Inner Critic

Some writers embrace criticism, and some do not. When I spoke to Wally Lamb, he shared with me that he is a member of three writing groups, all of whom read and critique his work. Meanwhile, Louis Sachar shares not one shred of what he is writing with anyone – except the title – until the book is completely finished. Last year I was on a panel with Deb Caletti, Megan Chance, and Jennie Shortridge, all of whom described the outrage they first experience upon receiving a red-gashed manuscript back from their beloved editors. Compare this to N. D. Wilson who craves the “resistance” an editor’s feedback provides, without which he feels his work grows soft.

It is easy for me to become disoriented when the horns of criticism begin blaring in my ear. I write to hear myself, after all; why am I listening to these other people? Yet what is writing but sifting through thoughts until I find one that serves the story I am trying to tell? And what is a criticism but a thought that comes from someone else? Regardless of where it comes from, every thought must in the end be put to the same test—namely, measured against the shape of the story to understand if it fits.

Which is why criticism is so much more useful than how it might or might not strengthen my story. I cannot be reminded often enough of the difference between the thoughts that blow ceaselessly through my mind, and me. How often I have mistaken one for the other, and in that instant my well being feels as transient as a word waiting beneath an uncertain eraser. I remember who I am the moment that word is gone and I awaken to find myself holding the pencil.

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

Inner Critic

Some writers embrace criticism, and some do not. When I spoke to Wally Lamb, he shared withme that he is a member of three writing groups, all of whom read and critique his work. Meanwhile, Louis Sachar shares not one shred of what he is writing with anyone – except the title – until the book is completely finished. Last year I was on a panel with Deb Caletti, Megan Chance, and Jennie Shortridge, all of whom described the outrage they first experience upon receiving a red-gashed manuscript back from their beloved editors. Compare this to N. D. Wilson who craves the “resistance” an editor’s feedback provides, without which he feels his work grows soft.

It is easy for me to become disoriented when the horns of criticism begin blaring in my ear. I write to hear myself, after all; why am I listening to these other people? Yet what is writing but sifting through thoughts until I find one that serves the story I am trying to tell? And what is a criticism but a thought that comes from someone else? Regardless of where it comes from, every thought must in the end be put to the same test—namely, measured against the shape of the story to understand whether it fits.

Which is why criticism is so much more useful than how it might or might not strengthen my story. I cannot be reminded often enough of the difference between the thoughts that blow ceaselessly through my mind and me. How often I have mistaken one for the other, and in that instant my wellbeing feels as transient as a word waiting beneath an uncertain eraser. I remember who I am the moment that word is gone and I awaken to find myself holding the pencil.

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

Silent Friend

Every writer deals with feeling blocked a little differently. Wally Lamb says that if it gets really bad he goes down to a river near his house where his proximity to the flow of the current loosens something within him. Ridley Pearson, meanwhile, just writes his way through it, figuring whatever junk comes out can be rewritten because within junk is often something valuable in its rawest form.

I have learned to wait. This is fitting, I suppose, since I am a naturally impatient spirit. But I have learned over many, many trials and errors that there is no point in me putting words on the page until my attention is at least near what I am wanting to share. So I wait. And as I wait, I am like the ophthalmologist changing lens after lens in that monstrous vision contraption. “Which is better, one or two? Now which is better, one or two?” Each lens is a different perspective on the same idea, and gradually my vision clears and I see what I have been waiting for and I can begin to write.

Sometimes the wait is long and sometimes it is short. A few months ago, when I was still working on my memoir, I waited two hours to begin a new chapter. This was unprecedented. If I am not careful, the waiting can become a kind of solitary confinement where the mind offers stories of my cruel isolation and imminent creative demise. But this did not happen. For two hours I sat exactly where I am sitting now, and waited and waited, changing lens after lens, until I’d found it.

I wrote one sentence that day, leaving the rest for the following morning, but I considered it one of my best writing days of recent years. As writers, we encounter all levels of silence. Words hold their own pleasant sounds, and these words are our tools and our friends, and the silence, if there is enough of it, can feel like our enemy. But silence is the soil from which every story grows, the emptiness we need to see the world without comparison. To make an enemy of it is to make an enemy of myself, as if I am just my words, as if I am nothing but noise and gesture, and that I may cease to exist when I close my eyes to enter the fertile silence of dreams.

