Enough Experience

Writers are often advised to “write what you know,” which can be tricky advice if what you want to write is, say, steampunk vampire romance. You are not a vampire in love and you do not live in 1890 and fly a steam-powered helicopter. You do, however, love vampires, steampunk, and romance – in fact, you know you love these things – which is why you can write about them with authority.

But even if you are writing in a genre set in another time and place, you must still make the characters that inhabit these faraway and fantastic lands realistic – meaning they must respond to trouble and temptation and triumph the way people do. It doesn’t matter whether your characters are elves, barons, pirates, or cavemen, the universal human impulses that guide us all must guide them as well. Believability is paramount to all stories, and the moment your reader thinks, “That wouldn’t happen,” you’ve lost them.

Of course, humans are dizzyingly varied in their behavior – so varied that it can seem at times as if we are each a species of one. Which is why I have found my own experiences so invaluable. I will never know suffering, joy, confusion, or clarity better than through my own experience. Since my target audience is other people, I have come to depend on my own experiences to make what I write about seem believable to them, wherever and whoever they are.

Everything your characters feel, you have felt, and so has everyone else. I know this intellectually, but each time I sit down to write, I must remember that what I have experienced in my rather limited and quiet life is enough. It is enough to reach anyone if I can write about it clearly and honestly. It is enough to create far-off worlds, or to write essays about creativity. Because whether I’m writing about the past or some distant future, I am really writing about what it is to be alive.

We are all exactly as alive as each other, a simple fact that connects us in ways we cannot perceive as we stumble about crashing into one another and arguing and falling in and out of love. No matter. To write is to go deeply into my own experience and harvest what belongs to us all, share it, and then live some more.

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

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Wine Story

The wine critic Robert Parker is supposed to have said, “Twenty years of experience can go out the door with a brown paper bag.” By which he meant you might think you know how to taste a wine when you can read the label, when you know how old it is and who made it and where the grapes came from—when, in essence, you know the wine’s story. But then taste that wine when you can’t see the label, when all you know is that you have a red wine or a white wine. Then you’re really tasting it, just the wine, not the story of the wine.

One night when I was waiting tables a man and his date sat in my section. The man was rich, and his date was fifteen years younger than he and beautiful. He was not so beautiful. First he ordered a bottle of Dom Perignon, at a $120 a pop, just to get things started.

“And I want you to get a bottle of Penfolds Grange breathing.”

“The Grange?” I said, just to be sure.

“The Grange,” he confirmed.

This was the most expensive bottle we had on the menu, which at that time was around $350. Penfolds Grange was an Australian Shiraz whose 1994 vintage was named Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator. It was, in wine parlance, a huge wine, meaning rich, full of tannin, and packing a fruity wallop in your mouth. It was the kind of wine that needed air to release the tannins, and it was also the kind of wine, not made so much anymore, that needed a few years to lay down, to let all those huge flavors coalesce and relax. I don’t know how wine does this, but it does.

I opened the Grange. He was very excited just to see the bottle. He told his date about it. She was very impressed. After it had breathed for a while he told me to get a glass. Tom, my manager and a very astute taster, was summoned as well. The man happily poured us each a taste and we toasted and raised our glasses to our lips.

“What do you think?” he asked, beaming. He was doing it, you see. He was actually drinking Penfolds Grange!

“Delicious,” I said.

“Isn’t it?” he said. “God. I could die happy right now.”

Tom and I thanked him again for the taste and took the rest of our wine back to the waiter’s station. Tom looked at me for a moment.

“It’s horrible,” he said.

“Yep,” I said. “Green as a Granny Smith apple.”

The wine was so in need of laying down, was so sour and tight, that it was virtually undrinkable. I had tasted green wines before, but nothing this green.

“Should we tell him?” I asked.

“Why?” asked Tom. “He’s loving it.”

That he was. He cooed over very drop. And for years afterward he and his lovely date would be able to tell the story of the night they drank the most delicious wine they had ever had in their life.

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

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Whole Story

I was watching the mini-series The People vs. OJ Simpson the other night, and there was one character in particular I was looking forward to seeing. Not OJ, or Johnnie Cochran, or Robert Shapiro, though they were all very well portrayed. I’d become familiar with them while I followed that bizarre trial with the rest of America. No, the character I wanted to see was the prosecuting attorney Marcia Clark. I had recently learned something about Clark that changed my perception of her as well as, in certain of ways, everyone associated with the trial.

