Playtime

When I was a boy, going to school seemed divided cleanly in two. While I waited for the first bell to ring, I lived on the playground. On the playground the only question was how to have fun. Did I want to play kickball or swing on the swings? Did I want to shoot hoops alone or join a game? Did I want to wander the perimeter alone drifting in fantasy, or did I want play tag with the other boys? These were the only questions I had to answer on the playground.

Then the bell would ring, which meant that playtime was over and work-time had begun. During work-time you tried to answer questions that other people asked you. Adults asked the questions because it was understood that this schoolwork was preparation for life as it would be lived once playtime was over once-and-for-all. Work-time was not nearly as much fun as playtime, but it wasn’t supposed to be. It was work.

The work wasn’t really lacking all fun. Sometimes the work meant writing stories or drawing pictures, and this didn’t feel like work at all, this was just playing, but with paper and crayons or a pencil. I will write stories for a living, I thought to myself. I must choose work that doesn’t feel like work. I do not want to live my life waiting for the last bell of school to ring so that my time can truly be my own.

Except even as I thought this I could smell the spring air through the open window mixing with the smell of chalk dust and school lunches, and in that very moment what was outside was inside, and I found myself where the playground questions were answered. You either choose to leave those questions on the playground or you don’t. No bell can take those questions from you, just as no person can answer them for you.

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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Interesting Conversations

Writers start stories and readers finish them. Writers probably know this better than readers, who consistently underestimate their role in their own reading experience. Without the reader’s imagination to bring the characters fully to life, without the reader’s ability to feel grief and love and joy and sorrow, the story would be no more powerful to the reader than a grocery list.

Which is why the best marketing advice I ever heard was from the publicist Dan Blank who told me that writers should look upon their books, blogs, and websites – in other words, their platform – as an invitation to a conversation. This conversation can be about absolutely anything, whether its steampunk romance or spiritual parenting. All that matters is that the writer is deeply, personally, and authentically interested in having that conversation.

Years ago, before I’d thought about any of this, I became very interested in the relationship between how I write and how I live. It seemed to me that the experience of following a story’s path was identical to the experience of following my life’s path. I wanted to learn how to apply the decision making process I used choosing the right word, scene, or story to all the choices I made. This relationship between writing and life did not just seem practical, but also had an enduring and magnetic effect on my attention. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I thought about it so much I felt like I needed to talk about it or my head would burst. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anyone besides my wife who also wanted to have this conversation, and she did not want to talk about it as obsessively as I did. So I wrote about it. This was like a conversation between my imagination and me. And when that wasn’t enough, I would talk to myself about it. I did this a lot. I’d pace my office or my living room or my backyard talking and talking and talking. I looked a little crazy, I suppose, but I felt if I didn’t talk I might go crazy.

Eventually, that conversation found its way to Author magazine, this blog, the book Fearless Writing, and my clients and students. The more I have this conversation, the more people I meet who want to have it too. It’s great. But that conversation started with me, and no matter how many readers I reach or lectures I give, my connection to the conversation remains the same. My attention need never go further than my own curiosity, which guides me faithfully through every story I write and every day I live.

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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Useful Villains

Every story, like every life, requires contrast. If you want to write about love, you must write about loneliness. If you want to write about triumph, you must write about defeat. Everything is always seen more clearly against its opposite. A flashlight’s beam does not register in the middle of a sunny day, but it is a swath of clarity at midnight.

This is useful in a very practical, crafty kind of way. If you know the gift your story is trying to give in its end, then you also know the suffering through which you must first take the reader so that this gift will mean something. You must remind the reader of suffering so she can appreciate and celebrate the relief that comes when the suffering ends. In this way, the darkness of our stories is as much a gift as the light, and most writers learn to relish their stories’ darkness, as an actor often relishes playing a villain.

We do not always apply this reality to our own lives. Darkness is darkness, and in it we cannot see and are lost. Villains are villains, and their villainy is expressed in their desire to harm or obstruct us, not help us. But who better to teach you what you know than someone who disagrees with you and who requires your greatest clarity to bridge the gap of misunderstanding? And where better to perceive your own light than in your own darkness? It was there, after all, you first recognized that which you had always been shining.

And who better than a villain to teach us that we are safe? To perceive a threat where none exists and then to find the truth is to awaken to your inherent safety. It is not always so simple. After all, it is our belief in our frailty that summons a villain to us, and their arrival feels like proof of the nightmare we are dreaming. But with this villain, there is no victory or defeat; there is only the contrast between a dream and reality.

