It felt nurturing: An interview with TLAF Certificate graduate, Hollie Ziskind

The transformative power of language and art… [in] every aspect of living and working in an evolved world

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of interviews with students who have completed the TLA Foundations Certificate.* Answers may be slightly edited for space and clarity.

Hollie Ziskind is a mindfulness teacher and creative consultant, founder/creator of pen and portal, and the KEY method. Using a mindful approach in 1:1 consulting and group teaching, she helps women experience transformation and healing through their creative practice. Certified through the Awareness Training Institute, Amherst Writers and Artists, and the Transformative Language Arts Network, she’s been featured in Choose901, Swimming with Elephants, Meniscus Journal and Chrysalis.

TLAN: Why did you originally apply for the TLA Foundations certificate?

Hollie: The idea of learning from, and working with, other like-minded artists at the intersection of art and transformation called to me. I work with creative women in mid-life, and I believed this certification would enhance that, and my own creative work.

What TLAN courses did you find most useful? Why?

I really enjoyed Pathways to Wholeness with Marianela Medrano because of the mindfulness component, and also because of Marianela’s own groundedness, and attention to the subject matter. I work in a very similar area, and it felt nurturing to be led through this course. I took lots of notes and really enjoyed the sharing there too.

What was your greatest learning(s) from the process?

The big picture takeaway for me was the reiteration of the transformative power of language and art, not only in social justice, but in politics and climate change, and seemingly every aspect of living and working in an evolved world, and courses that actively engaged in that effort.

For more from Hollie, and to learn more about using mindfulness and inquiry as a path to healing and transformation, stop by https://www.penandportal.com or @penandportal

*TLA Foundations (TLAF) is an introduction to TLA in theory and practice with opportunities for reflecting and acting on ethical work, community networking, and TLA in action, completed on one’s own time over two years. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. More details can be found here.

What We’re Reading Now…

Recently we asked our staff, board and founder what they are currently reading, and why. We thought you might enjoy getting a glimpse of our latest literary delights, listed below.

Share with us what YOU have been reading, and we might just feature you and your favorite book(s) in an upcoming newsletter, or as part of a Network book club! We would love to hear from you!

Kimberly Lee – TLA Network board member:
The Happy Writing Book by Elise Valmorbida.
Contains 100 bite-sized, spirited essays on writing inspiration and craft, for both aspiring and established authors who want to infuse energy into their work—and their lives.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré.
A Nigerian teen, married off by family for her dowry, is determined to change her destiny and find her voice by achieving the education her late mother dreamed of.

Finding Me by Viola Davis.
An honest, revealing memoir that chronicles the rise of the Oscar award-winning actress from a disadvantaged childhood to international acclaim, and the emotional demons she slayed on the way.

Katia Hage, TLA Network board member:
La fin est mon commencement: Un père raconte à son fils le grand voyage de la vie, by Terzano Terziani.
A book about an Italian journalist’s journey and his observations through his many voyages to Maoist China, Vietnam, Cambodia before communism, India and more. A fascinating new perspective about world events lived through in those countries. 

Untie the Strong Woman: Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Love for the Wild Soul, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.
The book reminds me of the many faces of the divine feminine and the power of healing through storytelling in returning the bones to their own people. 

Jen Minotti – TLA Network board member:
All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson.
Super important, beautiful, honest memoir by a Black, queer voice for the YA population. I loved this book before it was banned from libraries and schools in 15 states, but now I am making sure to read all of the books on these banned-book-lists as my personal form of protest.

All about Love: New Visions by bell hooks.
After bell hooks’ passing earlier this past Winter, I revisited her work. Although written over 20 years ago, this book is as relevant today as it was two decades ago, maybe even more so. My yellow highlighter practically dried out from all of the use it got while reading this book! And I now use the word “love” as a verb, as bell hooks instructed us to do!

Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain.
Hot off of the presses, I couldn’t wait to read this book by the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a bedside favorite in my house! It’s as great as her previous book, combining research with personal narrative and is perfect for anyone going through a transition (basically all of us!).

Renu Thomas, TLA Network board member:
The Girl with the Suitcase, by Angela Hart
Angela Hart has fostered many children over the years. This is a true story about the joys, doubts and challenges in raising Grace who has had a difficult upbringing before coming to Angela’s home. It offers a fresh look at parenting and the nature vs nurture debate. Inspiring.

Hanne Weedon, TLA managing director:
Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken.
I’ve been reading this incredible book with my 14-year-old daughter over the course of the past year – a few pages every week, and we are slowly turning our time, focus, and attention to how we navigate the climate crisis as a family. Each section is engaging and accessible, addressing the 100 most substantive solutions to reversing global warming, all based on meticulous research by leading scientists and policymakers around the world.

