Is writing in the blood? Is it inherited? Where does it come from?

My mother and me

If I have writing skills, I didn’t get them from my father. He was a well-respected and much beloved neurologist, but he wasn’t a reader, much less a writer. That was my mother’s department. I knew she loved words and not just in books. She composed them as well. I remember long letters of correspondence she sent me at summer camps (placed in manila envelopes stuffed with newspaper clippings). I also knew she exchanged lengthy letters with her friends. It wasn’t until I waded into her papers after her death in 1988, however, that I realized how good a writer she was – and how badly she wanted a career in literature. Words flowed effortlessly from her. Topics included anything and everything – a recent trip, a visit from a relative, a class taught by Lewis Mumford, a play on Broadway, a book, a favorite dog, the weather. They were the nonstop words of a natural writer, energetically seeking an audience. She was an amazing photographer as well, I discovered, with a natural eye for form and light. I had no idea! Growing up, she never discussed her writing or photography with me at all. I know why. By the time I was old enough to appreciate her skill, she had abandoned any hope of a career – for many reasons – and had settled into a kind of monkish existence, content to read books and watch movies on television.

So where does the skill and desire to write or take photographs come from if one’s parents aren’t tutors? School, I suppose – but I never took classes in these topics, preferring to study history and anthropology. Reading is crucial, of course, but it’s not the same as writing and it doesn’t explain the source of the mysterious drive that propels writers to write. It’s more basic. A friend of mine once declared that he “didn’t have a book in him.” For those of us with many books inside, where does that need originate? Is there a writing gene?

Cousin Bill

This question came rushing at me unexpectedly one day in 1986 when I learned that novelist William Faulkner was my cousin. My aunt Sarah – my father’s sister – had come to Los Angeles, where I was living at the time, to visit Stuart Lacy, their mother’s oldest brother. I tagged along. Sarah had recently retired from a career in social work and decided to dig into the Lacy family tree, the roots of which reached back to medieval England and Normandy (the de Lacys fought alongside William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings). She also wanted to confirm a rumor that we were related to one William Faulkner of Oxford, Mississippi. That was a surprise! On the drive to Canoga Park, Sarah explained what she had learned: Faulkner’s great grandmother and her great grandmother were sisters – Emily and Sarah Holcombe. Emily married Dr. John Murry, whose daughter, Sallie, married John Wesley Falkner (whose famous son added a ‘u’ to the family name). Sarah Holcombe married Watson Lacy and moved to El Dorado, Arkansas. Their child, William Stokes Lacy, was my father’s grandfather. However, Sarah was having trouble confirming our link to the novelist because genealogy trees in those days heavily favored male lineages, leaving wives and mothers to sit forlornly on limbs. In 2006, I paid a visit to Faulkner’s home outside Oxford and spent an hour in a local bookstore confirming the Lacy family connection. My aunt’s sleuthing was correct – I was related to William Faulkner!

Faulkner’s map of Yoknapatawpha County

This news percolated inside me. My mother idolized Faulkner (and never forgave my father for being the family link instead of her). I grew up dabbling in his novels, mostly egged on by her unswerving admiration for the writer. I didn’t get very far. In college, I tried again. I made my way through The Sound and The Fury and Absalom! Absalom! However, his dense writing style and lugubrious sentences (I thought at the time) weren’t my cup of tea. I appreciated his “Southernness” and his world-building, even if I couldn’t pronounce the name of his mythical county – Yoknapatawpha. His regionalism appealed to my budding creative interest in my home ground, the American West. In fact, a direct consequence of my aunt’s visit was a decision to do an ‘independent study’ of the West, which I conducted in the book stacks of UCLA’s main library during breaks from my job in the Acquisitions department (a project prompted by the arrival of John Nichols’ On the Mesa at my desk one day). Faulkner had dedicated himself to articulating what it meant to be Southern, which was a cool idea, I thought. What did it mean to be Western? I had a few ideas, thanks to Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, among others, but I needed to dig deeper, which is exactly what I did for the next two years, resulting in The Indelible West, among other projects.

My visit to Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, outside Oxford in 2006 inspired me all over again, but in a new direction. I had spent the previous eight years writing articles, essays, and interviews about ranchers and other progressive land managers as part of my duties as Executive Director of the Quivira Coalition. The previous fall, I was deeply honored when Wendell Berry published an essay of mine titled ‘The Working Wilderness’ in his collection The Way of Ignorance. It felt like crossing a threshold – I was a writer! What did that mean? What should I do now? Reconfirming my familial link to Faulkner in Oxford and visiting Rowan Oak (where I wandered around so long that a security guard asked me if everything was ok) pushed all these questions to the forefront. I felt a kinship with my cousin that couldn’t be denied, whatever its source. Most of all, I wanted to write books. But I was forty-six years old! Not too late to write books, but too late to make a career of it. Fortunately, I didn’t inherit the legacy of alcoholism from Faulkner, so at least I had that going in my favor. Still, it seemed crazy. I decided to compromise. I had recently stopped writing a regular column for the Quivira newsletter, feeling like I had reached an inflection point. I would start another column, on my web site, with a different purpose – more literary perhaps – and see what happened next. I began the project on Earth Day, 2008, titled A Chronicle of the Age of Consequences.

Where does the urge to write come from? I don’t know. It might be inheritable, I suppose, but whatever the source, it’s important to take our inspirations and run with them, not knowing where they will lead. If you can find inspiration among the leaves and branches of your family tree, so much the better!

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