Shared Stories

My friend Chris and I met when we had both just begun attending Hope High School, I as a freshman and he as a sophomore. He’d spent his freshman year attending Our Lady of Providence, an experiment in being a good Catholic that didn’t go well for him.

My first memory of Chris is of him telling me a story. I, an inveterate secularist, had asked him what it was like to go to a parochial school, and by way of explanation he launched into the Tale Of Father Knackowitz – Knack The Black to the terrified teenagers of OLP. Knackowitz was the school’s tall, imperious vice-principal, who spent his days wandering the hallways in his long black priest’s raiments looking for disobedient boys. Chris claimed he’d never seen Father Knackowitz without a Styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand. You could smell his coffee before you saw him, in the same way Captain Hook could hear the approaching crocodile by the ticking clock he’d swallowed. There was a rumor at OLP that it was always the same cup of coffee, kept hot and always full day after day by some unholy miracle.

But Father Knackowitz had a nemesis – McDougal. McDougal was a junior the year Chris attended, known throughout the school for his impious mischievousness. McDougal was clever, however, and whether he was skipping classes or scrawling dirty words on the bathroom walls, he was never caught. Everyone knew, but no one could prove, that McDougal was consistently up to no good. It was Knackowitz’s job – a job he in which he took ruthless pleasure – to drag misbehaving boys into his office and administer punishment. For two years and two semesters, McDougal had avoided that office.

One day in his third semester, Chris’s English teacher sent him on an errand to the school’s office in the middle of class. Boys could not wander the halls during class, and so his teacher gave him a hall pass; proof of innocence. Chris hurried down the stairs to the first floor and wound his way toward the office, where he bumped into McDougal himself. McDougal, who did not have a hall pass, winked at Chris, and ducked into the bathroom.

Chris delivered his teacher’s message to the office, stepped back out into the hallway – when he smelled the earthy-acid aroma of steaming coffee. He froze, and in the next moment Knackowitz swept around the corner, his robes flowing black behind him, his Styrofoam cup aloft. Knack the Black’s eyes burned momentarily seeing a boy in the hall, but Chris quickly presented his pass. Knackowitz nodded, and, coffee still aloft, turned to continue his rounds.

And that was the exact moment McDougal, kept unaware of the nearby danger by the lavatory’s own dense aromatic environment, opened the bathroom door straight into a turning Father Knackowitz. There was a thud, an “Oof!” and then – a splash. Chris could see the drips of coffee staining Knackowitz’s robe. As the door swung closed, McDougal looked up into the face of judgment, and dropped his head.

Knackowitz said only: “McDougal. My office. Now.”

McDougal was never seen or heard from again. Chris decided soon after that maybe he was a public school guy after all.

That’s the story as I remember it. Chris may not remember telling that story, may not even remember Father Knackowitz. That’s the beauty of stories and of friendships. They live in our hearts where they travel with us always, belonging to each of us only because they’re shared.

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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Back to the Well

Sometimes when I first sit down to write, I turn my attention to the well from which my stories come and find nothing. This is partly a consequence of writing these little essays, which I must begin from scratch each day, but I have also experienced the dry well when working on larger projects. When I was a very young writer, and had made the decision that I wanted to be a writer and not simply write when I felt like it, I thought I could manufacture the ideas the well would have otherwise provided. It seemed like the adult thing to do. Adults, from my limited experience, manufactured everything.

The manufacturing of ideas went very poorly. It was like trying to build a flower, which is to say I didn’t even know how to begin. This was vaguely worrisome. My life and livelihood were to depend on these ideas. If I was not their sole source, how could I create with any certainty? How could I know that ideas would come as bright and lovely tomorrow as they did today?

It was a good question that, like many good questions, sat unanswered in my heart until it became a complaint. This particular complaint had a metaphysical flavor to it, which gave it poetic credibility: “Oh, capricious Muse, wherefore art thou?” Eventually, I grew tired of that flavor, finally tasting the bitterness beneath its tangy drama. I saw then where that bitterness came from; I saw how easy it would be to live your life in that very bitterness, feeling abandoned and disappointed and resentful.

