Useful Villains

Every story, like every life, requires contrast. If you want to write about love, you must write about loneliness. If you want to write about triumph, you must write about defeat. Everything is always seen more clearly against its opposite. A flashlight’s beam does not register in the middle of a sunny day, but it is a swath of clarity at midnight.

This is useful in a very practical, crafty kind of way. If you know the gift your story is trying to give in its end, then you also know the suffering through which you must first take the reader so that this gift will mean something. You must remind the reader of suffering so she can appreciate and celebrate the relief that comes when the suffering ends. In this way, the darkness of our stories is as much a gift as the light, and most writers learn to relish their stories’ darkness, as an actor often relishes playing a villain.

We do not always apply this reality to our own lives. Darkness is darkness, and in it we cannot see and are lost. Villains are villains, and their villainy is expressed in their desire to harm or obstruct us, not help us. But who better to teach you what you know than someone who disagrees with you and who requires your greatest clarity to bridge the gap of misunderstanding? And where better to perceive your own light than in your own darkness? It was there, after all, you first recognized that which you had always been shining.

And who better than a villain to teach us that we are safe? To perceive a threat where none exists and then to find the truth is to awaken to your inherent safety. It is not always so simple. After all, it is our belief in our frailty that summons a villain to us, and their arrival feels like proof of the nightmare we are dreaming. But with this villain, there is no victory or defeat; there is only the contrast between a dream and reality.

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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Life Changing

The other night I was talking to a friend that is trying to write his memoir. He’s an articulate man that has lived a life full of adventures, difficult choices, and ideas that were often several decades ahead of their time. He is also a writer; always has been. But his efforts so far at this memoir were not going so well and he knew it.

His problem, like many first-time memoirists, was what Theo Pauline Nestor accurately identified as culpability. The memoir simply won’t work unless the author represents his complete role in how his life has unfolded. To do this, he cannot be a victim or a hero; he must be an equal participant in every event. My friend, like most of us, saw himself sometimes as a hero, sometimes as a victim, but rarely anything else. This was the world he was writing and, I’m quite certain, the world he has lived in all of his.

I began talking to him about culpability, about compassion, about his role in what he saw as both the good and the bad in his life. I asked if he was open to rewriting the story of his life a little, if maybe the bad guys he’d encountered weren’t really bad but people like him who made mistakes, who perceived him as a threat when he’d meant no harm and acted accordingly. “But there are bad people who do bad things,” he said. “What about the Holocaust?”

I didn’t answer that particular question, and fortunately he did not pursue it. He did not pursue it because despite the nightmare of genocide, my friend still wanted to write his memoir and that memoir still wouldn’t work as a story if he did not portray himself as an equal participant in all that transpired. Like all life stories, my friend’s story is worth telling. There is a gift within that story worth sharing, a gift greater than all his victories and defeats. But like all storytellers, he must decide which is more important: the gift, or his belief in heroes and villains. It is not such an easy choice, but one we are all given a lifetime to make.

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

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Death of a Villain

I like to say that all fiction is memoir, and all memoir is fiction – by which I mean that all fiction is based in some way, if only emotionally, on the author’s life, and all memoir is an artistic translation of memory. One of the biggest and often most challenging differences between fiction and memoir, however, are antagonists. Fiction often depends on them; memoir cannot have them.

In fiction, the antagonist is usually a kind of shadow version of the protagonist. The antagonist embodies the protagonist’s fears, hubris, and even cruelty, but in an exaggerated expression. We call this antagonist a bad guy, or evil, and we put him in a black hat, and have him commit an unpardonable sin for which death is his necessary and inevitable punishment. If done well, this can be very satisfying, for the protagonist must find within himself the strength, courage, love, or compassion necessary to defeat the villain. When the villain dies, the hero is resurrected free of sin.

But in memoir there are no villains to kill. This can be a particularly difficult reality for the memoirist who is writing about, say, an abusive parent or boyfriend: people in the memoirist’s life who have committed monstrous acts. How easy to become transfixed by violence, to see only what is happening outside of us and to lose track of life as it is still being lived within us, where the real story about every monstrous act is really being told.

In this way, to write a memoir is to rewrite the story of our life. The pain we feel when we remember the violence or poverty or insults of our past is the pain of forcing ourselves to tell a story of our powerlessness. The pain is not punishment, but a call to amend the story until it is in alignment with the truth of who we have always been. Then and only then will the villain perish, reborn as a friend who had temporarily become lost within a story he did not know he was telling.

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

Villainous

When I tell stories about my own life, I usually employ the “Joke Model.” That is, I begin with an ending, a punch line, and then shift backwards as far as necessary before moving detail by detail toward the conclusion. Everything in the story, hopefully, is in place for that final moment. This approach is less a conscious narrative strategy than a reflection of how my memory works. I don’t usually remember whole stories about my life – those are constructed after the fact. Rather, I remember individual moments, snapshots of poignancy or understanding. As a storyteller, it’s my goal to help my reader feel or understand what I felt or understood in those singular moments.