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 Different Angle

I was in Los Angeles recently teaching at writer’s conference and visiting my brother and an old friend, both of whom work in television and film. Going to Los Angles, to Hollywood, is always a tricky proposition for me. I love seeing my brother and my old pal, and I certainly love teaching, but I also feel a bit how a recovering alcoholic might if he spent the night hanging out in a bar with friends. It is not just the proximity to temptation, but the memory of having yielded to temptation in exactly that location.

Though I had lived in LA for only nine months twenty-seven years ago, that time remains etched vividly in my psyche. For someone transfixed by the societal ladder of success and failure for much of his early life, Hollywood provided constant opportunities to measure how close to the top or bottom I resided. There were so many beautiful people in beautiful clothes driving beautiful cars to beautiful homes, and there were so many movie studios with iron gates and security guards keeping out the riff raff, and there were so many conversations with other writers and actors trying, trying, trying to make it. All of this and also the merciless Southern California sun, and the dry Los Angeles River, and the sprawling heartless freeways, and the men selling oranges at traffic lights, and the strip clubs, the people you’d meet who looked every bit like you who’d say, “You have be lucky or willing to sell your body in this town.”

So I was glad to leave that place, but the ladder can follow you everywhere. Back walking those palm tree-lined streets, feeling that weird Los Angeles sun, and everyone sparkly and ambitious, I felt the temptation to measure myself again. I was relieved to retreat to the hotel, and to the cool conference rooms where I could teach a little fearless writing. When I’m doing what I love it is easy to forget what I was never meant to love. After the class, sitting with my brother on his balcony, he asked, “When you’re teaching, what do you do when you look out and see all their fear and self-doubt? Doesn’t it freak you out a little bit?”

“Not when I’m teaching,” I said. “It’s like I can look right through it to who they really are.”

“Good trick,” he said.

“Yeah. Now, if I could just do that always.”

I glanced out over North Hollywood. The sun had set and it was cool enough for sweaters. I knew the Hollywood itself sign wasn’t far, that from a different angle I might be able to spot it through the palm trees lit by the city’s neon glow. I was just as happy then not to find that angle, and as usual that made all the difference.

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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Guided

There’s a great scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon where Monroe Stahr, the titular tycoon, is walking on the beach one evening with his girlfriend. They meet an old African American fisherman and get to talking. The fisherman asks Stahr what he does and Stahr tells him he works in motion pictures (he’s actually one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood at the time). The fisherman says he never cared for motion pictures, and Starh asks him why. The fisherman shrugs and says, “They just don’t seem realistic enough.”

This observation clearly affects Starh. The fisherman then wishes Starh a good evening, and walks off down the beach, “unaware he had just changed the entire motion picture industry.”*

This scene stayed with me more than any other in the book, and for good reason I think. As an author, there is no doubt that certain people’s opinions seem to matter more than other people’s opinions. From a professional standpoint, this is undeniably so. That your cousin the dentist thinks your novel is great is just not going to have the kind of immediate effect on your career as a rave review in the Times.

But from a human standpoint no opinion is actually more important or more valid than another. Though we might enjoy donning our fancy Author Hat as we strut about the world, at the end of the day that hat comes off and we are humans first, last, and only, a reality no publishing contract or movie deal can reverse. Everything beautiful, useful interesting, and profound you will ever write flows from your humanity. And just as no one is more human than another, so too no one’s opinion is actually more important than another.

You know this because before you were an author, before you’d sold anything or been reviewed by anyone, you were just a person who knew what you liked and what you didn’t like. You weren’t famous, no one cared what you thought with the exception of your parents (maybe), and yet what you liked and didn’t like guided you through your life. It guided you to your friends and lovers, to the books read, and eventually to writing stories of your own.

The intimate and private relationship to your tastes and preferences has remained constant even as your life has changed. Now perhaps you stand in a bookstore or library, reading your story to a crowd of friendly strangers. And even though they have all come to hear you, though they have gathered in this one place because of your book, in your heart you are the same person who had never written or published a thing, just a human guided by your humanity to this place and time.

*I apparently lent my copy of The Last Tycoon to some scoundrel who neglected to return it. So this is my best recollection of that scene. Apologies in advance to Fitzgerald scholars offended by any liberties I took out of necessity.

