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

Thoka Maer

Thoka Maer

I have a question for you. Have you ever seen something and you wish you could have said something — but you didn’t?

And I have a second question. Has something ever happened to you and you never said anything about it — but you should have?

I’m interested in this idea of action — of the difference between seeing, which is the passive act of 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 and her diary. She simply wrote down what was happening to her family and 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.

You too can use creative writing to bear witness, and I’m going to walk you through an exercise that I do with a lot of my college students, who are future engineers, technicians, plumbers — basically, they’re not creative writers. We use these exercises to unsilence things we’ve been keeping silent. It’s a way of unburdening ourselves.

It’s 3 simple steps:

Step 1: Brainstorm and write it down

I give my students a prompt. 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 and they could have said something or intervened but they didn’t. I have them write a list as quickly as possible.

I’ll give you 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 I went to a very odd middle school and girls a couple of
 years older than me were often married 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

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
- the many times when I’ve walked by someone who was homeless and in need and asking me for money and I walked around them and I did not acknowledge their humanity

The list could go on and on. Think of times when something might have 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 don’t 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 and not acknowledging it, we can act like it doesn’t exist, that it will somehow fix itself.

Your goal is to write down at least 10 things, and once you have those 10 things, you’ve actually done part one, which is to bear witness. You have unsilenced something that you have been keeping silent.

Step 2: Narrow it down and focus

What I suggest is going back to your list of 10 and picking 3 things that are really tugging at you, three things that you feel strongly about. It doesn’t have to be the most traumatic things but it’s things that are like, “Ah, I have to write about this.” 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, just something that lets you write.

I suggest taking 30 minutes of uninterrupted time, meaning that you turn your phone off, put it on airplane mode, no email. If you have family or if you have children, give yourself 20 minutes or 5 minutes. The goal is just to give yourself time to write.

You’re going to focus on 3 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 last one is the most important part. I’m going to walk you through how I do it.

The first thing I feel very, very strongly about is that time when a couple of months after 9/11, these two boys dared themselves to touch me. I remember I was in a rural mall in North Carolina and I was just walking, minding my business.

I felt like people walking behind me were very, very close. I was like, “OK, that’s kind of weird, let me walk a little bit faster.” They walked a little bit faster too and I heard them going back and forth —  “No, you do it” “You do it” “No, you do it.” And then one of them pushes me and I almost fall to the ground.

I popped back up, expecting some type of apology and the weirdest thing was they did not run away. They actually 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 saying “Give me my money, I did it, man”, and the guy with the brown hair who had a choppy haircut gave him a $5 bill. 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 someone’s dare and then also not exist at all. I remembered when I was younger and someone dared me to touch something nasty or disgusting. I felt like that nasty and disgusting thing.

The second thing I feel very, very strongly about is the time when a friend pulled a gun on me (I should say former friend). I remember there was a group of us outside, he had run up, and he had the stereotypical brown paper bag in his hand. I knew what it was. I’m a very mouthy person and I started going off. I was 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 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 did too — felt like this is the moment I die.

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. The whole table was filled except for the seat next to him. I didn’t know him well; I had seen him in the office. I didn’t know why the seat was empty; I found out later on why. 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 he gestured at my head. I thought, “Do I have something on my face? What’s happening?”

Then 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. In my head I said, “Oh, not today.” But he’s a big boss — he’s like my boss’s boss’s boss. So for 45 minutes I put up with him asking me where I was from, where were my parents from, my grandparents. He asked me where I went to school, where I did my internships, he asked me who interviewed me for that job. And for 45 minutes, I tried to be very, very, very, very, very polite, trying to answer his questions.

But I remember I was making eyeball “Help!” signs at the people around the table, like “Someone say something, intervene”. 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 the position to do so, bosses. No one said anything. I remember I felt so alone. I remember I felt like I didn’t deserve to be in his space. I remember I wanted to quit.

So these are my three things and you’ll have your list of three things. Once you have these three things, you have the details, you have the order of events, you have how it made you feel, you’re ready to actually use creative writing to bear witness.

Step 3: Pick one and 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. If someone asks “How is your day going?”, we have a beginning, a middle and an end. That is a narrative.

Our memory exists and subsists through the act of storytelling. You just have to find the 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, you can write a parody, a song, a song as parody. You can write a play, you can write a nursery rhyme, you can write it in the form of a Wikipedia article.

If it’s one of those situations where you saw something and you didn’t intervene, perhaps write it from that person’s perspective. So if I go back to the 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? Or I could put myself in the 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 will help me be more proactive about certain things.

By telling your story, you’re keeping it alive so you don’t have to do anything; 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.

The last thing I’m going to do is I’m going to tell you my story. The one I’ve picked is about this big boss and I picked that one because I feel like I’m not the only one who has been in a position where someone has been above me and been talked down to. I feel like all of us might have been in positions where we felt like we could not say anything because this person has our livelihood, our paychecks, our jobs in their hands and times we might have seen someone who has power talking down to someone and we should have or could have intervened.

By telling this story, I’m taking back a little bit of power that was taken away from me. I have changed the names, and it happened a decade ago. It doesn’t have any happy ending, because it’s just me writing down what happened that day.

This is how I use creative writing to bear witness.

At Lisa’s Going Away Luncheon

I want to ask my boss’s boss’s boss if he’s stupid

or just plain dumb after he takes one look at my hijab

and asks me where I’m from in Southeast Asia.


I tell him that it’s New Jersey, actually,

and he asks where are my parents from,

and my grandparents and my great-grandparents


and their parents and their parents’ parents

as if searching for some Other blood,

as if searching for some reason why some Black


Muslim girl from Newark wound up seated next to him

at this restaurant of tablecloths

and laminated menus.


I want to say “Slavery, jerk,”

but I’ve got a car note and rent and insurances

and insurances and insurances and credit


cards and credit debt and a loan and a bad tooth

and a penchant for sushi so I drop

the jerk but keep the truth.


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 want to shove an M1 up his behind


and confetti that pasty flesh and that tailored suit.

Instead I’m sipping my unsweetened iced tea

looking around at the table, at the co-workers


around me; none of whom, not one,

looks back at me. Rather they do the most

American things they can do:


They praise their Lord. They stuff their faces

And pretend they don’t hear him.

And pretend they don’t see me.

This post was adapted from a TEDxUCincinnati Talk. Watch it here:


Sakinah Hofler is an award-winning writer and a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati in the English Program. Formerly, she worked as a chemical and quality engineer for the United States Department of Defense. She’s an advocate for infusing the arts into our daily lives.

This post was originally published on TED Ideas. It’s part of the “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.