Sheila Bender

About Sheila Bender

Sheila Bender has worked with people who write personal essays, poetry, nonfiction books, stories, writer’s journals, and application essays since 1980, helping them acknowledge a place for writing in their lives. Learn about her instructional books, memoir and poetry at About Sheila.

What It Takes – An Exercise to Keep You Writing

This time of year, we are often flooded with memories of our childhoods, especially of winter holiday times. Some of the memories may be of difficulties and some may be of times filled with excitement and joy. Happy or sad, peaceful or filled with anxiety, these memories can lead to vivid writing. In drafting writing … Continue reading
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A Passion for Writing Might Save Us in These Times

What are we writers to do in a nation where so many young and old seem to have gone mad, publically shouting and bullying, using crude names for those of the female sex and for people of non-Christian religions and for people of color — here in a country where over decades we’ve: Passed legislation … Continue reading
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Openings That Make You Continue Writing

Often, we feel we can’t start writing because we are not inspired. Or we feel that we have become “flat” as writers when we look at what we have written. Here are 10 writing prompts inspired by the opening lines of novels, films and a short story. I believe that working from any of these prompts will allow you to blast off into writing that will surprise you. You might even find that some of the openings and prompt ideas encourage you to take a second look at the way you have opened the essays and stories you’ve already begun.

  1. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith begins, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Start a piece of writing today with a unique perspective: I write this crouched below the cafeteria tables of my junior high school; I think this suspended mid-air before my parachute opens; I say these words riding a wooden horse on a carousal. Place yourself (or your character) somewhere and write what comes.
  2. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley begins, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” What apt metaphor might you use to start a piece of writing or a chapter? Try one of these: Compare a time period to a geographical area or compare a friend, relative or co-worker of yours or your character to an institution like McDonald’s, a library, multiplex cinema or church.
  3. Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga begins, “I was not sorry when my brother died.” Saying the “unsayable” or the not likeable or the socially unacceptable can lead to good writing. Write about a time that you (or a character) were not sorry when you should have been or were sorry when others would not have been sorry.
  4. In Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, at dawn, 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding commands his town to wake up: “Everyone yawn. Everyone up.” He goes on to imagine he is directing the symphony of morning, “Grandpa, get your teeth from the water glass!” “Grandma and Great-grandma, fry hot cakes!” “Cough, get up, take pills, move around!” Think of a location you are familiar with and write directions for everyone or thing there: are you camping, getting ready for a church dinner, fishing at a lake, driving to work, leaving on a remembered family vacation?
  5. After Life by Rhian Ellis begins: “First I had to get his body into the boat.” Think of a step that must be done, one that seems a bit outrageous, before you (or your character) can do anything else: First, I had to open my wings and fly; first I had to retrieve the letter I’d already put in the mailbox slot; first, I had to call the head of security at the airport. Make it something that is unexpected or not easy to accomplish. Why must you do this? What circumstance has gotten you to this point?
  6. The Paperboy by Pete Dexter begins: “My brother Ward was once a famous man.” What were you (or your character) once: Once I was first chair violin, once I was the tallest in my class, once I had a sister, once I was the best hop scotch player on my street, once I climbed trees. Write some “once” statements and see which ones bring back memories and life changes worth writing about.
  7. A Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky begins: “I joined the baboon troop during my twenty-first year. I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla.” Whose point of view might you begin a story from? Your title might be “My Cat’s Memoir,” “Memoir of My Grandmother’s Silver Fork,” or “The Bath Towel’s Memoir,” for instance. Choose an age that the real story of the life begins — at 3 months, 21 years, a half a century. What happened then? The fork might say, “I wasn’t sure where we’d all come from or how long we’d lay useless, but I figured I was about 80 when she took us out of the wooden box and soaked us in warm water and Tide detergent, and I knew I’d be busy once again.” Find out where the “memoir” takes you.
  8. The film Lawrence of Arabia begins, “He was the most extraordinary man I ever knew.” Make a statement about someone (or have your character do it). Make it extremely negative or superlative. Now support it with a story that illustrates this characteristic.
  9. The film I Never Sang for My Father begins, “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some resolution which it may never find.” Think of someone who has left you because of death, divorce, or moving. Begin by asking a question, “What in me struggles toward resolution now that you have left?” Write about that.
  10. A recent short story by Dianne Belfrey in The New Yorker magazine, begins, “Every love story has to start somewhere, and I’m blaming this one on a boat. What kind of story do you want to tell? What tangible object or what place can you “blame” it one? Here is an example, “Every story of loss has to start somewhere. I blame this one on a maple tree in fall.” And other example, “Every story of riches has to start somewhere. I blame this one on an apple tree in October.” Once you have your image you have a place to begin and a story to run with.