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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Unknown

In the middle of the Dark Years, when nothing I was writing was being read, I would occasionally threaten to quit writing altogether. “I will just quit it if things don’t turn around,” I told my wife.

“Really?” she asked. “And then what would you do?”

“I don’t know, but this ridiculous. I mean what’s the fricking point?”

“I get it, but what else would you do?”

It was a maddeningly unanswerable question. I was suffering. I knew this as certainly as I knew I was tired at the end of my day or thirsty after a run. But while I could sleep when tired or drink when thirsty, the power to end this suffering appeared to rest in other people’s hands. It was an unacceptable arrangement, a slave and slave master arrangement. More than to have my work read, I wanted to be free. I wanted my life to be my own.

Which is why I would threaten to quit from time to time. It was a suicidal choice, but sometimes it’s necessary to march yourself to that cliff if only ask, “Who’s making you do anything? Who’s making you breath and eat?” To take that leap is to remember the truth at last, as you fall freely into the unknown.

I’ll never be free from the unknown anymore than I can be free from blank pages. Those blank pages are my dependably unwritten future. They were also the answer to my wife’s question. When I wondered what else I would do, I perceived only a blank page, an unknown awaiting my attention, and the moment I stepped willingly into it, my life was my own again.

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 Second Discipline

Writers have to be disciplined. Most writers do not begin their career with a publishing contract in hand. Instead, the writer has an idea. That is all. This idea so interests him that he sits down every day, alone, often without encouragement, always without guarantees, just him and his idea, and he writes until that idea takes the form of a story he can share with other people.

This is one form of discipline. A writer can learn this kind of discipline with his first book. In fact, the writer must learn this discipline if he ever hopes to finish anything at all. But there is a second kind of discipline that cannot be learned with a single book. This discipline must be practiced again and again, from book to book, from day to day, from sentence to sentence even.

Here’s how it goes: You’re writing along, happily focused on the story you’re telling. You’ve forgotten about all your chores and your bills and your obligations; for the moment there is only this interesting story and the effortless feeling of laying your attention upon it. It always feels good to lay your attention on what interests you most. It requires no effort in the same way that eating when you’re hungry requires no effort.

But then, in the middle of wondering what you should write next, you have a thought. You think to yourself, “I’m interested in this story. I wonder if other people will be interested in it too?” Now you have moved your attention off of what interests you most and onto a question you cannot answer. It is impossible while sitting alone at your desk to know what other people are interested in, because they aren’t there. Any answer you receive is made up.

And so, trying to answer this question does not feel good. It feels as bad as laying your attention on what interests you most feels good. In fact, this question now feels like a problem. If other people don’t like this story, why are you bothering to write it? Why write another word if no one is going to be as interested in it as you? And because you are an adult, you have learned that problems don’t solve themselves. To fix a problem, you must pay attention to it until it is solved.

Unfortunately, the more you pay attention to this kind of problem, the worse it gets. Now is when you must practice your second discipline. The only way to solve this kind of problem is to ignore it. Despite all the momentum of fear that somewhere out in the misty future there is a world where no one likes what you’ve written, you must bring your attention back to the present moment where the story you want to tell is waiting for you. No matter how real that future appears as you stare at it through the lens of your imagination, you must deny its existence and will yourself back to reality.

It took me a while to understand this practice as discipline. A disciplined person, I felt, was willing to ignore some of life’s easy pleasures to build toward some desired future, like writing every day even if you don’t necessarily feel like writing every day. But this second discipline was about choosing to feel good rather than bad, choosing effortlessness over effort. And yet the degree to which I have mastered this discipline has meant the difference between loving what I do and fearing what I love.

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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Easy

When I was a teenager, I knew just a few things for certain, one of which was that I wanted a girlfriend. I knew I wanted a girlfriend the way I knew I liked David Bowie’s album Ziggy Stardust and T. S. Eliot’s poetry, and the way I knew I liked playing football and the game Dungeons & Dragons. I knew what happiness felt like, and I knew I preferred it to the alternative, and I also knew that all those other things that made me happy could not take the place of what I believed waited for me in the unique happiness of The Girlfriend.

I say believed, because when I had girlfriends, that unique happiness never quite materialized. In its place was an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying exploration. The difference between what I could picture in my mind when I thought Girlfriend and what was actually happening was the stuff of mournful sonnets and love songs. It was my own mental clarity around the subject that confounded me. I absolutely knew this experience could be better, the way I knew what happiness felt like. So why wasn’t it better?

