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How writing about difficult experiences can help you take back power |

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How writing about difficult experiences can help you take back power |

Thoka Maer

This publish is a part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” collection, every of which incorporates a bit of useful recommendation from folks within the TED neighborhood; flick through all the posts here.

I’ve a query for you. Have you ever seen one thing and you want you may have stated one thing — however you didn’t?

And I’ve a second query. Has one thing ever occurred to you and you by no means stated something about it — however you ought to have?

I’m on this concept of motion — of the distinction between seeing, which is the passive act of observing, and the precise act of bearing witness.

Bearing witness means writing down one thing you have seen, one thing you have heard, one thing you have skilled. The most vital a part of bearing witness is writing it down; it’s recording. Writing it down captures the reminiscence. Writing it down acknowledges its existence.

One of the largest examples now we have in historical past of somebody bearing witness is Anne Frank and her diary. She merely wrote down what was occurring to her household and about her confinement and, in doing so, now we have a really intimate document of this household throughout one of many worst intervals of our world’s historical past.

You too can use inventive writing to bear witness, and I’m going to stroll you by means of an train that I do with a whole lot of my school college students, who’re future engineers, technicians, plumbers — mainly, they’re not inventive writers. We use these workouts to unsilence issues we’ve been holding silent. It’s a means of unburdening ourselves. It’s Three easy steps.

Step 1: Brainstorm and write it down

What I’ve my college students do is I give them a immediate. The immediate is “The time when …” and I need them to fill in that immediate with occasions they could have skilled one thing, heard one thing, seen one thing or seen one thing they usually may have stated one thing or intervened however they didn’t. I’ve them write an inventory as rapidly as doable.

I’ll give you instance of a number of the issues I might write down:

  • the time when just a few months after 9/11 and two boys dared themselves to the touch me they usually did
  • the time when my sister and I have been strolling in a metropolis and a man spat at us and known as us terrorists
  • the time means back after I went to a really odd center faculty and ladies a few
 years older than me have been usually married to males almost double their age
  • the time when a good friend pulled a gun on me
  •  the time after I went to a going-away luncheon for a coworker and a giant boss
 questioned my lineage for 45 minutes.

There are occasions when I’ve seen one thing and I haven’t intervened. For instance:

  • the time after I was on a practice and I witnessed a father beating his toddler son and I didn’t do something.
  • the numerous occasions after I’ve walked by somebody who was homeless and in want and asking me for cash and I walked round them and I didn’t acknowledge their humanity

The record may go on and on. Think of occasions when one thing may need occurred sexually, occasions when you’ve been holding issues repressed, and occasions with our households. Because our households — we love them, however on the similar time we don’t speak about issues. So we don’t speak about the member of the family who has been utilizing medicine or abusing alcohol; we don’t speak about the member of the family who may need extreme psychological sickness. We’ll say one thing like, “Oh they’ve always been that way,” and we hope that in not speaking about it and never acknowledging it, we can act prefer it doesn’t exist, that it’s going to one way or the other repair itself.

Your purpose is to put in writing down not less than 10 issues, and as soon as you have these 10 issues, you’ve truly completed half one, which is to bear witness. You have unsilenced one thing that you have been holding silent.

Step 2: Narrow it down and focus

What I counsel goes back to your record of 10 and selecting Three issues which can be actually tugging at you, three issues that you really feel strongly about. It doesn’t need to be essentially the most traumatic issues however it’s issues which can be like, “Ah, I have to write about this.” I counsel you sit down at a desk with a pen and paper — that’s my most popular technique for recording however you can additionally use a pill, an iPad, a pc, simply one thing that lets you write.

I counsel taking 30 minutes of uninterrupted time, which means that you flip your telephone off, put it on airplane mode, no e-mail. If you have household or if you have kids, give your self 20 minutes or 5 minutes. The purpose is simply to offer your self time to put in writing.

You’re going to deal with Three issues — you’re going to deal with the main points, you’re going to deal with the order of occasions, you’re gonna deal with the way it made you really feel. That final one is an important half.

I’m going to stroll you by means of how I do it. The very first thing I really feel very very strongly about is that point when a few months after 9/11, these two boys dared themselves to the touch me. I bear in mind I used to be in a rural mall in North Carolina and I used to be simply strolling, minding my enterprise.

I felt like folks strolling behind me have been very, very shut. I used to be like, “OK, that’s kind of weird, let me walk a little bit faster.” They walked slightly bit sooner too and I heard them going back and forth —  “No, you do it” “You do it” “No, you do it.” And then considered one of them pushes me and I virtually fall to the bottom.

I popped back up, anticipating some sort of apology and the weirdest factor was they didn’t run away. They truly stood proper subsequent to me and I bear in mind there was a man with blond hair and he had a vibrant crimson polo shirt and he was saying “Give me my money, I did it, man”, and the man with the brown hair who had a uneven haircut gave him a $5 invoice. I bear in mind it was crumpled, and so I’m like, “Am I still standing here? This thing just happened. What just happened?”

And it was so bizarre to be somebody’s dare after which additionally not exist in any respect. I remembered after I was youthful and somebody dared me to the touch one thing nasty or disgusting. I felt like that nasty and disgusting factor.

A second factor I really feel very, very strongly about is the time when a good friend pulled a gun on me (I ought to say former good friend). I bear in mind there was a gaggle of us exterior, he had run up, and he had the stereotypical brown paper bag in his hand. I knew what it was. I’m a really mouthy individual and I began going off. I used to be like, “What are you doing with that gun? You’re not gonna shoot anyone. You’re a coward. You don’t even know how to use it.”

