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

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Making Something

I have always thought of myself as ambitious, which, if pressed, I’d have once admitted was the steady and quiet desire to make something of myself. I would not be some idle passenger in my own life, twiddling my thumbs until they dumped me in the ground; I would grab the wheel and captain this ship to some port of my own choosing. I would go somewhere.

The problem with wanting to go somewhere and make something of myself is that I am always somewhere and I am always something. I have tried calling some places nowhere and I have looked in the mirror from time to time and thought maybe I was nothing, but these perceptions had the same unreality of the stories a writer cannot make himself write. Just as when I have found myself forcing a story somewhere it didn’t want to go, I learned eventually to step back from the mirror and let my mind return to stillness, a quiet space removed from the din of doubt and comparison.

I cannot fear this stillness. I cannot mistake it for the catastrophic termination of a shipwreck. As a writer, I have had to make a friend of that stillness as I have the blank page. That is where I must go to understand my role in my own life. I have come to see writing as my decision to join a conversation already in progress. It is a conversation that began long before I was born and will continue long after I have died. It is a conversation that only gets better and richer and more interesting as it evolves and draws in more and more participants.

Writing in this way taught me that what I call ambition is merely the decision to participate in my own inevitable evolution. The stillness of the blank page reminds me that my choices are my role in that evolution. No one can make those choices for me; stories do not write themselves. Whether I choose to write or not, however, does not stop the desire to write, that ceaseless call from life to join in the conversation. The moment I choose to heed that call, I am exactly where I want to be, and I remember again exactly what I am.

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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Waiting For Life

I was twenty-four and had recently relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a career in screenwriting. I didn’t have an idea for a movie I wanted to write, nor was I much interested in the screenplay format, but I wanted to be successful, and Hollywood seemed like the success Mecca. One of the many benefits I believed success granted was plentiful money. I was not the sort of fellow who wanted many things, but I knew didn’t want to worry about money. I hated worrying about money. It drained all the fun out of life.

So I answered a want ad for waiters for a new restaurant opening in Torrance. I drove the hour from Venice where I was crashing with a friend. My commute in Providence, where I’d grown up, had been a ten-minute walk; in LA, an hour was the norm. I found the restaurant in a pleasant, shady outdoor mall, and sat for the initial interview with the head chef at a patio table on the sidewalk beneath an awning. He told me he liked me and that he would hire me on the spot, but that I needed to interview with the owner first, who would be back from lunch soon. Could I hang around for an hour? I told him I could.

I went for a walk. Torrance, which I had never heard of until that afternoon, was a clean, orderly, coastal suburb. Though the mall was somewhat inland, as I strolled the tree-lined streets I could smell the ocean’s salty tang when a breeze stirred. I found a park and wandered along past benches and picnic tables. I was working up a little sweat, and so I found a tall tree across from a playground and lay down in its shade.

I closed my eyes, but I wasn’t remotely tired. I opened them again and stared up through the branches and leaves at the perfectly blue California sky. I could hear the children calling to one another in the playground, and the surrounding white hum of traffic, and the singular, nearing roar of a jet, and even, when I closed my eyes once more, the ocean’s empty, endless hush.

“When will I be able to enjoy this again?” I wondered. I knew the correct answer was Right Now, but Right Now was just a place where I waited until my real, successful, happy, worry-free life arrived. I got up and brushed off my interview pants and looked around at the park and the children and the surrounding hills and the canopy of sky – all of life, right there in Torrance, waiting for nothing.

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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Life Lessons

Writing has taught me that the only real currency that people value is how we feel. As a writer I never write about what is happening, I am writing about how a character feels while something happening. I do not report on the fact of the rain, I write about what it feels like to stand in the rain, or be chased by a killer, or see the woman I love, or be stuck in traffic. The feeling is the experience. The environment – whether it’s the rain, or a killer, or traffic – are merely opportunities for the reader (and often the writer) to learn who that character is. The character that sings in traffic to cheer himself up is different than the character that angrily honks his horn at the other drivers.

As a writer – as an author – I ultimately want to sell what I’ve written. As a fellow human, I know that I buy stuff that I think is valuable. That’s why I know I’m selling my readers a feeling. I’m a feeling merchant. My readers will forget most of what I write about, but if what I’ve written resonates with them, they will remember how they felt at the end of the story. Which is why I must be deliberate in choosing what my stories feel like. The feeling the story wants to share dictates what will happen in it, never the other way around.

It took me many years, but eventually I began to apply this same awareness to my whole life. It is my job, as the author of my life, to choose how I want to feel in any situation and then use that situation to learn how to feel that way. And by the way, I only want to feel good. I only want to feel peaceful and safe and interested and valuable and loved. There has never been a single moment in my life when I have wanted to feel bored, or agitated, or valueless, or unloved. And yet I have felt that way often. And every time I did, it is because I believed the situation required it of me.

This is what happens when I forget I am the author, not a character. Characters in my stories don’t get to choose how they feel. Sometimes the story needs them to be happy and sometimes the story needs them to be sad. Their feelings are in service to something bigger, which is the gift I ultimately want to share with my readers. As the author of my life, I cannot always choose what is happening, but I can always choose how I want to feel while it is happening. No one and nothing can stop me from making that choice.

I know I won’t always succeed immediately. Some situations are more challenging than others. It is easier to feel loved when someone says, “I love you” than when they say, “I hate you.” But failure in this case is only delayed learning, just as rejection letters are delayed acceptance letters. If I choose how I want to feel, success is inevitable, though I may have to learn the many lessons time kindly provides.

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

An Interesting Life

I reached a very low point in my life about fifteen years ago, when nothing I was writing was getting published, and I could barely remember what it felt like to believe I would ever have any kind of success in my life. I became so unhappy, it made all the unhappiness I had previously known seem like mere practice for what I was now experiencing. One night it became so acute I thought, “I have got to do something different.”

