life quietly circles.

Many is the writer then who returns to this question in his or her work. Perhaps the writer does so consciously, wishing to explore or exorcise, or just as likely unconsciously—the woman abused as a child finds herself heroines again and again drawn into violent relationships. As writers, you must always go where there is heat, but as I finished Townie, Andre Dubus’s recent memoir about growing up poor and surrounded in violence, I was reminded how important it is not to become too attached or too enamored of your own story of suffering.

Always remember this: all your supposed suffering already happened. At this moment, all that hurt you, all that mistreated you—none of it is actually happening to you. You are safe. When you write, you are a sitting at a desk alone, and there is no one by your side to hit you, or leave you, or insult you. At the desk you are perfectly safe, and it is from this vantage that you are able to see your old suffering anew.

It is tempting in the writing to wish to return fully to that moment of suffering, to become the victim again, and in so doing show the world what was done to you so that the world will finally wake up and take notice and put an end to such things once and for all. It will seem like the truth, and yet it will be a kind of lie, for in truth you are safe. In truth, you went on living, and only the memory can hurt you now. Should you reach a point, as Dubus did in Townie, where you can at last look back on what happened and forgive, look back on your own suffering and see your own quiet role in it, then you will have something to offer the world besides an opportunity to say, “We’re sorry;” then you might have the opportunity to show someone else who is suffering that they are safe, that they are alone with a book, with this new friend, and no one can actually hurt them there.

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

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Safety First

Like many writers, Dori Ostermiller taught writing while publishing short stories and finishing her first novel (Outside the Ordinary World). Unlike a lot of writers, she decided that instead of taking a position as an associate professor somewhere she would start her own writing school, Writers in Progress, located in Western Massachusetts.

We talked about how one taught writing during our interview, and she stressed the importance of giving students the permission to write what was most important to them. I pressed her on this, because this sounded nice in theory but tricky in practice. Dori said the key was providing a safe working environment.

Of course. I read somewhere that a bizarrely high percentage of women believed that if they ever spoke what was really on their minds they would be killed. I’m sure the percentage is a bit lower for men, but probably not as low as you would think. Somewhere in all of us is a wary tribesman/tribeswoman keenly aware just how full of lions the savannah/mountain/jungle is. To avoid death by banishment we have all held our tongue at the dinner party, the water cooler, even in the bedroom. I am as guilty as anyone. At times, I have become a kind of chameleon, shaping all sorts of half-truths so I would be liked by whatever company I found myself keeping.

Isn’t it possible that somewhere in us there is also someone or something that wishes to die, that even must die? The face we turn to the world that isn’t ours. To ever know freedom we must first kill that which we built to keep us safe. Where better than on the page? Alone at your desk you can feel the lightness that comes from allowing through what you most want to say. Feel it for yourself and no one else; seek it every time you write. Wear the face again if you must when you leave the desk, but put it aside when you return to your work. Eventually, page-by-page, word-by-word, you will know that lightness better and better, and one day you will discover you have no choice but to let through in public what you have allowed through in private, that the pain of withholding finally seems worse than the fear of shame.

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

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An Old Companion

I have just received editorial notes on the novel currently being shopped by my agent. I always have to take a moment when I think I am done with something and then learn that perhaps I am not. My pride rears up and starts looking for a head to remove, and if none are available it might very well turn on me.

These can be dark days. I believe the editor in question had valid points, and so back I will go to see what changes I would like to make. Yet nowhere is there a solid antidote to the quiet whisper of doubt that arrives as a companion on any new journey. He is so convincing when he pleads his case.

“Look,” I say, “I think I’ve got this.  I’ll just have another look and see what has to be done.”

“But what if you don’t get it this time either?” he asks. “The problem was you weren’t meticulous enough last time. Let me just tag along and I’ll take a good long look at each and every choice you make so you won’t be in this position ever again.”

It’s a generous offer, and he is looking out for my safety, but in truth this fellow would be happiest if I never took the journey at all, for that’s the safest place possible—nowhere. I can’t hate him, though; I’ve invited him often enough before that it must be odd not being asked to come along this time.

I want to be safe too, but there aren’t enough locks on the door, or police on the street, or eyes on my page to keep me safe in the way this companion would like me to be safe. All you need to do is think, “I am unsafe,” and as quick as a blink you are. It is almost impossible to think, “I am safe,” if someone is always asking, “But what if you are unsafe?” and so this fellow cannot come with me.

He will understand. His is not an enviable job, and I believe it was I who assigned it to him once long ago. I might say he will be missed, but I have found that once he’s gone, it is as if he had never been here in the first place.

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