The Beautiful Formula

Donald Maass taught the first writing class I ever attended at a writer’s conference. It was an early iteration of his very popular “Writing the Breakout Novel” workshop he has since taught all over the country (and which he’ll be teaching this summer at the PNWA’s conference). As with all the classes I take, I remember only one nugget he shared that afternoon, though it was a good one: books succeed, ultimately, because of word of mouth.

That was true then, before the Internet and well before social media, and it is true now. I was reminded of this the other week when I woke up one morning to discover a rash of tweets that included my handle (@wdbk, if you’re curious). It turns out the blogger and digital media maven Jane Friedman had excerpted the first chapter of my new book Fearless Writing. Her readers seemed to like what she’d shared and were saying so in the Twitterverse. How exciting!

I had no idea why she had excerpted it, however, until my editor explained that they sent all their books to Jane in the hope she might mention one. This is what we call publicity. You publish a book and twiddle your thumbs and wonder, “What can I do to help that book?” Apparently my publisher had done something. I wondered what else they or I could do. It feels good to do things you like doing, after all. That’s why I write – because it feels good. There are other reasons, but that’s the first and most important reason.

It’s also the reason we tweet and talk about books we like: it feels good. It feels good to read something you like, and then it feels good to talk about it. Which is why the very best piece of publicity is the book itself. No review, platform, or book tour will ever supplant the influence the book has over its readers, and their desire to recommend it to others. After the book is written, those other actions we take, help, but it is important to remember that our first and most important job is to write a book we would love to read. No one would have tweeted that excerpt if they hadn’t felt good while they were reading it, and they wouldn’t have felt good reading it if I hadn’t felt good while I wrote it. That’s writing’s beautiful formula.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Good Enough

If you are like me, you have spent a certain amount of your life waiting. Perhaps you were waiting for that first published story, or that first publishing contract, or that first award. Or maybe you have been waiting for your first true love, or first great job, or simply your first big break. The waiting can take so many forms. There’s your life as you live it every day, and then there’s the life you can see all around you – the published books, the people in love, the cool jobs. If you are like me you have always been able to feel the difference between what you are living, and what you believe you could be living.

I lived this way for so long I grew accustomed to a nameless anticipation and dissatisfaction. If you had asked me, I would have said it had something to do with publishing a book, but it went beyond that. It permeated my entire life. I woke up with it and I went to bed with it. It followed me to work and joined me in all my conversations. On most days, I felt like a prisoner who had grown accustomed to prison, who would make the best of it, but who dreamed still of life beyond the walls.

The question I never seriously asked myself during that time was, “What do I think will be different when I stop waiting?” Had I asked it honestly, I believe my answer would have been everyone’s answer: “I’ll know I’m good enough.” Somehow the publishing contract, or the lover, or the job will answer that insidious question. Unless, of course, we decide the publishing contract isn’t enough; it needs to be a three-book deal, or it needs to be a six-figure deal. Enough can keep changing.

I would like to report that I was able to answer that question definitively for myself once and for all, but I have learned I must answer it every day. When I remember that I am already good enough, something does indeed change. I see opportunity I did not perceive before. When I was waiting for the answer, I believed that only someone who knows he’s good enough could go down certain roads. On the days I answer that question for myself, the only question is which roads I wish to travel, just as I ask myself which stories I wish to tell.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

No Sacrifice

When I was a teenager, a teacher suggested I consider a life in politics. I was deeply offended. To me it was as if she had told me she thought I’d make a good gigolo. Years on now, and having spent the last eight or so months marinating in political coverage as never before, I think that teacher recognized something in me that I did not. Namely, the creative writer and the politician are not so very different in their struggles and desires.

After all, both writers and politicians must be ambitious. We must be driven from within to expand the scope of our professional lives – whether it’s the better contract or the higher office. There is absolutely nothing wrong with ambition, with obeying my inherent impulse to grow. To resist that growth is to invite a quiet suffering into my life.

However, ambition is not an end in itself. Service, the desire to share something of value with others, whether that something is a poem, suspense novel, or fairer tax plan, is the only end worth pursuing. For a time, I was far more interested in ambition than service. Like a politician who will say whatever he must to garner the most votes, I spent many of my days wondering what I should write to finally get that contract. This was movement without direction, and it led me nowhere.

The moment I began to see my work as service, as sharing what I value most with other people, I was moving with direction. I have more compassion now for politicians than I used to. It’s easy to think that if you can just get as many people as possible to like you, you’ll be happy, that winning the election or contract are meaningful destinations in themselves. But the contract or the election are merely the platforms from which service can occur.

