It’s a provocative claim, made right in the headline: “Want to be a writer? Have a literary parent.” I included this London Independent article in last Friday’s Creativity Tweets of the Week, and it’s been gnawing at me ever since. As I am wont to do with The Artist’s Road, I will now turn the tables and do the gnawing, and I invite you to take a bite.
The article describes a study done by US and Russian researchers of the creative writing of several hundred children and their parents. Judges assigned the samples a quality rating, an admittedly subjective approach. “Taking into account intelligence and family background, the researchers then calculated the inherited and the environmental elements of creative writing,” the article states. “They found what they describe as a modest but statistically significant familiality and heritability element to creative writing.” (italics mine)
I find myself resistant to the idea of a creative writing gene. The article opens by noting that great writers are often clustered in families. But that, to me, emphasizes the “nurture” aspect of creativity as much as the “nature” element.
In my critical thesis for my MFA, I analyzed works by three authors: Joan Didion, and Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff. Didion and her writer husband, John Gregory Dunne, adopted a daughter, Quintana Roo, who would grow up to be a writer herself. No genes at work there, but she grew up in a household in which her two parents served as each other’s editors, and dinner parties frequently were thrown featuring literary elites. Quintana would seem to be an endorsement of nurture.
But then there is the story of the Brothers Wolff. If you read their memoirs, Tobias’ This Boy’s Life and Geoffrey’s Duke of Deception, you see they have dramatically different writing styles. You also see that they received little exposure to the writing life at home, and that they also only spent a few short years living together, with Geoffrey leaving to live with his father and Tobias staying behind with his mother. How is it that these two brothers both became acclaimed writers while raised by different parents? It suggests nature, although the originator of the gene remains a mystery.
On the last day of my 2010 six-week cross-country road trip, I interviewed two multimedia artists, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Painter/photographer Amy Buchheit of Vancouver, Washington, grew up in a household where her parents viewed her passion for art as a nice hobby, but wouldn’t brook supporting her dream of art school. So she joined the military, and didn’t pursue college, and an art degree, until her thirties.
Writer and collage artist Erin Ergenbright of Portland, Oregon, meanwhile, grew up with a professional-photographer father, who would make his family wait for hours on a road trip if he saw some good light and was moved to take a photo. Erin went to college to study art, switched to writing, and after a gap year went on to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for her MFA.
Both are talented and productive artists. The difference I saw when I interviewed them is that Erin had a head start by growing up in a creative household. It took Amy longer to find her way to an art-committed life, but she did so. So we know that what nurturing can do is speed along someone with talent. But if artistic talent is inherited, where did Amy’s talent come from?
We like to say that everyone is creative. I believe that to be true. I believe growing up in an environment that supports creativity helps us hold on to the creativity we are born with. I believe those who lack that environment as a youth may lose touch with their creativity, although they may relocate it later in life.
I also believe some people are simply born with more creative talent than others. I have argued that here before, to mixed reactions. But what I don’t pretend to know is why some people are born with more talent. Perhaps genetics is a factor.
My mother pursued creative writing while I was growing up. Am I a creative writer now because I inherited a gene for it? Or am I a creative writer now because I grew up in a household where I learned such a pursuit is acceptable? And if yes to either or both of those questions, why did I resist creative writing for such a significant period of my adult life?
Scientists can keep doing studies, and can keep reducing the subjective elements of those studies. But I suspect creativity is about outlying data points, for which it can be hard to extrapolate conclusions. I believe that’s why Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers fell short of his first two books; it’s hard to generalize across a collection of unique individuals.
What is your take? Do you believe there is a creativity gene that gives some a head start? Or when we think we see a gene at work, are we really seeing the results of a nurturing environment? What is your own experience with creative manifestation?