You see I’d had a chance to interview Marcia Clark on my show Author2Author a few months ago. Clark is now a suspense novelist. Prior to our conversation, I knew, of course, about her surprise celebrity and that she’d published a book about the trial and then went on to write fiction. I assumed she’d written the book about the trial because that’s what a lot of people do when they are a part of something so sensational, and then, perhaps because of the unwanted exposure of the trial, decided that practicing law was just too complicated and so made the switch to novels, capitalizing, to some degree, on her name.

I was wrong about that. Early in the interview Clark revealed that since she’d been a girl her dream had been to be a novelist. But, like a lot of smart, academically inclined, hardworking, ambitious people, she was worried about the uncertainty of the writer’s life, and so chose to pursue the law. What’s more, once she made the switch to novelist, her name was more of liability than an asset. Like me, a lot of people assumed she wasn’t really a writer, just a curious celebrity looking for more outlets.

As I watched The People Vs. OJ Simpson and Marcia’s character appeared on screen, what I saw was an aspiring novelist working a high-paying, high-profile day job. I saw the childhood she described briefly to me, and the career waiting for her. And then Marcia would begin talking to Christopher Darden, or Robert Shapiro, and I realized I had written a story in my mind about those characters as well.

I have to admit that my backstories about the other characters weren’t particularly kind. I disliked the OJ trial with all its racial overtones and scandal, a dislike that had seeped into my perception of all those associated with it. All those, that is, except one. For a moment, I found myself wishing I could know every character’s true backstory, all the surprising choices from childhood forward that had led them to that place and time. Barring this, I would have to settle for the understanding that everyone’s complete story is always kinder than what I can imagine.

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

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

My Only Problem

In every story we tell there is always a problem our hero must overcome. Sometimes the problem is a killer that needs to be caught; sometimes it is a lover who cannot be won; sometimes it is a terrible storm that must be survived; sometimes it is a dragon that must be slain. In almost every case the hero must do something, must solve a puzzle, or climb a mountain, or win a race, or learn a skill. Problems, after all, aren’t going to solve themselves.

On the other hand, the challenges we face while writing our stories are a little different. Yes, I must figure out my story, must find a plausible and entertaining beginning, middle, and end, must write and rewrite until the pieces come together. But a story isn’t a problem; nothing appeared in my way to keep me from where I wanted to go. I was the one who chose to head off into the dark of my imagination until I’d found a way. That’s not a problem; that’s called life.

But sometimes while I am finding my way problems do appear to arise in my path. They often come in the form of questions, such as, “What if this story stinks?” or, “What if I never finish it?” or, “What if it’s unoriginal?” As soon as I ask such a question it is answered in my imagination, and I perceive a future in which my story stinks, or is forever unfinished, or is unoriginal. I do not like this future at all. And yet in the moment I am imagining it, this future feels more real than the present. Now, this future is a problem that needs to be fixed. I want to dismantle it and build another one.

Unfortunately, there is nothing to dismantle. The only way to solve the problem of the future is to ignore it. This is the opposite of the stories we tell, where problems are ignored at the hero’s peril. I must not mistake myself for a storybook hero. Unlike these paper kings and knights, my future remains unwritten, and my only problem remains the belief that what might happen is more important than what is.

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

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Indulgent

For the last ten years I have written about my own life, more or less to the exclusion of all other subjects. Even the book I have coming out in May of this year (Fearless Writing), which could be best described as a spiritual self-help book for writers, is based largely on my own experiences, whether as a writer or a teacher or an interviewer of writers. When I tell people what I write about, they will sometimes comment, “You must have a very interesting life.”

I do not. I have had very few adventures in my life. I rarely travel, I’ve been married to the same woman for almost twenty-five years, and I worked at the same restaurant for seventeen. In fact, if viewed from a certain distance, it might appear I have strategically planned my life to avoid making it worthy of writing about. This is not actually possible. It is not adventures, or trauma, or heroism that makes a life worth writing about; it is life itself, which is all I have ever been interested in.

In this way, you might call my writing indulgent. For the last ten years I have indulged my interest in what it is to be alive and human and getting about in a world filled with other humans. My own experiences remain my most intimate exposure to that subject. Yet my ultimate goal as an author is to connect with other people, to find those universal threads that connect us all. If I were to really write only about myself, I don’t think that connection would be possible.

What continues to move me, ten years into this journey, is the understanding that the quickest route to another person’s heart is through my own. The deeper into my own experiences I dive, the further I go beneath the surface of time and place and circumstance, the more I am able to find those currents flowing endlessly from soul to soul to soul. What I have called my life is just a portal, my personal entry point into the house we all share.

