Are Creatives Born or Made?

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.

A view of Portland, Oregon (across the Columbia River) from Vancouver, Washington. I was able to interview two artists in two states on the final day of my 2010 cross-country US road trip.

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?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

29 Responses to “Are Creatives Born or Made?”

  1. I grew up in a ‘creative household’. My mother was a dressmaker and my father an artist, both very good, but both only in their spare time.
    At school, art was ‘something you did on a Friday afternoon, dear’ – certainly not to be taken seriously, and not something you could make a living at.
    I have made it my living more recently – textile artist owning a retail art shop – but writing was again something for ‘spare time.’ Books have always been around in my life in so much profusion that at times it was difficult to move or sit down.
    Possibly the difference in those households mentioned in the article is that someone IS making their living from it and so the emphasis is different. The belief in oneself is different. The expectation that such things are possible is already there.

    • “The belief in oneself is different. The expectation that such things are possible is already there.” I like that. There is the undercurrent of “can I support myself” in both, and that is only part of living an art-committed life.

      Thanks for sharing your background, Pat. Fascinating!

  2. Love this. I always enjoy touching down in your musings.

    Like you, I’m also a believer in the “everyone is creative” concept. I’d add that, like any muscle, it gets stronger and more supple (and the whole shebangy gets easier) when we exercise it.

    So … my 2 cents: a little nature (all of us?) and nurture (the few, the committed, the crazy/lucky [depending on your perspective]…the creatives).

  3. What is your take? Do you believe there is a creativity gene that gives some a head start?

    I think building the self-confidence to be creative, can be ingrained by parenting, but I don’t think its in the genes. I’m more a believer of nuture over nature.

    • I like your focus on building self-confidence. And I’d mention Amy, while not encouraged as a youth to attend art school, received a lot of praise and enthusiasm from her parents for her art.

  4. Hi Patrick, This is a great dialogue. I taught a course last year called Theory of Knowledge. One article we read spoke directly to the nature vs nurture question. It was published in The Atlantic, called The Brain on Trial. While it doesn’t speak to creativity, it does suggest overall that our genetic predispositions have a much greater hold on our choices in life than we are comfortable admitting. They look specifically at crime, and those who commit crimes. Ultimately the question they ask is can people be held accountable for acts they were predisposed to commit? Totally interesting. And I think much of it could be considered for creativity. Genes must have an affect on our ability to create or predisposition to our crafts. Yet, whether our genetics determine 51% or 49% of our future we still have choices to make. Family, values, upbringing, life experiences, all of these of course contribute. I always liked to believe we are the makers of our own destinies but I can tell you after reading The Atlantic it has made me revisit my opinion on nature vs nurture.

    • Hi Carrie! I seem to recall you mentioning that course before; perhaps you blogged on it? Sounds fascinating.

      It does come down to choices. I learned that on the road trip, that whatever external factors had led me off of the path of an art-committed life, ultimately I was the one who chose to allow those factors to affect my trajectory. Your thesis suggests, however, that for some making the “right” choice is harder than it is for others.

      And yes, I do think I have an inherent resistance to genetic destiny, and I’m probably not alone in that. What was one of the biggest drivers of conflict during the Great Schism after Luther posted his theses? The debate over free will.

      • I’m sure I have blogged on it more than once. It’s a great opportunity to actually consider these larger kinds of questions you are asking. I wonder if science will ultimately lead us to new questions or help us better understand the relationship of genetics and environment? I hope creatives with or without family upbringing (my Mom also studied the arts) strive to create and celebrate their capabilities!

  5. I’ve always believed that creative talent is a little bit of both (nature and nuture). You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t work to develop it, it won’t bloom. And you can also be born with a brain that doesn’t have any “extra” creative tendencies, but if you love an art form and you pursue it with passion and dedication, you can train your brain to be more skilled. People who grow up in creative households do seem to have an edge, at least early on, but I defintely think that falls into the nurture category. Either way, I think it’s the work that counts.

