You’re Already a Successful Grant Writer

by Diane Silver

Editor’s note: Diane will be teaching her online class, Funding Transformation: Grant Writing for Storytellers, Writers, Artists, Educators & Activists beginning February 21st! Here is a wonderful blog post she has written about grant writing! 

“I don’t know about you, but the thought of writing a grant proposal, especially to fund my own work, makes my stomach knot. My first thoughts are of my inadequacies: I haven’t done enough, accomplished enough, won enough awards, or even been creative enough. And yet, the most surprising thing I learned when I unexpectedly got a job in philanthropy was that we creative folk already possess all the skills we need to win grants.

My sojourn into the world of philanthropy occurred quite by accident more than 20 years ago. My spouse died of cancer, and I suddenly had to raise our 7-year-old son on nothing more than a freelance writer’s income. With my son’s security at stake, I sought a job, any job, and found myself taking a position at a $1 billion foundation. Through the next 13 years I learned far more than I ever imagined about how fundraising works. At times I felt like a spy—not many writers get to hobnob with millionaires and philanthropists. I learned how they think, and what they seek. After my son graduated and launched himself into life, I went back to freelance writing, only now I included grant writing in my toolbox.

Through all of this I learned that the skills of a great grant writer are the same as the skills that all creative folk, independent educators, and activists must acquire to succeed. To both create and sell our work we must:

  • Be Thorough.
  • Be Aware.
  • Be Persistent.

You can’t create without being thorough. Learning and honing your craft requires an attention to detail that is every bit as exacting as an engineer’s. Creating an effective story, a novel, a poem, a workshop, or even a political campaign requires intensity. The same is true of writing a successful grant. You have to focus intently on what funders want, and you have to follow every one of their picky rules.

Awareness is also important for creative sorts and grant writers. To succeed as artists we must pay attention to our audience. We can’t reach the folks we want to reach unless we know who they are and how they perceive the world. The same is true in grant writing. You have to pay attention to your audience, which in this case is the foundation or governmental agency that is awarding the grant you want. Luckily, we creative sorts already have a well-honed knack for paying attention to our audience.

Even more important than thoroughness or awareness is persistence. There isn’t a single creative soul on this planet who has succeeded without being persistent. It takes persistence to learn our craft. It takes persistence to sell our work and make even a few dollars. Taking “no” for an answer is simply not an option in our line of work. The same is true in grant writing. If one funder rejects you, try another. If a funder turned you down for a particular grant, try again for the same grant program if the funder allows it, or apply for another kind of grant the funder offers. In grant writing as in creative work, the persistent succeed.

I am so thrilled to be teaching a grant writing class for the Transformative Language Arts Network. Funding Transformation: Grant Writing for Storytellers, Writers, Educators, and Activists begins February 21. Join us!”

Learn more about Diane here


Funding Transformation: An Interview with Diane Silver

Diane Silver will be teaching her class, Funding Transformation: Grant Writing for Storytellers, Writers, Artists, Educators, & Activists beginning February 21st. Here is a short interview with Diane about her upcoming class:

TLA Network(TLA): How did you discover, learn about and experience the topic that you’ll be teaching?

Diane Silver (DS) My sojourn into the world of philanthropy occurred quite by accident more than 20 years ago. My spouse died of cancer, and I suddenly had to raise our 7-year-old son on nothing more than a freelance writer’s income. With my son’s security at stake, I sought a job, any job, and found myself taking a position at a $1 billion foundation. Through the next 13 years I learned far more than I ever imagined about how fundraising works. At times I felt like a spy—not many writers get to hobnob with millionaires and philanthropists. I learned how they think, and what they seek. After my son graduated and launched himself into life, I went back to freelance writing, only now I included grant writing in my toolbox.

TLA: What can students in this class expect?

DS: My mission in this class is to enable every student to find a grant to apply for and to complete (or come close to completing) the first draft of a grant proposal.I also hope you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t when it comes to writing a proposal. I’ll provide you with resources to help you find the right grant for you, and to understand the grant writing process and how to best write a successful proposal. Students will do a few very brief exercises to help them get a sense of where they’re going, and then they will work through writing their own proposals. We’ll post our work on class forums and provide support and feedback to each other. I’ll guide and also provide feedback. By the way, if you’ve already got a grant in mind that you want to seek, that’s fantastic! You can work on that proposal for the class.

TLA: Why might this class be important at this time in the world?

DS: The world needs to hear our voices, yet we can’t put the time into doing our work unless we have the funding we need to support our work. We all need to eat, right? My fervent hope is that this class will provide students with the foundation they need to launch themselves into a more secure financial future.

