Let Your Art Inspire You: Reuse Your Art, by Carol Pranschke

I bought a house, on a one-way dead-end road. I don’t know how I got there. ~ Stephen Wright 

Have you heard this joke of Stephen’s? I’ve listened to Stephen Wright many times, and each time I hear this witticism, I laugh. Listen to almost any comedian, and you will often hear them repeat their best jokes, or riff off of the old to create new jokes. Artists in other genres refine their art by riffing on patterns of reuse. Claude Monet devoted some thirty paintings to the haystacks in a field near his house at Giverny. Poet Audre Lorde revisits themes of racism, sexuality and nature.

I’ve spent a lifetime starting fresh with writing pieces, and as many of us know, the blank page can be daunting. I ask you, are you using one of the best sources for art – art you’ve previously created – as a source for more art? I ask myself, can I find inspiration in what I have already created? As humans, we love patterns. As an artist, I find that revisions can serve as both a work in process and as new milestones.

Monday is an awful way to spend 1/7th of your life. ~ Stephen Wright

Revisiting Mondays may be an awful way to spend your time, but revisiting your art – and the memory of people who inspire it – that can be a real pleasure. Here’s an example. Recently, I made a presentation to the Unitarian Universalist congregation which I serve as Office Manager. Designed to be more inspiring talk than annual report, many of my words were intended to honor the congregants. After my intro, I shared:

Over these last ten years, I’ve had the opportunity to see what phenomenal looks like. Phenomenal is the face of you. When children lose their toys on our roof, you say “I’ll get it down.” When we need to move prairie dogs off of our property, you say “Let’s do it in a way that respects them.” When we put up a Black Lives Matter banner, which we did a few years back, and it gets stolen – twice – you say “Let’s put up another.” It was a proud moment when a person of color stopped into the office, and thanked us for the banner. I replied on behalf of the congregation “You are very welcome.”

I went on to speak about specific projects, and concluded, “What does phenomenal look like? It looks like you.”

Let’s apply this philosophy of revisioning art to honor another group of people. Let’s see if I can make new art based on the old.

I would like to take this moment to speak in honor of African American people. Over the decades of my working career, of becoming more woke – which I will work on for the rest of my life – I have seen what phenomenal looks like. Phenomenal is the face of you. When a young scared white girl is lost on a Chicago commuter train, you pull out a Chicago transit map and help her find her way. When you are given a technical assignment to upgrade agent computers on a “you have one chance to do this right or thousands of agent computers will crash around the country,” you work it, and every single computer receives the upgrade and applies it successfully. When a disturbed white man shoots and kills, you forgive. When a cop murders your unarmed son, you, his beloved family and friends, ask for justice. What does phenomenal look like? It looks like you.

The philosophy of being inspired by my own art could be used to honor one marginalized group after another: single mothers, retirees, trans folx, Native Americans, folx who roll on wheelchairs and many more. In our culture, there are many opportunities to pay respect that is long overdue.

For the moment, I will pause and leave this revision stand for awhile, and take time to reflect upon people of color I have known or have learned about, who are, indeed, phenomenal.  

@2020 Carol Pranschke with gratitude to Diane Glass and Rev. Ruth Rinehart for early feedback

A long-time creative since she was little, Carol’s first true love was story. Stories saved her life (along with meditation, long talks with sisters, and blowing big bubbles). She sees a storyteller in you, and would like to dialogue about transformative language. See more at Carol’s website, or contact her at carolpranschke@gmail.com.

How Pictures Heal: Honoring Memory and Loss Through Expressive Writing from Personal Photos, by Kelly DuMar

We all take, save and inherit photographs of the people, places and things that bring meaning, mystery, hope and connection into our lives. In my upcoming webinar for the TLA Network, “How Pictures Heal,” these treasured personal archives will be the bridge to writing as a means of restoring meaning, purpose, hope and resilience during and after loss. (Learn more about the class here.)

The first thing I invite participants to do is to choose a photo of yourself to write from. Any photo, from any time in your life. It’s best to trust your instincts, and choose a photo that arrests your attention and seems to be whispering – it has a deeper story to tell.

Here’s what happened for Grace, a recent participant in one of my workshops, when I invited her to step into the three-dimensional world of her photo – in her own words:

When I was asked to find a picture to write about, I went to the one that I felt more sorrow, the picture that I look at, and wished I could go back to and stop time. There were so many questions, I just saw three cute kids, kind of looking like triplets, the way we looked so much alike.

I chose it not knowing how much the writing would come to life, I went back to that five-year-old who was plucked from her tropical safety net in Costa Rica, to come to America, where the cold hit me from my nose to the bottom of my terracotta soles. I am answering the questions that kept me in that time-warp of sadness. Today, opening up my mind and remembering things I thought were lost in a bottomless pit, the phoenix is rising, and the void of my past and memories of light not darkness are helping me stop, smell, and feel the sunshine that disappeared the night the plane landed in Logan Airport.

Grace’s 1965 passport photo, Costa Rica (Grace is on the far left).

Grace initially wrote what I call the “raw material,” from her photo, by answering question prompts I offer. Then, she continued developing the memory and her writing, and eventually composed a short personal memory piece, “Passport to Snow (1965).” Below are some excerpts from her photo-inspired memoir vignette (shared with permission of the author):

Grace – Always know, that if you keep both feet on the ground everything is going to be all right. ~ Tia Flori

In Costa Rica, where I was born, we run without shoes. We run around in the dirt, but we are always clean. Jabon. Soap. Smell of clean. A nice, shiny black soap with a scent I cannot get out of my system. Sweet, the smell of my grandmother.

