Unburdened

For many years I wrote under great pressure. Because I had not published a book, and I was in my thirties and then my forties, and because I worked as a waiter to support my family, and because I was often ashamed to talk about what I did for a living, and because most evenings I drove to work wondering why I felt trapped in the life I’d created, I had come to see writing as my ticket to freedom. Freedom from shame, freedom from the burden of joyless labor, and freedom finally from the ceaseless threat of failure – that dark and final verdict on the value of my entire life.

So when I sat down every day to write, I wasn’t merely telling a story. I was trying to save my life. This made writing very difficult on most days. I knew how to tell stories, but I didn’t really know how to save my life – this thing I was already living. Some days, of course, I’d forget that my life needed saving, and I’d simply write. The work went effortlessly on those days, and for an hour or two I’d feel relieved from worry, and I’d step away from the desk at the end of my work with the vague sense that all my problems would soon be solved. Then I’d go to the job, and the shame and fear would creep back in, and the next day’s writing would be burdened once again.

Most of the clients I work with aren’t simply writing. They’re writing and trying to prove their value, or that they’re intelligent, or that they have a voice. My primary job as their coach is to guide them to the understanding that what they most want from the writing will come to them the moment they allow themselves to simply do the thing they want to do without any other requirement.

When they visit me in my office, I sit two feet from where I used to write, where I used to try to save my life. It is a useful reminder of what I am teaching. All the burdens we put on our work are like static obscuring the answers to our creative questions. How easy to misinterpret that static for lack of talent, or a story that’s not worth telling. How easy to believe the value of a life must be proven in accomplishment, rather than known in the joy of doing what I’ve always loved.

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

Good Questions

Writing got much easier for me when I accepted that my job was to ask questions and let my imagination bring me the answers. Sometimes my question was, “Why does the witch want to capture my hero?” or “What job does my protagonist really want?” But just as often they were questions like “How do I know I have free will?” or “What if happiness is our natural state of being?”

Every question I ever asked was answered, though it wasn’t always answered immediately. Or, more often, I wasn’t immediately ready for the answer. No matter; when I was ready I heard it, and if it was a really good question, the answer usually led to more questions. Questions are more interesting than answers. I have to remind myself of this often, because I spend a lot of time thinking all my worry would be over if I could rest in the surety of a firm conclusion. In fact, life is never duller, never less meaningful, than when I don’t have a question to ask.

Fortunately, life itself is always creating questions for us. This is good news for writers. I have had the pleasure of working with a number of clients recently whose lives have compelled them to ask fantastic questions. However, the means by which life helped them to ask these questions is what we normally call “trauma.” Like all people, the writers are tempted to believe their lives now would be better if only they could scrub their past clean of those traumatic events.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Life compelled these writers, usually at a very young age, to ask, “What is intimacy?” or “What is real strength?” or “What is unconditional love?” Once the question was asked, the answer started coming, but they were not ready to hear it, usually because they did not even know they’d asked it. So they start writing, where they could ask smaller questions on purpose, the answers trickling down to them in poems and essays and novels until gradually the answer that had been knocking and knocking on the door to their consciousness is allowed in.

I don’t want to suffer any more than you do. I want my days to go as effortlessly and undisturbed as a perfect Sunday picnic. But when I find myself wondering, “What the hell is going on?” or “What’s the point?” or “Why am I here?” I have not reached the end of my happiness. I’ve found again life’s interesting path.

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

Simple Solution

I have a theory that a truism’s value is in direct proportion to how difficult it is to hear when you most need to hear it. For instance: all problems are like gifts that arrive containing their own solution. Writing more than anything else has taught me that this is definitely true, though you shouldn’t remind me of this when I’m deep in the middle of some problem. You might get punched.

On the other hand, I cannot write unless I remember this truth in some way. I noticed this repeatedly with my students and clients. Many of them are writing memoirs, all of which are based on a period in their lives where they experienced great difficulty. These writers all believe that their lives have taught them something valuable that they’d like to share with their readers. For obvious reasons, most of these writers do not want to dwell too long on their troubled pasts. Many want to hurry to the solution.

