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

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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

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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