Editor’s Note: We love to showcase work of people in the TLA Network and broader community. This is the TEDx talk given by one of our members and presenters, Amy Oestreicher. Amy has also written for the blog, here.
Editor’s Note: Amy has written for us before, and her story is a powerful one. With the Power of Words Conference coming in two weeks, we asked her to share more. We will also post her TEDx talk within the next week.
Bringing Gutless & Grateful to the Transformative Language Arts Network Conference last year was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and I couldn’t be happier to be presenting again this year! In my workshop, I’m sharing my near death experience and unique personal story with humor, hunger and heart, and helping others realize their potential as storytellers who can heal through their own word and powerful personal stories.
I’ve presented this workshop on college campus, at conferences, theatres, hospitals, and many other audiences from Hawaii to Pennsylvania, to survivors of sexual assault to business entrepreneurs, medical professionals to law students. Everyone has a story to tell – some of us just don’t know it yet! Once we discover this, it’s incredibly empowering, and my greatest joy is watching people realize this for themselves.
From the time I could remember, I have always possessed an intense passion for the world of words and music. All my life, I had dreamed of pursuing a career in theatre. However, at 18, I was rushed to the ER, and to summarize very briefly, my stomach exploded, I was in a coma for six months, and I was unable to eat or drink a drop of water for over three years. After 27 surgeries, I was miraculously reconnected with whatever I had left. However, to persevere through those tumultuous years took great inner and outer strength. I relied on my creativity to get through. My therapy was purely based in the world of theatre, art, writing, dance, music, and whatever else I felt was an area that I could express myself appropriately. The arts were a way for me to express whatever felt too painful and overwhelming to put into words. They also helped me process what I was feeling. But most importantly, they served to be the greatest reward acting as a medium where I could still engage with my community, reach out to others, and make a difference in this world while utilizing my passion. Arts were my way of connecting with the world, sharing my story, and spreading my message of hope, strength, and finding beauty in whatever life brings you.
I was not able to fully appreciate the beauty of my detours until I was able to share them. As a performer, all I’ve wanted to do was give back to the world. But now I have an even greater gift to give: a story to tell. Until I could put into words what had happened to me, I couldn’t fully heal. Telling my story is the magic push I needed to move forward, and that is what inspired me to bring my workshop to TLAN for the second year in a row: to help others bring out the story burgeoning inside of them.
As actors, writers, creators, humans, we tell stories constantly. I first told mine over four years ago. Not only to myself, but to complete strangers and New York theatre-goers. Fresh out of my 27th surgery, I performed words from journal entries I wrote years ago as a way to pass the time between the endless series of medical interventions. Every time I “perform” what happened to me, I find myself somehow transformed in the process. Theatre has the power to change lives, both for those directly involved and those who watch. Theatre teaches us we’re capable of anything – and usually tells us this at times we need it most.
I’m truly touched by how my story has affected so many people and it only serves to spur on my creativity more and more. Even on the more difficult days, knowing I can have an impact is just one extra nudge to get me going in the morning.
It’s really the ability to give back, and to have my work serve as a lens, a mirror, a window that others can look through, or look into, and see themselves or whatever they need to see at that moment. To feel whatever they need to feel. That’s how I connect with my world – that is my aliveness. As a member of this human race, it’s how I can contribute. Isn’t all we ever want: to make a mark on the world?
“Gutless & Grateful,” the honest one-woman musical story of my life. It’s my story, shared through a medium I’m passionate about. I was finally able to heal and move on once I was able to share, and now I’m so excited to help others share the story within them in whatever medium that they feel most comfortable in.
Why share at all? It takes “guts” to talk — and sing — about my sexual abuse, my anger, my guilt, how I lost hope in things ever getting better. But I share to show that things do get better with patience, trust and resilience. I share to give courage and a sense of belonging to people who are struggling with all kinds of mental health or physical challenges, but also to help build a campus that gives everyone the kind of awareness and generosity of spirit that makes that world a better place. If we all share our “detours,” we see that our detours are not detours at all. Every road leads somewhere — we just need to hang in long enough to catch the flowers along the way. The more we share our stories, the more we realize we’re not alone.
Through the transformative power of words, we can all share our stories. I can’t wait to hear yours!
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, writer for Huffington Post, speaker for TEDx and RAINN, health advocate, survivor, award-winning actress, and playwright, sharing the lessons learned from trauma through her writing, mixed media art, performance and inspirational speaking.
As the creator of the Gutless & Grateful, her one-woman autobiographical musical, she’s toured theatres nationwide, along with a program combining mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness and Broadway Theatre for college campuses.
To celebrate her own “beautiful detour”, Amy created the #LoveMyDetour campaign, to help others thrive through difficulties.
As Eastern Regional Recipient of Convatec’s Great Comebacks Award, she’s contributed to over 70 notable online and print publications, and her story has appeared on NBC’s TODAY, CBS, Cosmopolitan, among others.