I stored happening and on and on and he received angrier and angrier and angrier and he pulled the gun out and put it in my face. I bear in mind each considered one of us received very, very quiet. I bear in mind the tightness of his face. I bear in mind the barrel of the gun and I felt like — and I’m fairly certain everybody round me who received quiet did too — felt like that is the second I die.

The third factor I really feel very, very strongly about is that this going away luncheon and this massive boss. I bear in mind I used to be working late and I’m all the time late; it’s only a factor that occurs with me. The entire desk was stuffed apart from the seat subsequent to him. I didn’t know him nicely; I had seen him within the workplace. I didn’t know why the seat was empty; I came upon in a while why. So I sat down on the desk and earlier than he even requested me my title, the very first thing he stated was “What’s going on with all of this?” and he gestured at my head. I assumed, “Do I have something on my face? What’s happening?”

Then he requested me with two arms this time “What’s going on with all of this?” And I noticed he’s speaking about my hijab. In my head I stated, “Oh, not today.” But he’s a giant boss — he’s like my boss’s boss’s boss. So for 45 minutes I put up with him asking me the place I used to be from, the place have been my mother and father from, my grandparents. He requested me the place I went to highschool, the place I did my internships, he requested me who interviewed me for that job. And for 45 minutes, I attempted to be very, very, very, very, very well mannered, making an attempt to reply his questions.

But I bear in mind I used to be making eyeball “Help!” indicators on the folks across the desk, like “Someone say something, intervene”. It was an oblong desk, so there have been folks on each side of us and nobody stated something, even individuals who could be within the place to take action, bosses. No one stated something. I bear in mind I felt so alone. I bear in mind I felt like I didn’t should be in his house. I bear in mind I needed to stop.

So these are my three issues and you’ll have your record of three issues. Once you have these three issues, you have the main points, you have the order of occasions, you have the way it made you really feel, you’re prepared to really use inventive writing to bear witness.

Step 3: Pick one and inform your story

You don’t have to put in writing a memoir; you don’t need to be a inventive author. I do know generally storytelling can be daunting for some folks however we’re human, we’re pure storytellers. If somebody asks “How is your day going?”, now we have a starting, a center and an finish. That is a story.

Our reminiscence exists and subsists by means of the act of storytelling. You simply have to search out the shape that works for you. You can write a letter to your youthful self, you can write a narrative to your youthful self, you can write a narrative to your five-year-old youngster, you can write a parody, a track, a track as parody. You can write a play, you can write a nursery rhyme, you can write it within the type of a Wikipedia article.

If it’s a kind of conditions the place you noticed one thing and you didn’t intervene, maybe write it from that individual’s perspective. So if I am going back to the boy on the practice who I noticed being overwhelmed, What was it prefer to be in his sneakers? What was it prefer to see all these individuals who watched it occur and did nothing? Or I may put myself within the place of somebody who was homeless and simply strive to determine how they received there within the first place. Perhaps it could help me change a few of my actions, maybe it would help me be extra proactive about sure issues.

By telling your story, you’re holding it alive so you don’t need to do something; you don’t have to point out anybody any of those steps. But even when you’re telling it to your self, you’re saying this factor occurred, this bizarre factor did occur. It’s not in my head. It truly occurred and by doing that possibly you’ll take slightly little bit of power back that has been taken away.

The very last thing I’m going to do is I’m going to inform you my story. The one I’ve picked is about this massive boss and I picked that one as a result of I really feel like I’m not the one one who has been able the place somebody has been above me and been talked right down to. I really feel like all of us may need been in positions the place we felt like we couldn’t say something as a result of this individual has our livelihood, our paychecks, our jobs of their arms and occasions we would have seen somebody who has power speaking right down to somebody and we must always have or may have intervened.

By telling this story, I’m taking back slightly little bit of power that was taken away from me. I’ve modified the names, and it occurred a decade in the past. It doesn’t have any pleased ending, as a result of it’s simply me writing down what occurred that day.

This is how I take advantage of inventive writing to bear witness.

At Lisa’s Going Away Luncheon

I need to ask my boss’s boss’s boss if he’s silly

or simply plain dumb after he takes one take a look at my hijab

and asks me the place I’m from in Southeast Asia.


I inform him that it’s New Jersey, truly,

and he asks the place are my mother and father from,

and my grandparents and my great-grandparents


and their mother and father and their mother and father’ mother and father

as if looking for some Other blood,

as if looking for some motive why some Black


Muslim lady from Newark is seated subsequent to him

at this restaurant of tablecloths

and laminated menus.


I need to say “Slavery, jerk,”

however I’ve received a automobile word and lease and insurances

and insurances and insurances and credit score


playing cards and credit score debt and a mortgage and a foul tooth

and a penchant for sushi so I drop

the jerk however maintain the reality.


Tell me, he says,

“Why don’t Sunnis and Shiites get along?”

“Tell me,” he says, “What’s going on in Iraq?”


“Tell me,” he says, “What’s up with Saudi and Syria

and Iran?” “Tell me,” he says, “Why do Muslims

like bombs?” I need to shove an M1 up his behind


and confetti that pasty flesh and that tailor-made go well with.

Instead I’m sipping my unsweetened iced tea

wanting round on the desk, on the co-workers


round me; none of whom, not one,

appears to be like back at me. Rather they do essentially the most

American issues they can do:


They reward their Lord. They stuff their faces

And fake they don’t hear him.

And fake they don’t see me.


This publish was tailored from a TEDxUCincinnati Talk. Watch it right here:

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