hen I first learned of this issue's personal writing theme, I immediately thought of Sheila Bender: poet, essayist, author, and nationally acclaimed writing teacher. A longtime fan of Sheila's books and articles, I've also taken one of her online classes (Keep a Writer's Journal Like the Pros), which I highly recommend. She graciously agreed to answer our questions about personal experience writing, and I know you'll find plenty of wonderful advice and encouragement in our interview today.
Sheila Bender is the author of nine books on the topic of writing, including Writing Personal Essays: How to Shape Your Life Experiences for the Page, Writing and Publishing Personal Essays, Keeping a Journal You Love, A Year in the Life: Journaling for Self-Discovery,
Writing Personal Poetry: Creating Poems from Life Experience, and Writing in a New Convertible with the Top Down. Her latest book is Perfect Phrases for College Application Essays.
Sheila has served as a columnist and feature writer on writing personal essays, journaling, and writing poetry for Writer's Digest and The Writer.
She has published three collections of poetry, Near the Light, Love from the Coastal Route: Poems, and Sustenance: New and Selected Poems. Her essays, poems and reviews have appeared in anthologies, newspapers, and literary magazines around North America, including The Bellingham Review, Northwest Passage, Poetry Northwest, The Seattle Times, and the Women's Studies Quarterly.
She is the publisher of WritingItReal.com, an online subscriber-supported instructional magazine for those who write from personal experience, and the founder of the Writing It Real conference, held annually in Port Townsend, WA. She has supplied content for LifeJournal for Writers, and continues to coach writers through her online classes and live seminars at writers' conferences and college programs.
Sheila holds a Masters of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Washington and a Masters of Arts in Teaching from Keane College in New Jersey.
WOW: Welcome to WOW!, Sheila! We're delighted that you're able to talk with us today about personal writing. For almost three decades, you've been helping people make writing a serious part of their lives. What's been most fulfilling about helping others learn to write personal essays, poetry, and writer's journals?
Sheila: I love reading others' life experience. When I have helped writers follow the images and tone in their drafts to find the shape of their experience and meaning or insight, I am fulfilled—both as a teacher and as a reader. We learn from others when they are learning from their writing. Bertolt Brecht said that in life we develop one another—personal experience writing helps us do that by allowing us to create intimacy with ourselves and with others. Our writing is a two-way mirror—something changes in both the writer and the reader when discovery comes.
WOW: So true. Let's start with personal journaling. What's your advice for putting together a great journal?
Sheila: My advice is to recognize a discipline that works for you. If you love typing on a keyboard and/or keeping your writing on your computer, then journal on your computer and don't feel bad that you aren't keeping a "real" journal. A few years ago, I wrote content for LifeJournal for Writers (you can download a free demo) and realized the vast resource a program like that is for those of us who want to be able to have prompts and lessons and also be able to track the subjects in our writing and find them at a moment's notice.
I really do encourage everyone to recognize how they feel comfortable writing and recognize whatever it is as a valid journaling experience. I once had a retired male botany professor in a journaling class. He complained that he wasn't disciplined enough as a writer now that he was retired and his wife made him escort her to the mall. I asked what he did there and he said, "I sit on a bench and watch people. I love to do that. I am used to being in the field and taking notes on what I see."
"And what did you take notes on in the field," I asked him. He answered that he used three-by-five note cards he kept in his breast pocket. I suggested that he put those cards in his pocket the next time he went to the mall. He came back to class with lots of journal entries!
We all have some discipline, but we think it doesn't count. It does!
WOW: That's an encouraging story. It's o.k. to do it your own way! Now, if you haven't been journaling for a while, how do you get back into it?
Sheila: I think looking at what you have been writing (letters, work writing, birthday cards) and then putting some of those words in your journal and free writing from there will get you going again because doing so honors that you have been writing. I think what happens to us is that we judge some writing not "real writing" and then we feel badly about ourselves as writers. It's all real writing, and it can all lead to poems and essays and stories.
I also think that using prompts will allow everyone to write. You can find the prompts anywhere—in books, online, in programs like LifeJournal for Writers. You can make them up yourself: Switch on the radio. Listen for thirty seconds. Write from what you heard.
WOW: What if someone thinks they don't have anything important to write about on a given day?