She has devised workshops for conferences nationwide, and is this year’s keynote speaker for the Hawaii Pacific Rim International Conference on Diversity and Disability. Learn more: amyoes.com.
Scott Youmans knows his way around Right Livelihood, having left a lucrative career in the corporate world for the work of his heart, which turned out to be its own winding rock trip. He’s also a superb facilitator of helping others find not just their dream work, but how to make their present work richer with meaning and joy. Here’s an interview on his upcoming online class, “Making the Leap into the Work You Love,” which runs June 29 – August 9. Sign up before June 10 for the Summer Buzz sale and save 10%.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: What in your life led you to design and develop this class?
Scott Youmans: Over a decade ago, when I facilitated the first incarnation of Making the Leap into Work You Love, I was in the midst of transitioning out of the corporate world and into something … unknown. I was about to complete my Individualized Master of Arts program at Goddard College with a concentration in Transformative Language Arts, and at the same time leaving my full-time job to start a web consulting business. The thoughts and emotions were swirling: fear and uncertainty, joy and curiosity. What would happen next? How would I make a living doing what I loved on this new path?
In the midst of all of this, the TLA Network had come into being, and we noticed that our members were interested in learning more about the practice of Right Livelihood, and in particular, many of us were asking, “how do I make a living doing what I love?” The Network began to consider how we might create space for practitioners to approach this question. Drawing from the whole of my life experiences, including experiential workshops and my own writing practice, certain threads––poems, exercises, videos––began to tie together to help guide me in exploring answers to this question. It was easy to see how these could serve others on the journey. After a little encouragement from the chair of the Network, I set about building this class to be part of an early Power of Words Conference. It has since become a recurring staple of the Network’s offerings.
CMG: What can people expect from this class?
SY: At its heart, this class is a journey into one’s self. My hope is that it is a gift, a space for being and becoming, with a focus on career and right livelihood. Each week will have a primary focus and exercise, along with accompanying readings, videos, and activities. The participants will form a community around the course, offering feedback and support, and asking for support in return. The class will begin by examining each participant’s journey by looking at the choices and beliefs that brought us to this place and time. We’ll then begin crafting a vision, informed by our past, and rooted in our heart’s desires. The class will end with specific community-supported steps to advance our vision.
CMG: How does this focus on the leap into the work you love manifest in your own life, art and work over the years?
SY: That word, leap, has a certain ring to it in my mind. When I first left my job in the corporate world, I imagined myself leaping off of a spinning carousel. I had a belief that the carousel was built by someone else, that it was spinning too fast to see any other path, and that I had to stay on it for survival. Leaping off of the carousel meant leaving the security of a full time job with benefits, it meant leaving a career path that seemed inevitable.
Since leaping, both professionally and in offering this class, I think I’ve been able to hold onto the possibility of finding a way to be in the world that allows me to share my gifts in a healthy and fulfilling way. By holding on to this possibility, I haven’t really stopped leaping. I continue to find enjoyable ways of earning a living that meet my needs in that moment.
Not everyone has a job that they love. I know many people whose jobs merely facilitate their passions, whether it’s their family, a hobby, or a side business. In many cases, to fully leap into this other hobby or side business may not be healthy, but it may one day be sustainable. Often, these extracurricular professions provide the joy and satisfaction that can sustain someone through their workday worlds.
Primarily, this focus means that I keep the idea of “work I love” present in my heart. I use it both to seek the work that I love, and to make the work that I’m doing loveable, or worthy of love. How I show-up at work, the tone I set, the language I use, impacts both my job and the work environment of everyone around me. If I make my job one that I love, then perhaps those around me will be able to better love their jobs too.
One of the ways this focus has manifest in my life has been though my most recent job change and move. There was a time when I recognized that my current job wasn’t as healthy for me as I wanted it to be. For example, I worked alone at home and I missed having daily in-person connections with my co-workers. From this realization I began to imagine and to write about ways I could earn a living using all of my gifts. I created an elaborate plan––we’ll call it “Plan A”––to transition into Unitarian Universalist Ministry. It would take six years of part-time education along with internships and credentialing while I continued working. A year into this plan, I was laid off, disrupting everything and creating an immediate need for income. Now, I also had Plan B, which involved a degree and credentialing in the field of Marriage and Family Counseling, and Plan C, which was to work for a company where I could combine my technology skills and my spiritual path. The layoff forced me to look again for companies that matched Plan C, and this time, within a month I found a job with a company whose mission is to disseminate spiritual wisdom. No extra degree needed. No additional credentialing. From this experience, I learned to not overcomplicate things. Sometimes holding on to a vision means letting it go. You might just find that you get something better than you could have imagined.
Learn more about Scott’s upcoming class here, and consider registering by June 10 to save 10%.
