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…