Sheila: It's not about writing what it is important. It's about writing. If you allow yourself to write each day or several times a week, you are going to interest yourself at some point. It is hard not to find something of interest when you allow yourself to have some fun writing and don't feel that you have to write about only "important" things or even make sense.
The best writing comes when we "tell it slant" as Emily Dickinson advised. Our emotional undercurrent is always there. When we don't try to directly describe something emotional in our lives, but just describe what's in front of us, our emotional view of the world comes out, making what we are saying interesting. Reading Joni Cole's books that are collections of women's day diaries is inspiring because people are just writing and not worrying about whether what they are saying is important—it is what it is. The latest is Water Cooler Diaries: Women Across America Share Their Day at Work.
“It's not about writing what it is important. It's about writing. If you allow yourself to write each day or several times a week, you are going to interest yourself at some point.”
WOW: Just keep writing—that's always the answer, isn't it? The book recommendations sound very interesting, too. Sheila, you've come up with hundreds of journaling exercises that are included in some of your books and classes. Are there certain prompts that seem to bring out especially interesting material from your students?
Sheila: Yes, I think a prompt I have about eating alone and eating with others, and one about being a stranger at a dinner table all facilitate amazing writing. So does a prompt about whistling—remembering how you learned or whose whistle meant something to you works especially well. So does addressing a letter to an instrument you no longer play and explaining what happened. Then, the instrument gets to write back to you!
WOW: I remember the whistling prompt from your Journal Like the Pros class. I actually hate it when people are whistling around me in public places! What are some of your other favorite journaling exercises?
Sheila: I love them all! Here's another that people seem to respond very well to: Sit at your window and describe what you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. Then, imagine someone walking into the scene with something to say to you. This works especially well if you imagine that someone to be a person who really can't walk into the scene because they have died or are very far away or completely out of touch.
WOW: Do you have any suggestions for turning journal entries into larger works, perhaps even something salable?
Sheila: A journal is a gold mine for developing future writing. LifeJournal for Writers has many instructional tips and ideas for helping here and I do some of this in my online classes. Each entry is different and seems to want to be something different—some stories, some poems, some essays, some articles, some whole books. Getting someone's response to what you wrote will help you figure out where it is going. Read it to someone (the Transcendentalists did this!) and ask them for a certain kind of response—what they were most interested in and what they expected to read if they could go on reading. That kind of response helps the writer find a right genre for the piece to grow into.
“A journal is a gold mine for developing future writing…Each entry is different and seems to want to be something different—some stories, some poems, some essays, some articles, some whole books.”
WOW: That's great advice, and should inspire anyone to keep a journal! Let's move on to another of your specialties: poetry. Why should someone consider writing personal poetry, especially if they're intimidated by it?
Sheila: I believe we all have poetry in us. Being intimidated by poetry comes from two sources. One is teachers who had us analyze rather than read poems, who weren't interested in our personal responses to the words and sounds but in an academic discussion about them. Another source of intimidation is that poets are honest and make us feel our feelings. We sometimes are afraid of being in the presence of such vulnerability. We imagine we might die of embarrassment or sadness if we let ourselves be so vulnerable. But actually, allowing vulnerability is the only way to feel real. Feeling real and really talking to and listening to ourselves and others is one of the most important survival tools in life. Poetry saves us.
WOW: What are some things we can do to help ourselves write poetry? I know you've got some tools and exercise for this too!
Sheila: I think, first, we must read poems and allow ourselves to love the ones we love and not worry about the ones we aren't in love with. You can find so many online now. Check the American Academy of Poets website, Billie Collin's Poetry 180 and PoetryFoundation.org. There is enough poetry available to fill a lifetime, and all it takes to find it are mere clicks of your mouse.
Second, we have to remember that poems are specific—their images appeal to our senses and in doing so make us feel. Many of us start writing by using "editorializing" words that tell the reader (and ourselves) how to feel—beautiful, sad, destroyed, heartbroken, luminous. Instead of feeling anything directly, readers (and the writer) will then just feel told what to feel rather than having feelings.
Poems are sometimes hard to write. They are sometimes easy. Every poet has had both experiences. The hard ones have to seem, in the end, as if they were effortless. That's why new poets think they can't write—their poems weren't effortless to write so how can they truly be poets? Read Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet and you'll become very aware of how hard poetry can feel and how wonderful it is to write it. Read Edward Hirsch's How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry and you will be a convert.
