Why We Shouldn't Look Too Hard for a "Creative Writing Gene"

According to The Independent, a recent Yale-Moscow State University study has found "a modest but statistically significant familiality and heritability element to creative writing." The conclusion was based on an evaluation of writing exercises assigned to 511 children and one or both of their parents. Some may protest that such evaluations are inherently subjective, but I have no problems with the study's methodology; it's the way the results have been interpreted—at least in the press—that seems to me to miss the point entirely.

Creative use of language is a cognitive skill, necessarily rooted in the physical structures of the brain. Given the extent to which our brains are hardwired for language, and the centrality of storytelling and linguistic play in human culture over nearly our entire history as a species, one would naturally expect this skill to be influenced by genetic factors. The interesting question, though, is why it isn't more heritable.

The study set out to determine, in The Independent's words, "whether there was a scientific reason why well-known writers have produced other writers":

There are four generations of Waugh novelists—Arthur, sons Alec and Evelyn, Evelyn's son Auberon, and Auberon's daughter Daisy; Kingsley Amis and his son Martin; H. G. Wells and Rebecca West, and their son Anthony West.

"There are also the three venerable Brontë sisters, Henry and William James [the novelist and writer on psychology were brothers], the Cheevers [father, daughter and son], and the Ephrons [both parents were successful screenwriters, and four daughters who are also writers]," say the researchers. "More currently, there are two bestselling mother-son pairs of mystery writers: Caroline and Charles Todd and Iris and Roy Johansen."

But take a close look at this list: how many of these families contain more than one truly celebrated writer? Put another way, how many people still read Auberon Waugh? In fact, discounting the still-living children of famous parents (reputations never really settle until after the author's death), only a handful of families in the past several centuries can boast multiple major literary figures. There are the Brontës and the Jameses, as mentioned. There are Alexandre Dumas père and fils. There are Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley (though the former was better known as a polemicist), D. G. and Christina Rossetti (though the former was better known as a painter), and the extended Lowell clan, which included poets James Russell, Amy, and Robert (though the stars of the first two have faded considerably).

And that's about it: if I'm neglecting examples, I'm not neglecting many. (Literary marriages are irrelevant here, and the Brothers Grimm shouldn't count; they were more editors than writers, and Wilhelm did all the creative work.)

I'm also arguing from anecdote, of course, but this same kind of anecdotal evidence prompted the study in the first place. One could object that the researchers investigated family ties between writers, not "great" or "brilliant" writers. But surely the criterion of exceptional talent is inherent in the study's premise, too. Creative writing ability per se isn't especially rare; we're not talking about the product of an exotic genetic mutation. The American "MFA boom" of the past 40 years (from 79 programs in 1975 to 854 in 2010), the roughly 320,000 new fiction, poetry, and drama titles published in the U.S. in the last five years—figures like these suggest that there are at least as many writers in a population as there are institutions to support writers and outlets to publish them. Indeed, there are many more.

My own experience as a writing teacher has persuaded me that, given a solid general education and work ethic, nearly any student can pick up the basics of the creative writer's craft: employing vivid descriptive language, avoiding cliches, structuring a plot or poetic argument, and so on. Most students can do much more—can learn to deploy these tools in the service of thoughtful and entertaining stories, poems, and essays. Moreover, an increasing body of research affirms what anecdotal experience has always suggested, that our brains are hardwired to create narratives and to think metaphorically. That suggests a near-universal creative potential waiting to be tapped, even if not everyone tapped will become Shakespeare.

In order for the study to yield nontrivial results, then, it had to prove the familiality of outstanding writing ability. That it did not do, though it coyly hinted otherwise in its conclusion: "Despite the lack of systematic research on the aetiology of writing in general and creative writing in particular, it is rather difficult not to acknowledge the familiality of creativity in writing, given the families of writers who have entertained and educated us over the years. These findings constitute the tip of an interesting iceberg..."

I wonder whether the researchers sufficiently accounted for the fact that a talented writer in the family can be a powerful environmental influence. For anyone with a successful parent or sibling there is a strong temptation to go into the family business. The advantages of doing so can be both pragmatic (early training, nepotism) and psychological (positive reinforcement outside as well as inside the family circle). Even where positive reinforcement and practical help are lacking, familial competitiveness can be an equally powerful motivator.

It's possible that less drastic, but similar effects were present among the subjects of the study. I'd guess that parents who have an active interest in the arts are more likely to praise—and constructively criticize—their children's scribblings, regardless of initial quality. Such influence may create a feedback loop of motivation and success that begins well before age eight (the age of the youngest study participants).

Whether genetic, environmental, or both, I'd argue that the effect is not worth writing home about. The number of famous writer families is dwarfed by the number of famous families in, say, sports: the DiMaggio brothers, the Williams sisters, the Alous, the Manningses, the Griffeys, Calvin and Grant Hill...and that's just in the past century. Or how about acting? The Marx Brothers, Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, Ingrid Bergman and Isabella Rossellini, Jon Voight and Angelina Jolie, the Murrays, the Bridgeses, the Culkins....Whatever gene makes you the next Pulitzer winner is getting badly upstaged by the one that makes you the next Hollywood star.

None of this is meant to dismiss the study, only to suggest that its implications have been overblown. "Want to be a writer? Have a literary parent," The Independent advises. Actually the dominant family trend in the history of literary genius has been one of regression to the mean. We might just as well advise writers to have a merchant parent (Shakespeare, Pope, Kafka), a lawyer parent (Swift, Wordsworth, Wallace Stevens), a doctor parent (Flaubert, Auden, Grace Paley), or simply a rich parent (Tolstoy, James Merrill, Frederick Seidel). Inherited genes can take you only so far, but inherited wealth will do a lot of talking as you do your writing.

[Image via Shutterstock. Independent article via Page-Turner.]

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