A REVIEW OF WILLIAM KENOWER'S FEARLESS WRITING
I have to admit it: I am in love with Bill Kenower’s blogs on Author Magazine. He posts a new one every several days, and each is thoughtful, powerful, insightful, enlightening, uplifting, and often funny. He pushes the limits of what it means to be a writer-author and is admirably forthright about his own struggles.
Now he has published a book that incorporates his wisdom and honesty. The title intrigued me immediately: Fearless Writing. As I do with many books, I started reading the book before bed. Big mistake. It pulled me in for another hour, from one chapter to the next. Who ever heard of a self-help page-turner?
This is truly a unique writing craft book—and much more. It’s a writing craft and life book. My review here is uncharacteristically long because you should know about the treasures the book contains.
Kenower’s is not a typical how-to book on writing but a how-to on attitude, outlook, and perspective, all of which correct and inspire in us courage, confidence, persistence, and truth to our vision. More than a shot in the writing arm, it’s a shot in the psyche.
He covers the gamut of the writing life, from creating to revising to rejection to writing groups to marketing to our fears of failure. But his approach is unique. The foundation, unlike so many other books on writing, is not self-discipline, fear of regrets, wasted talent, or the usual writing-is-hard-complaining-writhing-bleeding-incessant struggle of so many (oxymoronic) writing self-help books. Rather, Kenower’s premise for our writing is that we should feel good and love ourselves writing(!) Writing, he maintains, is supposed to feel good.
I warn you. The reading is not facile. To get the most—or anything—you must stop, think, digest, and ask how much of Kenower’s insights and pointed observations apply to you. The exercises at the end of each chapter help you take in and practice the meat of the chapter. And they are not all traditional prompts, by any means. Examples: Two characters you create talking about their worst and best days of writing (p. 11). Your rules for what you believe is a good story, poem, or other work, with required illustrations (p. 61). Instructions for a guided meditation (and no writing, p. 114). A technique for “waiting for better ideas” after a fight or low feelings, and then for writing (p. 146).
Kenower views our writing in an intimate, inextricable relationship with the whole of each of us. He objectifies our writing for us to understand what it is and how it’s behaving so we can choose and act. Write this or that. Wallow or rejoice. Shut out the world and write what’s in your gut or write to the market and try to please everyone.
The specific advice on writing is equally inspired. Don’t worry about the language but “Feel first; write second” (p. 30). Your reader wants to know what it feels like—whatever you’re describing or whatever quandary you’ve put your protagonist in. Especially when you’re stuck, “stop thinking about language and . . . see or feel what you’re describing” (p.177). Remember that anything in the so-called “real” world had to exist first in someone’s mind and imagination (p. 214)—and it certainly could be yours.
Too, we must throw out what Kenower calls “the mother of all writer fears.” This is our often unquestioned assumption: “What other people think of what I write is more important than what I think” (p. 98). Instead, we should strive to feel our creative power and purpose in writing and “immerse . . . fully” (p. 186) in what we have chosen to write. Our only job as writers “is to write the story [or poem or essay or novel] we most want to write in the way we most want to write it and then let our audience find it” (pp. 148-149). This is the theme of the book.
Kenower is a supreme wordsmith, and his phrasing is to be much admired. He points out “our nearsighted desire” to write what we think we should and to our refusal to yield to the coveted “Flow,” in which all goes perfectly (p. 14). With a story that doesn’t work, he finds himself “leaning against the headwind of my disinterest” (p. 33). And sometimes he succumbs to “the hamster wheel of my [negative] thoughts” (p. 214).
In that wonderful “Flow,” he exchanges the first exhilaration of a new piece for the “patient pleasure of discovery” (p. 106). In choosing to write what we are genuinely curious about, we “rid[e] the momentum of thought that ensues” (p. 135). Through all of this, we must recognize and accept our moments—and hours—of “creative discomfort” the feeling that guides what we really should write (p. 90). And many more, all of which I envied.