I love to wiggle under my grandmother’s porch to eat the chalky dirt. I crave the gritty taste. Light brown to a red, like a spoonful of cinnamon. Me and my sister, Iris, are under the porch, eating dirt. The dirt is moist, like moss.

I am always in trouble…

At five, I feel my feet suddenly stepping into the unknown. I am being led by the hand, by my cousin Gloria, and my grandmother, to stand on a blank, white, piece of paper. What am I putting my feet on this paper for? The cobbler is drawing my feet with his pencil. First the paper was blank. Now I see the imprint of both my feet, left and right.

A few weeks pass, and a beautiful pair of ankle high shoes arrive. First, I smell the fresh paper they are wrapped in. Then I inhale the aroma of new leather. The white patent leather shines bright like the Costa Rican sun. The shoes are sturdy and strong: white with laces, with a terra cotta sole.

I have never had shoes as special as these made for me before. My mother and father are in a place called Sudbury in a state called Massachusetts, in the United States. They tell my grandmother, make sure the children get some shoes, because it’s winter here.


Who Should take this class? How Pictures Heal: Expressive Writing from Personal Photos, with Kelly DuMar
 TLA practitioners at all levels of experience
 Anyone interested in personal and artistic development
 Professionals and para-professionals who work with memory challenged seniors
 Family members of those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s, and caretakers of those with memory challenges, will find dynamic creative outlets for personal and professional development
 Writers and artists with an interest in exploring the healing aspects of personal photos.

We’ll create a safe and supportive environment, offering respectful support that inspires the development of every writer’s voice. I look forward to working with you!


Kelly DuMar, M.Ed. is a poet, playwright, and engaging workshop leader who generates enlivening writing experiences for new and experienced writers. Her photo-inspired creative writing method elicits profound personal awakenings, deepens connection with others, and fosters beautifully crafted writing in poetry and prose. Author of three poetry collections, girl in tree barkTree of the Apple, and All These Cures, Kelly is also author of Before You Forget— The Wisdom of Writing Diaries for Your Children. Kelly’s award winning plays have been produced around the US and Canada, and are published by dramatic publishers. Kelly is a certified psychodramatist, former psychotherapist, and Fellow in the American Society for Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama. She founded Let’s Talk TLA, a bi-monthly tele-conference and poetry open mic for members of the Transformative Language Arts Association. Currently, Kelly serves on the board & faculty of The International Women’s Writing Guild. Kelly inspires readers of #NewThisDay – her daily photo-inspired blog – with her mindful reflections on a writing life. You can learn more about Kelly at www.kellydumar.com

September Notes

Dear TLA Community:

During these times – as our nation faces profound threats to our democracy, institutional racism is being exposed and challenged on every front, and as we grapple with the impact of a devastating pandemic in the face of a global climate crisis – we continue to promote the transformative language arts as a means for effecting powerful and important social change. 

Whether you use your voice as a writer, a poet, a storyteller, a performer, an artist, a community leader, a change-maker, or in any kind of way – your voice matters. The work you do in the world matters. Our job here at the TLA Network is to offer support, share resources, hold out hope that change is possible, and to help keep our community moving forward while staying connected.

To that end, we are pleased to offer an incredible slate of upcoming fall online classes:
How Pictures Heal: Expressive Writing from Personal Photos // with Kelly DuMar (Sept 23 – Nov 3, 2020)
Kissing the Muse: A Messy, Magical, Art-Making Adventure // with Robbyn Layne McGill (Oct 14 – Dec 1, 2020)
The Art of Facilitation: Roots and Blossoms of Facilitation // with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg & Joy Roulier Sawyer (Oct 28 – Dec 15, 2020)
Fantastic Folktales & Visionary Angles to Transform Our Stories // with Lyn Ford (Jan 20, 2020 – Feb 23, 2021

Additionally, we invite you to join us in Santa Fe, New Mexico next fall, on the other side of this pandemic, at our 18th Power of Words conference. Join us October 29-31, 2021, as we gather with other like-minded transformative language artists dedicated to making the world a better place. We are delighted to welcome four spectacular keynotes: U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, spoken word poet and musician Lyla June Johnston, poet and artist Caits Meissner, and poet Javier Zamora.

Both the conference and all the classes are on sale right now – so make sure you take advantage of the moment, and let’s set our sites on being in community together again, and soon.

To the Power of Words,  

Hanne Weedon
Managing Director

SPOTLIGHT ON: Kelly DuMar, psychotherapist, teacher, poet, and playwright

Kelly is a long-time member and workshop facilitator for the TLA Network, and she has presented workshops at the Power of Words Conference every year since 2015, when she also joined the organizations governing body, the TLA Network Council. Kelly created SPARKS, a quarterly online open-mic and featured presenter series for TLAN. In her upcoming TLAN class, “How Pictures Heal: Expressive Writing from Personal Photos,” Kelly demonstrates how we can use our imaginations to heal ourselves and inspire our readers and listeners with empathy, comfort, and hope. Kelly is a member of the TLA Network because, she says, together, we are a gathering of empathic and imaginative people who care about helping each other heal by “telling-out” the large and small wounds we call encounters. Essential practices matter, now more than ever. 

Kelly believes wholeheartedly in the creative and spiritual renewal of a daily writing practice. In August, she celebrated four years of #NewThisDay, her daily photo-inspired creative writing blog. “Every day,” Kelly writes, “I walk in nature, which very often is along the Charles River in the suburbs of Boston where I live. I take pictures of nature just as I find it, in all seasons and cycles and weather. Something in the landscape, what I call my writing habitat, grabs my attention, and I snap a photo. At the end of every day, I put my photos in my blog, and appreciate once again the beauty, aesthetic delight, mystery, and imagination of the photo. Then I write, spontaneously, into the images, focusing only on the present moment. This is my daily practice of not suffering about yesterday or worrying about tomorrow. I discipline myself to be here now, and to notice and fully experience the beauty of the present tense. Many of my poems eventually spring from the seeds of this daily writing.” 

