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.

Finding the Motto Writer Within

We are motto (and affirmation) happy in our culture. We circulate phrases from manufacturers and social service organizations from “Just do it” to “Just say no,” from “You deserve a break today” to “I brake for animals.” After I studied creative writing in graduate school and was publishing poetry, I was just starting to use … Continue reading

Burying the Dutch Oven: A Writing Exercise for Discovery

A writing colleague of mine once shared in an essay that when she angrily broke up with a beloved college boyfriend under duress because her father didn’t like him, she took the Dutch oven they used for cooking and buried it in the backyard before she left. The topic of the essay was finding him … Continue reading

Contest Winner Linda Robertson’s Poems

In our final week of posting contest entries from the fall/winter WIR writing contest, we have seven poems by Linda M. Robertson. Our contest judge Sharon Bryan wrote this about selecting these poems as winners: These poems speak in a voice that makes me want to listen to everything it says. They are so well-crafted that … Continue reading

“Long Meg Speaks” by Emma Hunter, a Winning Essay in the Fall/Winter WIR Contest

Our fall/winter writing contest guest judge Sharon Bryan chose Emma Hunter’s essay, “Long Meg Speaks,” as one of three winners. This week, we have the judge’s words about the essay as well as the author’s words about writing it, and, of course, the essay. Emma wrote this in answer to my request for words about … Continue reading

Writing It Real Fall/Winter Contest Winner Dorothy Ross’ “A Night at the Plaza”

[I will be posting the work of our recent three winners this week and then for the next two weeks. I hope you enjoy their comments about the writing of their work, our contest judge Sharon Byran’s comments, and, of course, the writing. – Ed.] Here is Dorothy Ross on why she is writing the … Continue reading

What’s the Writer’s Job? Getting Going and Keeping on Going

When I teach in person, people sometimes show up having purchased a copy of the recently updated edition of my first instructional book on writing: Writing in a Convertible with the Top Down, which I co-authored with Christi Killien Glover. Their interest prompts me to include exercises from that book during our class time together. This week, I’d like to … Continue reading

Poetry and Essays by Carol Smallwood: Observer, Librarian, Philosopher

Librarian, poet and author Carol Smallwood came to my attention over the years when she emailed calls for essays to consider for anthologies she was editing. I was very pleased to learn about these anthologies and very pleased when she accepted my essays for inclusion in Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful … Continue reading

Sheila Reads Her Poems for National Poetry Month

For National Poetry Month, tonight I am reading from my own poetry at the link below. For me poetry is an everyday experience and so there aren’t any huge production values or perfect lighting in this video. Just me sharing my poems and talking to you about what I hope poetry accomplishes for humanity. You can … Continue reading

Finding Starts in Personal Essay Writing: Part 3

Mining the Three Freewrites: Whether you have done these freewrites ( see Part 1 and Part 2)  in the course of one writing session or over several days, find out what the freewrites have to tell you about an essay you might write by combing through them and jotting down images and phrases that interest … Continue reading

Finding Starts in Personal Essay Writing: Part 2

[The following article appeared first in “The Heart and Craft and of Life Writing.”] Last week’s article included a freewrite to get you going toward writing on a topic that surprises you or allows you to get into a piece of writing in a way that is new to you. If you haven’t done freewrite … Continue reading

Finding Starts in Personal Essay Writing: Part 1

[The following article appeared first in “The Heart and Craft and of Life Writing.”] It  might not be obvious that those of us who write personal essays can benefit greatly from not knowing what we have to write about.  That is surprising to people who think of the essay as researched knowledge with a professorial, … Continue reading

The Way I See It

“The Way I See It” is the “Prologue” from Writing Personal Essays: Sharing and Shaping Your Life Experience, Published in print and digitally by Sheila Bender’s Writing It Real, March, 2017 [Note: I wrote a slightly different version of this essay for the 1995 edition of my book. Everything I realized then remains important to … Continue reading

Acknowledging the Value of Your Writing, Part 4

Creating Self-Understanding Despite Fears of Revealing Your Own Shortcomings and True Experience Before we see what writers have said on the issue of fear about revealing oneself through writing, try this exercise: Select four or so pieces of your writing. Look for nouns that you used more than you knew you did. Circle these words … Continue reading

Acknowledging the Value of Your Writing Part 3 of 4

Healing Through the Dark Emotions From journal writing to writing finished plays, memoir, poems and fiction, writers evoke and examine encounters with the dark emotions incited by misfortune, abuse, divorce, severe lack of confidence, fear of difficult and horrifying situations in our world, as well as the loss of a loved one or of a … Continue reading

Acknowledging the Value of Your Writing: Exercises for Week One and Two of Four

I have been teaching a class called “Writing is a Friend with Extraordinary Benefits” for a couple of years now through Women on Writing. I have been extremely engaged in what my students write and thrilled by the evidence that by writing from certain models the writers have reaffirmed their belief in the value of writing. After … Continue reading

Writing About Painful Topics

My friend, the essayist Brenda Miller, wrote the introduction to my memoir A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief. “I understood then,” she wrote, “that grief can be a channel in which you swim alone, where you can also find your brethren as they flicker along beside you, their bodies gliding … Continue reading

Help Writing Scenes That Engage the Reader (and the Writer)

In 2005, I posted an article with excerpts from Riding in Cars with Boys by Beverly Donofrio’s and A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries by Kaylie Jones along with exercises based on their writing. I am reposting the following short excerpts along with the ideas I had aimed at helping you launch new writing of your … Continue reading

A Writer’s Role Models: Canadian Author Miriam Towes and Her 15-Year-Old Character Elfrieda

This week, I have made a video for Writing It Real’s Weekly Article. In it, I share a passage from Canadian author Miriam Toews’ novel All My Puny Sorrows in which a talented 15-year-old piano player exercises her genius against the unwelcome authoritarianism of the Mennonite elders, who “willy nilly” as the girl’s mother says, … Continue reading

Writing the Eulogy

As my mother’s 90th birthday approaches, my husband and I have sorted through photographs from nine decades of her life. He is making a photo essay book to be given to her this Sunday and shared with guests at the party we are making.

