To Bear Witness

This post first appeared on Melissa Embry's blog: on July 30  

If you are at a writer’s conference and the first speaker of the weekend shares with you his ‘moment of grace’ where he received his commission in life, you should sit a little straighter, lean forward and tune up your hearing.

Luis Alberto Urrea went on a mission trip as a young man; he came back a writer.

What was this ‘moment of grace’, as he called it? He and his pastor were working among the most forgotten, the world’s cast-offs who lived and died in an actual garbage dump. Young Luis, notebook in hand, was writing his observations, thoughts, scenes, scribbling words on paper that he would turn into story. A resident of the dump asked what he was doing. Writing. About this place? This dump. About me? Yes, about this place and about you. “Tell someone I was here.”

Now, Mr. Urrea did not say that the sky opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him. But novice writer Luis knew that this moment, standing in a cathedral of trash, was his commission, his anointing, his sending forth. He was tuned in to the energy of the moment; he was paying attention. That is what we, as writers, are asked to do. Pay attention, and as my friend, the writer Bill Marvel, likes to say, bear witness.

We are to bear witness to history in its small moments and its large moments. Bear witness to people, to changes in the atmosphere, to changes in attitude. Pay attention to the new and to the ancient that threads through the now. Be an instrument of history, a commentator, a sense maker, a question raiser.

Writers sift through the materials of life and choose a bit of this to expand on, a bit of that to explore. We churn and tumble and wrestle with the stuff of life long after they have moved into silent history and then we snatch them back and give them a place on the page.

“Tell them I was here”’ is our common plea.

It is also our job.