You meet them when you attend a family picnic or during a shared lunch at work. Even when you’re cheering your kid on from the sidelines of a soccer game. They cut across all socio-economic statuses, gender identities, religions, and nationalities. What am I talking about? The phenomenon Jane Friedman recently dubbed the natural writer—when people learn you write, display a micro-second of interest in your career, and immediately switch to talking about their own writing ambitions. After all, they’ve always known they have a book or two in them. Wouldn’t you now like to discuss and advance their ideas?¹
Universality Points to Origins
Have you ever wondered why this is a ubiquitous experience? Surely something is prodding the average human to harbor unfulfilled writing fantasies. It can’t be mere coincidence.
Hint: it isn’t.
When a behavior is displayed by all members of a given species, you can be confident it is a trait embedded within their DNA. Here, then, are four principles of evolutionary psychology that explain the nascent desire to write.²
Bred to be a Scheherazade
In her excellent book, Wired for Story, Lisa Cron makes the case that story is a sophisticated means of encoding worldly wisdom, providing a survival advantage to its consumers. Story teaches us how to navigate a hostile world without the risk of direct, dangerous experience. Listen to Hansel and Gretel, for example, and you needn’t be personally left in the forest by your woodcutter father to learn caution around too-benevolent strangers.
Over centuries, because the DNA of story consumers is reproduced more often than that of story non-consumers, our brains have evolved to ensure the experience is pleasurable. Stories activate special circuits in our neocortex, causing us to feel good—to feel entertained.
As story consumers must have story creators to complete the virtuous cycle, it follows that story generation would invoke similarly positive emotions.
Born to Mild Narcissism
This doesn’t explain everything you’ll observe about natural writers, however. For instance, your neighbor doesn’t read. Nor have they picked up a pen since leaving high school. Yet somehow they absolutely believe their stories will fascinate others in the modern-day equivalent of the Stone Age village. In fact, if pressed, they’d probably tell you their inborn talent lies in the upper half of the storytelling bell curve.
From where does this unearned confidence arise?
The answer is that, on average, humans are engineered to be a tad narcissistic. We consistently see ourselves as more capable than is objectively true.
Imagine the evolutionary disaster that would occur if this weren’t the case.
If our species was calibrated to be wildly overconfident, we would take unnecessary risks and not live long enough to reproduce. Possess DNA that makes you too humble, however, and you won’t seize a new opportunity that might bring a survival advantage. Or you could become so risk-averse, so cautious, that a series of fresh, minor obstacles could lead to your extinction.
The sweet spot for human evolution, then, is the position of mild narcissism. We are bred to believe we hold innate talent in the storytelling realm. Under the right conditions, we’ll give it a whirl. Then, depending upon the feedback we receive from the competitive marketplace—and how much the storytelling process itself is self-rewarding by tickling the pleasure circuits in our brain—we will alter our behavior.
Get harsh feedback? We will dig in to become more skillful for a time, or turn our eye to a more promising arena.
With positive feedback, we’ll probably continue to write. After all, when compared to the alternatives, writing is an easy way to create a sexual display.
At that last sentence, I can almost hear you blinking. What are you saying, Jan? That writing and sex are connected?
Yup. As explained in the next section, they most certainly are…
I’m Too Sexy for My DNA
You’ll notice our species is also full of “natural” musicians and athletes. Until life disabused us of the notion, who among us didn’t dream of becoming a rock star, dancer, or quarterback?
But why do humans sing or play an instrument or yearn to play a sport? For that matter, when the nutrition inside a rough, lumpy bread loaf is identical (or preferable) to its refined cousin, why work to become the best dang artisanal baker in the village?
It turns out that many artistic and athletic pursuits are clever ways of advertising the quality of our DNA to other humans. (Some of these activities help humans prepare for real-world challenges, too. For example, the hand-eye-coordination of sports will come in handy during hunting and warfare.)
When thinking of sexual displays, you’re probably used to thinking of peacocks unfurling their tail feathers, or satin bowerbird decorating their nests with brightly colored objects. Humans have simply evolved more sophisticated means of showing off our fitness indicators.
When we tell a story to the village, to our potential mates we essentially say, “Check out the inside of this fabulous brain. Want access to the sexy DNA that had a hand in its making? We could make smart, creative babies together…”
To our potential friends we say, “Don’t you want to be in a coalition with the possessor of this DNA? Just hang around me, buddy. I’m a repository of worldly wisdom that could save your life one day—that is, if you’ll promise to save mine if the tables are turned.”
To our potential trading partners we say, “You’ve got the coconuts. I’ve got the ideas that can tickle your pleasure circuits and make you smarter. Want to swap?”
So we are a species of natural and confident storytellers. We use storytelling to pass on knowledge and gain partners in the three major arenas of life.
There is yet one more scientific reason for the phenomenon of the natural writer: Write poorly, and you might suffer embarrassment, discouragement, rejection, and alienation from the village. What you will not suffer, however—unless you’re doing it all wrong or live in a politically volatile region—is a life-threatening injury.
We are wired to avoid pain and conserve resources. Set against other forms of sexual display, writing is a comparatively low-cost investment.
In conclusion, the next time your neighbor wants to talk about their certain-to-be-a-hit story idea instead of your just-published, award-winning book, don’t get mad. Don’t see them as unduly selfish and inconsiderate. Your conversational partner is merely fulfilling their genetic destiny.
Keep your eye on fulfilling yours.
Over to you, Unboxeders? Care to give a rough estimate of the number of natural writers you’ve met in your life? Have you ever thought of writing in terms of a sexual display?