Karen E. Bender
An Introduction to the Interview
by Josh Campbell, Assistant Managing Editor
I FIRST ENCOUNTERED PROFESSOR BENDER IN HER ROLE AS A PROFESSOR WHILE RESEARCHING MFA PROGRAMS. Her “Ten Commandments” (see her UNCW webpage* and related question below) seemed to me generous, inspiring, and at once a useful architecture to the nebulous—and often solitary—process of becoming as a writer. In the interview, she said she wrote them for herself first. As steward of stories, Bender plays many roles including writer, teacher, and editor. It seems one person, of course outside her other more terrestrial responsibilities, could perhaps not be more thoroughly involved with the stories.
______In this interview, Ms. Bender shares the extra challenges of being a writer with children and how the small bits of stolen writing time helped her get over the question (a luxury) “is this any good” by simply having to doing it. “Just sit. Do it. They force you to shape your day.” She shares words of wisdom from her artist mother to her and her sister, writer Aimee Bender, regarding shifting on0e’s thinking to “process over product.” Bender shares the difference for her between the writing short stories and the process used to write novels. Karen argues for public schools to have a writer in residence part-time to mutually support working artists and to suppliment the much attrophied emphasis and concern for the arts in education. We ask what one should you do to be part of a writer’s community if you aren’t in a M. F. A. program? She covers it.
______Bender incites writers to “Fall into your sentences, enjoy writing them, love the world you are creating.” And as a philosophy to manage and better enjoy the to farm-to-table undertaking of creation to publication with one’s writing, she says to “try to focus a little less on the success that you want for your story; try to think more about, how you want to be part of the conversation.” Indeed this accomplished Our Stories Master nails it: “So part of becoming a writer is trying to understand that you are important and you are a writer before you have anything published, and more importantly, that you do have something to say.”
Please join the accomplished teacher and writer of the short story, Karen E. Bender, and Our Stories for an insightful Q & A.
______Read. Write. Just sit. Do it. Let’s begin the conversation.
Interview Questions prepared by Joshua Campbell and Our Stories Staff Editors (1)
-- Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us Professor Bender. We’re excited to have you. I can imagine how busy you must be moving between your roles of writer, professor, editor, mother, and wife—not necessarily in that order. This is an impressive and rewarding list of responsibilities, to say the least.
______We’re interested in hearing how women writers who are publishing and raising a family and holding an academic job are actually DOING IT. Like, do you ever sleep? Were you always very disciplined about making time to write, or was the transition more difficult? What advice can you offer to young women who are misguided (optimistic and talented) enough to want it all?
– You forgot to mention addressing the needs of our cat, who seems to need the most attention of anyone.
______I remember reading Fear of Flying by Erica Jong when I was a teenager, reading her fears of having to “choose” between being a writer and mother. For her generation, and for women at that time, this was definitely an issue, and the idea of having to make such a “choice” terrified me, and made me decide: I had to become a writer first, to prove that I could, and then hopefully become a mother at some vague point in the future.
______So here I am, thirty years later, and basically, it is insane. The hardest part is when kids are really small, meaning before they can head to preschool. Then I had to write when they were napping or when we had some babysitting. One bit of advice: save money, borrow, whatever to afford some babysitting or help. That will enable your writing life. I learned how to throw myself at the computer when their eyes flickered shut. The good thing (and many writer/mothers say this) is that it made me more efficient. No more sitting there obsessing whether my work was good or not! No more wondering why the hell I was trying to do this, etc. etc. Just sit. Do it. They force you to shape your day.
______One thing I would advise: write your first book (or more) before you have kids. I personally needed to feel I was a writer first—I wanted to feel I owned that identity. Also, it was good to feel I had some handle over my craft. The first year or two with kids is a daze of sleep deprivation, and the pure joy and confusion of dealing with, really, a clever and very adorable small animal masquerading as a baby. I just grabbed whatever time I could. We had a few hours of babysitting most days—I tried to write then. Or at night. Our kids were trained to be early sleepers (usually asleep by 7 or 8) so Robert and I could write. It was a little mercenary, but we had to do it.
______The first years were so chaotic I didn’t feel I could attempt a longer work—instead, I worked on short stories, which fit into my attention span. I didn’t start a new novel until our kids were scheduled to be out of the house for definite periods. When our son was in elementary school and our daughter started morning preschool each day, my schedule became more regular and I wrote for three hours each morning. The day they were both off to full day school—8 to 2:30!—it was like a new era in my life started.
