Curiosity: The Path to Finding Your Voice

Learning the craft of writing is one thing. There are lots of classes and books that can help you understand both the fundamentals and the nuance of story, dialogue, character, and description. If you don’t like books and classes, you can also just write as much as you can and you will eventually learn that dialogue is most provocative when characters don’t say exactly what they mean, and that nouns and verbs are the bones and muscles of all descriptive writing.

Learning about voice, however, is another thing altogether. For a writer, finding what we have come to call our voice is ultimately more important than learning how to tighten a sagging middle or create believable characters. Until you have found your voice, no matter how diligently you study craft, writing will remain frustratingly unknowable, the blank page a moving target you come to fear and resent.

Yet as a writing instructor, I cannot train your voice the way a singing instructor could help you train your voice. All I can do is remind you that you have one. It’s true. That is because your voice is what interests you most. That’s it. Your voice is not a product of clever word choice, or an expansive vocabulary, or a willingness to take bold stylistic chances. Your voice is your unique interest authentically expressed, unencumbered by any thought of what anyone else thinks is interesting.

Which is why “finding your voice” has very little to do with writing and everything to do with simply being human. Everyone has to find their voice, whether they love to write, cook, garden, or play hopscotch. It is both the simplest thing and the most difficult thing. It is the simplest thing because nothing is easier, more natural, and requires less effort than laying your attention on that to which your curiosity is inherently drawn. It is as natural as eating what you find delicious or laughing at what you find funny.

But it can be the most difficult thing, because to follow your curiosity without apology or restraint means accepting that you and you alone can answer the question, “What is a good life?” To follow your curiosity you cannot worry about fitting in, or sounding smart, or doing the “right thing.” You also cannot worry about success and failure. To follow your curiosity with abandon is to accept that you will learn what your success looks like, and that it will look different than anyone else’s.

Humans love to tell each other what to do. We love to tell each other how to behave, and whom to vote for, and what to eat, and what to read, and which songs to listen to, and when and how and if we should pray. Sometimes we even punish people when they don’t do what we believe they should do. As writer, you have probably been punished at some point in your life for writing the “wrong thing.” It is possible you perceive rejection as a kind of punishment for writing the wrong thing, or maybe writing the right thing in the wrong way.

The worst punishment I have ever known is trying to live someone else’s idea of a life, to write someone else’s idea of a story. That is constant suffering, for no matter how hard I try, everything I do feels wrong, and every path I follow leads to failure. Yet all the suffering and rejection and failure I have known in my life has merely served to guide me back to myself, back to my curiosity, whose unerring guidance I have always had the option to reject or accept.

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 Good Doctor

My parents divorced when I was seven, leaving me, technically, as the man of the house. By which I mean John, my younger brother, instinctively turned to me for guidance that would have otherwise been provided by our father. I think that for many years I resented this role and so was not a particularly gracious big brother. I was also fiercely competitive, and I was not going to allow John to be better than me at anything, which for a time he dutifully wasn’t. We eventually became quite close, and when I look back I believe this closeness started with the arrival of Dr. VonVickenvoctor.

Doctor, as we usually called him, was a purple muppet to which we had adhered two button eyes and a mustache made of yarn. I may have been moody and competitive, but I loved to be entertained, and one day John, age 10, sat down on the couch across from me and introduced me to Doctor.

What followed was the first of many shows. Doctor – a greedy, libidinous, self-absorbed billionaire – would tell me about the time he . . . and then the story. Doctor could travel at will through time and space, and wherever he went, things always went askew. No matter, Doctor always came back for more, never changing, never learning, a purple ego muttering, “Me . . . me . . . me . . .” as he considered his next bizarre plan.

I loved him. My brother had a genius for improvisation and puppetry, and for the duration of those shows I became an eager audience, in the process handing the wheel of our friendship to my little brother. Doctor told me stories for years, and things between John and me grew steadily better.

John would go on to be an actor/writer/director, and at my wedding he gave a moving speech, during which he spoke about how I had been a kind of creative mentor to him. I have always had lots to say about writing and stories and the arts in general, and no doubt John was made to listen to much of it, but I believe in retrospect my gift to his artistic development was not my lectures and diatribes, but those puppet shows.

