Interesting Difference

When I interviewed Yann Martel several years ago he pointed out that it was his book Life of Pi that became famous, not he. Unlike an actor, Martel could easily walk the streets of his native Toronto without being recognized. This is probably a best-case scenario for the average writer, most of whom happily practice their craft in an alive solitude with only their imagination for company. We love other people, our readers most definitely included, but they are very distracting and they sometimes make a lot of noise.

I say this as someone who, once he’s done writing, loves to find other people and talk to them. Now these other people are no longer a distraction – they are an inspiration. It is easy to become so familiar with your own work that you forget why it was ever so interesting to you. Fortunately, no two people are ever interested in the same thing for exactly the same reason. Because stories are brought to life in the alive solitude of the reader’s imagination, every reader I meet seems have a read a slightly different book than the one I wrote. The difference between the book I wrote and the book they read can bring that story to life for me again.

I thought about this difference when I watched the movie version of Life of Pi. I’d taken my youngest son to see it, and at one point in the middle of the film he began to cry. I glanced down at him to make sure it was crying that I was hearing, since I was watching the same movie he was, and I was not even in the vicinity of tears. He was most certainly crying. I returned my attention to the screen, where a zebra was struggling to climb onto Pi’s lifeboat. It was then I remembered my son’s feelings about animals. I loved animals too, but I knew he identified with them in a way I did not.

During our conversation, Martel said one reader he met told him the tiger sharing the lifeboat with Pi clearly represented marriage. Martel thought the tiger represented God, but he wasn’t about to disagree with her. Ideally, I would never disagree with anyone, even when someone doesn’t like what I’ve written. To do so would be to ignore the inspiring difference between us, a constant reminder that everyone has something new to offer – including me.

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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Beginnings and Endings

You are probably familiar with the expression, “Happiness is within.” Whether you believe it or not, by now it is possible that when you hear that phrase you are no more inspired by its message than you are delighted by the sight of your own furniture. Language is tricky that way. A combination of words is usually – though by no means always – most powerful when read or heard for the first time. Gradually any thought can become like gum we chew past its flavor with our familiarity.

Such is the challenge of writing: our goal is to keep that gum fresh at all times. Fortunately, not all the world is as familiar to me as my furniture. As small as the circle of my life often is, I see or hear something new in it every day. Whether it’s a headline in a magazine, an overheard conversation in the produce aisle, or simply the sight of a crow perched on an iron fence, what I can see, hear, touch, taste or smell frequently inspires me, simply because it is always in motion. The flavor of the world is always fresh.

By and by I bring that inspiration to the desk. At that point, however, I can no longer depend on the world I can see, touch, taste, and smell to inspire me. I must move my attention to a world beyond the five senses. Whatever thoughts were planted in my mind reading the headline or hearing the conversation or seeing the crow must now grow from the soil of my imagination and curiosity.

Sometimes those thoughts grow quickly and effortlessly and sometimes not. I am never happier than when the thoughts are growing into essays or stories. Life never feels so on purpose, so easy, and so meaningful as when I am connecting thought to thought to thought toward a story I want to share with other people. Fortunately, I have learned over the years to be patient when the thoughts are not growing so quickly. They will – if I trust that my happiness can indeed be found within. It’s where every story starts and every story ends.

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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Experiencing Stories

I write what could very, very broadly be called “self-help,” meaning whether it’s a book like Fearless Writing, or these blogs, or personal essays, or lectures and classes, the aim of my work is to offer a perspective on life that I believe will help the reader or audience better understand why they are happy or unhappy, why they suffer or why they succeed. Ideally, my readers will come away feeling less tempted to believe life is just a bunch of meaningless crap that happens to us.

When I realized I wanted to do this kind of work, three things occurred to me immediately: First, I was more interested in it than in all novels I’d written. Second, I wondered who the hell would want to hear from me about all of this? I was just some guy who liked to tell stories. Third, I worried about all the people who I knew would disagree with me. I had once been one of those people who thought the stuff I was now hoping to teach was a bunch of woo-woo hooey.