______So my schedule has varied depending on how old the kids were…when they were little, writing time was more haphazard. Now I write in the mornings, teach two afternoons or evenings a week, and do most of my class prep when they’re asleep.
Raising two kids with teaching jobs and fiction writing is a crazy delicate machine that can go out of balance at any time. Two people often don’t feel like enough. But if one small element breaks down—the furnace goes out, or one of the kids throws up and can’t go to school, everything grinds to a screeching halt.
______My other advice: Marry a good partner. (Listening to this, Robert adds, wryly, add: Marry a rich partner.) Try to live in a place that is not stressful. We moved to Wilmington, NC, partly because of that—New York was too expensive and we knew we’d have to work far too many hours to live and our writing life would vanish. Realize that you may not be able to write every day, but that you will write if you really want to, that you will constantly feel like you have ADD. You just go day by day, waking up, making lunches, tending to these strange, beautiful, supernatural little beings. And then, slowly, they grow up.
-- The art of writing is a discipline that—aside from getting published and maybe being qualified by being admitted to an MFA program—has few incremental benchmarks to look to as a life’s work, like, say, becoming a carpenter or doctor. Can you tell us about your very early aspiration to be a writer and the ways you sustained it, against both internal and external cocktail-party skepticism?
______How is it that you gage your self as a writer these days, now that you have (many positive) external reference points?
– My own road to becoming a writer has been characterized by moments of unexpected success and then long periods of anxiety and nothing. Part of becoming a writer is learning to enjoy the periods of “nothing.” Because that’s when you’re really being an artist, doing the work. That’s the part, ultimately, that you can control. My mother, a dancer/choreographer and now painter, would tell me and my sister Aimee—“Process, not product.” A part of me would think, yeah, right. This is hard to swallow when all you want is product, product! I was, like most undergrads, obsessed with the idea of getting published, getting that affirmation, mostly so I could tell people at parties—“I have something coming out in something review.” What you want to say then is: “Yes, for God’s sake, I’m important! I’m really good!” It’s what many of us, I suspect, want to yell from our corners of the room.
______So part of becoming a writer is trying to understand that you are important and you are a writer before you have anything published, and more importantly, that you do have something to say.
______We have a culture that focuses on the visible—on the medical or law school degree or, in terms of becoming a writer, this focuses on publication. I wonder what would happen if we didn’t ask, “Where are you published?” or “When will your novel be finished?” but “What are you learning about your character?” or “What do you want to explore in your book?” We often don’t ask these questions, because we are often so oriented toward the visible—toward the rewards.
______I think the more you can focus on the actual work, the part you can control in the insanely uncontrollable world of magazines and publishing, etc. the happier you will be. I’m not saying the other isn’t important, too—obviously, it helps to get your work out there and to have it affirmed in some way. Affirmation can breed confidence and that makes the writing more fun, and that can lead to more affirmation, etc. But the world of publishing can be irrational, and based a great deal on luck and timing. Write something beautiful and honest and that makes you very proud. Fall into your sentences, enjoy writing them, love the world you are creating. And then when you’re finished with a piece, get out there and send it everywhere. It’s extremely delicate, balancing your joy of writing with your need to get it out there and have the world acknowledge it. One other way I try to deal with it it by thinking—how do I want to be part of the conversation? Try to focus a little less on the success that you want for your story; try to think more about, how you want to be part of the conversation.
-- Your story about September 11th, “Refund,”— the title story in your just-finished and forthcoming collection of stories—published originally in Ploughshares and then awarded a Pushcart, is one of those memorable stories that never leaves you.
______The third-person omniscient editorial, dipping down into subjective, is the perfect distance; like what Gardner uses in “Redemption,” the longer view at once providing the appropriate distance in relation to a topical or sensitive issue while also offering a wider view to see the landscape of disaster.
______This is very specific, but could you maybe comment on what you wanted to achieve in "Refund" in terms of point of view, and/or what insight could you share about how a writer selects (or arrives at) what might be the most appropriate distance for a story?
– Thanks so much! That is a very thoughtful and kind reading of the story.