***

I hope you have fun with these. I’d love to see some of your openings if you’d like to paste them into the comment box below this article.

Writing Our Own Stories Helps Others Write Theirs: Essay by and Interview with Joan Leof

Joan Leof’s collection of essays Matryoshka: Uncovering Your Many Selves Through Writing Personal Essays and Questions for Reflection is intended to share her personal experience essays in a way that encourages others to write from their experiences.

After reading her collection and asking Joan’s permission to reprint one of her essays for Writing It Real members, I emailed her questions I hoped she’d answer for writers of personal experience. Here are her words on writing from personal experience:

Sheila
Over what span of years did you write the essays in this collection?

Joan
Half of the essays are new, written in the last three years. Five were published in the 80s-early 90s. Four are spin offs from material in the memoir I wrote from 2007-2011 (Fatal If Swallowed).

Sheila
How did you use them in your own work with other writers before publication?

Joan
While I don’t share the actual essays with writers in my groups until each is originally published, I always refer to the creative process that guides me. That includes keeping a SEED LIST of ideas. This can be anything from one word, to one paragraph, a theme, issue, newspaper clipping – anything that sparks something in me as having potential. I emphasize having trust that the idea will sprout in its time and take on a life of its own. For instance, something that’s been on my SEED LIST for decades finally became an essay recently with an ending that I could never have imagined. I had to “live” the ending before I could actually complete the story. Keeping open to recycling options is also encouraged. A previous essay could be tweaked and resubmitted. Or it could be reprinted as is somewhere. A theme or description can be extracted for a new essay.  Continue reading

In Conversation with Michael Dylan Welch on Haiku, Asian Forms and Longer Poetry

I think you’ll enjoy this new radio conversation about the power of the image, whether you write poetry or write prose. And you’ll have the opportunity to hear Michael Dylan Welch read from several of his poems. After you listen to the podcast, you might want to read articles that Michael shared with Writing It Real members over the years.

Here are those links:

Tanka By Michael Dylan Welch

The Seed of the Human Heart, Writing Tanka

Becoming a Haiku Poet

Focus on Emotions Using the Epistolary (Letter) Form

The late poet Richard Hugo was for many years head of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Missoula in Montana. In 1977, during a time of insecurity and writer’s block, he published a small volume of poems entitled 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, in which he addressed his poems to contemporary poets and to people of importance to him. He wrote what mattered to his heart and soul and broke out of his writer’s block. The letters are always to someone in particular and written from a particular town or city in which Hugo thinks of that person. Usually, he launches his poem in letter from what his senses experience where he is. Then he makes associations to information about his state of being or to his past that he feels emotionally inspired to tell the person he is writing to. The poems are filled with authenticity, appreciation, vulnerability, love and strong bonds.

The volume of poetry is still available. You can also read these two letter poems online (you have to scroll down a bit to find the poems):

Letter to Simic from Boulder

Letter to Kizer from Seattle

When I was teaching one a writers’ conference in Istanbul, I made an assignment to write a letter from Istanbul to someone you care about letting them know your feelings via the use of images from the city, what your feelings are. The outcome could look like a poem or prose or a prose poem. What mattered is that it had images of the city and associations filled with emotions that would affect the recipient, someone who you would like to allow to know your feelings of connection or of sadness or of guilt–the letter form is a great one to use for making an apology for something larger than yourself.

It was one of my favorite of Hugo’s letter poems, “Letter from Port Townsend to Wagoner,” that inspired me to do the exercise by writing to my daughter from Istanbul.

