Dramatherapy as a Lifeline in Transforming Trauma by Amy Oestreicher

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.

Amy Oestreicher, Gutless & GratefulMy 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.


If you want to see Gutless & Grateful, there are upcoming shows!
Boston, February 29
New York, March 11


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

“Your Memoir as Monologue” and the Creative Life with Kelly DuMar

kelly_new_head-copy-225x300Kelly 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.

Kelly at the Power of Words conference while Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, ronda Miller, Teri Grunthaner, and Seema Reza look on

Kelly at the Power of Words conference while Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, ronda Miller, Teri Grunthaner, and Seema Reza look on.

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?

Kelly at THEATRE EXPO 2015KD: 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.

The Five Senses and the Four Elements: Connecting with the Body and Nature Through Poetry with Angie River

10999971_10207183679692038_1273670405101342328_nAngie 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?

1796496_10207655113717594_91051899620670155_nAngie 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 dow11990506_10207375504847547_952140599183553748_nn, 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 11025859_10205844721218913_2721645719349275530_otime, 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.

The Milky Way Woman, and Poetry to Navigate Love and Suicide: Ronda Miller

11225999_10204626047072760_6405884939243296052_nNovember 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.

10622328_10202616472794659_1329351779_nIt 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

Ronda's mother

Ronda’s mother

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.

Ronda Miller is a life coach who specializes in coaching those who have lost someone to homicide. Her body of work includes two books of poetry, Going Home: Poems from My Life and MoonStain (Meadowlark Books in 2015) a poetry CD, “View from Smoky Hill: It’s Kansas!” and a documentary, “The 150th Reride of The Pony Express.”  Her novel, Girl Who Lives in a Glass Bowl, and memoir, Gun Memories of The Stone Eyed Cold Girl, should be released in 2016. She is district 2 President of Kansas Authors Club, previous KAC state poetry contest manager, 2011 – 2015, and state VP of KAC as of 2015.

We’re Having Powerful Conversations – Will you Join us on Let’s Talk TLA?

Were you at our Power of Words Conference this year? Our annual conference brings us into deep conversation and exploration once a year. If you made it or missed it, Let’s Talk TLA is one way of staying connected by creating powerful conversations all year round. Whether it’s in person or over the phone, as members of TLAN, when we do meet, we instantly have a powerful conversation. Why? Because we belong to an artistic community grounded in words.

Call in on Wed., Oct. 28, 8-9 p.m. EST/ 7 p.m. CST/ 6 p.m. MST/ 5 p.m. PST. Let’s Talk TLA! Free Phone Conference Q&A and Poetry Open Mic with Kelly DuMar and her special guest, Callid Keefe-Perry, educator, minister, advocate for the arts, TLAN Council Chair, and POW 2016 Keynoter. Let’s Talk TLA is free and open to the public, and you can join from your by phone by calling 1-857-232-0155, code #885077.

We love language and the expressive power of the written word.

We love singing, speaking, and writing to help and heal, ourselves, and others.

We Can Learn From Each Other All Year Long

As individual artists and healers, we have unique ideas and experiences to share about how we use words to change ourselves and the world. And Let’s Talk TLA is our bi-monthly, long distance way to connect and discover the fascinating, life-changing ways that other TLA artists are applying this passion for words in their own communities. Let’s Talk TLA Blog October 2015

Our October Let’s Talk TLA conversation will feature Callid Keefe-Perry, someone essential to TLAN for many years, who was unable to attend Power of Words conference this year. Callid is our TLAN Chair and 2016 Keynote speaker, an educator, minister, and advocate for the arts who is based in Boston, MA. As my interview guest for Let’s Talk TLA free teleconference on October 28, this is your chance to have a powerful conversation with him – wherever you live. Callid’s focus during the call will be on his passion and concern for the state of arts in our educational system. The title for his talk is: The Imagination in Public Education: Learning Ourselves into Boredom.