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

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Endless Story

I’ve probably never met you. If you’re a writer, I don’t know what genre you write in or who inspired you to become a writer, nor do I know who, if anyone, told you not to bother, that it was too big a dream and the odds of success were too low. I don’t know where you’ve submitted your work, and I don’t know what fearful stories you’ve told yourself in the idle hours you passed waiting to hear back. I don’t know how many stories you had to write until you began to feel like you understood what a story was, nor do I know how many writing books you’ve read or writing classes you’ve taken.

I may never get to meet you, and I may never learn the answers to these questions, but I do know this: You can’t get it wrong. You can’t screw this up. I know you sometimes think you can. I know any work of art appears to come together or fall apart, that as you write, you hope to stitch the seams of a mysterious fabric into a recognizable whole. I know the frustration of sewing and sewing and feeling as if your thread unravels with every stitch.

But I also know that your work only appears to be made of separate pieces. It does not matter how many poems, essays, stories, or novels you’ve written, it does not matter how many projects you think you’ve started and believed you’ve finished – in the end, it is all one. You have been telling only one story your entire life, and the pieces you completed or abandoned, and the pieces you published or did not, were all a part of this single, endless story to which you return day after day after day.

You know that already, though you frequently forget it in your efforts to polish something, to mint it lovely and done. You know it because at the end of every day, no matter many pages you write, whether your work is accepted or rejected, you can feel within yourself something discovered. You discovered something in loss and in victory, in effort and in effortlessness. To deny the discovery is to deny your own life, though you deny it anyway because you would prefer to choose the exact route of your discovery.

All routes are headed in the same direction, though some are more direct than others. Travel on. I’m traveling too, and perhaps some day we’ll meet. If we do, we’ll tell each other stories of our travels, of the things we’ve made or hope to make, of our successes and failures. There is nothing I love more than a good story. If I love yours, I’ll make it mine – another piece of this mysterious whole, discovered.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Life Story

If you wanted to learn how to lead a successful middle class American life, it would be tempting to observe from a scientific distance the form most of these lives take. With a little research, you would find that the majority of people go to school, where they do as well as they can so that they can get into the best college that they can where they study something more or less of interest to them. After college people usually get married and get a job doing this thing that interests them, and probably have children who in turn have children of their own and so the older middle class Americans now have grandchildren whom they dote upon between vacations until they– the grandparents, that is – die. The end.

Likewise, if you were to observe a typical story from a scientific distance you would also discover that most follow a familiar pattern: a hero wants something; the hero cannot have this something because of a weakness/fear/villain; the hero goes on a journey, either emotionally or physically, to learn what he or she must learn to get this thing. There will be a moment when the hero somehow faces death. Then the hero either gets the thing or doesn’t. The end.

If your life has followed the standard pattern – maybe exactly, maybe only vaguely – then you know that these connected events are not your life. No matter how closely your life resembles your neighbors’, you know that your life and your neighbors’ lives are wholly separate. You know, either consciously or unconsciously, that you must rise every day and ask the question, “Why am I leading this life?” And you know, either consciously or unconsciously, that the answer is entirely your own, and that the answer is your life.

I feel precisely the same about stories. I do not care that stories resemble one another in form. This pattern of a hero’s journey is not the story. The writer must ask himself, “Why am I telling this story?” The answer is the story – not the plot, not even the characters. Every day you sit down to write you must remember why you are writing your story, why it matters to you to tell it, and why it would matter to someone else to read it. The answer comes mysteriously every day, and we need not know why or from where, only that the story we are telling would have no life without it.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Caring God

When I was a teenager I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons. I was usually the Dungeon Master, meaning I designed the adventures – the goblin-infested castles, the dragon lairs, the haunted swamps – in which my friends played. The Dungeon Master is part referee, part storyteller, and part host, and if all goes well the game feels like a party with Doritos and polyhedron dice.

I was one of two principal Dungeon Masters in my little teenage gaming community in Providence, the other being my friend Evan. We were sort of rivals in that our games were often being compared. In my games, none of the players’ characters ever died. They were challenged, they were tested, but they were like heroes in a series whom the readers knew would always make it through to be challenged and tested in the next story.

In Evan’s world, characters died. He was an indifferent God. When the dice spoke, he and all the players listened, and if those dice spoke death, so be it. I played in his world once and I admired his indifference. The game was more exciting. Things seemed to matter more when the ultimate outcome wasn’t predetermined.