For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health, by Al Vernacchio.
This is a fantastic, illuminating, funny read by a thoughtful, youth-empowering sex educator who really knows his stuff. An incredible resource for anyone who is parenting/close to/working with teens, this book helps bridge the gap between what we thought we knew and what we actually need to know to help our young people navigate this complex and rapidly-shifting issue in their lives.

Palmares, by Gayl Jones.
A 2022 Pulitzer finalist, this incredible epic novel is at once a love story, a fugitive slave’s odyssey, and an investigation into the meaning of freedom. Set in 17th-century colonial Brazil, the novel is that perfect combination of mythology, history, and magical realism – plus, Jones’ mastery of language and voice are a delight. This is the perfect read you will not want to put down.

Gabe Seplow, TLA Network intern:
The Sentence is Death, by Anthony Horowitz.
A fascinating murder mystery that has you on the edge of your seat, wanting more answers the further you get into the novel.

Slaughterhouse-Five: Or the Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut.
An easy, summer read that includes comedy, drama, action, and heart-wrenching imagery from WWII.

Kelly DuMar, TLA Network board member:
The Rainbow, by D.H. Lawrence.
Exquisite prose in this classic novel by a master about three generations of a British family who live in the east Midlands of England spanning 1840’s-1905, focusing on love, coming of age, marriage, family. Lawrence’s descriptions of nature are gorgeous and precise.

There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century, by Fiona Hill.
Really smart and thoughtful memoir of a brilliant British woman who rose to a powerful government position in the US from her working class, disadvantaged roots in County Durham, England as the coal industry failed. She does a superb job of exploring the role of privilege in the US and British educational systems. She stood up to Trump by testifying against him at his first impeachment from her role of serving in the Trump administration. Courageous and honest and authentic––and funny.

Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir, by Rebecca Solnit.
A literary feminist memoir in a powerful voice of poetic prose about the impact of the threat of sexual violence toward women in our culture.

Liz Burke, TLA Network board member:
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong.
Ocean Vuong’s novel is one of the most beautiful I have ever read. It’s a coming of age story and an intimate letter to his mother written by a poet whose language stings as forcefully as it soars.

Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World, by Pema Chödrön.
Pema Chödrön shares necessary wisdom, guidance and practices to navigate and bring more compassion to our difficult world and all its inhabitants. She offers me hope as I face life’s challenges.

Postcolonial Love Poem, by Natalie Diaz.
There have only been a handful of poets whose work, upon reading it, causes me to gasp in awe at the beauty. This is one of them. I feel Diaz’s work in my bones.

Jade Eby, Manager, TLA Network Classes:
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland. I’m a huge fan of family drama stories… especially where there are hidden secrets just waiting to be exposed. I love that the backdrop of this novel is Australian land and culture.

I Heard You Scream by Emerald O’Brien — My favorite summer reads are fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat thrillers. And I Heard You Scream fits the bill! This is a binge-able read with satisfying twists and turns. 

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, TLA Network founder:
Embroideries by Marjane Satari
I fell in love with this graphic novel about the inner lives of Iranian women, written and drawn by the author of the astonishing Persepolis, a historical and deeply personal memoir in what Satari calls comic-book style.

frank: sonnets by Diane Seuss
Here is an astonishing collection of poetry that’s a combination of fierce memoir, experimental language, and pure poetry, and hey, it’s by a TLAer at heart, and she just won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry!

The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich
I’m re-listening to this novel by the unparalleled Erdrich about a powerful legacy, haunting questions of identity and home, and brave forays into real love in many forms. 

Beth Turner, TLA Network board member:
The Diné Reader/An Anthology of Navajo Literature, edited by Esther G. Belin et al.
Powerful testimony to keeping culture, faith, family, land connections alive via the written, spoken or danced word. This is a peaceful and powerful read, a rarity for me to experience both within so many different poems and essays. I found the works to be awakening and stirring – there is no shame or blame, but facts and truth.

Liminal Thinking: Create the Change You Want by Changing the Way You Think, by Dave Gray.
This book is about the power of thresholds. Liminal space sits between you and me when we meet, when teams meet, when people groups gather – it is a rich land. I think this space as one filled with low-hanging, ripe fruit. Anyone can reach up and pick the idea, solution, opportunity, revelation, wisdom and share. I look to cultivate this sort of atmosphere in classes, retreats and within small groups. It is an activating read. I am pondering what action may be required/explored personally and communally.

How Pictures Heal – Expressive Writing from Personal Photos, with Kelly DuMar

WOMAN WHO WEARS HER MOON HEART FULL ©Kelly DuMar

. . . A long time we were separate,
O Earth,
but now you have returned to me.