Kelly continues about the impact of expressive writing throughout her life. “As a thirteen-year-old, writing in my first diary about the death of my first love, I had no idea this impulse to tell-out my sorrow and troubles between the lines of blank white paper would seed a practice of a lifetime. As a psychotherapist, a psychodramatist, a playwright, a poet, writing workshop facilitator, and mother––all of the roles I have played in my life have been shaped by, and rooted in, expressive writing.”

Essential practices matter, now more than ever.  – Kelly DuMar

About a decade ago, Kelly found a photo of her Aunt Marion who had died of cancer. “This photo had arrested my attention in such a mysterious, powerful way. I knew I needed to unpack all the deeper meaning and wisdom, truth and beauty it held. As I wrote my first photo inspired poem, ‘Monadnock,’ the process helped me grieve in ways I had yet to for her loss.” 

From this first photo-inspired poem, Kelly developed a method of writing from personal photos that can help us grow personally, artistically, and emotionally. 

“Whether we are singing or telling our stories, or crafting our wounds into poems, we need to tell-out our own, and listen to each other’s stories. In our TLA network gatherings, we open our ears and eyes and hearts to each other. We find beauty in truth in community.”

August notes

Dear TLA Community:

We hope you and your loved ones are doing well during these long, hot, summer days.

As might be true for you, we have been deeply inspired recently by the power of words in these most troubling times. U.S. Congressman and longtime civil rights activist John Lewis wrote an important essay to our nation recently, published widely on the day of the Congressman’s funeral last week. Congressman Lewis’ words are a testament to the power of a deeply compelling call to action embedded in meaningful context – the very essence of the power of words. If you have not yet seen it, you can read the full text of the Congressman’s transformational message here.

We know many of you in the TLA Network are finding ways to use your voices to help raise awareness, offer perspective and understanding, and help guide our communities toward healing and hope. What are the words that have inspired you recently, that remind you to be your biggest, boldest, most courageous self, that keep you focused on your vision and your work in these challenging times?

We continue to be dedicated to growing the transformative language arts – empowering each of us to find and use our biggest voices to effect the change we wish to see in the world. As John Lewis so eloquently wrote, “Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life, I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

To the Power of Words,  

Hanne Weedon, TLA Network Managing Director

A letter from TLAN founder Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

As I retire from volunteering for the TLA Network, I’m in awe of the work we do make brave spaces for individuals and communities to break silences, build connections, and envision and embody greater justice, peace, and meaning in our lives.

One of the miracles of TLA is how it helps us grow our sense of belonging. Just by coming together in classes, conferences, trainings, and other projects, we can often find the people who really “get us” and resonate with the song our heart is singing and the work of our callings. Like many of you, I’ve drawn great strength, inspiration, and courage from being with other transformative language artists, which I try to pay forward in my writing, workshops, classes, coaching, and consulting.

I have great trust in the generous leadership of the TLA Network, and I want to give a shout-out in particular to Wendy Thompson, who is bringing her considerable vision to chair the classes committee, something I’ve done for so many years I can’t remember when I started. I have great faith in TLAN’s council, our leadership body, chaired by Liz Burke-Cravens, as they look at TLA and TLAN with new eyes in this time of fast-moving change and challenge.

My work encompasses online classes, Zoom workshops (particularly with people living with serious illness, a group I’ve worked with for 17 years), and coaching people on writing, facilitation, and right livelihood.

I’m grateful to TLAN for helping Laura Packer and me launch Your Right Livelihood, now an independent project in the process of developing a partnership with TLAN.

I spend my days, even when it gets crazy-hot (as it does in Kansas) on the porch, writing blog posts and poetry about the pandemic and a memoir about healing, cancer, and climate.

Being outside to witness the undaunted beauty and grace of the living earth led me to writing (and consequently, TLAN) in the first place, and continues to feeds my soul.

The Uninvited Guest, by Lyn Ford

About a week after “safe-at-home” became the way we play the game of life, we were visited by a storm.  This shushing, persistent deluge of white noise lasted through the night and late into the next morning.

I awakened to an unexpected, uninvited guest.  Something told me to inspect the basement, where I was greeted by at least ten inches of sewer water. This guest had entered through the drain in the cellar floor, and vandalized the place.

Floating in that nastiness were craft and workshop supplies.  Soaked handouts drifted from cardboard boxes, along with twenty years of preschool items, some of my husband’s old tools, things our grown children had left behind, and sundry other items, including the laundry I’d sorted into three baskets—mostly my clothes and all my white underwear.

I numbly summoned my husband.  What he said when he met our guest should not be repeated.

Then the furnace and water heater passed out.  Fortunately, they didn’t die.  An already exhausted heating and furnace repair person returned our call, suggesting we try letting the circuit breakers dry.  It was almost midnight. The water had subsided.  We prepared to pay for more visitors: appraisers, hauling crews, plumbing aficionados, and the microbial cleaning squad.  

Please note:  I didn’t say anything about insurance people.  “Backup” insurance is a separate entity from “flood” insurance.  We had no backup insurance. We do now.

We also lost all the paper items we stored in what we call the “paper closet” under the basement stairs.  We’d purchased our usual bulk supplies long before the run on toilet paper. Now our stockpile was gone.  

