Learning to Listen

Writers come in every conceivable shape, size, color, and age. We tell every variety of stories. Some of us write in the middle of the night and some in the wee hours of morning. Despite all these many differences, nearly all the writers I know have this in common: we like to be alone. We’d better. With but a few exceptions, our work – before editors and proofreaders have their say – is entirely, supremely, exquisitely solitary.

And by solitary I don’t just mean we are physically alone. Some of us like to write in cafés or airport terminals. But where we’re sitting has nothing to do with where we are actually writing. Our writing always occurs in a realm utterly and forever unknowable to anyone but ourselves. Oh, the pleasure of slipping into that world from which any world can be borne, to listen to a voice only I can hear. To lose myself entirely in that world, to forget entirely about the world in which I sit, is to feel as free as I have ever felt.

Yet it is precisely because our work is so solitary, it is precisely because we must listen to voices only we can hear, that writing invites us to listen to that other voice, the voice of doubt. I sometimes feel as if my entire writing life has been one long practice in learning the difference between the one voice and the other. The results are always as clear as black and white, but those clear differences do not come until I have made a choice, a choice no can make for me, a choice only I am aware needs to be made.

The choice is always between being small and being what I actually am. After all, where those voices speak has no limits. Here, horizons are just unexplored possibilities. Doubt can feel like the swaddling a newborn craves, a boundary against endlessness, but my true safety lies in exploration. Doubt would always have me stay where I am, whereas what I am is always calling me forward toward more of myself.

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


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

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The Only Answer for a Writer’s Worry

The fantasy author Terry Brooks worked as a lawyer for many years before becoming a fulltime writer. Typically, writers don’t begin their careers earning as much money as lawyers, and this was certainly the case with Brooks. In fact, some professional writers never earn as much as a third-year associate. Nevertheless, Brooks’ ambition was to write fulltime, and so he set a goal: if he could publish three books, he’d allow himself to quit the law.

By now he’s published a lot more than three books, and I assume he’s earned as much as your average lawyer, but of course he didn’t know any of that when he set his goal. All he knew was that he wanted to write fantasy novels for a living, whatever that living might be. It’s a subject that often comes up in my conversations with writers of all stripes – that leap from teacher or lawyer or journalist to writer. The first career almost always includes a regular paycheck; the latter, almost never.

I too had to make this leap. At the time I was a waiter. My wife and I had come in to some money, enough that we could conceivably live off of it for a couple years. What I was writing wasn’t selling at that time, and I had no real prospects to replace what I was earning as a waiter. But I did know this: waiting tables occupied a lot of space in my mind and in my life. I knew that if I quit I would find something to replace it. I just didn’t know what that something would be. I needed the blank page, so to speak, of joblessness to find out.

However, my wife’s and my marriage is such that leaving my job is not a decision I would make without her. I had attempted this conversation with her before, but in past attempts I had looked to her as a child would to a parent to grant me permission to leave. She never did. The problem was that my wife was as dependent on my income as I was, but just as no one else could see the stories I’ve imagined but haven’t written, she could not perceive the opportunities I knew my free time would present.

I could not describe those opportunities to her, any more than I could tell her about all the really cool scenes in a story until I’ve written them. But I knew the opportunities would come just as I know cool scenes will come. So I spoke to her that day from what I did know, and that was enough. I realized then that I did not always speak to people from this place of knowing something I couldn’t yet prove. I had become reliant on evidence, which is a byproduct the past; opportunities always exist in the future and the present.

Whenever I worry I am peering over the horizon for evidence of my future wellbeing. A lot of writers worry about the future because no one knows how well the next book will sell. Keep your eyes on the page. That’s where all your opportunities wait, where all your happiness and interest and pleasure waits. Keep your eyes on the page and the future will grow from what you write today.


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

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Worry Freely

I think it is almost impossible for a writer not to worry. When I interviewed Louis Sachar he told a great story of sitting with Judy Blume at a dinner and asking her if she ever worried after she finished a book if it was any good at all. Blume, author of so many books her website doesn’t bother listing the number, responded, “Every single book.” Alice Hoffman – who has written over twenty novels, been a bestseller, been selected for Oprah – told me she begins every book feeling as though she doesn’t know how to write a novel.

Which is not to say that all is bleak, that a writer’s life is nothing but ulcers and midnight sweats. Not at all. The point is not whether a worried thought crosses your mind. The point is how will you respond when one does.

The reason I bring up Louis Sachar and Judy Blume and Alice Hoffman is this: it happens. The worst thing you can do is believe that there is something wrong with you because you are worrying; that if you were a better writer, or a more disciplined writer, or a more successful writer you wouldn’t be having these thoughts. This, of course, is worrying about worrying. Every single one of the hundreds of writers I have interviewed worries at least a little. But every one of those writers goes on to finish his or her book.