In entertaining me he must have glimpsed in me, the ferocious big brother, the power of laughter and of joy and his own capacity to harness that power. Talking is fine, but listening is always the greatest gift. Within the attentive audience’s perched silence the artist often hears his voice clearly for the first time. Your mind, after all, was given so you could talk to yourself; but your voice you were given to talk to others.

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

A Question For You

I interview many different types of writers, and for every type of writer there is a different type of interview, but with every writer one thing remains consistent: the person matches the book. This is not to say that the writer and his or her work are one in the same. Instead, it’s as if the writer is in a life-long discussion with the world, and a book is one part of that discussion. When I meet the writer, I feel that discussion still in process, as though the writer has asked a question of the world, and the answer is coming and coming and coming.

This is particularly helpful when I read books about which I am not excited. It is easy to feel that somehow the writer has set out to waste my time. But this is only because when I read a book I am hearing it in my own voice. If the writer is posing a question which I have already answered to my own satisfaction or am simply not interested in asking myself, then what I hear in my head sounds like a song played in the wrong key.

On the other hand, once I meet the writer, and hear their voice, the question the book posed makes perfect sense—for the writer. It’s then I realize that what bothered me most was the dissonance between my voice and that of the author’s, not whether the book was any good or not.

It is impossible for me, once I meet someone, not to feel the integrity of that person’s life question. Not the integrity of their answers, for none of them are ever meant to be final, only guideposts—but the question. That is the tension of life, just as it is the tension of fiction. But it is a dynamic tension, a creative tension, and it does not matter how far from my own question the dramatic arc of another person’s life is drawn—it bends as necessarily and unstoppably forward as mine. I see this, and I am relieved. I am relieved as I am once again reminded that nothing in life can be gotten wrong, that the question is pure, and the answers are nothing more than cobblestones in the road you are paving in its pursuit.

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 Voice

I was watching “The Voice” the other day with my wife. If you’re unfamiliar, this is a reality/game show where a panel of four celebrity judges selects teams of would-be pop stars to coach and help compete for the title of The Voice. Before we began watching, however, my wife and I had a familiar debate. I told her how much I hated artistic competition shows because art isn’t a competition. She countered that win or lose the show provided the singers with a fantastic opportunity, both for exposure and professional guidance. Back and forth we went until I said, “Fine. We’ll just watch the thing.”

This was the episode where the judges selected their teams. The judges sit in tall chairs with their backs to the stage as the performer begins to sing. If a judge likes what he or she hears, they hit a large red button and swivel around to see whom they’ve selected. But more than one judge can hit the button, in which case each judge begins pleading his or her case as to why they are the best coach for that singer. Sometimes, none of the judges hit their button. Usually, one or two like what they hear.

On this evening, a young man stepped on stage and began his song. Right away, I noticed something unusual about his voice. All the performers could sing. Like all the performers, he could hit the right notes, and sustain his vibrato, and vary his pitch. Yet this wasn’t what I heard. Nor did I hear an outrageously clear voice, or an unusually powerful voice. I did not hear him hit a crazy high note, or a luscious low note. And yet I heard something. So did the judges. Within a few measures – Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! – each had hit their button.

The writer in me took notice. A writer’s voice is his most important tool for it is present in every word just a singer’s is present in every note. So what was I hearing? As the singer finished his song, I understood that all I was hearing was a perspective. The quality of his voice I enjoyed was the depth of his agreement with his own unique perspective. He found agreement with himself, and like magic, the judges were in agreement as well.

My wife and I had seen enough for that night, and began to get ready for bed. I was glad to have heard this young man sing, but I still didn’t like these competition shows. For a moment, I felt a familiar impulse to sway my wife to my view of things. I thought of that singer, however, and that impulse quickly passed. I would not find the agreement I was seeking in her, but in that stage within myself where judgment does not exist.

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

Greatest Clarity

When I was a waiter there was often the challenge of being heard as the restaurant got busy. One did not want to have to repeat the specials or ask again how the gentleman would like his porterhouse prepared. Fortunately, I could bellow with the best of them, and so for years, when the decibels around me began to rise, so did my own volume.

By and by I grew tired of all the shouting over more shouting and I began a little experiment. What if, I wondered, there was a way to be heard through the noise without raising my voice? Speaking more slowly and enunciating helped, but it wasn’t enough. That was when I learned to imagine my words like a razor, sharp and precise and bright, and my voice seemed to cut through the hum and clamor of the restaurant. I cannot tell you how I did this, only that it worked, and I never shouted again. I had found my waiter’s voice.

