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Are Writers Born or Made?

Writers Digest recently dug into their archives and found an article from January 1962, written by Jack Kerouac, about whether or not writers are born or made.

Though I haven’t read On The Road in 12 years, I still consider it one of my favorite books. And, since I’m at a totally different place in life from when I first read it, I’m curious as to what I will think about the Kerouac classic when I re-read it for the Time list. Probably soon.

Anyway, Kerouac certainly had his own style, one that you probably either love or hate. So it’s no surprise that he had a strong opinion on writing. He was obviously a fan of Joyce:

“Five thousand university-trained writers could put their hand to a day in June in Dublin in 1904, or one night’s dreams, and never do with it what Joyce did with it: He was simply born to do it. On the other hand, if the five thousand ‘trained’ writers, plus Joyce, all put their hands to a Reader’s Digest-type article about ‘Vacation Hints’ or ‘Homemaker’s Tips,’ even then I think Joyce would stand out because of his inborn originality of language insight.”

If I were editing Kerouac, I might change “inborn originality of language insight” to “creativity.” A little wordy there, Jack. Joyce was indeed creative. And I can’t help think about David Foster Wallace when Kerouac mentions the vacation and homemaker articles.

Think about DFW’s “Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”–his piece for Harper’s about vacation on a cruise. That could’ve been a well-written, run-of-the-mill travel writing piece that ran in a magazine for one month and was never seen again. But DFW turned it into a classic that is still talked about today.

Kerouac also talks about the writer’s ability to invent new styles:

“Anybody can write, but not everybody invents new forms of writing. Gertrude Stein invented a new form of writing and her imitators are just ‘talents.’ Hemingway later invented his own form also. The criterion for judging talent or genius is ephemeral, speaking rationally in this world of graphs, but one gets the feeling definitely when a writer of genius amazes him by strokes of force never seen before and yet hauntingly familiar.”

I wonder what Jack would think about today’s world of writers. If he thought anyone could write in the 1960s, what would he think about 2012–when anyone with an internet connection can instantly be “published” on a blog? Would he hate book bloggers like me? Probably.

And what might Kerouac say about those of us who think Joyce and Woolf and the like are literary snobs?

“Oftentimes an originator of new language forms is called ‘pretentious’ by jealous talents. But it ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.”

Ouch. I will fully accept the fact that I “don’t get” Joyce and Woolf and Faulkner. But, for those of us who aren’t keen on their writing styles, are we jealous? I, for one, have no desire to write like that.

What I’m getting from Kerouac here is that anyone can become a writer through training, but some writers are born with innate talent that a trained writer will never be able to match.

Some of us are born with certain talents that don’t require us to work our butts off to master. While other people have to spend hours and hours and hours practicing a craft to become respectable at it.

I used to play competitive golf, and I saw this all the time. So Kerouac isn’t (and wasn’t) breaking new ground here. You can apply it to anything.

So what do you think? Are writers born or made…or a little of both?

(Image: Tom Palumbo/Wikimedia Commons)

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25 Comments Post a comment
  1. Of the writers I’m reading, all pre-1940, the one thing they were all, be they letter-writers, essayists or novelists, was well-read and educated. Not necessarily at a university level. Bennett himself was self-taught, having begun his training as a solicitor he ended up as the editor of a woman’s magazine before going on to be a successful novelist. But, above all, he loved to read. In that sense, you could argue that writers are self-made. Another question would be, why did the works of a writer such as Dickens survive when well-over 90% of novels published during his life would be unreadable today?

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    March 26, 2012
  2. Born, I think. Genius in any form is truly a gift of genetics.

    Like

    March 26, 2012
  3. Allie #

    I think that you have to be born with a certain amount of creativity in order to write fiction. You need inspiration and imagination in order to write fiction. That’s not something you can learn in a writing class. That said, not everyone who has the inspiration or creativity can write in a manner that draws readers in to the world they are creating. In this case, learning the ‘rules’ of writing can turn someone into a writer. I think the difference is that those people who are born with the creativity and writing talent stand out among their creative yet taught-to-write peers.