Here’s the poem I wrote while I was unable to sleep because of lingering jet lag:

Letter To My Daughter Emily from Istanbul on Mother’s Day
by Sheila Bender

I write in a circle of women, my feet on an antique kilim
covering a concrete floor in a refurbished building, thinking
of the Christian mosaics in the Hagia Sophia,  how on one wall
they are partly revealed beneath Islamic frescos painted to cover
them when the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans.

Amidst our arrivals and our departures, between lire coins and tram
passes and the food we order with names new to our tongues,
I remember that in life all of us are both hidden and revealed,
both essence and clutter, at times hungry, at other times sated.

We visited the nearby Underground Cistern for what was once
New Rome; there two marble blocks with carvings of Medusa’s
head are the bases of pillars because in his time the Emperor Justinian
did not want pagan reminders; still the stone made good blocks
for construction and one Medusa’s head is installed sideways
under the column she holds up; the other one is upside down.

There is a story that this was intentional to break Medusa’s power.
I think the stonemasons were looking for the most stable
stone platform for the pillars to stand on.

We walked back to the entrance and saw the Weeping Pillar,
a marble column with a worry hole in one place. Visitors are
invited to put their thumb inside and rotate it to wipe the smooth
marble and, of course, make a wish. And I did.

I thought of a good luck place you and I visited, Kiyomizu Temple,
the ladles of three waters we splashed over ourselves when you
were in Japan at university and the same ladles years later
when we returned years with your young son.

Tonight when I cannot sleep among the city’s motorcycles
and calls to prayer, I will pretend Medusa is winking at me,
standing on her head, never tired even after centuries holding
up pillars, the snakes of her hair but yarn for spinning the wool
of a strong and double-knotted rug, like the one I bought today.
It comes from Kayseri, 10 hours by bus from this city.
A traveler like you, the rug holds a girl’s story of wishes and love.

Medusa had the power to turn those she loved into stone,
but she winks in my thoughts because she knows, Emily,
when it comes to my love for you, I have always been
revealed and always sated, your life so full of fruit.

****

You know that I am going to suggest you try your hand at this sort of epistolary writing. Before you start, here is a quick excerpt from the book Getting the Knack by co-authors William Stafford and Stephen Dunning on writing poems:

From their introduction:

What do you already know about letter poems? Plenty.  You know how they begin.  Like letters themselves.  Letter poems  can start with a greeting.  “Dear Somebody.” You know how the usually end–with some way of signing off “Yours  truly” or Sincerely” or “Hang by your thumbs.”

So in a sense, knowing about the letter poem’s beginning and end, all you need worry about is the middle. Right? Wrong.  Probably the main qualities of letter poems come from who the letter is addressed to and who signs it.  In ordinary letters written to real people, there’s usually a known relationship, the writer (you) are writing a friend, a relative, an insurance agent.  You and friend, relative, or insurance agent have a history, and that history shapes how the letter goes.  “Dear Cousin Malcolm,” it might begin, if it’s to a cousin you’ve never met.  “Malco-mio” if you’ve known him all your life.

To start they suggest:

Draft a letter to that name.  One page max.  It will begin:

Dear___________,

In your letter, tell_______ who you are and what’s on your mind.  Do you want advice?  To ask a question about his her its life or situation? Straighten her/him/it out on a few matters? Serious or silly? Distanced or intimate?  It’s up to you.

In this draft, when you talk about yourself, the real you is talking. Reveal some things, if you dare.  Get close to real feeling. Sign your real name at the bottom.

And a they offer a delightful sample outcome:

Dear Husband,
I write Personal on the envelope.
Someone else opens and reads
The letter I meant only for you.
First time in a month we take
Time for wine in a bar.  Your
Briefcase sits between us, you
Touch papers in your pockets,
Scrunch your eyes, look around,
At work, the operator won’t put
Me through to you.  You are in
Conference, in Cleveland, in-
Communicado.  You never call
Back. Dear distracted executive
Husband of mine, your doors are
Closed.  You’re hiding. Come out.

Your Very Worried Wife.
by Dorothy Schieber Miller and Stephen Dunning

****

Okay, now it’s your turn!