TLA: Is there anything else about the class you would like share?

DS: Writing a grant proposal can be downright scary. It can feel like we’re sending ourselves out into the world naked to be judged. That’s why one of my top priorities for this class is for all of us to be gentle as well as honest in our feedback and interactions with each other. We are here to enable each other to succeed. We are NOT competing. There is more than enough money out there for all of us.

About the Teacher

A poet, journalist, and political activist, Diane Silver often pays her mortgage by working as a grant-writer and in fundraising (known as “development” to fundraising insiders). In her career, Diane has helped two universities raise hundreds of millions of dollars and written proposals that have won funding for a variety of clients. Her online course, Grant Writing and Fundraising Communications, and her fundraising writing win high praise.

“Diane Silver is the most talented development writer I’ve known in more than 20 years of work,” says Geni Holmes Greiner, executive director of university events for Wake Forest University, and formerly with The Smithsonian in Washington, DC.

Diane’s most recent creative work is a four-volume series of poetry called Your Daily Shot of Hope. (Meditations for an Age of Despair, published in January 2017; Meditations for Awakening, coming July 2017; Meditations for Transformation, September 2017; Meditations for Joy, November 2017.)

Sign up for Diane’s class here

Let the River Take Me: Learnings from Facilitating an At-risk Group, by Joanna Tebbs Young

Editor’s note: Originally published in Chrysalis, this powerful piece is a terrific example of TLA in practice. 

Let the River Take Me
A compilation poem

Let the river take me —
Even when it hurts, it breathes with the joy of laughter, undulating.
I choke on life, I’m really here in the world.
I keep trying. I am a survivor.
Manipulate the truth; truth to be heard.
The road to hell is as slow as molasses.
Sometimes it feels like a web of pointlessness — all shit.
I keep trying. I am a survivor.
Let the river take me, to be free.

“I’ve come to acknowledge that… my life has been heavily influenced by broken relationships, terrors of my past, bad influences or bad teachings from my childhood. Breaking free of the twisted mold of my childhood is no easy task. Knowing, acknowledging, and a desire for change is a beginning.” – Grant, “Write to Recover” participant

I can’t deny it: I’ve lived a sheltered existence. I have seen only glimpses of the tougher sides of life – a couple screaming at each other as they walk down my street, an addict sitting in a car on my corner before the dealer’s house was busted, the child at the street fair asking for more free cotton candy because she’s hasn’t eaten all day. I’m white, female, educated, and middle-class, and for the past six or seven years I have been facilitating writing groups for white, middle-aged, educated females. I don’t plan it that way, that is the population my workshops seem to appeal to.

But when I tell people that I run therapeutic/self-discovery writing workshops, most often they’ll say, “Oh, have you considered working with  ____?” That blank is always some “at-risk” population: inmates, addicts, problem teens, etc. Unfortunately, these suggestions would fill me with both guilt and fear; guilt because I was afraid. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able relate to those raised or living in a different world than me, and that they wouldn’t relate to, or feel safe, around me. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to help them.

Several years ago I was asked to run a writing group for teen moms – girls who were working towards their high school diplomas in an off-campus program while learning to care for their babies. I prepared for the three short sessions I was allotted and called it “Dream Big!”

I asked them to record how they felt at the beginning and end of each session hoping to see–and for them to see–some positive movement forward after an hour of writing (and eating snacks). I asked them what they enjoyed doing and what they dreamed of doing in the future. The responses were variations on the same theme: they were tired, bored, and had no plans beyond teen-hood other than “getting outta here.” I left that first session frustrated and broken-hearted. At home I cried for the apparent hopelessness of their world and for the children they were bringing into that world. But (even more so?) I cried because I didn’t know how to help them. I couldn’t fix them. I had failed.

From that point on, I shied away from “at-risk” populations, focusing on those who sought me out to help them with their writing and well-being. But last year, seven years after my experience with those teenagers, I was asked if I would consider running a writing group at Turning Point, a safe place where those in recovery can go to socialize and support each other, free from the pressures of their addictions. I was nervous, but with more experience under my belt and a desire to help, I said yes.

Having no idea what to expect–who would come and in what state of physical or mental health they’d be–I put together a program based on a curriculum I had previously designed called “Voice Quest: Writing Yourself Home.” The writing prompts follow the theme of a journey, or the mythical Hero’s Quest, and are undefined enough to be open to personal translation. They never specifically refer to recovery or addiction. For example, one of the first prompts is, “I began this journey today…,” and another has the writer ponder who or what they’d like as their guide or traveling companion. Some prompts lead them to reflect on the past, some on the future, and all invite them to see things from a new perspective.