~ Elaine Equi

We all take, save, and inherit photographs of the people, places, and things that bring meaning, mystery, hope, and connection into our lives. In my upcoming 6-week writing webinar for the Transformative Language Arts Network, we will write from personal photos as a means of restoring meaning, purpose, hope, and resilience during and after loss. Particularly, throughout this time of the pandemic, unexpected losses, without meaningful closure, have mounted for many people. TLA practitioners and writers at all levels of experience will imaginatively encounter personal photos sparked by questions that generate remarkable and uplifting writing experiences.

If you’ve ever kept a diary or journal, it’s likely you know what expressive writing is–– and how this spontaneous writing about your feelings serves your emotional well-being in a variety of ways. Expressive writing is a way to get in touch with the “ideal listener” or the “silver lining voice” within all of us. The imagined listener who lets us express our feelings, hurts, dilemmas and joys, without judgment––or editing. And, because we write what we need to express without controls of grammar, form or outcome, we transform feelings, gain insights, and reduce our stress and anxiety. When we practice expressive writing in a supportive workshop, we also gain powerful feelings of connection with others, and the recognition that we are not alone. In fact, our stories and experiences can help others heal and grow.

Photographs fill boxes in our attics and cover our walls. We store them on our computers and cell phones and share them instantly on social media. We’re taking and sharing more pictures than ever before. Why? Because our photos show what we care about and hope to preserve, what moves and delights us. Our photos capture the people, places and memories that bring beauty and meaning into our lives. Writing from personal photos brings insight, healing, and zest into your life––whether you consider yourself a “writer” or not.

One young man wrote from a photo of himself and his brother as a child posing in the arms of their mother. As soon as he began writing, he wondered who had taken the photo. Ah. He realized it was the last photo his father had taken before leaving the family. His expressive writing led to this awakening: I was able to not only write something I’m proud of, but to process and communicate emotional difficulties I hadn’t been able to find words for in years.

Photo-inspired expressive writing revives our spirit. Long-dormant parts of our lives, places we’ve traveled to, people we’ve loved and lost come alive on the page. As the psychologist James Hillman brilliantly said, the gift of an image is that it provides a place to watch your soul. Expressive writing leads to re-discovering a zest for living. Deep conversations are sparked by showing, writing and sharing who, and what, we love. And, because listeners are truly interested, we feel a renewed enthusiasm, energy and sense of connection. As the author Martin Prechtel writes:

Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.

AUNT MARION , from the private collection of Kelly DuMar

My own photo-inspired creative writing was sparked by this picture. I was a twenty-two-year-old college student when the aunt I’d looked up to and adored since childhood needed me by her side. Caring for Marion as she died took me out of my comfort zone––and changed my life. So, when I saw my young, adventuresome aunt in my mother’s scrapbook, I asked her if I could keep it. This photo of Marion, captured in this archetypal pose of the archer, like the goddess Diana, stretching her bow, aiming her arrow, captivated me. My expressive writing helped me unpack all the truth, beauty and healing it held.

What I love most about photo-inspired writing is that it engages us with the profound beauty of our ordinary lives. We discover what I call The Secret Reveal––a revelation––something we have been unable to express that leads us to a new way of knowing ourselves or others and changes our response to the community and the world.

About the Webinar Format
This 6-week class is hosted on the online teaching platform, Wet Ink, and on Zoom. The Wet Ink platform allows you to log in on you own time to post your writing from the prompts and get to know others through their writing by adding your comments. The day before class begins, you’ll receive an invitation to join Wet Ink. There are no browser requirements, and Wet Ink is mobile-friendly. Additionally, you will have three LIVE webinars on Zoom to discuss your writing and interact in real time with other participants (scheduled during the first week according to best availability of participants).

Who Should Take This Class
This course will serve writers and TLA practitioners at all levels of experience, as well as anyone interested in personal and artistic development. Counseling professionals and para-professionals will find dynamic creative outlets for personal and professional development. Writers and artists with an interest in exploring the healing aspects of personal photos may also be quite interested.

About Kelly DuMar
Kelly is a poet, playwright, workshop facilitator, and certified psychodramatist from the Boston area who has been leading creative writing workshops for decades. She’s author of three poetry chapbooks, and her fourth is upcoming from Lily Press, 2023. A producer of high-quality literary and transformative arts programming, Kelly currently serves on the Board of the Transformative Language Arts Network, and produces the Open Mic Writer Series for the Journal of Expressive Writing. Her past board leaderships include the International Women’s Writing Guild, and Playwright’s Platform, Boston. She blogs her nature photos and creative writing from the Charles River (where she lives) daily, for the past six years, at #NewThisDay.

The Messenger, a guest post by TLAF Certificate student Sharon Bippus

Editor’s note: Sharon is a student in the Transformative Language Arts Foundations Certificate program. This blog post is one of five reflection posts she will be submitting as part of the certificate requirements.