Start writing poetry by making lists of things and you will start to realize you have many poems in you: gifts people have given you that you've given away and why you did it, things you didn't know were in your refrigerator, things you took that nobody knows you took. Repeat phrases at the opening of each line to help yourself keep writing. For instance, phrases like: And there is this… or But I didn't realize….
“…we have to remember that poems are specific-their images appeal to our senses and in doing so make us feel.”
(Photo: Sheila and her almost nine-year-old Apple Head Siamese cat, Joey. She’s not strangling him, by the way!)
WOW: For those of us who love making lists, that's encouraging advice! I'm also a fan of Billy Collins and agree that finding poems you like can make a huge difference. Do you have any suggestions for someone who wants to begin publishing her poetry?
Sheila: Yes, subscribe to Creative Writing Opportunities List, a wonderful list-serve run by Alison Joseph that circulates manuscripts-wanted information. To start receiving the emails, send a blank e-mail to email@example.com and you will be sent an e-mail message with complete instructions on how to sign up for the list.
Also, check my blog for publication information. Go to the library or to a newsstand and read small press literary journals to see where your poems might fit; then look up the journals' submission guidelines online. Don't forget to search for online poetry publications. There are many fine ones starting up from colleges and reputable groups all over the U.S., now that printing costs are so high.
Be sure you follow all guidelines, proof read your work, and enclose an SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) when stated that it is required.
I advocate starting locally—look for contests from creative writing departments at your local universities and community colleges. Read what your local arts commission is doing. Go to readings (you'll see them announced in your local paper) and hear about local literary magazines and editors. If you have the time and funds, go to writers' conferences and learn about more resources. We have poet Susan Rich on our faculty for the June 26-30 Writing It Real in Port Townsend conference. She tells attendees about her route to publishing and fosters a wide-ranging community for poetry through positions on boards and editorial staffs. On your way up, you can volunteer to work at a poetry press or arts group.
WOW: Those are great ideas, Sheila. Let's move on now to personal essay writing. How can we find the best material from our lives to write about?
Sheila: Here are three ways:
Pay attention to images or bits of dialogue that stay with you. They are triggers for some deeper reflection or understanding that you want to achieve. If you can't forget the tears in your three-year-old grandson's eyes when you yelled because he was headed toward the street or the image of a beloved bending to pull an onion from the garden won't leave your mind, write about this. If on the way to the emergency room with your 86-year-old mother who is having a heart attack, you remember her always admonishing you to never leave the house without lipstick and you have just done so, write about it.
Another way to find the best material is to freewrite a lot. Record what you hear, see, touch, taste, and smell where you are writing. Allow yourself to associate to memories and concerns, decisions, and doubts. You'll find lots of material.
A third way is to use questions paired with styles of rhetorical organization. This is what I explore in my book Writing and Publishing Personal Essays. I have a "write" question for each of eight styles of essays. They are guaranteed to get you writing about what is important, even if you didn't know you had a particular topic to write about. The pairings help you explore writing memoir as well as subjects you want to inform others about: raising gardens, raising children, travel, etc.
(Photo: Sheila at a bookstore before a reading.)
“Pay attention to images or bits of dialogue that stay with you. They are triggers for some deeper reflection or understanding that you want to achieve.”
WOW: Could you tell us about some of these types of essays, and offer some tips for getting started writing in these styles?
Sheila: In my book, I start off with the description form and move on to narration, and then on to how-to, comparison and contrast, cause and effect, classification-division, definition and argument, and persuasion. The "write question" for description is, "For what person, place, object, or event in my life do I have strong feelings of love or hate?" For narration it is, "When have I lost someone, something, or some opportunity?" In my book, I give pre-writing exercises for each of the forms so you learn how to search your experiences for the topic you are interested in exploring through essay writing.
WOW: I can attest that your questions provide some great starting points for essays. In your books, you provide excellent guidance for developing ideas and bringing out great writing. So, what are some common fears people have when attempting the personal essay?
Sheila: They are afraid of what people will think of them. They are afraid someone close to them will read the essay and be upset. They are afraid they have nothing interesting to say, that others will not be interested at all and that they are not up to the task of writing something important. They are afraid they will relive a painful experience and it will make them sad.
