A Clear Path

Writing a book can be quite a long journey. Sometimes it takes six months and sometimes it takes six years. Often, a book lives in an author for years before he ever begins writing it. The book is an idea that won’t leave him alone, or to which he finds his attention returning on long drives or idle hours at work. Sometimes the journey is so long, is so woven into the fabric of his daily life that it doesn’t feel like a journey at all, just something he’ll be doing for the rest of his life.

I’d always loved the idea of journeys ever since I read the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo walks out of his garden gate with a mysterious magic ring in his pocket. I was only thirteen but I knew I wanted to be on a meaningful journey. What that journey would be, I couldn’t say. I was uninterested in travel, in seeing foreign lands. I knew I wanted to tell stories, but I wasn’t sure telling stories really constituted a journey.

Years later, when I was writing those stories but unable to find a home for them, I often felt as if I was going around in circles. I would sometimes moan to my wife, “Nothing’s changing!” When you’re on a journey, things are always changing. No matter what I wrote, the outcome was always the same.

Except even as I saw myself going around in these circles, certain ideas came niggling at me, ideas about the relationship between fear and creativity, between free will and the blank page. These ideas didn’t seem like the beginnings to the kinds of stories I was currently telling, but they were very interesting all the same. I would find myself returning to them every chance I could. They seemed important to me, as if I was unlocking a mystery.

By and by those very interesting ideas turned into interviews, and essays, and workshops, and books. Once all of that had manifested, as we say, it was easy to see the straight path between an idea that wouldn’t quit niggling at me and a career. It’s so clear, that when a new idea comes, as one did recently, I now see a new path where before I would have only seen something to think about when my journey seemed stalled.

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

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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A Better Question

I was a philosophical young man, by which I mean I would from time to time find myself asking, “What is the meaning of life?” I really did find myself asking that. I’d ask it after all other questions had been exhausted, after what I perceived as unnecessary and capricious suffering had gone unanswered. I did not really ask the question expecting an answer, which is good because one never came. I sometimes took this silence as an indication there was no meaning at all, but mostly it left me quietly confused.

The confusion reminded me of how I’d feel when I was writing a story that wouldn’t finish. Sometimes I’d think about that story: “Well, maybe it just can’t be finished.” I didn’t ask this often because I ultimately had faith that all stories could be finished if you looked at them from the right angle. That was the trick. If what you were doing wasn’t working you had to turn the story, ask a different question about it, and by and by you’d unlock it and away you’d go.

That was always the best. I was never happier than when that story had been unlocked. I didn’t know how it was going to end but I knew I was on the path, and all I had to do was ask, “What next?” and an answer would soon come. I did have to learn what it felt like to be on the path rather than just near it. That took some time, but all that was required to learn that difference was honesty, which I could usually manage in the privacy of my workroom.

After about twenty-five years of this practice I noticed that I wasn’t asking what the meaning of life was anymore, though I did still suffer. Now when I suffered I’d ask, “Where’s the path?” This was a better question. In fact, it’s really the only question. Everyone’s answer is going to be different to that question, just as every writer will tell a different story. To hear the answer is to find yourself again and again, find yourself not in a place but in a direction, moving forward with the flow of life.

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

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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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 our suffering first, and march in protest about how hard it is, and form committees to determine why everything 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.

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

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Between Words

When I was a boy I wanted to disappear into stories and music. The books I read couldn’t be long enough and the songs I listened to couldn’t be loud enough. I certainly loved playing football and Whiffle ball and Dungeons & Dragons, but no game I played, no single thing I did in the world seemed to be able to match the purity of stories and songs. While the games I played or the races I ran were tainted with the unfriendly yearnings of achievement and comparison, stories and songs offered no treasure greater than enjoyment for enjoyment’s sake.

I resolved early in my life that I would write stories to make a living, thereby coming as close as possible to living daily in the chaste and friendly confines of art. Unfortunately, I still had to get about in a world that seemed burdened with money and argument and loss. In fact, it was where I spent most of my time. I could not fully reconcile the uncomfortable difference between art and what I called life, and so I lived with a permanent, if noble, melancholy. It seemed like the only honest response.

Then what happened is I fell in love. Though really, I don’t think anyone falls in love. What actually happened is that I was moping about the world when I spotted someone and recognized something in her that I had been looking for more of in myself. It was as pure an experience as any song or story. Her company gained me nothing or won me nothing except her company, and that was treasure enough.

I have to admit it was hard to let go of the melancholy. I had become mildly addicted to its nobility. Yet it was increasingly hard to square with loving someone. I was tempted to put romantic love into the same special category as art, a pure experience removed from the dirty daily business of mere survival, but to do so would be to ignore that what I saw in her and I had begun to see in everyone and everything.

In fact, the closer I looked, the less difference I perceived between the world in which I survived and the stories and songs into which I had once wanted to disappear. The closer I looked, the more everything blurred together, the more everything seemed to grow from the same garden, until what separated us seemed no more meaningful than the space between words on a page.