Much is made of a writer’s voice, and many hours of sleep have been lost wondering if ours will ever be heard within the din of other voices clamoring to be heard. How tempting it is to shout. How tempting to break out bigger plots, bigger action, bigger words, bigger technical risks. But all of this noise assumes a competition where none exists. Clarity has no opponent. Once a thing has become perfectly clear it has emerged into itself where it stands intact and complete.

Such clarity reminds us of ourselves, or at least the selves we have forgotten and instead of remembering try to improve. No improvement is necessary, only greater clarity. To learn to see yourself clearly and as you actually are is to discover beauty again and again and again, and to know that ugliness is only life seen through the fog of forgetting.

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

We Are All Authors Now

I spent this past weekend at the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference. As is custom, on Friday night there was a book-signing event for all the authors, both those invited to teach and speak as well as attendees whose work had been published. This was a tipping point year. For the first time, the number of authors sitting behind a pile of their books outnumbered the number of people looking to have those books signed.

Such is the inevitable consequence of holding a book-signing at a writer’s conference in the age of self-publishing. It would be tempting to lament this imbalance, except that this imbalance is anything but. Rather, it is the recognition of what has always been the truth – that everyone has a story they want to tell and share with other people. With the rise of self-publishing, and blogs, and YouTube, and programs like Garage Band, we’re all authors and filmmakers and musicians now.

Fortunately, we are all readers as well. My boys often claim they aren’t interested in reading, though they spend most of their days doing just that, only on blogs and forums and wikis. The books I sold at the reading were sold to other writers who took a moment to climb out from behind their own stack. YouTube celebrities watch YouTube. Musicians listen to music. Entertainers, it turns out, want to be entertained.

I do not know how all this will shake down. Amazon currently boasts two million titles for sale, with more being added every day. With everyone promoting their latest $.99 title, social media can seem cacophonous with self-promotion. But I cannot believe that anything but good will come of people understanding that they have a voice and that it is worth using, that there is no true barrier to expression but the willingness to express. The gatekeepers were never real. They were servants of our own self-imposed silence, boogiemen born out of the secret hope and secret terror that one story or one life could ever matter more than another.

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Voice Driven

I was taking the only writing class in which I would ever enroll as an adult, a one-year certificate program at the University of Washington. Mid-year I decided to switch stories, from a plot-driven period piece to a highly autobiographical, voice-driven coming-of-age story. I had never written voice-driven fiction before, but I knew upon starting this novel that it was signaling a new and necessary direction for me.

In this class, instead of written feedback, certain students read their work aloud and then received immediate, verbal critiques. When my turn came, my heart was thumping so loud I was worried it might drown out my reading. The novel’s voice was so close to my own I could not bear the thought that no one would want to hear it. I read as if wearing blinders, and when I was done, I drew a breath, looked up from my page, and waited.

First, as always, silence. Who would speak first? It occurred to me then that this moment had as much to do with my classmates’ voices as mine. A critique, in its own way, is like another story offered to the world. What if your critique is no good?

Finally, one woman spoke up. “I don’t get it. Why’s he so upset? Just because his girlfriend left?”

“I don’t get it either,” said another woman. “Me, neither,” said a third. “It seems like a big deal about nothing.” Now it was like watching a wildfire spread. One after another after another spoke up about how they didn’t get it. There was safety in numbers. Soon, half the class agreed the thing didn’t really make sense.

More silence. Then, from the seat directly behind me, Nick cleared his throat. Nick was an experimental sort of writer. Sometimes when he talked, if he was nervous it sounded as if he’d cinched his necktie two cinches too many. In a quiet, choked sort of voice, he said, “I liked it.”

Now, to my left, another woman jumped in. “So did I! I thought it was cool.” Then another fellow: “I didn’t care what was happening, I just liked listening to the narrator.” A new floodgate was open, and by the end of it the class was evenly divided between those who got it, and those who did not.

It was, for me, the absolutely perfect response to my first voice-driven piece. I realized I had enjoyed listening to those people who didn’t like my chapter as much as those who did. It’s always so moving when someone breaks the silence, when believing something is true is reason enough speak.

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Not Normal

I was watching a Ken Burns documentary last night about a special school in Vermont designed for children who, for a number of reasons, could not flourish is a typical public school. At one point, the school’s therapist talked about the parents’ desire for their children to be “normal.” He would remind the parents that it wasn’t their child’s job to be normal; it was their child’s job to be themselves.