I agreed to show up at the center once a week for ten weeks. The first week no one showed and I sat alone writing in my journal, listening to the laughter and chit-chat of a group in the adjacent room. I felt a bit foolish and disappointed, but I returned the next week. Of the two who showed that week, although she attempted some writing, one was more interested in the cake in the kitchen area, where she eventually disappeared to get a slice. Week three saw three people different people walk through the door, all of them curious but ready to take the work seriously. They wrote, they shared, they came back. By week ten, I had a core group of four with three or four additional periodically joining. I was asked to come back on a regular basis.

The process is simple: I give a prompt, start the timer, and they write. I then ask around the circle who wishes to share, always with the option to pass – which rarely happens – and they read. Some writers write a lot (I’m always surprised how much they can say in five minutes), some write just a sentence or two. The results are as varied as the individuals, but no matter the content, how it affects me emotionally or does (or doesn’t) impress me as a writer, I smile warmly at the reader, say thank you, and move to the next person in the circle.

When I was given a prompt and started writing in this group I’d just start writing whatever was in my head, it didn’t matter what came out. Somehow my insanity started to make sense and without knowing it I began to break down that wall and free myself. Without realizing it I was making progress in important aspects of my life that had become stagnant for ages. – Grant, “Write to Recover” participant

And what they write is beautiful. Beautiful in its grittiness, in its sadness, in its honesty, and for a number of them, in its poetic creativity. But most of all it is beautiful in its hopefulness. Beautiful in its looking forward and onward down a road they cannot clearly see but pray they will navigate with strength, self-forgiveness, and for many in the group, the love of God.

I love the journaling, it has given me a new freedom. My brain empowers my pen to write and it makes me feel whole.  – Rhonda, “Write to Recover” participant

And so I have learned something over the past few months: No matter the label society has given or what struggles we are facing, we are all human. Those in my writing group at the center are not so different from me just because they happen to be “in recovery,” and my ability or in-ability to relate to any other population doesn’t depend on whether Someone has or hasn’t deemed them to be “at-risk.”

These labels seem unfair, especially when those designated as “at-risk” or “in recovery” are often seen as “bad” or “broken;” it cannot be someone’s entire identity. We are all broken in some way and we all have some bad aspects. No matter where or how we grew up, what experiences we have gone through, we are all “at-risk” –  at risk of being hurt, of making bad decisions, of facing death, of being silenced, of feeling unloved and unappreciated. We are just humans who like everyone else need love, to belong, to contribute, and to feel confident in our abilities. We need the opportunity to see things from a different perspective, allowing our eyes and hearts to open to new and healing personal connections and knowledge.

Furthermore, we’re all recovering from something. Some do this silently, some openly, some secretly, some shamefully, others with forgiveness and self-love, other with regret and self-loathing. We’re all survivors, we’re all battling something. I say this not in any way to diminish or dismiss anyone else’s experience or struggle; pain, trauma, and grief exist on a spectrum and are relative to each person. Depending on our life’s circumstances we are all more or less rough around the edges. And it is only through compassion and understanding that we might see beyond these edges to the softer center that is in every human being. To see that no one is truly “Other.”

At the recovery center, unlike in other workshops or groups where I open the floor for discussion, I have found I don’t need, and shouldn’t, say anything but “Thank you.” What I might know and what I’ve experienced is of no consequence when they are sharing the depths of their hearts and souls. This group needs–and deserves–only witness. And so, we quietly and respectfully listen to each others’ writings, words, voices. We witness each others’ struggles, pain, strengths, dreams, regrets, hopes, anger… in silence and respect. We hear each other, we hear the stories, we glimpse into each others’ worlds and communicate through our silent listening: I see you.

At the end of the session, I read back to the group phrases which jumped out at me while they were reading. Once back home, I compile these into a poem. For me, this is a fitting symbol of their/our journey as writers and human beings: Each word and phrase is perfect in itself but when grouped into a whole, it becomes a story that many–if not all–can relate to no matter who they are and what their own “at-risk” label might be: addict, teen mom, married dad, divorcee, employee, boss, student, teacher… human being.

Over these past few months, I have learned something else: Creating safe space is my only job. As with any group, any “population,” my job is not to help them; to believe so would be hierarchical self-flattery. Beyond providing guidance, it is my job to “just be,” so they, as the beginning poem says, they can let the river of their words take them, to be free. It is my role to bear witness without judgment to the struggles the writer is facing or the road they are on, no matter how different it may look from the one I’m traveling. I am not there to teach anyone anything but to provide them the opportunity and safety to express and learn from their own innate wisdom,  It is my job to listen, to see, and to say, “thank you for being here, I’m glad you are.”