As it turns out, being a guy who likes to tell stories is an excellent foundation for anyone who wants to teach. After all, I was not just a guy who liked to tell stories. I was also a guy who had lived and suffered and learned. I was a guy who had doubted and felt confident, who had been hopeless and who had been joyous, who had been outraged and who had been at peace. I might doubt whether anyone wanted to hear from me, but I could not doubt the value of what life had taught me. To doubt that would be to doubt the value of life itself.

And one of the things life has taught me is that no classroom or book can match the teaching power of experience. Fortunately, stories are a form of experience. You may not have sat with me in the hospital wondering if my son had leukemia, but if I tell you the story of the time I did, and if you allow yourself to bring that scene to life in your imagination, if you allow yourself to worry and rejoice, you may feel as if you were the one waiting for the doctors to return with the test results. In fact, hearing a story about someone else’s life is strangely similar to reliving our own memories, as both experiences summon real emotions even though the experiences exist entirely in the imagination.

Which is why I depend on stories to teach. It is easy to disagree with an idea; it is nearly impossible to disagree with an experience. I have seen again and again how stories allow people to look at life differently the way a simple declaration cannot. It is one thing to say, “Everything is okay!” and it is another thing altogether to lead the reader into the shadow of fear, and then turn them naturally, humorously, and gently toward the constant light of 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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Deus Ex Machina

The best piece of writing I did in high school was also the last piece of writing I did in high school. Our principal had died suddenly in the middle of my senior year, and I was asked to say a few words about him at the graduation before giving his widow a copy of the yearbook, which we had dedicated to him. Both the knowledge that I would be speaking to the entire senior class and their families as well the solemn shadow of death cast over the occasion, focused me in a way the short stories I toiled over did not. I wrote that little speech in one shot, and when I read it to my yearbook advisor – who only a year before had suggested I make up stories and let other people write them – her voice choked when she said, “Yes. That’ll definitely do.”

A year later I wrote personal essay for my freshman composition class. I had never written a personal essay before. I found it easier than all the short stories I crafted and crafted and crafted. My professor told me it was the best essay he’d read in his fifteen years teaching the class. “Huh,” I thought, and then went back to my short stories.

I got better at writing fiction but it was never effortless. No matter. I had heard that writing was hard and I believed it. After twenty years of crafting and struggling I found myself writing personal essays again for this magazine, and they were exactly as easy for me to write as the one I wrote in Freshman Composition. But I was also teaching, and sometimes when I wrote my essays I’d get so excited by the ideas that I’d hop out of my chair and practice delivering the essays and lectures. I found that what I wrote taught me how speak, and whenever I spoke I was inspired to write more.

In my freshman year in college I also studied Aristotle. In his Poetics he said the ideal ending to a story should be “surprising but inevitable.” I have to agree. It’s no good if your reader sees the ending coming two-thirds of the way through your story, but the must all be in place. The surprising but inevitable ending was preferable, he believed, than those endings that depended on a deus ex machina, or the “machine of the gods.” Sometimes in Greek theater a machine would lower a character playing a god onto the stage in the final act, whereupon the god would sort out the mess the characters had created, punishing the bad and rewarding the good.

If you had told me twenty years ago that I’d be writing personal essays and giving inspirational talks, I’d have been very surprised. Then again, if I’d looked at the clues all about me, I might have seen how inevitable this conclusion was. But at that I was still waiting for my own deus ex machina in the form of a published novel to sort out the mess of my life. While I waited and struggled, life kept sorting itself for me, with or without my help. There is a machine of the gods, I believe, but it is always functioning in our lives. We just have to learn how to use it.

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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Good Questions

Writing got much easier for me when I accepted that my job was to ask questions and let my imagination bring me the answers. Sometimes my question was, “Why does the witch want to capture my hero?” or “What job does my protagonist really want?” But just as often they were questions like “How do I know I have free will?” or “What if happiness is our natural state of being?”

Every question I ever asked was answered, though it wasn’t always answered immediately. Or, more often, I wasn’t immediately ready for the answer. No matter; when I was ready I heard it, and if it was a really good question, the answer usually led to more questions. Questions are more interesting than answers. I have to remind myself of this often, because I spend a lot of time thinking all my worry would be over if I could rest in the surety of a firm conclusion. In fact, life is never duller, never less meaningful, than when I don’t have a question to ask.

