Personal vs. Private: Guest blog post from Sheila Bender

Guest blogger Sheila Bender

A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief is Sheila Bender’s moving account of how reading and writing poetry helped her in the months following her son Seth’s sudden death.

As I read it, I found many parallels with my own family’s experience following the death of my brother Michael, and with my own struggles to write out of that experience in a way that might speak to others.

I asked Sheila to tell us how she sees the difference between writing that is personal vs. writing that is private.  Where and how do we draw the line?

Here’s what Sheila had to say:

I believe the more deeply we write from the experiences of our lives, the more universal and significant our writing is to others. This significance, however, comes only if, as writers, we find fresh insight through our words’ journeys, insight we realize only after following our words to wisdom we would not have if we hadn’t shaped our experience in reflection.

But how do we do that using personal writing without making readers uncomfortable in their voyeuristic role?  By making sure we are pursuing a question that will become the reader’s question, too, so the reader is not an observer and judge of the writer’s life, but actually on a quest along with the writer.

As my colleague Jack Heffron recounted, “You have probably never heard a person say, ‘You’ve got to read this book; it changed the author’s life.’ Instead you’ve heard, ‘you’ve got to read this book; it changed my life.’” Personal writing accomplishes this dual change through two mechanisms: pursuing a question and finding a shape.

When I began thinking about shaping a book from the essays I was writing after the death of my son  (because my writing group suggested it), I struggled with the thought that offering my pain and suffering to others would be selfish and unwelcome. How could sharing my sorrow with people I didn’t know be the right thing to do? But writing was my only way through grief, and, eventually, I realized I was writing my way toward an answer to my most pressing question: Where was my son; how could I find a place I called “always” where he would never be forgotten?

I was also writing my way through time to what would have been his wedding date, not knowing how our family and his fiancee’s would handle that day now so bereft of joy. I was doing this by reading poems I had taught to college students and using them as writing models for my own poems.  I wrote about the poems, as well as about my memories and sensory and dream information in the days, weeks and months after Seth’s death. I shared my reading of the other poets’ poems and the way my days’ images allowed me to write.

Writing my way toward an answer I could live with shaped the book and pulled the images and details I was using into a frame that was larger than what we might call “private” writing. The search for my answers shaped the book both in its time frame (most of the book takes place within the five months between my son’s death and what would have been his wedding date) and its examination of mortality and immortality. The tool I used, writing poetry, demonstrates for others how effective reading the great poets and modeling one’s writing after theirs is for participating in the kind of conversation with oneself those in mourning require.

Based on my experience writing A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief, I think the fruitful question for writers is not whether their personal experience has value for others, but what that value is and what writing strategy is best for finding it and communicating it to others.

Two years after Seth died, I launched an online instructional magazine,, in his memory. I applied something he’d said about life to writing and now share this belief with many others: “Taking the time to write from personal experience provides the right food and the right stuff for finding what lights our souls and what we have to offer others.”

Sheila Bender is the founder/publisher of, an online instructional magazine for those who write from personal experience, whether poetry or prose. Her newest books are Creative Writing DeMystified from McGraw-Hill, Writing and Publishing Personal Essays, 2nd Edition from Silver Threads, and a prose memoir, A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief, Imago Press. She teaches online through her s website as well as for a variety of organizations online and around the country.

Find more of Sheila’s insights about writing at Writing It Real.

Order A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief.

7 thoughts on “Personal vs. Private: Guest blog post from Sheila Bender

  1. Beautifully written. I really like what Sheila has to say about writing and how it belongs in our lives, and on so many levels. Well done. And, thank you, Elizabeth, for having her on.

  2. I love the way Sheila talks about writing! All writing. It comes from her poet soul, but it applies to all the writing I’ve done — essays and novels mainly. She asks the right questions.

    For me, first drafts are where the private part happens, messy and usually missing the point, although the point is there. The point = the fresh insight Sheila talks so eloquently about. Then, in later versions, since I have weak boundaries, I check with everyone who is mentioned and if they say no, that’s okay. By then, for me, the point is bigger than that specific. If that makes sense.

    I practice this on my blog every week, as it’s all personal but I drag in family members all the time, not by name (the Bearded One, the oldest Twenty Something daughter…), and not without their okay before I publish.

    Thanks, Sheila, and great blog, Elizabeth!

    1. Elizabeth Austen

      I appreciate the point you make about first drafts–it’s often impossible to know, before I get it down on paper, which details will lead me to the insight I’m seeking. So I get as many down as possible in that first draft, then comb back through looking to see what that raw material is yielding.

      I find in my own teaching that encouraging people to be as bold and fearless as possible in those early drafts is crucial, and to trust that the revision process will lead toward the insight.

  3. Mary Montanye

    I am in the midst of writing a memoir and Sheila’s answers to your questions answered some of the questions I’m having about my own work. Beautifully done. Thank you … and I’m glad I found your blog, Elizabeth!

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