In order to tell such a story, it is important I remember that while I may know that I felt or understood something, I never know why. This is the purpose of the story. At the actual moment, of course, I don’t care why, I’m just glad for the understanding. The story, however, is all about why. I am a detective in my own life, in search of a villain. After all, if something is understood, then something was first misunderstood; and if something was misunderstood, then that misunderstanding was acted upon, usually to my own suffering.

So, yes, stories about my life are in fact all about me. I am the villain and the hero, the savior and the saved. But mostly the villain, I think. There would be virtually no need for my stories without all my misunderstanding. Yet it is the ending that makes my villainy so gentle. I was guilty of nothing, was in need of no punishment – only a correction of perception.

It is hard for me to believe in real villains given what storytelling has taught me. The problem is you can’t make anyone correct their own perception; this we must always do ourselves. In the meantime, we’re as capable of any action as the mind is capable of any dream. Frightening, I know, but nightmares can end, and when they do there remains only a dreamer awakened to himself.

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Useful Villains

Every story, like every life, requires contrast. If you want to write about love, you must write about loneliness. If you want to write about triumph, you must write about defeat. Likewise, if you want to write about loneliness or defeat, then you must at least write about the yearning for love or triumph. Everything is always seen more clearly against its opposite. A flashlight’s beam does not register in the middle of a sunny day, but it is a swath of clarity at midnight.

This is useful in a very practical, crafty kind of way. If you know the gift your story is trying to give in its end, then you know the suffering through which you must first take the reader so that this gift will mean something. You must remind the reader of suffering so she can appreciate and celebrate relief. In this way, the darkness of our stories is as much a gift as the light, and in fact most writers relish their stories’ darkness, as an actor often relishes playing a villain.

We do not always apply this reality to our own lives. Darkness is darkness, and in it we cannot see and are lost. Villains are villains, and their villainy is expressed in their desire to harm or obstruct us, not help us. But who better to teach you what you know than someone who disagrees with you, who requires your greatest clarity to bridge the gap of misunderstanding? And where better to perceive your own light than in your own darkness. It was there, after all, you first recognized it, that which you had always been shining.

And who better than a villain to teach us that we are safe? To perceive a threat where none exists and then to find the truth is to awaken to your inherent safety. It is not always so simple. After all, it is our belief in our frailty that summons a villain to us, and their arrival feels like proof of the nightmare we are dreaming. But with this villain, there is no victory or defeat, there is only the contrast between a dream and reality.

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Villain Speaks

During my conversation with Jennie Shortridge about my essay collection Write Within Yourself, Jennie observed that I wrote as freely about the experience of being lost as I did being found, so to speak. In other words, if the point of the book is to remind the reader what it feels like to be at home within yourself where all the writing occurs, I did so in part by reminding the reader what it feels like to be far away from home.

It hadn’t occurred to me until she made this point how right she was. I always want to take the reader and myself as deeply into the feeling of returning home as I possibly can. Sometimes, as I am making my case for the primacy of staying home, I find that I remain strangely on the surface of whatever I am writing about.

This is when I have learned to turn to my own lost-ness. When in doubt, I empty the cupboards of all my sins. This is not hard to do. I have committed every sin a writer can commit. I doubt there is a single wretched thought I have not believed true at some point in my writing journey. I have felt all levels of envy, greed, self-loathing, and hubris. And so I write as Evil Bill. And Lo! I am like an actor delighting in his role as villain. How delicious to give him voice, to let him rage and roar and die.

It is sacrificial to be sure. How the ego craves the spotlight, and yet how quickly he burns in the sun. In this way, I lure him to his death over and over, letting him speak his fearful truth. It is not mine, but I have known it as such, have called it the pill of reality I must swallow. You cannot taste the poison when you are convinced it is medicine, but taste it you will by and by. And so you write to remind yourself and your reader of what you have forgotten, remind you and your readers that the truth needn’t be swallowed since it already lives within you.

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Superman’s Return

Even with e-publishing and indie publishing, a writer can spend a lot time waiting for the next thing to happen. Waiting to hear back from the editor, waiting for the reviews, waiting for the numbers. Maybe it isn’t intentional, but how easy to turn what you are waiting for into something it isn’t. How easy in the quiet continuity of expectation to turn anything or anyone into your own private Superman to save you from the villains gathering in your idleness.

You’re a smart writer and mature writer, and you don’t believe in Superman, but you’ve seen the villains and you’ve heard their plans. All the villains are plotting the end of the world. If they have their way there will come a day when all creation ends in a “No,” and all that can be said “Yes” to are the orders of these overlords whose only desire is to see you live another day of forced labor.

