By Linda Wisniewski
“Each of us is a witness stand.” That was the title of a writing workshop I attended years ago. We are all witnesses to history as it is happening, so even though we don’t make decisions as historians about what to record, we do have the power to decide what we want others to know about our reflections on this period.
When the terrorist attacks on the U.S. occurred on Sept 11, 2001, I heard about people calling their parents and grandparents to ask how they felt on December 7, 1941. Both generations witnessed an attack on American soil. What the people of 2001 wanted to know most was “were you scared? How did you handle it? What was your life like in the days that followed?” This is why it’s so important to record our stories in any form – memoir, short story, novel or even poetry. We read to learn how others lived, and we write to share our own personal history.
My memoir about growing up in the 1950s in America is told from my point of view as a granddaughter of immigrants. My novel’s point of view is that of a woman living in 2012 Doylestown PA who meets her ancestor, a woman from 1825 Poland. Notice the dates here? All three characters: me, Kat the librarian and Regina the peasant are witnesses to history.
No matter what time you are writing about, what you say about the culture, the setting, the clothes, the attitudes, are your witness statements. You might think of a time in history we all know about: 9/11, man walks on the moon, the Covid pandemic (yes, we’re living history), the assassination of MLK Jr… and write about yourself in that time. How old were you, where did you live, how did you hear the news, what did you feel, how do you feel about that event now?
The setting we write about is also part of history. My parents’ neighborhood growing up in a factory town with no running water at home was different from the 1950s tract houses where my friends and I lived, which were different from the mega-mansions of today’s suburbia. How are your own “places” different? Write the details: the building materials, the weather, the transportation, the gardens or lawns…bring us back to that place. Someday it will be hard to find, but your written record will inform others, and even people today who live very differently from you.
Reflecting back for decades, years or even a day, we might find we’ve lived through some hard times and survived. We find gratitude for those who helped us. We recognize our own strengths and talents.
Eyewitness accounts are notoriously untrustworthy in a court of law, but on the page, everyone’s account is the truth, because it’s what we’ve seen and remember from our own package of experiences. It’s what makes us who we are.
Our time on the witness stand of history is brief. All the more reason to leave a mark for those who come after, wondering what it was like, here and now.
Linda C. Wisniewski writes about life and the connections we make by giving each other the space and time to be heard. A former feature writer and columnist for the Bucks County Herald and the Bucks County Women’s Journal, Linda’s work has been published widely in literary magazines, newspapers and anthologies and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is the author of the memoir, Off Kilter, published by Pearlsong Press, and a novel, Where the Stork Flies, published by Sand Hill Review Press. More about her at http://www.lindawis.com.
2 thoughts on “Make Your Pages Your Testimony”
Nice post, Linda. Relevant. Stories told by ordinary people reflect different facets of the bare-bones accounts and dates given in history books. They help us understand why these things matter. By viewing events from different perspectives, we can move past differences and appreciate our common humanity.
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Thank you Sandy, for adding your thoughts. Much appreciated!