If you have not yet had a chance to join us, the format of our teleconference is that I will interview Callid for 20 minutes about his practice of TLA and his concern for the arts in public education. Listeners on the call will then have about 15 minutes to ask questions of Callid & discuss TLA, your own practice, goals, or vision. There’s more.

A Writing Life Can Be Lonely – At TLAN, It Doesn’t Have to Be

Another essential element of Let’s Talk TLA is to create an opportunity for those of us who are writing poetry to share our work with each other in an impromptu poetry open mic. Whether you’re reading your poetry aloud for the first time, or you’re a seasoned reader, this is a chance to share your writing in the supportive presence of appreciative listeners. It’s a remarkably fun and moving experience. As one recent participated said:

Great phone call last night. Thanks for providing this to us. . .

I really enjoyed hearing the interview with Laura and the lovely poetry after.

Learned a lot, as well. Thanks again to all involved.

So, On Oct. 28, at 8 p.m. Eastern, bring your questions for Callid about how he uses Transformative Language Arts to advocate for arts in education, and an original poem for the open mic. I look forward to the powerful conversation we’ll create with each other!

If You Can’t Make the Call – You Can Listen to the Podcast!

We’re recording our calls to make them available all year long to members. So, in case you missed our last call with storyteller and coach Laura Packer about Creating Your Sustainable Story: How to Pursue Meaningful, Creative Work as a Business. Click here to listen in!

About Callid Keefe-Perry: Callid is a husband, father, and a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers working toward his PhD in Theological Studies at Boston University’s School of Theology. His work focuses on the intersection of imagination, spirituality, and creative practice in education. He is the author of Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer and one of the founding members of the journal, THEOPOETICS. He currently serves as the Chairperson of the Board for the Transformative Language Arts Network and he is one of the co-hosts of the progressive Christian podcast, Homebrewed Christianity.  You can learn more about him on his website, http://callidkeefeperry.com

Let’s Talk TLA Blog October 2015-1About Kelly DuMar: Kelly is the membership chair of TLAN and a poet, playwright, and creative writing workshop facilitator from the Boston area. Her award winning plays have been produced around the US and Canada, and are published by dramatic publishers. She’s author of a non-fiction book, Before You Forget – The Wisdom of Writing Diaries for Your Children, her poems are published in many literary magazines, and her award-winning poetry chapbook, “All These Cures,” was published by Lit House Press in 2014. She founded and produces the Our Voices Festival of Women Playwrights at Wellesley College, now in its 10th year. Kelly is a certified psychodramatist and a Fellow in the American Society for Group Psychotherapy and psychodrama, a board member of the International Women’s Writing Guild, and a member of Playback North America, You can learn more about her at http://www.kellydumar.com

Imagine Yourself a Place of Unsurpassed Beauty: The Power of Words Conference on the Coast of Maine

img_13241-cropped-belownav-cropped-photoDeb Hensley and Martin Swinger, the dynamic duo co-chairing the Power of Words conference, Aug. 12-14 at Ferry Beach in Saco, Maine, share this invitation to our 13th annual conference. Read on, and register by Nov. 15 to catch the super early bird rate. Find out more and register here.

Imagine yourself a place. Imagine a chair on a wide porch next to a beach where you bask in the afternoon sun. Imagine a morning walk through a grove of sunlit trees. Imagine joining brilliant vocal improvisation sessions under a bright moon, filling yourself with poetry, storytelling around a campfire and choosing from 25 workshops on the transformative 3058162_origpower of the written, spoken and sung word.

Imagine a loving community of people, healthy, delicious food, good coffee, lots of music, time for reflection and an after dinner frolic in the surf. Imagine Ferry Beach on the coast of Maine at the Power of Words Conference, August 12-14, 2016.

