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

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Writing, Fame, and Kindness

When I was a young man, I wanted to be famous. It didn’t matter so much as what, though early on I recognized that writing was the most appealing path to follow. Fame, it seemed to me, meant freedom – freedom from worry, freedom from poverty, freedom from irrelevance and obscurity, and freedom ultimately from the suicidal thought that nothing I did or said actually mattered. If something I did or said reached and moved other people, then somehow this meant that what I had done or said mattered, which meant I mattered, which meant life itself mattered. So I wanted be famous.

I ended up spending about twenty years waiting tables, which was perhaps the exact opposite of my original career goal. When you’re a server, you have to forget about yourself. To do your job well, you have to forget about what you want and listen carefully to what other people want, bring it to them, and then go away. Your opinion matters little, though your patience and compassion mean everything. People come to dinner in all different moods, and from all different walks of life. To do your job well, you have to treat them all with equal kindness.

All the time I was serving people I was also writing; it’s just that no one was reading what I was writing. And yet sometimes I would come home after a shift, and there I would be, sitting alone in my living room, my wife and children already asleep, and if I didn’t think about being a waiter, or the stories I hadn’t sold, or how old I was, I found I would forget what it was I thought fame would free me from. I did not know what to make of this experience. It felt like giving up, and yet it wasn’t.

By and by I left the restaurant and was asked to start an online magazine. Now, people were reading what I was writing, which was strange because the experience did not feel significantly different than when people weren’t reading what I was writing. There is not much that can influence what it is to sit alone at your desk and translate your curiosity into essays and stories, except the unanswerable question of how to measure whether what you are doing matters. Does it matter if no one else is reading it? What if one person reads it? What if a million people read it?

A better question to ask, I learned, was, “What is the very best thing I can share with other people?” When I asked this question it was as if I was a server again, because to answer it I had to forget about myself. I had to forget about whether I was better or worse, whether I was right or wrong, and just listen. I was never as kind to myself as when I sat alone at my desk and listened. To listen was to be free from the idea that the difference between people matters.

Some days I listen better than other days. Some days I find I am just listening for what I want to hear. There is no kindness in this, only judgment. When I was younger and dreaming of fame, I would not have guessed that judgment is imprisonment and kindness is freedom. It got all mixed up as I looked and looked for what I already had.

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

 

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

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Gifted

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Self-Confidence

To write as well as I can possibly write, I must tap into my self-confidence. In fact, if I have lost all track of that self-confidence, if I have looked and looked for it where it isn’t, it is as if I have forgotten how to write. Without that self-confidence I cannot find the mysterious and unique path a story must follow. Without that self-confidence, the way forward seems as unknowable to me as a winning lottery number.

However, I have found it is rather easy to become lost in this way, for the self in whom I must have confidence is totally independent of my age and gender and height and weight. More importantly, it is independent of everything I have ever done – of every game I have won or lost, every award I was or was not given, every book I’ve published, every compliment I’ve been paid. The self in whom I must have confidence is independent of absolutely everything I can point to or name or hold.

This is a little tricky because sometimes I look for myself in all of those things. I look for myself there because it seems like the easiest way to distinguish myself from everyone else. I’ve done this and that and lived here and kissed this one and lost that one and drive this car and wear these clothes. On and on. There are so many differences, and yet the more I look for myself in those differences the further and further I stray from the only thing I have ever wanted or sought or needed.

Which is why I love writing and the blank page. What a helpful reminder. The blank page is uninterested in what I’ve done and where I’ve been. It is equally uninterested in what anyone else has done. The blank page asks, “What do you want right now?” It asks this question equally of everyone and accepts everyone’s answer equally. To answer the blank page’s question honestly, I must turn to myself, to my only connection to what actually belongs to all of us.

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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The Dream Ends

If you’re a regular reader of this column you may have noticed that there are two signature elements of my life that I write about again and again: my relationship with my wife, and my relationship to being an author. Both these relationships were for some time largely driven by yearning.

I was a very romantic boy who spent his childhood quietly yearning to meet a certain kind of girl. Then he met such a girl, fell in love with her, only to have her move far away six months later. I spent the next seven years pining for her, dreaming of what life might be like if we together again, and grousing about cruel and indifferent fate that separated me from her. Then I found her again, and we have been together ever since.

In addition to being a romantic boy, I was also a boy who loved to write. Once I moved in with my now wife I began writing stories in earnest and sending them off to agents and publishers. For many, many years those agents and publishers all said, “No, thank you.” My days were marked by long hours dreaming of what life would be like when I’d found success as an author, and dark hours fearing that success would never come.

