By Natalia Yurevich
What started as a small collection of poems turned into an exhilarating creative writing career for Karen Benke, poet, author of five books, free-write facilitator, and poet-teacher from California, USA. In the conversation with Madame Success, Karen talks about the crafts of writing, book publishing, and the healing magic of poetry.
Karen, you’ve recently participated in the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests taking place in Oakland. Why did you join?
I feel this is non-negotiable. We are going to lose our democracy if we don’t protest…and vote like our lives depend on it.
We want the world to know that not everyone in the United States is aligned with the Trump. He is dangerous.
When I read about one of the first protests organized in Oakland, I decided not to go. I didn’t know if there was going to be violence…and I was afraid. But all I could think about was that I had to go and march, no matter what.
I realized that my fear was stopping me, and I wanted to meet my fear so I could move beyond it.
So I went. The protest was so well-organized, so peaceful! Eleanor Roosevelt famously said:
I keep this quote close.
I think it’s crucial to do one thing every day that scares us. It helps us to move out of the little bubbles of comfort that we live in and can too easily get trapped by.
Thank you for doing this. I am a fan of your Rip The Page! book. I’ll be using some questions from your book for this interview. As you say, there’re no right or wrong answers. Please let your imagination go!
Okay. And thank you.
What if magically you could breathe in what you want, what would you breathe out? One inhale for what, and one exhale for what?
I would breathe in fear. I would breathe out understanding.
I would breathe in intimidation. I would breathe out two people holding hands, walking together.
I would breathe in complication, breathe out ease.
I would breathe in black, white, brown, yellow, pink, and breathe out a rainbow of acceptance.
Violence begins with language.
This is something the Irish poet Eavan Boland said.
I believe this.
I also believe that we need to be so kind to ourselves, so that we can be kind to others.
Speaking of words, which word would you pick up for yourself today?
My word today is Sparkle.
It is so you. Karen, you’ve inspired children and adults in the art of creative writing for over 25 years as a freewrite facilitator, creative writing coach, and poet-teacher. When I think about what you do at work, I imagine a fairy creating sparkles with barely noticeable movements of the wings and a beautiful melodic whisper. Is it what your job is about?
My job is kind of magical…
The studio and garden where I lead creative writing adventures sits at the base of a mountain, Mount Tamalpais, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Parents are not allowed to come into the studio.
My students take off their shoes when they walk inside and it becomes their space. There are little benches, a table, fast-writing pens… We get cozy. We share and trade Magic Word tickets. I give writing prompts from my books.
I ring a bell, and we’re off.
We write and write.
We don’t worry about spelling and punctuation. We don’t have any grades here.
When kids ask something like: “Would it be ok if I…”
I always answer: “YES!”
If I give a memory assignment and their imagination is going in a different direction, it’s ok!
Sometimes a poem or a story wants to take us in another direction. It’s our job to follow it there.
I “teach” that everyone is their own authority of their lives, minds, hearts, and writing decisions.
It’s so hard for some kids. We have this system of grades, and we are trained to raise our hands if we want to speak.
I like to have conversations where I’m not calling on kids, but where we’re all respectful of sharing and listening.
I sit down and write too. Sometimes I say:
“Guys, I’m one of you. I’m just a little bit older. I happen to write books, but we are all together here on this writing path.”
At the beginning of COVID when we were all sheltering in place, I really missed writing in person with my students. Then at the beginning of summer, I re-envisioned my garden so that every other Sunday a group of us could meet in person and write six feet apart.
They are my students, but they are also my teachers. I miss my teachers.
PAPER, PENS. NO SCREENS
So no online classes…
I am really anti-screen.
I ask my students what I ask of myself: to please put all phones away before each writing adventure, in the basket that’s provided by the door. This is non-negotiable.
Maybe I’ll try Zoom again, but I really did not like it. I have a little garden and am figuring out a way to bring kids together at a safe distance outdoors to write together.
What’s your relationship with Tech? Is it bad for kids?
It’s a tricky question.
Tech is like a drug.
Kids can’t control swiping through their phones. It’s like giving them a bunch of candies and leaving them to decide not to unwrap them. The screen sucks us in so fast.
One of the families I work with have a rule:
Everyone, together, plans a time during the day to go on their phones for one hour. They all sit together, everyone on their phones, but it’s designated time vs. just being able to pull it out whenever.