Credit: Sharon Bippus

To be seen is something that I have struggled with since childhood. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, I was the middle child sandwiched between an older sister and a younger brother, my mother’s obvious favorite. I was the second girl when I don’t think my mother even wanted the first one. I felt unloved and neglected. Feeling so shy and awkward, it felt safer to remain hidden and keep my distance.

Fast forward to the present, and I continue to work on this issue. To be sure, I have made progress, and my creativity has played a large role in my healing. My art, whether it is photography or mixed media or collage, is where I can safely express my emotions. It’s where I can relax and play. It’s how I can give back to that little girl inside me that never felt safe or wanted.

Nowadays, I find my creative outlet expanding into writing which is a new way of being seen. While taking Kelly DuMar’s “How Pictures Heal” course with TLAN, I had the opportunity to examine layers of myself, which allowed me to both see myself more clearly and to be seen by others. It was in this course that a photograph of a cardinal taken at a nearby nature sanctuary helped me uncover a revealing message about myself.

Read more

For the first assignment in the course, Kelly directed us to select one of our own photographs to use as a writing prompt. I had no idea which of my personal photos to choose, and I spent hours scrolling through the pictures on my phone. A few of them whispered to me, but none of them really jumped out. Then – serendipitously – I was checking one of my social media accounts and saw that a woman, whom I don’t know personally, had tagged me in a photo. She is an artist and a friend of friends, and I follow her on social media. Intrigued, I looked at her comment to me. She had taken one of the photos that I had recently posted on Instagram and used it as a model for her watercolor painting. A thrill of excitement went through me, and my mouth hung open in surprise. Someone who works as an artist had been inspired by my photograph! I was so excited, so flattered, so joyful! 

This was the picture. This was the picture that I needed to explore in Kelly’s class – a bright red cardinal staring straight at me, seeds protruding from his beak making it look like he has buck teeth. He saw me and tried to make me laugh with his fake teeth. Then Sue (the artist!) saw my work, and by doing so, I felt as if she saw me. She saw the beauty that I try to capture and share with the world.

Some people say that birds are messengers, and I believe that is true. This is what my cardinal told me:

People notice me and see my beauty right away.  There’s no hiding it.

I can fly.  I can soar.  I am free.

Nature is my home.  The trees shelter me.  The wind guides me.  The rain cleanses me.

I am nourished here in this sanctuary.  I am bold and determined.  I can look you right in the eye, and I can make you laugh.

Sharon Bippus, PhD, is an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) instructor who finds inspiration in the intersection of creativity, mystery, and synchronicity. As an undergraduate, she was awarded two scholarships to study in Germany which fueled her desire to learn more about the diverse world we live in. Since that time, she has taught English in Slovakia and China and was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Western Russia. She currently teaches ESOL at a community college in the suburbs of Houston, Texas where she works with students from all over the world. In her free time, she enjoys mixed media, collage, and photography and has received training in trauma-informed expressive arts and nature-based therapeutic practices. She is a SoulCollage® facilitator, a Veriditas-trained labyrinth facilitator, and a student in the Haden Institute’s Dream Work Program.

(1/5)

Finding What’s Underneath “I’m Fine,” a guest post by Sinclaire Dickinson

I recently led a TLA-inspired workshop at a yoga studio where I guided participants in a movement practice and prompted them to write about how they felt afterward. I’ve been a student of somatic movement and embodiment for a few years and have had powerful shifts in my way of being after certain practices. While you can feel the shifts, they can be hard to articulate. 

In hosting this workshop, I sought to help people capture what arose in their bodies during one of these practices. I planned movement focused inward (interoception) followed by movement focused outward (exteroception) and was curious to see if descriptive words would flow out of people when asked to journal after moving using stems like “My body feels…, my breath is…”.

I discovered that the words may bubble up, or they may stall entirely; it depends how concerned the mover is with getting them just right, as labeling our internal experience with truly representative words can be tricky. Having words flow out can be lovely, but sometimes it’s a slow process to get to a more honest representation of your state—positive or negative.

Read more

During our discussion period in the workshop, a couple of the participants expressed having some difficulty and even hesitance in labeling what they were feeling. The labels felt definite and they questioned if they were completely accurate. I appreciate that; words can fall short of our human spectrum of emotions. Still, putting internal experience on paper, crossing things out, workshopping, and finding better words, did bring some insights.

When one student, Erin, first scanned herself, she self-reported to be “fine.” I’m fine, I’m here, I’m not really anything. When she was invited to elaborate with more words, she discovered that what she was experiencing was actually a bit more positive.

My body has a gentle warmth, my mind has no apparent presence of stress, I’m kind of relaxed. She wondered if this might be an appropriate use for the word “happy.”