I don’t know which excites me more, this fabulous conference we’re putting together or the amazing place where we are holding it. With world renowned Vocal Improv Artist and Activist, Rhiannon, Award 8117810_origwinning Poet and Author Seema Reza, Afrilacian Storyteller Lyn Ford and Quaker Minister, author and educator Callid Keefe-Perry as our keynoters, this conference promises to embody spontaneity, humor, comfort and joy. And what could be more a more gorgeous location to gather singers, poets, authors, activists, and a host of other transformative language artists than a coastal paradise only 20 minutes from the Portland International Jetport?

Ferry Beach is a retreat community with 900 feet of beachfront in Saco, Maine offering respite away from the everyday world. It is a collection of meeting spaces, wide porches, an art and pottery studio, an outdoor chapel, a performance space, many gathering places and a wonderful dining hall.2459481_orig

It is a place of unsurpassed beauty where you will experience the joy of community, challenge assumptions, celebrate, reimagine, and commit your own language artistry to nothing less than global transformation. It is a place for renewal and rejuvenation where a small but mighty group of all ages and races, for one glorious weekend in August of 2016, will lovingly and boldly explore the Power of Words. I’ll be there! You?

See more about Ferry Beach right here.

 

Along the Learning Edge: A Personal Journey

by Caleb Winebrenner

WordItOut-word-cloud-950849 Once a mentor of mine put forth a question “What is your learning edge?” By this, she meant the boundary line between all of our knowledge up until now, and our current experience in the moment. It’s the place where you are feeling the most discomfort, and hopefully, the most excitement about how you are growing and stretching beyond what you previously knew to be true. I find “the learning edge” a useful concept, intellectually. On a personal level, I find that learning edges are places of deep vulnerability.

A few months ago, I came face-to-face with a learning edge that I didn’t even know existed for me. A friend and fellow storyteller asked,”Why don’t you ever talk about your own wisdom journey?”

I tell wisdom stories. I love the parables, the folktales, the dilemma stories. I love what they teach us. Instead of lecturing about deep and profound human truths, I try to find the stories that demonstrate those truths, and demonstrate the power of the human mind and spirit to grow and overcome challenges. I do this, as my friend pointed out, while saying nothing of my own. Facing that incongruity has prompted learning and healing in new directions, and a profound reorientation with my work as a storyteller.

Integrity

Walking along this learning edge, I am discovering that the inner journey of the storyteller directly influences the storymaking. As a young teller, I have mostly concerned myself with questions of talent, ability, and technique. I’ve focused on developing a “style” or “voice” to my storytelling. But here, at the learning edge, I am not concerned with those questions. I am concerned with a deeper question of my own healing: in a word, integrity.

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer writes that “good teaching cannot be reduced to technique good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” By this he means that the talents, abilities, and styles of teaching that most directly serve the strengths of a teacher are those rooted in his or her integrity as a person. Much like good teaching comes from the integrity of the teacher, good storytelling comes from the integrity of the storyteller. In being aware of my own strengths and weaknesses, I have discovered and learned from stories that speak more to my own experience and growth than to some abstract “truth.”

Love

There is a word for the stories that speak deeply to experience. They are the stories we love . M. Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Travelled , “I define love thus: The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” I have adopted his definition, and applied it to stories. In other words, the stories we love, in the deepest way, are the ones that extend us out into the world or deep into ourselves, in order to nurture our own or another’s spiritual growth. As a part of my journey along the learning edge, I have parted ways with stories I like and respect, to give more room instead to the stories I love (such as the one I share below). If the stories I tell cannot nurture my own growth, then they are not authentically mine to tell. I have no heartfelt relationship with them. Given this, then stories I do not love certainly cannot nurture growth in others, which is why I began to tell wisdom stories in the first place.

Wisdom

M. Scott Peck also wrote that “Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and wisdom.” The problem of not sharing my own wisdom journey is itself the place where my wisdom can be created at least if I let it. Looking deeply at my own life, and the painful, shadowy, and difficult facing of my problems, is the root of any sincere claim I can make to having wisdom.