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

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Half-Told Tales

My cat Charlie died yesterday. He was still a young cat, who seemed completely healthy and whom I had anticipated spending many more years feeding, petting, and having the kind of one-sided conversations to which cats seem amenable. But then he got very sick very quickly, and the next thing we knew the vet was telling us it was probably best to put him down.

I loved Charlie as much as I could love a cat, and as it became clear to me where we might be headed, I found myself starting something that I practice every day I sit down to work. I write about how much I love life. That’s my job. To do so, however, I mustn’t become too fixated on any of life’s transient details, not the things I use and see nor even the people and animals I know and love. To write about how much I love life, I must focus simply on life itself, that which flows through everything everywhere always. If I look too hard at the shape that life takes, I begin to lose sight of what I love so much about it.

Driving home from the veterinary hospital I found myself remembering why I actually loved life. I had to; it was either that or fall into the bottomless hole of loss. I do not think death is the opposite of life. I don’t think life has an opposite, except fear maybe, which is really just mistaking shadows for something permanent. But death does require me to focus in a way I normally do not while bopping around the world of people and animals and trees. It requires me to focus as if I were sitting down to write a love story whose ending I do not yet know.

I am always happiest than when I focus in this way. I have never read nor told a satisfying story that ended with acquisition of any kind. The hero might get the girl or win the trophy, but to do so he cannot confuse what he can see and touch for what he values most. If he makes that mistake, he is only prolonging his inevitable despair. Such a story is actually only half-told. The true end to every story is when the hero learns what he is and has always been, that he has lost nothing except the fear there is something to lose.

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

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Curious Discovery

Years ago, when I started writing this column on a daily basis, a regular reader asked how I found something to say about writing five days a week. I found the question difficult to answer. I didn’t actually know how I did it, I just did it, which as a teacher isn’t any kind of answer at all. So I said something about trust, which I knew was at least in the vicinity of the answer. The full answer, however, kept nagging at me like a story that wanted to be finished.

The more students and clients I’ve worked with since that reader asked me his question, the more I’ve come to understand that my first impulsive answer was in many ways the most accurate. That is, I was able to write prolifically when I understood that I didn’t have to know what I was going to write about. In creative writing, I had found a subject about which I remained interested on a daily basis. I saw the act of writing as a clear metaphor for life itself, for the every day and every moment creative act of choosing and choosing what to think and do and say next, just as I must choose and choose every next word on the page. All I needed to do was sit down and think about what had caught my attention recently, either in my domestic life or my writing life. If I’m awake, something is always catching my attention. My job then was to describe what had caught my attention and follow it where it wanted to go.

This, I know, is the part that’s hard to describe. This is the mysterious part, and the part I most look forward to while writing. This is the discovery. Without the discovery, I couldn’t stay interested. Which is why it’s so important that I not know what I am going to write specifically. It’s like imposing a kind of willful innocence on myself. As an adult, I like to think I know a lot of stuff and how to get where I’m going and what to do and why things happen. As a writer I must forget all this knowing and see the world as a child would, with a curiosity unburdened by judgment.

Though in truth I’m a bit like parent and child while writing. The parent in me knows that the answer to every question a story asks is: Everything is okay. That is something I’ve learned as an adult that I only suspected a child. Interestingly, I write a little less about writing these days because I have found a new metaphor in parenting. No matter; it’s all life anyway. My only job is to wake up and pay attention and be curious about what I’ll discover today.

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

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Balancing Act

Writing can happen in one place and one place only: The Present Moment. It cannot happen in the past, though we might – while in the present moment – focus our attention upon some past event for inspiration or material. But the writing itself happens in the present moment. And of course it can’t happen in the future, that sometimes near, sometimes very distant land where the story we’re writing will live when it’s finished. All creation happens in the present moment, because that is all that actually exists.

I have to remind myself of this every time I sit down to write. How easy to let my attention drift into the past, where I believe all my failures reside. Failure always lives in the past, in whose shadows, like a moss, it can thrive. In the bright hot light of the present moment – in which life is only potential, in which life is only forgiving, in which life is only curious – the concept of failure has no purchase for its hopeless roots.

And how equally easy to let my attention drift into the future, where I believe the value of what I am creating in the present moment will be revealed. I don’t want to waste my time, after all. Why write something that no one wants to read? To ask such a question is to hold my stories hostage until such time as the ransom of other people’s approval has been paid.

Which is why I have learned to ask myself two questions while I write: What do I want to say? And, Have I said it? Only the present moment can answer these questions. But keeping my attention where it needs and actually wants to be is a kind of balancing act, pulled as I am to the past and future. Drift too far either way and I will fall. No matter. The support of the present moment remains ever true, and I need only return to standing to find myself where I have always been.

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

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Peaceful Stories

The other night I spoke to a group of parents whose kids are on the autism spectrum. I had a great time and I hope to give more of these talks in the near future. I love public speaking, but normally I talk to writers about writing. This was the first time I’d ever talked to parents about parenting. Strangely, though the subject matter was different, the experience was more or less the same.

