Baggage: How I Wrote My Way Through Self Destruction

by Melissa Rose

Five and a half years ago I was perhaps in one of the most confusing and chaotic years of my life. I was struggling with depression and suicidal ideation, using alcohol to self medicate, and putting myself in increasingly dangerous situations by involving myself in abusive relationships. Looking back now, I can see why I was in that place, where the need to self destruct stemmed from, yet at the time, all I was trying to do was make it through the day in any way I could.

baggage2

This is the time in my life I did not want to remember. I didn’t want to remember the mess I was, lashing out at anyone who tried to help me. Blaming everyone for my own misery. I didn’t want to think about all of the shame of being in such a low place and being completely out of control. And I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t want to survive and all of my behavior during that time reflected this desire.

As fate would have it, I became pregnant, and my entire life changed. I was able to pull myself back to reality and remember there was a reason for living. I was able to stop the spiral I was in and turn my thoughts to the future for once. I moved on from that dark place and I became a mother to my son and tucked the years I spent on a bender in the back of my mind, like trash stuffed under a bed. But the more years that passed, the more I began to smell the rot I had been ignoring.

I sometimes worry that my history is doomed to repeat itself. I still fear ever slipping back into the person I was all those years ago. It frightens me to think of myself in that place again. To be so utterly out of control. I could pretend that nothing happened, that it was just a “bad time”, but that description didn’t do the experience justice.

Last year, I began writing about the years I didn’t want to think about. I mentally transported myself back to that place and time. I imagined myself as that young woman, confused and scared and alone. I wrote about my selfishness. My cruelty. All of the shameful things I did and said and how I justified it. Where it all came from. Where the self destructive tendencies started. Throughout the process it was as if I was able to cast a light on the shadow of my past and take away its power over me. I was able to face the parts of me I was most afraid of and reflect on them from a new perspective.

Eventually, I would turn these writings into a script. My first one-woman show, entitled “Baggage”. This 50 minute exploration of my past took place in an airport as I flew home from Europe, confused and jetlagged—completely unsure of where I was going to go next. Being separated from those memories for so long unearthed a million feelings I had been ignoring, and as I sifted through them, I was able to embark on my own healing process, and forgive myself for all of the things I was so ashamed of. I was able to see myself not as a monster, but as a human being who did what they had to do and survived.

I knew that to bring my story full circle, I would have to perform my piece, but I was nervous about how an audience would perceive me. I put off scheduling a performance for fear I would be overly exposed. I have written and performed about many personal things, but this piece was somehow different. The raw honesty in it cut me close enough to bleed.

I knew that in order to honor and love that young woman I was, I needed to tell her story. It was the only way to release her from that pain she felt all those years ago. It was the only way to let her know that she was important and worthy of love, even during those dark times. I owed it to myself to make sure I could heal in order to never be in that place again. So I set a date for the performance, and begin practicing my piece, pouring all of the experience into my words and movements. Embodying the woman I was for the first time in years. It felt like I was reuniting with a part of me I hated, and as I began to embrace that character, I was able to love her in a way I never had before.

baggage3

After the performance, I felt a sense of relief, like I had let go of something weighing heavy on me.  I had survived. I wanted to survive. Even during those times. No matter how often I tried to convince myself otherwise.

Through writing and performing my story,  I finally was able to unpack the baggage I had been carrying with me for so long.

Melissa Rose is a spoken word poet and playwright. She has hosted community spoken word events since 2003 and has been a member of 5 National Poetry Slam teams. She has performed her work across the United States and Germany and was a featured poet at the German National Poetry Slam in 2010. She currently lives in Eugene, Oregon.

 

 

Writing in concert

by Barbara Burt

I have been leading a writing workshop at my local community center. While I enjoy hearing the writing that the four members have worked on over the past week and are eager to share, I think the most fruitful part of the workshop is the prompted writing during the workshop. Often the prompt is met with moans: “I hate these introspective exercises.” “I can’t think of anything…” But invariably, within a minute or two, everyone is writing away, engrossed in their response to the question that may have made them feel a bit uncomfortable at first (although that’s not my aim).

When the time comes to share the prompted writing, at least one or two people find that there is the germ of a story to follow up on, planted in that day’s scribbling. To me, there is definite music in the quiet sound of all that thinking and writing that reminds me of playing chamber music. We are aware of each other, listening, but also intent on our own part. It happens that the music of our own writing is more meaningful, somehow, residing in the harmony of our group endeavor, whether we share it or not.

I wrote this during the most recent workshop:

Writing in Concert

We sit in folding chairs
and set our elbows on the plastic tabletop.
Its bumpy surface doesn’t slow us.
The mah-jongg game in the next room
erupts in loud laughter.
Still, we are not deterred.

Pens scratch.
Hands swish across smooth sheets,
pages are turned, paper rattles.
We hold our breath
or sigh.                                                                                                                                         Sip coffee.
Or rest our foreheads in our hands,
eyes closed, thinking.

There is companionship in writing alone
together.
Our thoughts are secret
but our output obvious.
We start together with the same prompt
then wander separate paths,
secure in the knowledge that
each step is worthy of its effort
and will be celebrated.

Celebrated, whether spoken or
silent.
Celebrated by our fellow writers
in the chamber music of creation.

The Telling Room: Proving the Power of Words

TellingRoom

Tonight, a story about Maine on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” began by claiming that Maine is the oldest and whitest state in the nation. But what may be true for the state as a whole is not true for its biggest city, Portland, home to recent immigrants and refugees from impoverished and war-torn places around the world. The children among them come with amazing stories.

Since 2005, as many as 3,500 students a year have had the opportunity to use poetry and prose to build their writing and storytelling skills at a special place called The Telling Room. Founded by three writers who believed that the power of story could change a community for the better, The Telling Room today reaches students and teachers in more than 30 Maine towns. Their paid staff of eleven, Teaching Artist in Residence, nine interns, and more than 200 volunteers provide individualized support to the young writers, some of whom are English language learners.

“The Telling Room is a nonprofit writing center in Portland, Maine, dedicated to the idea that children and young adults are natural storytellers. Focused on young writers ages 6 to 18, we seek to build confidence, strengthen literacy skills, and provide real audiences for our students. We believe that the power of creative expression can change our communities and prepare our youth for future success.”

Both a physical place and a wide-ranging program, The Telling Room has been recognized with grants and awards, including a prestigious National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award as one of the top twelve youth arts and humanities programs in the nation.

Every year since the beginning, The Telling Room has published an anthology of writings from that year’s group of students. Titles such as “Swimming to Safety,” “A Day in Three Worlds,” and “The Faithful Doves of My Father” illustrate the variety of experiences and perspectives found in these poems, plays, essays, and stories. As shown in the image above, this year’s anthology is entitled A Season for Building Houses.

Ask Yourself

My Inner Critic Is Not Having a Good Week

by Janet Toone

Responses to traumatic experiences produce one of three nervous system responses: fighting, fleeing, or freezing. The third response, freezing, is the one response that provides survival for many children living with trauma.

One effect of freezing in response to trauma is that the developmental stage of that child becomes what is described in Internal Family Systems as an “exiled part.” For that child to be who they really are could endanger their welfare and even their life. I spent a lot of time frozen and I did not write while in a frozen state.

Keeping exiled parts silent is the job of what Internal Family Systems, developed by Richard Schwartz, calls “firefighters.” The purpose of firefighters is to reduce the feeling of shame, pain, and guilt, and most often involves impulsive behaviors including overeating, addiction, promiscuity, and workaholism. As I began the work of identifying, accepting, and nurturing my exiled parts, my personal firefighters, overeating and workaholism, went into overdrive. My internal civil wars between my firefighters and my exiled parts have at times been epic.

As I continued working on this extensive recovery process, I struggled for a long time to find safe ways for the multiple exiled stages of my childhood development to find expression and be free to emerge and exist in peace so I could begin the process of integrating. I am not sure when I realized that writing in their voices was one way to provide resilience to some of my exiled parts. One of those safe ways of letting my seven- to-nine-year-old self emerge is to write mediocre poetry with lots of rhyme on subjects significant to her experiences.