A Short Study in Prose Poetry – Questions and Answers

What is a prose poem? “It is a piece of writing in prose having obvious poetic qualities, including intensity, compactness, prominent rhythms, and imagery.” — Chrome Browser Link. Why write it? “Baudelaire used prose poems to rebel against the straitjacket of classical French versification. He dreamed of creating ‘a poetic prose, musical without rhyme or … Continue reading
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We Write to Feel and to Make Others Feel What is Genuine

When someone asks (or you ask yourself) why you write, I bet that many of the motivations you think to cite are on this list: • to understand your experience, • because you have a story in your heart, • because you can’t keep yourself from writing, • because you hope at least one other person on the … Continue reading
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20 Prompts for Article Writing

Want to write an article for a local publication, an online site or a niche publication in a field of interest to you? Here are some prompts to get you going: Write a tourist type tour of your town for those who live there. Write an idiosyncratic tour of your town for tourists who don’t … Continue reading
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In Conversation with Meg Files and Jack Heffron

We have two new podcasts ready for you to listen to. They are conversations with Meg Files and with Jack Heffron. It was fun and informative having two of my favorite writing and teaching colleagues as guests this summer on my KPTZ FM radio program, In Conversation: Discussions on Writing and the Writing Life.

Below are links to those two programs as well as links to previous Writing It Real articles featuring Jack and Meg’s writing and thoughts about writing. It’s a feast!

The Podcasts

Writing It Real Articles by Meg Files

Writing It Real Articles by Jack Heffron

What the Teacher Was Thinking

Whatever our role in life, however well we perform in it, there is always the not knowing if we are doing it right, if what we are trying to accomplish will be accomplished. Sometimes that situation offers us a prompt we can use for writing. As a writing teacher, I spend many of the minutes … Continue reading
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23 Prompts for Revising

Author Joyce Carol Oates says, “The pleasure is the rewriting.” Author John Irving says, “More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina.” I enjoy revising and … Continue reading
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20 Memoir and Personal Essay Writing Prompts

Exploring your life on the page is daunting whether you are writing short memoir (the personal essay) or a book-length manuscript. Where does one start? How does one choose the highlights for the story’s exploration? How does one find surprises? Here are 20 ideas to find a point of entry and to organize your memoir … Continue reading
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A Revision Success Story: Developing “The Longest Walk” by Arla Shephard Bull

Writing It Real member Arla Shephard Bull worked back and forth with me on developing an essay that was important to her to write. She had decided to use the third person as a way of distancing herself enough to approach the topic of a painful family trip. Despite a question she had about that … Continue reading
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Clear the Debris of Abstraction and Sentimentality

As the Presidential candidates for nomination continue to gather followers with predictable phrases, and pundits attempt to predict who the will be the frontrunners, I am reminded of the importance of writing toward felt insight. We need to leave abstracting and sentimentality behind if we are to find insight and make deep connections with ourselves and others through our writing. … Continue reading
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In Conversation with Three Very Different Writers

Every few months, I sit with sound engineer Charlie Fleishman at the studio of Port Townsend, WA’s all volunteer FM station KPTZ.org and record conversations with four writers. Each of these Sundays includes telephone conversations with writers from anywhere in the country and in studio conversations local writers.  Each program plays two to three times … Continue reading
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A Love Story: Interview with Phyllis M. Washburn on her book Good Morning Sam

Phyllis Washburn sent me a copy of the book she’d written, Good Morning Sam, which includes many of her husband Ralph’s photos. In photos and words, theirs is the story of the mute swan Sam, whom they named when he accepted them as part of his natural world. Over the years, the couple saved Sam … Continue reading
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Before and After: Shaping a Personal Essay Using the 3-Step Response Method

The back and forth you’ll read this week on the development of an essay-in-progress demonstrates the power of my three-step response method for helping writers revise. Years ago, Marjorie Ford sent me an essay-in-progress that she was having trouble developing to her satisfaction for meeting an upcoming anthology submission deadline. After I received her first draft, we immersed ourselves in the three-step response, back and … Continue reading
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