I find myself again and again reminding them to go back to their supposed problem. From a very practical standpoint, this is essential so that the reader can fully receive the gift the author is trying to share. If you want to share your understanding of unconditional love, you must show what is like to live for twenty years believing that you are unlovable unless you’re married or win the State Wrestling Championship. The reader must fully experience the suffering, so they might fully experience the relief.

Yet just as important is what authors learn in writing about their problems. The experience of writing about their troubles teaches the author how to write about the solution. The very language and metaphors used to describe the problem are almost always used to express the solution. What’s more, the author invariably finds the moment that they created the problem themselves, the moment they believed in their own limitation, or ignored their own guidance.

We are always the creators of our own troubles. Again, I don’t really want to hear this when I’m in the middle of my trouble. I’m usually pretty certain that if other people would just get their act together, my life would be fine. Or, on darker days, I think there’s nothing anyone can do to fix my sorry condition. I’ve already tried and tried to fix myself, and nothing’s worked. I want to give up – but then I must choose what to give up: living or fixing. The moment I give up fixing, living gets much simpler.

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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

Suffering For Your Art

I don’t recommend suffering for your art. In fact, I don’t recommend suffering for anything – though you almost certainly will suffer for your art or anything else you want to pursue. I don’t know how to get anywhere without a little suffering. It’s the only way to know I’m headed in the wrong direction. All directions are possible, after all. The page of life is quite blank. And so I head out, picking what looks like the best route. My first choices are almost always wrong.

Or at least not completely right. There is a difference, I’ve learned. Wrong is simply too complete a word to assign to any of these kinds of choices. Within every sentence I delete is a portion of what I eventually choose to share, just as within every romantic relationship I pursued and ended there had been some aspect of what I found in the whole of my marriage. The key, I have learned, is to be kind. This is not always so easy for me. The boy who feared criticism grew into a man striving for perfection.

That was an empty and impossible pursuit, and oh, how I suffered as I sought it. I believed it was possible to achieve, because I perceived perfection in others. Not all the time, of course. People did all sorts of goofy and useless things, made all sorts of mistakes – but that wasn’t who they really were. That was just them trying too hard, or trying to solve problems that didn’t exist. When you dusted away the chaff of these choices, looked through the veil of a moment’s behavior, it was easy to see someone whole, unique, and in need of nothing but an awareness of their own inherent perfection.

Then there is me. I can look at other people, but I can feel only myself. The mirror tells me nothing. Sometimes I am suffering, and sometimes I am not. I don’t want to suffer. I used to think it was romantic, but not anymore. Suffering itself is a kind of veil I must look beyond, with the same vision I use to tell my stories. Suffering does not ask me to share it, dwell and writhe in it – suffering asks only that I recognize it so that I might return to myself.

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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

My Only Problem

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

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

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

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

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

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

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

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

No Difference

If you’re going to write anything at all, whether it’s an epic poem or an historical romance or a cyberpunk vampire space opera, you have to be able to tell the difference between one thing and another. You must be able to tell the difference between a story that interests you and a story that does not; you must be able to tell the difference between forcing a word or a scene or a character, and allowing a word, scene, or character. This is how you really learn to write. Nothing in all the classes you take or books you read can ever replace this felt, uniquely personal understanding.

And to write anything at all, you must be able to tell the difference between love and fear, between loneliness and companionship, between confidence and insecurity. To show something we must contrast it against its opposite in the same way we most enjoy breathing immediately after holding our breath. We create danger so our reader can fully appreciate safety, despair so they can appreciate contentment.

Remember, however, that all the differences we experience and learn to perceive are ultimately a part of a flawlessly integrated whole. To walk a tightrope, you must learn the fine difference between balance and imbalance. And yet these two opposites are in service to the same goal. The discomfort we have named imbalance is there to help, not to punish. So it is with all discomfort, and with everything we have discarded in favor of a different thing. Yes cannot exist without no, as form cannot exist without shadow.

As abstract as this concept may seem as you go about the very practical business of writing your next legal thriller or your first tender coming-of-age love story, it remains the source of your creative wellbeing. The idea that your creations are but a shadow, is anathema to creativity. We are not in the business of good and bad; we are in the business of what we want and don’t want. Everything is good in the end, even that meandering first draft you scrapped. You are a better writer because of it.