Some executives in Silicon Valley who work in the tech industry are vigilant about not letting their children have phones or access to social media. They know the dangers are real.
They send their kids to schools that don’t allow tech. This should tell us something.
They know how addicting the phones are, how they keep us from experiencing the present moment…and our imaginations. And boredom, creativity, curiosity…
Yet, I’m really not trying to preach. My son has a phone. I have a phone. But the trick is to own it and not have it own us, or our precious attention spans.
I know how dangerous it is to live life when we feel that we actually are not existing if we don’t take a picture of it. That’s what I work to avoid.
Do you work with adults?
I work with adults if they have a book project that I feel excited about. I also teach classes for adults in Italy at Numeroventi Design Center in Florence.
I love working with adults, but my heart is with kids.
Are kids more creative than adults?
For me, kids are closer to their original essence. They are unafraid to try things. What this allows them to lasso to the page in just 20 minutes is oh so inspiring.
I get a lot of ideas and inspiration for poems and life from kids.
What should adults do to be more creative?
My books are for adults too. They help adults to be playful.
I believe that we are all creative.
When we’re kids, we all play with ideas. It’s like breathing, dreaming stuff up. As we get older though, sometimes we stop believing that the creativity muscle is ours to develop and enjoy flexing.
Everyone is creative.
When I lead creative writing adventures for adults, I tell them that we are going to enter the gates of the dreaming doodling parts of our imaginations again… the same way we did as children. They seem to enjoy this trespassing of the past.
When you talk with everybody (including yourself) as if they were ten-year-olds, magic happens.
Were you a creative child?
I was a very creative child, and very sensitive and responsible too. When my sister was born, I felt a huge responsibility for her. I played intently and seriously.
My mom’s side of the family is from Sicily. I’m Italian.
Looking back, I so appreciate being raised around a big, noisy Italian family. My mom, dad, nana, papa, aunts, uncles, cousins all gave me so much unconditional love. This continues to inspire and inform how I choose to create and live my life.
Something I will forever appreciate is that I was always encouraged by my family.
I was given permission to try everything that I wanted to try.
If I wanted to dance, I got to take dance lessons. If I wanted to swim, I could join a swim team. When I wanted to write in college, I changed my major to English and Creative Writing…and never looked back.
How did you understand that writing was something that gives you a sparkle?
My sister got very sick when she was starting high school…and she was ill for several years.
When I was in college, I started writing poems about her, us, the situation that brought on her illness.
At first, these early poems were a form of therapy… but slowly this writing and shaping of life events evolved into art.
I fell in love with the container of a poem, with just how much it can hold.
And I was fortunate to have some amazing teachers.
That’s the key.
My teachers nurtured me along.
That’s what I attempt to do in the writing adventures I lead.
If you are looking for a gold star, you aren’t going to get it from me.
I don’t give grades but prefer to help kids learn to encourage themselves, to engage and play on the page, and to meet themselves there.
BECOME A PUBLISHED AUTHOR
Your first book is called Sister.
Yes, it’s a 30 page sequence of poems about my sister, about our relationship.
How did you get your first book published?
My first book was self-published. I worked with an editor, a publisher, a graphic designer, but I paid for it. It was my calling card.
I did my own distribution.
I went to the book shops and showed them the book. Many fine independent bookshops in the Bay Area liked it enough to include it in their inventory, so I was lucky. The book sold out it’s 1500 copy print run, which for poetry is pretty good. Though now out of print, I’m still very proud of that book.
It was also through self-publishing Sister that I learned I didn’t want to self-publish again. I wanted an agent, a publisher, a publicist, and a distributor.
I can be shy, but I told myself that I was going to make connections to make this happen.
Connections are the key.
You decided to do one thing a day that scares you.
When I got into the monkey-mind thinking of: I want to, but I am afraid… I’d say to myself:
“Ok, how will you feel tomorrow morning when you wake up in your cozy bed, and realize you didn’t do this?”
That’s when I got the answer:
“Feel the fear but do it anyway. You’ve got to.”
So I applied for a grant, got it, and used the money to fly to Austin, Texas, to attend a well regarded Agents and Editors Conference. I got to meet with three different agents and pitch a new book idea I was writing.