That was a good thing.  One young man, dragging items from our basement and tossing them in his truck, said, “It’s a good thing you had all that paper.  It absorbed the water and saved your bottom steps.”

Who knew that toilet paper could swell to the size of Miss Muffet’s tuffet?  We were grateful for that.

We’re grateful for a lot of things.  The basement is clean.  It is also dry, dehumidified and sanitized.  The water heater and furnace circuit breakers dried out on their own (free!).  The house creaks a bit more, as does our budget.  But we’re warm, safe and happy.  And I have new underwear.

Our unexpected guest helped us realize and appreciate what is important.  Life is good.  And I hope this guest doesn’t invite himself to our home again.

The Guest House
by Rumi  (as translated by Coleman Barks)

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.

Robbyn Layne McGill is a writer, film-maker and painter who lives in Amsterdam, and runs workshops and trainings around the globe. Robbyn’s 6 week TLA Network class, Kissing the Muse: a Messy, Magical, Art-Making Adventure, begins October 14, 2020. Robbyn holds a Masters of Fine Arts degree in New Practices (painting and cinema) from San Francisco State University (2006), and Master of Arts degree in Transpersonal Psychology from John F. Kennedy University (2013), and a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas (1993)—but the story of how she came to live in Amsterdam (with a man she truly loves, and a cat named Leonard Cohen), and host collage-making “Muse Dates” is far, far more interesting. www.kissingthemuse.com.

The Masks We Wear: A Story for These Pandemic Times, by Lyn Ford

Let’s begin with a story.

Once a man who could not see lost his walking stick and could not find his way to the home he shared with his mother.  He called for help, but no one seemed to hear, and he stumbled along a rugged path.

Then he heard someone call out to him, “Hello, you, perhaps I can help you.”  The man walked in the direction of that voice, and tripped over something, no, someone, another man, who dragged himself on the same rugged road, for he had no legs and sought a place of shelter.

The two of them rested a while, and talked.  Now acquainted, they realized they both faced great difficulties.  They also knew they could help one another.

The man who could not see carefully took upon his shoulders the man who could not walk.  He became legs for his new friend and this new friend became his eyes.  They soon found an easier trail.  Both men made the journey safely to the mother’s home.  She joyfully greeted them both as her sons.  

And all their lives were easier for this. ———-

This is an incredibly old fable, sometimes attributed to Aesop the storyteller, but its motif is found in stories in Europe, Asia, and North America.  Valuable old stories travel far.

Recently, I walked across an almost empty parking lot, and passed a few masked people.  Being who I am, I tried, at a safe distance, to make eye contact. Behind my own mask, I smiled and said, “Hi.”

No one spoke or looked directly at me.  Shoulders hunched, eyes to the ground, brows furrowed, strangers remained strangers.  I thought, are masks distancing us even more than we already must be, or is it the fearful, lonely frustration behind them?

Masks can help us stay physically healthy in these pandemic times, but they can’t protect us against our fears.  They may help preserve our physical wellbeing, but they won’t lift our spirits, or bring us joy. 

We must communicate hope and empathy, and let our hearts shine.  No matter how much masks obscure, they don’t hide our eyes, our body language, or our voices, tools that have always been important to sharing our stories.  Now, they’re even more important to sharing our humanity, showing others that we’re safe havens for one another, even when we must remain separated.

To be whole, to make the journey easier, to find shelter, the two men in my folktale adaptation needed one another.  Together, they found possibility and hope.  One couldn’t see, but heard the voice of his new brother.  One couldn’t walk, but recognized the strength of another.  Both were willing to ask for and receive help.  If either had ignored the other, where might each have ended his journey?  And what might have happened to that mother, who was alone?

Our present situation may not be a “happily ever after” narrative.  Real life isn’t.  But we can live this story together, and communicate.

We can be there for one another, even behind the masks we wear.

Robbyn Layne McGill is a writer, film-maker and painter who lives in Amsterdam, and runs workshops and trainings around the globe. Robbyn’s 6 week TLA Network class, Kissing the Muse: a Messy, Magical, Art-Making Adventure, begins October 14, 2020. Robbyn holds a Masters of Fine Arts degree in New Practices (painting and cinema) from San Francisco State University (2006), and Master of Arts degree in Transpersonal Psychology from John F. Kennedy University (2013), and a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas (1993)—but the story of how she came to live in Amsterdam (with a man she truly loves, and a cat named Leonard Cohen), and host collage-making “Muse Dates” is far, far more interesting. www.kissingthemuse.com.

A Conversation on Right Livelihood and Transformative Language Arts, by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

carynlaura

The Transformative Language Arts Network’s “Your Right Livelihood Training” with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg and Laura Packer offers writers, storytellers, performers, coaches, facilitations, and others in the arts a pathway to make a living in concert with their callings and communities. Unlike cookie-cutter career programs, this visionary training guides you toward what constellation of vocation works best for you now, and when the path meanders, whether you’re leaping into a new career or form of service or developing your new work while keeping your current job. This 100-hour training includes an in-person retreat Oct. 28-30 at the ElDorado Hotel & Spa in Santa Fe (right before the Power of Words conference), an in-depth online class; video-conferencing with luminaries including Heather Forest, Gregg Levoy, and others, and more. https://www.tlanetwork.org/Right-Livelihood-Training. You can also attend one of our Life & Livelihood Small Group Coaching Sessions April 22, June 14, or Aug. 11.

What does Right Livelihood mean in the context of TLA? How does it relate to finding and staying in conversation with our life’s work while keeping the cupboards and gas tank full as well as caring for our health, art, soul, and community?

