Writers: Nature or Nurture?
By MSW Guest Blogger Grant Blackwood
Blackwood … Brennan … we met at a book signing. At many book signings. And share much in common … namely, we often sit next to authors in the Bs and Cs who have long, curving lines waiting for signatures, while we … don’t. At least, not yet! We’ve been lucky enough to get to know each other over the last few years signing at Thrillerfest. Grant is one of the nicest, most easy-going writers I know and I will happily perch beside him at any conference … or bar. (Yes, writers are known for imbibing once in awhile …) Anyway, Grant is a prolific author who has co-written with some of the absolute greatest authors in the thriller genre — Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, and my friend James Rollins. He also writes his own books! And people ask me when *I* have the time to write! Grant has his own heroic backstory … A U. S. Navy veteran, he spent three years aboard a guided missile frigate as an Operations Specialist and a Pilot Rescue Swimmer. Isn’t that totally cool? So please, give Grant a big MSW welcome!
Do writers come into this world with the “scribe’s spark” or can it be born later through random forces in our lives? It’s a popular and hotly debated question among writers and readers alike.
When I was ten, Irwin Allen style disaster movies such as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno were all the rage. I loved them all. So I tried to write one. Its tentative title was “Death in Airtight Tube” and it involved a undersea train tunnel that partially collapses, trapping a slew of fascinating characters in the doomed vehicle. A decent premise, perhaps, but I hadn’t the vaguest concept of the basics — dialogue, point-of-view, exposition, and so on. I was about a thousand words into the story when I got distracted by collecting doodle bugs in my backyard and abandoned the project. The question is, had I decade earlier emerged into this world with the desire to tell stories? I have no idea. And I don’t think anyone else does either — about themselves or about anyone else.
It wasn’t until 1987, when I was a couple months out of the Navy that I put pen to paper again (not counting high school book reports on “The Catcher in the Rye” and Plato’s “The Republic”) — or in my case, fingers to typewriter. What came out of that chattering, White-Out guzzling machine was the first draft of my first novel, now dubbed my “sock drawer book” because that’s where it sat, deservedly unpublished, for the next five years until I lost it in a move. It was an awful piece of writing, only better than “Death in Airtight Tube” because I managed to extort 100,000 words from the plot. Even so, I was hooked. The image of complete strangers glued to their chairs, entranced by a story and characters that I made from whole cloth was intoxicating.
Now a junkie, I dove into the writing life and never looked back. That was 27 years ago and now I’m a different person from the student who hated and was baffled by English class. Diagram a sentence? No thanks. Topic sentences and transitions? Where’s a sharp stick I can jab into my eye? Since my mom had handed me my first Dr. Seuss book I’d loved reading, but I had no interest in how the sausage got made.
Somewhere between “Death in Airtight Tube” and when I wrote “The End” on the last page of my sock drawer book all that changed. I don’t know when or how it happened, but for the better part of my adult life I’ve been not only disassembling, studying, and resembling the sausage machine, but also the sausage itself, right down to its atomic structure. And I’ve learned. However, aside from the quantifiable decades of practice and trial-and-error (emphasis on the latter) I can’t tell you how, but I have given the mysterious process a name: “Writer’s Osmotic Syndrome”, or WOS.
There seems to be a consensus that the bits and pieces that make up a great book can be through diligence learned and even mastered. Characterization can be learned. Dialogue can be learned. Plotting can be learned. All of it can be learned. Writers that persist are proof of this. No one sticks with an endeavor without seeing improvement. That’s human nature — unless that is you’re Sisyphus and you’ve got no choice but to roll the boulder.
Given the daunting attrition rate in our business, the most pressing question is not about technique, but about the unrelenting drive it takes to succeed as a writer. Is this quintessential ingredient sewn into our DNA before we first open our eyes, or can you plant the seed yourself? Certainly no one can do it for you, or teach it to you, but I say desire can indeed be self-sewn. And self-nurtured.
The problem is, along the way struggling writers often hear that you’re either born with it or you’re not. Rarely is this enigmatic “it” explained; nor the reasoning behind the the axiom. This should be a red flag for writers. And as most writers are saddled with a stubborn streak the size of Montana, let such red flags be to you what red flags are to bulls. Charge at anything with “No” emblazoned across it.
The tiniest of sparks can be coaxed into a furnace.
Writer’s Osmotic Syndrome applies even to desire.