Erin decided yes, she was happy. Not only was she willing to assign happiness to that moment, she realized there were probably many more times within her life where she checks in as “fine” when she might instead use “happy.”

“How are you?”
“I’m fine.”

With such a spectrum of emotions and words at our disposal, think of how often we assign ourselves “fine” and close off to more nuanced possibilities. What if instead, we open ourselves up a bit more with our words? Even if we don’t find ourselves to be “happy,” we could likely learn more about our own experience than what “fine” will teach us.

I plan to challenge myself and my participants to play with their own labels, not fearing their permanence or precision, but trying them on and seeing what it feels like to embody them. In the same way that donning a smile improves your mood, can donning “energized” reinvigorate you in a mid-day slump?

I approached this workshop curious about how movement would guide diction, but now I’m equally interested in diction’s power to guide movement and experience. It’s a feedback loop that goes both ways.

Thank you to Erin for voicing what I’m calling what’s underneath fine. May we all lift up that dull gray rock and peek under a bit more often.

*Erin’s name has been changed.

Sinclaire Dickinson is a yoga instructor, humane education student, and exploratory communicator from a marketing background. In her writing and studies, she focuses on how we might address problems in the environment, human rights, and animal welfare by becoming more conscious of our daily experiences and cultural norms. Connect with her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/sinclaire-dickinson-3a134557/.

Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash

A deep personal paradigm shift: An interview with recent TLA Foundations Certificate graduate, Loretta Mijares

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of interviews with students who have completed the TLA Foundations Certificate.* Answers may be slightly edited for space and clarity.

The TLA certificate program helped me trust that I have the resources and capacities to bring my vision into reality.

2021 TLAF Certificate Graduate, Loretta Mijares

Loretta Mijares earned her PhD in Literature from NYU and have been teaching college English for over 20 years. She has studied with Linda Trichter Metcalf (Writing the Mind Alive) and Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones), and is certified in Transformative Language Arts Foundations with the TLA Network as well as in Amherst Writers & Artists workshop leadership. Equally as important to her work in embodied writing facilitation is her many years of practice as a Zen meditator and conscious mover, especially Moving with Life (www.zuzaengler.com), Soul Motion®, and Gestalt Awareness Practice. Loretta’s passion is in bringing these practices of embodiment to writing in the context of supportive community, to deepen our capacities for presence and open new portals of creativity and insight.

TLAN: Why did you originally apply for the TLA Foundations certificate?

Loretta: I had started to facilitate small free women’s writing circles and wanted to do more of this, with the hope of creating a livelihood from writing facilitation. I was looking for a foundation of knowledge about facilitation and to learn what other folks were doing with transformative language arts.

What TLAN courses did you find most useful? Why?

Instead of “useful,” I want to say “inspiring” or “encouraging,” since one of the main takeaways for me in my TLAN courses was the affirmation that the kind of writing I had been imagining doing in my workshops was actually a thing. What I mean by this is writing that invited both creativity and personal discovery in the moment—writing in response to photographs or fairy tales (How Pictures Heal, Fantastic Folktales), or that reimagined a hopeful future emerging from our broken world (Future Casting). Having in-the-moment experiences of insight while writing for these courses excited me to continue pursuing my own visions for my TLA work.

What was your greatest learning(s) from the process?

I had a deep personal paradigm shift in Caits Meissner’s Future Casting class, wherein I grappled with my own eco-anxiety and skepticism about the power of poetry (and art more generally) to effect any change in the crises facing our world. The reminder of the long tradition of writers and artists who see it as their responsibility to help us envision blueprints for the futures we want to live in made me realize that even in the face of despair and skepticism, I want to choose adrienne maree brown’s path of the fractal (“How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale”).

What are you doing now (or hoping to do) in TLA and in what way was the certificate helpful?

I am now offering monthly 3-hour workshops combining expressive writing with movement. The TLA Foundations & Art of Facilitation courses helped me think through all the details of space, timing, facilitator’s role, prompts, etc. The certificate program as a whole helped keep me focused on my goals and find the courage to launch. I have so much more that I want to do with MovingWriting (the modality I’m creating), and the TLA certificate program helped me trust that I have the resources and capacities to bring my vision into reality.

Anything else you’d like to add?

One of the most encouraging aspects of the certificate program was the community building that happened, particularly during the pandemic, when so many of us were feeling so isolated. But even absent the pandemic, it was so supportive to share stories, doubts, concerns, and successes with others at different phases of their own TLA practices and goals. Everyone had such yearning to bring more creativity into their lives and the lives of others, and that shared yearning strengthened my own commitment.

