Experienced Storytellers

I have discovered rather late in life that I enjoy teaching. For many years I didn’t believe I was interested in teaching or being taught. If I needed to learn how to do something, I’d do it, and make mistakes, and then do it again until I could do it well. The thing I most wanted to do well was to tell stories. I loved stories whether I was the audience or the storyteller. Stories brought life into focus, narrowing it down into something knowable and interesting and sharable. I loved stories so much I couldn’t fully understand why everyone didn’t want to be a storyteller when they grew up.

Now I find myself teaching people how to tell stories. I wasn’t very good at it at first, but after making a bunch of mistakes I’ve gotten better. One of the first things I learned is that experience is the only teacher. So I say to my students, “Try doing this when you get home.” If they have success, it is because they allowed an experience to teach them something about writing or creativity or fearlessness. I was not so much the teacher as the one pointing them toward what I believed was the best classroom.

Though this is perhaps not entirely true. A lot of what I do when I teach is tell my students stories. A storyteller must leave room in his story for his audience. He must leave room for their imaginations to bring that story to life so that they can feel within themselves the excitement or worry or relief. He must leave room for the audience to draw their own conclusions, to decide who is trustworthy and who is not, to decide who is guilty and who is innocent. Ideally, by the end of the story the audience feels as if they have walked the path the storyteller carved through life’s brambles and thickets.

In this way a story is as close as we can come to two people sharing the same experience. I did not understand until I began teaching people to tell stories that all storytellers are teachers. We invite our audience to experience again the value of love or courage or compassion or peace. We all forget. We get lost down dark paths of our own creation, having told ourselves stories of our wretchedness and powerlessness and vanity. How nice when we find a friend to tell a better story to, a story that can help us forget where we were going and remember who we are.

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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Discovering Stories

Every writer is a teacher of some kind, though most do not see themselves that way. Most writers see themselves as entertainers – meaning it is not their job to instruct their readers, but rather to engage them, amuse them, frighten them, or inspire them. To do so, writer and reader go on a journey together, and though the writer may be the guide for this journey, may have mapped its route and chosen its destination, the discoveries the reader makes along the way belong entirely to him. If a reader says he loves a story, it is those discoveries he loves, discoveries he may attribute to the writer, but for which he is ultimately responsible.

Yet that journey begins where only the writer can perceive it. Its value and potential are known only to the writer. The writer has made a discovery, you see. The writer has discovered a new love story, or a new adventure, or a new poem. The writer made this discovery in the idle dreaming of his days – picked up a magazine, or looked out the window, or overheard a conversation; and where one moment the writer was looking at the world, the next he was seeing the beginning of a story. A seed has found its soil.

A writer may experience the full pleasure of discovery before putting a single word to a page. As satisfying as this can be, the writer must be willing to transform his discovery to share it. The story must take a form everyone can see, so that everyone can have can have the opportunity to perceive its value. Sometimes it feels as if something is lost in this transformation, that the form our story takes is a pale shade of the rich discovery we made.

This is a trick of our eyes. That story began where even our eyes could not see it. Teachers help their students see what they have not yet seen, whether it is a mathematical formula, or a mother’s and daughter’s reconciliation. It is always a little mysterious why some students easily see what others do not, but what we writers discover is mysterious as well. The best discoveries always feel as if they were right in front of us our whole lives. How, we wonder, could we not have seen them? It does not matter. Life, everyone’s first teacher, showed us, and now can’t stop looking at it until it is a story everyone can see.

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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Teacher and Student

I was talking to a novelist recently who, like a lot writers, teaches to help make ends meet. He likes teaching, but I know he prefers writing. Teaching writing, after all, can come with some unexpected challenges that have nothing to do with the craft of storytelling. As the novelist pointed out, there are some days he isn’t sure whether he’s a writing instructor or a social worker.

I don’t know how to teach writing and not be a part-time therapist or life coach. Because here is the truth every professional writer should already know: we’re born with everything we need to tell any story we will ever want to tell. As long as you possess curiosity and an imagination, you can tell a story. The rest is just refinement.

