Perhaps the fact that I ordered a copy of the Second Edition of Sheila Bender's Writing and Publishing Personal Essays after reading a library copy of the first edition conveys the extent of my high regard for the contents. Not only did I look forward to seeing how the book had evolved, but it's one of the few references I want to have on hand for easy access all the time.
On the first page Bender writes, "[Students writing essays] used sound and rhythm, cadence, repetition, images, and pattern to retrieve experience and make discoveries. When they succeeded, these essays picked the reader up, took the reader on a journey, and placed the reader back on the ground again, stunned but clear-headed, as poems do." Reading these words, I was hooked, certain that she would take me beyond the prosaic pieces of sophomore lit.
As I continued to read, I discovered that writing essays is both more and less complex than I'd imagined. I was a bit daunted to find eight different essay forms listed in the table of contents. I was relieved to read her explanation that these chapters covered each of the eight styles of rhetoric, each tailored to a specific purpose. She walks us through each style in the friendliest possible way, opening each chapter with a core question to illustrate the type of material it addresses. Each chapter offers "gathering exercises" to help us focus on our material in depth, and amplifies the instruction with sample essays of each type, written by a variety of people. The emphasis throughout is on the dual value of the personal essay as both a tool of exploration and a means of expressing and communicating our concepts and discoveries in an intimate, personal and compelling way.
After my initial sense that the topic was far more complex than I imagined, I discovered that it boils down to systematically and deeply exploring and organizing thoughts to make sense of them. If that's complicated, it's because the concepts are complicated, not the process. At bottom, personal essays are stories, and the tenets Bender expounds apply to writing any sort of story, especially lifestory and memoir. She provides blueprints and assembly instructions for story structure. It's up to each writer to follow her lyrical example and embellish that structure with words that sing and delight.
The final section of the book is comprised of three meaty appendices. The one I'm most fond of provides a three-step method for providing feedback to other writers. This method provides a structure for identifying what you appreciate ("Velcro words"), how you felt as you read, and what things piqued your curiosity and made you want to know more. This process respects writers by empowering them to understand readers' perspectives and make the necessary changes while leaving them free to decide how best to do it. I have used this method several times with students and fellow writers with highly satisfying results highly for all concerned.
As both a teacher and writer of lifestory and memoir, I heartily recommend this book as a basic reference for anyone writing any form of creative nonfiction. It's a classic.
Sheila Bender publishes Writing It Real, an online instructional magazine for those who write from personal experience. Her books include Creative Writing DeMystified, Writing and Publishing Personal Essays, Writing Personal Poetry, A Year in the Life: Journaling for Self-Discovery and Keeping a Journal You Love. She wrote content for LifeJournal for Writers software and published a prose memoir, A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief. She teaches in-person around the country and is a frequent guest blogger and interviewee for writing sites. Visit her website. For more background on Sheila's teaching and writing activities, read her interview with Carol Smallwood, Sheila Bender: A Writer's Life.
Check out our interview with the author of Writing and Publishing Personal Essays.
Authors/Publicists: For promotion purposes, you may quote excerpts of up to 200 words from our reviews, with a link to the page on which the review is posted. ©Copyright to the review is held by the writer (review posting date appears on the review page). If you wish to reprint the full review, you may do so ONLY with her written permission, and with a link to http://www.storycirclebookreviews.org. Contact our Book Review Editor (bookreviews at storycirclebookreviews.org) with your request and she will forward it to the appropriate person.