Wrestling With Words: Award-Winning Author Visits Clark

In a world of homework, deadlines and expectations, one author just wants writing to be fun.

Aimee Bender, an award-winning short story writer, stressed this message in her speech on Oct. 30 as part of Clark’s Columbia Writers Series.

“Talking about writing with people who are interested and engaged in it is really a joy for me,” Bender said.

She’s written two New York Times Notable Book selections, “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” and “The Color Master,” along with eight other titles according to Goodreads.

Clark English professor and Columbia Writers Series co-director Alexis Nelson said she booked Bender for her “exuberance and quirkiness,” which she said reflects the culture of the college’s student body.   

“She’s not a Northwest writer, but definitely has a west coast feeling about her,” Nelson said.

Bender said her writing style has been described as “kind of spare or minimalist, but it also has this magical fairy-tale element.” She said the style isn’t intentional, it’s just what transpires once her pencil hits the paper.

“I try to write something that feels resonant,” Bender said. “If I’ve written something that I don’t totally understand but there’s a certain vitality to it, then I’m happy and I can move on to the next thing.”

Bender said she has pursued language since childhood.

“I was a kid that enjoyed words … things that were funny and poems and fairy tales,” Bender said. “All of that made it natural to want to write stories too, but it’s a big leap to being taken seriously as an adult.”

Bender initially majored in theater at the University of California at San Diego. She said she spent a long time treating writing as a hobby before earning her Masters of Fine Arts from the University of California at Irvine.

“It was almost like my motivation had been lurking underground,” she said.

Bender supplements her writing with a 15-year career teaching creative writing at the University of Southern California. She said authors rarely support themselves on writing money, and she’s lucky to have landed at USC.

“It’s got a flexible schedule,” she said. “So I can do writing in the morning and teach in the afternoon and come visit you guys. There’s space for other things.”

However, she said the actual writing process remains her favorite part.

“I like teaching, I like talking.” Bender said. “I have books that have my name on it and that’s really fun, but that’s surface-level gratification. The real meat is sitting down and wrestling with the words.”

But it’s not all about creative flow, Bender said.

“I don’t really believe in inspiration anymore,” she said. “I think I did at one point, and bought into the idea of a muse and waiting for something to hit you.”

Over time, she said, she’s replaced that mystic reliance with a stable work flow.

This habit results in plenty of accolades for her compositions, but Bender said she always tries to work on her next project after she’s released a book to distract herself from the feedback.

“If the bad reviews don’t mean everything then the good ones can’t mean everything either,” she said. “You have to take it all with a grain of salt.”

Bender mostly writes short stories. She said she prefers them because they complement readers’ busy lifestyle and encompass a certain “directly mysterious” quality. “They open more questions than they can possibly answer,” she said.

Nelson hopes Bender’s talk inspires students to have more confidence in their writing endeavors.  “I think sometimes we have this idea that writers are overly serious,” Nelson said. “I hope getting to hear [Bender] speak and read will show students how personable writers can be and make literature feel accessible.”

Ultimately, Bender said, aspiring writers should “shed the mantle of writerliness.”

“It can feel like it’s supposed to be agony,” she said. “But in fact, sometimes when you’re doing it right, there should be a sense of play that could make your writing even better.”

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