What most students are looking for has nothing whatsoever to do with craft. The student wants to believe it is possible that they can tell the story they wish to tell. Sometimes learning a few craft tricks helps us believe this. Sometimes it does not. Which is why as a teacher or coach I will spend more time telling my students and clients, in every way I can think to – yes, yes, yes, you can do this.

Fortunately, I never tire of telling people this. I can never tire of it because in order to say it convincingly I must believe it myself. And in order to believe it myself, I must go that place within myself where that delicious, friendly, hopeful, creative truth always resides. How I love to go there. I’d live there if I knew how, but I don’t yet, so I continue to teach it in the hope that one day I will learn.

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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

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A Valuable Lesson

I’ve interviewed enough writers to have heard this story a number of times: A fledging writer, often a would-be genre writer, takes a creative writing class. The teacher – older, frustrated, grumpy, usually with strong literary leanings – informs the student, after reading a few stories, that he/she should give up, because he/she is not a writer. He’s sorry to be the one to break the news (he’s not), but there is no point in continuing with the charade.

There are three responses to this, all of them good:

The first is that the student thinks, “You are wrong. I love to write, but you and I apparently disagree on what constitutes ‘good writing.’ You are not my audience. I will find my voice, and then my audience, and that will be that.” This is the least likely response because a writer with this awareness rarely gets told that they are not a writer, and not just because of how they write. There is an immunity that comes with such self-awareness. A teacher such as the one in this story will find someone else to condemn.

The student might also feel relief. “Thank God!” thinks the student. “He’s absolutely right. Finally, I can give up on this dream and start dancing, or singing, or baking, or accounting, or whatever it is that really pleases me. At last I am done trying to force the square peg of my interests into the round of hole of writing.”

Most common, however, is the third response – despair. The student goes home feeling as if something has been taken from her. Up until this moment, she had looked forward to her time alone at the desk with her stories, and she had dreamed of a time when she might share those stories with other people. Now she is uncertain if she has the authority to know what she likes and does not like, and she does not really know how to live if she can’t know something so fundamental as what interests her.

And she can’t, really, which is why she feels so bad, and why despair is such good news. It means the teacher was wrong, and that this writer’s guidance, the very same silent and constant guidance that leads her from story to story, from word to word, that speaks only in feelings of correct and incorrect, of effortlessness and struggle, this same guidance is now speaking just as loudly as it possible can, saying, “He does not know that he claims to know! Only you can know that.”

Eventually the writer will listen to this guidance, and the despair will pass, and she will return to writing, and the teacher, though he will never know it, will have taught her valuable lesson indeed.

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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

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Questions and Answers

As I mentioned in a piece last week, I have finally answered the question, “How do I find the time to write?” to my own satisfaction. This came after a member of a workshop I was teaching cheerfully told me my answer that day did not help him one little bit. I would come to learn that other members of that workshop were happy with the answer I gave that afternoon. Fortunately, they weren’t the ones who asked the question.

Had someone else asked the question, I would not have spent the next week thinking and thinking about time, and motivation, and belief. And when I say “thinking” I mean me asking myself, “How could I better explain this?” and then waiting for my answer. The answer that finally came helped teach me what I had always known but could not express precisely. In finding that precise expression, what I knew had now found a shape I could share with the most people possible.

This happens in almost every class or workshop I teach. I love that feeling of connection when comprehension blooms, which feels like fear dropping away. This does not always happen, and being bit of a perfectionist, the idea that I cannot answer every question exactly right the first time does not always sit well with me. How tempting, as The Teacher, to believe it is my job to do just that.

But as my friend from the conference a couple weeks ago taught me once again, the most productive questions are often the ones I can’t answer. Now my own little creative engine begins to turn. What is more delicious to my mind than a question it wants to answer? Nothing, of course, because that is why I have a mind in the first place. The division between teacher and student is entirely illusory. Both arrive in the classroom to ask and answer questions, and both leave, hopefully, with better questions still to ask.

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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

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The Wheel of Life

I heard recently about a video circulating in which a MFA teacher complains about many of her students. I chose not to seek it out for a number of reasons, but I thought of it again when I learned of an article published in the Seattle alternative newspaper, The Stranger, in which an ex-MFA teacher complains about his students as well. In both the video and the article, I am aware, the question of talent was raised. Talent, goes the story, cannot be taught. You either have it or you don’t.

