What You Have

I spent many years dreaming of success. It is a common dream for writers when they begin their writing journey. The agent, the book contract, the bestseller list – all these goals felt like distant, mysterious, and glorious cities. As I wandered about in the familiar circles of my life, I wondered what my days would feel like when I reached those destinations. When I arrived, I believed it would be as if I’d reached Paris, this city I’d read about and I’d seen in movies but never visited, a city of lights, a city of poetry and paintings and cafes – not a city where people trudged about arguing and complaining and worrying about the future.

That’s what waited for me. It was hard to picture, truly. Often when I placed myself in that imaginary world of success, it was as if I didn’t really belong there, in the same way the fictional characters I wrote sometimes didn’t belong in the careers or relationships I chose for them. My characters would squirm and behave unnaturally until I found their true vocation or partner. So too Successful Bill in the City of Success. None of it felt natural. Those dreams felt like scenes I’d edit out of a book I was writing.

This worried me. Writing had taught me that nothing unnatural, nothing forced, nothing I willed onto the page belonged in the reality of my stories. I had to allow what wanted to come through to come through. So why didn’t I belong in this wonderful, mysterious city? Was I actually traveling the dirt road of failure, the lonely path toward a ghost town where everything ends in dust? I’d read and heard of Failure Town. I assumed it was as real as Paris. Yet even in my darkest hours, when I dreamed this nightmare ending to my journey, I had to admit that my vision of Failure Town seemed no more real to me than Success City.

How strange. I could make no sense of it, and, in the meantime, my life continued. I kept doing stuff and looking for what was interesting where I was. What else was there to do? By and by, as I found more interesting things where I was, I began to have small successes. I published an essay here, was asked to give a talk there. Each time, however, I did not know if I could call what had happened “a success” — it felt too familiar. I was just doing what I liked to do, only for money or in front of people. Neither the world nor I had changed.

It took me many more years to understand that everything I would ever create, whether I called that creation a success or failure, was an extension of something I already had. The books were an extension of ideas and feelings living within me, and my talks and classes were extensions of a conversation I’d been having for as long as I could remember. The environment of the experiences was new, but the source of those experiences was not. This is what is meant when we say we “have everything we need.” We do.

The difference, however, between what I have to come to understand as success, and the long, unhappy, frustrating path I used to believe I was traveling toward success, was not the environment. The difference had nothing to do with money or attention. The difference was life with and without one question: Do I have what it takes? To allow this question to hang unanswered in my heart is to live in an unreal city of fear. To release it is to have what I have always had, and live in the only reality I was born to know.

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 Gift

Lingering in the back of everyone’s mind is the sometimes quiet, sometimes very loud question, “Am I good enough?” We spend so much time grading, comparing, judging and ranking ourselves that I don’t know how a person could avoid asking this question at least once, if only to test how it feels. It feels lousy, if you haven’t noticed, even just to ask it. Unfortunately, it also smells like the sort of question one must be able to answer “Yes!” to, because if we’re not good enough . . . well, that would be a problem, wouldn’t it?

Writers decide to write for many reasons. Usually, they love to write. Also, they would like to make money doing what they love. But these are not always the only reasons. Sometimes writers write and submit the stories and poems they’ve written so that these stories and poems will be rejected.

Yes, to be rejected. The more often you ask if you are good enough—and it matters not what you are pretending to wonder you are good enough at, that question only ever refers to us as a whole—the more likely the answer will be no. But we can answer no so quietly, so habitually, that we will soon grow accustomed to the sustained discomfort it provides.

You will not have that luxury as the rejection letters come in. Likely as not that quiet voice that whispered no sabotaged your story for this very purpose. Now, you will have to feel self-rejection acutely, and you will feel it again and again and again until you decide you are worthy of a life free from this suffering.

Such a gift, writing. Oh, I know, this is a gift you’d like to give back. Except that you crave, beyond any agent, publishing contract or Amazon ranking, the unequivocal yes you already are. Our lives are led to hold this permanently in our hearts, though it has never been anywhere else.

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

Unreal Journey

I quit college when I was twenty-one to become a writer. That was the plan, anyway. I didn’t need to spend tens of thousands of dollars at a university to write; I could do it for free at my desk. The problem was that although I loved to write and had a naturally diligent work ethic, the plan to become a writer felt entirely like a fantasy. I could not feel the sequential connection between the reality of sitting at my desk typing words onto a blank page and the reality of those words being read by strangers in a published book.