Do not mistake service for sacrifice, however. I give up nothing, I expect not one fraction less for my own life as I look to serve others. After all, I am only sharing what it is I value most, and I cannot share what I do not have. In this, I do not think about how much I can get from life, but how much I can give, and the more I give, the more I have.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Good Questions

My most recent book, Fearless Writing, is based on the idea that your best days of writing – the days where you sink so deeply into the story you’re telling that you lose track of time and the weather and politics, where you’re surprised by what your characters do, and where ideas come to you so quickly you have to keep up with them – these wonderful writing days always begin the moment you forget to care what anyone thinks about what you write.

I’ve had a lot of these days since I became more disciplined about what I do and do not focus on when I sit down to write. My mind, like my stories, can go absolutely anywhere. The mind is so free, is so quick and unrestrained by the limitations my slow and earthbound body must abide, that it requires some firm boundaries only I can impose on it. I must be disciplined in the questions I ask my imagination to answer. I cannot ask it about the future, or about what other people like or don’t like. I must ask it questions only about the story I’m telling. When I limit my questions in this way, I always have a good day of writing.

The problem, I’ve learned, is that the experience of a good day of writing often stands in noticeable contrast to the rest of my day. I am not, you see, nearly as disciplined in the questions I ask as I wander about the world. It is one thing to sit in the solitude of my workroom and forget to care about other people’s preferences and taste, and it is quite another to be face to face with those people and ignore the thought, “What do they think of me?”

Oh, the misery that question has sown in my life, regardless of the answer. It is almost as unpleasant as when I ask myself, “What do I think of them?” This is my retribution question, payback for all the hurt that other question has inflicted. It’s enough to keep me bound to my desk, if it weren’t for those moments in my day when I forget to ask those useless questions and I find myself once again amongst friends. This is the exact same freedom writing has shown me, the peace that love provides when I follow it rather than demand it.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Suffering For Your Art

I don’t recommend suffering for your art. In fact, I don’t recommend suffering for anything – though you almost certainly will suffer for your art or anything else you want to pursue. I don’t know how to get anywhere without a little suffering. It’s the only way to know I’m headed in the wrong direction. All directions are possible, after all. The page of life is quite blank. And so I head out, picking what looks like the best route. My first choices are almost always wrong.

Or at least not completely right. There is a difference, I’ve learned. Wrong is simply too complete a word to assign to any of these kinds of choices. Within every sentence I delete is a portion of what I eventually choose to share, just as within every romantic relationship I pursued and ended there had been some aspect of what I found in the whole of my marriage. The key, I have learned, is to be kind. This is not always so easy for me. The boy who feared criticism grew into a man striving for perfection.

That was an empty and impossible pursuit, and oh, how I suffered as I sought it. I believed it was possible to achieve, because I perceived perfection in others. Not all the time, of course. People did all sorts of goofy and useless things, made all sorts of mistakes – but that wasn’t who they really were. That was just them trying too hard, or trying to solve problems that didn’t exist. When you dusted away the chaff of these choices, looked through the veil of a moment’s behavior, it was easy to see someone whole, unique, and in need of nothing but an awareness of their own inherent perfection.

Then there is me. I can look at other people, but I can feel only myself. The mirror tells me nothing. Sometimes I am suffering, and sometimes I am not. I don’t want to suffer. I used to think it was romantic, but not anymore. Suffering itself is a kind of veil I must look beyond, with the same vision I use to tell my stories. Suffering does not ask me to share it, dwell and writhe in it – suffering asks only that I recognize it so that I might return to myself.

.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Crash Course in Fearless Writing

If you’ve ever written and actually enjoyed the experience, if you’ve ever allowed yourself to become lost in the dream of the story you are telling so much that you temporarily forget what time it is, then you have written fearlessly. In fact, writing doesn’t really begin until we forget to be afraid. So the question isn’t whether you can write fearlessly, but whether you can do it on purpose. Here are the three best tools I know for writing fearlessly every day.

The only questions you should ever ask are: “What do I most want to say?” and “Have I said it?”

I ask these questions because I can actually answer them. I will never know anything better than I know what I am most interested in. I will never be able to pay attention to something for longer than that about which I am most curious. My curiosity is the engine that drives my creative vehicle. It is the source of all my excitement, my intelligence, and my surprise. It is also entirely unique to me. There is no one on earth who knows what I most want to say other than me.

And once I know what I want to say, once I know which story I want to tell, or which scene I want to write, only I can know if I have translated it accurately into words on the page. Whatever I most want to say exists in a realm knowable only to me. There isn’t one editor or teacher or critique group member who can tell me if I have accurately translated what I wanted to share because only I know what that is; these other people, however well-intentioned, can only tell me if they like or understand what I’ve written. That is all they actually know.

If I am ever asking some question other than these two, I am not really writing. I am trying to read other people’s minds. If I am asking, “Is it any good?” I am really asking, “Will anyone else like it?” Or if I’m asking, “Is there market for it?” I am really asking, “Will anyone else like it?” And if I am asking, “Is it too literary? Is it not literary enough?” I am really just asking, “Will anyone else like it?”

