What It Truly Means to Write About What We Know

Friends around the camp fire

I decided to wait a few years before publishing my writing and I never regretted that decision

To write is to know something. What a pleasure to read a writer who knows a great deal.

Susan Sontag

If I would show you the many unfinished drafts I started writing during my adolescence, I’m sure you and I would have a good laugh.

As Susan Sontag said, to write is to know. And, at that time I was much like John Snow, I didn’t know a great deal.

But as John Snow, I grew and through my growing pains, I learned what it means to write about what we know.

Write about what we know, it’s not what you think!

Sontag’s quote does not mean we should write only about what we know. That would be boring, irrelevant and, most of all, completely useless for yourself and for your readers.

To write is to know. It means that writing brings knowledge but that knowledge must be earned through practice and perseverance and, often, through much pain.

Writing is the vehicle that we can use to take ourselves and our readers on unexpected journeys.

Every draft is a process of self-discovery. We may love to write to the rhythm of an outline or we may revel in the countless possibilities of not knowing what our characters will do or where they will take us. But writing is always a journey, whether we do it with or without a roadmap.

As there’s a thing about journeys that I would only learn later in life. Journeys start from familiar places. And they should take us to whatever depths and craziness we’re prepared to face.

As a young writer, I was unaware of this.

There was no journey in my writing. I just wanted to use my stories to escape my reality. I wanted to hide from my introversion, shyness and social anxiety. And, most of all, I wanted to forget about the unpopular and awkward kid I grew up to be and never remember the humiliation and pain that permeated my life.

So I wrote about perfect worlds and perfect characters and cheesy love stories.

And I didn’t use the knowledge life had given me at all. I knew somethings at the time, but I chose not to use them in my writing. And that was my mistake.

The knowledge of being invisible

Knowledge is the knowing that we cannot know.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I was hiding in the back of the classroom or trying to avoid my teachers and their probing questions, I learned how to be ignored. It may seem a useless skill, but I mastered it during my childhood and adolescence. And through it I’ve learned many things.

I learned to listen to people and to understand their thoughts just by taking note of their behavior. I started to understand the unspoken language that permeates life.

Being invisible also taught me to feel empathy towards others. Especially when these people treated me with contempt.

It’s bittersweet to think about those years of my life. I still carry many invisible bruises and scars from that period, but I will never trade the wisdom that pain brought me.

Because my pain and shame brought me the knowledge I needed to start my stories.

Often my husband complains that I always start writing from a negative perspective. But while I tend to agree with him, I know that, although I start from pain, this is not where I want my stories to end.

My characters shall have, after a little trouble, all that they desire.

Jane Austen

This may not the journey of every writer. But it is my journey, as much as it was Austen’s journey. We start from pain and we build our knowledge from there. We do it by accepting the blessings and curses life has given us and learning how to use our wisdom to bring a bit of light to the world around us.

Writers always have one foot in the darkness and another foot in the light. We cannot fully explore our light before we truly understand and accept our darkness.

What do we know?

To write is sometimes to find the ugliness in scientific progress, or to understand the perversion of the human psyche. Other times it is all about finding beauty in our tragedy, courage in our fears and strength in our flaws.

And with our words, bring to the surface all that it’s hidden so that others might learn from our journeys and live better lives.

When I wrote those silly first drafts, so many years ago, I didn’t know I had to open my heart before I could write great stories. I didn’t know I had to be willing to be vulnerable and to embrace my weaknesses and my darkness before I could start my journeys.

In the end, to answer the question: should we write about what we know? It is to know that we should use our experiences to fuel our writing, but we shouldn’t stay on those familiar grounds more than necessary.

Because to write is to travel, and to travel is to start a journey that will take us far from our comfort zones. It is to push through the boundaries of our knowledge and dare to go farther and deeper. It is to lose ourselves on purpose and bring those things that remain hidden to the light.


This article was inspired by Maria Popova’s article on Brainpickings:

Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What It Means to Be a Moral Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers


Image credits: Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

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