Now that I am living every day with Jen, my wife, and writing books and talking to people about those books, I am confronted with a new challenge: I must live without yearning. Romantics like me secretly enjoy yearning. There is a kind of delicious agony you can maintain by wanting and never quite having. That wanting seems to be what drives your story forward. The having means the credits role, and there is nothing more to tell.

It’s why it took me so long to kiss Jen. I’d go to her house and sit in her living room and talk and talk, and then we’d stand in her doorway saying goodbye, and I’d think, “Kiss her. Kiss! Her!” But I wouldn’t. I knew I loved her as I hadn’t my other girlfriends, and I knew that kissing her would turn dreaming into reality. What if reality was no different?

When we finally kissed, I said to Jen, “Well, that took a while.” She replied, “You could have done that a long time ago.” Such is always the case. Everything I have ever yearned for had long been available to me, even publishing success. There is no point in yearning for love. It’s what I’m made of. I can, however, look for it where it isn’t, and dream of the day I’ll find what I’ve always had.

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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Blameless

I wrote the other day about the power of very good questions. Here’s an example of a not-so-good question: “What’s wrong with me?” Whenever I used to ask this question – which, for a time, was pretty often – it seemed like absolutely the most practical question to which I could put my mind. I only asked the question because something was wrong, by which I mean I was unhappy. If you’re a writer I don’t need to tell you what was wrong. It’s always the same for all writers – rejection and failure. These are not small and discrete problems, however. Their scope can be all consuming.

Which is why I asked this not-so-good question. I was an adult, after all, and as an adult when something is wrong, you fix it. The problem was that every time I asked myself – and by “myself” I mean my imagination, which answered all my questions, creative or otherwise – whenever I asked this question I got no answer. There was only silence, the void. It reminded me hauntingly of my worst fears about death. In fact, this thought of death seemed every bit like the life of failure, an endless absence of joy and discovery.

By and by (and by and by and by; I was a very slow learner with this one), I learned that whenever something was happening that I didn’t like, I would ask myself, “If nothing’s wrong with me, and if nothing’s wrong with anyone else, and if nothing’s wrong with Life, why is this happening?” I had to phrase it this way because I was sorely tempted to simply assign blame for my troubles. Blame stops all questioning without providing a real answer.

So I’d ask this question. It’s a good one, but you sometimes have to be patient with the answer. No matter. Just as I can sit quietly at my desk waiting for the next sentence to come, so too I can sit quietly in my car or at the kitchen table for that question to be answered. I could wait because now I wasn’t solving the Problem of Bill, now I was just thinking creatively, which is the happy pursuit of an expanded perception of life.

The answer, by the way, was always the same: I’d misunderstood. I mistook a rejection letter for my career’s death knell, feeling stuck with a story for a lack of talent. I’d made these mistakes and accepted them as reality. Do not accept death as an answer. The void is just a case of temporary blindness, of looking for what is wrong when there is nothing wrong and no one to blame.

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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Know Your Job

Up until the end of his fourth grade in school, getting my eldest son Max to do his homework was an exhausting exercise in parenting gymnastics. My wife invented games and songs and stories to make his work seem as friendly as possible. We created rules and rewards. We took his Gameboy away and we gave his Gameboy back. None of it worked. Every night was a competition between what he needed to do for school and what he wanted to do for himself.

One night I helped him write a report on John Adams. There was the blank page. His page was exactly as blank as mine when I sat at my desk every morning. Only he could fill it. I offered him prompts. I asked him questions about John Adams. I even suggested outlining his one page paper. By the end, I did everything but stick the pen between his fingers and move pen and fist across the page.

Then, one evening, Max took his homework into his room and did it without our assistance. When my wife asked if he needed help, he shooed her away. That was that. He eventually told us that he came to understand that school was a game he needed to play if he wanted to do certain things later in life. Now he and school were aligned, and we were no longer necessary.

Sometimes when I am trying very hard to write a book, I feel as if I am back in Max’s bedroom working on that John Adams paper. No matter how creative I was, no matter how supportive I was, I couldn’t do Max’s job. Likewise with the stories I would like to tell. My job is to be curious and open and keep asking questions; my imagination’s job is to do every thing else. I’ve tried to do both jobs and I am left feeling like a failure. No wonder. I’ve given myself an impossible task.

But when I remember my job and how simple it is, I feel like a success again. I know how to be curious, I know how to be open, and I know how to ask questions. That’s easy. In fact, it’s so easy I have to remind myself every day what my job is and what my job isn’t. And when our work is done, and if I have been disciplined about doing only my job, I leave my desk aligned with an ambition that knows only success.