Courses on writing and writing about trauma have helped me explore this process. I am thankful for those who have read and provided feedback during this journey. My empty chair has been filled by a variety of individuals providing guidance and encouragement and has had significant symbolic meaning in this process.

My inner critic has fits regarding writing this poetry but she and I have come to an agreement that this stage of my childhood has this freedom. While my inner critic has been effectively subdued about the writing of the poetry, she is very uncomfortable with it being shared or heaven forbid published in any public form. My inner critic is not having a good week :).


“Butter, I need butter” hollered the ogre.
Midge went to the fridge and with relief
Found a small wedge of butter for him.
“This wedge of butter has a bad edge,” He squawked

Midge muttered, “I want to ask that judge
Why don’t you lock him far, far away?”

But Midge’s mother held her grudge and would
Not budge. Midge was not to utter a word.
“Oh fudge, this mess is a drudge,” muttered midge
This is another sad, bad, mad day.

Midge stepped outside the sqalid dark hovel
As a hawk hovered floating overhead
Then a butterfly fluttered by Midge’s head.
Nature would hold Midge together today.


Some stuff, if it happens often enough
Or is excessively, viciously rough and gruff
Changes the wiring in the brain and luffs one by the scruff.

Gettin in a huff will only cuff the brain like it’s been muffled.
Even if one sniffs around searchin for change stuff
It all feels like a bluff, like you’re still sittin on your duff,

Cuz there ain’t no pause button, no do overs, no backspace key
And you can wish, but wishin don’t even make pigs fly in fantasy pink skies.

 

* * *

Editor’s Note: This blog post was submitted as partial fulfillment of the requirements for the TLA Network Certification program. 

NaPoWriMo

poetry

This month to celebrate National Poetry Month, poets and spoken word artists challenge themselves to write a poem a day for the entire month of April. Here is a terrific blog that features some prompts to keep you inspired for the rest of the month.

Happy Writing!

 

Three Strategies for Planning a Satisfying Writer’s Road Trip by Susan Hulsebos

Pack the car for adventure, gas up, and head out to find it–that pleasurable transformation of mind and spirit, arrived at in the middle of nowhere, on a satisfying road trip. Road trips fall into two general categories: A) the pounding down the miles to a single destination travel or B) the inner calling to transformative adventure travel (which is how my writer girlfriend and I pitched the idea to our husbands last fall). Travel around the world concept flat design

In our minds, this trip would be akin to an aboriginal walkabout except that we would, for the most part, remain fully clothed, bring coolers stuffed with pre-packaged salads, gin and tonic, wine, and chicken salad cups, and have reservations in strangers’ homes via Airbnb for four nights. So, although more of an American roll-about, the religiosity of wandering as a rite of passage and transformation remained intact.

We also chose to devote some time to collaborative writing and to photograph old cars and off- road oddities.

Our journey was successful in every way because we chose to plan a few key elements. Our top three strategies were:

  • Plan to hit three states in five days, stopping wherever and whenever anything piqued our interest or when one of us had to pee. (We both have a love for off-road oddities of all sorts and drink lots of coffee.)
  • This is not a “working” trip, nor will we craft assignments for each other to complete, nor keep a schedule or daily agenda. We met to brainstorm a list of supplies to have on hand for spontaneous art-making or photo shoots. We had a few half-formed scenarios in mind. I had made some art stickers to “install” along our trail. The fact that my buddy insisted on bringing duct tape, rope and a ladder was a bit scary.
  • Pick a general writing game to have on hand for long stretches of open road, or when cranky. In the way that all great parties have great hosts, we chose Basho, 17th century Haiku master and author of the party-poem form, Renga, to be our writing coach. We both love collaboration and concrete nouns. There are many forms of Renga, a linked verse poem, which was passed between guests at drinking parties and plays according to general rules such as who writes how many lines and some prescribed references to season and moon. Since our trip was scheduled for October, we chose a traditional Autumn Kasen Renga. Our template can be found in the following link, along with other seasonal forms: http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/thecageunhitched/RengaFrm.htm

I find casual collaborative writing with friends, using forms such as Renga, a very pleasurable way to practice Transformative Language Arts. It is far less strenuous than full on therapeutic personal journal writing, which I also practice daily. Renga is very well suited for small groups in person or online. However, having practiced Renga both online and in person, I highly suggest the party or social gathering format. When everyone is linking verses while in each other’s company, mutual experiences and shared environment add a special cohesiveness to the images. The final piece then stands as the lived expression of the occasion in much the same way abstract impressionist painters created works that imaged their lived experience while painting the canvas.

