In the Spotlight
Portland, Oregon Member Since: 2018
About: Philip Kenney is an author and practicing psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon. Kenney began writing at the tender age of 45 after a terrible experience with Prozac. His works include the novel Radiance, the poetry collection Where Roses Bloom and the recently published The Writer’s Crucible: Meditations on Emotion, Being and Creativity (Inkwater Press).
Photo credit: John Davenport
You mention in your article “The Story of an Unlikely Writer” (Author Magazine, 2018) that writing has altered your “way of engaging with life.” Can you share a little bit about this?
What I loved about a writing practice from the beginning was that it asked me to be awake. It asked me to be attentive to the particulars of the world and its people regardless of the circumstances. Soon I noticed I was less preoccupied with my insecurities and more present with my experience of the moment and the enchantments of life. Everything seemed illuminated like never before. This is what makes writing sacred to me. A creative life became the missing link to integrating my passions for psychology and meditation practice. To my delight, it became obvious that psyche, creativity, and spirituality are not three separate domains but interrelated faces of one incredible force pulsing through the depths of all of us! What could be better?
What new approach does The Writer’s Crucible bring to the question of writer’s block and writer’s anxiety?
The Writer’s Crucible suggests that we consider phenomenon such as writer’s block as signals to be understood rather than problems to be overcome. For instance, writer’s frequently experience dry spells that interfere with the flow of work. These periods, when they persist, cause anxiety to mount and anxious thoughts to multiply. I have had episodes when I was sure I would never, ever, write another good sentence! More often than not, when we feel insecure about our work and self-doubt interferes, we are striving too hard to be clever and write the perfect story. As a consequence, we either lose our voice or stall out in what we call writer’s block. The tricky thing is how to get out of our own way and allow a connection with what I call the creative source. With this in mind, The Writer’s Crucible envisions writing as spiritual practice and conceives of the creative process as originating in silence with the act of listening. This can be thought of as a meditation on one’s inner being, which allows for contact with the creative impulse and the flow of inspiration.
What are you reading right now?
I am reading several books at once. French Exit by Patrick DeWitt, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen.
Who encouraged you to be a writer?
At first, no one. And then, William Stafford. But mostly it was my inner self that beckoned one Saturday morning when I awakened with a poem attached to a raging anxiety attack. I wrote the poem down and that was the beginning.
If you could meet any writer, who would it be? What would you say to her or him?
Toni Morrison. I would say, “You are the greatest! I love you.”
The book you could read again and again is:
Beloved, because it is a masterpiece involving history, the nature of trauma, and spiritual dimensions of life that cannot be extinguished.
The book you could never read again is:
David Copperfield. The 7th grade trauma of being forced to read this when I was utterly unable to understand it.
What is the greatest compliment that you could ever receive about your writing?
After reading my first novel, my 90-year-old neighbor, Jack, who was dying of prostate cancer said to me with a tear in his eye, “I’m not as afraid of dying after reading your book.” That will last me a lifetime.
What is the best lesson that you have learned from a book?
Look at the donut, not the hole. (Ken Kesey—Sometimes a Great Notion)
When do you find time to write?
Whenever I can. I have very little time so I write at 3:00 a.m., 5:30 a.m., on my drive to work, in the shower: in short, whenever I am moved and can get to a pen.
Would you like to share a project you are currently working on?
A book of essays and a long-lost novel retrieved from my desk drawer.
What is your organization’s mission?
Willamette Writers has a membership of 4,000 and its mission is to support writers throughout the region in being the best they can be.
What project(s) are you currently working on with your organization?
Setting up workshops for the next Willamette Writers conference.
Describe the region where your organization is housed. What is the literary community like?
Portland, Oregon in the Pacific Northwest. A hot bed of writing community, rich in the arts and creative people who think out of the box.
If you were giving a tour of your city, what literary landmarks would you take your guests to?
Powell’s City of Books. An international landmark and the largest independent book store in the world. Also, The Attic, a lovely and warm boutique, writers of all stripes visit to take classes and participate in open mic on the first Friday of the month.
Do you feel influenced by your peers to produce a certain type of creative work, or do you feel free to follow your own interests and passions?
Free as can be. Trying to produce a certain type of creative work is the surest way to fail. I prefer to admire my peers for what they do and then sit back and listen for my own creative impulse.
Where do you get your best reading recommendations?
My local independent bookstore and friends. Often books will find me and demand I take them home.
Describe your writing process.
I try to write every morning at least a few lines or a short poem. I listen to silence, as Wendell Berry advised. I write with computer mostly, sometimes crayons. Often my meditations are interrupted with ideas I must tend to. The most important thing is listening and not trying to be too clever.
What is your favorite thing to do when you should be writing, but just can’t find the motivation?
Walk and do nothing but stare at trees and the sky.
Who/what do you follow online?
Jerry Jazz Musician
Do you own an e-reader? How has that changed your relationship to books?
No. I love to hold books in my hands.
What does your office look like?
My dining Room table covered with notes and stuff just like Kurt Vonnegut’s.
Why did you decide to join AWP?
I love the articles and interviews in the Chronicle.
What would be your advice to new AWP members, on how to make the most of their membership?
Always read the Chronicle cover to cover.
What is your favorite AWP Conference memory?
I’ll tell you after Portland this year.