William Kenower







Life In Translation



I have been a writer of one kind or another for most of my life. In that time I have learned much about what we call the craft of writing: I have learned about the power nouns and verbs, about story structure, and about the value of specificity and the weakness of generality. Yet nothing I have learned has been more helpful and more clarifying than when I understood that writing – and ultimately my life itself – was an act of translation.

Before I came to this understanding I often lived with a quiet fear of being misunderstood. This was not just a professional fear, though a misunderstood writer is often an unpublished writer; it was an every day, every moment concern. It had been this way since I was teenager, since I first began asking myself questions about why exactly we were all here on the planet. I knew I wasn’t the only one asking these questions, but it did seem that way sometimes. I’d be talking to a friend about my worries about time, or death, or love, and I’d say, “You know what I mean?” And that friend would say, “Not really.”

How I hated those moments. Not because I thought there was something wrong with me for asking my questions or with my friend for not understanding them, but for how alone these exchanges left me feeling. I wanted to be close to people, it was the safest, friendliest destination of any conversation. But sometimes the things I most wanted to talk about were the hardest to express, and every time something I said was met blank eyes, I felt a little as if I had been washed ashore on a foreign country.

What was worse still is that sometimes I’d say one thing but people would hear the exact opposite, the way certain words mean one thing in the United States but something totally different in England. I was once talking to a friend about the power of the choices we make – or at least I thought I was. It soon became clear that he thought I meant that all people who suffer had it coming. It escalated into an argument that ended with him calling me “naïve and insensitive.”

That was a strange moment. I knew this friend believed most of the people he’d fought with over the years were naïve and insensitive; he’d used those very words to describe politicians and neighbors alike. Now I was one of them – The Other, a member of the enemy camp. Yet I knew I was not his enemy at all; I was still very much his friend. Something shifted in me then. Maybe being misunderstood wasn’t actually such a big deal, I thought. I knew I wasn’t naïve, and I certainly wasn’t insensitive, but I also knew I’d been kind of sloppy in how I’d talked about the power choices. I hadn’t taken care with my language, hadn’t been willing to take the time to put into words what I understood only as a perception.

It was then I began to see writing differently. Everything I write, even this essay, begins without words. The ideas or memories or feelings that are the beginnings of stories arrive unformed and in a place only I can see. This is the case with all my experiences. I may be standing in a crowd of a thousand, yet my felt experience of that crowd is entirely personal, is known only to me as my dreams are known. To share what I know in my mind and in my imagination I must translate my experience into words. Without this translation, the thoughts remain locked with me.

Moreover, I must translate these ideas into a language everyone can understand. This is always the language of feeling – and not just any feeling, really. Ultimately, I must translate everything into love. It is the only thing that really makes sense to me again and again, no matter the day or time or place, no matter who I am talking to or what I’m writing about. It’s not always easy to do. Love asks you not to guard yourself, and to see yourself as no better or no worse than anyone. But it is a challenge worth the time and care. With love there is no Other, it is a shadow relieved by the sun, and we are like flowers bending toward its light.












William Kenower is the author of Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidenceand Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion, the Editor-in-Chief of Author magazine. In addition to his books he’s been published in The New York Times, Edible SeattleParent Map, and has been a featured blogger for the Huffington Post.


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