I am able to express myself with the feeling of safety, caring and non-judgment. I am able to open up in the meeting with what I trust is needed for my recovery. – Wendy, “Write to Recover” participant

Today, if I were to work with those young mothers I would do things differently. First, I’d request more time so I might gain their trust as someone who was not going to judge them or lecture them. I also wouldn’t name the class, “Dream Big!” I now realize that was the equivalent of telling them what to do. Yes, I do want them to dream big(ger) things for themselves than “getting outta here,” but it is not my place to impose my hopes onto them. Instead I must meet them where they are and to encourage each step they take by witnessing it and listening to their hopes and fears. Today, I wouldn’t talk as much, I would let them tell me what they wanted to write about, the world they know, the things they’ve seen, what they’re afraid of, and what they like to do. I’d give them a prompt then step away until it was time to listen and thank them for sharing their story and for their bravery for doing so.

Over the past seven years, I have learned that through writing, if given time and space and a sense of safety, anyone can begin to find the love, the belonging, the confidence, the ability to see things from a new perspective that is essential to a meaningful life. Through the sharing of stories, of experience, of hurts and pains, of confusions and grief, and joys and dreams, we can begin to understand that underneath it all we all have similar fears and needs. We may be “in recovery” or “at-risk” but we don’t have to recover or risk it alone.

More compilation poems using the words of Rhonda, Paul, Grant, David, Jacob, Sarah, and Wendy*

*not their real names

This Story has Yet to See its End

Trying to get out of this body — childhood prison.
No one noticed me
dreaming of ice cream and donuts, dope –
brain food –
kicking my spirits into space.

Uselessness of my imagination,
ideas disintegrate into dust.

Give me a break! Why am I doing this everyday?
It’s all been said before.


I’m letting go of the demons in my head;
stop being who I am and become who I am supposed to be.
I am in control of me.

I feel love, it never left me — there are cracks I can get my fingers into.
This story has yet to see its end;
I’m onto the next right thing:
The best me I can be.

I am Strong Enough to Live Through Hell

My fear is to melt
Into the status of a nothing.
I’m already quite empty,
There’s just this comfort place inside my head.

Sick people with good intentions
Draw me back into the insanity, where
Behind the smile is a knife,
Under the mean is fear.

Fear’s right in front of me on that
Train back to hell.

I need stilts to boost me into the sky
Where I will not get sucked in.
Thoughts can be redefined —
I can be accountable,
Live without the chase to drugs.

I want to preserve humanity,
Build people, walk with them
Connect with everybody,
To be a part of life, a life with hope.

It’s OK to fail –- but I passed.

The day is here and
I feel strong.
I will find peace and make
Sense out of insanity
In the cracks and crevices of my gray matter.

I keep coming back to the best of me.
There is always something better waiting.
I can give myself a break without breaking myself
I’m strong enough to live through hell.

Joanna Tebbs Young, a certified instructor through the Center for Journal Therapy, is a Transformative Writing Facilitator, Wellness Presenter, and “Re-INK Your Life!”(c) Coach. Joanna has facilitated various workshops and trainings throughout Vermont and has taught at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. As a freelance writer, Joanna is a weekly columnist for the Rutland Herald (“All Write!” and “A Business Story”) and Rutland Reader (“Circles of Community”), and is currently writing a book for a local historical society. She earned her Masters degree in Transformative Language Arts at Goddard College where she wrote a memoir about growing up in a fundamentalist Christian community and researched the psychological healing connections between expressive writing and the symbolic sacred feminine/mother.

Having kept a journal for more than 20 years, Joanna has personally experienced the healing benefits of writing and is on a mission to help others discover an authentic life through expressive writing. Her blog, journaling prompts and workshop information can be found at

ReSPARK – Bringing Light to the Darkness of Depression with Rob Peck

Rob Peck, noted humorist and author, reveals some not-so-funny facts about challenges that dim people’s outlook on life. In his intimate talk, Rob encourages us to break the silence

Rob Peck is an author, humorist and recovering perfectionist! His book It’s A Juggle Out There, helps people have less stress and better life balance. Rob has degrees from Penn and Ringling Brothers Clown College, graduating the former, Phi Beta Kappa and the latter MAGNA CUM LOONEY! He has appeared on CBS, NBC, and at Harvard and the Smithsonian.

Submit to Chrysalis


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There are still a couple more weeks to submit your transformational stories, poems and experiences with TLA to Chrysalis: A Journal of Transformative Language Arts.