WOW: I can relate to some of those! What's your advice for overcoming these types of fears?
Sheila: Believe that the way you experience the world is important and that at least one other person will consider your writing a gift. Believe that, even if you don't know what you are going to say (and you shouldn't know the whole essay when you start), writing will bring you insight. Believe that this insight is healing. Believe that you can cope with what others think after you write—whether that ultimately means editing something out, using a pen name, waiting to publish, or realizing there is no reason not to publish your experience.
“Believe that the way you experience the world is important and that at least one other person will consider your writing a gift.”
WOW: Such wise counsel, and very inspiring. I'm going to refer back to your words when I need a boost! Your online publication, Writing It Real, recently hosted a creative nonfiction essay contest. As you were judging the entries, were you able to pinpoint certain factors that made for an excellent personal experience essay? In other words, how did you choose the winners?
Sheila: A cardinal rule for me is this: Remember that just as people dream their own dreams, they live their own experience. Personal essayists must write what their "I" sees, hears, tastes, touches, and smells. Only when we use images that appeal to the senses can we tell personal stories in a way that allows us to fully re-experience them and, therefore, pass them on to readers. There is "no intelligence but in things," the poet William Carlos Williams wrote; I believe this is a way of saying that images impart wisdom.
A second notion of importance to me is this: To satisfy readers, the personal essayist must, though the specifics that appeal to the senses, reach new insight and new levels of feeling. It works this way, to quote Robert Frost: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." So many times, the personal essays I am working on and ones I've read veer from making discoveries and begin to report rather than evoke feeling. I think the reason is almost always an encounter with fear.
Excellent essays stay with the experience, delivering it in specifics until the specifics themselves produce insight. A pet peeve of mine is coming across the phrase, "But that is another story." If it was important enough to mention, it probably has something to do with the reason you are writing the essay you are writing!
I chose winners by their ability to write their experience in a fully shaped and evocative manner. Sometimes, the more ambitious essays don’t quite work yet, while one that is simpler closes with a satisfying click. The experience the reader gets must be fully satisfying for an essay to be a winner.
WOW: That's helpful advice for creating a winning essay, thank you! In an article you wrote called "Let Your Writer Self Be With You," you talk about adopting a rhythmic action to help with writer's block. Could you explain this concept?
Sheila: One of my poetry mentors, the late Richard Blessing, told me he liked to type his poems because the sound of the keys click-clacking helped him gain momentum as he wrote. I know that I have done well walking or bicycling. Many people report images and lines coming to them in the shower where they are moving about under water that is bouncing off their skin.
The psychologist Rollo May wrote that creativity requires a switching back and forth from intense concentration and work to physical relaxation. Sometimes, just the right words come when we move away from our desk and take a walk.
WOW: Even doing the dishes or other repetitive chores can spark ideas, I find. Veering in another direction now, you've said that one of your favorite achievements is coaching people in writing personal statements for college and graduate school applications, where "subtle persuasion is of the utmost importance." What advice do you have for students and parents facing this very important writing project?
Sheila: I think the book I wrote, Perfect Phrases for College Application Essays, has good advice in it for shaping personal statements sure to draw admissions committee members in.
It is important for students and parents to realize that the questions on the college Common Application and those on individual school applications are prompts for helping students share more of themselves than a list of grades and activities relays. The essay is the place for students to show the admissions committee members how they put their interests and experience together in a dynamic way. The essay matters and interested human beings are reading it.
Although parents might brainstorm topics for their student, the student needs to write the drafts because no one else can tell their personal story. Sometimes, students don't want to show their drafts to parents because they are afraid the parents will take over and tell them what to include and what not to include or disagree with the subject they chose. In this case, a different first reader is required, someone who can tell the student where they were interested, where they felt left out of knowing more, and what they wondered about. This information helps the student tackle a next draft.
My book is aimed at helping students find a way into any of the application essay questions by inventorying themselves for significant experiences or perceptions. I write about beginnings, middles, and endings as well as transitions. I think the many, many examples I provide help students realize what's interesting in their own experience. It's important to realize that even in this situation, writing is a process of discovery. A student might start out knowing only that he wants to write about growing up the only Asian kid in his class and only after writing find out how much it meant to him when his parents okayed his participation on a baseball team even though it meant giving up attending Chinese language school.
