Sunday 15 December 2013

Nature or Nurture? Why do we choose to write the things we do?

I was recently part of a psychology survey that was trying to establish links between personality type and reading preferences. Although I know this research was not about any one individual but about group tendencies, it got me thinking (a miracle in itself at this pre-Christmas time of year) not just about our reading choices but about what we choose to write and why we've made those choices. That will be one of the things I consider in these blogs and I will be discussing with those writing friends who are kind enough to be my guests. Aside from interviews with fellow writers, future blogs will include book reviews, short articles on writers and writing, information and tips about self-publishing and even the odd suggestions for writing exercises.

Back to the question of why we write what we do. Is it nature or nurture? I suspect that, in my case, it's both. I learned to read long before I went to school and my mother once told me that I was making up stories before I could physically write with any fluency. What one writes must surely have a basis in what one reads and my early reading was typical of a girl in the 1950s: What Katy Did, Little Women, school stories and Enid Blyton' s Famous Five. Being a girl, I was not allowed to read boys' adventure books and, to this day, I feel a tingle of guilt and an impulse to look over my shoulder when I see a Biggles book. This is not because of the much complained of sexism or racial prejudice but because I had to surreptitiously 'borrow' my male cousin's books, read them in secret and return them with equal stealth. The glamour of rebellion still surrounds Biggles and his adventures, along with a subconscious fear of being found out.

In my early teens I again conformed to my gender and generation by moving on to Georgette Heyer, but even there I preferred books like The Quiet Gentleman and The Reluctant Widow, where there was a crime involved. Inevitably, this was the point at which I wrote reams of Regency adventure stories; some of them may still be lurking in a box in my attic, at that is where they'll stay. Soon after this I discovered Agatha Christie and many of the other great writers of the Golden Age of Crime, and also Mary Stewart, another writer who mixes romance with mystery and crime. At this point everything I wrote was for my own pleasure, not intended for anybody else. My writing was dictated by Nature and I was writing what I wanted just for my own pleasure.

It was after University, when I was married with young children, that the Nurture side took sway. I wrote stories for my children (don't we all?) and, looking back at them, some aren't too bad. With a lot of editing, they might, one day, see the light of publication. Also I fancied adding a small amount of cash to our tight budget and started writing short stories for women's magazines. I wasn't, at any point, an overwhelming success, but I did sell quite a few, and learned some valuable lessons along the way. The most valuable lesson of this long apprenticeship was that discovered the joy of writing for an audience, and, along with that, the pleasure of maintaining professional standards.

I could keep my magazine short stories under control, but as soon as I attempted a novel, despite my initial intentions, I always turned to crime. I've tried to work out why and keep coming back to the basic statement that violent crime matters in the most fundamental way and writing through it helps to make sense of it. Added to which it's a way of facing my deepest, darkest fears. On a lighter note, I love making patterns and laying a trail and it's great that other people want to follow it. Ridiculous though it seems, perhaps, somewhere deep down, I'm continuing that childhood rebellion.

Just as the scales tip towards Nature, regarding my writing choices, I consider my childhood and Nurture kicks back in. I was brought up in a North London flat, directly opposite the main police station. As I lay in bed, I could see, through the closed curtains, the blue flashing lights as police cars pulled away. I always wondered where they were going and what was happening. Now I can decide where they're heading and how it will all work out. I have the power to write my own answers. But whether Nature or Nurture informs my writing, the jury is still out.

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