Which is why you have suffered so when you believed you were no good, that what you planted could not grow. You had believed completely in the good and the bad, had demanded it of the world, and yet if you looked closely at anything that you named bad you always saw some good. And so you labeled yourself bad to maintain this useless idea. The suffering you knew even then was merely guiding you back to the truth, back to what you are, back to what you want to create.

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

Privileged

If you’re a regular reader of these essays, you may have noticed that I often write about my many years spent working as a waiter. It is a rich source of material. I met a lot of people during that time, both coworkers and customers I served, and each taught me something about myself and life in ways both large and small.

Mostly, however, I write about how unhappy I was. I was unhappy because I was writing books that I couldn’t sell and because I didn’t know how to feel good about myself. I wanted something tangible I could point to as proof of my value and potential. I wanted to be proud of something I’d accomplished, and in those days, I felt I had nothing.

Which is exactly why I write so often about my time in the restaurants. And also why I like to write about some of the races I ran when I was young man. I actually won a bunch of those, for which I was awarded trophies and ribbons, but those aren’t the races I like to write about. I prefer to write about the races I lost, particularly the finals of State Championships my senior year in high school when I crashed into the second hurdle and finished last.

The first race I really remember winning was against my father. I was thirteen, and my mother suggested the competition, which my dad quickly agreed to. This was the same year my father went broke and found himself living in a slum and buying groceries with food stamps. That’s something else I like to write about.

I like to write about those times, because to write, I must sink into a dream that I make more real than the world I inhabit. I have to forget about the past and ignore the future and believe completely in something only I can perceive. To write, I must forget about what I can see and touch and call my own, and find again that intersection of curiosity and imagination, the source of everything valuable that has ever come to me.

I notice the word privilege is getting thrown around a lot lately. I understand that word is used in an attempt to level a playing field that appears, from certain perspectives, inherently unequal. But I have never trusted that word, steeped as it is in judgment. Nothing good in my life has ever grown out of judgment, whether that judgment was aimed at myself or at others.

Writing has taught me that our true equality can never be taken from us nor given to us. At some point, we all must learn that our value and potential has nothing to do with the house we live in, or the job we do, or what people think about us, or how many books we’ve sold or awards we’ve won. You can learn it in a mansion or in a tenement house. You can learn it after you’ve won the Pulitzer or after your hundredth rejection letter. The result will be the same. To learn it is to remember what you have always been and what you will always be and where to find what you have always been looking for.

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 Journey Back

Without problems there would be no stories.

I’ve written in this space several times about reading a passage from one of my novels to a creative writing class. The story was based on the summer after my senior year in high school, a time of tumultuous change for me, in large part because the girl I loved had just moved 3,000 miles away. I would eventually find and marry this girl, but I did not know that then, and I was very unhappy.

The chapter I read to the class depicted the evening after the narrator, Tom, said goodbye to his girlfriend. Tom is end-of-the-world distraught, and there is little his friends can do that night to cheer him up. The class was evenly divided in their response to the chapter. Half the class didn’t understand what Tom was so upset about. She’s just a girlfriend; he’s just eighteen. Life goes on and there are more fish in the sea. The other half of the class knew exactly why Tom was so upset. The girl he loved was gone. What’s not to be upset about?

I knew it was possible to help the first half of the class understand why his girlfriend leaving was a Big Problem. This would be the focus of my rewriting: to help certain people see problems where they did not previously believe they existed. Yet what a strangely diabolical job. Why must a storyteller upset his reader? If someone has a balanced view of something like love and loss, why not leave them be?

Because sometimes we do not know we have something until we are deprived of it, just as sometimes we do not know we are carrying something heavy until we are allowed to set it down. A story is not a punishment, but a reward, and the hero’s suffering is an expression of life lived without that story’s gift. It is a relief to come to the end, to return to ourselves, glad for the journey back and for what we might have found along the way.