It made the supposed job of writer confusing. The job of writer felt nothing like the other job I took to earn money. Nothing about the job of waiting tables at a café and then a BBQ joint felt anything like a fantasy. That was reality, baby. That was a time card, and cash in my hands, and actual living people to laugh with and complain about. The job of waiting tables felt like life as I already understood it.

The fantasy of the job called writing did not. The act of writing felt like reality because I’d been doing that all my life. But the job of writing, of author, felt as unreal as a city I had never visited. Post cards and guidebooks and movies cannot begin to simulate the experience of living in the city itself. And so it was as if I was on a journey, but because I could not see my destination, every step I took felt as unreal as my imagination’s rendering of the city to which I believed I was headed.

Strange, but I needed to look to no further than the very stories I was telling to know how to get where I wanted to go. A book is written one word at a time, each word the best the writer can choose at that moment. There is no other way. So too that unreal journey. I never needed to know what the city looked like or what I would do when I got there. The only one question I have ever needed ask is, “What is the best step I can take at this very moment?” The answer is reality; the rest is a dream.

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

Finding Value

I was teaching a Fearless Writing class recently in which a student talked about what is perhaps an author’s most common fear: failure. You love the story, you write the story, you try to share the story, only to have it rejected. When I asked the student why he feared failure, what he imagined that experience to be, he said, simply, “Just – emptiness.”

Which makes perfect sense. Fear of failure, for writers in particular, is a natural response to misperceiving what it actually means to share something we’ve written with other people. It is common to look to other people to assign a value to what we have done. We do it in school with grades, at work with salaries and raises, with film and books reviewers, and we do it with publishers. By accepting our work, by giving us an advance, the publishers assign our work a value. Acceptance and rejection can appear to show us whether or work is worth writing or not worth writing.

Yet we do not share our work to learn its value, we share our work to extend its value. We only write about what we find interesting, and what we find interesting is always valuable to us. We never actually doubt whether we are interested in what we are interested in. How could we? But we do sometimes doubt whether anyone else will be interested. Or, to be more accurate, we realize it is impossible to know who will be interested in what interests us.

The emptiness my student described was actually a perfectly accurate rendering of what he knows about other people’s thoughts: Nothing. So, as writers, we must direct our attention back to what we do know, back to the story we love and are interested in and find valuable, and write it until what is on the page accurately reflects the value of what we perceived in our imagination. Then we share it with other people.

Some will see our story’s value, and some will not, just as some will laugh at our jokes and some will not. Once you begin to share your work regularly it will become clear that no one can assign value to what you find valuable. Your readers are just like you. All they know is what they find valuable. Your readers will find your stories the way you found your stories, but searching first within themselves for what interests them most.

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

Know Your Pedestal

Many beginning writers go to writer’s conferences or take writing classes under the practical guise of answering the question, “How do you write a book?” or, “How do you get a book published?” These are perfectly reasonable questions, but not, I believe, the real question these writers are trying to answer, which is, “Can I actually write and publish a book?”

After all, nearly every writer begins as a devoted reader, and reading is a uniquely intimate and strangely holy experience. The writer enters into creative collusion with the reader, offering the clearest and most compelling details of a story the reader must then complete with his or her own imagination. A reader may say she is reading to “escape from life,” but in fact she is only reading to escape from the fear of life. All books, all writing, all works of art, whether they are poems or mysteries or romance novels, serve the exact same purpose: to remind us, writer and reader alike, why life is good and interesting and valuable and unquestionably worth living.

No wonder then that we have a habit of putting these men and women called writers on pedestals – on daises even. What could be more generous, more profound, more holy than reminding us why the life we lead is worth living? And who of us was ever born on a dais? Are we not, every one of us, scrambling around in the pews, bumping into one another, coughing and yawning and needing to use the bathroom? How ordinary; how un-special.

Writers are, in fact, special people. Except the only thing special about writers is that they love to write. That is a writer’s gift. Meanwhile, you already know life is worth living because you are living it. You may have forgotten, but that is very different than not knowing. If you are a writer, write to remember what you know, and the moment what you have asked for returns you will discover that the pedestal on which you put the likes of Shakespeare had always been on loan from you.

