Want to be a writer? Have a literary parent

No, it's not just nepotism. Scientists confirm there is an inherited element to creativity

Roger Dobson
Sunday 07 October 2012 00:06 BST
Keep it in the family: writer Martin Amis and his novelist father Kingsley
Keep it in the family: writer Martin Amis and his novelist father Kingsley

According to Ernest Hemingway, there were only five rules to writing well, and one of those was to have more than four rules. So he might be pleased to add to his list: make sure mum or dad is a bestselling author. New research, prompted by the relatively high number of literary families, shows that there may be an inherited element to writing good fiction.

Researchers from Yale in the US and Moscow State University in Russia launched the study to see whether there was a scientific reason why well-known writers have produced other writers. There are four generations of Waugh novelists – Arthur, sons Alec and Evelyn, Evelyn's son Auberon, and Auberon's daughter Daisy; Kingsley Amis and his son Martin; H G Wells and Rebecca West, and their son Anthony West.

"There are also the three venerable Brontë sisters, Henry and William James [the novelist and writer on psychology were brothers], the Cheevers [father, daughter and son], and the Ephrons [both parents were successful screenwriters, and four daughters who are also writers]," say the researchers. "More currently, there are two bestselling mother-son pairs of mystery writers: Caroline and Charles Todd and Iris and Roy Johansen."

The study analysed the creative writing of 511 children aged eight to 17 and 489 of their mothers and 326 fathers. All the participants wrote stories on particular themes. For children, the subjects were "were I an elephant" and "were I invisible"; for adolescents "a time machine for an hour" and "visiting a witch"; and for adults "the world from an insect's point of view" and "imagine who lives and what happens on a planet called Priumliava".

The stories were then scored and rated for originality and novelty, plot development and quality, and sophistication and creative use of prior knowledge. The researchers also carried out detailed intelligence tests and analysed how families functioned in the Russian households.

Taking into account intelligence and family background, the researchers then calculated the inherited and the environmental elements of creative writing. They found what they describe as a modest but statistically significant familiality and heritability element to creative writing.

"This work is unique in its objective to investigate the familiality and heritability of the trait of creative writing," the researchers write, "while controlling for general cognitive ability and for the general level of family functioning. Despite the lack of systematic research on the aetiology of writing in general and creative writing in particular, it is rather difficult not to acknowledge the familiality of creativity in writing, given the families of writers who have entertained and educated us over the years. These findings constitute the tip of an interesting iceberg, indicating that there may be some components of creative writing that are familial and heritable.

"It may be worth further studies to confirm that creative writers are indeed born, as well as made. When writers capitalise on these inborn propensities and expose these propensities to rich experiences, we, as readers, can enjoy books that not only form the foundation of cultural life but also impact the biology of the human brain."

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