______ “Refund” was an attempt to process September 11th, because we lived in Tribeca from the mid-1990s until 2002, and we were literally surrounded by the wreckage of September 11. Some of the descriptions in that story are related to notes I took early on, trying to process the event. I think what I wanted to achieve in the story was to somehow capture the strange dislocation that many people felt right after the event. And I wanted to write about Sept. 11th in a way that wasn’t “noble”—there was a lot written about the way people were heroic, which was true and moving, but there was also the fact that people were living by the site and trying to figure out how to live in the face of his surreal and horrible destruction. It was incredibly powerful how generous people were after, how people you barely knew smiled at you in the supermarket because they were glad you were alive. But somehow I felt the city was truly starting to heal the moment I heard someone yell, “You idiot!” out of a car. Weirdly, that was somehow comforting to me.
______I do like combining omniscient third and a close third. I’ve used it frequently for my recent stories and my latest novel. It does allow you the flexibility of commenting on the outside world, as an omniscient voice, and then anchoring your perceptions in one particular experience.
-- You generously post your pragmatic “Ten Commandments for Becoming a Writer” on your University of North Carolina Wilmington’s (UNCW) M.F.A. page. (Readers: GO READ THESE. They are pure gold! (2)) Each tenet seems to channel or help structure much of the ambiguity encountered in both the work of writing and the process of becoming a serious writer.
______If you had to distill the list that far—and speaking a little about it and why it’s so important to (especially young) writers?
– Thanks, I wrote those for myself, in a way—to try to figure out how to, psychologically, become a writer. I think there’s lot of bragging and posturing among writers who want to seem like the big dog in the bunch. There were a lot of myths I had to unravel in becoming a writer. For example—the myth of the writer who is hit by lightning and then writes a perfect story without any revision. The “genius.” How are you supposed to respond to someone who makes that claim? By feeling bad, basically. Or the writer who brags, “I wrote a story/novel in (fill in the blanks) a day, a week, a month, ten seconds.” Why does it matter how fast someone writes something? Writing is hard work. It can be fun, and exciting, but it is truly hard labor putting together a complete story or novel. Most good work takes a lot of revision. Why should this be something bad or shameful to admit?
Basically, becoming a writer is about becoming disciplined, making it part of your life in some regular way, protecting it from people who want to stop you or not take you seriously, and finding a community of writers who share your taste and can help you.
______I’m hoping to expand these into a book, but with hopefully a less grandiose title.
-- One of the ways Our Stories distinguishes itself form other journals is by offering thoughtful feedback for each submission. What role does feedback play—peer-to-peer and professor-to-student—in your UNCW workshops? Are there ways to implement parts of that experience if one does not have access to an M. F. A. program?
– I think it’s great that Our Stories offers feedback for every submission. So many emerging writers want feedback, and I think it is crucial, especially at the beginning. In my workshops, students try to learn to work as “carpenters,” helping other students build a better story. I want them to learn to ask questions of the writer, find out why elements of a story work or don’t work, and sometimes we brainstorm ideas for the writer to use. Workshops can be a storm of information for a writer, and the best way to serve the writer is identify what is working or not and give the writer some ideas/strategies to think about.
______Mostly, workshops should be the place where writers find a couple friends to make up their own personal writing communities that can nourish them while they work on stories. If you can’t be part of an MFA, my advice would be go to a writer’s class at a university extension program or a week-long writer’s conference and find people who will become your own community. You don’t need an army—just a couple. They will help you through.
-- You’ve had great success and your writing in beautiful. Do you have any memories of rejection (early or recent) that you would like to share with our readers? On the flip side, among the writer’s recognition you’ve received—your first story placed in The New Yorker, the Pushcarts, or Best American, among others—is there one you hold most dear?
– Rejections are constant and all pretty similar, frankly: NO. There was also a well-known and rather mean but charismatic writing guru (who will remain unnamed) whose classes I attended after college. He basically dismissed my writing as “moronic,” and seemed only to be interested in students whose writing made them all sound like him. He had quite a hold on students, who paid a lot of money to study with him. When I finished his class, he said that I was “almost there” and could take his class next semester, and I said no and didn’t write at all for four months. I didn’t want to write the way he was telling me to write; it didn’t feel like me. I thought—how do I write for myself? Slowly, I started again, and started to find out how I wanted to write.
______In terms of successes, every acceptance is a miracle, really, but one great one was when I sold my story “Eternal Love” to Granta in 1995. It was a difficult time in my writing life. I had spent four years writing a first draft of Like Normal People, had shown it to friends who said it was a “good start,” and I had no idea how to revise a 600-page manuscript with no discernible plot. I thought I would try to find a story in the novel, somewhere, and put a couple chapters together. I read them—somehow, they were a story, and I even thought, a decent one, and I added an end and sent it out. I was working a dreary freelance job editing educational textbooks, was worried about money, and if I would ever be able to finish my novel, and walked around with a constant pain in my stomach. The story got some rejections, and I sent it to Granta, which I read with awe. I worked, I worried, I waited.
