Monday, September 7, 2009

Nature vs. Nurture vs. Mixture

By Pamela

A few weeks ago my teenagers humored me by allowing me to take their annual first day of school photo. My two boys, Ben a sophomore and Jacob a senior, hammed it up in the driveway, laughing so hard their eyes were closed and mouths open in most shots.

I’m often struck by how different they are. Given the option, Jacob would take only music and drama classes and hasn’t played organized sports since grade school. Ben constantly keeps a soccer ball between his feet (there’s one under my desk right now), plays on club and school teams, and completes his homework days before it’s due. Even on the outside—from the way they dress to their haircuts—they are polar opposites. They share parents, upbringings and a love of funny movies and Taco Bell, but the similarities trail off from there.

We encouraged them to pursue their passions and only directed them toward a few common interests including Tae Kwon Do (they both have black belts)—nature and nurture collided. While studying the photo, I wondered how much heredity plays into shaping who we become.

I’m pretty creative when it comes to sewing, crafts, baking and other domestic arts. But prop me in front of an easel, and you’d probably swear a first grader has taken over my body. Art lessons might help, but I doubt my work would ever generate any interest outside my family.

I know a woman who plays the piano and took lessons for many years. Even though nearly every note is played correctly, you can hear effort. The music is only tolerable.

As an avid reader, I’ve finished novels that continued to haunt me for days afterward. Others, although not poorly written—every word spelled correctly, every sentence formed completely—didn’t leave an impression on me.

Certainly artistic talent can be nurtured, but are we limited in scope by our genetics? Are true musical, artistic, dramatic and literary talents born? Stephen and Tabitha King's two sons, Joe and Owen, are both published authors. But are they the products of amazing genes or did they learn from their parents' examples? Or both?

I posted this idea of nature vs. nurture on Facebook and several writer friends commented.

Kim: I’m pretty sure I was born this way…
Philip: You can learn technique, but you can’t be taught creativity and imagination.
Robert: I would say born. I can’t see myself any other way. If it were ‘made’ there might not be the same pleasure I get from writing.

Then I asked around some more.

“For myself, I do feel that I was born to be a writer, in the same way another person is born with the innate capacity to sing well, or to do higher math, or to play pro sports,” said Therese Fowler, author of Reunion and Souvenir. “My own interest in and ability to express myself through the written word seems to have been built into me.

“That said, every innate talent needs to be nurtured in order for its owner to succeed. You can be ‘born to write’ and string together the most marvelous sentences or paragraphs without much effort, but until you've done it repeatedly and studied craft and put your skill to use in service of entire cohesive stories, you may as well not have the talent to begin with.

“I think there are innate levels of ability (same as with singers, dancers, athletes, etc.)—sort of a spectrum of talent, if you will. Some natural writers have the capacity to become great, others just good.

“So, I say nature has more to do with writing ability than nurture does. It's like this: a person may love to sing, love it passionately, do it all the time, take lessons, dream of a singing career—but if that person is tone-deaf or has a grating voice, no amount of practice or instruction is going to turn that person into someone we all want to hear.”

I asked NYT best-selling author Bob Mayer if he always knew he would be a writer and whether he viewed writing as a natural or learned skill. (Bob also teaches writing workshops and has authored a book on the craft: The Novel Writer’s Toolkit.)

“I think you have an innate desire to create,” he said. “But, no, I'm not one of those people who always thought I'd be a writer. I read a lot as a kid, and escaped in my own head with stories. I do think writing can be learned—or else why would I be teaching writing? But 95 percent of students don't really want to learn—they want validation. The few who really want to learn and are willing to, make great strides.

“One of the tenets of my Warrior Writer program is to focus on the author, rather than the writing. Pretty much every writing course is always focused on the product, not the producer of the product, which is kind of backward. I'm focusing on teaching writers how to become authors.”

Like anything in life that brings you joy or satisfaction, if writing is your passion, then by all means pursue it. Write often and treasure what you produce. If your dream is to be published, then devote the time necessary to achieve that goal. Read others’ works, take classes, attend workshops and book signings, learn the business and, along the way, grow a thick skin. Improving requires putting yourself out there for others to judge and accepting the resulting criticism.

Be realistic in your expectations. Only a handful of painters became masters. Many musicians play for only their friends and families. Very few writers become best-selling authors. You don’t have to become famous to be successful. But you do have to write to be a writer.


  1. This was such an interesting blog post. I always believe that nature and nurture illumine one another and that no talent or tendency exists without a dose of each. Thanks! I realy enjoyed reading this.

  2. My debut novel THE HANDBOOK FOR LIGHTNING STRIKE SURVIVORS is being published by Shaye Areheart, a division of Random House, April 13th, and YES, I think we're born writers, but like Therese Fowler, I think that the desire and need to write stories and create characters has to be nurtured through craft and the willingness to revise and learn from the writers who preceded us, as well as from our peers. This topic has always fascinated me because as a second and third grader, my parents were always praising my short stories and poems, and lo and behold, but my mother later confessed, "We thought you were copying things out of books. We were humoring you. We didn't actually think you were writing the things you were reading to us." It's so funny to me! But I'm glad they praised me. I needed that early validation whether it was the truth or not.

  3. I guess the only true discovery would be a 'separated at birth' scenario, where adult siblings had (or did not have) the same artistic bent. I agree with Karen and Michelle in that the two nicely go hand in hand. And early encouragement goes a long way.

  4. Wow, great post. Makes me think. The best advice I've ever been given was by you: you gotta write to be a writer. And some of us probably don't care if we ever publish a book or play in the symphony, but like you said, we must cherish what we create. I love my writing, whether anyone else does or not. The "thick skin" part is something I have to work on...since I put it out there for all to see, I guess I'm diving into the lion's den huh?! Thanks for the cute story about your boys, I am so excited to see mine grow into individual awesome young men. You've done good Pamela!

  5. Pamela, that's right, encouragement is essential. I didn't take my dream seriously until one of my English professors--who is an author himself--praised my first-ever short story (I was 33 years old, and finishing my B.A.). He said, "you've got real promise," and that was all I needed to hear to set me on the path.

  6. My English 101 instructor was a lovely woman who enjoyed what I wrote and even read a few pieces aloud. (I still have some of them tucked away in a box.) Her encouragement went a long way. Then when I finally got a job that paid me to write, I sent her a clipping and a thank you note. She wrote back and said how much that meant to her. She even remembered where I sat in class and that was almost 20 years previously!

    Without her praise I might not have stood up to a future professor who claimed all the "good writers were in the honors program." He finally relented and gave me some validation: an A in the class.

    I try to remember that now when my kids share their writings with me. Even if the sentence structure makes me cringe, I try and encourage the idea they're trying to convey. I never want them to stop trying.


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