I’m delighted to be offering an online class about writing from where we live, from our bodies to the cosmos, as part of the Transformative Language Arts Network. Since I usually interview teachers about their upcoming classes, here I am interviewing myself about the details and impetus behind “Coming Home to Body, Earth and Time: Writing from Where We Live,” which runs from June 29 – Aug. 9, all online, so you can engage with the class from anywhere at anytime. Register by June 10 to take advantage of the Summer Buzz sale, and save 10% on the class (and all other upcoming class this summer and early fall).
Caryn-the-Interviewer: So Caryn, and by the way, I love the way you spell your name, what led you to develop this class?
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: Thanks, Caryn, and yes, I like the spelling too. My mom found it in a novel she was reading when pregnant with me. As for the class, I’ve been grappling with what it means to live in a body and in a place forever, it seems, and some years back, it became very apparent to me how our bodies are our most local address. Where I live sparks a great deal of my writing and my understanding of how seasonal tilts around us speak to seasonal tilts within us. So I wanted to offer others gateways into exploring what inspiration, ideas, breakthroughs and meanings we can find by sinking our roots further into where we live, starting with the body, and rippling out to explore the home, watershed, ecoregion, earth and cosmos.
CMG: Each week will include ample writing prompts and discussion about ways to engage with embodied writing that truly homes in on where we live and who we are, so it’s very much an exploration of how we name and claim ourselves, and what stories we tell ourselves and are told by our culture about, based on where we are, who we’re supposed to be. A lot of the writing prompts are aimed toward greater liberation and awareness, which obviously go hand-in-hand. For example, in week three, we’ll look at watershed moments in our lives — moments that changed everything for us or at least one big thing — and from those moments, what greater possibilities opened out as well as what stories ended or very much changed. By honoring how our narratives have shaped our lives, including what stories we needed to hold tight to as scaffolding to get to the next place, we can cultivate greater freedom to change what no longer serves us.
Each week will also include a visiting writer via his/her writings, interviews, and a little essay I share about the writer, and these writers span genres, such as essayist David Abram, novelist Barbara Kingslover, singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, and poet William Stafford. We’ll also have a short discussion on the craft of writing powerfully since we can best understand and evoke the places we are when our images are vivid, our rhythms strong, and our stories evocative.
CtI: You’re someone who writes in many genres. Would you say “writing from where you live” is evident in all your own writing?
CMG: Good question, Caryn, and of course, as with most things, the answer is “it depends.” I’m very focused on the physical place of where I live and travel because I find such sustenance from where I am at this very moment, particularly the living earth. Right now, I’m writing answers to your questions from my front porch, and I live in the country with an up-close view of Osage Orange and ceder trees filled with songbirds broadcasting their love and fight songs. Most of my poetry, if not all, finds grounding in images of place, but then again, just about all poetry uses images, and images always evoke the senses: what we can see, touch, taste, hear and smell. Plus, I see the poem as a house of its own that readers enter, find a good sofa to lie down on, and then spend a little time in, listening to the voices of this place. My two memoirs, The Sky Begins at Your Feet: A Memoir of Cancer, Community and Coming Home to the Body, and Poem on the Range: A Poet Laureate’s Love Song to Kansas are both very place-focused, and Sky is also speaking from the place of the body in a time of great change. My novel, The Divorce Girl, and novel to be published next year, Miriam’s Well, are stories in which the protagonist is shaped and infused by her place — where she lives and travels, and how her internal landscape shifts as well.
Yet what draws me to this class isn’t just what I write but more so, what I live. As a longtime bioregionalist — someone who keep learning how to live from where I live — I see the body, the landscape, and the night sky as well as the shifting eco-community of what David Abram calls the “more-than-human” species among us as continually showing me the way through the crazy losses and wild joys of this beautiful life.
CtI: Thanks, Caryn, and it’s interesting that you’re writing from a porch with a view of those trees and birds because I’m on a porch with the same view. Maybe we should meet up sometime for tea.
When my younger daughter was born, she greeted me with her rigid body, as if the air had shocked her. This girl will not easy to raise, I thought. And, for a while, it was true. I was never a believer in old-souls, but Nadia appeared to have come to me with so many lessons already learned. I was never sure who was raising whom. What should my answer have been when, at age two, she said to me, “When I was your mommy, I used to give you your pacifiers”?
“You were a good mommy,” I answered, thinking this was an appropriate response.
Then, when she was eight years old, Nadia was diagnosed with a Ewing’s sarcoma. I had no doubts about what I needed to do now. I had to sit with Nadia in the hospital playing endless rounds of Spit and watching every episode of “S Club 7.” I had to administer medications and change bandages. I had to pulverize Nadia’s food and rub her tummy. One of Nadia’s doctors told me that he and his colleagues would do their best to cure my daughter. My job was to continue to raise her. I was reminded that Nadia would need more than my caregiving.