Laura Packer and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, between them, have decades of experience. Laura has been supporting herself as a storyteller, writer, consultant and coach for more than ten years. While her income isn’t as consistent as it was when she had a day job, Laura finds her work to be fulfilling and meaningful, which more than balances the occasional financial unpredictability. These days she travels around the world teaching, performing, coaching, giving talks, and helping people and organizations discover and find meaning in their own stories. Her writing ranges from ghost-writing for CEOs to lyrical essays about storytelling and life to the occasional piece of fiction or poetry. Laura is nourished and transformed by her work every day; she sometimes says her work is synonymous for living, because story is everywhere.

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg has been balancing freelance workshops, consulting, presentations, and collaborative projects with her own writing and teaching at academic institutions since 1986. She makes her living now from teaching in Goddard College’s Graduate Institute and coordinating the TLA concentration and driving her 2004 peanut-butter-cup-colored Honda CRV all over Kansas and nearby states to lead workshops, give readings and talks, and collaborate on projects. Threaded through all, she writes poetry, fiction, memoir, blog posts, and songs. Her work also encompasses long walks with her husband and dog, being present for and with loved ones, making things (from quilts to soups), and watching great movies.

Here is Caryn & Laura’s conversation, which starts and continues each time they visit in person but was caught here through a google doc over several months.

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: When I was growing up, I had no idea how a poet would make a living, and although people pushed me toward journalism and advertising, it didn’t stick. I was made to make things, especially out of words.

Now I make a living in ways that didn’t even exist when I was a teenage poet: I teach in a low-residency master’s program at Goddard College, traveling from Kansas to Vermont twice each year to work with students intensively in designing and implementing their individualized studies and facilitate community writing workshops for many populations, particularly for people living with serious illness. I love what happens when mortality is at the table, and we speak, listen and write from our souls. I give talks, workshops and readings through the Kansas Humanities Council and University of Kansas Osher Institute, and mostly on my own, conversing deeply with audiences on everything from poetry and wild weather to oral histories of people who survived the Holocaust. My work is a kaleidoscope of gigs and teaching, mentoring and consulting, driving across the plains in the bright light of early spring and occasionally flying over the green wonder of the mountains surrounding Lake Champlain to land again in Vermont.

What is your work, Laura, and how did you find your way to it?

Laura Packer: While I was pursuing my degree in Folklore and Mythology I had a lot of people tell me to practice saying, “Would you like fries with that?” I ignored them and persevered. Truthfully, I didn’t know what I was going to do with the degree, I just knew that I loved stories and that my work lay in that direction.

I met the man who would become my mentor when I was 19. He was telling stories and, as I listened, I knew that this was my path. It took me awhile to realize I would have to build the path myself. I worked part time for many years while I pursued my craft, but now I support myself doing a wide range of things that all fall under the umbrella of storytelling. I perform around the world to a wide range of audiences. I’ve told stories in pre-school, at festivals, universities, homes and so on. I teach, running workshops and coaching people ranging from storytellers to CEOs to parents to marketers to non-profit professionals and more. I work with organizations, both for- and non-profit, helping them understand and refine the stories they tell. I give keynotes and lead workshops at conferences. And I write, blogging about storytelling and taking on freelance assignments from a wide variety of clients.

It’s never boring. It’s sometimes hard to keep track of. I am always learning, hearing new stories and remembering that the work I do matters. Everything I do, as diverse as it is, touches upon story and the ways that our stories matter. I know that the work I do supports me both financially and spiritually. I also know that the work I do helps others. It is the right path and one it’s been fascinating to create.

Caryn, I’m wondering about the work you do with TLA and what that has to do with right livelihood. For that matter, could you explain what right livelihood means to you?

CMG: When I first heard about the term “right livelihood”—at Goddard College during a session on making a living true to ourselves—it chimed in me as something I had been seeking for myself and my community for a long time. After being thrown out of journalism school (the extremes we will go to so we can land in the right place!), I earned my BA in labor history, drawing on my concern since I was a teen about how our work lives infuse the whole of our lives. What we “do” colors not just our workaday life but how perceive ourselves, our communities, our world, and our potential to change. If your work entails saying, “Would you like fries with that?” on regular basis, it’s likely that being a fast-food worker shapes your identity, sense of self and what’s possible for you, and even your belief about what kind of work you’re entailed to do in your life.

Right livelihood is a Buddhist term, part of Buddha’s eightfold path (which also includes right speech, another TLA concept in my mind), and it connotes work that does no harm. Stretched out, the term points toward work (both vocation and avocation, for pay and just because it feels like our work) that serves, including conversing with our own callings as well as our community’s calling.

I didn’t realize when I was studying labor history, and later working as a labor organizer and reporter—all the time writing and reading and breathing poetry—that all would converge into my own right livelihood. As a transformative language artist, I draw on the power of our words aloud and on the page, solo and choral, to herd us toward greater health, vibrancy, liberation, and connection with the living world. My work—both at Goddard as a faculty member and coordinator of TLA, and as a working artist facilitating brave spaces for others to find more of their own voices and visions—is how I practice my right livelihood. All of this aligns me with the continual conversation with a calling, but it’s also work that, at best, helps others articulate more of their own truest work in the world. In the Brave Voice writing and singing retreats I co-lead with singer-songwriter Kelley Hunt, we fly on the assumption that opening your voice in one way cannot help but strengthen your voice in your whole life, and I’ve witnessed many people making courageous leaps into who they already were and what they now need to do.

Laura, is that how it is for you too as a performer, teacher, mentor, and writer as well as someone I would call a fellow transformative language artist?

LP: Caryn, you hit the nail right on the head. Right livelihood means work that enlivens and enriches us thoroughly, from fiscal health to spiritual health and beyond. It’s work that nourishes our spirits as well as our bodies and allows us to function as contributing members of a larger community, which is what artists are.

