This weekend I was an instructor at a writer’s conference held at the University of New Mexico.
A lady named Connie asked me one of those fascinating questions: “You have, say, six children in a family. What makes one decide to be a writer, while the rest aren’t interested?”
I thought about it for a moment, then said, “Isolation. It’s really strange, but a huge proportion of writers are either oldest or only children. If they’re not, well, then something else has isolated them, threw them back on themselves for entertainment. Illness. Break in the birth order. Something like that.”
Connie looked doubtful when I mentioned oldest or only children, but when I mentioned some other form of isolation, her daughter (a grown woman I’d guess to be my own age or a little younger) lit up. “That fits you, Mom!”
I never did find out what was Connie’s isolating factor, but I found myself thinking about how many writers I know for whom this pattern fits.
Only children: Daniel Abraham, Pat Cadigan, Yvonne Coats, Paul Dellinger, Chuck Gannon, John Jos. Miller, Fred Saberhagen, Melinda Snodgrass, Ian Tregallis, Walter Jon Williams, Roger Zelazny.
Eldest children: Constance Ash, Gardner Dozois, Stephen Leigh, Jane Lindskold, George R.R. Martin, Christy Marx, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sage Walker, Len Wein.
Youngest children isolated because their next closest sibling was markedly older: Laura Anne Gilman, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, P. Andrew Miller, Pati Nagle, Pari Noskin Taichert, Joan Spicci Saberhagen, S.M. Stirling.
David Weber is an exception who proves the rule. He’s neither an only or an eldest, nor particularly isolated, but he tells the tale of how when he and older sister were in the same college class the instructor assumed Weber was the elder because of how their family dynamic had evolved.
Okay, then, why don’t all oldest or only children become writers?
Well, isolation is only part of the equation. The other element is that the isolation must in some way stimulate creativity. Think of Robert Lewis Stevenson sick in bed, making imaginary worlds out of his counterpane. A child bombarded from birth with classes or cousins or sports wouldn’t get that same stimulus.
Creative isolation is what I experienced. I’m the eldest of four. The first three of us were born precisely inside of three years. I’m not exaggerating. My brother, Graydon, was born on my third birthday.
From one angle, that doesn’t sound like much isolation, does it?
Reconsider, though. My sister, Ann, was born a bit over a year and seven months after me. However, although we would become intimate playmates, it would be at least eighteen months before she was done concentrating on building basic skills like walking and talking. Therefore, three years or more would pass before I had anyone to play with. That isolation stimulated my creativity.
When Ann did start toddling about, I suspect I was the ringleader for our early games. Only later would she be a viable creative contributor. I hasten to add, she was and is very creative, not in the least the passive follower.
(Maybe one of these days I’ll write about how my parents managed to do what most psychologists consider impossible: raising four “alpha” personality children).
Ann and Graydon very much liked playing made-up, imagination-based games, but the day did come when they started to outgrow such entertainments. I, however, never did. To my good fortune, my youngest sibling, Susan, is eight years younger than I am. So right up until I went to college (and discovered role-playing gaming) I had someone in-house who wanted to play pretend.
Needless to say, my pattern is not the pattern for all writers or even for the majority of writers. I had both the isolation in which to learn to create out of my own imagination and stimulation in learning how to share that creativity in games with my siblings.
Really, when looked at that way, not only is it reasonable that I would become a writer. It almost seems impossible that I would have become anything else.