    • Shary, you’re right about the work mattering. And I would note that while I focus on an art-committed life, Eric Maisel–the creativity coach who came up with that term–also talks about stages where you simply enjoy creative works, or you engage by subscribing to a local theatre company or some other pro-active gesture that doesn’t exactly involve “creating” new art. So that fits into your passion-and-dedication point, even if the person passionate and dedicated does not become a fantastic artist; they can still have an art-filled life.

  6. I’ve been facilitating creativity workshops for years starting in 1995 when Julia Cameron and I ran our first Artist’s Way Creativity Camp in Taos NM at The Mabel Dodge Luhan House. I still teach Artist’s Way plus other creative type classes.

    After all this time, I’ve come to believe we’re all born with strengths and weakness. I’ve also come to think that creativity is a DNA species imperative. Every bone in your body is creative, there’s no shortage, our dilemma is too much creativity. Confusion and panic rise because people don’t know what to do with their creative urges, thus impulse buying. I’m guilty of it.

    If your want to write, then write. Skill will come, form will take care of itself, energy will happen, people will read your work. Will your next novel be Blood Meridian? Probably blood not. As you crawl around inside your story, will you find something in the swamp of your psychology your readers will vibe with? You bet.

    They say practice makes perfect. I don’t know about perfect, but if you practice enough, it sure does make excellence. Everybody knows there’s juice in giving yourself over to your dazzle, your swagger, your cool, your electricity, your fire-breathing sword-swallowing days under the big top where human cannonballs blaze.

    Go to it brothers and sisters!

    • Hello, James! Glad to have you chime in. Everyone, James is not only a creativity coach, he is a talented and skilled poet, and a Vermont College of Fine Arts alum!

      I’d be curious to hear your take on the students who would come to your workshops. Clearly they were already well on the path to your “practice” moment, because they spent the money and carved out the time to have someone force them to practice. So it’s a skewed data point, but one rich in possibility for further exploration. Were you able to learn the back stories of the people you worked with? Were their stories more like Amy or Erin?

    • There’s wonderful energy in your comment, James. My dog-eared copy of The Artist’s Way holds a treasured spot on my bookshelf – I still remember reading through the introduction and the way it blew my mind. And frightened me, with my growing-up background in a rigid, disciplined household, of being smashed down any time I showed any creativity or personality.

      Years later, I went through the first exercise in AW, one of the first – the one about making a list of people who didn’t support you and people who did. Talk about frightening! and eye-opening.

      But I’m one who wanted to write, knew I did at around age 19. The lessons of my up-till-then lifetime were too strong, and I found other creative outlets for many years – I found misery, too. Finally broke free of all that, still have the scars, but I’m no longer paralyzed. So for some people, it’s a lovely thought to say If you want to write/paint/whatever, then just do it… but not always possible.

      Cheers,

  7. I’m in the nature + nurture camp, but I’ll say that nurture doesn’t have to come from the family you grew up with. It sure didn’t with mine – quite the opposite. Almost every creative effort I made was met with non-support, at best; with derision and insults, at worst. A now ex-husband was so intimidated by my attempts to fly that he became an expert at emotional sabotage.

    But along the flight path… a high school drama teacher, college professors in theatre, an online support group of photographers, a really great psychologist, a businessperson in the arts who took a chance on my project, a mentor in the printing business… and now, many many others.

    Like your story of Amy, it took me a long time to find my own mirrors, outside my family, so i could look at who I am.

    Another intriguing post, Patrick, with wonderful examples from your interviews – nicely done. Even while typing this comment, glancing back at some of these hangar doors I’ve firmly shut is a bit unnerving… but I’m also more than capable of closing them again – don’t need that history. I’m fine with my own wings now.

    • Thank you for this beautiful comment, ML. I am so happy for you that you found your own wings.

      You mention in your comment to James that you did The Artist’s Way. It’s been a while since I read it, but Julia Cameron talks about people in your life who will undermine your creativity, dream killers I believe she calls them (I may not have that label right). It sounds like you had some of those in your life, and you overcame the challenges they presented.

  8. Creativity can be killed.

  9. I say both. A natural talent can be ignored or destroyed (as dennis says). As others have said regarding the Artists Way, it takes time to overcome a destructive (non-nurturing environment) and many creatives never heal from that lack of nurturing in order to fully free their creativity. Their natural (genetic) talent was destroyed because it wasn’t nurtured.

    In contrast, creativity can be valued enough in a home that someone not predisposed to creativity will build that muscle because it is honored in the house in which they develop.

    My daughter has a natural talent in dance, however, we were lucky that she found it so early. If she had grown up in a household where she was never exposed to dance, she wouldn’t have found her talent when she was young enough to build it (she’s 13 and has been dancing 9 years). Dance is her natural talent, for certain, but we nurtured it by exposing her to many athletic and creative endeavors at a young age. Once she set her mind on dance, we nurture it.

    There are many beautiful dancers in her studio who plan to drop dance once they graduate high school because “no one makes a living at dance.” It hurts my creative soul to think parents so devalue talent that they put limitations on it (“honey, you’re a beautiful dancer, but you can’t really make money at that.”)

    Once again, great discussion.

    • Hi Cindy,

      The story about your daughter’s peers in dance class sound exactly like Amy’s parents. After all, their parents weren’t completely checked out or non-nurturing; they have been paying for lessons, taking their kids to lessons, etc. The shift came as adulthood approached. I’m sure they felt they were looking out for their kids in discouraging further study, but I believe Cameron writes about how there could be many motivations behind those who can obstruct one’s creativity. And, on some level, the message is correct–few people make a living at dance. That is not, of course, a reason to stop dancing.

      The comments are leading me to wonder if I should write about the notion of creative blocking by others and how it varies from ill intent (jealousy) to good intent (protectionism), and if that impacts at all how the message is received by the would-be creative.

  10. Oh, how I love your thought-provoking posts and the discussion they generate. I’ve pondered this for some time. I was the proverbial square peg in my family. Creative from a very young age (noted by teachers) with no familial support for it (but for the occasional kudos from my mother whom, I believe, was a repressed creative). My mother’s mother (who I met only once or twice and was damaged by shock treatments, circa the late 40s) was a painter and a singer before her decline. My father excelled in high-school theatre, but gave it up because it wasn’t manly or practical. So, my bias is that some are born with more raw material when it comes to certain forms of creativity (like writing or visual art as opposed to, say, creative cooking). Although my creativity was frowned upon, my family confirmed that it was there … and didn’t with my sister. Yet, years later, I would see what an injustice that was to her. She’s got it, but I believe it to be repressed and, thus, not practiced to a level where skill is acquired. So, I guess it’s both — my bias is that nature lends more raw material to some than others. But my other conviction is this: the most “gifted” creative can wither without dedication and practice, while he who invests blood and sweat will, eventually, find his stride. I feel like I’m rambling. (I mention The Artist’s Way in a recent post about “freewriting,” and find it interesting to see a facilitator here. Thanks again!

    • Hi Terri! Thank you for your kind words, and apologies for the belated response.

      Wow, there are so many narratives in this comment to explore. The story of your mother’s mother raises so many questions. The story of creatively repressed parents, I believe, is quite common. And the story of sibling favoritism is painful to read. You write this: “She’s got it, but I believe it to be repressed and, thus, not practiced to a level where skill is acquired.” That would lead me to a separate post, on the importance of fostering creativity in childhood, but people far brighter than me have written books on the subject.

      I’m glad you embrace your creativity and are willing to share it with others through your blog, Terri.

      • Hi, Patrick. I’m not on Twitter at the moment. (Had to cut one source of information overload.) I linked to this post today … in a post inspired, in part, by our comment-section “conversation” yesterday.

  11. I think more people would be creative if they had the courage to do so. As children, we have much more imagination and it’s the process of social conditioning that drives most creative impulses underground, to live dormant, perhaps, forever.

    Everyone has creative potential, but few of us have the proper supports to fertilize it. Many of us who have gone into creative hibernation have done so out of a feeling of deep shame about our creativity. We are often ridiculed for having creative impulses. It’s sad.

    So much potential wasted.

  12. Its such as you read my thoughts! You appear to grasp so much about
    this, such as you wrote the ebook in it or something.
    I feel that you just can do with some % to pressure the message house a little bit, but other than that, this is wonderful blog. An excellent read. I will certainly be back.

  13. This made for a really interesting read. I followed you here from your comment on http://artistthink.com/2013/02/16/is-art-a-skill-or-talent/ as I am researching for a presentation I will do at the weekend. Personally its an equal balance of both he ”nature” and ”nurture”. My parents were both extremely creative. So good with their hands as well as creative thinking. While my mum as a girl child was probably encouraged in her pursuit of art and needle work and craft, I dont think my dads home environment would have had anything to do with his artistic ability or creativity. Quite the contrary in fact. But he also benefited from teachers and positive creative influences outside of home. Coming to us as kids, my parents actually never directly taught us to do any of the things they knew….my mum could sew, paint, make artificial flowers from paper and cloth, but all this she did prior marriage and with very limited resources and exposure. Once marriage, kids and dreadful in laws were put into her life equation it seemed like that creativity was sucked right out of her. there was no time, inclination or resources…She did sew all my clothes, but did none of the painting and embroidery and flower making again. Not even to teach me. Except years later when I was a teenager, and completely by accident someone asked if she could help with their wedding preparations and she offered to make the flowers. All the rusty tins came off the loft and in that was a treasure trove of paper cuttings and samples she had saved from her youth. That started what was to become my mums ‘career’ in her 40’s….she was an overnight success and became so well known in the wedding industry locally. Was that dormant talent and skill?(Completely off the topic here but that also made her go from a cynical dragon mommy to a more confident easy going person)I was already aspiring to follow a creative life, either in fashion or interior design. I had a sort of vision that went well with what she produced. I would sit in with her at cleint meetings, sketch and pt ideas colors and design together. We made a good team. My dad was a great artist. No only could he paint beautifully (also done before marriage and responsibility hit him) He had a innate ability to ‘create’ just about anything! He made us styrofoam fantasies for school projects in 3D (using a blade and sandpaper), Imagine wagons, castes and Christmas cribs. He made beautiful frosted candles for first holy communions and weddings, he was a mechanical engineer by training and ran an automobile garage business, even there that creativity was applied to his work. So almost subconsciously, I absorbed everything that was going on around me. My older brother having grown up in the same environment and also an engineer himself has no artistic interests. Creativity was encouraged, but not to the point that they would have accepted I make a career as an artist, who ever heard of a well to do artist anyways..:)) or atleast my parents generation thought so. So I was made to complete a bachelors degree in commerce as a compensation for wanting to study fashion design. I graduated both courses simultaneously and think of it as the best investment my parents made in my education. I spent years trying to climb the corporate ladder in fashion and when I got to the top all i really wanted to do was design window displays and clothing and not manage a whole region of retail stores. So I stepped off. Out of the blue I discovered cake decorating and plunged right into it. Never having held a piping bag in my life, I was a natural at it. 6 years and two continents apart I have run a successful home business. 2 years ago I discovered mixed media. It spoke to me like a good friend. My school art would have had you running for the hills. My current art will hopefully make you want to stay a while. Today I teach both cake decorating and mixed media classes. I also teach artists in both arenas about business skills and planning and design and such. Which is what my research was about. I am teaching a theory based class on sculpting cake and figurines in sugar. Weird yes. But I have heard so many excuses about having no talent, or 5 thumbs, or my fingers are too fat, or you are just blessed etc etc…I want to prove that art is as much a skill as it is a talent. If you are trained right you can be more skill full. That talent is what can take you to the next level more easily. But we are inherently creative. Creativity has never been more prolific than it is today. All you need to know is how to ”see”. (sorry for the ramble not sure I actually answered your questions)

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