Friday, February 5, 2010

Karen Harrington on Writing and Nature vs. Nurture

It's my pleasure to introduce a new contributor to What Women Write. You'll be seeing Karen Harrington around the place once a month or so.

Karen is the author of
Janeology, a book I (Julie) read recently and thoroughly enjoyed, though the subject matter is tough.

Using what I thought was a pretty unique storytelling method, Karen addresses the issue of whether someone can be genetically predisposed to committing a crime.

Janeology (Kunati/2008) is available from the usual sites, but Karen also has a certain number of copies available at a great discount by contacting her directly at kharrin2003(at sign) Check out Karen's website, where you can read more about her and her novel and even catch an excerpt.

Karen's a native Texan (our FIRST native here at What Women Write!), stay-at-home mom by day, and novelist by night.

Karen, thanks for joining us and welcome to What Women Write. Now, here's Karen!

Have you ever seen Andy Rooney? He’s a 60 Minutes news commentator. Nobody does curmudgeon better than Andy Rooney. He often launches into his satirical segments about everyday questions with “Do you ever wonder why...”

Lately I’ve been channeling my inner Andy Rooney over a single question: Do you ever wonder why . . . some writers become minimalists while others are maximalists?

Why do some writers develop the economic style of Hemingway while others write the kind of honeyed prose that helped make Pat Conroy famous?

Since I am captivated by the nature vs. nurture debate, I’ve begun to wonder if a writer’s style is more the result of nature or nurture. Are writers born with a certain stylistic lean? Or are we influenced by our earliest reading and writing experiences?

For myself, I attended the writing program at the University of Texas at Dallas. In its heyday, the UTD program had a proud distinction: 25% of all graduates from the program went on to be published. The reason behind this great result was, in part, the tremendous professors the university attracted. The head of the creative writing program was Dr. Robert Nelsen. Nelsen had a bent toward minimalism and short stories. We read Hemingway, Carver, Amy Hempel and Mary Gaitskill. These were among his favorites. We studied and outlined their stories, unearthing what was and wasn’t in the text. In his teaching and critique, he applied the famous Hemingway quote:

“If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-ninth of it being above water.”

These lessons stuck. I write in the minimalist style. Some of my early efforts indicated I was successful in this approach. One of my first short stories won an honorable mention in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. Another was optioned for an independent short film.

So you see, the common denominator of these early achievements was developing a minimalist method. But a funny thing happened last year. I developed literary crushes on John Irving and Pat Conroy. To say that their writing is full, descriptive and luminous is an understatement. You’d be hard pressed to find a book by either author that weighs less than one pound. Their words not only describe where the protagonist lives, but also make you wonder if the scent of, say, an oceanside setting has perfumed the page.

Raymond Carver best summed up the difference in these two styles when he said, "Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.”

But sometimes I like interior decoration! As much as I WANT to write long, I come up short.

I find it difficult and strained. The writing sounds like I just found a purple crayon and want to use it on everything. Nothing alerted me more to my own purple floweriness than when rereading my last NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) novel, which was an experiment in imitating Irving. I considered giving you an example sentence from said draft, but I’m not that brave.

So I have to wonder: If my early professors had been devotees to Faulkner and I had been trained on an expanded style, would my writing style today reflect the influence of those writers? Or, was I already hardwired with a certain style? Is there a nature/nurture correlation to writing?

Tell me what you think. Do you ever wonder why you write a certain way? Do you think your style is reflective of nature or nurture?


  1. Thanks for having me here today. This is one of my favorite blogs. It's nice to be here with so many interesting writers.

    K. Harrington

  2. Welcome, Karen! This is a great post. I think it gets back to that elusive idea of voice. I don't think voice can be learned; voice comes from within. I think style can be learned but how we apply it is a function of who we are as writers. When we try to thwart our own natural voice to emulate another style, it can sound very forced.

  3. I am very much the interior decorator and I think it is genetic. My family includes artists of the page, canvas, and even the soil (my dad builds golf courses). Though I only dabble in painting, I easily write from the point of view of a painter because our composition techniques are so similar. I adore John Irving and Pat Conroy and I can't stand Hemingway. That's not to say there are no minimalists I like or that I have the patience to read pages of description about a sunset or a room or what a character is wearing. If I'm going to make the effort to paint a scene there must be a purpose behind it, a reason for the reader not to be tempted to skim ahead.

    By the way, Karen, thank you for filling in for me today! Great post.

  4. I "hear" life, as well as what I like writing best, in more of a Conroy style than a Hemingway style. There are times when a Hemingway style was needed: news stories, articles, grant requests, computer manuals, etc. But the older I get, the more difficult it is for me write "logical" rather than impressionistic. I wonder if all of us are like that: we can write differently when we have to even if we don't always want to.


  5. As always, I enjoyed reading your post, Karen. I think I'm more of a nature writer rather than nurture. I'm still wrapping my brain around this very cool way of approaching our writing style. :-)

  6. I enjoy the likes of John Irving and it amazes me how they can write the way they do. As for me, brevity is the way i go. Not because i don't want to, it's because i can't! And no, i haven't had any training in writing.


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