Sheila Bender: A Writer’s Life

by Carol Smallwood

Sheila-BenderSheila Bender is the author of “Creative Writing DeMystified,” “A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief,” a memoir, and “Behind Us the Way Grows Wider,” a poetry collection. She teaches online at, and WOW! Women On Writing.

Tell us about your website and your duties as editor/writer.
By 2002, I had written many books on writing and taught creative writing at writer’s workshops, colleges and universities for years. Because I am married to a computer-networking guru, I wondered if I could deliver my instruction over the Internet, rather than waiting for completed books to be published.

He said, “Of course,” and Writing It Real was born as an online organization for people who write from personal experience in any genre.

Today, I continue to post weekly instructional articles on my website for members of Writing It Real, and I offer online classes, manuscript evaluations, tutorials, phone conferences and contests. For the contests, I offer response to drafts and then members send in revisions from which a final guest judge selects winners.

My duties are as teacher and author and increasingly I deal with behind-the-scenes aspects of the website. I do direct others in helping me, however; my husband, who handles data processing problems and responds to my weekly drafts of articles so I can be sure they are fully manifest; a WordPress expert, who keeps the page looking good; an assistant book keeper and an assistant who keeps my mailing list cleaned up, manuscripts wanted posted, and is helping me make training videos now.

I also accept contributions to the instructional articles by other writers and solicit them, too.

Take us along your career path.
My career began when I started teaching 7th and 8th grade English and reading in Matawan, N.J. I had graduated college at a time when being “person centered” in teaching was newly talked about—how could kids learn if you adopted the open the top of their heads and dump in knowledge approach we had experienced? What seemed more successful was the pearl idea: offer what it would take for the students themselves to create the pearl of their understanding. I enjoyed this approach and watching my students, especially the ones who had been labeled slow and nonacademic, blossom.

Next, I had moved from New Jersey to Seattle, Wash., at a time when the city was depressed because it was a one-company town, and that company, Boeing, wasn’t doing well. There were no teaching jobs available as teachers were being let go because so many families had moved away. I was happy to be employed as a day care center director—it was also a time of student power and students were demanding childcare. I loved my job—part-time in the four-year-old’s room and part-time as “Principal” with a staff of parent volunteers, cooks and classroom teachers for kids one year to five years old.

Being person centered there was so important. And I learned that kids are most like adults not in their thinking but in their feelings. If you could relate to their feelings you could teach them much.

After my own two children were born, I couldn’t repress my desire to write poetry and I soon enrolled in the University of Washington’s Experimental College for a class in writing poetry. From there, I enrolled as a non-matriculating student and from there as a graduate student. I learned an enormous amount and exceeded my goal of publishing one poem. I used my teaching skills to translate what I was hearing from professors and classmates into something that related to my feelings and my poems grew. For instance, if they said, “This ending doesn’t seem to be earned,” I would translate that as, “When I get to the end, I don’t feel as if I understand what has happened emotionally to the poet.” If they said, “This poem is incoherent,” I would say to myself, “They feel as if something important is missing from the page.” Doing that I was being person centered and I could listen to what they were saying and figure out more to do to achieve a finished poem.

After graduate school, I was qualified to teach at community colleges and did for many years, handling Freshman Comp, Research Writing and Creative Writing classes. It wasn’t too long that I was publishing more poems, having a book or two of poems out and writing instructional books for Writer’s Digest Books and other presses. I had combined teaching with writing! I don’t think anything we do is ever wasted and I have enjoyed being both writer and teacher, never resenting the teaching for “taking me away” as others would say of their jobs, from my own writing. I am gratified helping others bring their work to full manifestation.

Because one of my teacher’s, David Wagoner, said if you are a poet you must always write in a second genre, too, since poems sometimes don’t come, I began writing plays (I had some produced at a children’s theater one season) and writing personal essays, which gave me a lot of satisfaction.

Sheila Bender bookToday, I have over a dozen books out, including the memoir, “A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief” and “Behind Me the Way Grows Wider,” a poetry collection. I have an instructional book, “Creative Writing DeMystified” out from McGraw-Hill, and several books that have gone out of print that I am republishing under the Writing It Real banner. When I have those five out the door, I will knit together many of my articles into six more instructional books.

And, of course, I continue to help many writers from those who are just beginning to many who have published. No matter how far along we are in our careers, we need trusted listeners who can help us on our way. Of course, I belong to a writing group, too! A fairly new aspect of my work is interviewing people for an FM radio show in my hometown, KPTZ. My program is called “In Conversation: Discussions on Writing and the Writing Life.” You can listen to the interviews I’ve done by clicking on this link:

I continue to teach at many writer’s conferences and workshops in my own town and in other parts of WA and the Western US, and in 2013, I was Distinguished Guest Lecturer in Writing Lyric Poetry at Seattle University. It was a real joy to work with younger people for whom poetry is an outlet for sanity in a pressured world and outside of the university with older people who know that writing will help them leave a legacy and learn their deepest selves.

Which recognitions/achievements have encouraged you the most?
Honestly, I think being told how much my teaching has helped someone grow as a writer and achieve their writing and publishing goals is the recognition that I most treasure. That Writing It Real is well known and thriving is a testament to the ways in which I can help writers and it makes me feel whole—writing and teaching intertwined in my life. Of course, giving birth to and raising two astonishing kids is my biggest achievement.

Lately, I have been enjoying acceptances in local area projects from having an essay read on stage by an actor during a performance to having a poem in a Poetry Corners Project on Bainbridge Island to having visual artists select my poems to create visual art from. Having my instructional work included in anthologies has also been satisfying.

What writers have influenced you the most?
My early teachers: Nelson Bentley, David Wagoner, Maxine Kumin, Stanley Plumly, William Matthews, Steven Dunn, Ron Carlson, Colleen McElroy and Gary Soto, among them. My colleagues James Bertolino, Paula Jones-Gardner, Judith Kitchen, Ellie Matthews, Cheryl Merrill, Molly Hollenbach, Susan Bono and Molly Tinsley, all of whom share opportunities and encouraging response to my writing and teaching.

How has the Internet benefited you?
It has given me this going on 13 years of work and connected me to many writers and online writing organizations. It has also made it very easy to research for books and articles and add to my reading lists.

What classes have helped you the most?
All of the classes I took in writing. A Day-Timer class in time management. Tutoring from a friend who specializes in helping beginners learn more about the operation of their computer and computer programs and a friend’s help with social media. At this point I am less likely to take classes and more likely to learn from the experts around me who are in my network.

What advice would you give others?
Hold to your vision, whether it is publishing one piece of writing or starting a website. Realize that what you love to do can become your career–develop your talent even if it doesn’t quite have a niche or a name yet. Put yourself out there, learn from many sources and enjoy those with whom you feel an easy collaboration. You are not necessarily shooting for the stars. You are putting one foot in front of the other in a direction that makes sense to you. As the poet Theodore Roethke writes in his poem, “The Waking”:

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.

I learn by going where I have to go.

What is your favorite quotation?
That one and the rest of his poem, which you can read here.