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  • Transcriber: Joseph Geni Reviewer: Camille Martínez

  • 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

  • and you never said anything about it,

  • though you should have?

  • I'm interested in this idea of action,

  • of the difference between seeing something,

  • which is basically passively observing,

  • and 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 and 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'm going to walk you through an exercise,

  • which I'm going to do myself,

  • that I actually do with a lot of my collegiate students.

  • These are you 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 un-silence things

  • we've been keeping silent.

  • It's a way to 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 seen something,

  • or seen 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 dared themselves to touch me,

  • and they did.

  • The time when my sister and I were walking in a city,

  • and a guy spat at us and called us terrorists.

  • The time way back when

  • when I went to a very odd middle school,

  • and girls a couple years older than me were being married off to men

  • nearly double their age.

  • The time when a friend pulled a gun on me.

  • The time when I went to a going-away luncheon

  • for a coworker,

  • 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.

  • Or the many times I've walked by someone who was homeless and in need,

  • they've asked me for money, and I've 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 have happened sexually,

  • times when you've been keeping things repressed,

  • and times with our families,

  • because (In a hushed voice) God bless them.

  • (Laughter)

  • 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'll say something like, "Oh, they've always been that way,"

  • and we hope that in not talking about it,

  • in not acknowledging it,

  • we can act like it doesn't exist, that it'll somehow fix itself.

  • So the goal is to get at least 10 things,

  • and once you have 10 things,

  • you've actually done part 1, which is bear witness.

  • You have un-silenced something that you have been keeping silent.

  • And so after this, you're ready for step 2,

  • which is to narrow it down and focus.

  • And what I suggest is going back to that list of 10

  • and picking three things that are really tugging at you,

  • three things you feel strongly.

  • It doesn't have to be the most dramatic 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,

  • but 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, five minutes.

  • The goal is just to give yourself time to write.

  • What you're going to write

  • is 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,

  • and you're going to focus on how it made you feel.

  • That is the most important part.

  • I am the guinea pig today,

  • and so I'm going to walk you through how I do it.

  • I'm going to pick three things.

  • So the first thing I feel very, very strongly about

  • is that time a couple months after 9/11

  • when those two boys dared themselves to touch me.

  • I remember I was in a rural mall in North Carolina,

  • and I was walking, just walking, minding my business,

  • and I felt people walking behind me, like, very, very close,

  • and I'm like, "OK, that's kind of weird. Let me walk a little bit faster.

  • There's a whole mall around me. What is happening?"

  • They walk a little bit faster, and I hear them going back and forth:

  • "You do it!" "No, you do it!"

  • And then one of them pushes me, and I almost fall to the ground.

  • So I kind of pop back up, expecting some type of apology,

  • and the weirdest thing is that they did not run away.

  • They actually went and just stood right next to me.

  • And I remember there was a guy with blond hair,

  • and he had a bright red polo shirt,

  • and he was telling the other guy, like, "Give me my money. I did it, man."

  • And the guy with the brown hair, I remember he had a choppy haircut,

  • and he gave him a five-dollar bill,

  • and I remember it was crumpled.

  • And so I'm like, am I still standing here?

  • This thing just happened. What just happened?

  • And it was so weird to be the end of someone's dare,

  • and also at the end to not exist to them.

  • I remember it kind of reminded me of the time when I was younger

  • and someone dared me to touch something nasty or disgusting.

  • I felt like that nasty and disgusting thing.

  • A second thing I feel very, very strongly about

  • is the time a friend pulled a gun on me.

  • I should say former friend.

  • (Laughter)

  • I remember it was a group of us outside,

  • and he had ran up

  • and he had the stereotypical brown paper bag in his hand,

  • and I knew what it was,

  • and so I'm a very mouthy person, and I started going off.

  • I was like, "What are you doing with a gun?

  • You're not going to shoot anyone.

  • You're a coward, you don't even know how to use it."

  • And I kept going on

  • and on

  • and on,

  • and he got angrier

  • and angrier

  • and angrier.

  • And he pulled the gun out and put it in my face.

  • I remember every one of us got very, very quiet.

  • I remember the tightness of his face.

  • I remember the barrel of the gun.

  • And I felt like --

  • and I'm pretty sure everyone around me who got quiet felt like --

  • "This is the moment I die."

  • And the third thing I feel very, very strongly about

  • is this going-away luncheon and this big boss.

  • I remember I was running late, and I'm always late.

  • It's just a thing that happens with me. I'm just always late.

  • I was running late,

  • and the whole table was filled except for this seat next to him.

  • I didn't know him that well, had seen him around the office.

  • I didn't know why the seat was empty. I found out later on.

  • And so I sat down at the table,

  • and before he even asked me my name,

  • the first thing he said was,

  • "What's going on with all of this?"

  • And I'm like, do I have something on my face?

  • What's happening? I don't know.

  • And he asked me with two hands this time.

  • "What's going on with all of this?"

  • And I realized he's talking about my hijab.

  • And in my head, I said, "Oh, not today."

  • But he's a big boss, he's like my boss's boss's boss,

  • and so I put up for 45 minutes,

  • I put up with him asking me where I was from,

  • where my parents were from,

  • my grandparents.

  • He asked me where I went to school at, where I did my internships at.

  • He asked me who interviewed me for that job.

  • And for 45 minutes, I tried to be very, very, very, very, very polite,

  • tried to answer his questions.

  • But I remember I was kind of making eyeball help signals

  • at the people around the table, like, "Someone say something. Intervene."

  • And it was a rectangular table, so there were people on both sides of us,

  • and no one said anything,

  • even people who might be in a position, bosses,

  • no one said anything.

  • And I remember I felt so alone.

  • I remember I felt like I didn't deserve to be in his space,

  • and I remember I wanted to quit.

  • So these are my three things.

  • And you'll have your list of three things.

  • And once you have these three things and you have the details

  • and you have the order of events and you have how it made you feel,

  • you're ready to actually use creative writing to bear witness.

  • And that takes us to step 3,

  • which is to pick one and to tell your story.

  • You don't have to write a memoir.

  • You don't have to be a creative writer.

  • I know sometimes storytelling can be daunting for some people,

  • but we are human.

  • We are natural storytellers,

  • so if someone asks us how our day is going,

  • we have a beginning, a middle and an end.

  • That is a narrative.

  • Our memory exists and subsists through the act of storytelling,

  • and you just have to find a form that works for you.

  • You can write a letter to your younger self.

  • You can write a story to your younger self.

  • You can write a story to your five-year-old child,

  • depending on the story.

  • You can write a parody, a song, a song that's a parody.

  • You can write a play. You can write a nursery rhyme.

  • I've read -- I mean, these a theories, though --

  • that "Baa, baa black sheep, Have you any wool,"

  • "Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full,"

  • is actually about impoverished farmers in England being taxed heavily.

  • You can write it in the form of a Wikipedia article.

  • And if it's one of those situations

  • where you saw something and you didn't intervene,

  • perhaps write it from that person's perspective.

  • You know, so if I go back to that boy on the train

  • who I saw being beaten, what was it like to be in his shoes?

  • What was it like to see all these people who watched it happen and did nothing?

  • What happens if I put myself in a position of someone who was homeless

  • and just try to figure out how they got there in the first place?

  • Perhaps it would help me change some of my actions.

  • Perhaps it would help me be more proactive about certain things.

  • And with telling your story, you're keeping it alive.

  • So you don't have to show anyone any of these steps.

  • But even if you're telling it to yourself,

  • you're saying, "This thing happened.

  • This weird thing did happen. It's not in my head.

  • It actually happened."

  • And by doing that, maybe you'll take a little bit of power back

  • that has been taken away.

  • And so the last thing I want to do today

  • is I'm going to tell you my story.

  • And the one I picked is about this big boss.

  • And I picked that one because I feel like I'm not the only one