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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In My Life

When you are pursuing a dream, such as publishing a book, it is very easy to believe that success, however you describe it, will change something about you and your life. I certainly believed it. Actually, I didn’t believe that success would change something about my life, I needed it to change something about my life. I needed it to change not just how I made money, and how I spent so many of my waking hours, but the quality of those hours, whether I was working or not.

The quality of those hours, in my opinion, was not ideal. A quiet and steady despair had settled over me, one that had begun, as all despair does, in the soil of my childhood, but which had spread like a tangle of vines in the busy garden of adulthood. I experienced it so often, there were days I wondered if this was simply what it felt like to be alive. I was an optimist at heart, however, and just as I could dream stories to write, I could also dream a life free of despair. Dreaming that better life was easy. It was so easy I escaped there as often as I could.

There came a day, when I had begun to experience the smallest glimmers of what I considered to be success, that I thought, “I want to be in my life.” I had lived so long swinging from despair to escape that I had lost track of the resting comfort of existence. Strangely, I was not entirely clear what was keeping me out of my life. My life seemed like something I ought to be able to step into as easily as those dreams I summoned for escape. And yet here I was, circling around the center of where I wanted to be, like a player unready to join the game.

Which was exactly the problem. The moment I truly understood success was the moment I stopped asking the question, “What if I’m not good enough?” The instant I stopped asking that useless, brutal, suffocating question, the despair lifted as effortlessly as dreams ended. That is the question that will keep the player from playing, the writer from writing. It is a question that can’t actually be answered by acceptance letters or reviews. It is a question that cannot be answered, because it never should have been asked. It can only be released, and what remains in its absence is life as you know it can be lived.

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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What’s the Point?

My wife and I have been homeschooling our youngest son Sawyer since he was thirteen because he could not cope with the traditional classroom. Neither Jen or I had any regrets about choosing to homeschool him, but as he got older Sawyer became increasingly worried that his education was not preparing him to lead a normal, independent, successful life. Now that he is 18, he voices those concerns nearly everyday.

I must point out that Sawyer’s worries are not totally unfounded. Even by homeschooling standards his education has been very unorthodox, a situation for which he is almost entirely responsible. Sawyer, you see, simply cannot make himself do something if he doesn’t want to do it. We would start many a lesson only to have him abandon it mid-class from lack of interest. This is why traditional school was impossible. In school, we are always asking children to do something whether they feel like doing it or not. My wife and I, like a lot of people, could manage this. Sawyer could not, and so here we are.

I happen to know there is nothing wrong with where we are, but it is hard for Sawyer to see what I see. These days, in the middle of our class, he’ll bury his face in the couch cushion and moan, “What’s the point? I’ll never go to college. I’ll never be able to sit through a GED test.” The other day, instead of bucking him up, I suggested we just start our music class. “What’s the point?” he asked again.

“You like it,” I said.

“Fine” he replied, and trudged over to the piano.

One of the things I’ve seen is that Sawyer has an intuitive musical understanding. I’ve seen this since he was three, when he drummed along to Hey Jude and his rhythm was spot on. This afternoon we were working on composition, for which he also has a knack. “Don’t modulate,” I told him as he started playing. “Just for this exercise, stay in the same key.”

He agreed, and began a chord progression. In the middle of the song he stopped and looked up at me conspiratorially. “You see what I did there? I skipped over C Major. I hate C Major. It’s such a boring, vanilla chord.”

I quite like C Major, and so we began to have little debate about its value. I suspected that Sawyer, a natural contrarian, didn’t like C Major because it’s sort of the mother of all chords, making it too mainstream. I had an idea. I told him to sit on the couch while I played a series of major chords. I was so certain that his objections weren’t based on the sound of C Major, but the idea of C Major. If he didn’t know a C Major was being played, he’d have a different idea of it. So I started. A Flat Major, D Major, G Major, E Flat Major, C Major—”

“See what I mean? It’s just so boring.”

I looked at my son. He was not even mildly impressed that he could easily identify a C Major chord by ear. His attitude suggested he believed anyone could. Anyone could not. I thought of how often, when I was 18 – and 28, and 38 – I found myself asking, “What’s the point?” I just wanted some certainty that the seeds I was planting would grow into something meaningful and interesting. Yet all my plans and ideas could offer me no guarantees other than my interest in them.

I’m in my own garden now, and everything that bloomed tallest and strongest grew out of what came most easily to me, what I often assumed everyone knew and everyone could do. The point, I continue learn, is always right in front of me – in the next most interesting step, the next most interesting word.

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