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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Confessions of a former workshop dropout

by Barbara Burt

Years ago I was a serial writing workshopper. I journeyed to Breadloaf. I commuted to Stone Coast. I popped into local one-day workshops. I scribbled down every “recipe” uttered by celebrity writers. I joined writing groups focused on a particular genre. I joined writing groups focused on a particular sort of criticism. I joined writing groups just because they were there.

Occasionally the experience was worthwhile. Too often, though, fellow workshop participants told me, “Here’s what’s wrong with your story; you need to cut out/add/change these parts. This character does or doesn’t. The writing is too spare/wordy/specific/literary/poetic/ adult/childish…” The feedback was confusing, useless and, most of all, demoralizing.

So I gave it up. I decided to write alone.

Every now and again I’d send a story out to the harsh world of publishing. And sometimes I shared stories with friends. But the act of writing began to feel less vital, less urgent. Was it becoming a sweet little hobby? A form of self-indulgence? I bored myself.

Then I happened upon the Transformative Language Arts Network and read the essays in The Power of Words: social and personal transformation through the spoken, written and sung word (edited by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg and Janet Tallman). The reason for telling and listening to stories suddenly became obvious: the telling of a story changes both the teller and the listener. Forever.

I was inspired to try my hand at writing workshops again. But this time I would change the rules. We wouldn’t talk about the mechanics of writing and we wouldn’t worry about what publishers did or didn’t want to see—we would focus on loving the story. We wouldn’t criticize, we would appreciate. So I put the feelers out and gathered a group of writers who want to tell stories from their life. I call it “From Memory to Memoir” but, truth be told, if the writers bring in fiction, I’m fine with that.

The reason for telling and listening to stories suddenly became obvious: the telling of a story changes both the teller and the listener. Forever.

It’s been six weeks. I have two groups, one with five members and one with six, all strangers. Are these the most generous, creative, honest writers I have ever worked with? Yes! They are amazing. They are kind. Each session is filled with revelation and beauty.

This is why: every person alive is a writer. Everyone has stories to tell. There is no hierarchy of value or importance. And I ascribe to the “TLA Workshop Agreements” by Vanita Leatherwood on page 362 of The Power of Words: Confidentiality; Safety & Grace; Respect & Compassion; Honor; and Speak from our own experience.

In a safe space, we are free to speak our truth and hear others’. Instead of doubt, there is validation. Creativity flourishes. And that’s the best result possible.

 

“Everyone has something beautiful to say”

Do you prefer to read stories in a book? Listen to them on the radio or in a podcast? See them told live onstage or recorded in film? As you surely know, The Moth showcases stories in any and all formats. For 20 years, The Moth has nourished storytellers and listeners by providing a steady menu of fabulous “true stories told live” (and recorded for later broadcast, etc.).

The Moth’s website describes their anthology, All These Wonders, edited by Catherine Burns with a foreword by Neil Gaiman, as “a new collection of stories about risk, courage, and facing the unknown.”

Interviewed about the new book on Salon.com, artistic director and collection editor Catherine Burns said, “One of these things we say at The Moth is that we’re really trying Screen Shot 2017-04-29 at 10.02.52 AMto find the story about how you became you. We know it’s a tall order but that there’s truth in that, and everyone has that, has stories like that from their life. Will everyone find them and tell them in front of a crowd? Maybe not. But I think that most people, if you talk to them and listen very carefully, there are beautiful things. Everyone has something beautiful to say. We find that again and again.”

In the Salon article, Burns talks about how “highly processed” storytelling had become, with blockbuster movies and television programs—all requiring teams of hundreds to tell the tale. “I think this movement has come up because people love to just connect individually with one person, to hear one person’s point of view,” she said.

“Honesty matters. Vulnerability matters. Being open about who you were at a moment in time when you were in a difficult or an impossible place matters more than anything.”          – Neil Gaiman, from his introduction to All These Wonders

The collection contains stories told by well-known writers and stories told by regular people—a scientist, a high school student, a former model, a business owner, and more. The settings range from the quotidian to the wildly unfamiliar; there’s a story about going to summer camp and one about going undercover in North Korea. While each is unique, they all share a sense of intimacy, as if the storyteller is speaking directly to the reader, divulging personal information in a moment of vulnerability.

Hearing (or reading) such absorbing stories is bound to have an impact on the listener. As Neil Gaiman recounts in the foreword to All These Wonders, describing what happened when he became a Moth podcast subscriber, “… every week somebody would tell me a true story that had happened to them that would, even if only slightly, change my life.”

 

The Telling Room: Proving the Power of Words

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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.

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!

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Greetings from Maine, site of the 2017 Power of Words Conference

As one your new editors of the TLA Network blog, I am looking forward to reading your submissions and engaging in the conversation about the importance of Transformative Language Arts to each of us, as well as the importance of our TLA practice to the community around us. I am fairly new to the field, although I have been telling stories through writing for my entire life. As the title of this post says, I write from Maine, which means I’ll be excited to attend the Power of Words Conference in Maine this summer, where I hope I’ll meet many of you in person.

The conference, officially called the 14th Power of Words Conference: Transformation, Liberation, and Celebration Through the Spoken, Written, and Sung Word, takes place from August 18 – 20th at Ferry Beach in Saco. As a Mainer, let me assure you that this is prime summertime on our beautiful southern coast. I can’t imagine a better place to feed the imagination and create a sense of community. Here’s a photo from the Ferry Beach website:

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Picture yourself in one of the chairs on the porch surrounded by fellow conference attendees. You’re all sharing stories, ideas, and reactions to the great workshops/lectures/performances you just attended, while the porch flags flutter in the sea breeze. (Learn more about the Ferry Beach Retreat and Conference Center here.)

Keynoters at the conference include Joseph Bruchac, True Story Theater, Mahogany L. Brown, Susan Bennett-Armistead, and Kelley Hunt. The list of workshops is varied and extensive. To find out more about the conference, visit the conference webpage: https://tlan.wildapricot.org/conference.

Speaking of the conference, if you are planning to attend, you can save $20 by registering before April 25th.  After that date, the registration fee becomes $230 for TLA members and $250 for non-members.

I have to say, just thinking about a wonderful seaside conference in August is an effective spirit-raiser in gray late February. And, this year, it seems more important than ever.

–Barb Burt

“A Dream” One Woman Show, by Juanita Kirton

Editor’s Note:  Presenters at the Power of Words Conference wanted to share about their work. This week, we feature a couple of those that did not get posted before the conference.

Juanita Kirton shares about her show.


The monologue that I created started out as a poem in the voice of a slave women who dreams of what it would be like to be free. Her dreams take her on a magnificent journey, from the fields of cotton/tobacco to Nova Scotia. She experience true love and loss. Through her dreams she is able to mentally escape the horrors of slavery.

I wanted to expand my poem and create space between the various places/times. I sing with the Riverside Church Inspirational Choir, in NYC and it became apparent that I could use music to separate my stanzas. I did some research and added spirituals between the different places & scenes for the character. The piece transformed itself from just words on paper to words & music. The songs gave the character some time to reflect on her journey.
In October, 2013 a member of WWW (Women Who Write) put out a call for 10min stage readings. I ask if a long poem could be considered. She told me to come and audition. It was accepted and I performed a stage reading at Watchung Arts Center in NJ. The house was packed, I was very nervous, but it went well, with a great response. As with all writing, edits are always occurring. I added some authentic African history to this piece and gave the female character a real name to honor my spouse’s mother. Now, “A Dream” arrived at Power of Words Conference. I am excited to have part of this experience, thank you for the opportunity to share my work.

screenshot-2016-09-11-at-15-48-20Juanita Kirton holds a BA in Psychology, an MEd in Special Education, a PhD Educational Administration and a PhD in Developmental Disabilities. In 2015 she obtained a MFA from Goddard College in the Creative Writing/Poetry track. Juanita sings with Riverside Church Inspirational Choir, is a member of Rutgers University South African Initiative Brain Trust Committee, the Pocono Mountain Arts Council, the Pocono Mountain African American Network, volunteers with several local organizations.

Juanita facilitates the Blairstown Writers group in New Jersey, which is affiliated with Women Who Write in NJ and participates in the Women Reading Aloud workshop series. She directs the QuillEssence Writing Collective that coordinates an annual women’s writing retreat at Kirkridge Retreat Center in Bangor, PA, and is currently a poetry editor for the Goddard College Clock House Literary Journal.

Meet International Storyteller for Peace Kiran Singh Sirah

kiranKiran Singh Sirah is now the president of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, TN, a long way and many stories from where his life began as part of a Ugandan Asian refugee family that landed in England after Idi Amin expelled all Ugandan Asians under the threat of execution. In his excellent Tedx Talk Nashville on “Storytelling: A Powerful Peace,” Sirah says,

I was born in England. My mother was born in Kenya. My father was born in India. My brother was born in Uganda. My own family is a mini United Nations, and we’re all storytellers, keeping the old traditions alive, and finding new ones. Stories are always crossing borders. I spent the first part of my career in Scotland, and now I’m here in the U.S.—with my own stories, and the stories I’ve inherited from my family. And there are so many ways to do that, through personal stories, folk tales, pieces of history, and other forms that we haven’t even thought of yet.

He goes on to talk about the power of storytelling to bring us to peace and community across and within borders. Listen to the whole talk here.

Currently in his role with the International Storytelling Center, Sirah organizes events, raises funds, and plans programs to help people around the world “make a difference by discovering, capturing, and sharing their stories.” Learn more about ISC here.

Siran also shares this a free downloadable toolkit with TLAers on  “Telling Stories That Matter: A Toolkit for Exploring Your Potential as a Storyteller.” 

“Oh My Stars and Garters!” with Lyn Ford, POW Keynote Speaker

Editor’s Note: I’ve known Lyn for several years, and she is an incredible human being. Listening to her talk would itself be worth the conference registration.


OH, MY STARS AND GARTERS…I’M TALKING ABOUT BELLY BUTTONS!

THE HERNIA JOURNAL:  MY WORD-DANCE THROUGH DARKNESS TO JOY – A journey in progress, from belly-ache to belly laugh, from abuse to a-ha, from hell to Hafiz, shared in personal narrative, folktale, and poetic joy.

That’s the blurb I passed on to TLAN for my Saturday, August 13 keynote performance for the 2016 Power of Words Conference.  Then I set aside any thought on the subject, so that, in a couple days, I could look at that blurb with fresh eyes.

04crw_2102-1Five days later, I looked at what I’d sent, and my fresh eyes blinked as if I’d been smacked by a hard gust of wind.  I said to myself, “Self, you’ve just committed to sharing a portion of the map of that dark walk into and through the woods, the one that frightens and confuses and excites you, and makes you laugh and cry at the same time.  Just a few steps, reflection and folktale connection and poetry.  You are going to share from your hike through personal muck and mire, in 45 minutes.”

Oh, my stars and garters…

This writing project grew from journaling while I worked on socio-emotional development activities and stories for educators and storytellers.  That work became difficult as I maneuvered over several rough patches—illness and injury, problems with medications, emotional situations…you know, life.  In the worst of it all, I wrote and shared my stories.  Folks laughed with me, which made me laugh more.

I’ve selected stories and verse from my journal, offered because they lend themselves to the conference theme, “Begin with YES!”  But “yes” isn’t just the beginning of transformation.  It’s the effective affirmation of every step of each human being’s personal journey.  “The Hernia Journal” presentation has its emotional ups and downs, but, yes, we will laugh, because that’s how I roll…or, reel, or trundle, …it’s all good.  I always pack joy for the journey, even when I’m crawling, with “yes” in my heart.

The preconference workshop that I’ll facilitate is titled “LAUGHTER, BREATH, JOY: COMMUNAL COMMUNICATION”.  That’s what we’re going to share.  As a Certified Laughter Yoga Leader (and now, I’m a Certified LY Teacher, too—yay!), I’ve become more aware of the important empathetic connections of laughter, play, and simple stories.  Most big folks just don’t play enough, or feel the excitement of telling their own stories without self-criticism and with the lightness of the child’s heart that still beats inside us.  I’m hoping folks come to the conference early, and play and laugh and communicate with an open heart and mind.


Lyn FordLyn Ford is a fourth-generation Affrilachian storyteller and workshop facilitator. Lyn is also a Thurber House mentor to young authors, a teaching artist with the Ohio Alliance for Arts Education (OAAE) and the Ohio State-Based Collaborative Initiative of the Kennedy Center (OSBCI), and a Certified Laughter Yoga Teacher. Lyn’s work is published in several storytelling-in-education resources, as well as in her award-winning books, Affrilachian Tales; Folktales from the African-American Appalachian Tradition, and Beyond the Briar Patch:  Affrilachian Folktales, Food and Folklore. Lyn’s 2015 book, Hot Wind, Boiling Rain: Scary Stories for Strong Hearts is a creative-writing resource; Lyn’s fourth book (with friend, Sherry Norfolk), Boo-Tickle Tales: Not-So-Scary Stories for Kids, is set for publication in the summer of 2016.   For more information on Lyn’s work, go to her website at www.storytellerlynford.com. Or contact Lyn at friedtales2@gmail.com.