Sometimes I don’t feel like reading at all.
And sometimes I don’t feel like reading a certain book at a certain time. But I was asked by a new literary friend to read his book and to write a review about it. His request was no great surprise; this is what we writers do to help each other along, step by step, as though we are crossing over a rushing current on wobbly river rocks. Step by step, we help each other move forward.
The book I was asked to read would not have normally risen to the top of my to-read list, which already has over a hundred books on it, because it’s one of those inspirational works that I’m not normally drawn to. Also, the title suggests that it’s geared primarily to writers, and I’m kind of taking a break (a long break) from reading books about writing.
But I agreed to read it.
And I’m really glad I did!
Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion is a collection of heartfelt essays, vignettes, and anecdotes that William Kenower has compiled from his real life experiences. The topics range from his parent’s divorce when he was young, to his decision to drop out of college, to some of the challenges he now faces as a parent. And of course he also muses about the bumpy life of a writer.
But this isn’t just a collection for writers. Not at all. In fact, most of his inspirational observations are applicable to just about anyone, period. If you replace the noun “writer” with whatever way you choose to describe yourself, or you replace the verb “write” with “live,” you’ll see what I mean.
To whet your appetite, here are some of my favorite quotes from his book. (Actually, these are paraphrases rather than quotes, just to keep consistency among point of view and tense.)
On paying attention and listening to the world
The door to your heart remains ever open to your attention, and once within it, you can travel as deeply as you wish, that being the only channel through which life is ever known.
Often, the best stuff comes from doing nothing but waiting for your attention to sink below where you have been before.
You must enter a relaxed state to listen. You must shut your mind down and wait…we must grow increasingly still to receive the information needed to move us forward.
Sometimes it takes only one willing listener for a voice to feel heard.
On observing the world in general
The world does not want you to fail. The world is forever supplying you with the information needed to do exactly what you want.
Most of our characters get into trouble…with the belief that their actions will bring them happiness or at least relief from misery. [My translation: most of the people we know in real life who get into trouble do so with the belief that their actions will bring them happiness or at least relief from misery.]
Growth occurs in that moment when you are feeling the magnetic pull of a fearful choice.
…a life without growth…is the jail we all fear.
Sometimes having an idea is like having the flu. The idea will drain you of energy and give you the sweats and send you to your pillow.
If you believe the world is against you, you will see enemies in every shadow. If you believe people love you, you will see their interest beneath their every smile, within every polite greeting.
Love and compassion are your only tools when the day’s work brings you nothing.
On finding your own path and your own story
Life, and well-being, is really as simple as asking, “what do you most want?”, except for this one small detail: that question remains the most courageous, the most meaningful, and also the most frightening question you will ever answer.
Simply thinking the thought, “I don’t know what I want,” cuts you off immediately from everything that will ever bring you pleasure…You must always want something; it is as natural to you as breathing. That you are not hearing that desire is a measure of the noise of your mind, not the curiosity of your soul.
Fortunately, the soul is as patient as eternity itself. The soul does not measure time in years spent in dull jobs or lousy relationships. The soul doesn’t care where you’ve been or what you’ve done. The soul is a river forever flowing, and if you listen carefully, even in the driest and darkest of wastelands, you can always hear it. When you reach its banks, surrender to the current. You don’t get to know where you’re going.
The flow is very important…The ride can be exhilarating and interesting, but the engine moving everything forward is somehow separate from you…Eventually you, like everyone else, are going to have to learn how to let go of the shore once and for all.
You can tell yourself any story you want…You might as well pick the one that makes you happiest.
On sharing your story with the world
Your mind…was given so you could talk to yourself; but your voice you were given to talk to others.
It never feels like enough to love something by yourself. It is only the fear of rejection that restrains love’s natural, gravitational movement toward others.
Every day when writers sit down to write, they must ask themselves the question of, “What do I most want to say?” over and over again.
While it is gratifying in a way to learn that someone you know and perhaps admire likes your work, there is something singularly uplifting about a stranger finding comfort in it.
If you manage to say precisely what you mean, you will have provided another person the opportunity to share in what you love, and there is little in the world more beautiful than that.
* * * * *
Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion is a quick read, but I don’t recommend reading it through in a rush. It’s actually more like a book of meditations, which you should read carefully just one essay at a time. It’s a book that would serve well as a gift to graduates this spring, to people trying to find their way in life, and of course to writers, especially those in the early stages of their careers.
I want to apologize now to Mr. Kenower for having initially sat down with his book without much of an appetite for it.
The truth is this: I was drawn in right away, right when I read his humble acknowledgement, in which he thanks the Pacific Northwest Writers Association for their “enthusiastic support of a guy who really didn’t know what he was doing.” What a guy. While he may have not felt like an expert writer, one thing became clear to me as I read along; Mr. Kenower is an expert in life. Which most of us are. The problem is that we don’t normally give one another credit for that.
And maybe that’s the greatest lesson I learned from his book. Here’s one last quote that spoke to me, not only as a reader or a writer but as a person who still strives to accept others for who they are, and for who they are trying to become.
The writer is in a life-long discussion with the world, and a book is part of that discussion. If the writer is posing a question which I have already answered to my own satisfaction or am simply not interested in asking myself, then what I hear in my head sounds like a song played in the wrong key. But once I meet the writer, and hear the voice, the question of the book makes perfect sense. It’s then I realize that what bothered me most was the dissonance between my voice and that of the author’s, not whether the book was good or not. It is impossible for me, once I meet someone, not to feel the integrity of that person’s life question…it does not matter how far from my own question the dramatic arc of another person’s life is drawn–it bends as necessarily and unstoppably forward as mine. I see this, and I am relieved…again reminded that nothing in life can be gotten wrong, that the question is pure, and the answers are nothing more than cobblestones in the road you are paving in its pursuit.