When I remember the value of my work in that larger picture, as someone who brings something powerful to a community as well as enriching my own life, it’s easier for me to be able to charge appropriately, advocate for myself and remember that what I do, as well as all other artists, matters.

CMG: Absolutely! I think part of this work, to really put the “right” into “right livelihood,” entails making paths for and sometimes with other artists. Little makes me as happy as seeing someone I helped mentor come out with a first book or start giving writing workshops in their communities.

Laura, you’ve talked with me before about the importance of charging what we’re worth as a way to honor those who come after us. The whole issue of what to charge, and how to ask for what our work is worth, is challenging and variable for me. I’ll do some things for hardly anything or for free, and other things for a livable stipend, yet negotiations can encompass lots of gray areas. I find our system of working this out to be awkward: an organization will often not say what it can afford until I suggest an amount. I often present what I charge as a range from the lowest I’m willing to accept to the highest I believe I should be paid, and if it’s something I really feel is mine to do, I try to convey that I’m open to negotiation.

Of course, all these issues speak to our cultural tendency to soil our money relationship with shame, privilege, hurt, defensiveness and other difficult guests to host. I’ve had a lot of help along the way to ask for what my work is worth, even and especially as a poet. Once a representation of an organization I was working with told me, a few hours before my gig there, that they didn’t have enough in the budget to pay me what we agreed on, so would I take a cut in pay? The musician I was collaborating with wasn’t asked to take a cut, so we talked this over, and together told the organization, “no,” but it was eye-opening for me, re-affirming my bias against myself that poets don’t get paid or paid much. Having someone stand tall with me helped me to challenge my self- and poet-destructive thinking, and hopefully, as time goes on, may have some effect for others too.

How do you navigate all this?

LP: Oh, this is a hard one! I feel like I don’t navigate it well much of the time, but I do the best I can, which is all any of us can do. Money is such a taboo subject, I try to understand my own prejudices and fears as well as talk about it, so it becomes less taboo. I use several tools to help me think and talk about money.

First, I talk with my colleagues about what they charge. If we remove some of the secrecy, we can all charge a living wage AND put a dent in the cultural idea that transformative language art should be cheap and that those who hire us should pay us less than they would their caterer, organizer, musician or others. It’s related to your experience with being asked to take a pay cut when your musician friend was not; if we charge a reasonable amount and know that we aren’t pricing ourselves out of range of our colleagues but in alliance with them, it can be easier to ask for. Additionally, by talking about it with my colleagues we get to remind ourselves that we are charging for far more than the 30 or 60 minute event, but for all of the time and experience that lies behind it.

Second, I do what you do. I often give the representative a range of cost and then remind them that this is how I make their living. I also tell them that I am open to negotiation (if I am).

Third, if I give work away for free or at a greatly reduced cost, I always give an invoice that reflects what I would have wanted to be paid. This helps lay groundwork that what I, and other TLA artists do, is valuable and worth paying for.

Fourth and last, I remember what a wise friend said to me, when I asked him money questions. He told me, “You can always negotiate down, you can’t negotiate up. Think about what you want and then ask for double.” I don’t do it quite this way (asking for double feels too bold for me) but I do ask for what I want and a little more. I can lower my rate, shorten the event, barter for other services but once I’ve set a price I can’t really come back and ask for more unless they ask for more service first.

When I remember to financially value my own work I am not only telling myself that what I do is worthwhile, I am also telling the rest of the world that art matters.

CMG: That’s very wise advice, and I love the idea of the invoice for what this is worth. There’s something magical about saying on paper “this is what my work is worth” when it comes to inviting in more lucrative work to balance out what we feel drawn to give away.

I’ve been thinking of what I do for free lately because in the last few months. I have one project that I’m grappling with because it’s sort of a “closure” project with a group of people, a way to share some social capital after working with this group for many years in the past. In the long run, I know this project is what I should be doing, but it’s sometimes difficult to balance the volunteer work with the paid work and still have time (not!) to write.

I’ve also been editing a book for a wonderful poet in his dying days, and that’s a sweetheart labor of love through and through. It’s an immersion in grace to be able to do this for someone I love and whose poetry is so important to share with others who can find a lot of sustenance in what he has to say about death, dying and life.

Often though, it’s hard for me to know the impact of my work and if I’m making the best decisions about where to put my time. My husband, also a writer and grassroots organizer, and I often joke as we’re falling asleep that we won’t know the impact of our work until after we’re dead, and I think that’s true. We don’t know, and this makes think of a stanza in one of my favorite Rumi poems:

If you are here unfaithfully with us,

you’re causing terrible damage.

If you’ve opened your loving to God’s love,

you’re helping people you don’t know

and have never seen.

So maybe all we can do is to try to be faithful in being here with our people, which also means being faithful to ourselves, and through our work and being, open our hearts (whether we use phrase like “God’s love” or not in describing this) to dropping our pebble in the pond and hoping for the best for what ripples we make and receive.

How have you learned and how are you learning how to do your best Right Livelihood?

LP: Most of what I’ve learned about right livelihood has come from trying things, seeing what works, and talking honestly with my colleagues. We build community by have frank conversations about value, issues and solutions, about how to support each other, not undercut each other and still get work.

I love your idea of being faithful to ourselves and our work. When we are open hearted in our approach we are at once more vulnerable and more reachable. I think vulnerability is too often seen as a weakness in the working world. When we are vulnerable we let others know they can be vulnerable too. I have found I am no more likely to be hurt or not get work when I am honest.