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

Rewriting the Rules of Success

For many, many, many years nothing I wrote was published. This was a very difficult period of writing in my life. I am a naturally happy person. I look for excuses to be happy. But I am also an ambitious person. An ex-athlete, I expected to be successful at whatever I applied myself to. Writing success, namely publication, felt every bit like those trophies I trained and ran for as a schoolboy, only more valuable. Publication seemed to carry not just the glittering public triumph of victory, but also a financial security tied to something beyond my dull, daily labor – the freedom of being paid for what I would do for free. Writing success was a portal to life as I wished to lead it.

But I could not open that portal. Or that portal would not open for me. Or I couldn’t find the portal. It was hard to tell which it was. All I knew is I was where I was and not where I thought I should be. And so I was unhappy. I had to be. That was the rule: to be happy I had to be successful. I could not imagine myself both happy and unsuccessful. Trying to imagine a happy life without success was like trying to imagine a happy life without food or shelter or friends. So I was unhappy. Unless I forgot the rule, and got interested something, which always makes me happy – until I’d remember that I wasn’t successful, and I’d be unhappy once more.

By and by, little successes began trickling in. I was glad for them, but I still felt more or less as I always had. Clearly, these successes were too small to open that portal. Then one day, I learned that a publisher had offered me a contract for a book. I stood for a moment after hearing this news, surrounded in a strange silence. It was like the fresh peacefulness after a thunderstorm. Thunderstorms don’t create that peacefulness, though they do remind me what it sounds like.

So this is what life feels like without the noise of failure, I thought. How easy it would have been at that moment to attribute the peace of success to my contract. Yet to do so would have merely assured the noise would return if I didn’t like how many copies my book sold, or if I didn’t sell my next book, or if I didn’t win some award. The rules of success can always be rewritten so that happiness remains something to be desired and attained rather than something I own and express.

I didn’t actually have to be unhappy during those long dry years. In fact, what brought me the most happiness was also my path toward those acceptance letters I so desired. But I couldn’t have been convinced of that then. The rules were the rules were the rules, and I was certain I hadn’t written them. I had just been following orders and dreaming of the freedom I already had.

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 Common Mistake

I have always written, but for many years I also wanted to be a Writer. It was as important to me as the writing itself. The writing, after all, took place in private, but the Writer was the one who had to get about the world. If I could be a Writer, I believed, then I could feel as free in public as I sometimes felt in private.

I desperately wanted to be free. As a Writer, I would have no job. A job was something I had to do to feed and clothe and house myself. This wasn’t freedom. This was paid slavery. No, to be free I had to be paid for something I would have gladly done whether I was paid for it not. Being free meant no one could tell me what to do or when to do it. Being free meant I would listen only to that same voice that guided me through what I wrote.

What’s more, I only wanted to think and talk and do what mattered. To write a story or a poem or an essay is to focus on what matters most about life. In the solitude of writing, I was free to look beneath the dull surface of things, to see clearly what was so often obscured to me in the bright lights and hubbub of the world away from my desk. If I were a Writer, somehow such stuff would be left to other people. If I were a Writer, people would only turn to me for Very Important Things.

I never spoke of this to anyone, including myself. It seemed too narcissistic. Yet even such fantasies, summoned by the ego in moments when it was uncertain of its worth, have served as some kind of beacon for my life. I still want nothing more than to be free, to live my life as I want to live it, and I still seek to turn my attention to what I believe matters most. I had just mistaken being a Writer for being me.

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

Why You Don’t Have To Fear The Writing Game

The first time I interviewed the author Richard Bach, he described an evening he spent with Kurt Vonnegut, Truman Capote, and Leon Uris. “It was so disappointing,” he said. “Here I was sitting with these three great minds, and all they wanted to talk about was agents and advances and sales.”

In the other writers’ defense, Bach had recently published Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which was in the process of setting sales records. Moreover, though I am sure he enjoyed the fruits of that success, no writer I’ve interviewed has ever shown less interest in the business side of this business. For instance, when he sold Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the editor who bought it had to convince him to accept an advance. He didn’t care; he just wanted people to be able to read it. “If I don’t give you an advance, they won’t market it,” she explained. “Fine,” he said. “Give me whatever you want.”

I think of Bach’s story of his disappointing evening with famous writers sometimes as I’ve watched Donald Trump wage his bizarre campaign for President. I understand that all politicians are saddled with a problematic relationship to honesty. I don’t know if it would be possible to get elected and say exactly what you believe all the time. It’s like trying to write a story that would please readers of science fiction, romance, and literary fiction. That said, I can’t remember a politician who seemed so transparently willing to say whatever needs to be said to win. I have no real idea what Trump actually believes. For all I know, he doesn’t want to build a wall and his best friend’s a Muslim.

