Shared Stories

My friend Chris and I met when we had both just begun attending Hope High School, I as a freshman and he as a sophomore. He’d spent his freshman year attending Our Lady of Providence, an experiment in being a good Catholic that didn’t go well for him.

My first memory of Chris is of him telling me a story. I, an inveterate secularist, had asked him what it was like to go to a parochial school, and by way of explanation he launched into the Tale Of Father Knackowitz – Knack The Black to the terrified teenagers of OLP. Knackowitz was the school’s tall, imperious vice-principal, who spent his days wandering the hallways in his long black priest’s raiments looking for disobedient boys. Chris claimed he’d never seen Father Knackowitz without a Styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand. You could smell his coffee before you saw him, in the same way Captain Hook could hear the approaching crocodile by the ticking clock he’d swallowed. There was a rumor at OLP that it was always the same cup of coffee, kept hot and always full day after day by some unholy miracle.

But Father Knackowitz had a nemesis – McDougal. McDougal was a junior the year Chris attended, known throughout the school for his impious mischievousness. McDougal was clever, however, and whether he was skipping classes or scrawling dirty words on the bathroom walls, he was never caught. Everyone knew, but no one could prove, that McDougal was consistently up to no good. It was Knackowitz’s job – a job he in which he took ruthless pleasure – to drag misbehaving boys into his office and administer punishment. For two years and two semesters, McDougal had avoided that office.

One day in his third semester, Chris’s English teacher sent him on an errand to the school’s office in the middle of class. Boys could not wander the halls during class, and so his teacher gave him a hall pass; proof of innocence. Chris hurried down the stairs to the first floor and wound his way toward the office, where he bumped into McDougal himself. McDougal, who did not have a hall pass, winked at Chris, and ducked into the bathroom.

Chris delivered his teacher’s message to the office, stepped back out into the hallway – when he smelled the earthy-acid aroma of steaming coffee. He froze, and in the next moment Knackowitz swept around the corner, his robes flowing black behind him, his Styrofoam cup aloft. Knack the Black’s eyes burned momentarily seeing a boy in the hall, but Chris quickly presented his pass. Knackowitz nodded, and, coffee still aloft, turned to continue his rounds.

And that was the exact moment McDougal, kept unaware of the nearby danger by the lavatory’s own dense aromatic environment, opened the bathroom door straight into a turning Father Knackowitz. There was a thud, an “Oof!” and then – a splash. Chris could see the drips of coffee staining Knackowitz’s robe. As the door swung closed, McDougal looked up into the face of judgment, and dropped his head.

Knackowitz said only: “McDougal. My office. Now.”

McDougal was never seen or heard from again. Chris decided soon after that maybe he was a public school guy after all.

That’s the story as I remember it. Chris may not remember telling that story, may not even remember Father Knackowitz. That’s the beauty of stories and of friendships. They live in our hearts where they travel with us always, belonging to each of us only because they’re shared.

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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Back to the Well

Sometimes when I first sit down to write, I turn my attention to the well from which my stories come and find nothing. This is partly a consequence of writing these little essays, which I must begin from scratch each day, but I have also experienced the dry well when working on larger projects. When I was a very young writer, and had made the decision that I wanted to be a writer and not simply write when I felt like it, I thought I could manufacture the ideas the well would have otherwise provided. It seemed like the adult thing to do. Adults, from my limited experience, manufactured everything.

The manufacturing of ideas went very poorly. It was like trying to build a flower, which is to say I didn’t even know how to begin. This was vaguely worrisome. My life and livelihood were to depend on these ideas. If I was not their sole source, how could I create with any certainty? How could I know that ideas would come as bright and lovely tomorrow as they did today?

It was a good question that, like many good questions, sat unanswered in my heart until it became a complaint. This particular complaint had a metaphysical flavor to it, which gave it poetic credibility: “Oh, capricious Muse, wherefore art thou?” Eventually, I grew tired of that flavor, finally tasting the bitterness beneath its tangy drama. I saw then where that bitterness came from; I saw how easy it would be to live your life in that very bitterness, feeling abandoned and disappointed and resentful.

Which is to say, I let myself answer the question. If you’ve ever answered this question for yourself then you know it is impossible to describe where the ideas come from; you know only that they come. All we need, I have learned, is a good question. The better the question, the better the answer. Be careful with your questions, however. If it’s a really good one, the answer will arrive with such force that you may fear its momentum. You may feel unready or undeserving, a child who’s stumbled into an adult’s game. Fortunately, the longer you resist the answer, the more you will suffer, until the suffering becomes greater than the fear, and the well becomes a river flowing.

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

Wholly Present

I never went to church as a boy, but I did go to the theater – first as an audience member as a teenager, and later when I began performing my own show with my brother in my twenties. There was something holy about the theater both before and after the curtain rose. Standing in the darkened backstage, seeing the light beneath the curtain, listening to the audience as they found their seats, all the concerns of my life, the grievances of my past, my worries about the future, evaporated. Where I was at that moment was all that mattered to me, and being so wholly present I felt how much I mattered as well.

Then the house lights went down and the curtain went up, and there in the shadows beyond the stage light’s glow were the faces of the waiting strangers. Everyone was welcome in the theater. Where you lived, what you’d done, who you’d hurt or who you’d loved, what you’d gained or lost – none of it had any baring on your place in that crowd. Everyone at that moment was equal, for everyone was equally capable of forgetting the story of their lives and entering the story we were telling that night.

