Author Interviews/Features


Sheila Bender

Sheila Bender Sheila Bender will lead the Story Circle Network's Lifelines Writing Retreat in March of 2013. She is an award-winning poet, writer, writing coach and teacher. She has published essays, poems and reviews in numerous literary magazines, anthologies and newspapers as well as articles and columns about writing in Writers Digest and The Write. She is the author of many how-to writing books including Writing and Publishing Personal Essays; Writing Demystified: Hard Stuff Made Easy; A Year in the Life: Journaling for Self-Discovery; Writing Personal Poetry: Creating Poems from Your Life Experience; and Perfect Phrases for College Essays. She teaches classes and coaches writers through her website and online magazine, Writing It Real. She has published three poetry collections including her most recent, Behind Us the Way Grows Wider, and is co-author with Christi Killien of Writing in a New Convertible with the Top Down: A Unique Guide for Writers. Through donations and proceeds from her books, Sheila supports the Port Townsend Marine Science Center's Seth Bender Memorial Summer Camps Scholarship Fund founded in honor of her son who was killed in a snowboarding accident. In 2009 she published A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief to deal with her loss and help others to cope with loss in their lives. Lisa Shirah-Hiers interviewed her via email for the Story Circle Journal.

Read Lisa Shirah-Hiers's review of A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief for

Interviewed by Lisa Shirah-Hiers
Posted on 11/05/2012

What made you choose writing and teaching as a profession and what do you love about it?

I think just as dreams choose us, so do professions and passions. I seemed to always be a teacher—as an older sister, as a friend and as a summer camp counselor starting as a C.I.T. in junior high school. It seemed logical to study to be a teacher. I earned a Master of Arts in Teaching while teaching seventh and eight grade reading and English. Writing was a dream that chose me but I kept not allowing it to become my focus until after my first child was born. I remember holding up my brand new infant Emily so we were looking into one another's eyes and saying, "Emily, who are you?" and hearing a reply with my inner ear: "Mom, who are you?" I knew in that instant that to be a good mother I would have to be my authentic self and for me that meant taking writing seriously. I enrolled in poetry writing workshops at the University of Washington in Seattle near where I lived. I knew I had found my tribe and I continued working with poets as an enrolled Master's student in the writing program. When I graduated, I combined my dreams and became a community college and then a university instructor. Teaching writing was rewarding from the start. I enjoyed helping students see that writing wasn't something foreign to them, that trusting the images and experiences in their own lives was key to finding their voices on the page.

Many, many people worry that what they have to say is not interesting or extraordinary enough. I love showing them that through writing they will find the extraordinary inside the ordinary and be able to mine experience for insight and discovery that connects with others because we are all alike in our range of feelings. When we reflect on our experiences and write about them, we change ourselves and then the world. I believe this.

How does one decide which genre—poetry, essay, etc.—will best fit their subject?

I don't know that we decide which of the genres fit our subject. I think that our brains are wired for one genre over the other and we gravitate to a favorite one and write in it. Then, something shifts and we decide to write in another genre and we find that the new genre allows us to say different things or address different topics or stories or periods in our lives. Some memoirs are all in poetry (lyric memoir) and others contain poems as well as prose. I think there are many ways to write memoir and we are allowing ourselves to experiment.

Tell us more about your how-to book Writing and Publishing Personal Essays. For whom did you write it?

Writing and Publishing Personal Essays is a re-do of a book I did for Writer's Digest Books called Writing Personal Essays: Shaping Your Life Experience for the Page. They are both good books for those wanting to write the personal essay. Working in specific forms while exploring a life question helps a writer find a way into her material. For instance, a question like "What thing, person, or opportunity have you lost (or gained) that matters to you?" paired with the form of narration (a story through time) can lead to powerful writing. A woman I published narrated her last afternoon with a young woman friend who was dying. The details in the story about ordering in pizza and extending her arms to allow her very ill friend to hold her new born are ones I will never forget. Her insight about how beautiful and awful it was to see the two together, the new and the departing, is equally long lasting. The way she went on to write about what she would tell her children about her important friend Stacy was a perfect part of the narration.

You write about two fears that inhibit good writing: fear of the audience and fear of the truth. How do these silence us and how do we break free?