In other words, the most profound shift in my storytelling has not come in choosing, “I will tell wisdom stories,” but rather in choosing, “I will pursue wisdom as a part of my life and healing.” Only when wisdom is in my life can it be in my stories. On my best days, the stories I tell are the most sublime expression of who I am. On my worst days (and any of the days in between), they serve, like a mindfulness bell, as reminders of who I hope to be.

This has meant facing moments where I feel I have no integrity, no love, and no  wisdom. For example, how can I tell a story of overcoming anger when it is such a frequent struggle? This is the story I tell, a Zen parable:

A samurai goes to a monastery and says, “I want to know about heaven and hell.” A monk, undisturbed in his meditation by the ferocious samurai, says “Such knowing requires discipline, friend.”

The samurai grows cross. “Of course I have discipline! I am a samurai!”

“Alright. Such knowing requires patience, my friend,” replies the monk.

“I am patient! I — I have waited for days to seize a castle or fight an opponent!”

“Alright. Such knowing requires integrity, my friend,” replies the monk.

“Integrity! I am a Samurai! A master of honor!” And he grows furious, even drawing his sword over his head.

The monks still sits calmly. He says, “See that feeling? That is hell.”

The samurai breathes, deeply, and puts his sword away. He breathes again, and smiles.

“See that feeling, friend? That… that is heaven.”

In this story, when I tell it, I am both the monk and the samurai not just in my miming, voices, or any of the other tools of technique but in my visceral, in-the-moment living of the story. I know from experience the heat of anger, and I know from practicing meditation the coolness of the monk’s calm.

In pursuing certain kinds of stories, my life has to live those themes for the story to be authentic. The monk and samurai story, at first, had something to teach me. I told it because I needed to experience that lesson for myself. Sharing that vulnerability with students and audiences gave me the resolve to know my anger better, and pursue the monk’s equanimity. It became a story I love, because it holds space for my learning edge.

Admittedly, I still have far to go in life before I master my darker places or lay any claim to “being wise.” But, stories like that one I can now tell from a place of empathetic awareness and experience. In the story, I honor my integrity, love, and wisdom. In honoring that in myself, I can then share all that, in abundance, with others.

Recommended reading

  • The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life , by Parker J.
    Palmer
  • The Road Less Travelled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual
    Growth

Caleb Headshot 2013Caleb Winebrenner is a storyteller and teaching artist based in Tempe, Arizona. His unique performances craft world folklore and wisdom tales into warm, engaging events. Trained as an actor, mime, and teacher, his performances and workshops draw out the natural warmth, intelligence, curiosity, and wisdom of all present. He especially loves the opportunity to engage with young people around the issues that matter to them, often through the lens of a parable or story. As Paulo Coelho once said, “The power of storytelling is exactly this: to bridge the gap where everything else has crumbled.” Find him on Facebook and Twitter @storytellrcaleb.

Not Enough Spoons: Writing about Disability and Chronic Illness

by Angie River
photo-4-300x225Around February of 2014 my body began acting in ways it had never acted before, doing things I didn’t understand and couldn’t explain. Doctors began the long process of diagnosis, poking and prodding, taking blood, having me fill out numerous forms and questionnaires, testing various medications on me in search of something that would improve or eliminate my symptoms. Over the course of many months I began racking up a series of diagnoses, but the words that the medical system assigned me, while being a bit validating, didn’t help me to deal with the things happening in my body and life.
 
I found that I was in grieving for my body, mourning the abilities I’d lost such as favorite hobbies like rollerskating and going out dancing, or basic things like being able to clean the house or grocery shop without exhaustion. However, at the same time that I was grieving, I was also celebrating my new-found connection with my body, my improvements in self-care, and the community I found with other disabled people.
 
I was at a loss for how to express my feelings and thoughts about my body and my disability in any traditional means, and turned to poetry, which is where I always turn when I need to voice things that are heavy with emotion and less concrete than the normal ways in which I communicate. In poetry, I found that I was able to process some of the sadness and confusion I was having, celebrate the ways I was learning to communicate with my body, and explain to others what I was going through.
 