I had found the relationship between audience and performer holy for as long as I could remember. To surrender your attention was the greatest gift you could give another person, for nothing was as close to you, as dear to you, or as responsible for your experience than the direction of your attention. When someone surrendered their attention to me I felt I owed them a story worthy of their full attention, something that would remind them that life is always worth living. The only way to tell such a story was to give it my full attention.

When the show finished, and if the story went well, there was always the applause. I knew they thought they were clapping for my brother and me, but if they had really loved the show, if they had gone on the story’s journey with us, they could only be clapping for themselves. How nice to feel your body again, to hear it make noise, to celebrate simply being here, a human among humans, together in one place until all the lights go up and we disperse to what we call our separate lives.

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 Life Within

I discovered James Joyce’s Ulysses in my early twenties in large part because of the book’s reputation as a marginally unreadable tour de force. It’s not the sort of book you snuggle up with in front of the fire, being 600 pages long and chronicling one day in the lives of two men in Dublin in 1904. Not a lot happens, which is part of why I so enjoyed it. I liked that Joyce paid such close attention to the smallest experiences, that he was able to show me – no, remind me that when viewed with love and care every single moment, no matter how mundane, mattered.

I can’t be reminded of this often enough. My life’s pretty mundane, honestly, which is apparently how I prefer it. It’s easier to focus. The four walls that make up a life, the boundaries of my little world, are in the end illusory. Tempted as I often am to knock them down, to feel imprisoned by the cramped circumference of my daily route, it is sometimes good to be reminded that the only journey I have ever wanted to take begins and ends in exactly the same place.

Which is to say, the writing life, as I have understood it, has always been the life within. This is a reality with which I am still coming to terms after fifty-two years on this planet. I still kind of hope that what I’m looking for is out there somewhere – out there on the field of play, out there on the stage, on the book tour. It is easy to get lost out there when you’re looking for something where it isn’t.

On the other hand, the moment I find the right story, the right sentence, or the right word I am home. It is true that the storyteller’s imagination allows for limitless journeys, whether around Dublin or to distant planets, but the imagination’s greatest expanse is its portability. It’s with me everywhere always. It’s with me in grief and in boredom and in rage. It’s with me every single mundane moment, waiting and alive, a direct portal to the center 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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Universal Stories

When I wrote Fearless Writing, I often had in mind two pivotal experiences in my life: trying to make myself write fiction, and allowing myself to write personal essays. The personal essays were easy to write; the fiction was often hard to write. In the personal essay I found the most natural vessel for both my voice and the sorts of things I wanted to write about; in fiction, I often felt as if I was putting on a voice and forcing ideas into stories.

So that’s my story: The guy who tried and tried to write fiction until he finally let himself write creative non-fiction. But that’s not what I’m really writing about when I tell this story. I would never bother telling a story about how to stop writing fiction and start writing personal essays. Rather, I would tell a story about how to stop doing something you don’t really want to do and start doing what you love to do.

This is the job of every storyteller, whether the stories we tell are fiction or non-fiction: we are looking for the universal in the particular. It’s a good business decision, of course. There’s not much of a market for people looking to move from fiction to non-fiction, but there’s a very big market for people who want do what they love to do instead of what they don’t love to do. But that’s not why we tell our stories the way we do. It’s never been for the money. It’s because we love each other.

I forget this sometimes when I’m scrounging around the world fretting about platforms and proposals. These are the sorts of things with which I’m preoccupied now that I’m a non-fiction writer. Is my platform big enough? Is my proposal jazzy enough? These questions fatigue me because I feel like I should care about the answers but I really don’t. The more I try to answer them, the smaller and grubbier I feel.

So I quit trying. I sometimes wonder if this quitting means I’m lazy, until in my idleness an interesting an idea comes floating along. Because I only spotted it, and didn’t make it, I know that idea doesn’t actually belong to me. But my interest in it does. Now I’m fully awake, and not idle at all, and the idea grows and grows as I give all my particular attention to 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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Better Story

I’ve always loved to tell stories, and for years the stories I wanted to tell were stories I invented. Now, I only want to tell stories from my own life. Of course, I’ve always done this, it’s just that now I’m doing it professionally and for readers I might never meet. This presents a unique challenge. Why would someone who will never meet me care about what happened to me?

The answer is that no reader actually cares what happened to me, but they might care what I learned about life from what happened to me. To find this lesson, this meaning, I must look at the events of my life not as something that happened to me, but simply as something that happened of which I was a part. It’s a subtle difference, but if I’m a victim in any way then nothing will be learned other than that life is unfair and that I better duck when its blade is swinging my way.

Why bother telling that story unless I want people to feel bad for me? I’ve certainly told stories like this, and all that would happen is that whoever I told the story to would immediately turn around and tell me a story about how unfairly life treated them, to which I’d think, “Hey, this isn’t a competition!” Though maybe it was. In the land of victims, the king is the always one who’s suffered the most.

So I try to tell better stories, and the only way to do so is without judgment. To tell a story about what I learned, I simply cannot judge the past, meaning I cannot judge me, or anyone, or life itself. Judgment, the idea that this is good and that is bad, that this should have happened and that shouldn’t have happened, is a filter across reality, a veil obscuring life’s full value.

It is also, I’ve come to understand, a story I invented. Unlike the stories I used to invent on the page, I always mistook my judgment for reality – the painful truth I must accept. I never fully succeeded in doing so, which for a time I called failure. Then I started telling better stories, and the veil was lifted, and I succeed from time to time in seeing life as it was, rather than what I feared it might 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

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter