The Telling Room: Proving the Power of Words

TellingRoom

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

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

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

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

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

Ask Yourself

My Inner Critic Is Not Having a Good Week

by Janet Toone

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

 

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

NaPoWriMo

poetry

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

Happy Writing!

 

Queen of the 88s

Be inspired by this piece by keynote speaker Kelley Hunt and get your tickets to the Power of Words Conference to see her in person.

In some ways Roots R&B/Americana singer/songwriter/piano player/guitarist Kelley Hunt is a rarity and a challenge to the music industry’s penchant for easy artist definitions — a woman who has muscled her way onto the scene on her own terms with an identity steeped in blues/roots/gospel traditions and a refreshing originality. She makes music with it’s righteous roots intact that also crosses boundaries, has an open-minded, exploratory attitude, and takes on social and political issues. Together with a commanding, passionate stage presence and superior vocal, keyboard, and songwriting skills, she has earned the respect of critics and fans across North America and Europe.

Journaling for Life Transformation by Susan Hulsebos

Listen as your day unfolds
Challenge what the future holds

These lyrics speak to me of a morning journaling practice I started earlier this year. I have enjoyed writing creative non-fiction for years but find that personal journal writing, writing for life and healing, is so very different because it is transformative instead of “publishable” in intent.

Through the journaling process, I am learning how to form an intimate bond with my own life, coming to know myself as a supportive friend. This unfolding practice has also surprised me in how it has opened me up to be increasingly empathetic with others and interested in their stories.

 I find that I can write to my own ideas as if in conversation with them.

My interest in transformative writing developed through the classes I’ve taken with the TLAN network in pursuit of the TLAN Certificate. The weekly class prompts have been huge in transforming my writing practice. I can now easily shift into writing therapeutically, and not academically. Listening to what I am thinking, naming what I am feeling, discovering what influences my behavior and then working with these insights allow me to change my patterns. I find that I can write to my own ideas as if in conversation with them. I can challenge myself, encourage and develop a more vulnerable emotional expression – unedited, authentic and motivating.

So, in this new way of “knowing”, unpacking baggage, cleaning out the shelves and hidden drawers of accumulated experiences, I have gained a new hope for the future and what it holds. I have new confidence in the plans I make every morning, I trust myself more because I am less reactive and more familiar with what I need every day.

Journaling for life transformation moves me from being a numb, passive responder ( co-dependent ) into an informed advisor in my own life, a compassionate listener who is reliable and who I can count on to help develop a plan to work with whatever life throws at me. Living with increased vulnerability to myself has also brought me closer to God in that self-compassion and forgiveness for myself and others is growing. I do not have to fear “not being good enough” for a future someone else has planned for me. I can greet the future as an active participant and co-creator of my life story.

This prompt always feels opening, very simple, and non-threatening, and is a favorite from Write for Life, by Sheppard B. Kominars, Ph.D.: What surprised me the most today?

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Editor’s Note: This blog post was submitted as partial fulfillment of the requirements for the TLA Network Certification program. The post is excerpted from a writing prompt offered in Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s TLAN class, “Your Calling, Your Livelihood, Your Life.” Lyrics are from Des’ Ree’s “You Gotta Be.”

Blurred Vision, by Mahogany L. Browne

Mahogany is one of the keynote speakers for this year’s Power of Words conference. Experience one of her powerful spoken word pieces here:

Mahogany is an Executive Editor at The Offing, a Cave Canem, Poets House & Serenbe Focus fellow and author of several books including NAACP Image Award nominated Redbone. Browne has toured Germany, Amsterdam, England, Canada and Australia. Her journalism work has been published in magazines Uptown, KING, XXL, The Source, Canada’s The Word and UK’s MOBO. Her poetry has been published in literary journals Pluck, Manhattanville Review, Muzzle, Union Station Mag, Apogee, Literary Bohemian, Joint & The Feminist Wire. She co-organizer of #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, founder of Women Writers of Color Reading Room (housed on Pratt Institute) & is an Urban Word NYC Poet-in-Residence (as seen on HBO’s Brave New Voices). Mahogany earned her MFA degree from Pratt Institute (inaugural class) and serves on the Board of Trustees for Pratt Institute. Mahogany is currently co-editing Black Girl Magic (Haymarket, 2017), is the Poetry Program Director of the Nuyorican Poets Café and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joyful Inquiry: Broadening Perspectives on TLA Theory and Practices with Ruth Farmer

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Ruth Farmer will be teaching an online class for the TLA Network called Joyful Inquiry: Broadening Perspectives on TLA Theory and Practices starting April 19th. Here’s a short interview with Ruth about her class:

Q: Who would benefit most from taking this class?

RF: Teachers, consultants, coaches, community organizers, managers, and more. People who see themselves as passionate about helping others will not only get a lot out of the course, but will contribute as well. I hope a group of like-hearted people convene in this course, to expand upon the ways that we approach transformation and social change. I am hoping to build a community of people who can acknowledge that there are strengths, positive attributes upon which to build, as we move toward transforming those issues, attitudes, etc., that we are interested in shifting.

Q: What is unique about this class?

RF: I start with what is working. As someone who has been a community organizer, teacher, director, workshop facilitator, conference coordinator, … I have immersed myself into anticipating what can go wrong, what is not working, and how something (or someone) can change. In the past several years, I have begun to take a different view when I lead workshops or teach courses: I try to help folks see their strengths, what is working, what is right. Doing this has helped me to become a better teacher, since I know what it is I want to see more of. By starting with strengths, what is going well, and focusing on what we want more of, we (and the people with whom we work) can gain confidence and insight that will help us to approach problems with greater creativity.

Q: What is your favorite part about Transformational Language Arts?

RF: If you mean the field, then its breadth: songs, prose, plays, conversations, etc. can all fall within this category. And the philosophical center of TLA helps to make these creative expressions more meaningful.


“I am hoping to build a community of people who can acknowledge that there are strengths, positive attributes upon which to build, as we move toward transforming those issues, attitudes, etc., that we are interested in shifting.”


Q: What can students in this class expect?

RF: Students can expect to engage in dialogue with each other, apply their learning to their work in the world, and encounter a variety of source materials. Our discussions will emerge primarily from the anthology Transformative Language Arts in Action. We will also gain perspectives on strengths-based approaches through watching videos, reading short articles, and engaging with each other on the discussion forum about our insights. We will try, as we are able, to apply some of what we have learned to our current or proposed work.

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

RF: There are so many reasons to examine what is wrong with the world today. Focusing on this can be exhausting. More importantly, it keeps us stuck in the problems. This course asks participants to shift their gaze. That doesn’t mean to turn away, but to view things from different perspectives so that the problem (issue, however you want to describe it) is seen with fresh eyes.

Recently, I have seen people move from anger to frustration to hopelessness back to anger and even to despair. It’s difficult to hold that narrow range of perspective without at some point sinking into apathy. Let’s try looking at the shifts in people’s thinking – and that is definitely happening. I don’t know about you, but I have talked with so many people who were oblivious before and who are now realizing that they/we have the power and the energy to do something about issues and problems. They know this because they are focusing on what they can offer, rather than what is wrong.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

RF: I am looking forward to facilitating dynamic dialogues among people who have lots of ideas and energy.