This distance between your fear and your true self, and the means by which you traverse this distance, is often the business of life. It is possible not to be afraid, or not to worry, but you should not expect this. Rather, master the art of releasing worry as quickly as possible. Your work, your marriage, your life is a balance, not a fixed point on a graph. Were it a fixed point, you would arrive and be done. You do not want to be done. There is always the next day, the next sentence, the next book, and with each new step the balance must be maintained. You crave that balance, and just as with the tightrope walker, the pleasure lies not in arriving safely on solid ground, but in finding your center on a journey through the open space of free choice.

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

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What You Cannot See

I write often in this space about the uselessness of worry, and I was reminded of this uselessness again yesterday when someone passed along a quote—attributable, we think, to the Dalai Lama—that goes: “If a problem can be solved, why worry about it? And if a problem can’t be solved, why worry about it?”

A good one all right, and it came to me when there was much worry floating around my brain. I have come to accept that I am writing stories only in part because I like to tell stories. Storytelling was what first brought me to the page many, many years ago, but somewhere in my psyche I saw in the writing of stories an opportunity to make peace with the unknown. Unfortunately, it is only now that I am finally understanding this.

Because I cannot outline, the worry comes in the form of the question, “What will happen next?” I have tried outlining to relieve this, but it is no use. So I am left to make peace with the unknown. The question, by the way, only nags me when I am not writing. When I am writing I am in the process of answering the question so there is no problem. It’s the not-writing that is the problem.

There are many techniques for shooing the worry away, but I won’t bother with those here. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. In the end, there is no formula for making peace with the unknown; in the end, there is only acceptance, which is not a fixed point but a balance to be maintained as you would your footing on a log.

I dream sometimes of a kind of unconsciousness. There are places in my life where I never worry but where other people do. Why couldn’t the writing be like that? Because if it were, I would have to worry about something else so that I could learn to not worry about it. There is no avoiding this lesson. For me, then, the peace comes quickest when I admit my worry has nothing whatsoever to do with writing or stories. I am merely perched on the edge of the moment, wringing my hands as I squint unseeing into the future, trying to determine if that place is friendly or unfriendly, when of course it is neither—it is simply not here yet.

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The Zone

Many writers, especially as they’re starting out, contend with The Editor Over The Shoulder. This phantom character can stop a story cold, drain all interest, and, despite it’s supposed role of improving prose, ruin what might have otherwise been perfectly good writing. If you’re fortunate enough never to have met this ghost, go have another cup of coffee and count yourself lucky; but if you have, here’s a trick that might dispel him or her once and for all.

This is merely an experiment, and you need only try it for one day. Imagine you have a Zone of Influence. This zone represents all that you have actual control over. There is a lot that is not inside this zone: tomorrow, yesterday, other people’s opinions, the weather, The New York Times (assuming you are not a member of its editorial board), agents, editors, readers. It’s a long list. Inside this zone, however, is what you are actually doing, who you are actually talking to, what you are actually writing.

For one day, make all those things outside your Zone of Influence off limits. This means not only can’t you talk about them, you can’t even think about them. This means no imaginary conversations, no thinking about what your writing group will say (because they aren’t saying it), no imaginary book signings—nothing. You will probably slip, but don’t worry. Just remind yourself that today you aren’t going to think about those things, and then move on.

This sort of technique is variously called mindfulness or living in the moment, but whatever it is called, it is a practice, a discipline. If you can practice taking your mind off all that you have no control over in your daily life, then when you sit down at your desk The Editor will be revealed for what he truly is: yet another expression of all that you believe you must control but cannot.

So give it a try.  And remember, it’s only for one day. Tomorrow you can go back to thinking about all those things outside your Zone of Influence. But perhaps you will discover the pleasure in not thinking about those things. After all, if you have no influence over something, all the thinking in the world isn’t going to change it, and so all that energy is spent making nothing. Turn that energy toward you can create, and you may be surprised by what grows.

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Practice Now

In preparation for an interview next month, I am reading a novel by yet another lawyer (David Ellis, in this case). I have met more lawyers and doctors because of Author than I had in my previous forty-two years. I believe this is in part because lawyers and doctors tend to be ambitious, hard-working types, which is an excellent place to start if you want to be a writer.

But it’s only a start. Unlike doctors and lawyers, who have problems brought to them, the problems writers solve are entirely our own making. This is part of why Hemmingway described writing as the loneliest profession. He may have been referring to the writer alone at his or her desk with these problems, but I believe now that the writer is loneliest during those anxious hours away from the work.

You can drive yourself mad while not writing worrying about what you will write or have written. Thus we have the alcoholic writer, numbing himself between writing sessions until he can get his hands back on the story and remember that it isn’t so complicated after all once you’re in it.

Everything will seem a little mysterious and illusory when you aren’t doing it. We always live in the moment whether we’re interested in the moment or not, and we can think all we want about some other moments that are to come or have already come, but thinking in this way becomes worrying as quick as you can ask, “What if?” All the worrying I have done about my writing while not writing has never improved it one inch.

And so the next time you’re away from your desk and worrying about writing, stop—but do it for this reason: The best way to improve your writing is to not think about it when you aren’t doing it. Pay attention to what you are doing at the moment. That way, when do at last return to your desk, you will have spent all those other hours being as present as you can be, which is the best practice for anything you will ever do.

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