The answer, of course, was that I was only seeing half a picture in my mind. I was seeing Me with Somebody. I could see me quite clearly; I just didn’t understand that the Somebody couldn’t be just Anybody. Then I met Jen, and I understood. I hadn’t wanted A Girlfriend. I had wanted to be with Jen, but I just hadn’t met her yet.

I made this same mistake with writing for a very long time. I knew I wanted to publish a book, the way I had once known I wanted a girlfriend. I had the exact same mental clarity around the subject, as well as the same confusion. Part of the reason I had wanted A Girlfriend was that any girl who said “Yes” to me could help me believe I was desirable. A published book, I hoped, would have the same effect. It took me many interesting but ultimately unsatisfying explorations to conclude that I didn’t want to publish just any book.

It was when I asked myself, “What book do you desire to publish?” that the experience of writing and publishing matched the pleasure I had believed it could bring me. It was like that first date with Jen. We sat there eating chocolate cake at Penguin’s Cafe, talking and talking and talking, and I thought, “This is easy.” It was, to that point, the easiest thing I’d ever done. Nothing was required of me other than following my own curiosity, which always led me right back to Jen.

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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My Own Variety

One of the nice things about having a job – by which I mean specifically a place you go where there are other people with or for whom you do this job – is that every day you do more or less the same thing, but because you do this thing in the world of other people, every day the experience of doing the thing is different.

For instance, I worked as a waiter for many years. The job of being waiter never changed. I was always trying to bring customers their orders as quickly as possible while being as polite and friendly and cheery as possible. But each table of customers was different than the last, and every shift, with its unique periods of calm and chaos, was different than the one before. Though I would not often admit it at the time, doing the same job for different customers and on different shifts taught me and taught me and taught me about myself and kindness and service. In this way, the ceaseless and constant variety of challenges was invaluable.

Writing is similar to any job you might work. No matter what I’m writing, I’m always doing the same thing: looking for the effortless way forward. The right story is the one on which I can focus my complete attention effortlessly, and the right scenes or sentences are those that fit effortlessly into that story. This never changes. What does change are the stories I tell, but unlike waiting tables, there are no other people to provide a ceaseless and constant variety of challenges. As a writer, I must create my own challenges.

That’s good to remember, because I do not always enjoy being challenged. I might whine about how hard something is: What drill sergeant god dreamed up this arrangement? Why the obstacle course of difficulties set between me and that happiness I desire every moment of every day?

To write, I must accept that I am the drill sergeant, dreaming new challenges for myself each morning. The old challenges just won’t do. They’ve served me already, and it is time to find a new path toward to the same destination.

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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Unburdened

For many years I wrote under great pressure. Because I had not published a book, and I was in my thirties and then my forties, and because I worked as a waiter to support my family, and because I was often ashamed to talk about what I did for a living, and because most evenings I drove to work wondering why I felt trapped in the life I’d created, I had come to see writing as my ticket to freedom. Freedom from shame, freedom from the burden of joyless labor, and freedom finally from the ceaseless threat of failure – that dark and final verdict on the value of my entire life.

So when I sat down every day to write, I wasn’t merely telling a story. I was trying to save my life. This made writing very difficult on most days. I knew how to tell stories, but I didn’t really know how to save my life – this thing I was already living. Some days, of course, I’d forget that my life needed saving, and I’d simply write. The work went effortlessly on those days, and for an hour or two I’d feel relieved from worry, and I’d step away from the desk at the end of my work with the vague sense that all my problems would soon be solved. Then I’d go to the job, and the shame and fear would creep back in, and the next day’s writing would be burdened once again.

Most of the clients I work with aren’t simply writing. They’re writing and trying to prove their value, or that they’re intelligent, or that they have a voice. My primary job as their coach is to guide them to the understanding that what they most want from the writing will come to them the moment they allow themselves to simply do the thing they want to do without any other requirement.

When they visit me in my office, I sit two feet from where I used to write, where I used to try to save my life. It is a useful reminder of what I am teaching. All the burdens we put on our work are like static obscuring the answers to our creative questions. How easy to misinterpret that static for lack of talent, or a story that’s not worth telling. How easy to believe the value of a life must be proven in accomplishment, rather than known in the joy of doing what I’ve always loved.

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