If I model that for everyone with whom I interact then they may be a bit more vulnerable too. We can connect more effectively. We help others without even knowing it.

CMG: I also think of those I owe homage to for what they taught me and are teaching me about Right Livelihood. One of my close friends, Kris Hermanson, is a wiz at organizational development and consulting, and I’ve learned a great deal from her about how to write and share strong proposals, grants, pitches to those who might want to bring me on-board. Plus, we both work at home or in coffee houses, so we check in with each other often, helping each other talk through questions and dilemmas, quandaries and decisions, such as how to deal with people along the way. Mostly, though, it’s how to navigate projects with people who have great intentions, but limited budgets and experience, and how can we make this a learning experience in the best way that really serves the community.

Another mentor is also a close friend, Kelley Hunt, who has been a touring musician for decades. We’ve had infinite conversations on the nuts and bolts of freelance work, including deeply pondering whether to say yes or no, what to charge, how to take care of ourselves during big push times when there’s too many gigs at once, and we have our own business together, Brave Voice, which lands us in the center of thousands of spinning details and bits of magic when there’s a retreat or performance afoot.

I’m also very lucky to have a great partner in life, my husband, Ken, who I can puzzle through various predicaments with, and who has great sense in seeing ways through the bramble to lift up everyone involved. He’s a Midwesterner to my east coast Jewish background, so he’s less apt to escalate and more seasoned in taking a breath and finding the wide-sky perspective on how to proceed.

One of my big tripping points is forgiving myself when I overschedule and overcommit. I tend to first go to the, “Oh, you did it again! What is wrong with you?” Place. My people help me let go of the shame and accept that making mistakes is part of this work. I also find conversations with you, Laura, to be immensely helpful in the “what is enough?” and “what is too much?” as well as about the whole Right Livelihood quest.

Who are your guides and mentors, Laura?

LP: Thank you Caryn! Likewise, I find talking with you to be immensely helpful. Your honesty and willingness to talk about difficult topics with vulnerability help remind me that I am not alone. Your insight is invaluable.

I have a number of what I call accountability buddies who help me set and keep goals. They also help me forgive myself when I overreach and remind me to take time for self-care. Two of those buddies in particular, Mark Binder and Cameryn Moore, help me with getting things done on time and prioritizing. Mark also helps me think through some of the financial issues of our work. My friends Elsa Zuniga and Trish Berrong help me think strategically and remind me that I can’t do everything. And friends like Priscilla Howe and Christie Keegan help me work through various artistic projects.

I think it’s easy to get caught up in the idea of the lone writer, scribbling away in her garret. It’s part of the cultural story about artists and it’s compounded by the American story of the lone hero. Neither of those stories really work for me. We need help, no one can do everything alone. We need people we can rely on to keep us on track, to remind us that what we do matters and to help us be kind to ourselves in meaningful ways. Most of the time people are honored when you ask for help. It’s worth the risk. I know I couldn’t do what I do alone. For all that the actual acts of creation take place alone and all of the sustaining work is made easier by having allies.

CMG: You teach a class for the TLA Network on “Creating a Sustainable Story: Self-Care, Meaningful Work and the Business of Creativity.” Could you say more about what “a sustainable story” means to you?

LP: We understand our lives through story. We tell ourselves stories about who we are, how we got that way, our roles in the world and the work we do. It can be easy to tell ourselves stories that are destructive or impossible to achieve. Stories like, “I will never be good enough for my parents,” or “I will succeed at my work only when I win award x or am published in the New Yorker,” or “I am a struggling artist.”

If we can identify the stories we are telling them we understand more about why we do what we do. If we tell ourselves empowering stories that can be sustained long term then it’s more likely we will have a positive impact in the world and be able to measure our success in realistic ways. For example, contrast the story I am a writer who struggles to be published because no one understands me with the story I am a writer who continues to seek out receptive audiences. Those two stories may be about similar experiences but one offers more hope than the other.

A sustainable story is one that has room for varied definitions of success and empowers us to continue to do what we love. It nourishes us because it is a story of value, worth and flexibility. There is room to be driven and room to take a break. A sustainable story is one we can engage in long-term, not just until the first roadblock.

It’s not a story of the lone hero who never errs, but of the human being who is supported, who can accept help and who succeeds in achievable steps. It’s about understanding that pulling the sword from the stone (finding purpose) is only the first step and that there are many detours along the way. Some of those detours may become the main story instead. By understanding the story we are telling ourselves about ourselves, and including allies and self-care, we are more able to keep going when things are tough. We are less likely to brand ourselves failures, but to give ourselves permission to fall down, get up and try again.

How do you keep going when you stumble? What tools do you use? What stories do you rely on?

CMG: I stumble often although it’s not always visible to people outside of my own mind because I am good at sucking it up and putting myself out there, even when I feel like shit, which is what the stumbling is often about. For better or worse, and especially since surviving cancer in 2002, I tend to get sick often. Because I love my work so much and have a hard time self-regulating or even knowing what not to do so that I have enough space and time for optimum health, I’ve become a reluctant student of self-care.

My old story was more along the lines of “You can never try hard enough,” and obviously, that’s a dangerous story when it comes to allowing the spaciousness needed for self-care and even self-love, let alone living a creative life. Yet, I’ve always had a conflicting story that’s the underground well for my poetry and other writing, and it has to do with loving the life force as it unfolds in the sky, land and moments of real love between humans and the more-than-human world. This story requires stopping, listening and watching, opening my senses and heart and letting myself be more vulnerable and permeable.

