On Creativity I: Word Usage

I’m not entirely sure I understand what people mean when they say “creativity” any more. I have this idea of creativity as a broad concept in my head, encompassing a wide range of things. As a result, when people say they aren’t creative or that so-and-so isn’t creative, I’m usually pretty boggled.

Creativity- [mass noun] the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness: Firms are keen to encourage creativity.

Oxford Dictionary of English

Creativity- n. the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.

The New Oxford American Dictionary

It’s taking me a minute, but notice the differences between these dictionaries’ definitions for creativity? The ODE definition is closer to what I think of than the NOAD version. (Note: These definitions are from the Kindle versions that are updated with changes automatically.) When I went to look at the about, NOAD didn’t have anything. It’s a standard American usage dictionary. ODE was a little better- in fact, there’s a long forward in this edition of ODE. They adopted a different style for this one, one that “aims in part to account for the dynamism, imaginativeness, and flexibility of ordinary usage.” (They also included usages in a wider range of English using countries instead of just American usage.)

Because of my language acquisition methods, the range of concepts/shape of the word in my head shifts every time I hear a word differently. Because of the range of the usages I see for the word “creative” is broad, my idea of how to use that word is broad. It puzzles and frustrates me that people have limited definitions sometimes.

In fact, for a very long time- until the past two years actually- I was frustrated greatly by dictionaries. They never seemed to encompass everything about the words that I was learning. That the resource everyone was pointing me to when I was confused by how people used words didn’t cover the areas that I was struggling with- usage, broad definitions, implications, etc. – was frustrating. Beyond frustrating- I’m trying to think of an analogy that is a little more obvious without being unfair or ridiculous to compare. Like entering a supposedly accessible bathroom stall, only to discover there’s not enough room for your power wheelchair. The people in charge say “but we have an accessible bathroom!” but what they don’t understand that the supposedly accessible stall – which is meant to help you – doesn’t. Everyone thought a dictionary would solve my word usage problems, but for me, it didn’t actually grant access. Just because it meets the minimum standards of accessibility does not mean it actually meets the need in question.

As I’ve come to accept how broadly my neurology impacts some of the aspects of my life- and that just because I’m “good” at something doesn’t mean my disabilities don’t impact them- this has become a little less of an issue. My disability justice work, in particular, has reached a depth where I can recognize what is going on. I can now identify the issue, and either find a way that actually helps me or accept that I need to approach the issue a different way. It was a very hard lesson for me.

Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t make the issue go away. For example, I still can’t define words very well on my own/in my own words, even when I’m relatively competent in using the words. More so for “abstract” words or usages of course. How I struggled in school when this is the sort of definition the teacher wanted instead of one that was lifted almost directly from a dictionary! In elementary and middle school, my LDs greatly impacted my grades and my relationships with teachers who thought that since I seemed to be “brilliant” or “intelligent” my issues must be laziness. By high school, I was a perfectionist about my grades, and when I had this sort of teacher I would get very frustrated. (Interestingly, the advanced placement or “honors” teachers were generally better with my approach to language usage than my other teachers.)

This brings me back to my point- to me, this approach of finding my own work around, one tailored to my own needs, is creativity in action. Building an accessible world is creative to me. Innovating, creating, re-purposing- to me, these are all creative acts. Sometimes they are hard acts, sometimes they are necessary acts, but they are all creative ones.

Sometimes they are vanishingly small acts- finding a way, even collaboratively, to deal with the trigger warning vs content warning issue for example. That debate is an act of creativity to me. The sense of awe I get when seeing innovative art even comes in to some extent. Any more, as I accept that other people don’t see it this way, I even get a sense of wonder about the sheer diversity of creativity- that my sense of it includes things that other people don’t, that it includes people who have felt alienated by other senses of what creativity is.

But that’s my personal definition, and if someone doesn’t identify themselves as creative I won’t label them as such. Performing acts of creativity isn’t the same as feeling an innate sense of creativity, and labeling a person something that functions as identity without their consent is kinda disturbing to me personally.

