Where’d that Creativity Come From?


It’s not uncommon for parents to look at personality traits as they develop in their children and think, Oh, that’s just like me. So a joint study recently released by researchers from Yale and Moscow State University should not come as any great surprise: that creative parents tend to produce creative children.

Okay, it’s not a surprise. But it is a wonderful confirmation that the creativity writers pour into their work is a trait that we may have received from our parents, and will likely pass to our children.

My youngest wrote his first story at age four. He wasn’t old enough to type the words, but he dictated while I typed. Called “Forest Adventures,” this one page story was about a man who goes into the forest where all sorts of horrific things happen, including being attacked by bees, and also bears who crawl all over the man’s bus “including that part where the people go in.”

Okay, so it’s probably not going to win the Newbery, but as both a mother and an author, it gave me a slight bit of hope that maybe one day, there might be another writer in the family.

There are several examples of literary families: the Bronte sisters and the brothers Grimm are perhaps the most famous, but David Updike, the son of John Updike, is a children’s and short story author. The daughter of feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft is Mary Shelley, author of “Frankenstein.” Mary Higgins Clark co-wrote several books with her daughter, Carol, who has gone on to write books of her own.

The joint study analyzed the creative writing of 511 children between the ages of 8 and 17 and compared it to their parents’ writing. The themes for the writing were the same for each age group, such as “were I invisible” for children and “who lives and what happens on a planet called Priumliava” for adults. The stories were then rated for their originality, plot development and quality, and creative use of prior knowledge. Factors such as general intelligence and the way the family interacted with each other were accounted for.

The researchers concluded what most parents have long known, that there are inheritable traits that have nothing to do with hair and eye color. They stated, “It may be worth further studies to confirm that creative writers are indeed born, as well as made.”

So how does this affect us as writers? Well, for those who are also parents, this is a reminder that the work we do is not solely for the story, or for our readers. Exploring our own creative instincts becomes a role model for our children, who, research shows, may have those same instincts. Let your children see you create so that one day they will create for themselves. And what parent would not be thrilled about that?


Tragedy Averted or How I Almost Talked Myself Out of Another Manuscript

Years ago I came up with an awesome high-concept novel. I’d only written one other book at that point, a low-concept book begun in secret and pretty much written as a challenge to myself. I wrote early in the morning before my kids were awake, marveling at how the words added up. Writing a novel was like living an alternate existence free of poopy diapers and tantrums, and I loved it. When the manuscript was “done” I made a few attempts to get it published before recognizing it as a learning project.

The second book was a whole other matter.

By then I was a member of a weekly critique group for adult fiction. The focus was on publication.  My critique partners loved my new premise and when our annual conference approached, encouraged me to get an appointment with a visiting editor or agent. I’d only written about five chapters but with input I polished opening pages, wrote a synopsis, and practiced my pitch in front of the group. I talked about my project. A lot.

And then a strange thing happened: I had no desire to write that very cool, high-concept book with its unique setting.  In talking about my project I’d talked myself out of a manuscript.

Since then I’ve warned other writers about the perils of talking too much. I cautioned my sons’ elementary school classmates to keep story ideas to themselves until they’d written at least a first draft. I brought in an inflated balloon and as I told the story of Tracy’s Abandoned Project, let out a bit of air. Throughout the whole sordid tale of me blah-blahing to my writing partners, I slowly released more air and by the time I reached the part about losing my love for the story, the balloon was flat. And lifeless.

Shouldn’t someone who goes around bossing other people on the issue of keeping their mouths shut know better?

Despite my No-Talking-Before-Completed-Draft policy, I fudged a bit on my latest project and shared a one-line description with my new agent (and felt validated when he liked the premise). I still successfully finished the draft. But when talking to a critique partner about whether I should rewrite the book in third-person I remember hesitating before answering his questions; it felt risky. But hey, I had a first draft. So I talked.

And not only did I talk to him but also to my spouse. I’m blessed with a partner who fully supports my literary efforts and never, ever complains about me not bringing in an income. However, because he never finished reading the one manuscript I asked him to read (in his defense, my learning project), I’ve armored my heart by only speaking about my projects in generalities.

But suddenly I was talking to him in great detail and it was wonderful to finally be one of those writers with an involved spouse. It felt especially good because my agent had just read the first fifty pages and synopsis of the second draft and basically said he liked my premise but not the execution. A couple weeks later he dropped me.

I needed to start all over. Again. But I wisely recognized I was still too fragile to work on that particular project so set it aside and revised another manuscript. When that was finished and sent off, I felt ready to return to my difficult project.

