NAME IT, GAME IT (An Un-Seeing Exercise)

NAME IT, GAME IT (An Un-Seeing Exercise)

Hawaiians have a saying: “In the word, is life; in the word, is death.”

As a poet and a writer, I believe in the power of words.  It’s a part of the nature of the scribblers in the world, that.  We believe our words make a difference.

No, I lie.  Real writers and poets believe we are magicians who remake the world.

When all is said and done, it seems to me, all of us humans are little more than a collection of words.  The stories we tell ourselves about our lives, about ourselves, and about each other as we walk through our days shape the way we see the consensus-world all of us build together.

One of my favorite wordsmiths, Patrick Rothfuss, has said,

“The truth is that the world is full of dragons, and none of us are as powerful or as cool as we’d like to be.  And that sucks.  But when you’re confronted with that fact, you can either crawl into a hole and quit, or you can get out there, take off your shoes, and Bilbo it up.”

The stories we tell ourselves can give us the courage to “Bilbo it up.” And, if we get good enough at that, maybe we can go on to emulate Gandalf or Merlin or Zed.

girl clinging to a branch hanging over a river, metaphor for being willing to try
“I feel like Mowgli from Jungle Book | What happened to your shoes?” by Nicki Varkevisser via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]


The ancient wise guys and the Smarty Pants who study such things tell us that self-awareness begins with being able to notice and to describe to ourselves and to others what is happening around us and how we are feeling now.  Very often the words we use to tell our stories affect how we walk, and the ways we walk help to make our world.

There is a remarkable and ongoing project that illustrates how the ways we express ourselves can have a major impact on the shape our lives take.  This concept is highlighted in the work done by The Actors’ Gang Prison Project among adult and juvenile prisoners in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) system.

The Prison Project is a series of acting and team-building training workshops for incarcerated felons that include group discussions, rehearsals and performances. These workshops have proven to be remarkably successful in helping the prisoners learn to recognize and express their emotions more effectively.

The prisoners work with teams of professional actors who belong to a group who sees the theater stage as a sacred shared space where humans can come together and tell their stories and their truths fiercely and with rigorous honesty.

The Actors’ Gang began with eight UCLA students who formed an experimental theater group in Los Angeles in 1981 that has continued to evolve and grow through the years.

Click on the button below for more of their story.


One of the original eight, actor and filmmaker Tim Robbins, serves as the artistic director for the group.

Over four decades, the group has managed to meld a cocky, anarchistic punk-rock sensibility with the rigorous and demanding traditions of the commedia dell’arte style of theater.  It is this style of theater that apparently resonates with the inmates.

In commedia dell’arte there are no scripts to memorize.  The stories are already in place – old, familiar stories of love and hate and heartbreak.  The characters are hackneyed clichés that everyone recognizes.

The words are improvised.  The performers work their way through the stories using their own words and movements and feelings, building on the words and actions of the actors who are with them on the sacred shared space that is their stage

one chair in the spotlight on an empty stage
“Theater” by Hernàn Piñera via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]
The Prison Project is part of a partnership between the CDRC and the California Arts Council to use the arts as a way to “combat recidivism, enhance rehabilitative goals, and improve the safety and environment of state prisons.”

The Arts Council featured the project in a short film uploaded to YouTube in 2016.

The Art Gang’s endeavors have won international recognition as an innovative rehabilitation program that actually gives the prisoners tools they can use to help them find better ways of dealing more effectively with other people in the world outside prison walls as well as in their current situations.

Among the tools the inmates take away from the Project are the new ways they have learned to look at the emotions that they are feeling and the new words they have learned to use to describe those intense emotions.


I’ve been thinking about all of this as I swim around in Brené Brown’s extraordinary master-work, ATLAS OF THE HEART:  Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience.  The gorgeous reference book came out in 2021.

I am fascinated by the tale of the book’s making.

It began with a content analysis of comments from the extremely popular online courses in 2013 and 2014 that were based on Brown’s work as a research professor at the University of Houston.

Brown calls herself a “grounded theory” researcher.  She and her research team start with the real-life experiences of the people they are studying.  They watch what their subjects do, make up theories about why they do like that, and then see whether those theories hold up in real life.

