Author Archives: Sheila Bender

On Journaling to Keep Writing

by Sheila Bender

I encourage everyone to recognize how they feel comfortable writing and to recognize whatever that 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 a discipline, but we think it doesn’t count. It does!

Often people think, “What if I don’t have anything important to write about on a given day?”

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.

Just keep writing—that’s always the answer. Write about eating alone and eating with others, about being a stranger at a dinner table. Write about remembering how you learned to whistle or whose whistle meant something to you. Address a letter to an instrument you no longer play explaining what happened. Let the instrument write back to you.

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.

To write well we must always allow ourselves an element of play even when we are writing about difficult topics.

So three important keys to keeping a journal that interests you: recognize your discipline and work from that, tell thing slant trusting the meaning will rise from the images, and allow yourself to play with your writing. Then you will find that keeping yourself writing is not that hard at all.

Letting Images Do the Talking

In Ron Carlson Writes a Story, the novelist and short fiction writer talks about how he looks into his writing to be sure the images are doing the work and the writer is not overriding that work with summarizing phrases:

Outer story, the physical world, is also its own effect, its own reaction, its own comment. Outer story shows us things, and as the outer story grows and gathers, we can begin to see the constellations of our meanings. There is no need to comment on each facet of a scene. The sunset went from yellow to purple in a moment, and Jonathan took a step back, stunned. (Cut stunned.) The sunset went from yellow to purple in a moment, and I thought it was fabulous. (You know what to cut.) I’ve heard people talk about this by quoting Sergeant Friday:  “Just the facts, ma’am.” This is apt, but there’s more for the writer: this frees us from having to interpret. Our mission is to write the physical scene as closely as we can, knowing that our intentions lie just beyond our knowing. Write, don’t think.

In writing memoir, letting images do the talking is just as important as in writing fiction.  You must recreate how you experienced the places, people and situations of your life experiences through the senses. Where you were and what was happening to you originally came in through your ears, nose, tongue, skin, and eyes. That is what the reader needs, too, to experience your world and draw the conclusions you did.

An exercise I give myself is to look into my drafts for sentences where I’ve summarized. Then I write more to see what happens if I open the sentences up to the senses. Instead of saying, “I was always stiff at Grandmother Sarah’s house,” I would work to provide sense information from the outer world:

I always sat in the red overstuffed mohair sofa, my feet never reaching the floor, my attention on the white lace of my fancy Sunday anklets above the patent leather of my Mary Janes. The pudgy fingers of my left hand crumpled and uncrumpled the lace that covered the sofa arm I sat up against. I always noticed the dirt under my fingernails, black as my shoes, against the white of Grandmother’s lace.

As writers, we must learn to rely on the outer world for the images a situation provides, rather than relying on thoughts and summaries. Sure, those will come into our writing, at times, but using them sparingly, as Ron Carlson says, makes them all the more powerful. Remember a place where you were extremely uncomfortable. Take the time to write a paragraph naming what came in through your senses in that place. When you read what you wrote, you should feel that discomfort rising up from the specifics you’ve included. Then your reader will, too.

To Those Who Write the Words of Their Personal Experience:

by Sheila Bender

It isn’t an easy path to write from personal experience. There are no guarantees that editors will want to publish what we have to say and no guarantees that we will successfully find a way to say it, publication or not. What is guaranteed is that committing words to the page and revising our writing until it successfully makes contact with others changes our lives in unexpected directions.

Writing takes courage and affirmations about writing help us value our personal writing and acquire this courage. After a Writing It Real writers’ conference during which participants shared fresh work and enjoyed time to help one another craft their early starts, I wrote these:


That we write because we feel the need,

That we write because we want to reflect on the meaning in our experience,

That we write because we want to get something down for others to read after we are gone,

That we write because we are alive and writing makes us more alive,

That we write because it is a form of play,

That we write because it brings us into contact with other writers whose minds and hearts we resonate with,

That we write because it makes us the people we want to be

makes writing a gift we cannot refuse to accept.

Sharing our writing with trusted readers and learning to hear what our writing wants to discover, we not only grow our poems, our essays, and our stories but we grow ourselves, creating a path toward self-actualization.

Exercise to Ensure You Learn the Craft of Using Sensory Details

by Sheila Bender

As adults, we are so used to summarizing and editorializing. We have learned that abstractions are considered “smart” in writing and having opinions makes us sound even smarter. That’s what our teachers wanted from us on papers and on essay tests.

But creative writing, whether that is in poetry, fiction, personal essay or in longer memoir, requires something different. It requires that we create (or re-create) experience on the page and the thing is, that experience is not a summary or an abstraction. It is something we live via our five senses: we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. We take the world in through the images these senses supply for us, but we do of course select the ones that will “build” the experiences we are writing about. Writing is a made thing, a shaped thing. As writers, we seek that shape and choose the images that will create the experience we are conveying (or are learning that we are compelled to convey).

So often, if we let our senses land on images around us, we learn more about what we are feeling, what we know, what we yearn for and the depth of it all, than we could have imagined had we not let ourselves write the experience of our senses.

Before we can do this skillfully, though, we must learn to trust ourselves at finding and using images.

One of my favorite exercises is to look out my window and write five sentences, one for each of the senses. For instance, one day in May I looked out my studio window on a day when the sun was shining after days of rain, I wrote:

Today bunches of Shasta daisy leaves cluster inside a ring of orange calendula blossoms. When I open the door of my study, I hear the honking of the Canadian Geese gathered on the beach I cannot see from here. I remember the friend who I shared poems with, who gave me Welsh poppy seeds because the plants grow in shade and there is much of that on the path to my study. I want to talk to her, though she has been dead now five years. I want to tell her that the poppies are increasing, that in her memory I cannot thin them, must feel them as I brush past. Then the memory of another friend who said she could smell the dust in my house and asked if I could smell it, too. Now I walk the path to my house to warm up yellow soup, let Indian curry spices fill my empty mouth.

If I gave this a title, say, “At the End of May,” because that is when I was writing this, I might have a prose poem. I think the beauty and the sadness of losing a treasured friend, the flirting with thinking about my mortality in the dust image and the speechlessness we feel when we consider the mystery of death all resonate again in the fact that I am writing this at a particular time of year, when so much is blooming and coming to life. But it is the end of May and that word “end” honors the transmigratory (oh, those geese!) nature of our lives.

Really, I sat down to write five sentences, one each for each of the five senses. I found I needed a few more (eight in all) to express what I needed to about my deceased friend and the one I share time with now who reminds me everything is transitory.

I let myself break the rules of my assignment, remaining conscious, however, when I had no more to say that I hadn’t put taste in the piece yet. Searching for taste, I found that the path I’d described with poppies was useful for getting to the taste and for closing the piece–I had walked it to my study and then I would walk it back to the house. I found that where I would put the soup, into my mouth, felt more correct with the modifier “empty.” It just seemed to go with missing my friend amidst the glory of the garden and the day.

Look out your window. Tell yourself you will write at least five sentences, one devoted to each of your senses. See what happens–something will.

Working with Rainer Maria Rilke’s Advice

by Sheila Bender

The real topic of any piece of writing, the part that provides the emotional growth for both the writer and the reader, the part that holds everyone’s attention and lingers with them after reading, is the part that portrays the author’s search for an answer to some persistent question. It may be a question that is an obsession of the writer’s such as, “How will I live now that what I believed as a child seems wrong?” and it can occur for years after the precipitating event. The question might be, “If I don’t feel like a good parent, can I be any good at all?” or “Why do elephants always make me laugh?” It might be “If the city I live in is so polluted and crowded and violent, how come I haven’t given up on it?” or “Will I ever believe that I am a master?” or “What is my calling?”

The poet Rilke addressed the need for questions in an author in his famous Letters to a Young Poet:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Here is a writing practice to help you learn how living the questions facilitates writing:

Fill a piece of paper with questions. Write any question that comes to you. Allow yourself to mix silly questions with esoteric ones, mundane questions with ethereal questions, questions that might have a simple answer with questions that undoubtedly have complex answers. This mix will free your unconscious to suggest questions that might lead you to writing well:

Why do I like Rice Chex more than Raisin Bran?

Why is blue my favorite color?

What is the hardest thing to talk about as a woman?

What is it about housework that draws me away from writing?

What is the most important thing in life to me?

Keep writing questions and then choose a question that interests you. Draw a balloon on a piece of paper and print that question inside of it; draw a string on the balloon. Just like when you were a kid and you let helium-filled balloons go once you were inside your house knowing they would reach the ceiling and stay inside, imagine your question balloon floating aloft yet remaining in your eyesight. Let this question balloon keep you company like those magical balloons of our childhood.

Over a few days or a week, write down the specifics of where you are and what is happening when you remember the question you “left hanging in the balloon.” Describe where you are, what you see and what you feel, taste, touch and smell in the moment the question occurs to you, whether that is on city streets, a hiking trail, caring for grandchildren or standing by the stove where you are cooking oatmeal. Write about what you are thinking and doing when the question flashes in your mind and you see, taste, touch, hear and smell the world in which your question lives.

You might be groping in the dark for a light switch when you think about your question, and you can write about that — the feel of the carpet beneath your feet, the sound of the switch going on, the way the furniture looks as soon as the bright light comes.

Collect many such moments on the page. And after you have collected them, set about writing a longer piece from the notes you have kept. You might entitle it, “A Question” and repeat the question like a refrain, followed by sketch after sketch of the moments your question attracted to you.

A Strategy for Travel Writing

by Sheila Bender

My daughter Emily Menon Bender took a trip with her husband, children, and parents-in-law to India, where her husband has many relatives. During the three-week trip, I was very happy to be able to follow her travels through photos and writing she shared on Facebook. Her Facebook posts took a form that made me think of William Stafford’s poem, “Things I Learned Last Week,” and the way I use that poem’s writing strategy to help people find the specifics in their experience.

I asked Emily how she came up with her technique.

mumbai1“We started our trip in Mumbai where we had the good fortune to stay with Vijay’s cousin and her husband. They were very keen to teach us about their city and their country. Our first day there, I learned surprising facts and I wanted to post the information on Facebook. I had known that on Twitter, TIL means “Things I Learned” and is used in a self-deprecating way as if to say “Duh! I should have already have known that,” but I had the phrase in my head, and it felt like a good way to share my experiences with my Facebook friends. Here’s that first post I made:

Today I learned: In Maharashtra a permit is required to “drink” alcohol, though this is largely ignored and people just pay fines (bribes?) on the rare occasions that it is enforced. Also, leopards live in the national park visible from Vijay’s cousin’s house. Development has encroached on the park and the leopards don’t have enough prey, so some mornings people in the buildings closest to the park (not this one) find leopards prowling around in their lobby.

I wondered how that original post led to daily posts using this TIL strategy. Emily said she had a particular friend back in the States who wanted to hear her impressions of India while they were fresh. She didn’t have many chances to chat with her friend online while she was traveling, and posting about what she learned each day was a way to give her friend a short version, at least, while it was new and striking.

I see that writing about what she learned, rather than what she did, brings the reader along with her on the trip in a way that feels more grounded and more interesting than just a travelogue about where one goes and in what order. Emily told me that once she decided to make her TIL posts a daily habit, she started looking for things to learn throughout the day. “What in all the experiences I was having did I note learning something that was of personal interest to me?” she asked.

Sometimes, the learning was from people explaining things to her, but not every day involved a tour guide (or relative interested in playing tour guide), and so then the learning was more about direct perception, she says. Here’s an entry from a day spent in transit, first on a long flight from Mumbai to Kochi, and then a very long drive through very windy roads up to the hill station resort of Munnar:

teabushes112/15/12 Today I learned: Rolling hills covered with tea bushes look remarkably like giant turtles. Also: There are also quiet places in India. Finally, one extra one from yesterday: Our networked world makes for an impressive amount of shared reference between my son Toby and his cousins in India. They quizzed each other on Harry Potter and then danced to Gangnam Style together.

Framing things in terms of what she learned was to Emily like taking a close-up photo of the underside of a flower, a departure from the expected depiction.

Here’s are two more of her posts:

12/18/12 Today I learned: It’s prudent to remove all photos from the memory card in the camera before entering the wildlife preserve. Also: Elephants have 10,000 muscles in their trunks. Finally: Modern mahouts are not only trained in the care & handling of elephants, but also in the use of digital cameras.

12/12/12 Today I learned: In Mumbai and Pune and maybe other parts of India, honking means “I am here!” and “Coming through!” and not “Get outta my way!” or “You idiot!”. This is probably why trucks all say above the back bumper “Horn OK Please”. Also, I am able to eat an entire meal of curry & rice with my hands without getting the scarf of my salwar set dirty. Finally: when coming to India for the first time after marrying into an Indian family, even if said wedding was 12 years ago, one extra suitcase for carrying things back is not enough.

Try this whether you are traveling or at home–it is an excellent writing exercise and will allow you to find some interesting writing topics!


Keeping a Journal Can Facilitate Good Writing

As a writer, I often use my journal to play around with strategies I pick up from other writers’ work or with strategies I invent to get myself writing.  Playing around with the strategies, in combination with observing the “show don’t tell rule” (use imagery and detail that appeal to the senses rather than general summarizing words), I find my journal writing becomes valuable writing practice.


One of my favorite exercises is to play with sound in my writing. We are a very visual culture and it is easy to neglect sound imagery in writing since visual imagery comes more naturally to most of us.  To force myself to get sound into my writing, I think of a noisy place–like the street I used to live on in Los Angeles on garbage collection day–and then set about describing it in a journal entry with words that describe the sounds.  Here’s an example:

On garbage collection days, the disposal company my husband calls Loud and Early slams and smashes its way into our sleep.  We hear the sounds of garbage cans colliding with the thick rusty truck, then scraping and clattering across the asphalt and cement of street and curb.  When we hear the garbage truck grind the dregs of our existence to a pulp, we slide our feet to the floor.  A police helicopter hurls its hello from overhead, shaking the walls and shattering any memory of our dreams.

When my writing includes sounds from my environment, I find myself more immersed in the experience I am writing about and continue writing longer than I might have without the sound imagery.

Smell is another underused sense in written work. I am fond of playing with similes to help evoke smells. What I evoke leads to memories I will put on the page with vivid detail. To start evoking smells, I think of something I smell in my daily life and compare it to something else I remember smelling:

The smell of clothes fresh from the dyer is like the smell of bread baking at my friend’s house.

The smell of the charcoal grill after the fire has died down is like my girlfriend’s clothes after the fire in her apartment.

Smell of jasmine flowers as I walk by is the smell of my grandmother’s dress as I clung to the folds.

What I like about writing these similes is that I never know what leap of association I’ll make and what story I might launch myself into.  The memory of my grade school friend’s apartment building burning down is vivid to me as it comes back through my sense of smell, and I can continue a piece of writing about that with memories of standing outside watching red flames coming out of all the windows and standing with my friend and her mother feeling the heat that the flames produced as we watched fire fighters dragging heavy hoses and climbing onto the roof.

Just as forcing ourselves to write from our senses of hearing and smell can produce topics and skillfully drawn description, relying on certain sentence structures can help us be clever and entertaining.  I am fond of copying fiction writer Ron Carlson’s sentence structure when I want to add wit to my writing.  He shared his style of journaling years ago as a contributor to my book The Writer’s Journal: 40 Contemporary Writers and Their Journals, and I’ve been playing with his ideas ever since. He writes clever sentences and keeps them around for “thickening the brew” when he fleshes out stories.  Here’s one of his sentences: “They discovered that the elevator in their dilapidated building acted as a bellows for the air conditioning, so they sent the child out an hour every afternoon to ride up and down.”

When I used Ron Carlson’s sentence as a pattern, I wrote this:

Because I discovered that my cats’ scratching altered the upholstery on my couches, I let them do a patch every day and then I came with darning needles and embroidery paraphernalia and wove a beautiful array of colors into the tatters. Now people all over the world order my cat-scratched upholstery.

I have invented the beginning of a story about the way the business changed the “I’s” life. I know I could also keep on using the sentence to write about more discoveries until I evoked an interesting character who just loves to put the world together in her own way.

The beauty of playing with these exercise ideas is that you can use them over and over when you don’t know quite what to say but know you’d like to be saying it more skillfully and surprisingly!  Using the strategies again and again, you’ll find that you begin to automatically incorporate more playful attitudes into your writing and interest yourself more in putting your words on the page. And you’ll find you have spawned many opportunities for more writing.