Write What You Don't Know

‘Write what you know.’

We’ve all heard it. From teachers, fellow writers, older relatives who simultaneously think they know more about your career and look down on it. And for many people, I’m sure this has been a revelatory idea, a freeing idea. Sometimes we need to be reminded that our lives and perspectives are full enough to mine for decades. But today I’m writing for the people who have heard that maxim and just wanna slam their head against the wall.

Up to this point in my life, I’ve almost always written outside of my experience. And as a cis-gendered able-bodied neurotypical bisexual white woman of an upper middle class upbringing—

(deep breath)

—there’s a lot outside of my experience.

From a young age, I found it liberating to take on the perspective of another. Filtering and adjusting my own ideas through the experiences of someone else allowed me to get at the core of what I wanted to say more efficiently. It was like I was performing a magic trick for myself—all it took was a little misdirection. I also considered it my duty as a playwright to diversify who were in my plays. It felt wrong to me to not include communities who have been historically underserved by the theatre world, and I was lucky I began implementing this belief before any self doubt set in.

When I was seventeen, I started a family drama about a parent’s gender transition. I watched a YouTube series about three trans peoples’ experiences in college, read about hormone therapy and gender dysmorphia, and I sat down and wrote the play. My high school was gracious enough to produce it, and Burning Priscilla was born.

If I look back cynically, I might say that I wrote it for the novelty. Not a lot of people (in my small circle of knowledge) were writing about this; it set me apart as a writer. If I’m being even harder on my seventeen year old self, I might say it was inspired by some gross curiosity.

If I look back lovingly, I’d say I was ferociously curious about the world and I recognized the capacity for theater to humanize the other, whoever that might be at any given moment. If I’m being even more loving to my younger self, I’d say I was frustrated that I’d never seen a sympathetic story of a trans person onstage before, and I wanted to remedy that with what little power I had. Since then, I’ve written from the perspective of Latinx characters, black characters, Asian characters, autistic characters, intersex characters, blind/deaf characters, pedophilic characters. Characters with identities that are reviled, justifiably or not. Some of these stories are successes, some fall seriously short. Here is what I’ve learned from writing outside my experience (so far).

1.     Do. Your. Research. We’re in the age of information: you’re becoming hard pressed to find an excuse for ‘not knowing’ anymore. And if online academia, libraries and every streaming podcast and film still aren’t getting to the heart of your questions, interview people! Connect! People love to talk about themselves (as long as you’re respectful). You cannot afford to be afraid of asking what you don’t know.

2.     Once you’ve done the bulk of your research, throw it away. Let your research inform you, not control you. Allow your subconscious to guide you, and trust that the important stuff will stick.

3.     Ok, all the important stuff won’t necessarily stick. Or what you consider ‘the bulk of your research’ is skimming three Wikipedia articles (been there). Or popular sources on a given topic aren’t accurate, or presented a bias you weren’t prepared to filter through. Bottom line: you’re gonna fuck up. You always run the risk of offending someone. Hopefully its someone you’re gunning to offend, but sometimes it isn’t and you have to take responsibility for that. You aren’t gonna know everything, but that doesn’t mean you should close off your heart. Do as much as you can, and trust that you’ll know when others’ input is necessary.

4.     Your story will not be the definitive ________ story. Nobody’s gonna regard your work as the voice of a group you don’t belong to (and if they do, it’s your job to help redirect attention to actual members of that community). But if we put aside thieving white people’s wet dreams, take comfort in the fact that you don’t shoulder the responsibility to defend the reputation of an entire community. Your works will (most likely) never make or break that community’s presence in the theater. So just write the damn thing

5.     That being said, you are taking another person’s story, lifeblood, livelihood in your hands: have a little respect. Once again: do your research. Read it with actors who actually represent the community you’re writing for. Marginalized communities tend to have 2 or 3 prominent stereotypical characterizations or plotlines. Does your work contribute to a damaging trend? Can you tell your story in a more nuanced way?

6.     Have fun! Playwriting can be fun, meeting new people can be fun, LEARNING can be fun. Just DBAA (don’t be an asshole).

At the end of the day, its about generosity. Generosity to yourself and to others. There is magic in seeing your underrepresented peers get to shine and know that you helped to make that happen. You can help diversify and strengthen the theatrical ecosystem we’re all a part of! For me, personally, writing outside my experience allows me the distance I need to realize my full vision. And sometimes in misdirecting myself, sometimes I misdirect others. My play, If You Give A Kid A Sucker is, surprisingly, not about my secret attraction to children, but about my fear of evil inherent in myself. But if I set out to write about my fear that I was inherently bad or unforgivable, I probably just would’ve cried for a few years straight instead. 

And since the world doesn’t need any more white tears, let’s take the plunge and realize the full potential of our own work!

Annalise Cain