Chrysalis was founded in 2014 as the official journal of the Transformative Language Arts (TLA) Network, thanks to the efforts of founding editor Amber Ellis and other volunteers. The editorial collective now consists of Iris Madelyn, Roy Ringel, Melissa Rose, and Barbara Burt.

Here is your opportunity to build and expand that community by breaking the silences within with the beauty of your words, and by honoring each person around you with the power of your words so that together (whether as reader or writer or both) we become the change we all seek in the world.

We invite you to submit material that challenges, inspires, educates, and guides us to grow the community of Transformative Language Artists:

  • Creative writing, audio and video products (poems, short stories, essays, etc.) accompanied by a short reflective paper regarding the process of writing the piece and its relevance to the transformation of the author and/or the author’s community.
  • Narrative accounts of TLA projects in action in communities, or experiences practicing TLA alone and with others.
  • Critical writing related to the power of words, including qualitative and/or quantitative studies, and other related investigations of TLA scholarship.

Submit your work here

Read past issues of Chrysalis here

Submissions are open until February 1st, 2018

We look forward to reading your work!

Sparks Gathering TONIGHT

sparks january

Folktales, Funding, Erotica, & Social Change: Transformative Classes for your New Year!

Moderated by Kelly DuMar, with special guests Lyn Ford, Jen Cross, Anya Achtenberg, and Diane Silver

Sparks is a free bi-monthly teleconference moderated by Kelly DuMar, interviewing notable Transformative Language Artists on their work, followed by a poetry open mic.

Join us this month to learn about four exceptional TLA online classes with a presentation and discussion about:

Poetry Open Mic

And there’s more to share — Bring an original poem! This unique discussion and networking opportunity will be followed by a Poetry Open Mic. Everyone who participates in the teleconference is welcome to share an original poem. Whether you’re reading your poetry aloud for the first time, or you’re a seasoned reader, this is a chance to share your writing in the supportive presence of appreciative listeners. It’s a remarkably fun and moving experience.

Format of the Gathering

  • Kelly will interview the special guest for 30 minutes
  • We’ll then have 10-15 minutes to ask questions and discuss TLA, your own practice, goals, or vision.
  • We’ll devote the next 15 or so minutes to the open mic poetry readings.
  • You don’t need to be a member of TLAN to participate!

Joining the Call on Zoom

Kelly will arrive on the video conference at 6:45 p.m. CENTRAL so you can connect early & work out any glitches! You will receive links and numbers in your email after RSVPing.

About co-host, Kelly DuMar

Kelly DuMar is a poet, playwright, and workshop facilitator from the Boston area. She’s author of two poetry chapbooks, All These Cures (Lit House Press), and Tree of the Apple (Two of Cups Press). Kelly is author of a non-fiction book, Before You Forget – The Wisdom of Writing Diaries for Your Children. Her poems, prose, and photos are published in many literary journals including Bellevue Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Poydras, Tiferet, and more. Her award winning plays are produced around the US and are published by dramatic publishers. Kelly founded and produces the Our Voices Festival of Women Playwrights at Wellesley College, now in its 11th year, and leads a variety of workshops for writers across the US, including The Mass. Poetry Festival, The International Women’s Writing Guild, The Power of Words Conference, Mass. Poetry Festival, the New England Theatre Conference, Playback Theatre North America Conference, and Winter Wheat.  She’s on the board & faculty of The International Women’s Writing Guild and produces the IWWG Summer Conference Play Lab and the Annual Boston Regional Writing From Your Life Retreat. Closer to home, she facilitates a weekly writing workshop for women, the Farm Pond Writer’s Collective, now in its third year.

My Journey From Marine to Actor with Adam Driver

You may recognize Adam Driver from the newest Star Wars movies, but before his time fighting in galactic space battles, he was a United States Marine with 1/1 Weapons Company. Adam describes perfectly how he learned how to find the words to express his complex feelings throughout his transition from soldier to civilian as he tells the story of how and why he became a Marine and how he formed his nonprofit, Arts in the Armed Forces.

learn more about Arts in the Armed Forces

Remembering Dick Allen, 1939-2017

We share this in memory and honor of Dick Allen, who is also a good friend of the TLA Network. He keynoted at our 2013 conference, and he’s one of the featured poets who contributed to the class, Truth to Power: Poetry for Our Time with Poets Laureate. [This is an excerpt from Caryn Merriam-Goldberg’s blog.]