Which is to say, I let myself answer the question. If you’ve ever answered this question for yourself then you know it is impossible to describe where the ideas come from; you know only that they come. All we need, I have learned, is a good question. The better the question, the better the answer. Be careful with your questions, however. If it’s a really good one, the answer will arrive with such force that you may fear its momentum. You may feel unready or undeserving, a child who’s stumbled into an adult’s game. Fortunately, the longer you resist the answer, the more you will suffer, until the suffering becomes greater than the fear, and the well becomes a river flowing.

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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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.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Natural Boundaries

There are certain rules of craft that seem to apply to all writers. For instance, nouns and verbs will always carry more power and immediacy than adjective and adverbs. This is true in literary fiction, urban fantasy, and memoir. Every writer, no matter what they write, will have to learn these universal truths. And you will learn them the only way anyone can learn anything: through experience. I can tell you and tell you to use more nouns and verbs than adjectives and adverbs, but nothing will teach you that like the experience of writing a clear, honest sentence without one single descriptor.

But every writer must also find her own craft. What works in your stories or poems may not work in mine. These little essays I write have a craft all their own. Having written a bunch of them, I’ve learned what works in them and, probably more importantly, what doesn’t work. Knowing from experience what doesn’t work saves me a lot of time. The page always begins blank, after all; I could, theoretically, write anything. Knowing what doesn’t work narrows my focus considerably, and as I find my way through an essay I can more easily spot that path of thought that is heading nowhere.

I do not mean to suggest that success is all about what we don’t do. Success is always about what we say yes to. This is true for the whole of life. I can only live, I can only experience, what I say yes to. I’ve said yes to a bunch of things that wasted my time, that drained me of my enthusiasm and optimism. I have said yes to so many of these things that I published a whole book recently about not caring what other people think of your work. That’s something I spent a lot of time saying yes to until experience finally taught me not to bother.

Except even that book really isn’t about not doing something; it is about what’s available to us when we choose not to worry about whether other people will like our work. Just as a writer uses her craft to leave room for the reader’s imagination, so too learning not to care about what other people will think of your work leaves room for your own genius. Your genius requires complete freedom; it cannot be confined by the artificial boundaries of shame, the fear that what you have to offer might not be worth offering. The only boundaries you should honor are those imposed by your own aesthetic, the path to which life has taught you again and again to say yes.

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 Life Within

I discovered James Joyce’s Ulysses in my early twenties in large part because of the book’s reputation as a marginally unreadable tour de force. It’s not the sort of book you snuggle up with in front of the fire, being 600 pages long and chronicling one day in the lives of two men in Dublin in 1904. Not a lot happens, which is part of why I so enjoyed it. I liked that Joyce paid such close attention to the smallest experiences, that he was able to show me – no, remind me that when viewed with love and care every single moment, no matter how mundane, mattered.

I can’t be reminded of this often enough. My life’s pretty mundane, honestly, which is apparently how I prefer it. It’s easier to focus. The four walls that make up a life, the boundaries of my little world, are in the end illusory. Tempted as I often am to knock them down, to feel imprisoned by the cramped circumference of my daily route, it is sometimes good to be reminded that the only journey I have ever wanted to take begins and ends in exactly the same place.

Which is to say, the writing life, as I have understood it, has always been the life within. This is a reality with which I am still coming to terms after fifty-two years on this planet. I still kind of hope that what I’m looking for is out there somewhere – out there on the field of play, out there on the stage, on the book tour. It is easy to get lost out there when you’re looking for something where it isn’t.

On the other hand, the moment I find the right story, the right sentence, or the right word I am home. It is true that the storyteller’s imagination allows for limitless journeys, whether around Dublin or to distant planets, but the imagination’s greatest expanse is its portability. It’s with me everywhere always. It’s with me in grief and in boredom and in rage. It’s with me every single mundane moment, waiting and alive, a direct portal to the center of life.

