The Emergence of Transformative Language Arts by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg


You tell stories or help others tell stories because you need to, because you know that the story can grow in the listener, and sometimes even the teller, new shoots of understanding, branches of connection, and a canopy of healing. You write because you found that the shortest distance between yourself and where you need to go is across the lines on a page. You do spoken word performance, help others craft community plays, or write and perform songs for the moment you might reach someone. You organize debate for underserved, inner-city youth, conduct anthropological studies of the spoken word, record oral histories for families, or recite poems into the wind because you know there is something that our words hold that can transform the teller and the listener.

This kind of transformation is what a new academic field and emerging profession, Transformative Language Arts, is all about. Transformative Language Arts (TLA) is a meeting ground for those involved in social and personal transformation through the spoken, written and sung word, facilitating work such as storytelling with people in prison, writing workshops for underserved youth, dramatic monologues for elders, or collaborative theatre for community building.

TLA draws perhaps most obviously from literature, creative writing, education, psychology, mythology, and social welfare. TLA looks at the roots of the oral tradition; the pedagogy and psychology involved in effective group facilitation, individual coaching; social change trends and movements related to spoken, written and sung words; and literature and creative writing to create avenues of voice for the voiceless. It also honors the traditions of storytelling, Playback Theatre, poetry therapy, narrative therapy, songwriting for social change, stand-up comedy for diversity, debate and forensics for empowerment, dialogue as a vehicle for drawing diverse voices into civil exchange, healing stories and more.

For those of us who love the spoken and written word, TLA provides a framework to explain what we do without having to shave off what doesn’t usually fit into one box or another. By naming this field and calling people together, those who facilitate, perform, educate and lead can find each other, and through such a discovery, learn more of who they are and what possibilities exist for their work in the world. By sharing the collective wisdom of storytellers, writers, actors and playwrights, activists, community leaders and healers, we can learn more about recovering and celebrating our selves, forging and keeping connections with others and the earth, finding and naming what gives our lives meaning. Such wisdom encompasses how we create our livings and our lives, including everything from facilitating workshops to grant-writing to the ethics of our work to the art of self-care.

In the classroom or board room, at the clinic or retreat center, TLA also bridges organizations, training programs, and models of workshop and coaching delivery that often evolve without the benefit of cross-pollination. There are many valuable educational and training opportunities such as Goddard College’s Transformative Language Arts MA concentration – the first TLA program of its kind, founded in 2000, or Amherst Writers and Artists training and affiliation; and organizations such as the National Storytelling Network, the National Association for Poetry Therapy, and the Writer-in-the-School Alliance. The newly-created TLA Network, a professional organization for TLA, focuses on networking and right livelihood through TLA. Already, TLA-focused courses and essays – such as the ones here – are coming into being, very evident at the annual TLA conference – “The Power of Words”conference – held each fall at Goddard College through the gathering of storytellers, writers, activists, community leaders, artists, healers, therapists, spoken word artists, actors, and singers. Performing, facilitating, organizing, creating and teaching are all life-long arts with life-long learning curves, and we benefit greatly from each other’s company.

In coming together, we gather questions, ideas, experiences, studies, challenges and possibilities for those who are changing the world, one word, one story, one perf
ormance, workshops, or coaching session at a time. We also break through the artificial boundaries between the spoken word and the written word as well as between the too-often compartmentalized literary, psychological and political arenas. To paraphrase singer-songwriter Cris Williamson, we each are the changer and the changed, the ones who witness and are witnessed by the stories that change our lives.
excerpted from
The Power of Words: A Transformative Language Arts Reader.

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