Loretta can be found at: movingwriting.com/ and facebook.com/MovingWriting

*TLA Foundations (TLAF) is an introduction to TLA in theory and practice with opportunities for reflecting and acting on ethical work, community networking, and TLA in action, completed on one’s own time over two years. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. More details can be found here.

I found a community: An interview with recent TLA Foundations Certificate graduate, Tracie Nichols

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of interviews with students who have completed the TLA Foundations Certificate.* Answers may be slightly edited for space and clarity.

Walking with people through writing experiences isn’t simply a responsibility, it’s a calling, and a sacred one.

2021 TLAF Certificate Graduate, Tracie Nichols

Tracie Nichols, M.A. writes poetry and facilitates writing groups from her small desk under the wide reach of two venerable Sycamore trees in southeastern Pennsylvania. She’s a Transformative Language Artist in process, fascinated by the potential of language to heal and transform people and communities. Putting her master’s degree in Transformative Learning and Change to good use over the past two decades, Tracie has designed and facilitated many virtual and in-person lifelong learning experiences on a truly wide range of topics. She’s just beginning her foray into submitting poetry for publication and has already accumulated a healthy pile of rejections to her few joyfully celebrated acceptances.

Why did you originally apply for the TLA Foundations certificate?

Tracie Nichols: One ordinary Tuesday in January 2020 a writer friend mentioned an organization with great writing classes called the Transformative Language Arts Network. Being a perpetually curious lover of words, I found the website and started excavating. As I explored, I realized that the Transformative Language Arts bring together two foundational foci of my life: my master’s degree in Transformative Learning and Change, and my deep love of writing—especially its power to cultivate understanding and catalyze change. Within days I registered for “Changing the World With Words” and within the first few weeks recognized that I’d found a community of practice where I fit. 

The timing of this recognition collided with my 58th birthday and the milestone of having been in practice as a life and business coach for nearly a decade. Through the preceding winter, I’d had a sense that a pivot was coming in both my life and work. The TLA Foundations certificate process offered me a way to continue exploring both the intersections between Transformative Learning and Transformative Language Arts and the possibilities for making language the focus of this next piece of my body of work. It also connected me with an extraordinary community of artists and facilitators who continue to influence and inspire me. 

What TLAN courses did you find most useful and why?

I have found every TLAN course helpful in its own way. Among the courses specific to earning the certificate, I found “Changing the World With Words” the most useful because it grounded me so well into the concepts and the community. I felt oriented and able to navigate ensuing courses with ease. I loved “The Art of Facilitation” and only found it marginally less useful because, by the time I took the course, I had nearly 20 years of experience with facilitating formal and informal group learning experiences. The course that changed me, that radically shifted my perception of myself and my capacities as a word artist and change maker, was “& They Call Us Crazy” [with Caits Meissner]. I almost didn’t enroll because it felt like such a giant step outside my comfort zone. That stretch was what taught me the most, of course. 

What was your greatest learning(s) from the process?

I learned – viscerally, not just theoretically – that people in all kinds of struggle can use language arts to plant their staff, push outward, and redraw the terrain that is their birthright. They can take up the space that was denied them by terror, trauma, social and cultural oppression, becoming creative forces for change in their own lives and communities.

Is there a particular experience at a conference or in a class, etc. that stands out for you?

Two experiences stand out:

During “& They Call Us Crazy” I learned that I had wrapped my poetic self in a very tiny, tidy package, afraid if I tested my edges, I’d lose the voice I’d spent a decade excavating. I spent the next five weeks repeatedly testing and disproving that assumption, surprising myself with the intensity and candor of my own writing. This was an incredibly affirming experience. 

During the pre-conference panel discussion at the 2021 Power of Words Conference, Joy Harjo invited us to “move with honor and integrity” and a bit later in the conversation said something like, the power doesn’t belong to us—it was given to us to take care of and share. She reminded me that walking with people through writing experiences isn’t simply a responsibility, it’s a calling, and a sacred one. My ears are still metaphorically ringing from that wake-up call. 

What are you doing now (or hoping to do) in TLA and in what way was the certificate helpful?

The certificate process helped me define myself as an artist and as a facilitator by encouraging me to reclaim myself as a poet and as a midwife of words, both mine and other people’s. It reminded me that writing is an exquisitely powerful wayfinding tool in anyone’s hands. 

I have pivoted my business and now offer classes and writing circles centered on personal transformation and cultivating resilience. Though I welcome anyone, an interesting mix of women counselors, coaches, wellness practitioners and artists seem to gravitate to my offerings these days. 

Would you recommend the certification course to others?

Absolutely, yes. For all of the reasons I’ve mentioned above.   

Learn more at tracienichols.com, or connect with her on Instagram at @tracietnichols (https://www.instagram.com/tracietnichols/).