As we sorted, I reached into a manila envelope and to my surprise, it wasn’t a photo inside but a record, the size of a 45 rpm, with a note, “Bert and Arline, March 1945” handwritten on the label. I soon went to see a DJ at KPTZ FM, the station for which I produce my program “In Conversation: Discussions on Writing and the Writing Life.” The DJ kindly used the equipment the station has to play what turned out to be a 78 record.

Everyone there at the studio stood in the soundproof room waiting to hear what my parents, who were 18 at the time, said to one another in a recording booth they must have dropped into in NY six months before they eloped and probably just as my dad prepared to leave for Oklahoma having enlisted in the Navy. It’s a short recording. One of the most endearing moments for me is when my father says, “I love you so much” and then asks, “Do you love me?” My mother says, “Yes, I do.” My dad asks, “Why?” And she laughs, “God only knows.”

So, I am thinking of my dad a lot as we prepare for this weekend’s celebration. I have gone into my files to find the eulogy I wrote for his funeral services. I see that I employed anaphora, the craft form I wrote about last week. I am sharing the writing I read at my father’s funeral in the hopes that it may help you if are tasked with writing a eulogy or want to write one, even long after a person has died.

As you will see, repeating a specific phrase helped me keep writing and conjuring moments infused with meaning for me.

At My Father’s Funeral, 2001, The Words I Shared

When I think of my father, I think of the words he taught me: presentable as in his morning question those years he was climbing the corporate ladder, “Do I look presentable;” indispensable as in the mantra that kept him motivated toward excellence, “No man is indispensable;” and the one he taught us using the British pronunciation because the company he worked for had had research done there, “laboratory.”

When I think of my father, I think of the way he taught me to be conscientious, honest, forthright, and disciplined. Homework was to get done, goals were to be set and reached, and mistakes were to be noted and fixed.

I think of the gifts he most cherished giving my sister and me—copies of books like Treasure Island, a white football he tried to teach us to throw, a chemistry set we could only use with him as our proctor, money for college saved each week in the blue envelopes we brought to school.

I think of the things we took as gifts—riding his shoulders to play at great height in a swimming pool, his hand on the back of our two wheeler seats as we pedaled down the sidewalk learning to balance, his driving lessons and the degree of attention and seriousness he gave the task and his bravery sitting with us as we pressed the accelerator and learned to steer. He concentrated on helping us learn to make our way as well as helping our way be joyous. When I had my first job as an administrator and found the nonprofit I worked for was in the red, my father came to visit and sat for hours teaching me how to create, monitor, and control an organization’s budget. When my teenage son designed my husband and I a house, he donated the financing for skylights, an extra that would make all the difference to his grandson project. When I had a collection of poems that needed presales for the small press to make a print run, my father ordered about 50 copies and eventually gave them out like cigars when a baby is born.

When my dad’s health declined these past few years, I began writing poems incorporating my memories of his fathering. I would like to share one today because I think it best evokes his nature and what I will always treasure.

Some Things He May Not Know He Taught Me

                                                            For my father

I praise him for two varnished skulls from cats
he’d dissected in biology, the way he bolted those skulls to mahogany
and kept them on his shelves, a trophy for attending college against the odds.

I praise him for the diligence with which he wrote a jingle night after night
at our kitchen table trying to win prizes from the supermarket, the special care
he took with the 78 rpm Pinocchio album his jingle won him, how he kept it
on a high shelf so my sister and I would not touch it when he was not around.
I praise the way he cherished what he worked so hard for.

I praise him for the clay pot he planted with grass seed scooped from the ground
when gardeners sowed a lawn each spring between the buildings of our court.
I praise him for the joke he made, cutting the grass each Saturday
with a scissors, showing my sister and me that chores get done.

I praise him for the day when I was four and watched him shave
until the plumbing backed up. With an inch of sewer water
underfoot, he lifted me from the room waking my mother in a hurry,
telling her the problem, his feet already out the door to work.
She yelled how it wasn’t fair to leave her with the mess;
I praise him for teaching me nothing unexpected need be fair.

I praise him for the hand he slammed against the steering wheel
our first time through the Lincoln Tunnel when a car rear-ended us
and his sample cases of pharmaceuticals clanked, smashed and oozed.
I praise him for the way he did not easily accept what wasn’t in his control.
Quick most times to anger, he let us know his burden and his soul.

***

As a writer, repeating phrases helps me occupy and contain my abstraction-making mind so my image-making mind can deliver the details that bring my subject alive without me worrying about how to fit them into a narrative.

One of the beautiful things about a eulogy, in prose or in poetry, is the way that in honoring the dead with details and images, both writer and listener resurrect a life.

I do not know what memories my mom will find flooding in as we share my young father’s and young mother’s voices and the decades of photos with her and family members this Sunday. But I do know that whatever that reaction, it will usher in an occasion from which I will write. I know that the technique of anaphora will help me include more than I might otherwise be able to comfortably gather into one piece of writing.

Toward Beginning A Year of Writing Poetry (Or Improving Your Prose Through Poetry)

For January: Dreams and Repetitions In this month of the inauguration of a new president of our country, it seems particularly appropriate and important to study the orators of our great nation who called out for freedoms we enjoy. Reading the words of Dr. King, Thomas Jefferson and Barack Obama, we can experience the power … Continue reading