At first, my writing practice offered no illumination as to what kind of mother I needed to be for Nadia. I have a chapter in my latest book, The Write Prescription: Telling Your Story to Live With and Beyond Illness, in which I write, “Sometimes I just need to throw my words on a page. Splat! I…I…I…, No…No…No…, You…You…You…, How…How…How…, Can’t…Can’t…Can’t… No holding back, no reflection, no filter.” But howling at the page, however necessary, does not make room for reflection.
Over time, as I went back over my words, I began to get tired of myself. I had to get off my rant. The only way to do that was to stop making myself the center of all my thoughts. What became obvious as I wrote was that I had no lightness about me. Nadia—still a child who believed in fairies and dreamed of flying— began to shrink whenever I came near with my somber face. When I told her that her hair was going to fall out, she refused to engage with me and ran to join her brother and sister as soon as she could.
As I began to shape my rants into a book that would eventually become Motherhood Exaggerated, I could see that I was an unsympathetic character. I had to rewrite myself. I would think more like a child. I would laugh more. I would take my cues from Nadia rather than follow my old patterns.
I debuted my new character the day Nadia’s hair fell out. I was awake before her and saw hairs strewn over her pillow and on the sheet. As Nadia slept, I brushed my hand along the top of her head. The hair came off like dandelion fluff. If this weren’t happening to my daughter, I could think it was kind of cool. But maybe I could make it cool for Nadia. So when she opened her eyes, I told her the day had come. Her hair was falling out. “Here. Feel it,” I said. ‘You’ll never have a chance to pull your hair out like this again.” And so the hair pulling began and even brought Nadia’s siblings running to participate. At dinner that night, Nadia presented me with a bowl of “angel hair pasta.”
As I wrote, my character acquired other attributes. Having been raised with a strict moral code, I soon found myself in cahoots with Nadia’s twin brother, sneaking him into the hospital even though he was too young to visit. I had to write compassion into my character so I could see the role I played in keeping my husband out of our children’s lives and to recognize the full scope of his contribution to the family.
What I saw most clearly as I told my story was that I had spent the first eight years of Nadia’s life shrinking from what she needed me to be. When she challenged me, since age four, with her questions about death, when she sobbed over the pain of others, when her first words, “I do”, became her mantra, I was too impressed by her depth, her empathy, and her independence. But Nadia didn’t need answers; she needed a place to bring her fears, a shelter when her own power overwhelmed her. By the end of writing Motherhood Exaggerated I finally understood what I should have said to Nadia when she said she gave me my pacifiers when she was my mother. “You were a good mommy but it’s my turn to be the mother now.”
(Note: Nadia is now twenty-four and healthy and exchanged her dreams of flight for dance.)
Judith Hannan is the author of Motherhood Exaggerated (CavanKerry Press, 2012), her memoir of discovery and transformation during her daughter’s cancer treatment and her transition into survival. Her essays have appeared in such publications as Woman’s Day, Opera News, The Huffington Post, The Healing Muse, ZYZZYVA, Twins Magazine, and The Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. She teaches writing about personal experience to homeless mothers and at-risk adolescents as well as to medical students, and is a judge of the annual essay contest sponsored by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation for Humanism-in-Medicine. She served as Director of Development of the 92nd Street Y and then for the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. She now serves on the board of the Museum, Jody Oberfelder Dance Projects, as well as on three boards affiliated with the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York—the Adolescent Health Center (where she now serves as President of the Advisory Board), the Children’s Center Foundation, and Global Health. She lives in New York.
AR: I use the selfie because I feel it is a tool to help us better know and understand ourselves, as well as to present to the world a narrative that we have created. Many would agree that it is often easier to process emotions or thoughts or events once they are written down and ‘out of your head’ on the paper. I believe the same can be said for selfies; when we take photos of ourselves and our lives and then look at them, it helps us to see from a new perspective. Just as a poem or a blog post can be used to process something and share it with the world, a selfie can too. I think selfies are often viewed as silly or narcissistic because we’re taking pictures of ourselves, sharing them on the Internet often, and getting joy out of the ‘likes’ and comments we get! However, there is a lot to be said about the way that selfies help us to write our own stories and present ourselves the way we wish others to see us, which is especially powerful for marginalized populations.
AR: I believe it is powerful anytime we combine more than one art form! The reason I choose both of these forms of creativity though is that they interact so nicely together, one visual and one word-based. I personally enjoy using writing to reflect on visual works. This allows both ourselves as creators, and whatever audience may see the pieces, to have a visual piece (which may be abstract, or at first glance just look like any other ‘selfie’) further explained and explored in the writing. I think of the Japanese Haiga, which combines a haiku with a piece of visual art; the two are supposed to work together to communicate a message that is greater than if either the poem or the artwork was standing alone. It is my hope that the combination of selfies with writing will do the same in this class.