Fortunately, life itself is always creating questions for us. This is good news for writers. I have had the pleasure of working with a number of clients recently whose lives have compelled them to ask fantastic questions. However, the means by which life helped them to ask these questions is what we normally call “trauma.” Like all people, the writers are tempted to believe their lives now would be better if only they could scrub their past clean of those traumatic events.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Life compelled these writers, usually at a very young age, to ask, “What is intimacy?” or “What is real strength?” or “What is unconditional love?” Once the question was asked, the answer started coming, but they were not ready to hear it, usually because they did not even know they’d asked it. So they start writing, where they could ask smaller questions on purpose, the answers trickling down to them in poems and essays and novels until gradually the answer that had been knocking and knocking on the door to their consciousness is allowed in.

I don’t want to suffer any more than you do. I want my days to go as effortlessly and undisturbed as a perfect Sunday picnic. But when I find myself wondering, “What the hell is going on?” or “What’s the point?” or “Why am I here?” I have not reached the end of my happiness. I’ve found again life’s interesting path.

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 Best Story

Though it’s been several weeks, the events at Charlottesville have stayed with me for many reasons, some of which have to do with being a writer. Seeing angry young men with torches chanting Nazi slogans and declaring they will not be replaced fills me with a mixture of confusion, anger, and fear. What’s to be done with these people? I ask myself. Rounding them up into cattle cars and shipping them elsewhere seems appealing, but then – as the saying goes – I’d be no better than them.

Which, by the way, I am not. The worst story humans ever told is that some of us are better than others. It has been told and told and told since humans first started telling stories. The Romans and the Greeks told it, and the kings and queens and peasants of Europe told it, and of course Americans told it, despite what we’d written in our Declaration of Independence. It is the most insidious and persistent story known to us, and despite how it always ends, how we know it will end, we keep picking it up and reading it and telling it.

I believe that’s because equality – true equality – is the simplest and most challenging story to tell. To really tell it, I have to walk down the street and see everyone I pass as absolutely equal to me. No one is worse than me and no one is better than me. No one. No matter how rich or poor, old or young, thin or fat; whether they’re saying hello or chanting Nazi slogans. The temptation to compare myself to others, to learn where I rank, is so great that I find myself doing it habitually, the way my hand reaches for a bowl of potato chips at a party.

This also holds true when I walk through a bookstore. No writer is better than another. No matter how many awards a book wins, or how high the sales, the writers themselves are all absolutely equal. That some writers have received more attention is not a reflection of that writer’s value, but of how much that writer values what they share. Editors and agents and readers cannot teach you to love your work; you’ve got to learn how to do it yourself.

The good news is that loving what you want to share is as natural as breathing. Humans may be brilliant at holding their breath, but eventually, breathe we must. I don’t know how to make someone exhale their fear and anger, make them stop telling the story of how they are better or worse. But I do know that I will sit down every day to learn how to better tell the story of how we are equal. Even if I don’t get it perfect, which I never do, I can’t go wrong with that story. It will always win out over the alternative. It will win because it uplifts instead of depresses, brings together instead of dividing, loves rather than hates and, finally, because it’s the truth. Once I let myself do it, the truth is always the easiest story to tell.

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

Simple Solution

I have a theory that a truism’s value is in direct proportion to how difficult it is to hear when you most need to hear it. For instance: all problems are like gifts that arrive containing their own solution. Writing more than anything else has taught me that this is definitely true, though you shouldn’t remind me of this when I’m deep in the middle of some problem. You might get punched.

On the other hand, I cannot write unless I remember this truth in some way. I noticed this repeatedly with my students and clients. Many of them are writing memoirs, all of which are based on a period in their lives where they experienced great difficulty. These writers all believe that their lives have taught them something valuable that they’d like to share with their readers. For obvious reasons, most of these writers do not want to dwell too long on their troubled pasts. Many want to hurry to the solution.

