By Tessa Barone
If you’ve ever wondered whether you’ve got what it takes to do what you love, William Kenower has an answer for you. You do! His newest book, Everyone Has What It Takes, dives into the psychological war against the blank page that many writers find themselves waging.
William will be speaking at the Vancouver Chapter of Willamette Writers on “Fearless Marketing,” on Monday, October 18th at 6:30 pm Pacific. Join in to learn how to relax into your own worth and enjoy marketing your own stories. In the meantime, have a sneak peak at his writing approach by means of a conversation, transcribed below. This interview with writer Tessa Barone has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Tessa Barone: What really struck me reading your book was this sort of revolutionary idea that we don’t need to be suffering for our work. Do you think suffering and toil have a place anywhere in the writing process?
William Kenower: I think it's a mistake. No one wants to suffer. You don't wake up and say, “Should I go for a walk or suffer?” But it does happen.
A very natural experience in writing is to come to an end of a sentence and not know what comes next. And it used to be that when I had that happen, a clock would start running in my head. And if time elapsed, then I really suffered, because I told myself a lot of things. Like I wasn't good enough, or I couldn't do it. And that was all my belief about not trusting the next idea to come.
It’s easy, when the words are coming, to trust the connection between yourself and the Muse, or whatever language you use. But can you believe in it when nothing's coming? And I've gotten to the point in my dotage that I can feel it, even when it’s not coming. Now when I reach the end of the sentence, and I don't know what's next, I almost like it more than when I'm writing. Because I get to sit with the feeling of what wants to be said, the feeling that I know something will come.
I think you will have moments where you don't know the way forward. And by the way, you want that because you're writing to discover. You’re not writing to discovery. Discovery sometimes happens fast—some kind of door opens, and boom, away you go. But sometimes it's slow. Therefore, you have to discover and therefore, there will be moments of not knowing. What do you do with the not-knowing? Do you accept it, and get interested in it, and curious about it, and listen? Or do you start panicking, and do you start worrying? And that's when the suffering starts.
The Blank Page
Tessa Barone: I love this idea that we can just angle ourselves a little differently and see the blank page as something that we love.
William Kenower: If it wasn't blank, you wouldn't be able to tell your story. It has to be blank.
A lot of people live their lives just as a response to something else. “I’ll take care of this; I'll respond to that.” It’s all just respond, respond, respond. If you're older, maybe you have kids, a job, or something - you're always responding, responding, responding.
And then you face a blank page and there's nothing to respond to. [Pounds table.] There’s nothing to respond to! Which is great, and it's scary. I have endeavored to live as if my whole life is a blank page. I try to always live inside out and writing taught me how to do that, because there's nothing to respond to. It's why people freak out.
Tessa Barone: I definitely feel a bit of doom when I don't know what comes next. Like I'm doing it all wrong.
William Kenower: Right? And I want to remind people like yourself: “No, that's normal. It's okay.”
So, I accept the not knowing because that's what I want. I mean, I do want to know, but I first want to not know, so I can discover.
But you see, you're probably someone who's smart, good in school, maybe? A lot of writers were good in school once upon a time. You raised your hand for the teacher. You had all the answers! You never wanted to face a piece of paper without the answers.
Writing is not about having the answers. This is a totally different experience. You come only with questions and no answers.
Let me ask you this. What was it you were thinking about suffering that changed a little bit?
Tessa Barone: I think I’m often trying to come to terms with why some people's lives are just measurably better than others. I guess the age old question of why do good things happen to bad people and vice versa.
William Kenower: Well, I think that I have suffered plenty. Not to brag. And it was always because I was trying to be someone I wasn't.
There’s a scene in [my book] with my father called Failure. I said, “Dad, I wrote a chapter about you—it’s called failure, please understand why.” [Laughs.] But he failed. And this is a guy who went to Harvard, who was raised in the upper-middle class, Midwestern family, good at school, but he was always trying to be someone he wasn’t. And his material life reflected his own misunderstanding about how to make money. He just didn’t get the relationship between his own interest and money and work.
I remember I was interviewing Armistead Maupin, who wrote a series called Tales from the City. He was one of the first public figures in America to come out publicly. And it was a big deal. I mean, this is the seventies, long before anyone was really coming out. And so we were talking about that, and this hadn't occurred to me till I was talking to him. I was like, “You know what, Armistead? I think everybody has to come out.”
[Pounds table.] Everybody has to come out. Maybe you're gay, maybe you write nonfiction instead of fiction, whatever. I think everybody has to come out to what they actually are, as opposed what they thought they were supposed to be growing up. You get some idea of how you'll be happy, how you'll have success, how you’ll be whatever. And usually you're wrong.