    Non-fiction writers do need creativity to a certain degree, but in my mind it’s a different sort of creativity. In non-fiction you can easily see the difference between a ‘born-with-it’ writer and a ‘formula’ writer. The writers who are ‘born-with-it’ are able to turn even dry, dusty subjects into interesting ones without embellishing on or changing the facts.

    Of course most people who are drawn to writing tend to have at least some creative streak in them, so it may just be a matter of if they need their skills honed or not.

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    March 26, 2012
  4. I think it’s impossible to generalize in this case. Some are born, some have to work at it. And, some are probably born with a talent to write, who never develop it and aren’t interested in writing. I know a guy who’s a great artist, but doesn’t like to paint, so he doesn’t. He did a few paintings, then quit. And I suspect there are some who have an irresistable urge to write. They do so, but they actually have nothing to say. One of the mysteries of human nature.

    Liked by 1 person

    March 26, 2012
  5. Made. True, some have more advantages to do things that others might lack (due to genes), but ultimately, I believe in the old adage ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’. If you want to be a successful literary writer bad enough, then apply yourself wholly and work hard, real hard, and you will get there.

    Liked by 1 person

    March 26, 2012
    • I think writers are made. I’ll consider myself in that group. But true genius is born…and then that person has the awareness to tap into that genius, which is another issue entirely. How many of us live our lives without discovering what we are really good at?

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      March 26, 2012
  6. Teresa #

    Molded by their environments comes to mind, too – by upbringing (McCullers, for example) or by the lives they choose to live and the experiences they embrace (Kerouc, Hemingway, Joyce , and so many others). Neither of which improve their innate skill but give them something worth saying.

    BTW: the NY Times has a long article about a production called “A ( radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Funny Thing I’ll Never Do Again (after DFW). It’s readings of DFW’ works.

    Like

    March 26, 2012
  7. I think truly talented writers are “born”. What I mean by “born” is more environmental than anything. Great writers had some sort of childhood that contributed to their style. They probably read (a lot). They probably had a solid foundation in writing mechanics.

    Certainly a little bit of both is present, but I maintain great writers are mostly born. It’s very difficult to develop that knack or voice later in life.

    Like

    March 26, 2012
  8. I believe everyone is creative -it’s just a question of coaxing it out.(So often it’s repressed by a myriad of circumstances both external & internal) That said, some people have a more creative inclination, and then others have it in spades, so I’m going for a mixture of both. You can certainly hone your craft though practice – just like any other skill, but imagination is in the mind as well as the eye of the beholder. Education can give you a big lexicon too, but then take someone like Raymond Carver and the text doesn’t get much more basic.
    For the writers, or would be writers, I say go for it, cos frankly if you don’t enjoy it then why do it? And if you do enjoy it , then the process is all that matters. To the readers, I would say virtually the same thing.
    To me the question is not really are writers born or made, the question is does it matter?

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    March 26, 2012
    • I guess it really doesn’t, but I think it’s an interesting question. I think it speaks to the fact that we are all born with innate talents, but, like you said about creativity, it’s just a matter of coaxing them out of us.

      Like

      March 26, 2012
  9. MADE. I believe a good writer is born with the innate ability to tell a story or communicate an idea, but it takes training, hard work and perceverance to hone that ability into greatness. The hard part is recognizing the innate ability, fostering it to grow and having the tenacity and uncompromising will to keep it alive. I call this the “Never give up, never surrender” attitude.

    Many of us who love to write and have a talent for it don’t practice our craft. Just as a pianist must constantly practice to maintain and enhance his talent, a writer must write, write, write and write again. When we don’t (I am a perfect example of this), the talent dies a slow, painful death. Mine is on life support….and I’m considering a DNR at this point. 😉

    Like

    March 26, 2012
  10. Honestly I believe these two elements are necessary since we can have a gift yet never develop it to its height or mastering it. WONDERFUL post!

    Like

    March 26, 2012
  11. Reblogged this on coffeybrownbooks.

    Like

    March 26, 2012
  12. chordsandwords #

    Born, but they definitely have to work at and continue to do so. They write and write. Just like Dylan, Picasso or Einstein…they are born with it, but they practiced and refined their talents. They don’t just sit around on their behinds…they work their butts off. But most like people, like me, if I worked that hard, it would never be as good as Dylan, Kerouac, Lennon, or Neruda…I can only wish…

    Like

    March 26, 2012
    • I agree. I think it’s a combination of both. The talent will go to pasture if you don’t work at it improving.

      Like

      March 27, 2012
  13. Both, definitely, but more besides.

    Talent alone isn’t enough: there are plenty (a veritable plethora, to coin a phrase) of talented failures, or people who simply fail to make use of their talent, whatever it might be.

    Training isn’t enough: there are plenty of people who train and train and train and are still mediocre at best.

    There also needs to be:
    (1) recognition and acceptance of, and belief in, one’s talent (how many people have refused to follow their talent because they considered it “evil” for some reason?),
    (2) commitment to exploring, developing, and expanding that talent to its limits, or beyond (sorry, that sounds a little like Buzz Lightyear–“to infinity, and beyond!”), and
    (3) an environment that values, or at least accepts, that talent (which, of course, the individual has no control over).

    Like

    March 26, 2012
    • Number 1 is hugely important. Couldn’t agree more. If you don’t recognize a gift, how can it ever thrive? Plus, a teacher or parent or someone that also recognizes it and encourages you a long.

      Good stuff, Ross.

      Like

      March 27, 2012
      • Thanks. This seems like one of those false dichotomies/false dilemmas that keeps us from seeing the bigger picture.

        Like

        March 27, 2012
  14. Reblogged this on Paucis Verbis and commented:
    Another wonderful question from 101Books blog: “What I’m getting from Kerouac here is that anyone can become a writer through training, but some writers are born with innate talent that a trained writer will never be able to match.”

    Like

    March 27, 2012
  15. Another wonderful analysis and question! Reblogged on Paucis Verbis.

    Like

    March 27, 2012
  16. Real writers are like artists, they write straight from their guts. Sometimes even, they’ll have to re-read what they just brought to paper/screen, truly not fully aware of the content they just spilled when coming out of a trance-like state… like painters or any other born creators!

    Liked by 1 person

    June 28, 2012
  17. Carey #

    And then there is this question…does true genius walk a fine line with madness? I think it often can.

    Like

    August 30, 2012
  18. “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” -Michelangelo

    I believe that’s how real artists and writers work and function! And when through their inspiration and according behavior they don’t fit into society’s box they are named mad!
    Of course people who have to deliver daily articles or weekly chapters can’t always work on inspiration, they have to rely on their brilliance with words.

    Like

    August 30, 2012
  19. “Inborn originality of language insight” plays off the parallel coupling of “born” and “sight,” which is no mistake. Having the same prefix, “in-” makes it clear as day. He is also making an indirect and unmistakable reference to Joyce’s “agenbite of inwit.” So, the utterance is highly charged, highly complex, and follows the natural rhythms and lulls and staccatos that are Kerouac’s and Kerouac’s alone. All people, all human beings are creative; some have particular and particular knacks for some things, and others have it for others. That’s all. At the same time, anything “inborn” must be worked with, day in and day out. It is a lifelong practice; it begins early, and may end late.

    Like

    December 12, 2015
  20. Where does aesthetic sensibility come from? Education? Exposure? What about Curiosity? Innate? Combine aesthetic sensibility with curiosity and you have your answer. A writer has to have something to say and want to say it so badly that to not write it down would be intolerable. Perhaps that’s why the man said most live lives of quiet desperation. But, once you see that the glass is neither half-empty nor half-full, but is, in fact, overflowing and has been all along, then you just might have the perspective to share something of yourself with the world.

    Like

    December 17, 2015

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