But because I was a writer—for it’s an early state of being, before a word has been written, not an attribute of being published—I became witness to the unspoken in my society..
~ Witness: The Inward Testimony
A writer is one who writes. How many times has that been said and been shot down by those who claim that a writer is someone who is paid for their writing? Does that make Emily Dickinson any less a poet or any person who has put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard to give inward testimony of the world they inhabit?
Gordimer states that being a writer is an earlier state of being before a word is written, that the urge or desire or focus is on being witness to the world and needing to capture it in words or pictures. It is the same need that drove early man to paint images on cave walls and tell stories around the fire in the night. Because modern man thinks in terms of writing as concrete proof of a story, the idea of storytelling becomes the fact of writing. Writers are in essence storytellers, something encoded in their basic genetic structure, hardwired in the matrix. There is something different about writers, about storytellers, that sets them apart. It has nothing to do with financial success or acclaim or even about excellence. It has to do with the drive to bridge the gap between the outer and inner world, to bear witness to the changing landscape of the heart and mind and reality of being human. Without putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, writers/storytellers are born.
In The Comedians, Graham Greene writes: “The Church condemns violence, but it condemns indifference more harshly.” Indifference is not part of a writer's makeup. Writers are never indifferent. They may be out of step with the world -- at least as far as the world judges -- or adamant when espousing one cause or belief over another, but they are never indifferent. Writers are passionate about life and about themselves and those around them in relation to the rest of the world, and writers are well known for their bitter feuds among themselves and with those outside of the world they inhabit. Writers find it difficult to understand indifference. How can people live in the world and not be affected by it, engaged with it, vibrantly and obviously alive in it? No matter how quiet the words or the demeanor, writers are the lighthouse on the bare and rocky shore shining a light into the darkness to point out the dangers and the path to safety.
Around the fires that kept away the predators in the night, ancient storytellers kept back the darkness and fired the imaginations of the huddled forms, reminding them of past glories and keeping hope alive in a savage world that beyond the warmth and light was poised to devour and eradicate them. Storytellers were the keepers of memory and the reliquaries of the wisdom of the gods and goddesses. Storytellers are the conscience of their times, often a still small voice of sanity and reason, witnesses to the present and custodian of history.
In the movie, Shall We Dance, Susan Sarandon tells the detective she hired to follow her husband that marriage provides a witness to a person's life. If a partner or spouse is witness to one life, then writers are witness to all lives, to the times in which they live and their corner of the world.
In the end, we look to writers, to the modern storytellers, to fill in the gaps in the sweeping canvas of history, the voices in the darkness around the fire that feed the soul, spark the imagination and keep us safe in the night. Writers write to keep back the darkness, but also to remind us that we are all basically alike whatever distance or time separates us.