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

The Holiday Season

It is very hard to try to do two things at once. It is very hard to love someone while simultaneously believing you must protect yourself from them, or that you must always be right, or that there are good people in the world and bad people in the world. Likewise it is hard to listen to your creative potential, your muse, your imagination if you simultaneously believe that you must write perfectly, or that you must know that what you’re creating now will succeed later, or that no one wants to hear from someone like you.

Be glad it is hard to do two things at once. All these stories of protecting ourselves and being right, all these stories of writing perfectly and success, are our invention. They are not real, and so can only be maintained by our constant attention. The truth, meanwhile, requires nothing of us. Love cannot be manufactured, only perceived. Our imagination cannot be commanded, only received. How kind life is to make suffering exhausting.

Eventually, everyone must rest. We will complain about it first, and march in protest about how hard it is, and form committees to determine why it is so hard, but by and by, because these stories are not actually a part of reality, we will either forget to tell them or grow weary of telling them. Either way, the truth of love, the truth of our creative potential, will be waiting for us when we do.

We will celebrate such moments. “The good stuff was really coming today,” we’ll say. Or we’ll say, “I had a great time with my wife. No arguments, no debate. Just fun.” These are like holiday seasons, respites of pleasure from the grind of life. But the other day a cashier asked me if I was looking forward to the weekend. “My life’s a weekend,” I confessed. And I didn’t realize until I said it that it was true.

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

Becoming the Author of Your Life

One of my favorite stories to tell when I teach or give talks is about the time I thought my youngest son Sawyer had leukemia. Mysterious bruises had appeared on his arm shortly after we started sending him to a day camp. He didn’t like going to the camp, but at five he had been diagnosed with a “language delay” because he did not seem to understand language at the rate of other children, and we thought everyday socializing would be good for him. Unfortunately, when we asked him about the bruises his answers were vague and uncertain. Finally, one fearful night when we spotted a fresh bruise when he got up to use the bathroom, I whisked him off to the hospital.

This is always my favorite part of the story, when I’m sitting in the Children’s Hospital examination room, wondering if he is very sick and if he will die. My gut was telling me there was nothing wrong with him, but my brain was reminding me that children do die and no parent wants to believe their child is very sick. The doctors drew his blood. Sawyer had been tested many times over the last year, and he seemed to fail them all. I sat with him praying he didn’t fail this one.

The doctors returned with their results: Nothing unusual. Still, perhaps he should return for more tests. I took him home, hating tests and hating how I couldn’t trust my gut, which had otherwise guided me quite faithfully over my life. A week later my wife noticed another fresh bruise on his arm. This time she asked him, “Did you give yourself that bruise?” He nodded, and mimed giving himself a hickey. Our pediatrician still wanted more tests. Instead, we quit sending him to the day camp, and the bruises went away.

This story shows why I love to write and read and teach memoir. To tell this story convincingly I must become two people: Bill the Character and Bill the Author. Bill the Character believes his son needs to be at camp, is confused by the bruises, wishes they would go away, hates sitting in the examination room, and wants only to trust his gut. Bill the Character would like everything to go smoothly in his life, which, of course, it never does. Bill the Character is convinced that there is good in the world and bad in the world and just wants lots of good and very, very little bad.

Bill the Author, however, loves the entire story. He loves when Sawyer’s bruises appear, and he loves when Bill has to go to the hospital, and he particularly loves how worried Bill is that Sawyer might die, even though in truth he doesn’t believe Sawyer is going to die. Bill the Author absolutely loves how uncomfortable this makes Bill the Character. It’s why Bill the Author loves telling the story. And finally, he also loves when Bill the Character learns where the bruises came from, thereby remembering to listen to both to his gut and his son.

Bill the Author, in short, does not believe in good and bad. Bill the Author only cares about the story, and everything in that story is equally necessary and equally valuable.

I cannot tell a story from my life until I allow myself to become its author. If I still believe that something shouldn’t have been said to me or done to me, whether by another person or simply by life, then I am still stuck within the story as I first perceived it when I lived it, the story of a world that should be something other than what it is. I don’t know how to change the world, but I do know how to change the story I tell about it, and in my experience that makes all the difference.

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