What anyone else thinks of what I’m writing is none of my business – at least not while I’m writing. While I’m writing, what I think of what I’m writing is my business. I am always afraid when I believe I must answer questions that are unanswerable. And I am always fearless the moment I return to my curiosity to see where it is headed next.

Have Faith

I am defining “faith” as believing in something for which there is no evidence. This shouldn’t be so hard for a writer, really. Every day we sit at our desks and believe in something no one but us can see. In fact, while we’re writing, we believe more in the story we are telling than the chair in which we are sitting. We have to. We have to believe that our hero wants to save the world even though our hero doesn’t exist anywhere but our imagination. We must believe a daughter yearns for her father’s attention even though neither the father nor the daughter is any more real than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. That’s our job – to believe in what only we can see.

The problem is that we would also like to share these stories with other people, and we have absolutely no evidence that this story – which only we can see – will be of interest to anyone. No one knows how many copies of a book will be sold or if it will win any awards. No one knows which reviewers will like it and which will not. It is a mystery to be answered within the sovereign imaginations of our readers.

The only evidence a writer has that his story is worth telling is that he’s interested in telling it. That’s it. That’s all Shakespeare got and that’s all Hemingway got and that’s all Amy Tan and Stephen King get. Your evidence that your story is worth your attention and worth sharing with others is that you think it’s cool, or funny, or scary, or profound. If that’s reason enough for you to write, if that’s reason enough to commit an hour or two a day to the same story for six months or a year or six years, then you have found the simple secret to all faith – that feeling good is evidence enough that something is worth doing and that life is worth living.

Contrast Is Your Friend

From a pure craft standpoint, contrast is invaluable. Just as a flashlight’s beam is distinct in a dark room and nearly invisible in a brightly lit room, so too is whatever we are trying to share with our readers most perceptible against its opposite. So if you want to write about peace, you must show war; if you want to show forgiveness, you must show judgment; if you want show acceptance, you must show rejection.

Likewise, often the best way to know what we like is when we encounter something we don’t like. If you read a novel and you hate the ending, instead of griping to your husband or writing group about what poor choices the author made, think about how you would have ended it. Your frustration is pointing you toward something you wish to explore, but which has remained unexplored. That discomfort will only grow until it is released on the page.

Finally, the guidance system upon which you so depend to write from day to day speaks entirely in the contrast between the effortlessness of the right word, and the effort of the almost-right word. It speaks in the contrast between the fearlessness of asking yourself what you are most interested in, and the discomfort we have named fear that always comes when we wonder what other people will think of what we write. We must have both experiences for our guidance system to work. Without what we call fear, we would have nothing to guide us back to what we love.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Third Eye

For many years I was a writer obsessed with the form my stories and sentences took. This is also called style. I had loved certain writers whose style was so distinctive and evocative and exciting to me that I believed if I paid very close attention to the form my stories and sentences took, I would be able to write the kind of stories I loved to read. I was less aware of my stories’ content at that time. I felt that if I started writing, something cool would come out.

It didn’t work that way. Obsessing over a story’s form is a little like fussing with your hair in the mirror. There is only so much a hairstyle can communicate. But it is something I can control. I can cut it, wash it, gel it, comb it, comb it again, mess it up and comb it one more time. What I cannot do is control what anyone will think of that hair. And so I stare into the mirror, aware of this uncomfortable fact, knowing that for all my grooming, people are just going to go ahead and think whatever they want to think.

My stories became a kind of mirror I was staring into, with me fussing and fussing before the big date that was submission. I sent them out aware of some nameless deficiency, and they were predictably rejected. Had I not fussed long enough in the mirror? What was missing? What had I overlooked?

Eventually I began to focus more on my stories’ content rather than their form. It was a very different way of thinking, because the content, which was a felt awareness of life, had no form whatsoever. Love, after all, can take any form, as can grief, and joy, and doubt. My time at the desk now was spent trying to see with my writer’s third eye what love and joy and grief really looked like, without any idea of what other people thought love and joy and grief looked like. Once I felt I could see it clearly, I tried to make what I could see with words.

I love language and sentences as much as I ever did, but I spend very little time now thinking about either. It’s a relief, frankly. I look in the mirror about twice a day, and that’s enough. The rest of my time is spent living within what it feels like to be alive. That is the reality of which I am most aware. This reality is not always comfortable, but the comfort I seek does not exist in the mirror or on the page. That comfort can only be perceived with my third eye, for that is where everything I want to share resides.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Looking For Something Where It Isn’t

Sometimes I am like a man who needs his keys, looks for them on his bureau, doesn’t find them, and declares his keys lost. My keys might be on the mantle, they might be on the kitchen table, they might even be jangling in my pocket, but because I don’t see them at that very moment, I believe they have been swallowed into the void of all lost things.