I find myself again and again reminding them to go back to their supposed problem. From a very practical standpoint, this is essential so that the reader can fully receive the gift the author is trying to share. If you want to share your understanding of unconditional love, you must show what is like to live for twenty years believing that you are unlovable unless you’re married or win the State Wrestling Championship. The reader must fully experience the suffering, so they might fully experience the relief.

Yet just as important is what authors learn in writing about their problems. The experience of writing about their troubles teaches the author how to write about the solution. The very language and metaphors used to describe the problem are almost always used to express the solution. What’s more, the author invariably finds the moment that they created the problem themselves, the moment they believed in their own limitation, or ignored their own guidance.

We are always the creators of our own troubles. Again, I don’t really want to hear this when I’m in the middle of my trouble. I’m usually pretty certain that if other people would just get their act together, my life would be fine. Or, on darker days, I think there’s nothing anyone can do to fix my sorry condition. I’ve already tried and tried to fix myself, and nothing’s worked. I want to give up – but then I must choose what to give up: living or fixing. The moment I give up fixing, living gets much simpler.

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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

The Storyteller

Sometimes I wander about the world as a storyteller, and sometimes as someone having a story told to him by the world. I look to the world for the story it is telling me only when I forget I am a storyteller, but this forgetting happens quietly, quickly, and frequently. I do not always mind the story I believe the world is telling me. It can be funny or exciting or even flattering. I particularly enjoy the flattering stories the world is telling about me. How nice that the entire world holds me in such high regard!

But I just as often do not like the story the world is telling me at all. It is such a depressing story, a story of happiness being something known only when the pieces of the world arrange themselves for brief trembling moments that can be enjoyed until chance, or inertia, or gravity, or evolution pull them apart. It is a story of greed, and violence, and lust, and vengeance. I must grab and cling to all the happiness I can before my time runs out.

I soon become a critic. If the world is bent on telling me these crappy stories, and if I am forced to listen to these stories—and how can I not be, since I am only one man and the world is huge and loud, and while I must rest, it talks on and on and on?—then by God I will do what I can to change that story. So I criticize and reject and complain. Then I do it some more. Yet still the world tells its depressing story, and I can but listen and watch.

It is nice at such times to retreat to my desk where the page is blank and I can ask, “What is the best story I can tell myself today?” How quickly my mood changes with that simple question. How optimistic and curious I become. And how I love that blank page, how it erases all the stories I told myself about the world and returns me to my natural state—a storyteller choosing a happy ending for the world he makes.

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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No Exaggeration

My younger brother John is a natural storyteller, which is to say he is not afraid to exaggerate. When we were boys, it seemed sometimes as if he lived in an elementary school soap opera peopled with Shakespearean-sized villains and heroes. One day after school he kept me rapt with a tale of his narrow escape from a mysterious group of predatory teenagers. Sensing the totality of my hypnosis, he went so far to stop mid-yarn and declare, “Wait! I hear them. No—it was just a dog.”

My mother, slightly less gullible than I, eventually caught him in a more conspicuous exaggeration and observed, “Making life a little more interesting?” John always appreciated the delicacy with which she handled this moment. As he explained to me years later, he lived his early life feeling as if I, two years his senior, had already done everything interesting someone his age might do, a perception I am certain I did nothing to discourage.

But as I said, he’s a natural storyteller, and he wasn’t about to let something so disposable as the facts get in the way of Job One, which was entertaining his listeners – or, more to the point, telling a story that accurately reflected life as he had lived it. I don’t have to live in his or anyone’s skin to know that his life meant as much to him as mine did to me. Sometimes the storyteller is confronted with the conundrum of a day’s routine events not seeming to match the depth at which he lived them.

So I have no problem with exaggerators. But I also know that I do not have to climb Mount Everest to find a worthy view. In fact, I do not even have to leave my desk. From time to time we storytellers luck out, and an event comes along so startling on its surface that it seems to do all our work for us. More often, however, we are left with days so similar to the last they could be laid one on top of the other like pancakes. I decline to call such hours meaningless. Let the historians mark the days as big or small; I reserve the right to find meaning in them all.

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