______Then one day, I got a letter from Granta. An editor there enjoyed the story and wanted to take it. I felt a little faint with disbelief; could it be true? Somehow, it was. The machine had worked. I tell students to have faith in the power of a good story.
-- Similarly, since you’ve published stories, a novel, and edited an anthology, perhaps you could speak about the different gears you have to be in for each. How does your short-story writing process differ from your novel writing process?
– I think I’m more naturally a short story writer—I started out writing short stories, read many of them, and short story writers—John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Tobias Wolff, Stuart Dybek, ZZ Packer, Deborah Eisenberg, Eudora Welty, Lorrie Moore, Tillie Olsen, Alice Munro, and others have taught me to write. Both Like Normal People and Allegations, which I just finished, did not start out as novels. At the beginning I said warily that I was writing novellas, or stories that just grew and grew, and then after awhile, they hit the 200 page mark and I said they were novels.
______I think the story and novel forms differ mostly in terms of pacing. The pacing in a short story is like a dream—it needs to be focused, ultimately, on one clear moment and how it changes something in the character’s life or world. A novel opens out much more, exploring the community, the world the character lives in. I tend to be kind of a jump-in and swim around type of writer, without too much planning before, which is workable for a short story, but more arduous for a novel. But that’s just how I work, so there it is.
-- Who you read while you’re writing? Do you read other writers for inspiration or voice while you approach your own novel? Or do you feel reading the words of others intrusive to your own voice?
Who I read varies, but who has helped me along the way: Philip Roth, first. John Cheever. Alice Munro. Lorrie Moore. John Updike. Carson McCullers. Stanley Elkin. Cynthia Ozick. Salinger. Truman Capote. Budd Schulberg. Denis Johnson. Mona Simpson. Jayne Anne Phillips. Gish Jen. Miranda July. I do read other writers while I write. I find it much more calming to turn to a writer I love when I’m stuck, than to, for example, pick up People magazine, which will make me anxious. Recently, when I’d get stuck, I would pick up the collected stories of John Cheever and just fall into his sentences. There’s something about his fluency that gets my mind going. When I was writing Like Normal People, Carson McCullers had the same role.
-- When you’re working on a piece, how do you know you're done? (There are instances in which a writer thinks they are done and their 1st reader/class/professor tells them that they are done and to let the story go into the world, yet a month later the writer looks at it and still finds things that could be fixed or that they hate about it.)
______When does a writer know when to release it into the world and be on to something else?
When you’re tired and totally sick of it and all your friends have read it so many times they don’t want to read it again. Honestly, I don’t think there’s really an answer. . . I read my published stories and I still want to revise them.
-- Let’s talk a little about your co-editor role of the anthology of stories, Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood and Abortion, specifically as it relates to the purpose or power of story and narrative beyond entertainment.
______First, how did this project fit in with your custodianship of “the story?”
Please talk more about how the vehicle of (true) stories may allow an access or connection to an authentic debate and experience of the deeply personal nature of this morally inflammatory, controversial issue of reproductive rights. This issue is so often dealt with in sound bites and political polarities, as you write “the raw edges of human experience that Roe v. Wade alludes to; these are the complex places that a bumper sticker can't address.”(4)
______Is art the way to truth in this tricky terrain?
– I worked on Choice with my friend Nina de Gramont; I didn’t think I’d ever really edit an anthology, but the idea of compiling the essays felt so right, and relevant, we had to do it. We decided to put it together right after South Dakota outlawed all abortions, and this seemed so wrong, and our anger at the Bush administration and its attitudes toward women’s rights (or everything, really) was so immense the idea of putting together the anthology seemed a good way to express our frustration.
Working as an editor was very different from being a writer. It required, for example, many social skills, and made me admire agents and editors more—the ways in which they had to negotiate prima donnas, irate writers, etc. At its best, working on Choice was a joy—it was a chance to step out of my own head and help other writers find the best way to express their stories, and try to advocate and push their stories out to an audience. We thought that one way to change minds was through art, the pure power of personal and invidual expression, and I still believe that. It’s really true that people come up with glib ideas about issues like abortion without really thinking of the personal experiences that women go through; we live in a nation that prizes sensation over subtlety, and it would be amazing if we could find a way to discuss things in a more nuanced way—the way we discuss art. I wish it were in the hands of every lawmaker and judge in the country.