Pitching my book idea was kind of like speed dating.
I talked to one agent for 15 minutes, then moved on to the next agent and did it all over again.
The third agent I met with loved the idea.
And though she wasn’t ready to sign me, she did want to work with me on my book proposal until it was just right.
And boy did I work on that book proposal! I think I easily put in 150 hours on that proposal.
When Stefanie Sanchez Von Borstel at Full Circle Literary finally felt my proposal was ready, she signed me and then sold Rip the Page! in about three weeks to Roost Books, a imprint of Shambhala Publications that’s owned by Penguin Random House, one of the biggies.
It was a dream. Stefanie is a fabulous agent, and she in turn introduced me to an equally fabulous editor, Jenn Brown. Jenn’s top of the line a-ma-zing! I bow down to her and love how she reads and edits my work.
Thanks to my agent, editor, publicist, the team at Shambhala (Claire Kelly, Oliver Glosband, Sara Bercholz…) and the team at Penguin Random House (especially KJ Grow), Rip the Page! and now Leap Write In! have international reach.
What questions shall we ask ourselves when we want to get published?
Ask yourself where you want to be published.
Look at books you like and ask yourself why you like them.
Study a certain publisher’s list and ask if you aspire to have a book with them.
Read the Acknowledgments Page of books you love. Do your homework. Research agents.
Keep asking more and more from your poems, stories, manuscripts.
Be brave. Be willing to ask your self to re-write and to re-imagine a poem or story into a more fully realized form of itself. It’s important to work from and toward the vision.
WRITE A BOOK
What would you recommend to women who want to start writing?
I highly recommend the chapter on Morning Pages.
Just commit to a month of writing four pages every morning.
Then go find a cozy chair, take a highlighter, and locate all the parts that you’re genuinely interested in.
You’ll start to see a theme, a pattern…
You’ll see whether you want to write a book and what you want to write about.
But as soon as you commit to writing a book, the whole Universe conspires to see if you’re really serious!
You start writing a new book, that’s when your best friend calls and invites you to her beach house!
Don’t you want to go to dinner? Let’s go to the movies! You’ll be tested.
If you say yes, you are not that serious about the book. A book takes a lot of your time and devotion. You have to turn down some fun activities and commit to writing.
Your challenge is to stay disciplined…
You can help yourself by scheduling time just for you (and the book you’re building) in your calendar.
Put your name on the calendar page and keep your word to meet with your book on Friday morning.
But my biggest advice to people who want to write is this:
Don’t talk about it!
As soon as you start talking to people, you leak energy.
That’s when you’re talking instead of doing.
This is dangerous territory. I only know this because I’ve done it.
Some people encourage talking about your project to as many people as possible. They believe it helps to see if the idea is good, and to be accountable.
You can always pick one person. You can pick somebody who is also working on a book. But be choosy.
It’s just so much fun to talk about writing, and it’s really, really, really hard to finish.
Finishing a book is so hard. It requires all of your attention and devotion.
Most people don’t finish.
How can we stay dedicated to our book project?
You have to stay inside it, like staying inside during COVID.
We stay inside, we don’t go out, we stick it out, we get uncomfortable, but we make sure to put in the hard work until it’s done.
We take care of ourselves. We nurture ourselves…and our books along.
So you hunker down, you get your tea and your snacks, you roll up your sleeves, and you write, write, write.
You give yourself little goals and you make sure you reach them.
You trick yourself.
You might say, if I finish nailing this chapter today, then I’m going to take a lavender bath.
Or I’m going to order take out… You give yourself little treats along the way is what I’m trying to say…
What is important for your writing process?
I have to be totally alone, even without my dog sometimes. He gets to stay with a friend who has a canine camp in the mountains. My dog loves her and vice-versa….
I have to be able to work into the wee hours and not worry about time or explaining myself to anyone. I also can’t be interrupted.
Can you make up a metaphor for success?
The first word that comes to me is a WATERFALL.
The crush of water.
The water cascades down. It hits rocks and flies up, and forms into little rainbows.
It’s beautiful, it’s exciting, it feels exhilarating.
It’s something that you definitely want to experiment with and experience, and then move on to other realms of unknown outcome, as writer Elizabeth Gilbert calls it.