I would eventually adopt some of Evan’s indifference. Except it wasn’t indifference at all. I only wanted things to matter, whether it was a game of Dungeons & Dragons or a romantic relationship or a story I was writing. Life was better when you felt your decisions mattered, and so I would let the occasional character die for the betterment of all. Death in this way became the threat that was a gift, a focusing tool for the living, reminding them that the story is more alive when you know that it will end.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Cruel Shoes: Find the Story that Fits You

I worked for about twenty years as a waiter while I wrote a bunch of novels I had no luck selling. One of the toughest parts of being a waiter, especially if you want to be a writer, is that no one really cares what you think about anything, except for the occasional wine recommendation. If you want to write, and share what you have written with other people, you have believe that what you are interested in thinking about and writing about would be interesting to someone else.

When I finally left the restaurant and was hired to write storylines for a video game company, I was so happy find myself in a room with people who seemed very interested in what I thought would or would not make a good story. How nice to be valued for something other than my ability to bring someone their steak dinner in a timely fashion.

The only slight problem was that I wasn’t all that interested in the games or their stories. I considered this a minor problem, however, given how much money they were paying me. In fact, I used some of that money to buy a new pair of dress shoes. These were my power shoes. They were shiny, black, and made a satisfying clip-clop sound as I went from here to there in them.

The only slight problem was that I wasn’t sure if they actually fit. If I stood still they were fine, but if I clip-clopped from here to there my feet seemed to slide around a bit. But only a little bit. And they looked great. And sometimes shoes need to be broken in, especially power shoes made of stiff black leather. So I kept the shoes, and both loved them and feared them: my feet always felt so good when I took them off at the end of a day.

Then the video game company decided they would fly a few of us to New York to meet with a bunch of literary agents. The company had dreams of creating a line of books based on their games. How exciting! They would pay for my flights, my hotel room, all my meals, and I would I get to meet all these agents. Plus, I had just the pair of shoes for such a trip.

For some reason, my comrades decided it would be more practical to walk from agency to agency rather than take cabs. Fine with me, I said. So we started walking, and walking, and walking. By the time we left the third agency, my shoes had become instruments of torture. Every step I took was measured in pain. I stopped thinking about New York, and literary agencies, and games, and money. All I could think about were my poor, abused feet.

My happiest memory of the trip was of sitting on my bed in my hotel room slipping out of those shoes and feeling like myself again. My brother, who lived in New York at the time, came by and we went out for dinner and a few drinks. I was now wearing black sneakers with my dress slacks and blazer and I was very happy. About the same time I left the restaurant, I had gotten very interested in the relationship between spirituality and creativity. That night, I told him about my ideas. I always got very excited when I talked about these ideas.

“Why don’t you just write that stuff instead of all the novels?” he said at the end of the night.

“I can’t do that,” I told him. “No one would be interested in it.”

I was wrong about that, though it would take me a few years to learn just how wrong I was. No matter. The best piece of advice I could ever give another writer is to pay attention to how you feel. All discomfort, however slight, is guidance. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in paying attention to how you feel. That discomfort will grow and grow until you do.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Seeing Castles

Writing is about creative selection. You may see the whole castle from which your imaginary king and queen rule, but you must select those few, delicious details that suggest its complete majesty or decrepitude. Your details are markers for the reader’s imagination, which, if stimulated, rushes in to decorate your world and bring it fully to life. It is easy, however, when rereading your own work to imagine the whole from which you chose your parts and believe the reader sees this whole as well. Which is why we sometimes share our works in progress with a friend or editor or fellow writer. A reader’s innocence can be invaluable to help us see where our details suggested an incomplete world.

But it is not always easy to hear what is missing from your stories. And so time is another kind of beta reader. After enough time you have forgotten the whole from which you selected your parts, and you read the story as if it were someone else’s. And it is, in a way. If enough time has passed, you have changed in ways small and large, and this New You can read the story and not be hurt by what is missing.

Life, meanwhile, remains a story we are telling ourselves and telling ourselves. If we have been alive long enough, we have been telling this story for quite a long time. It is hard to put this story down, however, but fortunately life provides fresh eyes again and again to help us see the story new. These are called children. The old – myself, unfortunately, included – always assume it is their job to teach the young. It is exactly the other way around. Children do not come in knowing the story we have been telling and telling, and they always see the holes that we have not.

Who wants to hear what your story is missing? When we are told what is missing from our story we call children ungrateful or naïve. They’ll learn the truth. What they learn is what we have learned, to summon within us the simple courage to express that portion of the truth missing from the story we tell about life. And as this picture is completed, the castle is revealed, and we see the home in which we have always lived.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter