Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Guest-Blogger Sheila Bender's Top 5 Books on Writing

As an avid reader and recommender of books on the craft of writing and the creative process (see my current lists here), I am delighted to have poet, writer, editor, publisher and teacher extraordinaire, Sheila Bender, guest-blogging today. Her poems and essays have appeared in anthologies and literary magazines around North America, including Boomer Girls, Poetry Northwest, The Seattle Review, The Bellingham Review, Northern Lights, and Tiny Lights, among many others, and she has written for Writer's Digest Magazine and The Writer Magazine.. She publishes Writing It Real and offers online classes at www.writingtireal.com. Her most recent instructional book is Writing and Publishing Personal Essays.

As a personal essayist and poet who teaches and writes instructional books and articles, I find myself returning to particular books frequently for the way the authors and/or contributors speak about writing and the inner world we must access when we write. I am pleased to have the opportunity to share five of them with you.

#1.) I read How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry by Edward Hirsch just as I was about to teach a university course in poetry for non-English majors. I decided to use the book as one of the texts. My students learned what poetry is by reading a superb poet's appreciation for the way poetry opens us to experience, to spirituality, to the deepest emotions we will ever have. In Hirsch's chapters, I "met" poets I had not yet read and I "re-met" many I'd studied long before. We all got to sit with poems and the way, as Hirsh says lyric poetry "instills us with a feeling of what cannot be possessed, and it lets the soul have its way with us. The poem is a soul in action through words."

#2.) Several months ago, I reviewed In Pieces, an anthology of fragmentary writing, edited by Olivia Dresher, and I have been returning to the pages of this 382-page anthology ever since to inspire my own writing. Forms the collected fragments take: diaries, notebooks, aphorisms, vignettes, selections from letters, an essay written fragmentarily on postcards. Tone the collected fragments take: psychological, philosophical, poetic, spiritual, political, mixtures of the above. What inspires the fragments: abstract thought, nature, travel, tangible aspects of a moment or simply playing with words. What fragments do: break off "a point of their own choosing; "happen by themselves." Each fragment, many sentences inside the many fragments, call forth moods, thoughts, and associations about much I have wanted to say. And I know for any mood or thought or association I have, I'll have a variation or entirely new one the next time I read the fragment. I am affirmed reading In Pieces about the way I often read--holding up a fragment of the story or textbook like a jewel in the light, carrying it to other light, looking again. I cannot take my mind off the fragmentary writing In Pieces offers--- velvet bag of gems spilled onto the jeweler's bench.

#3.) Most recently, I finished reading Incognito Street, How Travel Made Me a Writer by Barbara Sjoholm. The narrative evokes a 1970s-style Bohemian travel life and arouses memories about how knowing I wanted to write colored the way the world looked and felt. Reading Sjoholm's honest account of her meandering way of finding her art is a reminder that we often understand who we want to become even if for awhile we have no idea of how we are going to get to be that person.

#4.) Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s book Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction offers a fabulous discussion of the forms of creative nonfiction available to essayists. Each chapter is introduced with a short personal essay by one of the authors, which grounds the book’s instruction and makes reading the book an experience similar to reading personal essays. Whether the authors are talking about the value of metaphor for helping a writer go deeper or the reason they dubbed a particular kind of essay “the hermit crab” essay the tone is accessible and rich. The book’s anthology of essays is a real treasure and the authors never go on too long--each discussion leaves me ready to write.

#5.) Finally, because I both attend and lead writing workshops, I find Joni B. Cole's Toxic Feedback a joy to refer to. She says, "… the value of feedback isn't limited to advice about structure and wordsmithing. Feedback is just as much about bolstering the writer's faith in himself and excitement about his project along the way. It is about getting some external validation." I know I need that and count on my writer's group to let me know where they are interested in what I've written and where they are sidetracked. Both are validation, because they let me know how I can get on target. In an interview I did with Joni for Writing It Real, she said, "My opinion? The Club of Real Writers is a club where no one who wants to write should ever feel like an outsider. We all need to do our part to create a stronger writing community. Published, unpublished, literary or genre writers, young or old--- what difference does it make? I think anyone who has the gumption to write belongs to the Club of Real Writers. And a rejection letter should earn you a free drink." Yup, sounds good.
---Sheila Bender

To Read Madam Mayo's other guest-blog posts, click here.