When I lose something physical, I always tell myself the same thing: “I know it has to be somewhere.” Such is the nature of the physical world. Everything is somewhere; it’s just that that somewhere often changes. When I despair, however, when I worry about my future, I have lost track of something that never moves. I look for what I always need where it doesn’t exist, don’t find it, and believe that all hope is lost.

Writing is a great practice in remembering where to look for what I actually need. The stories I wish to tell are not in any newspaper, or on Facebook, or on television, or even in the eyes and minds of people I love. The fount from which those stories flow exists where only I can perceive it. What comes from that fount changes every moment, but its location is constant. Despite this unerring reliability, I find the quiet and dull surroundings of my workroom an ideal environment for locating that fount.

I am, I have learned, easily distracted. When I leave my workroom there are just so many things to look at. How easy it is to look for my confidence and my value in what I see – in my sales, or reviews, or visits to my website. How quickly I despair when I don’t find what I’m looking for. When I’ve misplaced my keys, I’ll sometimes replay my day to remember if I might have left them someplace unusual, like the studio or my coat pocket. This same approach sort of works when I have misplaced my well-being. The difference is that instead of remembering when I felt good, I simply remind myself what confidence and value feels like, and the moment I do, I find what I’m looking for.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Valuable Experience

Many years ago, Jen, my girlfriend at that time, visited me for a week in California. She was an art student and so I decided to take her to an art gallery. As it happens, the Getty Museum was not far from where I lived, and I’d heard there was a special exhibit currently on display. I was glad there was a special exhibit because I was not an art fan – which is to say, going to museums had not yet been added to my mental list of things I enjoyed doing. What did appear on this list was the vague concept of Special Things, and so we headed straight for the exhibit once we’d paid for our tickets.

The Getty had acquired a Van Gogh. A very small Van Gogh: it was about the size of a square dinner plate. It was, however, so incredibly valuable that the museum had cordoned off a 20-foot perimeter in front of the painting so that the viewing public wouldn’t be tempted to touch it or breathe on it. The distance made it difficult to appreciate the painting for its aesthetic value, but it certainly reinforced the painting’s specialness. It was like being in the presence of a celebrity. Leaning over the rope with the crowd, I had the sense that the painting was somehow worth more than the throng that had come to see it.

I didn’t enjoy the experience. It was easier once Jen and I moved on to the other exhibits. Now we could get close and look at the brush strokes and decide for ourselves whether we liked a painting or not. I didn’t really think I had that option with the Van Gogh. Plus, we could talk freely with one another, now that we weren’t in the hushed presence of greatness. None of these other paintings seemed more important than our relationship.

Driving home we talked some about the Van Gogh. It was more fun to talk about it than to see it. It was fun to learn what she experienced while she looked at it and it was fun to share what I experienced when I looked at it. I realized I valued fun above all other experiences. This seemed like a child’s view of life, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t choose what I valued any more than I could choose who I loved – which is how I knew I wanted to write about what I experienced, and why I knew I would marry Jen.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Giving Up

If I am working with a client who has never attempted a book-length project before, one of the first challenges I must help this new writer overcome is the sudden and daunting awareness of how little she actually knows about this book she would like very much like to write through to its conclusion. The writer rarely sets out on her journey with this awareness. Instead, she is just excited by some idea that has become so bright in her imagination that she cannot seem to pull her attention from it.

And so one day she decides to sit down and actually begin writing the thing. The idea has been so bright and so interesting to her that it feels as though all she needs to do is set aside a little time everyday and the story should virtually write itself. Then she begins. Sometimes it takes no more than a couple pages for the writer to understand that this story is made of around 60,000 details called words, and that she must in fact choose each of those details, and that those details must fit together as effortlessly as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

This is often a disorienting moment. The writer’s interest in the story was complete. What’s more, the feeling the story is trying to convey is complete as well. If the author is writing a story about the difference between feeling unlovable and finding love, then that profound difference is complete within her mind. But the story that is meant to share that feeling, which is made of tens of thousands of details, is so incomplete that the writer doubts if she ever knew anything.

I can sometimes be of help to these writers simply by reminding them what it is their job to know and what it is not their job to know. It is not our job to know the details. It is only our job to know we would like to find them. It is a sometimes subtle difference, but what we call failure is usually the mistaken belief that our inability to know all the pieces ahead of time means we are incomplete.

How tempting it is in the moment of this mistaken awareness to give up. The feeling of personal incompleteness is in direct opposition to the direction of life and is commensurately wretched in its expression. It is appropriate to want to give up something at this moment, but it’s not the story. Give up believing you can finish what is already whole, or fix what was never broken, and return to the business of finding what you are actually looking for.

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

Follow wdbk on Twitter