What Brown and her crew study, mostly, is how people make connections with each other and with themselves.

baby's hand hanging on to an adult finger, a primal human connection
“Connect” by Philippe Gillotte via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
From 2013 to 2014, more than 550,000 comments were collected from the 66,625 participants enrolled in Brown’s online course.  The data was put through the wringer using two important questions:

  • What are the emotions and experiences that emerge most often?
  • Which emotions and experiences do people struggle to name or label?

question mark sculpture in front of a large building
“The Big Question” by lovelyinlatoo via Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]
It was a massive undertaking and yielded 150 emotions and experiences that the crew organized and categorized.

In the process, the crew asked for and got feedback on all of these feelings and life-stories from a group of experienced therapists actively working in a wide diversity of mental health settings that stretched across the gamut from addiction and community health and counseling to inpatient psychiatry and individual and group psychotherapy.

stack of papers, illustrates the words
“Stack” by hobvias sudoneighm via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
The feelings and stories got winnowed down to the final total of 87 that is presented in the book.

Meanwhile, over a three-year period, Brown and her senior director of research Dr. Ronda Dearing, reviewed close to 1500 academic publications about studies done on the emotional lives of humans.

pair of red glasses on a pile of papers on a desk
“Time to Chill” by Kelvin Wong via Flickr [BY-NC]
The researchers used this information to help them clarify and make sense of the ways the people who were being studied actually used the language and the individual words to tell their stories.

And then Brown and her team had to present their massive tangle of factoids and data to the rest of us in a form that was understandable, meaningful, and useful.  Whew!


“Lapstone Zigzag” [printed map, 42 cm x 29 cm, CC Singleton cartographer, 1957, part of the Local Studies Collection – Maps] by Blue Mountains Library via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]
The decision to use the art and science of cartography – mapmaking – as a model for organizing, prioritizing and integrating all the data that had been gathered was, to my mind, nothing short of brilliant.

How a mapmaker chooses and arranges the data included in a map will definitely affect the way people travel through an area.

As one who lives in an ancient, many-storied historical place that is also an area that is environmentally fragile and is a tourist destination as well as a much-desired place for people who want to buy a piece of our rock, I have encountered a wide range of very different maps of the very same small area.

The stories that are embedded in the markings and labels included in these different maps present aspects that are a part of the place but not the whole of it.

However, every story is true on some level.  You just need to know how to read them and what to use them for.

face of a very wrinkled old woman
“Road Map of Life” by Marty Barr via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]


As Brown points out, ‘We are meaning makers, and a sense of space is central to meaning-making.

She goes on to say that the questions that are central to understanding our physical world are also central to understanding our internal world.

rubber gloves displayed standing up
“Any Questions?” by Nan Palmero via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
The three questions that maps answer, according to Brown, are these:

  • Where am I?
  • How did I get here from there?
  • How do I get there from here?

I agree with Brown that we need landmarks, always, to orient ourselves in the world and that the language we use to label what we are experiencing in our lives can help us get to a clarity that will allow us to make better decisions about where we go next.


Of course, there is a proliferation of book reviews and “ooh-ooh-I-like-it” videos floating around on You-Tube as well as several of Brown’s very shiny promo stuff.

One reviewer is using the book as a springboard for family discussions and explorations about feelings.

Another has a circle of friends who are doing book club-style gatherings centered around the book.

I found one YouTube video, by Nathan Lozeran, the creator of the Productivity Game blog, that presents pragmatic thoughts on how to use the information presented in Brown’s book to expand your ability to make meaningful connections in order to improve your productivity at work.

It is a great model for developing your own ways to explore how you can make use of the results of Brown’s research.

The video, “ATLAS OF THE HEART by Brené Brown | Core Message” was uploaded in 2022.

Here’s a poem:


I am looking at the forty-ninth quote by somebody famous,

One of a series that tell me this so-called Truth:

That this thing they call “forgiveness”

Is going to “set me free.”




They tell me if I forgive your me-defined trespasses,

Then I shall be “at peace” with me

Or something like that.

I say again:  Huh?


I think they lost me, all these ones

When they implied that

I actually understand enough about anything

To take what you do personally.


I’m not sure I am that wise.

Are you?


I mean, who am I to “forgive” you?

Who are you to offer me your forgive?

