Creative Isolation

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.

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6 Responses to “Creative Isolation”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Neat posting! As an only child and budding writer, I agree whole-heartedly.

    But then again, I would, wouldn’t I? It’s a story on the edge of the correlation vs. causation problem, isn’t it? How many well-socialized middle children writers do we need to find before this idea doesn’t work any more?

    The thing that strikes me most forcefully on this is that lots of people write. In our so-called information society, huge numbers of people are writing, all the time. Mostly they are writing reports, or copy, or blogs, or whatever.

    Perhaps what you’re talking about more is creative isolation breeding worldbuilding. This has all sorts of mythic resonance, because in most mythologies, worlds are made by isolated creators. This might be a good description of the way human worldbuilders work. Conversely, these stories might condition our expectation that people who build worlds have to be isolated, despite all evidence to the contrary. I can’t tell.

    And I’m not even touching the mythic idea of the elder creator who builds his world, and his younger brother coyote, or eldest creation, Lucifer, starts messing with it and wrecks the purity of the original.

    No answers here, but it’s a fascinating topic!

  2. Ann M Nalley Says:

    I am not a writer, nor am I an “oldest” or an “only.” However, this post spoke to me strongly because I cannot create unless I am isolated.

    About three years ago, I had a strong desire to paint a set of Christmas dishes. The design I envisioned in my head was paintings of old fashioned, elaborate Christmas ornaments of various shapes and patterns.

    I am married and have children, and it startled me to discover that I could not paint if other people were in the house. Irrelevant noise, questions, interruptions… they disrupted my creative mind so greatly that I could not accomplish anything unless I knew I was going to be completely alone for several hours.

    Needless to say, the dishes were slow to evolve and it took a year and a half ~ and the real-life deadline of a second approaching Christmas ~ to finish them.

    I agree with “heteromeles.” Perhaps the isolation isn’t for the process of “writing” as much as it is for the process of creating.

    Excellent post!

  3. janelindskold Says:

    I see from “heteromeles” I must clarify my use of the term “writer.”

    By this I meant (as Connie did in her question) a writer of fiction, not a blogger, a letter writer, or someone who makes grocery lists, but someone who chooses to vanish into the realms of imagination and does so comfortably.

    Ann M. Nalley’s comment is interesting. I can write in noise and in chaos. I’ve written in meetings. Jim and I regulary share an office.

    BUT when I’m tackling a new craft project, I prefer to be alone! I think it’s the hand-eye coordination thing while I’m still learning the skills that demands a degree of privacy.

    But, as to writing fiction, that I can do in company. (Although I’ve never needed company, like those folks who can only write in groups or coffee houses or something).

  4. Tori Says:

    Very interesting. This post made me think introspectively.

    According to your argument, I had the necessary components for becoming a writer (of creative fiction), and I certainly would have loved to be a writer, but I lack…something. So my creativity came out in drawing instead. And certainly I would make up elaborate backgrounds for the original characters and places and things that I drew, but I could not formulate these ideas into anything resembling a decent plot.

    I suppose if I wanted it badly enough, I could have learned the skills to become a writer. But I would have worked really hard to be mediocre in comparison to those with an innate talent for plot-building. So I would like to propose that a person who chooses to become a professional fiction writer is likely already a natural storyteller.

  5. Paul Dellinger Says:

    This describes me to a “T”…only child, lived in a rural area where I had to provide much of my own entertainment, began drawing stick-figure comic strips before I took to writing. I had never thought of all those elements as contributing to the desire to write before. Thanks for the wake-up call.

  6. janelindskold Says:

    I was really taken with the comments, so did some further research on this — a survey among various creative writers of fiction, mostly of SF/F.

    Even in that relatively limited sample there wasn’t a great deal of agreement as to what made a creative writer.

    Almost everyone agreed that a certain degree of “isolation” was important, but there was a lot of differing as to what that meant.

    Several writers from happy, nurturing homes commented that parents who listened to their stories and even gave them typewriters really shaped their creativity.

    However, others who came from abusive or disfunctional homes felt this environment contributed because they escaped into reading and later into writing.

    So, basically, there are a lot of elements.

    For me, some isolation, then the captive audience of my siblings — but for others the formula is very different.

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