-- Describe your writing process and how it has changed in the past ten years—or since getting out of your M.F.A. program. Besides being gaining experience among members of the present and future canon of American letters, what were the chief benefits, and challenges, of life at Iowa? In what ways has both studying, and now teaching, in the MFA affected you as a working writer? Is there one writer who had a great effect on your trajectory as a writer?
The best part of Iowa is that I met Robert there. He would be the one writer who had a great effect on all future trajectories, really. The reason to go to a good writing program is that it gives you a chance to be among your tribe. That means—not just writers, but serious, really good literary writers, who follow art like a religion, the way you do.
-- What’s it like always being immersed in the writing life on so many fronts (including even having a sister and husband who are also successful writers and professors—Aimee Bender and Robert Anthony Siegel? With stories whirling all around you, how do you remain— or again become—motivated when all you want to do is escape them, veg out and watch The Simpsons and read Vanity Fair?
______What is it that you do to step outside this storied world for a break?
– We watch “Entourage.” Or “Real Housewives of New Jersey.” And then mutter about somehow getting to Hollywood and writing stuff that will make us rich and then drinking wine and going to sleep.
-- What are your experiences balancing teaching and writing? Do you think teaching and/or working in academia is the ideal job for writers? If not, what is the best day job for a writer?
– I worked nine to five for a couple of years after college, and my writing time was limited to a couple hours, between 8 and 10 night. It was so exhausting, and so many hours were taken up with, it seemed, nothing, my constant feeling was of being robbed. After graduate school, I started teaching composition and remedial writing part-time, which was less stable, but gave me a little more time to write. Now I teach part-time (rest of the day is taking care of kids and writing) I have found part-time teaching a great way of earning some money as a writer. The hours are flexible, so you can fit your writing in more easily than a nine to five job. The bad part is that it does not pay very well. It's dispiriting when you hand a gorgeous and profound story to your students and they hate it.
______The joy of teaching depends a lot on the students. When I have students who are interested in learning, who want to find out more about writing and want to grow, teaching is simply a joy. It’s nourishing; it’s a chance to talk about books or stories that you love and to read good work by students; it makes me want to go home and write. It’s a chance to think about what I know, after all this writing, to think about. It’s a chance to give back.
______I think some billionaire should create a foundation in which they give big grants to writers so that they can teach in the public schools half the day, (with decent health insurance), and then write their novels. Then the public school kids get creative outlets, which are sorely needed, and writers get a chance to write their books. Billionaires out there, listen!
-- Like the perfunctory disclaimer on the introductory pages of a novel, how do you convince the family that all those people in your stories are not them—but rather are fictions—even if they are a little bit them? Writers who are just beginning often have trouble with that closeness, the problem and paradox of the subject that is pressing and authentic is also biographical. Do you have any advice about how to approach this issue?
– I tell my students that the person you’re exposing in his/her fiction is not anyone in your real life, even if a character is based on someone in your life—the person being exposed is yourself. I decided this because I realized that even if I think I’m capturing a person in the real world with utter and complete accuracy, the work is all about my perceptions of this person. Every character is, in some way, about me. What I see in the character is all about what I find important, or beautiful, or sad.
______And even if you think you are writing fully about this person, no fiction (or nonfiction, for that matter) can truly contain the many aspects of a human being.
So before a writer feels bad about betraying people (and often my characters are based, in some way, on people I’ve encountered), remember that it’s you who’s really out there. I find that both frightening and comforting.
-- Thank you for this good interview, Karen. Anything else you’d like to tell this next generation of writers?
– My mother gave me and my sisters this quote, from Martha Graham to Agnes de Mille. It’s about choreography, but I think it applies equally well to writing:
There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time. This expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.
______It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.
I love that quote. That’s what we have to do, keep the channel open. And I’d add to that:
Think about how you want to join the conversation. You’re a writer and you have something valuable to say.
1 Faithful Our Stories staff members Katherine Gehan, Kseniya Melnik, Jennifer Ruden, Cheri Johnson, Want Chyi, M.K. Hall, , M.M. De Voe, Justin Nicholes contributed to this interview.
3 http://www.uncwil.edu/WRITERS/faculty_bender.html for the “10 Commandments” and publication list
4 Karen E. Bender writes in a Huffington Post Blog entry ‘The Stories Behind Choice.”