“The essay is the place for students to show the admissions committee members how they put their interests and experience together in a dynamic way.”
WOW: This is such helpful advice. Can you share a few of those perfect phrases from Perfect Phrases for College Application Essays with us?
Sheila: Some of the phrases are examples from essays by students to show other students how they might phrase their own experience for particular essays. Others are more like templates. Here are a couple of those for the question that asks students to write about major influences on them:
"Whenever I hear [or say or read or remember] the words [name them], I am grateful to [name the influence on you], and I promise myself I will continue to [name the goals or action you will take as a result of the influence]."
After introducing the topic this way, it should be fairly straightforward to write about the influence and the effects of the influence, whether that is a person, event, or activity.
"There is no more profound influence on me than [name the influence] because knowing [person, work of art, or activity] changed my life. I am no longer someone who [name old trait or behavior] but a person who [name new trait or behavior]."
This opening will produce a comparison and contrast essay. After the opening, the student could write about their old way of doing things followed by the changed way they do things now.
WOW: Those are some great phrases for students to work with. Your book will be very helpful for anyone faced with a school application. So, what other projects are you working on now? Is there anything that we should be looking for soon?
Sheila: Well, I write each week for Writing It Real, and I am currently approaching my agent and several publishers with a memoir called A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief. It will be a hard manuscript to place because grief and poetry are not best sellers. On the other hand, many new books are out on the grieving process, so maybe editors will start to see a strong niche. The book is constructed from essays I wrote in the months following my son's death as we were approaching what would have been his wedding day, and I had no idea of how to live through the sorrow that his life was cut short. One of the free sample articles in my online magazine talks about the way his death inspired Writing It Real.
WOW: I'm so sorry about the loss of your son. Your memoir about the grieving process will help a lot of people, and we wish you luck with the best placement of the manuscript. With all of your writing, speaking and teaching commitments, how are you able to find time for your own personal writing? Can you share some of your writing routines?
Sheila: It's getting harder to clear space for writing projects that are not Writing It Real related, but when the feeling of "I have to write" comes over me, I do manage to put everything else on hold. I think the more one honors herself as a writer and the more she honors her writing, the more likely she is to listen to the call of that feeling, and to obey the need it has for time and space to write.
I regularly do the exercises I create and many of my newest poems come from that activity. I don't know if there is a particular routine I have right now. But, I know physical exercising regularly helps me concentrate when I am writing and it helps keep my mind clear to receive the kernels that will make me sit down and write. Of course, having a couple of writing groups I meet with in a month gives me deadlines I try to adhere to and that makes me write.
When I have to make choices about how to spend my time, I seem to cut out sending out my work and that isn't a good thing. Somehow, as writers we need to strike a balance between our day jobs, our writing for hire, the writing we do out of deep need to write, and sending out our work so others can read it.
“Somehow, as writers we need to strike a balance between our day jobs, our writing for hire, the writing we do out of deep need to write and sending out our work so others can read it.”
WOW: It sounds like you’re able to honor your personal writing through a combination of strategies that we can try too. Thank you, Sheila, for taking time to chat with us today. It’s been fun! Do you have any words of wisdom that you’d like to share with our readers?
Sheila: I guess my guiding light is this: Taking time to write from personal experience provides the right food and the right stuff for finding what lights our souls and what we have to offer others.
WOW: If there was one bit of advice you could pass on to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Sheila: Take yourself seriously as a writer. A friend of a friend once house-sat for me. When I came home from my trip, she told me she had looked into my study and thought, "This is a woman who takes herself seriously." Though I'd published several books by then, I hadn't really thought that about myself, but when I looked at things through her eyes, I saw what the work of writing meant to me. Knowing how much I value writing has made all the difference.
For more information about Sheila, visit her web site: www.writingitreal.com
Get a copy of Sheila's latest book, Perfect Phrases for College Application Essays.
MARCIA PETERSON is a writer from Northern California. Her work has been published in The Contra Costa Times, The Willamette Writer, WOW! Women on Writing and SavvyGal.com. Recent awards include first prize in the SouthWest Writers International Monthly Writing Competition and first prize in ByLine magazine's short article contest.