The Nature (and Nurture) of a Writer

I’m working on a how-to-write book in my spare time, and the project has me thinking about whether writers are made or born. I believe such a thing as natural talent exists. Malcolm Gladwell tells us, convincingly, that expertise takes 10,000 hours of practice to develop, but the five-year-old Mozart hadn’t spent 10,000 at the keyboard before he started to compose.

young mozartAnd yet, Mozart was born into a musical family; Picasso into an artistic family. I do not liken my abilities to either of those fellows, but what about my family?

Not a writer to be found, (nor, prior to my generation, a lawyer for that matter).

And yet, I attribute much of my writing ability to my family, for the following reasons:

I am the sixth out of seven children, and that right there—birth order—meant I was born into a verbally enriched environment. I wasn’t dropped off at day care to play toys all day with my toddling peers (and I consider myself poorly socialized, maybe as a result), but I had siblings 13 (twins), 10, 4, and 2 years older than I at birth, also a college professor Dad and registered nurse Mom.

girl writingMy parents lived through the Depression, and our family was large. Hence, I was raised without an interest in displaying fancy material possessions, and with an abiding belief that education is a delight and a moral imperative. The more you understand about this life, the better you’re positioned to tackle the problems it presents to you and your society.

Another function of my upbringing is that I had to figure a lot of stuff out for myself. My parents simply had no time or energy for making sure I grasped the fundamentals of a properly tied shoe, or the alphabet. My siblings filled in some of the gaps—they thought it uproariously funny that L-M-N-O was one letter in my alphabet—but reading filled in other gaps.  

Last ChildAnd when TV is regarded as the minion of pervasive sloth, imagination has room to grow, and good written stories are treasured.

My brain is not particularly wired for words, at least if the tests and diagnostics are right, and maybe that’s where Mr. Gladwell’s 10,000 hours come in. I’m a predominantly visual/spatial thinker who values relationships (and I’m a rolling wreck when it comes to repetitive structure for its own sake). Because of my early circumstances, I was given the opportunity to figure out, almost at birth, that words were the best way for me to connect with and make sense of my environment, to get my needs met, to be heard and understood.

So I learned to wrangle words and to love wrangling words. At this point, in pursuit of authordom, I’ve probably written 4 million of them, and that doesn’t count decades of keeping a diary, and reading voraciously.

girl stallion by starlightSome of what I gleaned from my childhood was hard—I was lonely a lot, I mistrust authority almost reflexively, as a younger woman I relied too much on my brain—but a lot was wonderful. I wouldn’t trade the package for the world.

What strengths did your upbringing forge in you?  To three commenters, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift card.

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25 comments on “The Nature (and Nurture) of a Writer

  1. 1
    Mandy Miller says:

    Growing up military gave me a profound love of country and helped me learn to make friends easily. My dad gave me a solid work ethic, my mom gave me my people-pleasing skills (handy for customer service) and my maternal grandpa gave me my love of literature — more specifically: Romance novels! LOL
    Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  2. 2
    jayne smith says:

    I was bullied as a child and that has made me a stronger person in the long run. I also had a loving childhood where affection shown was the done thing . My parents were often cuddling and that has made me a touchy feely person who likes to show affection , where as my hubby is slightly shy about this . I always cuddle my children

    • 2.1

      Jayne, me too–about the bullying. In a Catholic school where the classes were small, and the teacher should have had an eye on these things but didn’t. My mom eventually popped me into regular school where I was way ahead academically, but socially backward.

      I wouldn’t say being bullied made me stronger, but it did give me something of an immunity to peer approval at a useful time.

      And yeah–the kids. I understand better about grandchildren now.

  3. 3
    Jane Barnhardt says:

    I was abused as a child and learned to be organised and orderly to combat the chaos…as a result, I can walk into a factory or warehouse and see where they could improve operations, walk into an office and fix the flow, etc…I can do research and write a good paper. I am only creative with words and crochet!!!

    • 3.1

      Abuse is a hard legacy to make lemonade out of, but I’m glad you can. A lot of my clients who’ve been down that route also have tremendously good radar about who will turn out to be a rotten apple–almost to the point of psychic ability. It’s as if they’ve paid their dues in the misery department, and retained the ability to sniff out a victimizer.

      Thank goodness for the crochet, though, and the words.

  4. 4
    Sarah R. says:

    I was the first girl in my family in 15 years on my mom’s side and 12 years on my dad’s and both of those cousins were out of town. I was a day from turning 8 when next girl was born. I grew up surrounded by boys, whether it was my older brother and his friends or my cousins. When I was a teenager I had lots of guy friends and had already decided that when it came time to be a mother I would much rather have boys than girls, which turned out to be a good thing.
    Despite growing up with boys I was still quite the girly girl when on my own. I loved spending time alone in my room playing girl things like school, house and Barbies. And from as far back as I can remember I had a very overactive imagination. It’s not every child who can take a shoebox full of crayons and play “crayon family” for hours on end. I did color with crayons, but most of the time I just played with them like they were little people. The broken crayons became children and the odd colored crayons were always the orphan children who needed to be adopted. The crayons went to church every week and I had pews for them to sit in (wooden crayon holders). It was quite the elaborate thing to play, even though I had dolls to play with, I loved playing with the crayons. My mom says she sometimes thought someone else was in the house because I would talk in different voices and she said she would often stand outside my door and listen to me play.
    When I learned to read and write I immediately started creating my own stories and from third grade on I dreamed of writing a book and getting it published. I don’t really know where that desire came from, but it did spring up early in my life and my parents never told me I couldn’t I do it. In fact I can remember typing away at my dad’s typewriter in his office, that he so kindly let me use to make my storied look better than the ones written in my horrible hand writing.

    Oh what memories this post brought to mind.

    • 4.1

      There’s one heck of a children’s book in the crayon story, Sarah. A lot of kids will get crayons this Christmas, and some kids will get ONLY crayons, and be pleased with them.

      Once upon a time…

  5. 5
    Mary Doherty says:

    I was raised by my parents, but the people who had the most impact on my life, is my grandparents. They also lived through the depression. They were the ones who showed me strength, honesty, work ethic and most of all security. I knew that no matter how bad things got, They would always be there.I am the person I am today because of them. My childhood was not easy. There were no hugs and kisses, no I love you’s, lots of times no food and a couple of times no place to live. My brother and three sisters were my mother, my father, my friends. we were each others everything. I would not trade that childhood for anything, because it brought me my husband (who has loved me like no other), it brought my my two amazing children and my three sweet grandchildren. I would go through it a 100 time to end up where I am now and to be who I am now. STRENGTH in all things, that is what I got from my childhood.

    • 5.1

      I hope you can share those sentiments with your family, Mary John. I hope you can frame them and hang them in a public place. Other people would wallow in poor-me and if-only, but you’ve made something grand of a tough beginning.

      I hope it’s about the love in all things too, though.

  6. 6
    Sharon F says:

    My parents, too, grew up during the Depression and learned to work hard and be proud of the work you do, which they passed on to my three older brothers and me. I have also tried to instll in my now-adult three children the value of family, God and Country, being true to themselves, and being respectful of others. I have to say that I am very proud of all three of my kids (one is a State Trooper, one is an executive in a construction company and one owns her own business) and respect the way they are raising their own children.

  7. 7
    Martha Eddy says:

    Being the oldest of five engendered a sense of responsibility for family. I reach out to my birth family on a regular basis and try to be there to celebrate the milestones even if by phone. We keep family strong by making efforts to connect yearly in person, sharing family stories while sitting around the dinner table or campfire. My sister plays her guitar and we sing. We share a love of reading and trade as well as recommend for purchase books. I introduced you as a writer to them and they are among the faithful to pre-order your books. Can’t wait for that as well as your other books to arrive!

  8. 8
    Michelle K says:

    My dad forged in me independence (read stubborn, according to my mom!) and perseverance

  9. 9
    Kim Wyant says:

    I was shy as a kid and my favorite way to while away the hours was with my nose buried in a book. Then in 6th grade, a teacher decided I needed to be urged out of my shell so she made me teach the class a history lesson. I was petrified at first but doing this made me find my inner extrovert and taught me I could do a lot more than I thought if I just squared my shoulders and gave it a try. I also learned independence by watching how my mother dealt with divorce and how she spread her wings and learned to fly on her own. Believing you can is the first step to accomplishing great things.

