Full text of writer Sakinah Hofler’s talk titled “How to Use Creative Writing to Bear Witness” at TEDxUCincinnati conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Sakinah Hofler – Writer
Have you ever seen something and you wish you could have said something, but you didn’t?
A second question I have is: Has something ever happened to you, you never said anything about it but you should have?
I’m interested in this idea of action. The difference between seeing something, which is basically passively observing in the actual act of bearing witness. Bearing witness means writing down something you have seen, something you have heard, something you have experienced.
The most important part of bearing witness is writing it down. It’s recording. Writing it down captures the memory, writing it down acknowledges its existence.
One of the biggest examples we have in history of someone bearing witness is Anne Frank’s diary. She simply wrote down what was happening to her, her family, about her confinement. And in doing so, we have a very intimate record of this family during one of the worst periods of our world’s history.
And I want to talk to you today about how to use creative writing, to bear witness. And I want to walk you through an exercise, which I want to do myself that I actually do with a lot of my collegiate students. These are future engineers, technicians, plumbers, basically they’re not creative writers. They don’t plan on becoming creative writers, but we use these exercises to kind of on solid things we’ve been keeping silent.
It’s a way to kind of unburden ourselves and it’s three simple steps:
So step one is to brainstorm and write it down.
And what I have my students do is I give them a prompt. And the prompt is the time when. And I want them to fill in that prompt with times they might have experienced something, heard something or seeing something, or seeing something and they could have intervened, but they didn’t. And I have them write it down as quickly as possible.
So I’ll give you an example of some of the things I would write down:
The time when a few months after 9/11… and two boys dare themselves to touch me… and they did…The time when my sister and I were walking in a city and a guy spotted us and called us terrorists.
The time way back, when I went to a very odd middle school and girls a couple of years older than me would be a married off to men, nearly double their age.
The time when a friend put the gun on me… the time when I went to a going away luncheon for a co-worker and a big boss questioned my lineage for 45 minutes.
And there are times when I have seen something and I haven’t intervened. For example, the time when I was on a train and I witnessed a father beating his toddler son, and I didn’t do anything. Many a times I’ve walked by someone who was homeless and in need. They’ve asked me for money. And I walked around them and I did not acknowledge their humanity.
And the list could go on and on. But you want to think of times when something might’ve happened sexually. Times when you’ve been keeping things repressed. And times with our families, because our families… we love them. But at the same time, we don’t talk about things.
So we may not talk about the family member who has been using drugs or abusing alcohol. We don’t talk about the family member who might have severe mental illness; we will say something like, “Oh, they’ve always been that way.” And we hope that in not talking about it, and not acknowledging it, we can act like it doesn’t exist; that will somehow fix itself.
So the goal is to get at least 10 things. And once you have 10 things, you’ve actually done part one, which is bear witness. You have unsilent something that you have been keeping silence.
And so after this, you’re ready for step two, which is to narrow down and focus.
And what I suggest is going back to that list of 10 and picking three things that are like really like tugging at you. Three things you feel strongly… doesn’t have to be the most traumatic things, but it’s things that are like, “ah, like I have to write about this.”
And I suggest you sit down at a table with a pen and paper. That’s my preferred method for recording. But you can also use a tablet, an iPad, a computer, something that lets you write it down.
And I suggest taking 30 minutes of uninterrupted time… meaning that you cut your phone off, put it on airplane mode, no email. And if you have a family, if you have children, give yourself 20 minutes, 5 minutes.
The goal is just to give yourself time to write what you’re going to write. And you’re going to focus on three things, you’re going to focus on the details. You’re going to focus on the order of events. You’re going to focus on how it made you feel. That is the most important part.