Of course, what the parents really meant was that they wanted to know that their child would succeed in some recognizable way, whether socially or professionally or romantically. It is easy to imagine how something will thrive if we feel we have seen that thing before. As writers, our success often depends upon our willingness to create something that hasn’t been seen before. While some of our stories will look and sound and walk like other stories, a piece of work’s true value always lies in the qualities that seem to belong to it alone.

And what is true of our work is always true of ourselves. You would be hard pressed to find a more normal-looking fellow than myself. If you passed me on the street you might mistake me for a TV news anchor. Yet I can feel out of place in my own living room. When I am out of sorts with myself, the world appears hostile and un-accepting, a symphony where nothing I can sing or say belongs.

It is not my job, nor anyone’s job, to belong anywhere. It is only my job to speak for myself. Oddly, every time I permit myself to do so, every time I ask what is the most honest thing I can say and then say it, every time I speak from the most personal truth I know, I find myself belonging where I had previously felt unwanted. There is nothing in the world more normal, more universal, than acceptance of oneself. What else is there for anyone? There is only the choice between a lifetime failing to be someone you are not, or succeeding in being someone you are.

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Helmets Off

I sometimes wonder if Lord of the Rings would get published if it were written today. For instance, it is peopled with almost nothing but guys from top to bottom, an omission few publishers would be willing to overlook given our current understanding of readership demographics—which is to say, 80% of all books are bought by women. That said, perhaps my favorite moment from the film version involves Éowyn, one of the story’s few female characters.

Éowyn is a “shieldmaiden”, and the niece of the Théoden King of Rohan. Against her father’s wishes, she suits up to help defend Minas Tirith against an onslaught of orcs, donning a full helm to disguise her identity. Leading the siege is the Witch King, who, it is said, cannot be killed by any man. In the middle of the battle, the Witch King knocks Théoden from his horse. Éowyn leaps to her uncle’s defense, and the Witch King laughs, “You fool. No man can kill me.”

Éowyn then pulls off her helmet, her long blond hair tumbles out, and she says, “I am no man.” And kills him.

It is tempting to view this moment through the lens of gender and our concepts of strength and so on, but this, for me, actually diminishes its meaning. That Éowyn’s greatest contribution to the struggle of good versus evil was what lay beneath her mask is everyone’s story. It is everyone’s story to hide their true strength because if that true strength is different, if it is unique, then perhaps it doesn’t belong, or perhaps it will be unwanted, or perhaps it is not a strength at all but merely a deformity.

It is every bit like your writing voice. There comes a moment in most writer’s lives when they remove the helmet and speak as themselves. It can be both freeing and terrifying, for the Witch King of failure and irrelevance and mediocrity is surely laughing somewhere in our minds. If he were real, then it would be death for us all, since you cannot protect what you have always been anymore than you can stop being what you already are.

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
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Greatest Clarity

When I was a waiter there was often the challenge of being heard as the restaurant got busy. One did not want to have to repeat the specials or ask again how the gentleman would like his porterhouse prepared. Fortunately, I could bellow with the best of them, and so for years, when the decibels around me began to rise, so did my own volume.

By and by I grew tired of all the shouting over more shouting and I began a little experiment. What if, I wondered, there was a way to be heard through the noise without raising my voice? Speaking more slowly and enunciating helped, but it wasn’t enough. That was when I learned to imagine my words like a razor, sharp and precise and bright, and my voice seemed to cut through the hum and clamor of the restaurant. I cannot tell you how did this, only that it worked, and I never shouted again. I had found my waiter’s voice.

Much is made of a writer’s voice, and many hours of sleep have been lost wondering if ours will ever be heard within the din of voices clamoring for attention. How tempting it is to shout. How tempting to break out bigger plots, bigger action, bigger words, bigger technical risks. But all of this noise assumes a competition where none exists. Clarity has no opponent. Once a thing has become perfectly clear it has emerged into itself were it stands sovereign and complete.

Such clarity reminds us of ourselves, or at least the selves we have forgotten and instead of remembering try to improve. No improvement is necessary, only greater clarity. To learn to see yourself clearly and as you actually are is to discover beauty again and again and again, and to know that ugliness is only life seen through the fog of forgetting.

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