What follows are excerpts from different sections of linked verses written collaboratively on our last road trip. Again, these verses were not written with publication in mind; however, that could happen in the future. The verses hold impressions, associations, daydreams, and humor channeled on the open road in the voices of two writing friends and the road itself, who began to speak somewhere on day three:

a cello slides the black notes of Metallica
through the legs of market patrons buying produce

“Are you from Arizona?
I lived there 12 years and left”
the summer moon sticks to everything

that winter before my mom died
she made my dad fill the Christmas tree with angels

lying on the thin layer of snow
we flapped our arms and legs until the black dirt showed
“Look” you said “snow demons”
__________________________________

Driving away in my Chevy
I’m not even sure that I said good bye

Arriving in Bisbee, lightening cracks the sky over the
metal municipal bus, tiki theme, our nights’ rental
we paid 88 bucks for this?

One final thought, plans are underway to write the Kansen Renga form, the spring form, perhaps on a backpacking road trip. This just might evolve as a quarterly, seasonal writing journey. Why not plan a collaborative writing trip of your own making?

Editor’s Note: This blog post was submitted as partial fulfillment of the requirements for the TLA Network Certification program. 

A Counting by Susan Hulsebos

Editor’s Note: This blog post was submitted as partial fulfillment of the requirements for the TLA Network Certification program. 

      As a visual artist, too overwhelmed with loss and grief to continue working, I took up a writing practice to process the death of my son. I discovered the TLAN network while searching for an online class where I might receive weekly input, writing prompts, and connection to a caring and healing community while not leaving my house. Fortunately for me, the first class I found was Angie Rivers’s “The Five Senses and the Four Elements: Connecting with the Body and Nature through Poetry.” The class was perfect. It had just the right amount of lesson material, the prompts helped me explore small, controlled writing forms and led me to sensory experience in nature.

      For a mother in shock whose mind was numb, whose heart and days felt broken but also as someone who still had way too much energy to stay in bed, I needed healing in small yet controlled chunks. The following poem was written in that first class, in the double Etheree form (where each set of 10 lines has a syllable count that moves from 1 – 10 ) while I was trying to accept the fact that my son had just died in my home – the house he had just helped me move in to weeks before.

A Counting

One of two things I need to tell you, for
the first time, is that ten days ago
seven steps into the front yard
I stood still outside the one
window I had on you
while you lay dying
in my guest room
all alone.
Junkie.
Son.
Saved
from death
by overdose
you met cancer
as pennance for crimes
against yourself and us.
Secondly, I thought there was
still time, ten days ago. Not that
four sighs at two a.m. plus one cough
would end the count of your years at thirty.

      Reading this piece one year later, the fresh pain of loss is so present in those lines. I am grateful to have this poem as a marker, a touch-stone for myself of that time because now I count those first weeks as very precious. It was a time when his presence still lingered in those rooms. I can recall it now from a gentler but still grieving place, and it helps me stay connected to all of it.

      This is the power of Transformative Language Arts: to find a practice in the verbal arts to fully connect and voice the deeper movements in whatever experience we are living through. At present, daily journaling practice has brought me back into a flowing space where depression has lifted long enough that I am painting again. One new painting was recently juried into a show in my community. I doubted this would ever happen again. Before my discovery of transformative writing all hope was gone that I would ever feel like painting again. It felt too happy and nothing was happy. Also, painters can struggle with feelings of loss, grief or fear if the canvas isn’t developing like you hoped it would. Painting is risky and sometimes it just dies right in front of you no matter how much you try to resuscitate it. I had no resilience to resume this task so soon.