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

Universal Stories

When I wrote Fearless Writing, I often had in mind two pivotal experiences in my life: trying to make myself write fiction, and allowing myself to write personal essays. The personal essays were easy to write; the fiction was often hard to write. In the personal essay I found the most natural vessel for both my voice and the sorts of things I wanted to write about; in fiction, I often felt as if I was putting on a voice and forcing ideas into stories.

So that’s my story: The guy who tried and tried to write fiction until he finally let himself write creative non-fiction. But that’s not what I’m really writing about when I tell this story. I would never bother telling a story about how to stop writing fiction and start writing personal essays. Rather, I would tell a story about how to stop doing something you don’t really want to do and start doing what you love to do.

This is the job of every storyteller, whether the stories we tell are fiction or non-fiction: we are looking for the universal in the particular. It’s a good business decision, of course. There’s not much of a market for people looking to move from fiction to non-fiction, but there’s a very big market for people who want do what they love to do instead of what they don’t love to do. But that’s not why we tell our stories the way we do. It’s never been for the money. It’s because we love each other.

I forget this sometimes when I’m scrounging around the world fretting about platforms and proposals. These are the sorts of things with which I’m preoccupied now that I’m a non-fiction writer. Is my platform big enough? Is my proposal jazzy enough? These questions fatigue me because I feel like I should care about the answers but I really don’t. The more I try to answer them, the smaller and grubbier I feel.

So I quit trying. I sometimes wonder if this quitting means I’m lazy, until in my idleness an interesting an idea comes floating along. Because I only spotted it, and didn’t make it, I know that idea doesn’t actually belong to me. But my interest in it does. Now I’m fully awake, and not idle at all, and the idea grows and grows as I give all my particular attention to 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

Mastery

Most writers begin understanding certain parts of writing better than other parts. For instance, when I was a teenager I had an instinctive understanding of dialogue. I understood it well enough that when I was sixteen I explained to my younger brother that characters rarely say exactly what they mean, that it is always better when they talk about one thing – like the weather – but really mean another – like how uncertain life is. That’s advice I’d still give thirty yeas later.

What did not come so naturally to me was what we call “description.” When I encountered it in the books I read, I often found it boring, something I might skip to get to the cool parts. I knew you needed a certain amount of it so your characters weren’t wandering in a bald moonscape, but the only value I could find in writing a good description as opposed to a boring description is that the former proved what a good writer I was. It felt like a necessary showing off, as if writers were all figure skaters required to hit a certain number of triple axles.

Then shortly before I started college I picked up a collection of T. S. Eliot’s poems, and after reading them one afternoon actually said aloud, “Oh. I get it.” What I got was that “description” was actually an attempt to recreate the emotional experience of being alive and in the world. Now that was cool. What does it feel like to stand in a crowded bus station? What does it feel like to see someone you find beautiful? What does it feel like to watch a clock when you’re waiting for school to end? The words I chose to render the world were, hopefully, portals into my most intimate understanding of life.

Now I got it, meaning I understood that describing something was an act of love rather than of fear. Now I could write toward the sharing of life as I felt it rather than away from the fear that I wasn’t clever enough to stick some literary landing. I spent the ensuing years learning to master this by the exact same means I have used to master anything: by learning again and again that fear is only the belief that there is ever an answer other than 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

A Clear Path

Writing a book can be quite a long journey. Sometimes it takes six months and sometimes it takes six years. Often, a book lives in an author for years before he ever begins writing it. The book is an idea that won’t leave him alone, or to which he finds his attention returning on long drives or idle hours at work. Sometimes the journey is so long, is so woven into the fabric of his daily life that it doesn’t feel like a journey at all, just something he’ll be doing for the rest of his life.

I’d always loved the idea of journeys ever since I read the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo walks out of his garden gate with a mysterious magic ring in his pocket. I was only thirteen but I knew I wanted to be on a meaningful journey. What that journey would be, I couldn’t say. I was uninterested in travel, in seeing foreign lands. I knew I wanted to tell stories, but I wasn’t sure telling stories really constituted a journey.