So, too, is ascribing attributes to an entire group of people. There is this- idea? Cultural meme?- that Autistics, because they are Autistics, aren’t able to be “creative.” I think this is pretty much the most easily debunked idea out there, but I could be wrong. It could be that their usage of creativity meets neither my own definition- which is admittedly broad- nor the ones in the dictionaries. But most people I’ve heard spout this realize they are wrong pretty quickly. There’s another one that people with mental health disabilities are inherently/innately creative in the traditional sense. This is harder to debunk, but it can be done. Especially if you know some of the people I know who explicitly identify as not creative. And I’m not just talking about medical model or even disease model people, either. Segments of the MHD community do actively ascribe creative to their experience of their MHD. That’s awesome. But it’s not awesome when they then try and ascribe creative as inherent to all people with MHDs.

I’m fine with creative, I’m even fine with linking my forms and concepts of creativity to aspects of my disabilities. But that’s my experience of my own disabilities, not someone else’s experiences. I don’t have a right to infringe on their autonomy- on identity or on anything else. I need to recognize- and yes, it is hard work to think this way for me because of how my brain works- that their experiences are not my experiences. And my experiences are not yours, your child’s aren’t yours, and your clients’ aren’t yours.

Which circles back around to realizing that not everyone has the same sense of words. Please understand, it wasn’t until I was 21 or 22 that I realized that not everyone experiences words and concepts as a mish-mash of texture, movement, and shape. I struggled a lot with figuring out why my words were wrong before I comprehended that I was processing the concepts behind the words differently. There were even times where I was shocked that someone would comment that they found a way of saying something or making something was creative. To me, the langauge that they found poetic or the art I made that they found creative were literals or very close approximations of how I experienced those concepts.

When I sit down to write poetry or make art, I don’t sit there and work on “creativity”. I sit there and I try out words that seem to be the right shape for what I’m “seeing” inside of my head. I sit there and think about the things that make me feel a certain way, that makes my internal experience match the concept my art is illustrating. I create a lot of analogies, and I go through a logical process of turning them into similes and then into metaphors. I create long lists of properties I see and feel about the two things I’m comparing. Sometimes I have to drop a concept because when I make the lists, I realize that the things I’m experiencing aren’t as similar to each other as I initially thought.

To me, while this might technically be an act of creativity, it doesn’t make me creative. It’s just how my brain runs. The sense of me as creative here is something that you or society is experiencing about me, and in this case I don’t mind it at all. Sometimes I do feel like I’m being “creative” in a smaller sense- the NOAD sense if you will. But much more often, I’m just being, experiencing the process of creating in the OED sense, or even my own personal sense of what creativity can mean.

Thank you, by the way, to elementary school teachers who got frustrated and desperate trying to teach me the differences between analogies, similes, and metaphors. I know it took me ages, but the tactics some of you tried did end up creating a functional system to process language stuff later on. Also, I read a lot of the books like “Heavens to Betsy” and other linguistic trivia books that would explain in plain language why people said certain things and used words in certain ways from an etymological perspective. I’m one of those people who loves dictionaries with huge etymologies. Sometimes I understand the word from the etymology better than from the printed definitions. In any case, language use and I have quite the complicated relationship.

I’m going to stop this entry now. The next entry in this series will be on poetry, and I’m setting a tentative date of Thursday, December 29th for it.  I’m not sure how many parts this series will have, as I think it will be an on going thing where next time I work out an entry that falls under the topic it will be a new entry in the series.

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2 thoughts on “On Creativity I: Word Usage

  1. When I was getting evaluated for AS and ADHD, the evaluator asked me to explain a bunch of phrases like “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” and my initial responses were all about the etymology of the phrases because to me, the etymology explains everything else. I had to be prompted multiple times to come up with the “correct” explanation, which was something like “you have to keep moving or else you’ll get bogged down.” To me, the etymology explains everything you need to know about the idiom; it’s really hard to explain them any other way.

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