Perhaps I’m a bit of a coward, but I chose to avoid that article as well, specifically because of that toxic word. I know why that word exists, and why it feels appropriate to apply to certain people and not to others. I am frequently tempted to use it when talking to students or describing writers I enjoy when I perceive the bright, effortless light of originality. It is the perception of effortless that is so attractive and magical and the source of what is misleading about that word.

Over my writing life I have worked deliberately and consistently to find the most effortless expression of whatever I am trying to share. The more I have found this effortless path, the more I have come to understand that effortlessness is our natural state of being. That most of us, including me, often live outside of this effortlessness does not alter this truth. Rather, the suffering I have known in my life and perceive around me merely proves the point, for what could be worse than struggling against what we are meant to be?

So sometimes a writer, whether young or old, new or experienced, finds that bright, alive, effortless current of a story. The writer didn’t make it, didn’t force it, and didn’t get in the way of it, the writer merely found it and let it come. No teacher alive could teach that current, and no amount of skill could imitate it. Either you are in the flow of that current or you are not. But to say that the current is available to some and not to others, that one either has talent or doesn’t, is to measure one life against another, to believe that one child is born capriciously with the capacity for happiness and another not, and all the while praying the wheel of life will turn for you.

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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

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A Direct Route

As I have mentioned here before, when I was a boy I became a big fan of the game Dungeons & Dragons. Within my group of friends I soon became the Dungeon Master (or DM), whose job it was to both design and run the night’s adventure: adjudicate rules, voice the various elves, barkeeps, and hobgoblins the players encountered, and, most importantly, maintain a consistent level of fun at the table.

Dungeons & Dragons is a game without winners and losers. The point of the game is to have fun, to gather with seven or eight friends around someone’s dining room table to solve puzzles, defeat villains, and generally goof around with dice, little lead figurines, and dense rulebooks. Though it is a cooperative game, and all the participants’ opinions, jokes, and objections are equally welcome, the DM is granted a kind of leadership role, pointing the group’s attention this way or that, all in the name of more fun. It was a role with which I felt immediately and unquestionably comfortable. In many ways, it was the most comfortable I felt as a teenager in the company of others.

I do not play the game anymore, but I recently found myself leading a workshop for a group of eight writers. Like this blog, my workshops focus less on craft and more on the emotional challenges of being an author. My goal for the workshops is to spend four hours focusing our attention in the most enthusiastic, optimistic, and inspiring view of writing possible. If they gain nothing else, I hope the attendees walk away with a renewed belief that making something on purpose, like a novel or a poem, is an act of love.

The workshop was being held at one of the participant’s house, around her large, oval dining room table. We took a lunch break midway through, and as I returned to my seat at the head of the table, and as the other writers settled back into their chairs, shuffling their papers and clicking their pens, I felt exactly as I used to feel when I fifteen and it was time resume our D&D game after a short break. All that had changed was my idea of fun.

I knew at the time I was playing it that this game overlapped with my love of story, and fantasy literature, and theater – but I could not have known that it would so directly overlap with my love of teaching, because I did not know at that time that I loved to teach. How often I have thought it was my job to plan a route to happiness, and how loudly I have complained when that route met a dead end. No matter. The most direct path is usually the one I cannot see, though it is always the one I am traveling.

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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

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Preacher

A student asked me an unusual question recently. I was teaching a class addressing only the emotional mastery required to be an author instead of the mastery of craft. I can get pretty animated when I teach, particularly around this subject. Confidence, after all, is not something that can be taught in the way story structure and query letters can be taught. Confidence must be found every workday within every author. As a teacher of this discipline, I can but remind my students that they have it if they choose to look for it.

After class the student asked if I had been an evangelical minister before teaching writing. We had a good laugh at this, but there was something serious beneath her question that I did not know how to answer at the time. I have lived my life as a secular man, but I have always understood the value of a good sermon. The minister, like the singer, like the poet, like the teacher, says, “Let my joy become your joy; let my belief become your belief.” This cannot be done mechanically. This transference, if it occurs, is shared only through the artistry of love.