What impressed me first was his sestina, a very challenging kind of poem he wrote after hanging with a bunch of us fellow state poets laureate at a lingering dinner at a Concord, New Hampshire Holiday Inn restaurant. A dozen of us gathered from Louisiana to Texas for the Poets & Politics conference to first travel around the small state, giving readings with local poets, then present together for conference-goers.


The only problem was, that aside from the conference organizers, there were only a handful of conference-goers. We filled the open space with getting to know each other, and those three evenings spent lingering for hours over dinner were some of the most delightful of my life. We talked poetry of course, but also about our kids, how we got to or stayed in the states where we lived, and what we regretted and embraced in how we juggled writing with the other aspects of our lives. But mostly, we laughed, and somehow caught the wave of making air quotes with our fingers for every noun in a sentence one long night over chicken parmesan and garlic knots.

Dick was quirky, approachable, and full of stories, wit, and a kind of peaceful presence only matched by his passion for all things poetry.  The next evening he shared the sestina he had just written, and we raised our glasses to him after he read it to us, all of us blown away that he could turn such a spectacular poem out in such short order. What makes sestinas hard to write is that 1) they’re long — 39 lines, and 2) you have to repeat in a very complex pattern the ending word to a line in each stanza. It’s a little like putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle without a picture of what it should look like while juggling six words (repeated at the  end of lines in various formations). It probably takes most people, even very experienced poets, weeks to write a sestina, and blessings of the gods to write a great one. Yet he wrote “If You Visit Our Country,” which he also read on Prairie Home Companion, and is also published in my poet laureate memoir, a book Dick kindly blurbed, Poem on the Range.  

I was so impressed by Dick that I invited him to be a keynote speaker at the Transformative Language Art Network’s Power of Words conference in 2013 at Pendle Hill near Philadelphia. We had a tight budget and could only offer him an amount that probably just covered travel for his and his wife, poet and fiction writer L. N. Allen, but he kindly accepted our offer, then showed up to give one of the most powerful talks on poetry and life I’ve ever heard, plus a wonderful workshop. But what I remember most was taking a walk with Dick to look at the oldest beech tree  in Pennsylvania, which towered over the very tall and tree-like Allen. We stood in wonder at the base of this grandmother tree, placing our hands on it, and looking up. The size and presence of this being was so awesome that we stopped talking and just smiled at each other, then after a while, walked back, talking about what a gift this moment was.

Not only did he and his wife give so much goodness to the conference, but he wrote Callid, the then-coordinator of the TLA Network, and myself the best notes of our lives, which has the same kind of wild and enthusiastic sentences that threads together in some of his shining poems, thanking us, among other things, “….for the quiet path to the small pond with the fountain and the willow I took Saturday afternoon, for what may be the best brownies of my life, in addition to fabulous breakfasts; for the huge writing expertise of those in my workshop, for the terrific audience response to my poems, for the flashlights we didn’t need when the lights went on, for the ever present care and devotion to the written art, for storytelling and transformations,  for the chocolate bar and the parking space and places to meditate everywhere, thank you!”

Dick knew a lot about gratitude, and attending to the moment. A long-time student, and through his own way of being in the world and his poetry, teacher of Zen Buddhism, he showed up fully at conferences and in email exchanges also.  I just looked over a bevy of emails in which we joked about New England versus Kansas, and Dick sent along photos of wide-perspective Kansas highways leading to a steady point, surrounded by flatlands, which he said he especially loved, while I joked back, “Our state is so big that we can fit two New Englands in it and still have room for New Jersey.” When I sent him photos of our town’s gorgeous maples turning deep red and orange, he responded, “Don’t you realize there are no maple trees in Kansas? You’re living in a hallucination and need to drink some dark sunflower coffee.” We went on to write about our grown children, and in his case, the miracle of the grandchild he didn’t expect and now adores. His love for Kansas and New England was as real as his support for a younger poet — surely I’m one of many he reached out in various ways.

He knew how to bring just the right touch and tone to the most difficult curves of our time also, just like he did in the poem he wrote in response to the Sandy Hook school shooting, “Solace.” You can hear him reading this tender and powerful poem here.

He’s also one of the featured state poets in the self-paced online class “Truth to Power: Poetry for Our Times with Poets Laureate” I put together for the Transformative Language Arts Network, and we were just emailing about at the end of November when I asked him to share a bunch of poems, writing reflections, writing prompts, and many  links to his work. Not only did he give (again) freely, but he wrote me of the class, “That’s a great thing to do and an honor to be asked.”