This surprised me. In the hours leading up to the talk I was nervous in a way I hadn’t been in a while. I knew I was going to tell stories I hadn’t told before, and no amount of preparation could unlock the mystery of how those stories would be received. Only experience could do that. So there was nothing to do but wait and wonder and repeat to myself over and over: “It’s going to be fine.”

As soon as I arrived for the talk I knew I was indeed going to be fine. The organizer had arranged the room just as I would have for one of my writing workshops – with a table facing the audience. I like to sit on a table when I teach, as it provides a small platform from which all the participants can see me equally. So I felt physically the same, which provided the helpful illusion that I’d done this before.

Then I started to tell stories. I love stories, whether they’re about writing or being a father. I love inviting the audience to take a journey with me. There is something magical about knowing that even though I am the one talking, and they are the ones listening, we are still somewhere together, even though none of us can actually touch or point to where we all meet. And I love that by the end of a night of stories we all feel as if we’ve been through something together.

I know that what I went through and what the audience went through was slightly different, but maybe not in any meaningful way. The real difference between audience and artist is negligible, as negligible as the difference between writing and parenting. Everything I do is a search for what can only be described as peace. To be at peace with the story as it was meant to be told, to be at peace with the child as he was meant to live, to be at peace with myself wherever I may be.

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

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Gifted

I turned fifty a couple of years ago. It was a mess of a birthday. First, I had not understood how I needed to make peace with what I perceived as a somber milestone. I had celebrated my 40th birthday with verve, flying in a few friends from different corners of the country. It was a great. Not so much my 50th. In the weeks leading up to it I never quite found the time to plan something. I was sort of operating under the dream that if I didn’t pay attention to it, it might not happen.

It did, and on the day itself my wife got very sick, so instead of going to a B&B we liked, we stayed home and ordered Indian food. She rallied enough to make me a cake, which I appreciated because I do like cake, but I also felt guilty watching her cough and cough while she stirred the batter.

Then, to finish things off, I got a rejection letter. This was for a book for which I’d long been seeking a publisher. I was certain I’d found a good fit. Turns out I hadn’t. I sat there reading the email, feeling old and disappointed. I closed my laptop and thought about feeling sorry for myself. It was my birthday after all. But at 50, I had had a lot of practice feeling sorry for myself and it never really had the payoff I hoped for. It was as if I expected the universe to notice my despair and set things right for me.

“What if,” I asked myself, “this rejection letter isn’t a problem?” I’d never let myself ask this question right after getting a rejection. Usually I’d let time show me why what seemed like a problem wasn’t. Time is a very gentle and patient teacher. But I was ready to move things along that afternoon. “What if this isn’t a problem?” I asked myself again.

I felt better just asking the question. I didn’t have the kind of answer time always provided – the new idea, the new agent, the new publisher – but in asking the question I could feel within me the space for something new. I’d been teaching myself to cultivate those spaces for 50 years. It’s the writer’s first and most important job. I have to make room for new stories before they can be told, and once that space is cleared I feel again that ageless optimism and curiosity that is any day’s gift.

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

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Unplanned

A few days ago I published this essay based on an experience I’d had working with a client. I like the essay, but it’s not what I’d meant to write about. What I had intended to write about when I sat down was how during my session with this client, while I was talking and talking to her about her inherent creativity and talent, I’d said, “You have to be relentlessly optimistic and curious.”

“Ooh,” she said, and made a note. “That’s good.”

“What’s good?”

“Relentlessly optimistic and curious. You should make T Shirts that say that.”

“Oh, right. Well that’s what you’ve got to be.” And I was on the next thing. Teaching is like writing in that when you’re cooking you’re always on to the next thing. Besides, I only said what I’d said because I was trying to help her feel her own creative potential. When we’d wrapped up our session and were headed for the door, she said, “I’m still thinking about relentlessly optimistic and curious.”

“It’s as much yours as mine, kiddo,” I said. “I wouldn’t have thought of it without you.”

That’s how it works, and why I love teaching. The student inspires the teacher who inspires the student who inspires the teacher.

So that, as I mentioned, is what I’d meant to write about. But it’s not what I wrote about. As often happens, a sentence came along early in the piece and I decided to follow it instead of where I had originally planned to go. This is what makes writing fun. I have learned to trust the surprising idea that feels more real and more interesting and more necessary than my plans. When this happens, the plan seems like the excuse my subconscious used to bring my attention to what really needed to be said.

These surprises, however, are also a big reason I am a writing coach. Many of my clients have not yet learned to fully trust these surprises more than their plans. It’s understandable. What if the surprises stop coming? What if they take you somewhere you don’t want to go? Experience has taught me that they never stop coming and they always take me somewhere I want to be – but everyone must experience and learn this for themselves.

In the meantime, I can sooth and encourage them to trust what I know is trustworthy. I have learned that teaching is most effective when I find new language to say what I have said before. Every student is different, after all, and every student is surprising. Tempting to lean on the old hits, so to speak. But better to trust that something new and something better and something inspiring will come along that neither of us had planned on but both of us needed.

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

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter