by Jenny Hansen
My husband and I had an interesting discussion about the nature vs nurture theory of writing. Our question: were accomplished writers born intact like Beethoven, with words rather than music, or were writers nurtured along by adversity and pain?
We came to the conclusion that the majority of writers are made, rather than born. And that even though there are a few perfectly happy souls (with perfectly happy childhoods) who just love to write and somehow have the perfect words, that isn't how most of us came to the page.
How did we get there?
Most of us read extensively from a young age and fell in love with words.
As young readers, we came to treasure the power and magic of story. Stories took us out of our own world and dropped us into other worlds that held characters we wanted to know. Maybe it was a fairy, a wizard, or a talking lion. More often it was a boy or girl our age, who lived in a world that had rules that made more sense to us.
Perhaps your favorite story contained a character who became your friend. Perhaps that friend was someone who gave you enough courage to keep living in your everyday life with just a little more hope or happiness than you had before you met them.
Many years ago, I was lucky enough to hear Dean Koontz speak for almost three hours. The first part of his talk was about his own writing journey but then he answered questions. One of them was what made him want to write, another was why he always gives his books a happily ever after.
He explained that he lived in a home with a volatile father who sometimes made life scary and nearly unlivable. When things got very bad, his mother would farm all the children out to safe spaces somewhere else.
She'd often send Dean to an elderly neighbor, a grandmotherly type whose kids had all grown. She lived alone and had a big quiet library where she would make up a cot for her traumatized little neighborhood boy. He would lay in that cot, surrounded by books, and read in the soft glow of a lamp. The house was quiet and safe. There was no yelling, no abuse, and no fear. And the young Dean could breathe and relax and fall into a story.
That neighbor changed his life. She gave him safety and she gave him books. And he forever associated the two. He loves to know that however tortured his characters are, they will walk away from his pages only after they've found their way toward happiness.
I firmly believe that writers are made.
They are made from shyness and bullying and a million awkward moments. They're made from abuse and codependence and loneliness, and from thousands of sharp words that bruised their tender souls.
I believe the majority of writers are forged from fear or pain or loss.
I believe many writers began writing to create worlds that were better than the one they lived in. They filled those worlds with the people they wished they knew and the relationships they wished they had. Sometimes they used the page to look for solutions to problems they didn't fully understand.
I believe there are people who began writing because they felt compelled to make sense of things that made no sense, to speak the unspeakable, and to create hope and a way forward when there was no clear path in their everyday lives.
I believe that most writers are compelled to try to make the world better for others.
It takes some strong motivation to do what we do.
Let's face it, being a writer is rarely the easiest career choice. The pay is crappy and the hours are weird. Sometimes we have to repeat a task over and over again, until it is "just right." (Even though "just right" is kind of a unicorn.)
Most of us never truly know when our work is done. We write and write until "we just feel it," or until someone more experienced tells us we are done.
There are a hundred professions that are easier, but very few that we'd find more satisfying. We like seeking out those unicorns. We like finding just the perfect word. And we love to create.
That last statement wasn't meant to imply that creating comes easy. Creating is hard, and so so worth it.
We go to writing classes, write endless drafts of our stories, and read blogs like this one. We learn all the things so that we can get to those "perfect words" more quickly. We keep putting our fingers to the keyboard because of all the reasons I mentioned above.
Here are six first novels that became bestsellers. But...just because these were first novels doesn't mean these were new writers. They weren't. Like every "overnight success" I've ever spoken to, their success was years -- and probably decades -- in the making.
No matter what brought you to the page and to this crazy writing life, I hope you stay for the challenge and gain access to the joy. I hope you stay for the difference you make in others' lives with your words. I hope you keep on writing because your stories matter, and the act of writing them down is a very brave and inspiring thing.
Do you believe writers spring up fully formed (nature), or that they are forged from the fire of adversity (made)? I'll be interested to hear what you think down in the comments!
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By day, Jenny Hansen provides LinkedIn coaching and copywriting for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.
Top photo purchased from Depositphotos.
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Well said, Jenny - absolutely nurture. I remember The Actors Studio, where they interviewed famous actors - EVERY single one had a traumatic childhood.
That can't be coincidence.
I'll bet some of those famous actor stories were heartbreaking. Dean Koontz' was. The only actor I've ever seen that said he had a good childhood was Matt Damon. Apparently he is the unicorn.
"They are made from shyness and bullying and a million awkward moments. They're made from abuse and codependence and loneliness, and from thousands of sharp words that bruised their tender souls." I love this, Jenny! I am a "made" writer for sure.
Thanks Karen! And while I'm sorry that so many of us were made from pain, I'm so happy we have supportive communities like this one where we can lift each other up. 🙂
Just what I needed to hear today—thank you, Jenny! As a child who retreated from the world into books and stories and made-up worlds, it's kind of nice to know I wasn't the only one who did that in order to cope with reality. Writers need a tribe that understands them!
You are by no means alone, Lecia! I'm glad this post gave you what you needed today.
I had a very scary dad, but he was also a college professor who valued reading. During the discussion I had with my husband, I noted that reading was a sanctioned activity in that house. When I was reading, my dad quieted down and left me alone. So, in a very real sense, reading WAS safety.
Excellent read. It's always worthwhile to remind yourself why we do - what we do - despite the challenge. Thanks for the reminder.
You are welcome, Brad! What we do is important for the world, but it is absolutely critical for us too. 🙂
Made. Absolutely. In fact, I couldn't write it better than your list. I was the child you describe, but there were few books for me—sort of. I had a few cast-offs from my two much older siblings, but otherwise there was no fiction around either home. So, instead, I lost myself in encyclopedia volumes and National Geographic. That's probably why, to this day, maps spark stories. In fact, I wasn't much aware fiction existed until I reached school age, and then only what was available in our tiny elementary library.
I struggled in English because I learned differently (excelling in social studies). As the "inconvenient child," I was left to flounder. I did, though, write countless stories—in my head. In my own head was the world where the bad was made okay, where there were adults who rescued children. While things grew much worse at home I discovered the fiction that'd influence me going forward. An unforgettable teacher helped me.
At fifteen I discovered LOTR and played with stories. They were awful, but there was passion, my passion, the one I kept secret because I struggled with the "how." I attended college in my 30s where self-discovery made all the difference, including advice from Ray Bradbury. Soon after, the stories poured out. Now, I write for myself, but also for those with similar lives or who can relate. I write heroines who find hope, then realize it was never lost, just quiet, waiting.
I love picturing you as a child poring over atlases and encyclopedias, Christina. That image is just precious, and no wonder you love making maps of your worlds. Also THIS --> " I write heroines who find hope, then realize it was never lost, just quiet, waiting." <-- Beautiful.
This. Is. Brilliant. Thank you.
You nailed it perfectly.
Awwwww, thanks Ken!
Tell it to Joyce, Hemingway, Nabokov, Fitzgerald. Tell it to Jane Austin, Virginia Woolf. A case for nurture is easy to invoke, hard to evidence. Finally, good writing is a thing of the ear. There are non-acquirable vestibular and perceptual components. Rhythm and tone quality are essential components of fine writing, as is power of imagination.
Skill can be developed but not acquired. Nurture may account for the impulse to write but not for masterly employment of rhythm and word tone, or power of imagination. Skillful use of simile and metaphor are born in.
Compare writing to musical composition. Is excellent composition a matter of 'nurture?' No. Can all the world's nurture succeed in the absence of 'nature'? Where is the 'control' in this argument? You would need a blinded study--one group having no natural ability but plenty of 'nurture', the other group having no 'nurture' but plenty of 'natural' ability. Short of that, everything is simply opinion and ego assuagement.
How do you quantify nurture? Can you buy it online? What accounts for great writing by people of dissimilar 'nurture.' This theory is unprovable.
Robert, we love discussion here, so I am delighted you're weighing in for "nature." And I agree with you that without that spark to write, we'd never do the work required to create great books. This post is about discussion, rather than proving one side of the theory or the other. Thank you for adding!
I don't think either is the one thing that makes a writer. And, although many writers had difficult childhoods, so do many others who don't become writers, or musicians, or artists etc. And I'm sure not every good writer had a difficult time growing up.
I think there is a spark somewhere inside that needs igniting. Not everyone has this spark of imagination. That's the first thing that is needed. If someone doesn't have it, they can't become a writer. And it comes in a variety of brightnesses. There are people whom I cannot compete with in that.
The second thing is the availability of books. A love of reading essential for someone to become a writer. Whether they read to escape a dreadful world, or just for the fun of living a different life, reading is essential.
But even both those things isn't necessarily enough. A person might make up stories for their children, and that's it. The third thing is a desire to have others read their words, and to make a difference, even if it's only to allow someone to have some fun in this world the writer creates, but maybe change their life for the better by seeing what some fictional person does.
Of course, this spark needs nurturing. That's where teachers, lecturers, online courses, peer critique groups etc have a big input.
So, in conclusion, I believe it's both nature and nurture, as in most other things.
I love this reply, V.M. And I agree that there is always a bit of nature and nurture at work, but I do lean toward nurture on this subject (as I'm sure you noticed!).
This is my very favorite part of your comment: "I think there is a spark somewhere inside that needs igniting. Not everyone has this spark of imagination. That's the first thing that is needed. If someone doesn't have it, they can't become a writer. And it comes in a variety of brightnesses. There are people whom I cannot compete with in that." <-- Super profound.