I think everyone is equipped with fantastic capacity. But they have to know where it is. They have to know how to use it. Which is why I wanted to write a book called Everyone Has What It Takes. I really feel that is true. You do have what it takes to do the thing you love to do. Whatever that is.
Tessa Barone: I love the idea that we can use our own enjoyment as a barometer for whether we're going in the right direction. And where you compared curiosity to meeting your wife, and just feeling, like, “This is right.”
William Kenower: It's a better framework, I think. People, culturally, the world over, see pleasure as what you earn when you do all the hard work. What comes at the end: pleasure, ease, happiness, fun. That’s the reward. You know, “That’s the weekend, school's over. Now you can have fun.”
It's such a screwed up way to live. And it's such a bad misunderstanding of your guidance system, which is trying to say, “Go to the thing that is interesting.” It’s like trying to make yourself watch a movie you aren't interested in.
It's strange that we have to tell ourselves that we're supposed to be enjoying ourselves and having fun. I think there is such a constant drumbeat of work hard, don't complain. And then at some point you'll make it — whatever “it” is — and then you can have fun. To me, it's a recipe for unhappiness.
So I think that it's a total misunderstanding of an unerring guidance system that we have. [A system] that is trying to point us towards what we're meant to do and the people we’re meant to be with. And the stories you're meant to write.
Tessa Barone: Right, right. We go where we want to go.
William Kenower: Yep. And you have to be kind of merciless about it. All the time.
Tessa Barone: So do you think that for an enlightened writer who is able to live at peace - can they still write stories about characters who are only finding their pleasures at the end of the book?
William Kenower: Right, that's normally how it goes. The story is meant to show how you come to an understanding. So if you want an understanding about, say, unconditional love - well, [the characters are] going to live conditionally first, and suffer because of it. Because they think that's what they gotta do. Suffering is the information from your life saying, “No, don't do this.” But you plow ahead, and it gets worse and worse and worse. But it's only to help them understand themselves better at the end. It's only so they can come to that realization at the end, and let go of the thing they're holding on to let go. It’s all about people suffering, struggling, because they're trying to be someone they're not. Thinking they're not good enough, thinking they're too weak, and living within that reality. And it stinks. It’s a crappy reality.
But how much better is it, that it's crappy, that it feels bad to be someone you're not? It makes perfect sense. If you're trying to live someone else's life, it shouldn't feel good any more than trying to walk in shoes that don't fit. There's no reason it should feel good.
So yes, tell stories about people suffering. John Irving said, “I find someone I love and I think of the worst thing that could happen to them.”
Tessa Barone: Another thing I found really effective was when you touch on the reading experience - when we find authors we think are so brilliant, and also how we find authors we think are just so bad. And your idea that that isn’t an objective truth, but just a signal of how closely something resembles your own journey.
William Kenower: And here's something I want to add to that. When I was in my twenties or late teens, I discovered the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. And I thought: This guy, jeez. It was like he was teaching me to think differently. His use of language was so inventive. I read a bunch of stuff, not just Lolita. And when I was twenty-one or twenty-two, I bought a book called Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, which is like his big magnum opus. It’s the apotheosis of his approach. And I started reading. I was like, “Man, this guy's awesome.” I was just cookin’ through it. But I got about halfway through and had to stop. I was dating this girl and it was getting really chaotic. I couldn't do anything but date her; that was my job at that time.
[Three years later] I moved in with my now-wife; I had just moved up here. I didn't know what to do with myself, and I was like, “Ah, I'm gonna finish that book.” I started reading, and I couldn't get two pages in before I was sick of it. I found it intellectual and cold. And, yes, he had these amazing sentences, but I felt like I was just watching Nabokov write.
I couldn't finish it. And I'll never probably pick up another Nabokov book.
But here's the thing: I wouldn't go back to my younger self and say, “Don't read that book.” Those early books were great for me. I needed them at that time, even though my older self couldn't stand them. I just think about those two versions of myself only three or four years removed. And so who's to say what you should or shouldn't read? Who’s to say what is or isn’t valuable?
Love is the same. The shape it takes is irrelevant. The expression of it is universal. And so it was a great relief to me cause I could let all the stuff I didn't like go. It didn't matter. When I was young, it really mattered. God, it mattered. I couldn't stand that people liked stuff I didn't like, you know, or they didn't like the things I did like. It was so important to me.
Just let it go. Does that add a little something to that?