“This is enough” echoes me through a lot now, even when I have a pile of work on my computer screen. I tend to focus in on the next paragraph, next conversation and next email more than driving myself crazy with the whole of everything at once. I also try to remind myself that this moment—like right now when I’m writing, the brown dog is stretched out on the blue couch, a blue jay is hopping on the railing of the deck out the window, and I’m sipping tea—is as rich with the potential for loving life as any moment.

This is central to self-care, which feels like a part-time job that goes full-time as we age. When you’re working in the ways we are, it can be especially challenging because we often face feast-and-famine times (and income). I struggle to find and keep the best self-care for myself, which tend to include not eating so much sugar and doing a lot more yoga, swimming, walking, dancing and other ways of moving this body. But self-care can also manifest as going to a movie in the middle of the day, taking a bath (or, on a bad day, several), planting more hosta plants in a shady spot although the last ones I planted died, sitting in the corner with a magazine and cup of tea, making a luscious stir-fry, staring into the eyes of my dog, talking with my husband and friends, surfing Netflix, and taking one deep breath while watching the leaves unfurl on Cottonwood Mel, the big tree in my backyard that I named in memory of my father.

How do you see self-care, and how does it evolve, change, surprise you, and unfold in your life?

LP: It changes every day and is probably my biggest struggle. I often feel guilty about taking time for self-care, feeling instead as if I’m being lazy or avoiding the work. I also struggle to get back on track when I’ve been derailed by circumstances beyond my control. I frequently need to remind myself that when I’m depleted, my work will suffer. If my work suffers, then I am less able to help others. So taking time for myself is really a way to help others. Sometimes that’s the only way I can stop for a little while, by reminding myself that it’s not just for me.

Self-care for me can be reading a novel I’ve read before, one that isn’t particularly challenging. It can be going for a walk or moving my body in some other way. I recently hired a personal trainer to help me take better care of my body. I’m reminding myself that my mind and body are inextricably linked, so this is an investment in my work.

I get listened to. That’s a big source of self-care for me. I find a friend who I know won’t judge me and just whine for a little bit. Airing the self-pity helps me see how petty and insubstantial it is.

I take baths, I spend time with trees and rivers and (when I’m near it) the ocean. Sometimes I go to movies. I cook delicious, nourishing food.

I also try to set reasonable goals as a form of self-care. By breaking the big goals down into smaller parts I am giving myself tasks I can succeed at and I find success breeds success. That feels like self-care to me because I get to feel good about what I’m doing.

Self-care is constantly evolving. Paying attention to what is helpful at any given time takes work but is worth it. When I am well cared for it becomes easier to care for others through my actions and my work.

Lastly, when we care for ourselves it is easier to care for others. When we love ourselves, we love the world more easily. And really, that’s what we do as TLA artists. We love the world into seeing itself more clearly.

CMG: I love what you say about how when we’re well-cared for, we can better take care of others: an ethic of care, and really, of love for ourselves, our work, our people and place that fosters sustainability in how we and others live. I’ve been thinking lately about the term “social sustainability,” which also speaks to me of what we’ve been exploring in the bioregional movement for decades: how can we make and hold space to sustain our community and support each person’s unfolding conversation with what work and life calls to us?

Related to this for me has always been making things and ritual, which seem often like the same thing to me. There’s a kind of ceremony involved in surrendering my will to writing, designing a quilt, and especially working with groups to listen for and support the group’s collective heart and intelligence. I’ve been involved in many rituals that also bring in the arts, such as the water circle we do at the end of Kansas Area Watershed Council gatherings in which each person can step into the center, tell a story, say a poem, make a gesture, sing a song, and pour water from their home or travels.

TLA involves bringing together people to make greater meaning and unearth greater vitality in how we live. It helps us find—through our words, images, rhythms—our work in this life. Mary Oliver said in one of her poems, “My work is loving the world,” and I feel the same. What I actually do for a living and beyond is just a form of that ritual: practicing how to love the world.

More about Your Right Livelihood here.

An Open Letter to the TLA Community

Beloved TLA community,
From our work-from-home desks and tables, we are thinking of all of you in our transformative language arts family. You’re at the heart of everything we do, and we are so thankful for our connections with you, and for your ongoing support.

We recognize that the transformative language arts can provide both a place of refuge and calm in these stressful times, as well as a means for people to speak out about and fight against injustice, and we take the role of creating space for the TLA community very seriously.

Our rapidly-changing reality has required an incredible rethink about what it means to be together, while apart. How do we care—for our loved ones, our colleagues, and even our families—from a distance? How do we, at the TLA Network, best serve you, our community, during the difficult days that lie ahead?

We deeply believe in the power of words, and in particular, the power of your words, to make a difference, and to have an impact. Your voice matters, and the ways that you use your voice in this time – whatever form that might take – makes a difference as we work towards creating a world that works well for everyone – a world characterized by justice, equity, and fairness for all.

This unprecedented time of social distancing can be a solitary one, but it doesn’t need to be. Please reach out to us and we will do everything possible to respond with consideration and care.

We view the safety and wellbeing of our students, teachers and business partners as the highest priority as we respond to an evolving COVID-19 world. We are in the process of reviewing our in-person conference, classes, and trainings, and will keep in close contact with you as our plans evolve. Look for more information in the coming days about our fall gathering, the Power of Words, scheduled for October in Santa Fe, and featuring the United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo as keynote.

The Transformative Language Arts Network is devoted to creating new and meaningful ways of being together, even while apart. Let’s continue to take care of each other during this turbulent time, and long after! We wish for you what we wish for our own families: that through this trying time we find ourselves stronger and closer, and that we remember to fight for what is right, while being gracious with ourselves and those around us.

Stay well, stay close and stay connected,

Liz Burke-Cravens
Council Chair
&
Hanne Weedon
Managing Director