Years later, when I was writing those stories but unable to find a home for them, I often felt as if I was going around in circles. I would sometimes moan to my wife, “Nothing’s changing!” When you’re on a journey, things are always changing. No matter what I wrote, the outcome was always the same.

Except even as I saw myself going around in these circles, certain ideas came niggling at me, ideas about the relationship between fear and creativity, between free will and the blank page. These ideas didn’t seem like the beginnings to the kinds of stories I was currently telling, but they were very interesting all the same. I would find myself returning to them every chance I could. They seemed important to me, as if I was unlocking a mystery.

By and by those very interesting ideas turned into interviews, and essays, and workshops, and books. Once all of that had manifested, as we say, it was easy to see the straight path between an idea that wouldn’t quit niggling at me and a career. It’s so clear, that when a new idea comes, as one did recently, I now see a new path where before I would have only seen something to think about when my journey seemed stalled.

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 Better Question

I was a philosophical young man, by which I mean I would from time to time find myself asking, “What is the meaning of life?” I really did find myself asking that. I’d ask it after all other questions had been exhausted, after what I perceived as unnecessary and capricious suffering had gone unanswered. I did not really ask the question expecting an answer, which is good because one never came. I sometimes took this silence as an indication there was no meaning at all, but mostly it left me quietly confused.

The confusion reminded me of how I’d feel when I was writing a story that wouldn’t finish. Sometimes I’d think about that story: “Well, maybe it just can’t be finished.” I didn’t ask this often because I ultimately had faith that all stories could be finished if you looked at them from the right angle. That was the trick. If what you were doing wasn’t working you had to turn the story, ask a different question about it, and by and by you’d unlock it and away you’d go.

That was always the best. I was never happier than when that story had been unlocked. I didn’t know how it was going to end but I knew I was on the path, and all I had to do was ask, “What next?” and an answer would soon come. I did have to learn what it felt like to be on the path rather than just near it. That took some time, but all that was required to learn that difference was honesty, which I could usually manage in the privacy of my workroom.

After about twenty-five years of this practice I noticed that I wasn’t asking what the meaning of life was anymore, though I did still suffer. Now when I suffered I’d ask, “Where’s the path?” This was a better question. In fact, it’s really the only question. Everyone’s answer is going to be different to that question, just as every writer will tell a different story. To hear the answer is to find yourself again and again, find yourself not in a place but in a direction, moving forward with the flow of life.

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 Holiday Season

It is very hard to try to do two things at once. It is very hard to love someone while simultaneously believing you must protect yourself from them, or that you must always be right, or that there are good people in the world and bad people in the world. Likewise it is hard to listen to your creative potential, your muse, your imagination if you simultaneously believe that you must write perfectly, or that you must know that what you’re creating now will succeed later, or that no one wants to hear from someone like you.

Be glad it is hard to do two things at once. All these stories of protecting ourselves and being right, all these stories of writing perfectly and success, are our invention. They are not real, and so can only be maintained by our constant attention. The truth, meanwhile, requires nothing of us. Love cannot be manufactured, only perceived. Our imagination cannot be commanded, only received. How kind life is to make suffering exhausting.

Eventually, everyone must rest. We will complain about our suffering first, and march in protest about how hard it is, and form committees to determine why everything is so hard, but by and by, because these stories are not actually a part of reality, we will either forget to tell them or grow weary of telling them. Either way, the truth of love, the truth of our creative potential, will be waiting for us when we do.

We will celebrate such moments. “The good stuff was really coming today,” we’ll say. Or we’ll say, “I had a great time with my wife. No arguments, no debate. Just fun.” These are like holiday seasons, respites of pleasure from the grind of life. But the other day a cashier asked me if I was looking forward to the weekend. “My life’s a weekend,” I confessed. And I didn’t realize until I said it that it was true.

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