“… it’s in making contact with the mind outside of our own mind that we make fuller contact with ourselves. So in other words, in trying to explain things or evoke things or show things to others fully, we find out something we didn’t know before.”
Toni Reece: Thank you so much, Sheila, for agreeing to be part of the Project and before we begin, can you please introduce yourself?
Sheila Bender: Sure. I’m Sheila Bender. I’m a writer. I have a website called WritingItReal.com in which I try to keep all kinds of instruction and tools and resources for people who primarily write from personal experience, whether that’s poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction. I teach, I write … that’s what I do.
Toni: Well, let’s go into the first question. When you think of inspiration, Sheila, who do you inspire and how do you do that?
Sheila: You know, it’s funny. I feel like a teacher. I feel through and through like a teacher. I’ve been teaching for a very long time. I have an education degree and a Master’s in Creative Writing as well. I’ve been teaching since 1972.
I think of it as facilitating other people’s abilities. And people say that I am inspiring, but what’s interesting is I don’t go around every day thinking “Oh, I’m inspiring others.” What I think is I’m facilitating their ability to accomplish what it is they want to, whether that’s just starting, helping them start, or helping them continue, or helping them finish, or all of it, if it’s a writing project. That’s how I view it.
I guess I don’t very often think of it from the outside. But I believe — given what people have told me — that I’ve inspired numbers of writers, especially people who were reluctant, who were afraid that their story was too big for them to tell or that they wouldn’t be able to know where to start in an essay, or that they always wanted some recognition as a writer in winning one of the contests that I judged they got the recognition and felt really honored. Those are the kinds of ways that the feedback has come back to me.
Toni: Well, how do you go about that? How do you … I would imagine that that’s very inspiring to those that you work with. And I know that you’re saying that you facilitate them to move on, but can you just give an example of how you might do that?
Sheila: Well, in the case of my contests … For instance, lately I’ve been running a contest I called the “No-Contest Contest” because I feel like my greatest gifts are encouraging people to write, and the competition, to what it feels like to judge essays rather than to help people write them fully. I’m more interested in helping them write fully than I am in judging, so I will have them enter a “free write from a prompt.” I give them detailed response.
They write back to me and say “Wow, I didn’t even realize that my piece could be about such-and-such.” I had somebody email me this morning and say “I was up at 3:30 this morning, my head all abuzz – I’m so excited about writing again. Thank you.”
And then they re-entered a revision based on our discussion by email, and then I have another judge judge it. That’s been a happy solution for me, because that’s what I like to do. I like to encourage people by taking the writing as I see it and helping them see how much more wisdom and experience [audio dropped] and then give them the chance to show that off to somebody else.
Toni: Oh, that’s fantastic. That sounds incredibly motivational. When you’re working with people like this, how do you think then that helps them explore their potential in their writing?
Sheila: I think almost everybody, including professional writers, have these times that they can’t develop their work as fully as it needs to be because it’s in making contact with the mind outside of our own mind that we make fuller contact with ourselves.
So in other words, in trying to explain things or evoke things or show things to others fully, we find out something we didn’t know before. And so by encouraging people to excavate and mine their writing and write past the places where they’ve inherently stopped, they are then making contact with other people. And in doing so, they’re learning something more enriched about themselves, and that’s what I think is inspiring.
That’s what keeps people doing it, because it’s hard work. And once you get the feeling of that reward, you’re going to do it again. But I think that just knowing that there’s somebody out there who is going to help you and be interested in your work in progress as opposed to judging it is very, very inspiring.
Toni: Wow, so it is really helping rather than judging. And I think it doesn’t matter what profession that is, if you give that as a gift to someone else, that’s going to help them tremendously move forward in their potential, I would imagine.
Sheila: I think so, too. I think there’s one caveat. There are people who would say “Well, you’re going to let people get away with bad writing or not performing well”, and I don’t think so.
My own motto is there’s no bad writing, only the opportunity for good writing. And so what that means to me is I teach people to look into what isn’t working well in their writing and not see it as bad and a reason to stop, but to see it as an opportunity. “How do you know it’s not working, and then why is it there? Why is that writing there if it’s not working?”
It’s usually there because something in you didn’t want to go further. If you learn to listen to what’s there with those kind of ears, then there is no bad writing, only the opportunity for good writing. My own belief is that it’s not that we’re encouraging people to be loosey-goosey with their stuff, but that by not judging we’re actually helping people learn more about how to look into things for themselves.
Toni: When you think about inspiration from your own perspective, what do you need to be inspired?
Sheila: Different things at different times. I write a lot about my family, and so often what I need is close contact with my grandkids, my daughter. I write about my mother, my aging mother, so sometimes what I need is to be with her and to just really pay attention to what’s going on for her and for me as her daughter.
I must say that having people tell me I’m inspiring them keeps me at the work I do, so I suppose I need an audience of some kind. Hearing that I’ve helped someone else really does help me want to continue helping. Those are the two things I can think of right now.
Toni: Are there tools and resources that you reach for that you know, “I need some inspiration today; I’ve really got to stop what I’m doing and become reengaged and reinspired?” And when you reach that point, are there certain other tools that you might reach for?
Sheila: Usually they’re literary. I love poetry, and that’s where I started out in my writing career and still return to. So stopping and reading poems, stopping and reading essays by writers that I really like always helps. I think that I read the words of other writing teachers, and the ones that I resonate with certainly inspire me. I read a lot. I think reading others has a lot to do with what inspires me.
Toni: Have you always known you wanted to be a writer, Sheila?
Sheila: That’s a good question. I think that I did, but I didn’t feel that I had the license to, that there must be somebody in your life, somebody very, very important like maybe God or maybe a writer in your family who says “You’ve got what it takes. The world wants to hear from you.”
Although teachers would tell me that they liked my writing or my originality, in college, teachers didn’t. They wanted something else, and I wasn’t really always able to provide what they wanted and preserve what it was I was trying to explore.
I went through long periods of time where I didn’t write, where I taught other people as a junior high school teacher, but I wasn’t really exploring my writing. When my first baby was born, my daughter, something happened to me, and I realized that if I were going to raise her well, I was going to have to be who I was, and then I entered a writing program at the University of Washington.
Toni: And is that what was the turnaround moment?
Sheila: Uh-huh. I would say that’s the turnaround moment when I said, as an adult by then, you know, I was 25. I said “Wait a minute. I have a responsibility and maybe that is inspiration, to inspire my child. I can’t do that unless I find what it is I’m supposed to do, what it is I know I’m supposed to do. And so without anyone telling me that I can or I should, I’m going to apply.” What happened was, my first poetry teacher, David Wagner, was in fact that person because he accepted me into the class. But I would not have gotten that far if I hadn’t said “Here I go.”
Toni: Taking that first step … taking the first step. So, how do you continue to explore your potential today?
Sheila: Well, just continuing to write on topics that are in some ways larger and larger. Life gives them to me. Unfortunately, my 25-year-old son died nine years ago and, in the aftermath of losing him, I turned to poetry just as I described that I do for inspiration.
This fall, after seven years of working on it and two years of working to get it published, that book came out. And I look at it and I know how much that sustained me all those years, that I was inspired by other poet’s words. And then in the book I am … it’s called A New Theology – Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief. Although it’s a prose book, I’m also showing people the poems that meant something to me and what I did to speak in those voices myself to see how I could come to terms with the loss. Now I’m going to need a new project to inspire me.
Toni: Well, I am very sorry for your loss, and I can’t imagine. Just before you spoke about that, you talked about how difficult it was for you to find the permission and self-confidence to do what you knew you needed to do, which was to write. To go through what you went through then, tragically, and use that gift so that others can benefit by it, I mean … that’s amazing.
Sheila: Yes, there were times when I was writing that book that I truly felt that the whole purpose for me in becoming a poet was so that I would have the resources I needed when I really, really needed them. It felt that way. It felt like I don’t know how I could have done this without using those resources, without turning to poetry. So, I agree.
When I wrote the book … it’s an intensely personal story, and I really didn’t know … well, first I didn’t even know I was writing a book. And then when people started telling me — people in my writing group — that they thought it was a book, then I didn’t know what would happen, because I didn’t even know the end of the book.
But now that it’s out there, I get notes from people all the time telling me how much it’s meant to them and what it’s allowed them to do emotionally in their lives. So that’s been really inspiring to me, to know that a well-written personal story, where the other’s really working to find something out, has resonance for lots of people.
Toni: And isn’t that what you said that you do to help others with their potential and getting past their own stories and getting their stories out there, no matter how big they are?
Sheila: Right. And so often when you become the teacher, there isn’t anyone out there doing that for you, so that’s why I think it feels especially inspiring to hear back from people.
Toni: You’ve been an absolute gift to us today and … just sharing how you go about inspiring other writers and helping other writers explore their own potential, but then what you’ve been through, what inspires you, it really has come full circle. And what you’ve walked through to what you’re giving has come loud and clear through this interview. For that I thank you.
Sheila: Thank you. Thanks for the opportunity.
Toni: You’re welcome. Take care of yourself.
Sheila: Thank you.
For more information about Sheila Bender: www.writingitreal.com