I suppose the classroom is a kind of church to me. There is nothing holier than creation itself, whether creation takes the form of a baby, or a flower, or a memoir. In the classroom we gather to ask ourselves how we can create something on purpose, how we can look within ourselves to find something to add to whole of creation. I know it is easy to look at what we write and think, “It’s just a little story.” But it is just as easy to look at a flower and think how it is merely one of trillions, just as one can look at a newborn and think how, despite its fresh little body, that child, like seven billion other bodies, is headed inevitably for the grave.

Numbers always fail us in this way; their values are too easily compared. Creation assigns no such hierarchy, nor does it acknowledge subtraction. Which is why the poet and the preacher and the teacher can say, “What’s mine is yours if you want it.” There’s the miracle of life – what can be given without being lost, what can evolve as it remains the same, what can be learned while it is already known.

If you have a question, concern, or quibble you’d like addressed in this space, please, feel free to contact me. Answering other people’s question is one of those things that pleases me 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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Natural Light

In my day-to-day life I want only ease and happiness. I want to begin every project with enthusiasm and finish it promptly and confidently. Unfortunately, things do not always go as effortlessly as I intend. Rarely a day goes by where I do not struggle, or doubt, or become bored, or procrastinate. I am human. Still, my aim remains trained on ease and happiness, no matter how the arrow of my day may eventually fly.

On the other hand, while I enjoy my students’ and clients’ triumphs and confidence, I remain most interested in their fear and hopelessness and disappointment. It is selfish in a way. The only remedy for fear is fearlessness, just as hope is the only remedy for hopelessness, and contentment the only remedy for disappointment. Explanations, and techniques, and advice will only take you so far. In the end, there remains only the choice between one thing and another.

Which is why I so look forward to those moments when my students and clients can perceive only one choice. Now I get to choose the other. I do so for them, ostensibly, so that they can see they have another choice and then make it of their own freewill – but how could this choice not be for me as well? When is it a bad time to choose fearlessness, hope, or contentment?

I can think of none, and yet there I am from time to time choosing fear, choosing jealousy, choosing regret. I never enjoy my own darkness, and I often bitch about the inadequate light by which I must find my way. But find my way I do, and once I’ve returned I am always happy to have discovered another path back to a world where choices are mine again.

If you have a question, concern, or quibble you’d like addressed in this space, please, feel free to contact me. Answering other people’s question is one of those things that pleases me 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 Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Inspiring Stories

I had an opportunity to teach a class in memoir and personal essay at the Write on the Sound Writers Conference this past weekend. A tweet came through the tweetosphere afterward by one the attendees complimenting the class. “Informational, yes,” it read, “but even more inspiring.”

Yes, I have an ego, and that ego enjoys being praised. But there is another part of me that was glad to read this message for other reasons. I’ve been writing for a long time and I’ve learned a bunch of stuff. I’ve learned about the importance of contrast and what I’ve come to call The Intentional Arc of a story. I’ve learned a lot about showing instead of telling and about using more nouns and verbs and fewer adjectives and adverbs. I’m happy to share all of what I’ve learned if I can figure out how.

I’m just not sure how much all that stuff I’ve learned will help if the student doesn’t believe she can tell the story she wants to tell. I don’t know how remembering to use contrast will be of use if the writer thinks that her story is like every other story out there, so why bother starting? If the student believes that no one wants to hear from her, that her story doesn’t matter, that in fact she doesn’t matter, then nothing I have to say on the dry business of nouns and verbs is going mean anything to her. A woman dying of hunger does not need a recipe for chocolate cake.

Which is why my real job as a teacher is simply to inspire the students, to tell them a story that goes like this: Your story matters because you want to tell it. That’s all you need to know. I happen to love this story. I can’t hear it often enough. I sometimes forget that it’s true. But when I’m really telling a story and not simply repeating it, it is more like listening than talking, and so I get to hear it too, and so I get to believe it, and maybe so do these people called students, and then storyteller and audience are one.

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.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
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