Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg Q&A
I learned of Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg indirectly through Yvette Hyater-Adams, who completed the Transformative Language Arts that Caryn co-founded at Goddard College. I find the TLA program fascinating.
Bio: Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg is the poet laureate of Kansas and the founder of Transformative Language Arts at Goddard College, where she teaches. She’s the author of 10 books, including four collections of poetry, a memoir on cancer and community, and a beloved writing guide, and for almost two decade, she’s been leading community writing and storytelling workshops widely with many different communities. With singer Kelley Hunt, she co-writes songs (and is a songwriter listed with BMI), collaboratively performs and offers Brave Voice: Writing and Singing for Your Life workshops and retreats. She also co-edited the Power of Words: A Transformative Language Arts Reader and co-founded the Transformative Language Arts Network (Power of Words book available through this site.) For people interested in learning more about TLA, Caryn recommends Goddard’s TLA Program, the Transformative Language Arts Network, and the Power of Words conference, an annual conference held at Goddard College and organized by the TLA Network, which will next be held Sept. 22-26 and feature keynoters Nancy Mellon, Gregory Orr, Greg Greenway, Kim Rosen, S. Pearl Sharp, and many others.
Q&A with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg:
Q: The Web site for the TLA program notes: “Transformative language arts is a new and emerging academic field focused on social and personal transformation through the power of the written, spoken, or sung word.” Can you talk about the roots of this field? It appears that you founded it. What kinds of societal needs were you responding to in establishing this field?
A: TLA is both a new, emerging field and an exploration of a very old human impulse: to make sense of the world through words and arts. I was drawn to found TLA for several reasons: one is that I realized there were all kinds of programs in storytelling, drama therapy, literature and creative writing and so many related fields, but many of these programs fragmented apart writers, storytellers, spoken word performers, theater people, as well as how the language arts can be used for healing and health and how they can be used for community building and social change.
I wanted to develop a program of study where people could holistically study the language arts — written, sung or told — according to what gave them meaning, whether that’s through the lenses of spirituality, social change, health, education, mythology, or other areas. I also was inspired by the realization that in Kansas, I could make a living just by leading community writing workshops, and if this were possible in the middle of the country, it must be even more possible in areas where there’s greater support for the arts. I began to research, and I found so many programs and projects around the world — theater for social change, healing storytelling, poetry for political causes — as well as organizations such as the National Storytelling Alliance, National Association for Poetry Therapy, Theatre of the Oppressed, Bread and Puppet, Healing Story Alliance. What everything had in common was the use of the language arts to change the world, whether it was songwriting to bring together teens, writing workshops in prisons, storytelling sessions in hospitals. All of this inspired me to develop the TLA program at Goddard.
Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
A: Listening to, creating, telling and exploring stories help us better understand the story we’re living, and how accurately that story meshes with our callings: who we’re born to be and what we’re born to do. At a time when our overall cultural stories don’t serve us in so many ways, it becomes even more important to reclaim what we’re living and why we’re alive. To be more specific, we’re living in a time of unsurpassed environmental destruction, unpredictable economics, huge divides between those who have and those who don’t, and all kinds of mysterious and not-so-mysterious dangers (such as the explosive growth of cancers and auto-immune diseases that can change and destroy lives). All of this creates a greater need to reclaim our own stories — to strip away the cultural stories that don’t work anymore or never did, to create stories that bring us home to ourselves and to what truly matters.Q: How important is it to you and your work to function within the framework of a particular definition of “story?” (i.e., What is a story?) What definition do you espouse?
A: I think of the stories that matter as the myths that inform our lives, tell us who we are and how we’re supposed to live, what we’re allowed to do with our lives and even who we should or shouldn’t love. I like to use Roland Barthes’ definition of myth as a dominant cultural narrative, or the big overstory that informs and shapes our lives. I also think of myth as a series of concentric circles — the outer circle is the cultural story of who we’re supposed to be; the next circle is the story of who we are according to our community; the next circle is the story of who we are according to family and close friends, and the find circle is the story we tell ourselves about who we are. When we start learning what we’re telling ourselves, what we’re absorbing from others about how to live, we’re working with the core of the story of our life. Changing one thing or another, opening ourselves to some possibilities we hadn’t seen before, looking at ourselves from another angle, aiming our lives toward a different ending than the old script — all of this can and does liberate our lives, our families, our communities, our culture.Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative with readers, what would it be?
A: Use whatever you’re reading, writing, living, and yearning for as a constant way to ask yourself what story you’re living, and if this is the true story of who you are and why you’re alive. Take all the material of life — whatever surprises and challenges you, hurts or threatens your usual way of being in the world — as something to shine up the story of your soul. When I was living through a complex story of cancer and loss, I began to see more clearly how brushing against death brought out my yearning to live more purposely, and I also found ample material in all the challenges to open my heart, my mind, my spirit. Our stories are also shifting, in motion just like the weather, just like time, and the more we can embrace what changes the usual endings, the more we can land in the beginnings that bring greater joy, healing, and wisdom to our lives.
Q: How can people make a living from TLA (Transformative Language Arts), and do your graduates use TLA to make a living?
A: We have about 50 graduates from TLA in the last decade, and almost all of them are using TLA to make all or some of their living. Some found or created jobs for themselves using TLA, such as Nancy Morgan, who works as arts and humanities director at the Lombardi Cancer Center in Washington, D.C. Her job entails handing out journals to patients, leading arts workshops for oncologists, singing sessions for chaplains, and writing workshops for families. We also have many who have created their own businesses, such as Stephanie Sandmeyer in Portland, OR, who started up Kairos Narrative, which helps people collect and and preserve family and life stories in meaningful and artful ways. Many of our graduates cobble together a living through offering workshops (like Jen Cross, coaching (like Yvette Hyater-Adams, performances (such as Taina Asili, a singer, storyteller and writer) and other blends of the written, spoken, or sung word. Some also infuse whatever they’re doing — such as teaching in public schools, private schools or college, or designing programming for a not-for-profit — with what they’ve learned about through TLA. All of this speaks to something we emphasize throughout the program: right livelihood through TLA. I believe that when we can use our gifts and even our challenges to give to our communities, we can find a way to make a living that ultimately fulfills us and truly serves others. I’m also excited that the TLA Network, the not-for-profit organization focused on TLA, will offer next April and annually after that, an intensive in Right Livelihood to help people figure out more about their callings and then how to draw from those callings to create a business or project or program, or even renew the way they’re making a living.