The real deal is that Dick was a truly great poet — one of the foremost poets of our time — with an immensely generous and loving heart and a brave and clear mind. In one of our stretches of correspondence, he shared what he called “Gerund Phase Sonnets” — each 14 lines long like a sonnet, but loosely rhymed, all describing a process, some parables too. He wrote of these sonnets, “The form is a vessel, perhaps comparable to Emily Dickinson’s use of simple quatrains, freeing the poet to concentrate on theme and subject and/or to be led by the easy rhymes and American speech patterns of lines of varying length into unexpected places.”

I’m grateful for getting to know him, and sad he’s suddenly gone, having died Tuesday after a heart attack on Christmas. What he’s left behind are many poems I’ll return to with fresh eyes, remembering what he showed me and reflecting on what his poems illustrate about how to simply be while overflowing with compassion, humor, intelligence, and vitality.




Form and Function

By Stefanie M Smith

As I’m moving forward in my healing journey, I am increasingly grateful for the transformative and explorative nature of words.
One area that I have needed to do a lot of personal work on is the difficult relationship with my mother, we had various ups and downs up until her death in January 2008, thankfully we had made our peace in the months leading up to her passing.
In December 2007 I needed to arrange for her to be admitted to the Medical Admissions ward at the hospital where I worked, and due to the staffing levels I actually ended up completing the admission paperwork myself. As you can probably imagine, this was an incredibly stressful time, and not something I was able to process fully until much later; the following is a piece I wrote which helped with that tremendously:

“Just words written on pieces of paper:
Name: Mum
It was a Thursday night, I think two days before Christmas, and I had just left the hospital after a late afternoon shift; my mobile started to ring and because of the state of play I pulled over to take the call. It was my step-dad; my mum had taken a turn for the worse, she was really struggling with her breathing. Instead of finishing my route home, I diverted to their house and went in. She was propped up on the settee, which was a makeshift bed, barely conscious and her breathing was very raspy indeed.
Immediately I switched mode. I took out my phone and rang the hospital, asking to speak to the bed manager; then as soon as connected, ‘June,’ I asked, ‘have we still got any beds?’
‘Two,’ she replied, ‘Why?’
‘It’s mum,’ I said simply, everyone knew she was terminal, ‘she needs to come in for a few days.’
Date of Birth:
With June agreeing to hold a bed for a short while, I set the wheels in motion. It was difficult as we all knew mum didn’t want to die in hospital the way my father had all those years ago, but she needed to be made comfortable if nothing else. I telephoned out of hours and managed to negotiate an admission for mum, then popped home to change while they waited for the ambulance to collect her.
Marital Status:Married
My step-dad gave us three bells when it arrived so I could set off and meet them at the ward. My ward. Medical Emergency Admissions. The ward I had left perhaps two hours ago. Not expecting to be back so soon. We sat either side of the bed, my step-dad and I, watching the nurses, my colleagues, go about their business. It was so busy, I was glad I’d thought to call June to save a bed.
After sitting there twitchily for forty-five minutes or so, with no-one having any time to come and complete the paperwork, I popped up to one of my colleagues, ‘Mary,’ I said quietly, ‘I know it’s not protocol, but you are run off your feet, and mum really needs to be seen. Would it help if I completed the admissions forms?’
‘By all means,’ she agreed, ‘just don’t sign them. I’ll do that.’
So here we were nearly midnight now. Sitting by my mother’s bedside, completing the paperwork as part of her admission. Form and function. Keeping my brain in check and focussed, not wanting to reveal any weakness, the slightest wobble would I know open the floodgates and that must not happen.
Registered GP:
Religion – I started to write ‘None’.’Methodist,’ said my step-dad. Really? Since when? I thought. But I wrote it none the less. I was sure that since her diagnosis, less than two months ago, they must have had a lot of discussions around these kind of subjects.
Next of Kin:
The clock keeps ticking. The on-call consultant comes and goes. My step-dad can hardly talk, so I do my best. My mother is moved from admissions to a side-room, put on a drip and made comfortable. Once settled, I give her a kiss, and hug my step-dad.
Medical condition: Hmm, yes the biggie – Cancer. Cancer that had taken my father when I was ten; cancer that will now take my mother. But, it’s alright. Now at this moment, I’m not the daughter, I’m the nurse. It’s nothing personal, it’s just words. Words on paper. Words I know off by heart, I can write them standing on my head.
‘I really need to go home and get some sleep,’ I say emptily, ‘I’m back on in the morning. I’ll pop in and see her before I start, and let you know how she is.’ I know that being in a side-room, they will let him stay as long as he needs. Mum was going nowhere that night, but I knew neither was he.
And then I leave, and I can sit in the car and cry.”