The Undergirding of Spirituality
As in his blogs, Kenower shows great courage and audacity in his unabashed spirituality. We are not running out of time. We are basically okay; everything is okay. Contrary to our seemingly ubiquitous inner judge, he asserts, “Humans are always complete . . . “(p. 105). With these indomitable declarations and assumptions, he doesn’t rationalize, justify, apologize, defend, alibi, or explain. A lesson all its own.
Writing, he says, “is not thinking; it is listening” (p. 108). This truth goes with the advice to heed our internal personal guidance system. He explains and extols the guidance system in each of us (yes, you too) and admits to “the agony of working without” it (p. 83). “All people, regardless of whether they’re writers, have an unerring guidance system. It’s how we know what we should do, whom we should marry . . .” (p. 91). As we ask and listen, we are instructed what to do and where to go in our work.
Once I learned this lesson, instead of fretting or yielding to previously hugged despair/despondency/depression, and flinging into the tub of ice cream, I found the guidance system invaluable and infallible. When I am stuck in a plot, trying to figure out a sequence, utterly blank at what piece to pick up or where to go next, I ask and listen. The answer always comes.
But Kenower doesn’t leave us hanging in the amorphous Universe; he always applies his teachings (and learnings) to writing. He reminds us of the poles we often feel hurled between: We love our writing—or fear we won’t be good enough. We stay, with love, absorbed in our current project—or worry that no one will like it and will condemn or ridicule it, including ourselves.
Kenower’s style is engaging, personal, sometimes juicy. He is friendly but not oversimplified, highly intelligent but not ponderous. He talks easily about his personal life—cleaning the house with his wife on Sundays, picking up bagels for brunch, telling stories about his two sons. Although intimate, his tales are not cloying, self-serving, or sensational—they always have a point, and he brings them back to our writing. For example, when his older son Max was two, Dad pointed to a favorite toy truck. Max focused on and stared at the end of the pointing finger, not the truck. Max taught Kenower, and he teaches us: Our writing is more effective when we point and let the reader conclude. That is, he advocates the well-hammered saw, “Show, don’t tell” but advises us not to show everything.
He is often authoritative, and sometimes didactic, but never offensively so. He’s occasionally pedantic but not self-importantly. Rather, Kenower’s his tone results from his unshakable conviction and is aimed only at helping fellow sufferers. Throughout, he is always human, approachable, and one of us.
The book has some attractive physical features. It balances nicely in the hand, a traditional 6 x 9 paperback format. It’s good for reading upright, reclining, or flat in bed (my favorite). I would have wished, though, for subheads within each chapter to break up the rather small print. The book is printed on cream-colored paper that does not highlight the print itself. You can look at the format as a test of your desire to keep going and taking in his wisdom. My quibbles here, though, aren’t from Kenower’s decisions but the publisher’s, likely for economy.
Kenower, a closet iconoclast, eschews the usual advice to writers: xxx words/pages a day, set the timer for xx minutes, completing xxx prompts. Yet the craft aspects are very helpful. He emphasizes the “Show, don’t tell” rule. He reviews and explains the three story arcs (I only knew of one!): the physical, emotional, and intentional. They are very helpful to me now as I wrestle (lovingly) with the present novel, especially the intentional arc.
The arcs all require some prethought and articulation. I used to rail, fight against, rebel against, refuse to entertain, object to, and stonewall all such outlines and prethinking. Ah, I thought, I only need the Muse. But now, with Kenower’s direction, I am more conscious. The Muse still alights much of the time but is now tamed and made to sit down as I look more closely at what is down on paper. And I ask myself his cardinal questions: What do/did I most want to say? Have I said it?
Kenower is also sensitive to writers’ angst and keeps returning to the major message. Throughout, and especially to conquer staleness and despair, he asks us to ask ourselves, What do I want to share? Why? What am I most curious about? What do I really want to write about? What am I in love with?