Trauma affects every individual differently. In the face of adversity, drama therapy makes healing possible for all, re-anchoring us in our soul’s dream.
For me, that dream was musical theatre.
Let me rephrase that. I grew up assuming my life was a musical. Call it the “theatre bug”, call me a “drama queen” or a great big ham – I lived for the world of the stage. For me, singing and acting were ways I could connect with the world around me. When I took a deep, grounded breath from my gut, I sang what my heart longed to express. I found comfort in the words of my favorite composers. I read scripts like they were novels. I would play with my playbills from various shows I had seen like they were my Barbie dolls. Through theatre, I had a place in this world. I could make believe by inserting myself into characters from every era, situation and mindset, while still expressing my own individuality.
I was the kid who got sent to the principal’s office because when the teacher left the room, I would jump on her desk and start tap-dancing. I was the girl who forced every unwilling classmate to join me in a Les Miserables medley, assigning them their designated parts to pass the 30-minute school bus ride.
Even all the way up to high school, I was the theatre-girl. It was my identity, my passion, my livelihood. I sacrificed my social life and gave up many opportunities to immerse myself in what I loved.
I’ve always been warned not to put all of my eggs in one basket, but theatre ran through my veins – it was all I thought about, lived and dreamed. I’d write songs in my assignment notebook as I waited for the school bell to ring, then hop on the train to the next open call I’d read about in Backstage. When I fought with my brothers, I could only debate with them if we could do in the spirit of a musical theatre duet. They weren’t so keen on that.
So what do you do when you’ve invested everything into your passion and you can’t follow it anymore? I’ve always thought about what would a world-concert pianist would do if he injured his hand, or a dancer breaking a leg…
…but sprains heal and wounds can eventually mend. Dire circumstances felt much more long lasting; when at 18 I awoke from a coma. Although the medical staff—that suddenly became everyday faces—was more concerned about keeping my organs and me alive, I was still trying to grapple with one frightening new concern:
Would I ever be able to sing and dance on stage again?
With a ventilator and a tracheotomy, I couldn’t even talk. From months of bed-rest, the first time I was able to stand up, I was alarmed at how they trembled, as if my legs were Jell-O. I lost the energy to even think about what I loved, and being unable to eat or drink in these new medical circumstances turned my once-steady focus to mush and irritability.
I remember asking every person I could find in the hospital if they thought I would ever be able to sing and dance again. I was faced with many apologetic “I don’t knows”, sighs, shrugs, and awkward changing of the topic. However, I remember one occupational therapist gave me words that to her, felt like words of encouragement. She looked at me compassionately, and said, “You never know – the human body is amazing. I had one patient who showed no signs of hope, and a year later, when he was discharged, he only needed a wheelchair!” (These were not exactly the words of encouragement I was looking for.)
With time, patience, and dogged determination, I was eventually discharged from the hospital. What I’m glossing over are the multitudes of surgeries, setbacks and frustrations, because what was the most important was my passion – I never forgot how I missed the stage. Even not being able to talk or stand up on my own, I still visualized me singing and dancing. Without theatre, I felt disconnected, purposeless, a has-been. I missed the vibrant girl I remembered being the first to sign up for auditions, now condemned to a realm of medical isolation.
I had always had a dream of combining song and dialogue in a show of my own design. I love the idea of storytelling through theatre, but as a teen, I didn’t really have much of a story to tell. But sometimes, a setback is an opportunity in disguise. Suddenly, I had a tale of hurdles, triumph, and heart.
Eight years after my coma, I was finally headed towards a life of medical stability. I learned through experience that things can heal with time, and that’s not always the prettiest or easiest way. It was an extremely difficult journey, yet when I started to put together a musical of my life, things felt like they had happened for a reason. Now I had a story to tell, a message to share.
My one-woman musical autobiography, Gutless & Grateful, started out as stapled pages of my journal – a few pages from the thousands of journal entries I had completed when unable to eat or drink for years. I selected 16 songs—some of which I had written – that had always resonated with my journey and me, and loosely strung them together to sing for my own therapy. I’d perform Gutless & Grateful for my parents, my dogs, but mostly for myself. Through the songs, I could allow myself a safe place to feel the charged emotions I was still trying to process from years of medical trauma.
With no formal diagnosis, roadmap, or reason to have hope at all, creativity became my lifeline and what allowed me to thrive. Devising theatre from within helped me find words for the loss, grief, and frustration I felt, and words led to gratitude. To cope with not being able to eat or drink for years, I typed thousands of journal entries to to prove that I was still alive, kicking, and breathing – isolated from the entire world and from my entire former life, but still here, and still desperate to live some kind of substantial, meaningful life.
I called it my “world in a binder”. My parents called it “Amy’s little play.” It was no surprise when I had many looks of concern and gentle warnings when I decided to book a theatre in New York for my world premiere!
