In an exclusive piece for Writers & Artists, author and Open University lecturer Philip Seargeant considers five properties of creativity, and how they can help with the writing process.
Creativity is one of those abilities, like language, that you can have great proficiency in without any understanding of how it works. As Maya Angelou says, it’s like electricity in this respect - although without the advantage of a simple On/Off switch. This doesn’t mean that knowledge about the workings of creativity can’t be useful. For the writer, an understanding of what it is, why it’s important, and how it relates to language can offer valuable insights into both the process and art of composition.
Below are five key points about creativity and language which can help us understand how it operates, and appreciate the pivotal role it plays in culture.
There are several competing definitions of creativity. For the linguist Noam Chomsky it’s an essential property of language which allows people to express ‘indefinitely many thoughts’ and to react ‘appropriately in an indefinite range of new situations’. Although language is made up of finite means – written English, for example, has only 26 letters of the alphabet – I can combine these in ways to create sentences which have never been written before; and you have the ability to understand them, despite never having heard them before.
While this pinpoints a remarkably productive property of language, it’s a very specialized definition of creativity, and not one which helps much when it comes to understanding its artistic workings. A more useful definition is James Kaufman and Robert Sternberg’s proposition that something is creative if it’s novel, of high quality and is appropriate to the task it’s being used for. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
The term ‘creativity’ has become something of a cliché of modern times. Until the 1930s it wasn’t much used at all. Its popularity surged in the 60s, and then again in the 80s. Today it’s bandied around in all sorts of contexts, from business mantras to psychology studies.
There’s a certain irony to this overuse. After all, as the art director George Lois defines it, creativity is ‘the defeat of habit by originality’. It’s a way of disrupting the settled ways we have of seeing the world; of mixing invention with presentation to create an effect that stands out against the everyday run of things. And it’s this that Kaufman and Sternberg are referring to when they talk of novelty.
So how is this achieved? An enduring idea here is what’s known as defamiliarization – the production of an effect which will make people appreciate things in new light. At the word- or sentence-level this can be done by using tropes such as rhythm, rhyme and metaphor. At a discourse level it can be done with plot and structure, or by juxtaposing ideas or themes in unexpected ways. In each case, manipulation of the language draws attention itself, either to create a particular aesthetic effect, or to foreground an element of the content.
Simply littering your prose with unusual metaphors or other poetic tropes is not, in itself, creative however. Almost more important than novelty is the idea that creativity always serves some purpose. And in order to do this well, it needs to be appropriate to the task at hand. For example, jokes are often used to create social bonds between people – but in order to do so the joke has to match the sense of humour of the person that you’re hoping to bond with.
The same applies in creative writing. Different literary techniques will be used for particular purposes – to create character, mood, a sense of place – and to this end they need to be appropriate to the task they’re trying to achieve.
Related to appropriateness are the expectations of the reader. Among the tips about writing that Nietzsche sent to his friend Lou Andreas-Salomé was the advice that ‘Style should be suited to the specific person with whom you wish to communicate’. This is what’s known as addressivity, and it’s important even if that audience is multiple, and if you don’t know precisely who it consists of. Both the properties that we’ve looked at so far are dependent on an audience – and specifically what the expectations of that audience are, and how you can play with these.
A slightly different way of expressing this idea comes from the artist Marcel Duchamp, who wrote that ‘The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act’.
Think of Duchamp’s most famous work, Fountain. This consists of a urinal, exhibited on its back. But because it’s viewed within the context of a gallery the audience arrives with various pre-conceived ideas about art which become part of the way they process the experience of viewing it. Without the reaction of the audience – and how this has rippled through the art world – the piece wouldn’t have the significance it does.
Which brings us finally to the way the role of the reader or audience is closely related to how creativity is valued in society. The fact that the term is so prevalent these days shows that, as a general concept, creativity is something that modern society feels is important. But different types of creativity are valued in different ways. The tropes that we mentioned earlier – the use of metaphor, types of word play, etc. – are found in everyday conversation as much as they are in literature. Linguistic creativity is a fundamental part of how we use language in any situation in fact. But the purposes it’s put to, and the value that’s placed on it, will be different in, say, the context of a discussion down the pub or an article in the New Yorker.
Ultimately, though, both creativity and language are, in one form or another, central to human society. We use both to shape and express our identity, as well as to make sense of the social world around us. And knowing a little about their working relationship can thus give us a reflective perspective on how it is we communicate in writing.
If you’re interested in exploring more on this topic, watch this short animation about language and creativity.
And for more on what creativity means in creative writing, a range of interviews with authors, translators, educators and literary agents can be found here.
Philip Seargeant is a senior lecturer at the Open University where he specialises in language and communication. He can be found on Twitter at @philipseargeant.
From Language to Creative Writing, which was co-published by the Open University and Bloomsbury, can be purchased here.