*TLA Foundations (TLAF) is an introduction to TLA in theory and practice with opportunities for reflecting and acting on ethical work, community networking, and TLA in action, completed on one’s own time over two years. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. More details can be found here.

Something shifted within me: An interview with Renu Thomas, recent graduate of the TLA Foundations Certificate

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of interviews with students who have completed the TLA Foundations Certificate.* Answers may be slightly edited for space and clarity.

I feel challenged to use my voice for social change knowing that however small a stone I may be, I can still cause a ripple.

2021 TLAF Certificate Graduate, Renu Thomas

Renu Sarah Thomas in a BAAT registered Art Psychotherapist, educator and workshop facilitator. She was born in India, raised in England, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Renu has lived in India but for most of her adult life she has lived in Dubai (UAE).

Renu has a Masters in Textiles and Clothing from Coimbatore, India and a Masters in Art Psychotherapy from Edinburgh, Scotland. She has extensive experience working with adults and children of varied ethnicities and having witnessed their stories, has a growing interest in the field of displacement and trauma.

As a self-taught artist, Renu finds ceramics and acrylic painting centering and enjoyable. However, it is through writing that she has found liberation and empowerment. She passionately encourages others to pursue some form of creative expression, embrace their authentic selves and live on purpose. 

TLAN: Why did you originally apply for the TLA Foundations certificate?

Renu Thomas: I would say that it was the sense of achievement and satisfaction I felt on the first course that made me curious about possible certificate with TLA. I felt the certificate would give me credibility in using language as an expressive art form along with art-making in my coaching/facilitation work.

What courses did you find most useful? Why?

In terms of personal transformation, “How Pictures Heal: Expressive Writing from Personal Writing” [with Kelly DuMar] was the most useful course. I found that I was able to engage better than I thought possible. The facilitator’s weekly feedback very detailed, constructive, and encouraging.

I also felt a very strong connection with the others in the group. I read their work and was intrigued by the fact that although we were so different in terms of life experience and cultural background, we had such similar stories.

The Foundations [“Changing the World with Words” with Joanna Tebbs Young] courses were extremely useful in improving my skills and confidence as a coach/facilitator, in workshop design, and in giving me direction as to next steps to improve my reach.

TLAN: What was your greatest learning(s) from the process?

Validation.

More often than not I was the only one in the group who wasn’t a writer or had a degree in English. However, the sense of acceptance and belonging was unprecedented and that played a huge role in my wanting to sign up for more courses and complete the certificate.

TLAN: Is there a particular experience at a conference or in a class, etc. that stands out for you? 

The showcase at the end of the “Your Memoir as Monologue” [with Kelly DuMar] was a very pleasant surprise. I have shied away from sharing my written work because it never felt good enough. The experience of seeing my photo on the flier along side other playwrights and writers and having my monologue performed by an actor and witnessed by people other than those in the group — it shifted something within me.

The Power of Words conference was a unique experience and I am so grateful that it was possible online. I appreciated the vulnerability of first-time presenters of workshops as well as the variety of offerings. It showed me how we can combine our skills, knowledge, and passions in our workshop design.

What are you doing now (or hoping to do) in TLA and in what way was the certificate helpful?

I have used ideas and suggestions from the TLA courses in my workshop design and in my facilitation.

My father has Parkinson’s Disease, so I am hoping to create more awareness of the disease and the abilities of the individuals who are living with it. I also want to have conversations around geriatric bullying which I find to be prevalent in India. In all I do, I also hope to include advocacy for creative/expressive art psychotherapy for mental wellness and health.

I feel challenged to use my voice or social change knowing that however small a stone I may be, I can still cause a ripple. The two certificate foundation courses [now rolled into one] were instrumental in this. I feel grateful.

Would you recommend the certification course to others? 

Of course! In fact, I already have.

Renu can found at www.artspeaks.org

*TLA Foundations (TLAF) is an introduction to TLA in theory and practice with opportunities for reflecting and acting on ethical work, community networking, and TLA in action, completed on one’s own time over two years. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. More details can be found here.

Your invitation to the journey of purposeful memoir! By Jennifer Browdy, PhD

Looking for some winter nourishment? How about giving yourself the gift of a weekend memoir writing retreat—from the comfort of your own home! 

This weekend, from Friday, January 14 to Sunday, January 16, I’ll be offering an intensive series of five writing workshops, carefully designed to stimulate your creative imagination and open up a safe, convivial space for reflection and inquiry. Hosted by the TLA Network, The Quest of Purposeful Memoir: Exploring the Past, Creating the Future, is open for registration now through Friday.

We’ll start by saluting the positive in your life experience, before dipping a pen into the inky waters of the more challenging moments, which we’ll transmute through what I call the magic of alchemical writing. 