I performed Gutless & Grateful for the first time in NYC in October 2012. It was a frightening, bold, vulnerable, and breathtaking experience. In it, I told everything – the pain, the medical, the joy, the infuriating – with music, drama, and humor, most importantly. I had played “roles” before, but for the first time, I was honestly revealing my own medical and emotional struggles for hundreds of strangers every night. It was a risk to lay my soul bare, but the reward was in how my own vulnerability caused others to become vulnerable and moved by my own struggles.
My show dared to explore a very personal topic – what could have been a tragedy – in a comedic, yet poignant musical – the culmination of years of struggling in the dark, and the spark in me that refused to die. Although my circumstances were unexpected, a nuisance, difficult, hard to grapple with, and frustrating, by reenacting my story for others, I rewrote my own narrative.
We are instinctively creative beings. Through the transformative power of dramatherapy, we gain adaptability and create a positive, empowered attitude toward obstacles, physical or mental struggles, hardships, and trauma. Our vision is a world where “detours” in life are everyday blessings.
As we enter the new millennium, the world is faced with massive challenges as well as opportunities to solve them. Communication is a very powerful tool. Words have the power to engage, to move ideas from the fuzzy margins to the focused center of our attention, and to inspire us to think in new ways. Theatre, arts, expressive communication, language, and learning can move us to the center of life’s stage. Gutless & Grateful empowered me to move forward and spark a sense of rejuvenation, renewal, and hope from within.
When I started sharing my own story, I realized that I wasn’t alone. Other people were struggling with what I had faced in isolation for years – shame, fear, PTSD, anxiety, depression, loneliness- I wanted to encourage people to start speaking up, and bring marginalized voices into the spotlight. I traveled to theatres, hospitals, classrooms, old friends and leaped at any opportunity to speak my truth and feel it resonate within my body, reintegrating the pre-coma and post-coma halves of myself, and reuniting them with aliveness. When I realized how combining theatre with powerful firsthand experience could transform lives, I developed my little-show-that-could into a mental health advocacy and sexual assault prevention program for students. Nearly losing my life at 18 years old, I’m now reaching out to students at that same pivotal point in their own lives.
Medically, my life is far from perfect, but now when a surgery goes wrong, I use it as more material for my show – if we can’t learn to laugh from hardship, we can’t learn anything. And for me, when I learn, I feel alive – that just as trees grow, change and evolve with every season, I can too. Through Gutless & Grateful, I’m sharing my story and helping others find the gifts and the gratitude in the hardships. And in healing other people, I heal my own self a bit more every day. I’m not there yet, but just like my show – I’m on the road.
As a performer, all I want to do is give back to the world. Being up on stage and singing is one part of the joy, but what brings the process full circle is knowing that somewhere in the audience, I am affecting someone and making them think in a different way. That is the power of theatre – stirring you to see things differently. Doing what I love, my passion once again can freely flow through my veins, and I’m a person now, not just a patient or a medical miracle.
Passion may not heal 27 surgeries, but passion has healed my heart. Theatre has re-anchored me in that passion. And for that, I am Gutlessly Grateful.
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, speaker for RAINN, writer for The Huffington Post, award-winning health advocate, actress and playwright, eagerly sharing the lessons learned from trauma through her writing, performance, art and speaking. As the writer, director and star of the Gutless & Grateful, her one-woman autobiographical musical, she’s toured theatres across the country, earning rave reviews and accolades since it’s BroadwayWorld Award-nominated NYC debut.
As a visual artist, her works have been featured in esteemed galleries and solo exhibitions, and her mixed media workshops emphasize creativity as an essential mindset.
Amy’s “beautiful detour” inspired her to create the #LoveMyDetour movement, a campaign inspiring people to flourish because of, rather than in spite of challenges. As the Eastern Regional Recipient of the Great Comebacks Award, Amy has spoken to hundreds of WOCN nurses on behalf of ostomates nationwide. She is a regular lifestyle, wellness, and arts contributor for several notable online and print publications, and has written for over 50 online magazines and blogs. on Her story has appeared on the TODAY Show, CBS, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen Magazine, among others.
Amy’s passion for the arts as a means of healing and expression led her to devise storytelling workshops for the Transformative Language Arts Network National Conference, the Eating Recovery Center Foundation, and The League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling.
Determined to bridge the gap of communication between wellness resources on college campuses and students, Amy is currently touring college campuses with a program combining mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness and Broadway Theatre.