Does a hawk forgive a fish?

Does a flower need a butterfly’s forgive?


I have to confess:

This makes no sense to me.


As far as I can tell,

We are all walking our walks

In the discreet worlds that we inhabit

As we each make our own way home.


And if your warm leaves me cold,

It could be you’re a penguin

And I’m some sort of tropic bird.


I really don’t know much of anything,



I do wish you well on your journey.

May you find your own heartsong

And may there be joy abiding there.


Oh…and one more thing:

I do know all these lessons never end,

And you are a part of mine,

So, for that,

I’ll thank you now, my friend.

by Netta Kanoho

Photo credit:  “A Different Ball Game” (Sculpture by Kevin Atherton) by John K Thorne via Flickr  [CC0 1.0 – Public Domain dedication]



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Thanks for your visit.  I’d appreciate it if you would drop a note or comment below and tell me your thoughts.

10 thoughts on “NAME IT, GAME IT (An Un-Seeing Exercise)

  1. LineCowley says:

    What an amazing project that The Art Gang started to bring the theatre to prisons and helps inmates with rehabilitation. And great that the California Arts Council have embraced the Prison Project. 

    I have not come across the works of Brené Brown before, and Atlas of the Heart seems to well worth exploring in much greater depth. Thank you for introducing me to these great subjects and sharing your beautiful poem on Forgiveness. I love it. 

    1. Welcome back, LineCowley.  I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      Please do come again.

  2. I haven’t heard of Brené Brown’s master-work, “ATLAS OF THE HEART:  Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience”. , but I read her book “Daring Greatly” and it blew me away, so I’m sure that what you mentioned in the article is just as good.

    Thank you for the recommendation, I will definitely look into it more.

    1. Alisa, thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts.  I really do recommend taking a look at Brown’s book.

      Please do come again.

  3. It’s true the magic starts with self awareness and self expression. As we become more aware of our beliefs and strengths; it is then that we can find the fullness of self expression.

    The Actors’ Gang Prison Project is a great way for prisoners to be rehabilitated. Through improvisation people can work through their own stories with movements and feelings. What a great way for one to receive therapy and develop self awareness.

    The Atlas of the Heart also demonstrates real life experiences can be instrumental in providing the needed therapy so that art and science of cartography was used to help people to understand Where am I? How did I get here from there? How do I get there from here? Very brilliant ideas indeed.

    Thank you for such a well-written article.

    1. Toplink, I’m pleased you enjoyed the post.  Thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts.

      Please do come again.

  4. Hi.  This article reminds me of a saying my brother used to say “your words is your bond”.  I still reference his saying to this day because I feel that there is some truth to it.  If you promise someone that you are going to do something, you should keep your word (bond) and do it. 

    Just as Patrick Rothfuss said, “The truth is that the world is full of dragons.” To me he is saying that the truth hurts, but you can either face it or you can hide from it. 

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Faye, you’ve touched on a very important aspect for communicators, I think. 

      Trust is built on promises kept…and what people who have not been raised up in this concept of words as bonds forget sometimes is that the words we use and what we say are often taken very seriously by other people.  Not keeping your word is taken as a betrayal of trust.

      That’s sad because no real communication can take place in a situation where there is no trust.

      Thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts.

      Please do come again.

  5. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be imprisoned. All I know is that it’s extremely difficult because you will feel so alone unless you’ll get a regular visit and if you form some kind of bond with your inmates. 

    The Actors’ Gang Prison Project is a brilliant idea as it not only helps “improve the safety and environment of state prisons.” More importantly, it helps the prisoners deal with their situations and other people. I hope other states would consider doing a similar project to help their inmates. 

    I believe it’s important to be able to express in words what one is going through on the inside. At the same time, the words we use matter because as you said, our words make a difference.

    I haven’t read Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart but the result of the research that was done is mind-blowing and I really want to get a hold of it. 

    1. Alice, I do thank you for your visit and for sharing your thoughts.  Myself, I think that very often we forget what a skill it is to be able to communicate about our feelings truthfully and well. 

      The Actors’ Gang Prison Project has sparked other rehabilitation initiatives all around the world and have themselves expanded into other prison systems to carry on their good work.

      I do encourage you to check out the Atlas. 

      Please do come again….

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