We’ll quest into the past in search of the gold of life lessons inherited and learned that can serve us well in the present, and help us move with grace and intention into the future that is ours to create with each new dawn. 

The journey will unfold over three days—an introductory session on Friday from 12 – 1:30, followed by two sessions on Saturday and two on Sunday, from 12 – 1:30 and 2 – 3:30 pm. There will be some optional homework on Friday and Saturday, in case you are inspired to keep the quest going between sessions. 

To illustrate what can happen when you purposefully explore your past with the intention of creating a thriving future, I made a couple of photo collages I want to share with you. 

When I was writing my memoir, What I Forgot…And Why I Remembered, I went looking for positive moments from my childhood, trying to remember what it was that most brought me alive as a child. 

Childhood Memories, by Jennifer Browdy

The first collage of childhood photos shows me loving the woods, the beach, my family, and my pets—all of which I still love now, decades later. What’s missing is a childhood love that apparently never got photographed—my love of horses and riding, something I had totally given up as I moved on into adulthood.

It was only after doing the writerly quests that culminated in my memoir that I remembered how much joy horseback riding had given me as a child, and went looking to bring that exhilaration back into my life, decades later. 

Et voilà! The second collage shows the happy results of that quest. 

Riding Memories, by Jennifer Browdy

My point in sharing this is to emphasize how the inner work we do through purposeful memoir can lead to all kinds of transformative changes in our present and future. It’s a contemplative journey that is valuable even if you don’t seek to complete and publish a full memoir.

You will come away from the weekend with a pile of new writing, along with many new questions and new avenues of inquiry to explore as this long winter continues.

I hope you’ll try it with me and see for yourself.  I look forward to greeting you in the circle on Friday! 

Jennifer Browdy is a professor of comparative literature, writing and media arts at Bard College/Simon’s Rock in western Massachusetts, where she has taught for more than 25 years, with a focus on women’s personal narratives from around the world, and communications strategies for social and environmental justice. She is also a professor in the online Open Society University Network, administered by Bard College with partner institutions around the world. 

Jennifer’s environmental memoir, What I Forgot …And Why I Remembered, was a finalist for the 2018 International Book Awards. Her writer’s guide, The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir, won a 2017 Nautilus Silver Award. Her latest book, Purposeful Memoir as a Quest for a Thriving Future, features her photographs of beautiful Nova Scotia, Canada, where she is a longtime summer resident. She has also created the Purposeful Memoir card deck of provocative photographs paired with evocative catalysts for writing.

Jennifer provides coaching and manuscript review for authors in fiction and nonfiction, and offers memoir workshops online and in person. Current online workshop series include Birth Your Truest Story, and Purposeful Memoir as a Quest for a Thriving Future. 

Find out more at JenniferBrowdy.com.

Your Life is Your Life, by Renu Sarah Thomas

Each week in the TLAN course, Changing the World with Words, I  looked forward to the prompts and resources that took me on unexpected paths of self- discovery. My writing was almost always an outpouring from the depths of my heart, often as a poem and I did not focus on the craft. The more mature writing of others was invigorating but also intimidating and I hesitated to share my work which paled in comparison, and the way I used rhyme. 

A deep dive into the reading resources led me to viewing an interview with Pádraig Ó Tuama who says that poetry and rhyme offer a boundary that can help to contain our thoughts. This simple insight shifted something within me, in understanding my current style of writing and unashamedly accepting my creative process without comparison. So,  albeit with mild trepidation, here’s a poem of mine:

Inspired by the poem ‘The Laughing Heart’  by Charles Bukowski, one of the creative prompts on the course.

Your life is Your Life

Your life is your life.
It may not seem so now
Your life is your life,
It’s ok to ask how.

Your life is your life
Even when you feel caged in
Your life is your life
Scratch a way, use even a pin

Your life is your life
It ebbs and it flows. 
Your life is your life
In the midst of the blows

Your life is your life
Take the wheel in your hands
Your life is your life
Fly and decide where to land

Your life is your life
Be the change you want to see
Your life is your life
It always was, blessed be

Renu Thomas is a BAAT registered Art Psychotherapist, educator and workshop facilitator. Born in India, she has spent her growing years with her parents in England, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia and has lived in Dubai (UAE) for most of her adult life. She has a Masters in Textiles and Clothing from India and a Masters in Art Psychotherapy from Edinburgh, Scotland . She has extensive experience working with adults and children of varied ethnicities and having witnessed their stories, has a growing interest in the field of displacement and trauma. She is a self-taught artist and although she finds ceramics and acrylic painting centering and enjoyable, it is through writing that she has found liberation and empowerment. She passionately encourages others to pursue some form of creative expression, embrace their authentic selves and live on purpose. 

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

1/5