It is because of the profound experience I personally had with writing about my disability that I decided I wanted to offer the class “Not Enough Spoons: Writing about Disability and Chronic Illness.” The spoon theory (more info here) is something that many disabled or sick folks mention, saying “I don’t have enough spoons to do that activity today,” or “I need to conserve my spoons because I know tomorrow is going to be hard.” Spoons are, for us, just another way of talking about the energy it takes for us to go through our daily lives while sick or disabled. What I found personally, is that writing about my illness helped me with my spoons in many ways! I helped me to be better in touch with myself and my body so I could regulate my spoons better, it helped me explain my spoons to others and why I may have to cancel plans or why I may be tired more often, and because of the emotional value of the writing, it helped me to even gain a spoon or two! I wanted to share this experience with others!
 
The class “Not Enough Spoons” is geared both to those who are disabled or have chronic illness themselves, but also to those who work with individuals with disability or illness. The class will have two “tracks” of writing exercises. I am thrilled to be offering this class and I hope that through it many others can experience the transformative experience of writing about their bodies!
 
Visiting Hours are Over
by Angie River

Last night I dreamt I went to visit you in a sterile hospital room,
white and steel.
You lay in bed and I watched you, touching twitching eyelids,
holding hands that trembled as you slept.

In my dream I looked at you with love, longing for you to wake and smile
at me, rise from the bed and walk into the world.
Instead I woke, breathing through pain,
feeling spasms ripple from unknown places and darkness
creep into the corners of my mind.

I woke up angry, blaming you for my inability to work, to fold clothes,
to bake cookies, to pick up my child.
I blamed you for sweat pants and dark-circled eyes, for numbers
that climb with each step on the scale. I blamed you for hours
curled on the couch, for late-night sobbing in the bathroom.
But really, you have been holding me through all of this,
just trying to keep me together.

My therapist said, “Angie, the body does not lie.
Your body is screaming.”

I wish I could read between the lines of whimpers and tremors,
hear you over the static of neurons firing,
interpret your flailing language.

You pull words from my grasp, replacing them with stutters,
empty holes where language once was.
You reach over and shake me, pull my eyes back into my head
begging me to see your secrets hidden there.
You ache and cry with crippling pain,
and still I cannot translate what you are saying.

Together we dream of dancing.
You remember extended limbs, thigh muscles tight, toes pointed,
arms circling ‘round yourself before flinging out to embrace the world.
I remember exhileration, warm sweat on skin,
looking in my spouse’s eyes and laughing.

Together we repeat the words,
“We will get through this.”

Together we repeat the words,
“We are strong.”

Together we dance in new ways,
limps jumping and head nodding to music only we hear.

You are not someone I can visit between the hours of nine and five,
bringing flowers and cookies.
I cannot come and go as I please, leaving your side to go home to my life.

This is my life.

I am within you and you hold me, and we both are here,
in light and dark.
You are here, trying to make me understand,
trying to be heard.
I am here trying to hold on to hope and possibility
trying to be heard.

You ask me to listen,
and I ask you to listen.
You say, “one day we will dance again,”
and I promise I will not be
just a visitor in my own body.


 

IMG_2158-300x225Angie River is an educator, activist, and performance artist. She also has chronic migraines, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, PTSD, and a handful of other things which impact the ways in which she moves through the world. Angie has discovered that writing helps her to process the things her body is doing and the emotions she experiences. She is currently in the process of writing a series of poems based on her medical bills, as well as taking a series of chronic illness self­-portraits. She will be presenting in June at The Body Love Conference in Tucson, Arizona on the power of telling our stories, as well as on disability and performance.