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 Bottomless Well

Some days the writing comes quickly and some days it does not. It is easy to know what to do when it is coming quickly: just keep up with what is coming. But on other days the job is a little different. What does one do when it is not coming so quickly?

Some writers like to write their way through the uncertainty. The idea here to start putting words on the page with the understanding that most of it will be thrown away but with the hope that some germ of a genuine idea or character or anything might appear also. Others simply get away from the desk. Wally Lamb described going to a nearby stream when he felt stuck; sometimes the ceaseless current loosened something in him.

For years I used both of these methods with very limited success. When I tried to write my way out of feeling stuck I only dug myself into a deeper and unhappier hole, and when I left the desk I always did so out of anger and despair. Now when nothing is coming, I sit there. And wait. And wait. A few weeks ago I waited two hours, and it wasn’t until the last five minutes of a work session that I saw what I had been looking for.

I considered that day a triumph of sorts. How easy it would have been to panic. On that day, at least, I did not, and I came away feeling as though I had learned something valuable indeed. Every time I believe I have reached the end of what I need to learn about the patience required to write I am wrong. This is a bottomless well, and I have never once regretted diving more deeply into it, though I have feared nearly every descent. No matter. It waits for me too; waits while I believe I am unworthy, or unable; waits until I can once again accept the friendship of my own imagination.

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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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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Born This Way

This month’s issue features my conversation with first-time novelist Kristina McMorris. Kristina is unusual in several ways. First, most writers know they want to be writers from very early on. Not all, mind you—Wally Lamb did not begin writing until his early thirties—but usually writers start dabbling around age nine. Many of you probably did as well. Not Kristina. She did not have any inkling she wanted to write fiction until she was well into her twenties.

What is most strange, however, was that not only wasn’t Kristina writing creatively – though she was doing plenty of, let’s say, quasi-creative writing for her job in marketing – but she wasn’t even reading.  Now this, I have to say, after all the interviews I’ve conducted, is a first.  Her learning curve, as she describes in the interview, was great.

Yet not so great as to keep her from writing her novel – Letters From Home – and eventually seeing it published. Even though I fit the typical writer mold – always interested in stories, read a lot as a kid, wanted to be a writer since I was nine – I love stories like Kristina’s. While it’s wonderful to think we’re born to do something, that we are shot from the womb like arrows headed inexorably toward one bright light of a goal, it is easy to romanticize this perspective because it seems to unburden us from the endless obligation of choice.

The fact is, no matter how strongly pulled toward one activity you are, you could still choose not to do it. You will suffer because of this choice, you will have bad marriages, you will get cancer, you will complain constantly to your friends how meaningless life is, and yet you will do so by choice. Which is why I find Kristina so inspiring. She reminds me again that life decides nothing for us; that we are neither born to fail nor to succeed – we are only born to choose.

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

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The Writing Group Trap

I wrote yesterday about the benefits of blogging, especially for the beginning writer. Another popular tool is the writing group. Many of you probably already belong to one or have belonged to one. Most of the working writers I talk to do not use writers groups, though primarily because they are on tight publishing schedules and they have editors whose job it is, theoretically, to read and improve their work.  There are exceptions to this, however, most notably Wally Lamb. A bestselling novelist twice chosen for Oprah’s Book Club, Wally belongs to no less that three writing groups.

Just as writing a blog can build your confidence by forcing you to write for an audience of strangers, joining a writing group can toughen your skin for the inevitable feedback you will one day receive from the publishing world. There is a danger with the writing group, however – namely, not everyone who wants to write is a good critic of other people’s writing.

Giving useful feedback on a work in progress is not a simple thing. To do so, you must divorce your own aesthetic from what the author is trying to achieve. That is, just because you do not like how a story is being told, does not mean it should not be told that way. Therefore, when someone hands you a story or a chapter and asks, “What do you think?” don’t tell them. Don’t tell them what you really think of it unless you really love it. Everyone wants to know if you love what they’ve written because everyone wants to reach another person and it’s good to know when you’ve done so.

But the question you should be asking yourself is, “What is the writer trying to do?” Then, “What can I say to help them do it?” This is not always easy, and I must confess I am not that good at it. I become irritable and impatient with stories I don’t like. But then I sit across from the writer whose work I have read, and I look into his or her face, and I see someone just like myself, someone trying to tell the story they most want to tell. So I reach for a writer’s best friend, compassion, and come up with something.  It is not always useful, but if nothing else maybe I let them know that everything they risk is worth doing.

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