More info at amyoes.com
Kelly DuMar – who is teaching the online class “Your Memoir as Monologue” starting Jan. 4 — is a poet, playwright and expressive arts workshop facilitator who loves leading new and experienced writers through dynamic writing exercises and meaningful sharing that leave you feeling engaged, intrigued and surprised by the depth of your experience. Her award-winning plays have been produced around the US and Canada, and are published by Brooklyn, Heuer, Youth Plays, and Smith & Kraus Audition Anthologies. She’s also author of a non-fiction book, Before You Forget: The Wisdom of Writing Diaries for Your Children, and a chapbook, All These Cures. Kelly has been a leader of new play development in the Boston area for over a decade, and she founded and produces the Our Voices Festival of Women Playwrights at Wellesley College, now in its 10th year. She’s a certified psychodramatist and a playback theatre artist. Kelly is honored to serve on the board of The International Women’s Writing Guild and the TLA Council, and she facilitates Let’s Talk TLA, a bi-monthly teleconference where she interviews a notable TLA practitioner. Here’s a brief interview she did with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg (CMG): What inspired you to put together this class?
Kelly DuMar (KD): Ten years ago, I founded a play festival for women playwrights. Not just experienced playwrights, but also inviting women who might never have written anything for the stage before. Since then, Our Voices has grown from an evening of staged readings of Boston area women playwrights to a day-long workshop which has supported nearly a hundred women playwrights to develop plays with actors and directors. Every year, I wake up the day after producing Our Voices and think – it can’t get better than this one. Every year, as they’re saying goodnight, the playwrights tell me I must be super exhausted, but I’m not tired. I’m so filled with energy after this jam-packed twelve-hour day. I didn’t spend energy, I created it. Producing Our Voices lets me spend my day listening to women show and tell their unique stories as creatively as they can in a safe, supportive environment. I love how one participant last year describes her experience in Our Voices, because she nails why writing monologues based on life experience can be so validating:
“Writing is my solace and joy, coming to me in bursts of laughter or darkness. I have stories to tell yet, at times, I shrink from sharing, doubting my own voice. Through more workshops and conversation, I hope to strengthen that confidence in my point of view and reinvigorate the process to write the things I don’t yet dare to consider.”
CMG: How would this class potentially benefit students?
KD: We need to re-learn how to be playful as adults. In my training as a creative arts counselor, I discovered the healing power of imagination. I saw how the joy and power of dramatic play could help people heal, grow and change. The dynamic skills I learned and practiced as a psychotherapist have helped me grow as a creative writer and I use them to help writers of all kinds. My workshops involve unique, playful, surprising ways to evoke storytelling. I believe workshop experiences should be safe places for self-expression where feedback is non-judgmental and encouraging.
It’s empowering to believe we’re creative. I grew up thinking I wasn’t creative and wishing I was. It was only when I took risks to get out of my comfort zone that I opened the door to a creative life. So many people think they aren’t creative, but everyone is. Creative energy gets blocked for a lot of reasons. It can be unblocked pretty easily in a playful, fail-safe environment.
The healing power of writing is real and accessible. People are so amazingly resilient! Writing is a natural way to find out how resilient you are – and sharing what you write inspires other people to feel hopeful and resilient.
We need support to grow as writers. A creative life is risky business, and every writer needs a support system to thrive. I wrote my first short play when I was forty years old without any guidance. I soon found a playwriting group in Boston, Playwrights’ Platform. I was afraid to open my mouth for the first few meetings, but Playwrights’ Platform soon hurled me into writing, critiquing, directing and producing plays and theatre festivals. Our small first steps can have a big impact.
Collaboration is rewarding, and writing for the stage requires it. Writing can be lonely. Writing for the stage gets us away from our desk, into a theatre, and into a collaborative relationship with actors, directors, and audiences. Here’s what an Our Voices participant shared about writing for the stage:
“One of the things I love most about writing plays is the possibility of witnessing one’s words and dramatic vision come alive on stage. So much more gratifying than slogging alone through a three hundred page novel.”
CMG: How has doing this practice helped you develop your art of words, and a better sense of how to live meaningfully?
KD: I love monologues. Listening to them, helping others write them, and writing them myself. First person narratives are gripping invitations to audiences, particularly when they present a dramatic journey, and moments of survival of someone – a person, a character – who has enlisted my compassion and concern.
CMG: What do you love most about this work?
KD: The invitation to enchantment. The theatre, darkened, the stage lit. Whether I’m in the audience or behind the scenes, I’m involved and transported by possibility. The theatrical question explored, What if. . . is my invitation to change others and be change myself, through storytelling.
CMG: How did you find your way into your TLA passions?
KD: As a psychodramatist and playback theatre artist, playwright and poet, I naturally gravitate to making connections with other writer/artists/helpers. Psychodrama is the most powerful method I’ve encountered of helping people use imagination to grow. I grew up writing and wanting to be a writer, but chose to pursue graduate school as a “helper” instead. Soon, my training in psychodrama gave me access to my imagination, and it was only then, I feel, that I really began writing what I call my truth and beauty.
Find out more about Your Memoir as Monologue: How to Create Dynamic Dramatic Monologues About Healing and Transformation for Performance at http://tlanetwork.org. Special holiday discount if registered by 1/1/16.
