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

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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

The Second Discipline

Writers have to be disciplined. Most writers do not begin their career with a publishing contract in hand. Instead, the writer has an idea. That is all. This idea so interests him that he sits down every day, alone, often without encouragement, always without guarantees, just him and his idea, and he writes until that idea takes the form of a story he can share with other people.

This is one form of discipline. A writer can learn this kind of discipline with his first book. In fact, the writer must learn this discipline if he ever hopes finish anything at all. But there is a second kind of discipline that cannot be learned with a single book. This discipline must be practiced again and again, from book to book, from day to day, from sentence to sentence even.

Here’s how it goes: You’re writing along, happily focused on the story you’re telling. You’ve forgotten about all your chores and your bills and your obligations; for the moment there is only this interesting story and the effortless feeling of laying your attention upon it. It always feels good to lay your attention on what interests you most. It requires no effort in the same way that eating when you’re hungry requires no effort.

But then, in the middle of wondering what you should write next, you have a thought. You think to yourself, “I’m interested in this story. I wonder if other people will be interested in it too?” Now you have moved your attention off of what interests you most and onto a question you cannot answer. It is impossible while sitting alone at your desk to know what other people are interested in, because they aren’t there. Any answer you receive is made up.

And so, trying to answer this question does not feel good. It feels as bad as laying your attention on what interests you most feels good. In fact, this question now feels like a problem. If other people don’t like it, why are you bothering to write it? Why write another word if no one is going to be as interested in it as you? And because you are an adult, you have learned that problems don’t solve themselves. To fix a problem, you must pay attention to it until it is solved.

Unfortunately, the more you pay attention to this kind of problem, the worse it gets. Now is when you must practice your second discipline. The only way to solve this kind of problem is to ignore it. Despite all the momentum of fear that somewhere out in the misty future there is a world where no one likes what you’ve written, you must bring your attention back to the present moment where the story you want to tell is waiting for you. No matter how real that future appears as you stare at it through the lens of your imagination, you must deny its existence and will yourself back to reality.

It took me a while to understand this practice as discipline. A disciplined person, I felt, was willing to ignore some of life’s easy pleasures to build toward some desired future, like writing every day even if you don’t necessarily feel like writing every day. But this second discipline was about choosing to feel good rather than bad, choosing effortlessness over effort. And yet the degree to which I have mastered this discipline has meant the difference between loving what I do and fearing what I love.

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

Hypnosis

A storyteller’s first and most important job is to convince his reader that there is a problem. Without a problem there is no story, there is no conflict to be resolved, no obstacle to be overcome, no mystery to be explained. But not everyone looks at the same situation and sees a problem. For instance, every four years we elect a President, and approximately half the country sees an immediate problem they hope will be corrected in another four years, and the other half of the country does not see a problem—at least for a day or two.

I once wrote a story about a young man whose girlfriend had moved away. When I shared this story with a writing class, half the students did not understand why her moving away was a problem worthy of the kind of existential woe the protagonist was experiencing. He was just a teenager, and she was just a girlfriend. This was the first moment that I understood that as a storyteller I had to teach these people to see the world through a lens distorted by my character’s pain.

In this way storytelling is a kind of hypnosis from which I will eventually help my readers to awaken. Ironically, in my story of the boy whose girlfriend had moved away, this awakening would return half the students to their original state—namely, a world where girlfriends moving away isn’t a problem. If I had succeeded in hypnotizing them, they would be grateful for this awakening, just as we sometimes take long and tiring journeys only to remember how much we love our homes.

But for the other half the class, the ones who needed no convincing, the awakening would be a little different. These folks had hypnotized themselves long before I shared my story. They are on the exact same journey as the author: to see the world as it was before the story began. This is a story we’d been telling long before Chapter One, and what we call fiction becomes a reminder that our reality is only a story we are telling ourselves.

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

Miraculous Cure

I don’t go to doctors often, but there are days I would gladly ask a doctor to cut out my eyes, if it would keep me from ever looking to anyone else to tell me if what I what I’ve written was worth writing. I’m sure there’d be some residual pain from the surgery, but nothing compared to the death feeling of trying to live for other people’s approval. Unlike the current of creation I enjoy when I forget to listen to my inner critic or care about the world of acceptance and rejection, this swamp promises a journey where every step I take leads me further from the very peace I so crave.

Fortunately, no scalpel can remove this cancer. In fact, the disease’s cause and the means of its cure are one and the same. When I am deep in the swamp, this truth feels like a fairytale fiction. Save me your platitudes and good intentions. I need results! I need to know if what I’ve done is any good. At the very least, show me a target that I might hit it.

When I am deep in the swamp, I am sure I see the very target – until I aim, and then it is gone. This is what failure feels like. This is precisely what failure feels like, and if I believe in it, if I believe in the swamp and the target, it is as if I lose the same game every moment of every day. It is unlivable.

But the gymnast’s success on the balance beam depends as much on the discomfort of imbalance as the comfort of balance. How else does she know where her attention should lie? To make a friend of my disease is to hear what it is telling me. Move my attention to balance, back into the current, and I am instantly cured. You could call it miraculous, for gone are all the symptoms, all the pain and uncertainty, having left no scar, only a brief exhalation of relief as I find myself again.

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

Novocain

I was having lunch with a group of writers at a conference last year when we fell into tales of strange dentistry. The woman across from me confessed to using a dentist who didn’t believe in Novocain.

“What do you mean, didn’t believe in it?” I asked.

“He didn’t like it. Wouldn’t use it.”

“He drilled without Novocain? On you? In the twenty-first century? And you kept going to him?”

She nodded shyly.

“For how long?”

“Years.”

This seemed a bit like paying the Inquisition for their exacting spiritual counsel, but it also made sense to me in a way. The dentist knew it was just pain, after all. Pain can’t actually scar you. She’d be fine. Which she was.

Though she did eventually decide to use another dentist. She made this decision the way I have made many decisions in my life: by recognizing that what I had been calling normal was actually suffering and that I was done suffering.

Pain is great information – it tells me what I’m believing. If I feel the pain of failure, or poverty, or lowliness, jealousy, and greed I know I’ve begun telling myself stories that aren’t true. I would never choose Novocain to block that pain; it’s just too valuable. But I also have to remember to find another story. I have to remember that pain is only normal when I am telling painful stories.

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