According to choreographer Twyla Tharp, we all have “creative DNA.”
I believe that we all have strands of creative code hard-wired into our imaginations. These strands are as solidly imprinted in us as the genetic code that determines our height and eye color, except they govern our creative impulses. They determine the forms we work in, the stories we tell, and how we tell them. I’m not Watson and Crick; I can’t prove this. But perhaps you also suspect it when you try to understand why you’re a photographer, not a writer, or why you always insert a happy ending into your story, or why all your canvases gather the most interesting material at the edges, not the center. [The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life]
Tharp goes on to say that photographer Ansel Adams seemed to view the world from a distance. “He found solace in lugging his heavy camera on long treks into the wilderness or to a mountaintop so he could have the widest view of land and sky.”
On the other hand, she cites Raymond Chandler as a novelist who viewed the world from close up. “He works in extreme close-up, a succession of tight shots that practically put us inside the characters’ skulls. …his eye for descriptive detail was razor-sharp.”
Adam’s wide-open, distant view and Chandler’s up-close scrutiny of the details were part of each artist’s creative DNA.
I thought about this idea when I read an article by Daphne Gray-Grant, in which she talks about two types of writers:
- Those who have to force themselves to write their first draft, but come to life when it’s time to rewrite and edit their work.
- Those who can get lost in the writing, but can’t stand rewriting and editing their work.
My hypothesis is that, rather than a clear distinction between these two types, it’s likely that most writers would find themselves somewhere on a continuum between these two extremes.
But either way, I thought that this characteristic is probably part of one’s creative DNA; it’s a hard-wired preference for one or the other aspect of writing. For me, rewriting, revising, and editing is always easier than getting the first draft down. When I’m just trying to get something down on the page, I constantly have to fight the impulse to revise what I’ve just written. I want to edit as I go, despite the fact that it slows me down.
You don’t fight with your DNA. It would be foolish to berate yourself over the fact that you can’t force your hair to come out of your scalp a different color, or straighter, or curlier.
You can’t overcome your creative DNA, either. Whichever type of writer you happen to be, there’s no point in beating yourself up because you find either writing or editing to be a thing of dread. Take advantage of and revel in what you’re good at, what you enjoy; learn to work through the things that are harder for you, using trickery if necessary. Gray-Grant’s article offers some strategies to help both types of writers discipline themselves to get the work done.
And as Tharp recommends, take some time to examine your creative DNA.
If you understand the strands of your creative DNA, you begin to see how they mutate into common threads in your work. You begin to see the “story” that you’re trying to tell; why you do the things you do (both positive and self-destructive); where you are strong and where you are weak (which prevents a lot of false starts), and how you see the world and function in it.
What about you? Are you more comfortable with writing, or editing? And what are some other ways we can describe our creative DNA? Let me know in the comments section.