It’s easy to judge Trump, especially if you share my political views. But judgment assumes we have nothing in common with the one we’re judging, and everyone I know has something in common with Trump. Trump is above all a survivor. Winning is his way of surviving. I would like to say I’ve never been preoccupied with my own survival, that I’ve never descended into grisly conversations about sales and advances and marketing, that I’ve never viewed other writers as my competition, that I’ve never been jealous, or looked upon writing as a game I must win and win and win and win. Unfortunately, I have found myself swimming for my life in this shallow end of the writing pool from time to time.

But I cannot begin to write until I forget about the fearful and uninspiring business of survival. To write I have to forget about winning and losing, success and failure, and even dying and living. The creative flow to which we all have equal access doesn’t care about survival because it knows no end. It just keeps flowing and flowing and flowing the way the earth keeps turning and turning and turning. To listen to that flow, I must speak its language, which is the language of life itself.

Whatever happens this November, that flow will keep flowing. Yes, I’ll be unhappy if things turn out differently than I hope, but I doubt the entire world will instantly go up in flames. To fear even that outcome is to join those chanting the song of doom against which we must build walls, as if we could ever stem the flow of life, as if life is a game to be won or lost.

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

Our Full Attention

I had the pleasure of interviewing Nora Ephron about five years after she had published a collection of personal essays. She was funny and smart and had many interesting things to say about writing and movies and stories in general. After the interview, I walked with her through the bookstore to pass her off to the folks running her event. Small talk seemed in order. “Are you working on another movie?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” she said wearily. “They always want another one.”

It was the last thing she said to me before we parted ways. I don’t know how much of her weariness was a product of the grind of a book tour or the cancer that would take her a few years later. What I do know is that it had not occurred to me that a person could grow weary at the prospect of having to write and direct yet another major Hollywood movie. The only stories I ever heard about Hollywood and moviemaking and screenwriting were of struggle and triumph. As Ephron pointed out in the interview, movies cost a lot of money to make. They also require a lot people to say, “Yes.” Hear enough of these stories and it can feel as if making a movie requires an alignment of both celebrity and celestial stars.

And yet, as I made my way to my car, I realized I was glad for Ephron’s weariness. It made more sense to me than all those heroic stories of Hollywood success. I do not mean to suggest that life itself is wearisome and that none of our successes are worthy of a little celebration. But dangling in my writer’s imagination was the notion that there existed an Ephron-like level of success beyond which waited only the ceaseless pleasure of creative freedom undampened by the vagaries of other people’s approval.

Meanwhile, in my day-to-day experience, anything – absolutely anything at all – was potentially wearisome. No event, however dramatic, can by itself light the fire of my enthusiasm. The moment I withdraw my full attention, leaving behind just enough to do what needs to be done, or to write what needs to be written, or to climb what needs to be climbed, life becomes a burden to be shouldered against my will. Recall that attention, and I find again that interest is what I bring to an experience, not what I extract from 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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Love’s Success

The simplest writing advice I could give someone is to write the book he or she would most love to read. Not like to read, but love to read. Nothing brings you back to the desk like love, nothing holds you at the page until you find the best word like love, and nothing brings you home when you have wandered out into the midnight of self-doubt like love.

It’s good advice because writers always need their own private source of motivation. Somewhere in all our minds is the knowledge that, even with a contract in hand, we could still choose to chuck it all and the world would continue to spin perfectly well without our finished book. Writers need a daily answer to the question, “Why am I doing this?” and the best answer is always love.

This can be a disorienting answer for a goal-oriented fellow like myself. For instance, when I think of the love I feel for my wife, that love has no goal other than expression. It doesn’t care about marriage or sex or conversation or who’s right or who’s wrong, it only wants expression. When I express it, I am comfortable; when I withhold it, deny it, avoid it or reject it, I am uncomfortable. When I express it, the world feels correct; when I do not, the world feels incorrect.

So too, I have to admit, for the books I write. My busy, ambitious mind is filled with goals – I will write this number of pages, I will publish this book, I will sell this number of copies and speak here and teach there – yet the love upon which I must draw to achieve all these supposed goals, the love without which I could never finish a single essay, doesn’t give one wit for what I think ought to happen with what I’ve written. Love clearly has its own idea of success, and no matter how much I plan, project, complain, or criticize, it remains the only success I will ever really know.

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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter