Wholly Present

I never went to church as a boy, but I did go to the theater – first as an audience member as a teenager, and later when I began performing my own show with my brother in my twenties. There was something holy about the theater both before and after the curtain rose. Standing in the darkened backstage, seeing the light beneath the curtain, listening to the audience as they found their seats, all the concerns of my life, the grievances of my past, my worries about the future, evaporated. Where I was at that moment was all that mattered to me, and being so wholly present I felt how much I mattered as well.

Then the house lights went down and the curtain went up, and there in the shadows beyond the stage light’s glow were the faces of the waiting strangers. Everyone was welcome in the theater. Where you lived, what you’d done, who you’d hurt or who you’d loved, what you’d gained or lost – none of it had any baring on your place in that crowd. Everyone at that moment was equal, for everyone was equally capable of forgetting the story of their lives and entering the story we were telling that night.

I had found the relationship between audience and performer holy for as long as I could remember. To surrender your attention was the greatest gift you could give another person, for nothing was as close to you, as dear to you, or as responsible for your experience than the direction of your attention. When someone surrendered their attention to me I felt I owed them a story worthy of their full attention, something that would remind them that life is always worth living. The only way to tell such a story was to give it my full attention.

When the show finished, and if the story went well, there was always the applause. I knew they thought they were clapping for my brother and me, but if they had really loved the show, if they had gone on the story’s journey with us, they could only be clapping for themselves. How nice to feel your body again, to hear it make noise, to celebrate simply being here, a human among humans, together in one place until all the lights go up and we disperse to what we call our separate lives.

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.
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Enough

When I was twenty-two, my brother John and I created what turned out to be a sketch comedy show called The American Basement Review. I say turned out to be because when I booked us for a full night at a little art house called AS220 all I knew was that we would have the stage to ourselves for about two hours. So John and I sat ourselves down and asked, “What could two guys do on a stage that people would enjoy?”

The answer was our first effort, which was not very good at all. There was one actual comedy sketch, and my brother did some stand-up that was good, but half the show was a long dramatic bit about a poet (me) who commits suicide. What I remember most about the suicidal poet was that at one point I forgot my lines, so I let myself sit there and think, “What’s my next line?” which according to a friend was the most powerful moment in the piece.

Despite the slap-dashery with which the show was put together, we had a full house and people sort of liked it, by which I mean they laughed at the stuff that was funny and did their best with the stuff that needed work. No one booed. No one demanded their money back. So we decided to do it again. We dumped the suicidal poet and added more sketches. This went even better. And so we did it again. Eventually we found a great piano player to round out our cast and then a guy who did lighting for us.

To say that we had no idea what we were doing when we started would be only the slightest overstatement. Fortunately, us not knowing what the show was, or even how to write and produce theater did not prevent us from starting anyway. I reflected on this one night in my young mind. “If I had known somehow all that would be required of us, and all that we would have to improve upon, and all that we would have to learn before I began, I don’t think I would have done it.” All I knew was that I enjoyed entertaining people, that I enjoyed making them laugh and think and wonder. Apparently that was enough.

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!
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The Jester Appears

Write Within Yourself was officially launched this past Monday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (WA). It was a lovely evening – lovely to see so many friends and family, lovely to meet new friends who had come out for the event, and lovely to reacquaint myself with a character who had lay largely dormant for the last twenty years or so: The Jester.

An author event is theater. Authors may not like to see themselves as actors or performers, but if one person is standing up and talking to a group of people sitting quietly and listening, then that is theater. And theater brings out a bit of the court jester in me. I spend much of my days wishing I were The King. The King proclaims and is the voice of earthly law and justice. The King also speaks to the multitudes. It is his duty. How else will the multitudes know the law and feel secure that justice shall prevail?

And yet, give me an audience, and The Jester appears. The Jester makes no laws, and has no power other than his observations, offered from a vantage devoid of earthly influence. The Jester is the King’s foil and confidant, reminding His Majesty that the crown and throne are inventions doomed to rust and rot. From such a vantage the world and all the scrambling about humans do in it for their wasting and temporary things certainly is a funny place, if and only if The Jester resists the dark temptation to call death tragedy.

Death, to my memory, did not come up at my book launch – not by name anyhow. With humans, it always lingers in the shadows anytime we stand up and say, “Look what I made!” This too shall pass. Who better than The Jester to speak at such a moment? Worry not; we are not made of these things we make. We are always more the laughter released from the bonds of solid stuff, a sound untouched but touching, home to the lightness required to dwell where the heavy and hopeless song of death is too often sung.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite 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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Presence

When I was sixteen I was recruited to play the role of the young, innocent, handsome lover in our high school production of a Moliere farce. The Great Bernard Masterson, our director’s mentor and something of a Providence high school theater legend (if there is such a thing), attended one rehearsal. After our run-through, Masterson gave some notes, and this is what he said to me:

“You, young man, have stage presence.”

I’d been told this once or twice before, but hearing it intoned in Masterson’s authorial baritone convinced me it was so. But what was this “presence”? After all, I had no control over it. I was glad for it, but I felt no more responsible for this presence than I did my height or shoe size. I supposed it had something to do with being comfortable on stage.

A few years later I had written a two-man show and was performing it here and there with my brother in Providence. One evening we were waiting back stage listening to the crowd filter into their seats. This was a tiny, dusty theater in a renovated mill in a grimy and burnt out section of the city—and I loved it. I loved that I could smell the dust and that I could hear the crowd’s boots on the hollow wood platform where their seats were bolted. I loved the dim light from the stage seeping under the curtain. I loved sitting beside my brother and Dale, our piano player, like three comrades in a happy foxhole.

And I loved that when I stepped out onto that stage there was no temptation to regret my past. I loved that when I stepped out onto that stage I felt no temptation to worry about my future. When I stepped out onto that stage I was granted full permission to think of nothing but that night and those lines and those lights and that audience. I loved that within the confines of that stage I felt the full presence of that moment and none other, and wondered, as we took our bows, why I could not live like this always.

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

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Theater People

As I mentioned in a recent entry, my friend Adam’s father, Paul, was a well-known comedian and actor. While I was attending college on Long Island I would sometimes journey into Manhattan to visit Adam and, occasionally, get a taste of celebrity nightlife.

On one such visit we attended a small birthday party at an uptown restaurant. It turns out the man whose birthday we were celebrating was Nathan Lane. This was in 1984, however, and Lane was still an up-and-coming actor who had performed on Broadway and had just landed his first sit-com. I had never heard of him, but I thought he was very funny in a theatrical way. I remember him doing an imitation of the kind of dialogue he was being asked to perform on the show. I also remember that his cake was in the shape of giant erect penis. I had never seen a cake that was any shape other than square or round.

I didn’t know anyone at this party except Adam and Paul. Everyone was older than I was and everyone seemed to know each other and everyone seemed to find the jokes being told far funnier than I found them. At one point I was quietly telling Adam a story about college life, in the middle of which I happened to say the word, “Sex.” The man sitting next to me turned immediately, laid his hand on my arm, and declared breathlessly, “Now your conversation is getting interesting!”

I was only eighteen and had never had a grown man talk to me this way. I felt entirely out of my element. What do you say at a party like this? My only guide, it seemed to me, was Paul. I had played Scrabble with Paul and watched movies on his old television set. He felt like an uncle with whom I’d recently been reunited. How did Paul fit into this picture?

This is what I saw: Paul sat across from Adam and me, perfectly silent, but listening closely. I could tell from the focus of his eyes that he was both listening and waiting. He was like a hunter. The conversation progressed, he listened and waited, listened and waited – and then pounced in with a joke. Laughter. Satisfied, he returned silently to the safety of his comedy lair.

The Comedian, I thought. The only one at the table not laughing. I couldn’t blame him. I had found myself in a room of Theater People, whose company, in the years to follow, I would come to enjoy, but against whose continuous showmanship I often felt dull and blunt. If I had had a standup comedian’s training, I’m sure I would have relied on it as well.

The ride home from the party was a quiet one. We wound back through the streets, slowly returning to ourselves. We had an excellent game of Scrabble before bed.

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

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Back In The Water

As I wrote back in December, 2008, I learned an important lesson watching my wife publish her first book. Her focus on keeping the process of getting published small in her mind made the experience manageable, and reminded me that I had a habit of making things bigger and more difficult than they actually were.

However, my brother once advised me not to think too small. In those days, he and I were performing a show we had written, and he worried I was keeping the waters we swam in too shallow. I had learned already to seek small ponds for that Big Fish feeling, and so the warning was just.

It is entirely possible to have written a book and very much want to see it published while secretly fearing what will happen to you if it does. Writing is solitary work, and the writer must, to some degree, desire this solitude. In your workshop you are exposed to the private storms of the mind, and while it is here where we are most likely to drown, you have swum in these waters all your life, and are at least more familiar with their currents and riptides.

But then you take your work out, and someone buys it, which means anyone, from a reviewer in New York to a teenager is Anchorage, can read it and think anything they want of it. It can be hard to remember sometimes but this was exactly the point.

It is pointless to place a limit on yourself, not because everyone should seek the highest mountain to climb, but because we are by our nature forever expanding. To try and limit this expansion artificially, intellectually, is to place limit not on your potential greatness but your ability to breathe. The vastness a writer may or may not perceive as her work reaches out from her desk to hundreds and then thousands and then millions of strangers across the planet can become an awakening to a connection that has always existed, whether a story had ever been written or not.

You may pretend you are alone at your desk, but you are not. You have only shuttered your eyes to see more clearly what is directly before you. But the world passes through you whether you believe you have joined it or not. You invite it to do so with every breath you take, and like a fish you would drown only if you pulled yourself entirely from the waters of the world.

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

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Waiting For An Answer

As I have mentioned in this space before, in my early twenties, my brother John and I wrote and performed a show called The American Basement Review. The ABR, as it came to be known, was a collection of philosophical sketches loosely linked together in something we termed New Vaudeville. We always ended the show with a piece John had written called The American Dream, which was a kind of dreamlike verbal landscape of Americana. I thought it made for a good ending because it was both poetic and strangely upbeat, just like our show. A little risky, perhaps, but we loved it all the same.

The more we performed the show, the better it got. I remember one performance in particular. Because we staged the ABR in small theaters, I could usually see the audience members in the front row. On this evening, there was an older gentleman sitting only a few feet from where I delivered the show’s last line. I could see what remained of his gray hair, could see the wrinkles on his hands as he began to clap. And as John I took our bows, I heard his voice, heard this man old enough to be my grandfather call out, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

I don’t think it would have meant so much to me if he had been my age, or even my parents’ age. I had spent my young life looking upon men and women of his age as sometimes kindly, sometimes cranky members of an alien species. I could never quite glean where these people found meaning. Sometimes when I was feeling particularly judged, when I was feeling particularly lectured or scolded, I thought I saw in these septuagenarians’ and octogenarians’ eyes the smug certainty of someone waiting for me to be as disappointed with life as they were. It’s called experience, boy.

Except you only ever see in others what you believe about yourself. Who was really waiting to be disappointed? My brother and I had found something we had loved and decided for the first time in our lives to share it with the world. Can you really do that? Is it really worth it? Are there really other like souls who love what we love?

That old man had my answer.

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