I began talking about the story again, trying to sort out some character issues. I brain-stormed with my spouse and felt I was getting closer to truly knowing the kids at the heart of my story. And yet, I couldn’t gain any traction; I was unable to move beyond character sketches to drafting and despaired the story would ever get written.

Then one day not too long ago I experienced what felt like a balloon-inspired epiphany: Stop talking and write the story.

Hello, I needed to get back to the guilty pleasure of stealing away to scribble down scenes, sharing in the lives of people no one else has met. I needed to return to writing for me.  Me and no one else.  And that’s where I am right now.  I’ve got this story inside I want to tell, and if I keep quiet from here on out we’ll make it.  However, I need to trust my instincts no matter how many drafts I’ve written.

But just in case I ever falter in my resolve, I can check in with one of my favorite writers:

“It makes me so uncomfortable for them. If they’re talking about a plot idea, I feel the idea is probably going to evaporate. I want to almost physically reach over and cover their mouths and say, “You’ll lose it if you’re not careful.”   ~ Anne Tyler

(By the way, you can buy a signed copy of this quote on ebay for only $399).

* * * * *

These days Tracy Abell is talking less and writing more, although she reserves the right to talk to herself when she’s feeling stuck.

Will there be a test on that…?

My almost-11-year-old son has always been an avid reader. When he was younger, the kid would read just about anything he could get his mitts on. Case in point: when I was pregnant with his little sister I took him to the doctor’s office and he sat there, five years old, reading the side of the sonogram machine. In the last couple of years, he’s blown through the Harry Potter series, Percy Jackson, every Wimpy Kid, the Fablehaven books, Goosebumps and a gazillion others.

Then, something happened.

He was assigned Treasure Island this year as summer reading.

At first, he was excited. An adventure book! About buccaneers! And buried gold! He couldn’t wait! Until…

He started reading. And not more than two chapters in, his eyes glazed over and he looked at me and moaned, “Mom, this is sooooooo boring!” (This, from a kid who read a sonogram machine. On purpose.)

Now, I don’t want to sound like I’m bashing Treasure Island. Because I’m not. Clearly, it’s just not my son’s cup of tea.

But the fact that my son actually put down a book — on purpose — well, that makes me a little sad. Because I was just like my son as a kid. Always had a book in my hand. Read anything put in front of me. Could likely have told you how many grams of sugar, protein and polyunsaturated fat were in a box of Cheerios.

Then, something happened.

Right around the end of middle school, I discovered to my horror that reading could be… drudgery. All of a sudden, books had to be dissected like lab frogs to uncover hidden meanings. Symbolism abounded. Every novel seemed to feature a “Christ figure.” A story could no longer just be a story. It had to have a moral. A theme. A lot of convoluted English that no one had spoken for centuries.

And I hated it.

So much so that once, for a book report assignment in my Honors English class sophomore year, I did mine on a Danielle Steele novel. (Hey, there was no Twilight back then and I was a lovesick 15-year-old). My report was incredibly detailed — filled with morals, symbolism and overriding themes. I covered the whole checklist — and then some. My teacher reluctantly gave me a decent grade — but not without a big note across the top pointing out that Danielle Steele’s work was NOT “literature.”

And, that I should take my assignments more seriously.

Okay, so maybe she was technically right. But I do recall being somewhat annoyed at the time that just because the book wasn’t a “classic” (ie. written by a dead guy who had an unhealthy obsession with giant fish), that it wasn’t worthy of reading. Or discussing. Now, that’s not to say I think reading shouldn’t challenge one intellectually, emotionally and morally. It should. One of the greatest things about books is how they help us see things from another viewpoint and challenge our assumptions.

But it’s a fine line between learning how to critically analyze a work and just plug plot points into some pre-determined formula. Look! The main character’s initials are JC! He must be the Christ figure! 

So, I get what it’s like to suddenly find reading to be (sadly) a chore. For me, it probably wasn’t until later in high school and college (when I discovered Hemingway, Dickens and Edith Wharton) that reading for “homework” became engaging again. Maybe I was just more mature at that point. Maybe I had more dynamic instructors. Maybe the curriculum was better. I don’t have the answer. And I don’t have the answer now. When my son looks at me and asks if he can read something else this summer, please, do I tell him to buck it up… we all went through the same thing in school? Or is there a way to keep him engaged, especially as the reading gets more complicated… and, dare I say, “boring”?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, Mixed-Up Community… And I promise, there won’t be a test at the end!

Jan Gangsei writes stories that she hopes will keep young readers engaged. If not, there’s always symbolism.