Seema Reza Wins USO Award for “Bringing Down Walls With Words”

Seema Reza with Stevie Nicks, Sebastian Junger, and Peyton Manning at USO Awards

Seema Reza with Stevie Nicks, Sebastian Junger, and Peyton Manning at USO Awards

Seema Reza, a member of the TLA Network governing council and accomplished writer and facilitor, just won a major award from the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore. She was honored at the organization’s 33rd annual awards dinner on March 26 along with Oscar-nominated filmmaker, author and war correspondent Sebastian Junger, singer-songwriter Stevie Nicks, and starting NFL quarterback Peynton Manning.

According to the USO, Seema received the John Gioia award “for her work with wounded, ill and injured service members at military hospitals and USO Warrior and Family Centers

at Fort Belvoir and Bethesda. Reza conducts workshops to help service members recovering from visible and invisible wounds express themselves through art, writing, film and music.” During the ceremony, she read a poem about working with service members while accompanied by Grammy-nominated, progressive hip-hop musician Christylez Bacon.

As one of the transformative language artists featured in Transformative Language Arts in Action, co-edited by Ruth Farmer and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Seema says:

I love most of all witnessing the relationship between participants as they help each other move forward. Writing can be an isolating endeavor. We sit with the page, immersed in our thoughts and experiences, uncertain if our voices are valuable or valid. When we share our work—either through public readings and exhibits or in a workshop setting—we begin to feel a sense of responsibility to contribute to the collective narrative of our time.

Seema1

Seema, her son, a member of the service, and Christylez Bacon

Seema is also an accomplished writer with a mixed-genre book coming out from Red Hen press, and she’s a member of the TLA Network.  Read more about Seema’s work here, and see her superb website for more of her writing.

See a short video of the award-winners here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulCA1d0ikJ8

Perspective and Truth

 

Acrylic on wood board.  Seema Reza 2014

Acrylic on wood board. Seema Reza 2014

by Seema Reza

In her essay, “When We Dead Awaken” Adrienne Rich writes, “Our struggles can have meaning and our privileges–however precarious under patriarchy–can be justified only if they can help to change the lives of women whose gifts–and whose very being–continue to be thwarted by silence.”

I’ve been reading Rich’s collection of essays, “Arts of the Possible” for the past week.  I believe it is important for me, as a TLA Facilitator, to not only read great writing but to read great writing about writing.  Some of it can be pretty dense and exhausting, but understanding and weighing various theories about art making and the role of art in society is integral to continue to renew and deepen my passion for my work.  It is how I keep alive the sense of purpose as I stand in room after room to encourage (sometimes unwilling) people to write, to give their experiences voice.  Rich acknowledges the privilege of having her voice heard–one that we sometimes take for granted.  Even if we work for it, hustle for it, sacrifice for the time to hone our craft–it is a privilege to sit with the page.  We have access to literacy and language, a computer and the Internet so that we can put our words out there, submit them to journals, publish them on our blogs.  As TLA facilitators, we try to pass this privilege on, because we know what being heard can do for an individual.  We like to see people grow.  But sometimes, even with the luck I’ve had in finding platforms for my words, I experience something that reminds me of the early thrill of voice–the terror and the courage and the validation, the deep exhale that leaves the body alongside a secret.

Yesterday a very personal essay of mine was published on Full Grown People.  I was so honored to have it published, but terrified also, to be so vulnerable on the Internet (the WORLD WIDE web, if you will).  But with privilege comes responsibility. The responsibility to go to the places that are scariest for us and confront them.  Next week we’ll have a post about love and overcoming illness and hospitalization through story.  Check back.

 

***

SEEMA REZA is a poet and essayist based outside of Washington, D.C., where she coordinates and facilitates a unique hospital arts program that encourages the use of the  arts as a tool for narration, self-care, and socialization among a military population  struggling with emotional and physical injuries. Her work has appeared The Beltway Quarterly, HerKind, Duende, Pithead Chapel, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. When the World Breaks Open, her first collection of essays, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press.  She is a TLA Network Council-Member-at-Large & Curator of the TLA Blog.