Writing in this way allowed me to take a step away from the situation itself, to write without all of the intrinsic emotions it would have stirred up. Whilst emotions can often be useful in processing difficult situations, they can also get in the way, and I am gradually learning through my writing practice when I need to create a little distance to allow the real healing to come out.

Editor’s note: This is Stefanie’s second blog post in fulfillment of her Transformational Language Certificate.

stefanieStefanie M Smith, is a 47 year old former nurse and qualified hypnotherapist who has lived in Lincolnshire, UK, since childhood. Unfortunately in 2009 her health took a nosedive, and she now deals with fibromyalgia, depression and other chronic health conditions on a daily basis. During this enforced rest period, Stefanie has been able to re-ignite her love of the written word, especially poetry and will shortly having a selection of her poems published in an anthology. Having noticed a marked benefit to her health through her own writing practice, Stefanie is now re-training in the therapeutic and transformational uses of language with the aim of sharing this phenomenal tool with others.

A Tool as Powerful as Drugs or Surgery in Addressing Illness

by Diane Glass

In the last five years, I have presented to Des Moines University medical students on the topic of doctor/patient communication. They have enrolled in an elective course called “Death and Dying” to learn how to communicate with individuals facing serious, sometimes life-threatening illness.

Although still in school, they are not unlike the doctors I have encountered over the years. In interviewing patients, doctors choose to stick to the script, asking questions about symptoms, offering possible diagnoses, and recommending tests and treatment options. Computerized medical forms encourage this approach; insurance companies need the information doctors collect to authorize payment.

What doctors often don’t often ask are the simplest of questions: “What is this like for you?” “How is this affecting your life?” “What do YOU think would make a difference?”

When I suggest these questions to students, they express reservations. “There’s not time for this kind of conversation.” “I won’t know what to say if they start talking about their lives; I’m not a therapist.” “Patients just expect answers from me.” Their reluctance underscores a basic misconception about the purpose of this communication. It is not simply to produce a medical outcome (a test, a diagnosis, a prescription), but also to create the kind of relationship between doctor and patient that will lead to quality care over time.

This relationship provides care and comfort to patients with terminal diagnoses. At this stage, patients seek not only treatment that will ease suffering, but also the opportunity to talk about life joys, disappointments, and desires. A caring relationship in which patients feel free to share their feelings and experiences also serves individuals with complex chronic illness and pain. In these situations, doctors find simple solutions illusory. Patients face needed lifestyle changes. The illness impacts all areas of patients’ lives. When I hear a doctor say to me, “There’s nothing more I can do,” I know that he or she underestimates the power of caring and commitment. There is always more that can be done.

So to the medical students I talk with, I offer this kind of advice in response to their reservations about open-ended conversations with patients:

Reservation: There’s not time for this kind of conversation.

Response: Take charge of your schedule. Without your initiative, you will be scheduled every 20 minutes (or so) for a new patient. You can change that. Reserve multiple blocks of time, especially in meeting with new patients. Arrange regular appointments with patients with more complex issues; don’t wait for them to request appointments. Yes, fill out the forms, but make that a secondary and separate part of the conversation.

Reservation: I won’t know what to say if they start talking about their lives; I’m not a therapist.

Response: Your job is to listen with care, not to provide answers. You are not expected to be a therapist or psychologist. Listen for underlying themes that may explain your patients’ symptoms. Often stories provide metaphors for what the body is experiencing. Notice gestures and postures. Be comfortable with silence. Your patient may be about ready to share something important when you speak too quickly. Say, “Tell me more” and repeat key phrases and words so your patient will know you are listening.

Objection: Patients expect answers from me.

Response: It’s true: many patients place the bulk of the responsibility on the doctor for their own health. Communicate (and believe) that you and your patient are partners with shared responsibilities. Build that partnership by involving the patient in every aspect of identifying problems and working out treatment plans. Focus your resources on those patients who are interested in this approach.
Patients tend to keep their stories under wraps, fearing their doctors will consider them irrelevant or distracting. Yet in open-ended conversation, they may discover factors affecting their health they had not thought about.

Most aspiring doctors get into their fields because they want to help people. Listening with respect, compassion and sensitivity equals medical knowledge as a tool for doing that.

Editor’s note: This is Diane’s fifth blog post in fulfillment of her Transformational Language Certificate.

dianeDiane Glass teaches classes in storytelling as a tool for spiritual growth. She offers workshops in the spiritual dimensions of chronic illness and pain and in the body as home to the soul. Her memoir, “This Need to Dance” (Amazon), relates her own experience growing up with spina bifida, being diagnosed with breast cancer, and finding meaning in her pursuit of health