  10. 10
    Molly R. Moody says:

    I think the main thing my upbringing taught me was that just because a person is or chooses to be alone doesn’t always mean they are lonely. I admit it took me until after my daughter married and moved out, and had been gone a few years,before I figured that out. Technically speaking most people would consider me alone though I have 4 cats for pets and I get out and about quite a bit. Although I don’t have many “friends” as such I do have a great many acquaintances. Unlike you I don’t have a mistrust of authority, I’m terrified of it, and either freeze around an authority figure or start to cry. These reactions made for many difficulties when I was out in the working world as I never really learned to stand up for myself though I’m better at it now that I don’t need it as often since I’m retired.

  11. 11
    Kara says:

    Mediocrity, complacency and “just getting by” aren’t acceptable – I learned that anything worth doing is worth doing well. While you may not be great at everything, there was an expectation that you excel in areas where you are strongest and always do your absolute best. That said, I strive to produce things of high quality but it also makes it challenging to break out and try new things when unsure of a less than perfect result.

  12. 12
    Jenny Reid says:

    As an only child of older parents I grew up to be self sufficient. My son is also the only child of much older parents and he is also very self sufficient. Is it because I/he spent a lot of our early life with adults or something that is inherrintly in our makeup? I do ‘t know, but our son is confident of what he does, as was I.

    Hope you had a happy thanksgiving.

  13. 13
    Tin says:

    Thank you for this, Grace. I have often wondered and marvelled at the incredible discipline that writers have for their craft.

    My parents are very business-minded but, surprisingly, my siblings and I have an affinity to science, the arts and literature. (No one took up a business course in university.) To my parents’ credit, they always encouraged us and bought the books and science-y stuff that we were interested in. (And didn’t blink when I took up literature and creative writing in university. ^_^)

  14. 14
    eli yanti says:

    live without my mom and dad since i was child because we are very poor when child, both of my parents have to work to raise their 5 kids give me so much strenght and willing to be more good person

  15. 15
    Helen says:

    I was the youngest of 3. My sister and brother were 7 and 6 years older, respectively. My father was pulled out of school after the eighth grade to work on his grandfather’s farm. My mother was the salutatorian of her high school. Both of my parents had abusive childhoods, and I was a victim of abuse from a family member other than my parents and was bullied by my brother and a schoolmate until the end of 3rd grade.At that time my sister became pregnant out of wedlock at 16 .We moved to a different state then, (I didn’t know about the pregnancy until 9 years later)and that move changed my life.For some reason, after the move my brother stopped bullying me and my new classmates actually treated me with kindness and respect.( except of course for dreadful teasing from the “cutest boy” who became my first boyfriend.) But with all of that under the surface and in the background, my family was full of love and laughter. My mother loved to play piano, sing, and read. We didn’t have much money, but we had a lot of imagination. My first job was polishing my father’s work boots once a week for a quarter. But Daddy paid me with far more than a quarter a week. He was patient when teaching me, encouraged my every attempt, and praised the results every week, telling me how proud he was to wear those boots to the shipyard where he worked. Across the street lived sisters who bracketed my age by a year, and their father was a mathematician for NASA. He was extremely tall and handsome, brilliant, college educated, and yet he couldn’t erect a clothesline. This delighted my father, who had no education,but very well developed mechanical skills. The neighbor finally surrendered and bought an electric dryer- quite rare in my 1964 universe. His wife left him and they divorced- another rarity. Their two daughters that became my best friends. My upbringing taught me that laughter, music and books can provide escape and healing when times are tough, that education is something to be cherished and nurtured, but that hard work and common sense are just as important. My childhood abuse taught me empathy and sympathy for others. Our poor income taught me to appreciate every blessing and to respect those who struggle to make ends meet. When I was 9, my friends across the street decided we should write stories. I wrote a complete story called The Little Fish Who Swam Away. It was about a little fish with mean siblings, but after swimming away realized in a conversation with the queen of the fishes that she was loved. She swam back home, to find that her family had been looking for her and were so happy to have her back that even the mean siblings apologized and gave her fish hugs.I’m not sure who the queen of fishes was in real life( I suspect it was my mother), but obviously there was a loving and guiding influence even with all the turmoil in my family.