Interview: Pamela Sackett
What is your role in Emotion Literacy Advocates?
I am the lead content generator and producer of Emotion Literacy Advocates’ learning tool resources. I am a multidisciplinary language artist and I see my role, over-all, as narrative mentor.
How did you come to be doing this kind of work creating narrative?
I am driven by my curiosity about the way language works. Much of that curiosity began back in my teens when I was sparked by an irresistible urge to write and sing songs, teaching me, as all my writing does, how creative communication works from the inside out.
How did you come to be writing theatrical material?
I began acting and dancing in plays on stage, and occasionally on television, since age five (laughs). Seriously, I was an expressive human from the start. My foray into theatrical writing came through the creation of vignettes in collaboration with a friend with whom I formed a comedy team, in my late twenties.
Soon thereafter, I was commissioned by a dancer to write my first play, which led to writing and producing full-length plays. Later, I received commissions to design plays for special populations with a social-change mission and theatrical audition monologues for professional actors.
How did designing the monologues that you incorporate into the curriculum serve your EL work?
The monologues for audition require narrative that allows the actor to show emotional range and those emotions have to be grounded in something to which the actor can connect. Those connecting points are not of an overt nature; they are nuanced facets tied to the actor’s personal context. In order to represent those unstated facets in emotional narrative, I had to sense those facets intuitively…a bit of a semi-conscious generative process on either end. It was always so striking to see my intuition confirmed time after time by actors for whom the monologues were designed. That taught me quite a bit about the nature of language, feelings, perception and expression and how so very much of all of that rides between the lines.
And these are biographical pieces you were writing for them?
No…pure fiction with real feelings, couched in narrative that the actors instantly connect to and so do their audiences, especially when the monologue characters dodge their real feelings and, for the most part, do so unwittingly. I discovered quite quickly—and because I was pre-disposed to perceiving and incorporating nuance in my plays—that those two-minute monologues had an equation: a character with feelings, in a scenario that frames those feelings, giving them a reason to be there without being directly expressed.
That equation—carried out by way of the actor’s deftness—determines the character portrayal’s believability, even when the character is over the top, which many of them are. Still, the feelings between the lines are quite relatable. It was also interesting to see other actors find identification with a piece that was not custom-designed for them. I learned, multiple times, there is a universality at the core, which gets back to the subtle nature of language, feelings, perception and expression—core concerns in our online program’s curriculum.
How do these monologues serve your program’s current aims?
Each of the monologue characters exhibits the gap between emotion (or behavior) and feelings and how the two can become quite disparate. Therein lies the call for emotion literacy proficiency and advocacy: the ability to translate emotion to identify its drivers and champion their tenderhearted need to be known and understood.
Is this what you mean by communication skill?
Yes, absolutely. One of the aspects of communication skill development is to notice how the absence of communication skill functions in a social interaction. The monologue characters I create demonstrate that communication skill absence in excruciatingly familiar ways sometimes, as hidden meanings that sit between the lines come alive through the actors’ astute timing and inflection. When performed adeptly on the stage, this absence of skill tends to be humorous or even hilarious. In real life, not so much.
When did emotion literacy enter your work life?
I was the guest poet and a workshop facilitator at a conference, back in the early ’90s.
I performed excerpts from a book of rhythmic prose I was writing (Speak of the Ghost: In the Name of Emotion Literacy) and used the theatrical monologues to teach about inner narrative. I was asked to describe my workshop for signage at the conference, that’s when the term “emotion literacy” emerged in my thoughts. I had never heard of it before. It was clear, in that moment, the term really fit the work I was doing, showing how emotion is often incongruent with interior life and, therefore, needs to be translated to be understood.
Were your early life emotions understood?
My parents were emotion-illiterate, in certain ways, as was most of the culture where I was raised. It was the people and the town and the times that dictated those ways. My parents were larger than life, so language, feelings, perception, miscommunication and expression stood out in bold relief…somatically, not really conceptually. So, though I didn’t comprehend the convoluted dynamics at the time, much of it served as seeds for the emotion literacy work I do. That work began, years later, with an intensive process of looking back to translate my own young emotions and uncover/liberate the true feeling-rich, albeit painful, stories contained therein.
Do you think emotion illiteracy has decreased?
It continues to amaze me all the narrative ways the illiteracy bug is passed around, and how it is so very successful in dissuading feeling-inquiry, imposing limits, engendering cultural myopia. I have made a study of narrative that, characteristically, does not serve the development of self-knowledge or unconditional love and self-acceptance, relative to a full spectrum of feelings and soft needs.
What are soft needs?
The need to belong, to be trusted, to be valued, to be understood, to be heard, and the need to offer all of the above in return. As a culture, we have endless ways to, narratively, re-pathologize repression, driven in part by a belief that soft needs continue to mean soft character, when in fact it takes a tremendous amount of courage and strength to recognize, accept and attend to our innate vulnerability and need for authentic connection.
Narrative is a central consideration in your curriculum. Why is that?
Narrative gives a way of knowing and identifying ourselves. Narrative carries our stories. Much of what we know is internalized from narrative we were fed when pre-verbal, and then that narrative takes its initial spin when we first start learning to speak, developing our senses and our relationship to, our identification with (or disconnection from), feelings and needs.
Therein resides a critical component that can prohibit communication competency. Narrative that persists—and prompts us to disavow our own, and our shared, vulnerability and our soft needs—plays a significant role in the relationship one has to oneself which, in turn, greatly affects the state of our society and how it functions, or doesn’t function.
Narrative that limits our perception of soft needs sows seeds of ignorance, collective unrest, resignation and, ultimately, all forms of discrimination, from incidental to monumental. When vulnerability is denied, it does not go away. Disavowed vulnerability can and does turn into a projection. This is the core operative in bullying and destructive authority.*
Soft-need neglect is carried by narrative operating within us all and of which, in large part, we are not aware. Of course awareness itself does not preclude chaos and conflict, or guarantee getting all of our soft needs met, but awareness makes an immense amount of difference in the quality of individual lives and living. Individuals that cultivate self-awareness make stronger, wiser, more nurturing groups.
The language skills I continue to make use of and the lessons I learn from that use illuminate, time and time again, the power of narrative, for good or ill, and that, right there, is why I made a concerted effort to found Emotion Literacy Advocates and why I continue to devote much of my generative artistic work, time and energy to ELA’s mission.
How do you define emotion literacy?
My very best and most direct, plain English, distillation of emotion literacy’s meaning, value and challenges can be found in the tiny tome I released in July 2019 called I Can: Twelve Ways to Witness the Heart. The book content actually came about when I designed the online multi-arts curriculum and was later put into book form, to offer an introductory dance with the curriculum’s core aims and concepts.
Oh so briefly, I can say that emotion literacy translates emotion when emotion obscures the truth and its less visible parts: non-physical or soft needs, memories, associations, beliefs and values. The whole point of emotion literacy advocacy is to encourage thinking about how we think as we negotiate the interior constituency of all those parts and how all of our relationships to those parts affect our communication.
What are your methods for communication skill development?
Primarily, I use diverse artistic forms of original narrative that covers a lot of ground from different angles. My theatrical, musical and literary narrative prompts guide an inquiry into less visible, often taboo and vital realms of language and communication. The program introduction in audio form, on this site, gives a few demonstrative examples.
Immersion into that inquiry, through listening, self-reflective writing and discussion, is the most potent part of the communication skill development journey…the multi-arts prompts and questions in the curriculum are a wave, a tap on the shoulder. I am articulating things that people already know on some level and those narrative nudges can and do spark quite an eye-opening active self-inquiry—the ultimate teacher.
What specific communication skills does your program develop? What are some of the outcomes a participant can expect by engaging with your multi-arts curriculum?
The program places great value on the ability to assess one’s relationship to non-physical or soft needs. The curriculum is designed to cultivate and strengthen twelve communication competencies (aka “Twelve Ways” in I Can). Each of the twelve chapters focuses on different elements of communication. The material in the program gives participants ways to develop and fine-tune their discernment of nuance, reading and interpreting emotion juxtaposed with inner narrative and exercising the power of expression through self-advocacy muscles. Social change depends on those muscles from within as many brave individuals as possible.
How does your program help people achieve those emotion literacy skills?
It’s really quite simple in a way, although the program does require a certain amount of time, energy and concentration which might just be the most demanding part of it. The program invites participants to read short literary passages and listen to vignettes, songs and live performances of theatrical monologues, with an option to read along with the accompanying dialogue, lyrics and lines. All of this material represents and reinforces the sum and substance of the stated and described communication competencies (aka “Twelve Ways” in I Can).
Then, participants are invited to create their own narrative, in whatever form they choose, in response to the prompts and questions posed. This is where quite a bit of the learning will occur. The more the participants engage and explore through their own writing in response to the prompts, the more can be discovered. Use of everyday language/conversations/arguments will take on new meaning. Involvement in this program can lift veils and expand one’s sense of freedom and accompanying response-abilities.
Where do the art parts in the curriculum come from?
The program includes ELA’s fundamental literature and multi-media learning tools; live-audience actor performances, in an audio format, drawn from my theatrical monologue book series Two Minutes to Shine (Samuel French, New York) and selections from my catalogue of songs, composed and recorded on behalf of ELA. Our programs’ aims align with ELA principles, values and our mission to provide insight into emotion through language and the arts.
Much of the thought-provoking narrative in the program mirrors and models the trials and tribulations inherent in choosing emotion literacy learning and integration as a standard of living, towards creating a world where tackling problems from the root, examining and changing our level of thinking—as Einstein recommended—are less of an exception and more of a common value, keen capability and chosen practice.
This program invites and encourages a more gradual, thoughtful, nurturing pace, in the spirit of independence and community. It’s a paradox and all true.
Elliott Bay Book Company author event Q & A w/Pamela
Hand-painted fabric designs (throughout page) by Rodger Scheibner
w/selected excerpts from Pamela’s body of work
Portland publication cover story on Pamela’s first play production
Actors Fredrick Molitch, Timothy Piggee,
Meg Savlov, David Klein, Gina Malvestuto
performing from Saving the World Solo @ ELA event
*Vulnerability disavowal concepts derived from author Alice Miller’s thesis
“The Visionary” painting based on his cityscape photo
by ELA board member Mark Magill
Fruit basket w/paper & pen hand-painted for ELA by artist Gianna DeCamella