I don't think you need to have been traumatized to be drawn to writing, or be a good writer. I was that child with my nose in the book all the time because I was a deeply imaginitive, observant kid. I constantly played pretend and thought up stuff in my head all the time, and I had a basically decent childhood. Caring parents, siblings. There's no magic formula.
I'm really enjoying all these points of view, Ellen. Thank you for adding to the conversation. It makes me happier than you know to hear about a writer with a happy childhood. It's a pretty rare story so I'm happy to know you walk among us.
You describe me as a child here: "I was that child with my nose in the book all the time because I was a deeply imaginitive, observant kid. I constantly played pretend and thought up stuff in my head all the time.." Dreamy kids are the best. But, like so many here, one of my parents was an absolute monster.
Jenny, your words are golden. And so many who responded are spot on. I grew up with a dad who loved words and books and writing. When I was young, he'd grab the dictionary and point to a random word and we'd learn it together. I see now in hindsight that my idyllic childhood was not so idyllic as I thought and my escape was into books and my wild imagination. I always dreamed of being a writer. Jenny knows our years together at OCC/RWA taught us the craft and business of writing. I was at the Dean Koontz meeting, too. Now we are living the dream. As to nature vs nurture? I believe in some kind of spark you are born with and nurture sets it aflame.
Barb, I love to watch all the writer journeys. That is a huge part of what keeps WITS fun for me. But I especially love to watch the journeys of people I know. It has been delightful to watch you blossom into such a prolific and confident writer!
(And wasn't Dean Koontz amazeballs? MAN, that was an insanely great talk. "Genre fiction was created from the GI Bill." Dean is an incredibly interesting man.)
On the nature vs nurture front, I adore this: "I believe in some kind of spark you are born with and nurture sets it aflame." Who doesn't want to be AFLAME?!
As far as your childhood goes, I love that your dad helped give you words! I think that when there are cracks in the foundation of a family, kids know, even though they don't understand what they know. And they feel insecure because they know there is something. It's harder that they don't understand what the something is.
My childhood was pretty good, and my parents were fine, and they loved to read, and they taught me to love to read. They got me books, took me to the library, and bought me my first typewriter. However, I was a girl back when women were second-class citizens, and books were a place where I could escape to a better world and discover I was not alone in my fury. I became a writer to fight against a world that was unjust to so many kinds of people. And that's why I write under the name "Sue," obviously female. I considered using my initials, which was even more common when I was starting out, because if I could "pass" as male, I would face fewer problems, and I decided I would not cede one inch.
Fury is a grand motivation for the author life, Sue. I'm glad you didn't give an inch. Be the rebel female and make them say your name!
Thank you so much for this, Jenny! I saw so much of my history in this. I think the harder my parents worked to make me NOT become a writer, the more they drove me to where I couldn't be anything else!!!
Go YOU, bucking the status quo! I am glad you became a writer who makes all the cool worlds. 🙂
🙂 🙂 🙂
Jenny (and whoever else is interested), BingeBooks Book Club is having a free live author chat with Dean Koontz on August 2nd. I signed up. https://bingebooks.com/pages/live-author-chat-with-dean-koontz
I signed up! Dean is the best. Such a very nice man.
I feel moved and floored by this amazingly sensitive and hauntingly accurate post. Good job, Jenny. I will definitely be culling some quotes from this for my Great Quotes file (with proper attribution, of course). An inspiring post to contemplate for some time to come. Thanks and so true.
Thanks so much, Yvette! It was a very intense discussion we had. A bunch of my friends and fellow writers weighed in so I was especially inspired.
Nurture, nurture, nurture.
My books were the only belongings, other than cloths, that my younger brothers didn't trash. Quiet time with a book was nearly as good as a vacation, and often served as a great escape.
Having a turbulent childhood gives one lots of fodder for stories and makes it easier to "read a room" as those difficult times hone skills of observation so helpful for writing.
I agree on books being escape and vacation. No one messed with my books or bothered me when I read. And sometimes being the oldest sibling is just the pits, isn't it?
[…] to Jenny Hansen's earlier July 15 here at WITS, Are Writers Born, or Are Writers Made? she suggests that "the majority of writers are forged from fear or pain or […]
[…] any of you read my post last month, Are Writers Born, or Are Writers Made?, you'll know I believe that many writers carry around some decent internal wounds. Perhaps we've […]
I took your quote Jenny and attached it to an image: https://www.canva.com/design/DAFPzCxfg94/0fF5-8F3gbA5Wgwd9fosDw/view?utm_content=DAFPzCxfg94&utm_campaign=designshare&utm_medium=link2&utm_source=sharebutton
I think I'll put this on my work wall! Thank you so much for putting words to feelings and making me realize that I am not alone but rather in a club!