It took me less than twenty-four hours to identify what that something was: I had to stop looking for other people’s approval. I realized I had turned life into an endless game of winning approval. That was the trophy, the proof of my value, and the drug whose brief high promised to sustain me through the dull hours of my day. It’s an easy enough trap for an artist to fall into. It can seem as though your job isn’t done until someone else likes what you’ve made. Yet it also meant all my happiness and all my well-being and all my success depended ultimately to other people.

It was a disorienting realization. For a brief time it made life seem directionless. As I sat one night contemplating my New Life, I could not quite picture what would keep life interesting. A life-long game player, I no longer understood what winning meant. Where would the excitement and satisfaction come from? If life wasn’t interesting, if it wasn’t fun, I had no interest in living it.

What an interesting question, I thought to myself. Where is the satisfaction? And isn’t it interesting that life has to be fun to be worth living? I hadn’t really thought of that before. I had simply wished it was true, but now I had decided it was true. That’s interesting too – the difference between wishing and deciding. They’re actually close cousins. That’s interesting.

I had asked myself what would keep life interesting while I was sitting on my couch in the living room. I was now standing in my kitchen, but I could not remember how I got there. It was as if I’d teleported. That’s interesting too, I thought. I leaned back against the counter and noticed how I was feeling. There was that quiet calm I used to cherish when I was a younger man and I’d won a race or just come off stage. That was always victory’s true prize – the moment I reclaimed what I’d given to other people.

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

Just Learning

I write about writing and creativity all the time, but the other thing I write about is what I learned raising a son who was diagnosed with autism (for instance, this piece in the New York Times). The two subjects are surprisingly related. The lesson, for lack of a better word, that I learned raising Sawyer, my son, is that no one is broken – not him, not me, not you, not anyone. It’s the best lesson I’ve ever learned, and one I continue to understand more deeply every day.

One thing I’ve come to understand about brokenness is that pretty much everyone believes in it – men and women, scientists and ministers, artists and stockbrokers. Sometimes it seems like the only thing people can agree on. We just don’t agree who is broken; we only agree that someone is broken. Sometimes that someone is us; often it’s somebody else. You know it when you see it.

Except you don’t really. Our belief in brokenness and wholeness has everything to do with our belief in success and failure. Which brings me back to writing. Like Sawyer, writing has taught me much, including success’s infinitely malleable definition. Your success is not my success, just as your goals are not my goals, just as your interest is not my interest. Our concept of failure, meanwhile – that death-like end of happiness and potential and growth – is a reflection of our belief that there is a universally agreed upon definition of success.

There is no success and failure; there is only learning. Nothing else ever. Just learning. As a schoolboy, I won races and lost races. For the victories I was given trophies. For the losses I was given nothing. I learned equally from the victories and the losses, though at the time I resented the learning the losses offered. No matter. Years on, I no longer have the trophies, but the learning from the victories and losses remains, as the branches in a tree remain and continue to grow.

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

Belief

Whether you are writing a book, or starting a business, or attempting a seven-foot high jump, you must first believe that it is possible to do what you are about to do. Belief is more than a self-help buzzword; it is the starting place for nearly everything humans have ever attempted and accomplished. If I believe it is impossible to do something, I will not attempt it; if I believe it is possible, I might.

In this way, belief is more important than evidence. Someone might show me evidence that it is possible to become, say, a successful writer. They might show me hundreds video interviews with writers who were themselves once upon a time nothing but young men and women who thought it would be cool to tell stories for a living. No matter how many videos I was shown, I could still choose to believe it impossible.

Likewise, someone could show me evidence that it is impossible to become a successful writer. They could quote statistics of how many writers try and fail, how many manuscripts are rejected by agents and publishers. They could tell me I have a better chance of winning the lottery and that to succeed I must be both lucky and talented. They could tell me all of this, and I could still choose to ignore that evidence and believe it possible.

I have lived most of my life taking my own belief and disbelief for granted. I had allowed the concept of belief to drift into the airy realm of superstition and desperation. Yet it is nothing less the foundation of my entire life, the only springboard from which any idea can launch. It has never been my job to accept reality, only to believe in the reality I wish to enjoy.

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

No Sacrifice

When I was a teenager, a teacher suggested I consider a life in politics. I was deeply offended. To me it was as if she had told me she thought I’d make a good gigolo. Years on now, and having spent the last eight or so months marinating in political coverage as never before, I think that teacher recognized something in me that I did not. Namely, the creative writer and the politician are not so very different in their struggles and desires.

After all, both writers and politicians must be ambitious. We must be driven from within to expand the scope of our professional lives – whether it’s the better contract or the higher office. There is absolutely nothing wrong with ambition, with obeying my inherent impulse to grow. To resist that growth is to invite a quiet suffering into my life.

However, ambition is not an end in itself. Service, the desire to share something of value with others, whether that something is a poem, suspense novel, or fairer tax plan, is the only end worth pursuing. For a time, I was far more interested in ambition than service. Like a politician who will say whatever he must to garner the most votes, I spent many of my days wondering what I should write to finally get that contract. This was movement without direction, and it led me nowhere.

The moment I began to see my work as service, as sharing what I value most with other people, I was moving with direction. I have more compassion now for politicians than I used to. It’s easy to think that if you can just get as many people as possible to like you, you’ll be happy, that winning the election or contract are meaningful destinations in themselves. But the contract or the election are merely the platforms from which service can occur.

Do not mistake service for sacrifice, however. I give up nothing, I expect not one fraction less for my own life as I look to serve others. After all, I am only sharing what it is I value most, and I cannot share what I do not have. In this, I do not think about how much I can get from life, but how much I can give, and the more I give, the more I have.

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