You’d be a fool not to believe in these villains. Why, it’s just what they want, for they need time to hatch their evil plans, time you seem to have as you wait to hear from this one or that one. You’d try to warn to world, but whenever you do you sound like a madman. These villains are fantastic at staying hidden. You see one in the mirror, turn – and he’s gone. And yet as you lay down for sleep you hear them whispering their plans for a world no one would ever choose to live in.

Who better than Superman to end this nightmare? Superman believes in these villains. Without them, he wouldn’t exist. His powers mean absolutely nothing without an enemy to use them against. Some days it even seems as if Superman is in league with these villains, sustaining them for his own usefulness.

What a terrible thought. Terrible enough that perhaps you might even stop waiting. Such a distracting way to live: life nothing but a string of glances at your watch. It’s certainly no way to write. Yet another good reason to return to your desk. Here you settle into the dream of writing, here you find your story again and remember that nothing can arrive if it has never left.

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Villain’s Rescue

When Steve Berry talked about the piles of rejection letters he and his agent endured before selling his first novel, the now-bestselling suspense writer said that each “No” only made him more determined. “I don’t like people telling me I can’t,” he explained in his charming Southern-lawyer bluntness.

Or maybe he does. There is something uniquely motivating about hearing someone else tell you what you can’t do. In that moment we who have been labeled incapable feel the immediate polar opposite response that is our inherent capability. Moreover, when some villain tells us we can’t, we are given the chance to hear our own voices saying we can. Perhaps we had not heard our voice speak those two words so clearly until then.

Writing is such a solitary business, after all, that it is easy enough to hear your voice utter those other two words. Nothing is more demoralizing. Why, you might whisper those words so softly you might not even realize what you have told yourself, feeling only the deathly emptiness that surely follows. How often have I sat down at my desk and laid that hex upon myself simply because I faced a new chapter, a new scene, a new sentence, and viewed the initial darkness as a sign of my blindness rather than a room I wished to illuminate with my bright curiosity?

Let us take a moment then to be thankful for our villains. Our heroes would not know how brave they were without them. Villains, after all, thrive on the weakness of others. They swoop in when heads are bowed and the games looks lost, swoop in to sit awkwardly on an abandoned throne, swoop in with great black wings beating, awakening us from our stupor, and saving us from ourselves.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Villain’s Rescue

When Steve Berry talked about the piles of rejection letters he and his agent endured before selling his first novel, the now-bestselling suspense writer said that each “No” only made him more determined. “I don’t like people telling me I can’t,” he explained in his charming Southern-lawyer bluntness.

Or maybe he does. There is something uniquely motivating about hearing someone else tell you what you can’t do. In that moment we who have been labeled incapable feel the immediate polar opposite response that is our inherent capability. Moreover, when some villain tells us we can’t, we are given the chance to hear our own voices saying we can. Perhaps we had not heard our voice speak those two words so clearly until then.

Writing is such a solitary business, after all, that it is easy enough to hear your voice utter those other two words. Nothing is more demoralizing. Why, you might whisper those words so softly you might not even realize what you have told yourself, feeling only the deathly emptiness that surely follows. How often have I sat down at my desk and laid that hex upon myself simply because I faced a new chapter, a new scene, a new sentence, and viewed the initial darkness as a sign of my blindness rather than a room I wished to illuminate with my bright curiosity?

Let us take a moment then to be thankful for our villains. Our heroes would not know how brave they were without them. Villains, after all, thrive on the weakness of others. They swoop in when heads are bowed and the games looks lost, swoop in to sit awkwardly on an abandoned throne, swoop in with great black wings beating, awakening us from our stupor, and saving us from ourselves.

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

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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Real Villains

This month’s issue of Author features an interesting interview with medical suspense writer C. J. Lyons. Lyons spent over fifteen years in pediatric medicine before becoming a fulltime novelist. Her work as a doctor included time in emergency rooms where she came into contact with not just victims of abuse but abusers themselves, men and women who were, by her description, sociopaths.

“Sociopaths,” she told Jeff Ayers, “aren’t very interesting people.”

She mentioned this because as a writer of suspense fiction she could not really use her direct experience with sociopaths when creating villains. We have to love to hate our villains; we have to want to watch the villains. Hannibal Lecter, for all his flaws, is a pretty interesting guy. Cruella Deville, Captain Hook, Gollum – all deliciously, fascinatingly evil.

But according to Lyons the real sociopath, the real villain, is rather blank. And why would that be? Probably because interesting people are people who are interested in life. After all, a sociopath must withdraw from life in order to retain his connection to the meager and nihilistic satisfaction of murder—an act, I would imagine, that connects him to life only in the flicker of a moment he watches it end. Were he to become interested in life itself, he would not wish to end it.

I am fine with writers creating interesting villains. We don’t want to watch our heroes and heroines triumph over deadened ciphers; we want to watch them triumph over themselves, over their darkened halves bent on building happiness by controlling everyone and everything. These villains are interesting because we are interested, and the satisfaction we gain watching them die is the familiar relief of finding safety in our own skin.

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

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter