An interview with Sheila Bender, founder of Writing It Real.
Please tell us about your reasons for starting up Writing It Real.
In 2000, my 25-year-old son, Seth Bender, died in a snowboarding accident. For six months, I woke up each day to see the sunrise and walked outside to see the sunset. I started planting vines and other plants in pots on my balcony and deck because I wanted to see things grow. I read about loss and shamans’ approaches to mourning. Eventually, I realized that one of the best things I could do to carry my son’s spirit with me, was to put great energy behind a passion, as he had as a young architect.
My memoir, A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief is about writing poetry to find the answer to my questions: Where is my son? What is mortality? How can I go on living when I have suffered the loss of a child I love dearly? The answers came to me via poetry, my own and others, and personal writing in memoir and fiction.
Eventually, while the book was in one of its first of many revision stages, I realized that it would be an honor for me to help as many people as I could write their personal experience to heal and grow. My husband is in computing and it seemed that if he helped me, I could do this by starting an online instructional magazine that would deliver articles via the Internet each week. I called the site Writing It Real because I think we write ourselves real when we shape our experience for the page and toward discovery and insight. I believed, too, that the endeavor would honor my son as I lived his spirit as well as mine.
We were living briefly in Los Angeles in those years and I earned my living as an adjunct instructor and writer. When we moved back to the Northwest to Port Townsend, WA, a small town, I realized I didn’t want to drive an hour each way teach as an adjunct. A friend of mine thought I should offer online classes to my subscribers. The mission of Writing It Real remained to help those who wanted to write from personal experience. What expanded were the venues in which I could help.
Today I have helped hundreds of people write moving personal essays, memoir, flash fiction and nonfiction and poetry via instructional articles, online classes, tutorials, telephone interviews and in-person seminars. I recently taught a term at Seattle University as a Distinguished Guest Lecturer in the undergraduate Creative Writing Department. I feel energized by all my students’ writing and the way they have healed and grown both in life and in their craft as writers. I am grateful to my husband for helping me keep the site going and to others who maintain websites and literary centers to work with writers.
Do you try to write regularly and often?
I have been writing seriously since 1973. I was a latecomer to writing, having believed until I had my first child that I wasn’t a “real writer.” I was not sure how people identified themselves as “real writers.” But once my daughter was born, poems kept coming and I decided to study with poets at the University of Washington, near where I was living. I realized that to raise her well, I would have to be who I was and only I could tell myself who that was. The answer, I realized, was poet (and then prose writer).
I moved on from being a non-matriculating student to entering the graduate school in creative writing. Though I love my time alone to write, I realized that I thrive on the experience of learning from mentors, from peers, and from students, as well as from writers reading from their work and talking about the craft.
I write every day–not necessarily on works for publication, but messages to myself and to my students and writer friends. I think like a writer every day. I teach writing in one way or another every day. And lately, I’ve been writing short lines and passages that I post on my facebook page for Writing It Real <http://facebook.com/writingitreal>, a page dedicated to inspiring writers. I find that those postings become essays and poems. I also publish some of my essays on Writing It Real <http://www.writingitreal.com>. I send my writing out less frequently than I used to, but I love contributing to anthologies about women writing (several co-edited by Carol Smallwood), and I had the honor this year of writing a book foreword to an anthology of women’s writing edited by Linda Joy Myers and Amber Lee Starfire.
What is your back-story as a book lover?
It probably begins with the Scholastic Book Club in grade school. One of the books I ordered through that club, Blue Willow by Doris Gates, had a profound affect on me. The main character, Janey Larkin, longs to be settled in a real home again, but the Great Depression has forced her father to earn money as an itinerant farm worker, so the family travels from site to site during the Dust Bowl. Her attachment to a blue willow plate that reminds her of the home she once had, her knowledge that she is a conscientious kid and the realities she learns from living during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression resonated strongly with me. From then on I knew that books and poetry would be an important aspect of my life.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in birthing and growing Writing It Real? How about the high points?
Luckily, within the online community of writing help providers, people of like minds and hearts find one another and there is synergy. I am fortunate to work with a number of sites that I feel a simpatico with: The International Association for Journal Writing, Writers.com, Story Circle Network, The International Association for Memoir Writing, and Women on Writing, among others.
One year the director of the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Conference in Dayton, OH called and asked if I would be interested in being a presenter–I asked if he knew I didn’t write humor, but often essays on sad or difficult topics. He was well aware of that from my website, which is how he found me–he knew people at the conference had those kinds of stories to tell as well.
I get many emails from writers thanking me for what they have learned or telling me
about publications that have accepted work I have helped them see through finishing.
From your vantage point, how does the publishing world look today?
Everywhere I go to hear talks on publishing today, the news seems to be the same–no one really knows where it is headed. Things are changing so rapidly.
What I see is more self-publishing companies advertising their menu of services. Amazon.com now is not only a bookseller but has a publishing wing itself, one to which agents are representing clients. Agents are self-publishing books to learn how to do it to help clients. Medium magazine online is promising to change the face of publishing. So many writers are blogging for The Huffington Post. Salon.com has a blog anyone can use called Open Salon and writers are sometimes discovered there by agents and editors. The kinds of publishers we recognize as the big guys from the last decades are now called “legacy” publishers. Regional publishers abound. University publishers are putting out exciting memoirs and collections of poetry. Writing groups and individuals and retired writing program directors are becoming publishers. What we used to call vanity presses because you had to pay to have them publish your book are now partners in publishing.
Any one who publishes anything must be aware that their own promotion of their book is critical. They also need to understand the importance of good editors, both developmental editors like myself who help them work on the book’s weaknesses and develop the book fully, and copy editors who make sure the spelling, punctuation, grammar, word choice and more are corrected.
No matter what way you look at it or decide to publish, the process takes attention and time and/or a big team. And in the end, it takes marketing! Writers have to build their audiences and the word about their books.
Mostly, the way I see it, the advent of self-publishing and now e-books means more people are writing and reading and more information is accessible for low cost on many, many subjects. It’s exciting and it’s overwhelming.