Writing has so many different aspects. We write to learn about ourselves, to tell people something, to relax, to make people laugh, cry, or to give a sense of belonging. All those reasons mean that we usually write things we know, or at least things we have an idea about. Memoir is the most prominent example where writers use their memories, thoughts and feelings. Not only nonfiction writers but also fiction writers may use what they have experienced, and build characters based on people they have or had in their lives.
Mark Twain has a relevant quote; it is clear and simple:
“Write what you know.” ~ Mark Twain
Almost two years ago, in my Theatre and Culture class, the professor started a discussion by posing questions to the class: Why don’t people write what they don’t know? Why do they usually limit themselves for the things they know? According to him, people should be able to write about issues they are foreign to, like issues that belong to a different country or culture, mostly to provide a fresh perspective. One of my classmates objected. She said writing about unfamiliar topics may come across as disrespectful, because some issues and related experiences are sensitive. Ignorance and insensitivity are inevitable when people who are foreign to certain deep issues start writing or speaking about them, as if they know.
I agree that some subjects are sensitive and require extra care, and indeed, there are topics that some people are more qualified to write about and some are not. However, I also believe that we can write about things we don’t know. Writing about the unfamiliar pushes you to research and read more; it is a personal growth and you can offer a new point of view.
Writing about history is exactly writing about what you don’t know. Although the events, stories and personalities are real, you don’t really know them, you don’t know the feeling of the era and everyone has their own opinion about certain figures, events and questions. If I am writing about a specific period of time, I research and read about that period to be able to write more effectively. We should educate ourselves about the topics we want to write about. Does this come to the same point, that we write what we know? Maybe.
What do you think about writing what you know and what you don’t know? Let us know in the comments!