Nature or nurture? Why writers are compelled to write. Part 1

A recent blog posting by Kristen Lamb about whether creative people are born to create got me thinking.

It seems to me that creative people can often communicate more clearly through their art than they can speak. That means a lot when we remember that the true goal of writing – and, indeed, of any creative art – is to evoke emotion in the recipient. Even if you’re writing non-fiction, as I’ve mostly done.

It also seems to me that creative people – be they authors, artists, composers or whatever – share a fundamental character. Writing, art, composition, sculpture, or whatever – fulfils a need. It’s the satisfaction of achieving; the feel-good sense of having created something where nothing existed. And likely that’s blended with something else, maybe more personal – maybe proving a point.

So does that mean writers are born? Nurtured? Pushed? Pulled? My take is ‘All of the above’.

It’s been driven home to me over the years as I’ve wrestled with non-fiction biographies, as I’ve bashed into novel writing and characterisation, that there’s an awful lot of complexity in people. Everyone is different. I have good reasons for not holding with psychometrics – the imposition of twentieth century rational systematisation over the human condition. Ultimately, everybody is going to represent a different mix of factors. Everybody has their own story.

Here’s mine. I got into writing aged 7. A family friend – Graham Beattie, who later founded Beattie’s Book Blog – was running a local bookstore back then, and told my parents about a writing contest run by Puffin books to honour editor Kaye Webb’s visit to New Zealand. First prize, 50 Puffin titles. I won. I still have a fair number – Arthur Ransome, C S Lewis, Hugh Lofting, Tove Jansson, Norman Hunter.

And I realised I liked writing. Because of the creativity. So I wrote another story. And another. In an exercise book, in pencil.

Later I actually met Norman Hunter, who came to my parents’ house and autographed my Professor Branestawm books. He was a very fine old gent, brimming with ideas for his stories.

My parents supported me 100%. When my high school English teacher proved himself profoundly incompetent, they sent me to writing courses at the local polytechnic, run by a poet named Roly Vogt. He was a huge inspiration, with a fantastic sense of how to make the written word evoke emotion with an incredible economy of phrase.

To this day I think of Roly’s lessons as I’m working through what I’m trying to say – as when I wrote my most recent book Guns and Utu, which started off in 2007 as an apparently simple project for Penguin, popularising New Zealand’s earliest years of culture-collision. It turned into a complex writing challenge that drew in all the skills I’d learned over the years. Including the “lay out every page on the floor” trick.Why so hard? Because it wasn’t about guns, it was about people and emotions, and what happens when cultures collide. People. That’s what writing’s about – and that’s what Roly taught me.

But back to 1977, the year of the Brooklyn Hustle and ultra-flares. Except I didn’t go to discos as a teenager. I listened to Rick Wakeman. And I wrote. A lot. Fiction, mostly (um, hard science fiction….ahem, and yeah, back then I could do the math without online java). Mostly unpublished. Along the way I wore out 2.5 manual typewriters. My Adler Gabrielle 25 wasn’t quite dead when I made the jump to computers. I still have it, though whether I can get a Type 1 ribbon is another matter entirely.

And I knew that when the time came, I’d have to get a Real Job.

Or did I? University beckoned – and with it, degree qualifications and, so I naively supposed, likely writing opportunities in the academic world. Which I quite liked – history was something to write about, and I was enthusiastic about it. To the point where, when I arrived in the hallowed halls, I switched to history from an intended music degree. Alas, things didn’t quite pan out as I’d supposed. Not then.

But for that part of the tale – well, today I’ve covered the ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ bits. Does anybody else have similar experience? I’d like to hear.

Of course there’s more to it than that. Being pushed – and pulled. Something that, I’m sure, others have also experienced. However, that’s for a day or three’s time. And so (and I’ve always wanted to write this…)


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011


3 thoughts on “Nature or nurture? Why writers are compelled to write. Part 1

  1. Now, I’m trying to work out if my randomly acquired copy of The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestrawm is really autographed or not: if I sent you a copy of a pic of the signature in there, would you be able to verify for me please? I can’t find a picture of Norman Hunter’s signature on the net….and I so love the book, it’s not going anywhere regardless (but I sort of want to know if I shouldn’t read it in the bath!).

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