Angie River is a writer, educator, activist, and performance artist who is teaching a dynamic online class for the TLA Network, “The Five Senses and the Four Elements: Connecting with the Body and Nature Through Poetry.” She has taught writing workshops and done performances in various states across the country, and is published in “Tidepools Literary Magazine,” “Reading for Hunger Relief,” The Body is Not an Apology webpage, and the upcoming anthology “Queering Sexual Violence,” as well as having her own blog (https://nittygrittynakedness.wordpress.com/) and zines. Angie fully believes in the power of writing to help us gain a better understanding of ourselves, to build connections and community, and to make personal and social change. Special discount for registering for the class by the end of the year!
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: What inspired you to put together this class?
Angie River: I have always enjoyed the experience of writing in and about nature. In my undergraduate work, I took a class from a wonderful professor, Bruce Goebel, who talked about incorporating “small noticings” into our poetry, and as a foundation for our writing. Being able to see the world through these small noticings has impacted how I experience the world. More recently, in doing reading and work around mental and emotional well-being, I learned a very helpful grounding technique in which you notice, using each of your senses, something in your environment. Reflecting on these things I was moved to put together this class, in which participants will practice “small noticings” using each of their senses, in various realms of nature, and then incorporate those into their writing
CMG: This sounds like a splendid way to help students open up their writing to greater vitality. How else do you see this class speaking to people’s lives?
AR: Not only will this class help students enhance their writing, but I think that it will also enable them to practice being present in the world in the small moments. This can be a vital practice when living in a fast-paced and often overwhelming world. Personally, I have found the practice of slowing down and intentionally noticing the details around me to reduce my anxiety and help me ground myself. I hope that students will experience something similar through their practices in this class.
CMG: Tell us more about how this practice has helped you and can help others develop their art of words, and a better sense of how to live meaningfully.
AR: The act of slowing down, using all of my senses, and paying attention to the various elements of nature and the world around me has helped me to be more detailed in my writing. It has also allowed me to connect more to myself and better understand the way I move through this world, which translates to me being able to write more grounded and personal poetry and narratives.
CMG: What do you love most about the practice of writing?
AR: There are two main things I love about writing: the ability to transform often jumbled thoughts into meaningful art, and the ways in which writing connects me to others.
CMG: How did you find your way into your TLA passions?
AR: I didn’t know it was TLA at the time, but I’ve been writing since the 4th grade. For me, writing has always been an outlet where I could express the ways I felt and the things I thought. For me, as a very shy child and teen, this was essential. Without writing I don’t know how I would have managed my difficult times. The same holds true today; I write to heal, to process events in my life, to connect with my self and others, and to further experience the world around me. My love for writing transformed into a love also for performance poetry, which then transformed into a love for performance in general. My Transformative Language Arts practices have done just that – transformed me! Because of the huge impact writing, poetry, and performance have had on my life, I try to share these passions with others as much as possible.
Learn more about Angie’s online class here.
November of 2010 found me touring the state of Kansas with our then poet laureate, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, and several other poets from around the state. The objective was to save the arts, especially poetry, in Kansas, and to take poetry to all corners of the state. I’d written a poem about my Mother’s suicide a couple of years previously. That in and of itself was huge as she died when I was three and at 55 I was finally able to begin talking about her.
Our group of poets had been given an extremely warm welcome throughout the small communities in which we read. Garden City was especially welcoming. Poets often outnumbered their audience, so we were surprised to find ourselves reading at a lovely old theater that had numerous seats filled with enthusiast audience members. I was nervous since I was a relative newbie and could count the readings I had done previously on one hand.
It wasn’t until that night in Garden City that I realized I would read the poem I had written about my Mother’s suicide, “The Milky Way Woman.” As I stood on the theater stage, I remembered that it was National Suicide Prevention Day, so I explained to the audience that I expect a lot from my coaching clients. The majority of them have lost someone to homicide. I give them challenges and expect them to talk about hard topics and emotions.
I began to read my poem out loud for the first time. A most unusual thing happened as I spoke the words. My voice became louder, more powerful, and I stood taller, felt lighter. Several people came up to me following my reading to give me a hug and to share a personal story of their own losses. Words: they take us across the state of Kansas, perhaps across the Universe. The following is the poem I read that evening.
The Milky Way Woman
When I was three
and you sent me out
to play in the snow
while you put a bullet
through your heart,
I did not cry.
I curled into a ball
and closed my eyes.
That night when Daddy
came and said,
“Look up into the sky,
you’ll see your mommy’s
face in the stars,”
I did not look.
I did not want to see
your face so far away
and so small.
But now I’m grown,
with children of my own,
I want to stand on the edge
of the Milky Way with you
hand in hand,
When The Milky Way Woman
gives the command,
you and I will make
that leap together.
Wait for me.