      But I had a deep urge to express what I was feeling and not just give in to numbing activities such as excessive drinking or cramming my life with activity. Both of which might give relief but would not heal the gaping hole in my heart. Healing from his death – especially with the emotional entanglements of his long addiction – is requiring intentional remembering of his life. The practice of writing down my feelings and memories, the hopes and disappointments, and recently moving into writing down how my life is moving on, is healing.

      “When we neglect the artist in ourselves, there is a kind of mourning that goes on under the surface of our busy lives.” I love this line from Pat Schneider in her book, Writing Alone and with Others. So, artists and creative people flooded with grief can be encouraged through TLA to not neglect the artist in themselves while grieving. Neglecting our voice, our expression, feels like being silenced which only fuels depression. A careful shift to another expressive form such as poetry, journaling or nature writing really can transform grief into manageable healing chunks. It might even evolve into a regular practice to help us navigate the longer seasons of grief when we must now come back to our work as a new person, living our “new normal.” I am writing daily, it is helping me stay connected to myself, my life and my memories. I am still alive. I am still doing my work and it’s richer now because it’s painfully deeper.

Sparks! Join in for conversation and poetry

Sparks! Poetry, Stories, & Songs is your chance to go deeper into the world of Transformative Language Arts practice, as well as contribute your own poetry to the TLA community via open mic.

Formally known as Let’s Talk TLA, Sparks! Poetry, Stories, & Songs is a free bi-monthly teleconference moderated by Kelly DuMar, TLAN Membership Chair. At each session, Kelly interviews notable Transformative Language Artists on their work, followed by a poetry open mic. The online gathering open to everyone.

The next session of Sparks! is April 25th from 7:00 – 8:15 PM (CDT) with special guests from the True Story Theater. The June Sparks! session is scheduled for June 15th from 7:00-8:15 PM (CDT) and will feature guest presenters from the upcoming August TLA Conference, The Power of Words.

You can register for Sparks! online gatherings here. (You can also find recordings of previous gatherings.) They take place via Zoom, are free, and open to all. Bring a poem and join in!

sparks

Poetry and response: Staying vertical in the TLA world

Janet Toone, a participant in Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s Winter 2017 TLA class, “Your Calling, Your Livelihood, Your Life,” wrote this poem during the second week of the course, which focused on The New Story of Your Life: Examining Myths & Messages about Who You Should Be.

Snow, ice, cold, threaten to shut me in, but I battle through.
Fear freezes my heart and mind, far more limiting than the weather
I shuffle, slipping and sliding on the invisible surface unsure
Exactly what the elusive enemies are binding and tearing at
My resolve. My myths I know well. The clouds begin to part.

Battles have been fought before. Often times I was very bloody,
And bowed before I thrived in spite of my perceived deficiencies.
Keeping my mind clear, my heart open, the target in my eye
My spirit willing, I move forward, seeking knowledge and skills ,
Winning those internal battles, I find purpose and build resilience.

Janet describes her approach this way:

“As I participated in Caryn’s class,  I came up against the chilling reality that selling myself was going to be the most difficult aspect of actually building and sustaining a TLA livelihood. I wrote this poem while I was battling that internal war of how and what it would take for me to feel like I could legitimately market my skills and my knowledge, while I was also fighting a battle to stay vertical in the snow and ice outside. I was working on pushing through my fear and setting my resolve to continue the work, to stay vertical in the TLA world, to not give up.”

Janet’s classmates reacted:

  • Your writing is very courageous.  And inspiring.
  • The alliteration you use in “Battles,” “bloody,” “bowed,” “Building,” and then “battles” again, really strengthens the flow of the second stanza.  Very cool. 
  • The second stanza, begun by speaking of battles and ending with the recognition that these are internal battles, is thought-provoking and evokes a feeling of warmth in contrast to the chill of the first stanza.
  • Powerful.  And amen!  For me, the way you took the descriptions of how winter weather shows up and connected those to the impacts of fear made the experience tangible. Real.

For Janet, “Your Calling, Your Livelihood, Your Life” was a comfortable and supportive space in which to explore uncomfortable questions. Through the expressive art of her poetry, she was able to connect with others in the class experiencing the same challenges.