Friday, April 3, 2009

Nature versus Nurture

Last night I watched my least favorite matchup of tennis players:  my perennial favorite Venus Williams contesting the semi-finals of the Sony Ericsson Open against her sister, Serena.  Venus matches up well against Serena in many ways with her groundstrokes, net coverage and movement.  Although Venus has the bigger serve (she's sent a 129mph laser beam at some hapless player), Serena's serve is more solid, consistent and fluid.

While watching the match, I began to ponder the differences between them and wondered what factors made them into the very different players that they are today.  I mean, of course they're sisters, raised in the same household, coached by the same parents on the same subpar courts in Compton, CA and probably given the same fitness regime and discipline.  I was puzzled and then it occured to me that Venus, who burst upon the scene as a precocious ten-year old prodigy is the natural talent while Serena is the force who was molded, like a perfect Frankenstein's monster.  Venus is a gifted athlete, tall and lithe who from a very young age has always been naturally athletic.  Serena on the other hand, grew from being the small, runty sibling who had to work hard to create her giftedness.  It's strictly my opinion, but I think that it's the key to why Venus has difficulty with her shots when they break down.  If you're used to just being able to do something naturally and then an unexpected occurence interferes with that fluidity (like being injured), I imagine it's probably harder to compensate or adjust.  Serena's groundstrokes don't break down easily because she's had to hone her craft and is probably more used to making adjustments.

My convoluted metaphor of the sisters started me thinking about writers who are born versus the ones who are made.  Nature versus nurture, if you will.  On a fan fiction board that I frequent, there are several young authors who are exceptionally talented.  One of these authors wrote a story at the tender age of 15 that I believe rivals any literary effort in print today.   If my theorizing has any validity, then she's a natural talent and probably much like Jane Austen, who wrote two of her most popular novels, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, before she was even 22 years old.  The exuberant genius  of both those works came from a woman who'd been writing since she was even younger and obviously had an affinity for it from an early age.  So Austen would fit into the nature category.

I've chosen J.R.R. Tolkien and his body of work beginning with The Hobbit and progressing with The Lord of the Rings trilogy as my example of nurtured talent.  Tolkien worked in and around the literary arena after returning home from the war and before becoming a professor at the University of Leeds.  So, he was fully mature once his body of work came to the forefront and biographical details show that he spent a great deal of time writing those epics.  I see him nurturing his considerable talent, honing his craft and producing the great fruit of that labor in his excellent world building reflected in the tales of Middle Earth.

Returning to my pseudo-analogy--are good writers born or made?  Can working on craft enhance an inborn talent or can an equally great tome be gleaned from the hard work and attention paid to the technical aspects of writing?  I think so.


Nancy J. Parra said...

OOOH- great post. I've known very talented authors who write one book and then-if it doesn't sell, give up. Or, if it does sell, think-eh...and quit.

While other authors work daily and create careers out of hard work.

I don't think nature or nurture is better- it may be all about the drive... without drive it simply doesn't matter.

Thanks for the super post!

elegantextracts said...

I too love tennis and the Williams sisters, with Venus being my favorite (not that I even want to play favorites). What I do remember is Richard saying that Serena was a better player than Venus - which I never agreed with, they are different types of players.

But I never thought of them the way you portrayed them and it does make sense... I'll even go a step further and say it has a lot to do with birth order (I have become smug since I read The Birth Order book and fancy myself an expert). Since Venus is technically the oldest sibling (second families with additional children always start the birth order factor over) Serena probably wanted to be like Venus, wanted her approval, wanted to take an interest in older sisters activities, etc... BTW: I, hate watching them play each other and I rarely do it anymore.

And I know who the "natural talent" is and I too am BLOWN AWAY. She has inspired more writers block in some of us *cough*me*cough* than she probably knows. Now, that is a prodigy and I can't wait to see what she does with her career when she finishes with fan fiction (and she MUST finish with it... it really is wasted in fan fiction... and you know I love fan fiction, but will happily "let" her go)... with the way she writes, she should have a book deal in the six figures even now.

Pamala Knight said...

Nancy- thank you for stopping by and for your insight. You are absolutely spot on that 'drive' is the key to both elements and without it, the effort would probably ring hollow, don't you think? I should make my next post about drive. Thanks again for being a fount of inspiration.

Teresa - I have yet another person to commiserate my tennis obsession with? COOL!! I agree that the birth order with Venus and Serena is important and Venus has on more than one occassion, expressed her role as 'big sister' to Serena which means sometimes sublimating her own desires. I usually get miffed with Serena when she pulls the baby sister card. When she cried after losing the USOpen in 2001 to Venus and then Venus went on to cede 5 grand slam finals to her sister, I was more than irritated with that dynamic.

And your writing stands right up there too, so no need to tear at our hair or rend your garments. Still patiently waiting for yet another chapter of FTLOJ. *waves*

Marilyn Brant said...

Excellent and thought-provoking post, Pamala! I know writers who are definitely in that Nature category--brilliant in their use of language--the narrative just pours out of them. I'm awed by that.

Often, though, like Nancy mentioned, these incredibly talented writers don't always follow through or deal well with setbacks. Maybe they don't value their gift as much because they didn't have to work so hard to develop it. Or their motivation is inconsistent. Or, maybe, they don't have enough of those auxiliary skills that writers need to handle the more mundane tasks of the industry (i.e., pitching appointments, query letters, updating their websites, etc.)--the business and/or marketing side of writing. I'm not sure. (Jane was fortunate in not having to deal quite so much with that!)

I do know, though, that when a writer like Jane has both the talent and the persistence/work ethic, it's a stunning thing. And if they have a "hot market" for what they're writing, too, that's like a lottery win :).

Still, I don't think you need to win the writing lottery to be successful in the publishing world--it just takes longer...

S said...


Excellent thought put in blog, koool very interesting :)

Pamala Knight said...

Marilyn doll,

Thank you for the excellent comment. You've expanded on Nancy's thought very nicely. I agree that the persistence and drive is also key, even if the talent is there. A heaping helping of patience also sounds like it's absolutely necessary. Your theory gives hope to the unpublished which is always a very good thing. *hugs*

Thanks for stopping by and for leaving a comment. I hope to see you here again.

Robin said...

Great post, Pamala. I've always thought Serena was more mentally tough than Venus, and you've summed up the reasons why.

I think when someone sets their mind to something, there's no stopping them.

Pamala Knight said...

Robin, thanks for the comment. I think that Venus' mental fortitude is usually only called into question when playing her sister. Against everyone else for the most part, she makes a science of roaring back just when you think you've got her where you want her. Don't believe me, take a look at the 2005 Wimbledon final against Lindsay Davenport where she fought off a championship point early in the second set and went on to hit four winners in a row (!) in order to break Lindsay at love.

I still think that because of the way Serena's game was constructed or built, she deals better with adversity than does my dear Venus. All that aside, 17 grand slam singles titles between them says that they are BOTH pretty tough, both mentally and physically,no?

Morgan Mandel said...

I think lots of authors have to work at their craft, even if they do have talent.

Morgan Mandel

Ann Victor said...

Great discussion Pamala, sorry I'm only picking it up late!

My vote is both. A talented writer who is willing to work hard at learning the craft may end up going further than a natural genius who thinks talent is enough. Those writers who are lucky enough to be born with great talent AND the determination to work hard at the craft, are those who go down in history as The Greats.

Pamala Knight said...

Thanks Morgan for stopping by.

Ann! So glad to see you here and no apologies are necessary. I've come to the same conclusion as you. If the naturally talented aren't willing to put forth some nurtured effort, then their gifts might become wasted ones.