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.

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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Carol Smallwood, Poet, and Anthology Creator Extraordinaire, Tells Us How She Does It

As both an accomplished writer and a career librarian, Carol Smallwood knows a lot about what women ask when they wish to learn about the writing and publishing process. Over the years, I’ve received email invitations from Carol asking for contributions to anthologies whose subjects have rung true as extremely useful for women writers. I … Continue reading
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How We Write the Heroine’s Story: Interview with Author Jody Gentian Bower

Jody Gentian Bower’s new book, Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story, is sure to change some minds about the path of women’s literature. I am pleased to post the following interview with Jody. I know readers will find both her thinking and her commitment to the process of creating her … Continue reading
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Haiku Poets Focus on What Matters Most: An Interview with Robert Epstein

Robert Epstein has invested years in conceiving and writing books, among them a series of impressive haiku anthologies. This National Poetry Month, I am delighted to post an interview with him that gets to the heart of how haiku connects us to the sacred and demonstrates what we come to poetry for — to understand and to share … Continue reading
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Sand Spirit Cards — A Tool for Writers

Before embarking on a third revision of A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief, an intense book-length personal narrative, I worked with writer, photographer and shamanic practitioner Pam Hale Trachta for guidance in knowing what I wanted to do in developing my manuscript. Because it is about my son’s death in … Continue reading
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Clearing Out Publishing Brain Fog

Some of us write and don’t allow ourselves to even think we will publish because it seems out of our reach; others of us worry about publishing way too early, and, therefore, don’t write what we might. Writing comes first, of course, and that means writing what you have in you to write and need to write. When … Continue reading
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