If we think everyone must love what we write, we start to censor ourselves out of fear that what we lived and experienced, thought and felt and understood will be upsetting to others or disliked. We were taught to be nice, that if we had nothing good to say we should say nothing at all. Writers say the unsayable. Writers reach deep into the hearts of others by telling the truth. That can be hard for some to bear... It is just as likely, though, that reading the writing that manifests when we really work at finding our truths softens others. It certainly makes contact with those we don't know who are hungry for companionship in experience. Fear of telling the truth comes from not wanting to be singled out when others don't say what they see. It comes from not wanting to know the truth, even for ourselves. It comes from thinking it is easier not to upset the status quo of our own coping mechanisms let alone of others. How to break free? Believe that good health and mental well-being relies on being intimate with your own feelings and thoughts and with the insides of others. Believe that there is a tribe you belong to (the one of writers) and that your work will be appreciated by the ones to whom it speaks. Believe that it is okay for you to say the unsayable. You are the one to decide whether to publish the work. Not writing it because you are leery of certain people reading it keeps you from being yourself.

I was struck by the many interesting exercises and games you describe for helping writers uncover the essence of their topic. I couldn't help thinking they would make great party games! How did you come up with these?

I love helping people see that the joy of writing is not knowing where you are going with something. I have worked at creating exercises that help people jump in and see what happens. I've gotten the games by looking into written passages, by listening to what people have said to me and thinking I'd like to make that a writing prompt and by remembering how I came to write something. I like all the exercises in my books. Here's one example:

A friend of mine just back from living in Morocco years ago, complained, "Life is not the way it is supposed to be," when he got home and experienced a big adjustment in acclimating to life in the US again. I thought that would make a great question to pair with the comparison and contrast essay style: Students could write an idealized version of their life, the one their parents brought them up to have or the one they witnessed on TV growing up and then tell the reader "but this is how it is today" and write the way it is now, or about life in a town they moved from and life in the town they moved to, or a job as others thought it was and then as it truly is. The possibilities are many.

I was also struck by the many parallels you draw between music and the written word. What do the arts of language and music have to teach each other?

I am not a musician, but as a poet I am very sensitive to sound and rhythm, cadence and crescendo. It's all there in our vowel and consonant sounds and when we are writing well, we are writing from our inner song. We must come to recognize the sound of this voice and not allow in the words and tones that flatten it.

You've spoken often about the importance of being your authentic self. How and why do we waver from that how do we recapture it?

Sometimes people around us don't encourage us to become exactly who we have inside ourselves to be. Adults have agendas and expectations for us. When we are adults we want to fit in and be conscientious and, as women, we of course take care of others without leaving time to speak up and be who we are and say what we see. It is not that achievement or striving are not good for us. It is that we are pearls to be discovered and we must discover them ourselves.

How can we find our authentic voice as writers?

You find it by relying on the images that come to you from the surroundings and your associations. You find it by showing rather than telling. You find it by not censoring what occurs to you. You find it by reading your work to trusted listeners and listening to what they connect with in your writing and where they are unclear or feel distanced. You find it by being brave enough to allow yourself to write what you thought was unsayable in images and sensory details.

What is the hardest lesson life has ever taught you and how did it manifest itself?

That I can live with significant loss. My son died in a snow boarding accident almost 12 years ago when he was 25. I didn't believe I could live fully with this terrible loss. Having poetry as my "home page" and being in the presence of poetry was a foundation I used to absorb grief and grieving into my life and being. I wrote A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief because writing was so important to processing this loss. I learned that though his is gone, my love doesn't end, and in that love I can feel him, be in his presence.

What are some dreams you have for the future?

I want to see the Aurora Borealis! I want to spend more time with my grandsons, 7 and 10½. I want to continue helping my mother as she ages (she's will soon be 86). I want to write about it all.

Are there any new projects on your horizon?

I am creating a short "writing through grief" ebook that will help people use writing as a way of coping with loss, retrieving the memory of their loved one and finding a way of resolving the longings and expectations they may have had that are no longer possible to fulfill for that person. I'm also hoping to create opportunities to read to audiences from my latest collection of poems, Behind Us The Way Grows Wider.

What can we look forward to at the Lifelines Writing Retreat?

We'll write, write, write, creating new work and finding new ways in to older work where we've been stuck. We'll explore poetry and various genres of creative nonfiction: epistolary form (letter form), flash nonfiction, personal essay, prose poetry and more. I'm looking forward to working with everyone!

To find out more or order books visit Sheila's website. Donations to the Seth Bender Memorial Summer Camps Scholarship Fund can be made through the Port Townsend Marine Science Center website.

Visit the Story Circle Network LifeLines Writing Retreat web page and register now for the writing retreat with Sheila Bender at Festival Hill in Round Top TX, March 8-10, 2013. Remember—early registration ends December 31, 2012!