If I don’t get to whoosh down the waterfall, or at least admire it or get close enough to it to feel the cool spray on my face, and splash around a while, then I feel left out.
Is success for you also the process?
Oh, yes! Absolutely. It really is the process. I love what the process is like. I like creating projects for myself: building a book, getting the book to print, helping my clients do the same.
It’s all about the journey.
And then, of course holding a book you wrote in your hands and saying, “Look, what I made. This is for you.”
How to be successful in writing?
Stay on the path.
Don’t undermine yourself…if you say you’re going to do something, do it. Build that muscle of trust in yourself.
Commercial success is a tricky beast.
Sometimes I ask myself why I want it.
If you just want to just make money, that’s probably not a good enough reason.
I’ve discovered that I really like to make pretty images and creations with a cover and a spine…I like to give someone an experience, a way to inspire themselves.
And I love imagining and dreaming up my books, then figuring out how to have them reach a lot of people, especially kids.
I just keep trying to write books that matter to me and then hope—pray—they matter to others.
Then I do it again in another shape, form, size.
What makes you happy?
It’s the combination of having time to create, serving others and helping them create, time with those I love, paying my bills, making sure I have enough time and money to travel….oh, and to read! And lose myself to a project so that I forget about time.
What I really want more than anything is time. Time to forget about time!
Time to disappear into a poem, a story, an idea; time to be inspired; time to figure out my next move…time, glorious time, for my books to come to fruition, for my sweet students to believe in themselves, for those I love to know how much they’re cherished.
Who are your favorite authors?
My time studying with Natalie in New Mexico and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center will forever be a highlight.
I love the poet Catherine Barnett. She teaches in Paris and in New York City.
Jane Hirshfield is a wonderful poet, a former teacher, and friend.
I just discovered Lily King.
Oh, and Alison Roman for her writing on cooking!
And Gabrielle Hamilton.
The list is long.
Thank you! What do you say to people who believe they don’t understand poetry?
If you don’t understand a poem, go to the next poem.
Don’t feel like “What’s wrong with me that I don’t understand this.” Nothing’s wrong with you.
Read until your heart says y-e-s! Until a sigh slips from your heart.
They’re out there, waiting for you.
There are so many poems who are looking for you.
What’s next for you?
When the Corona pandemic is over, I want to be back in Europe. Possibly to live. I’ve applied for my dual Italian citizenship and have my fingers crossed. (Thank you, Nonna Maria!) I will teach in Bologna, and in Florence again. Perhaps in Paris too, if there’s a venue for me. At Numeroventi Design Center in Florence, I have a beautiful loft to use when I’m in residence as a writer.
At home in the San Francisco Bay Area, I currently am leading workshops in my garden and seeing 1:1 students for special projects.
Oh, and I just finished my first picture book. We’re looking for a publisher. It’s set in Italy, about a grandmother who is an artist and the granddaughter she inspires to enter imagination’s door.
Despite all the challenges we face in the United States, I’m working with many other citizens to make sure we have new management in the fall.
The future feels bright underneath the at-times oh so dark.
Karen, thank you so much for this inspiring interview. I can’t wait to see you in Paris.
Useful links and references
Connect with Karen Benke:
- 💌 KarenBenke.com
- 📚 Karen Benke Books
- 🖌 The Writers Nest
- 📝 Creative Writing Adventures
- 📸 Connect on Instagram
Places and organisations
- Black Lives Matter
- Numeroventi Design Center, Florence, Italy
- Shambhala Publications
- Penguin Random House
- Tassajara Zen Mountain Center
Books and authors
📕 Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott 📙 Elisabeth Gilbert 📘 The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron 📗 Writing Down the Bones by Natalia Goldberg 📕Catherine Barnett 📕 Mary Oliver 📙 Jane Hirshfield 📘 Lily King 📗 Joan Didion 📕 Amy Hempel 📙 Susan Minot 📘 Linda Gregg 📗 Louise Glück 📕 Sy Montgomery 📙 Billy Collins 📘 Jack Gilbert 📕 Prartho Sereno 📙 Jhumpa Lihira 📗 Ada Limon 📕 Alison Roman 📙 Gabrielle Hamilton 📘 EB White 📗 Madeleine L’Engle 📕 Jeanne Birdsall 📙 Jon J Muth