As we respond, our answers fuel us, keep us going, remind us why we started this thing. Whatever the trends, fads, current lucrative markets, practical advice about what sells from well-meaning mentors and relatives, we need to keep coming back to these questions and our answers.
So, he says, write the story you most want to write. Have the confidence to follow your desires. Self-doubt is the “vampire” of unity. Again, writing is supposed to feel good (p. 37).
If we write for other reasons primarily—“the world’s full arsenal of preference” (p. 154), like money, recognition, approbation, publication, awards, we will feel unsatisfied and discontented, and the specter of self-betrayal will lurk. That arsenal of preferences is not inherently bad. But, like a holiday sparkler, Kenower reminds us, the delight fizzles after a very few seconds.
When we write what we love, are interested in, and curious about, we complete, finish, even publish our work. We feel a great a sense of satisfaction, self-fulfillment, and integrity: I’ve done what I was supposed to do. And we go on to the next.
As experienced a writer as I am, reading Kenower reminded me: Don’t force it, stop trying to dazzle. Relax, allow, know I am the receptacle, open, trust. The ideas and right words and evolution of the piece will come.
This principle was proved to me (again) recently when I was asked to contribute a major essay to a special issue of an online literary magazine. The editor and I discussed and agreed on a heady cluster of inspiring ideas. Oh boy, I thought, am I important! They want something great from me.
Well, when the time came to write the thing, my brain was brick. The Flow had left the building. I tossed and turned in my desk chair and pecked out a few words. Got up, flung around, wished it were already time for night-escape TV. I was making the cardinal mistake: caring too much what others thought or might think. And it hogtied me.
Finally, following Kenower, I asked myself: What am I curious about on this topic? What do I really think, feel, see? What do I want to share? His words floated in: “Writing is not thinking; it’s listening” (p. 108). That broke it. Answers to those questions floated in, and, blissfully in the Flow, I typed so fast I could. (And the editor was very pleased with the piece.)
A Niggling Criticism
With so much to praise, almost embarrassed I point out a couple of flaws. My editor’s eye couldn’t help but notice some repetition, even exact phrases, for example when Kenower talks about his son diagnosed on the autistic spectrum. And sometimes he repeats too often the dictum of writing what you love and everyone else be damned. But such slips are easily forgiven, couched as they are in his wisdom and passion for writing.
Kenower restates his theme in many ways: not only, first, to write what we love, but also and most importantly, to recognize our power. The book deals less with craft, as he says, and more with our self-confidence as writers. The motto of Author Magazine, of which he is founder, editor, and principal blogger, also proclaims, We are the authors of our lives (pp. l43-145). Despite rejections and disappointments, we determine our successes. Part of our power is to “write fearlessly and with complete confidence” (p. 208). Our success is a choice—to trust ourselves and continually shore up our self-confidence (p. 208).
After all, the world “is a perfect mirror for what we believe” (p. 208). Seeing is not believing, but rather the opposite—believing leads to seeing. If we tell ourselves stories of failure, in writing and life, they “gain momentum” and we somehow feel we must prove them true (p. 137). As we doubt, the evidence appears; as we build confidence in ourselves, the evidence appears. Our job is to surrender to our writing (pp. 208-212).
Radically, Kenower suggests, very much akin to the advice of athletes and others, to “practice feeling success” (p. 206). Fearless writing, he says, “is about understanding your creative power” (p. 102) and acting on it.
As you might have guessed, I recommend Fearless Writing as a superb addition to your writing library. When you need a writing vitamin, flip it open at apparent random, à la I Ching, and you’ll hit on just the right passage for what’s ailing you. When you feel the need for steady doses, read a little at a time daily and you will begin to soak in (and act on) the messages.
In Fearless Writing, Kenower enables us to live more easily with our writing. His vision and conviction teach us to perceive our lives and writing as the authors and to keep writing with courage, confidence, and love.