“What is your favorite word?”
This is one of the many questions that James Lipton asks his guests on “Inside the Actors Studio” as part of a standard questionnaire at the end of the show. After years of being a film and television enthusiast, I’ve gotten into the habit of trying to put myself in the shoes of an interviewee. Whenever I watch an interview with an actor or another famous personality, I always end up trying to answer the questions they’re posed, regardless of the level of my knowledge on the subject being discussed. What’s interesting is that I usually change my answers for all questions when I watch a new episode of “Inside the Actors Studio,” except for the one I just mentioned.
I love the word “creative.” I love the crisp sound of the first syllable and how it seems to mellow down, almost wandering away into ambiguity by the time you finish saying it. It’s a small word, which is good because I’m not particularly fond of long, overly intelligent sounding words. Using them usually indicates an overzealousness to appease.
See what I mean?
It’s absurd that I feel a little proud every time I reaffirm my choice while watching the show. What’s even more curious is that, until recently, this seemingly baseless sense of pride had always been accompanied by some confusion. What does “creative” even mean? And why is it my favorite word?
Most of the time, I find it difficult to explain the meaning behind words. I may know how to use a word and what it means in different contexts, but if you were to ask me to define the word as a dictionary would, I’d be stumped. It’s because I tend to feel out words and languages, rather than understand them from a literary point of view.
However, the fact that I couldn’t come close to defining my favorite word troubled me. The dozens of lectures I watched on creativity, the hours I pondered over the concept — all these were futile attempts. Eventually, I got so sick of the question of how to define creativity that I stopped thinking about it. I told myself to stop wasting time with a word and move on by wasting time with something else that was relatively more productive. A favorite word is a pretty stupid and useless thing to worry about, anyway.
During the summer, I interned at Ogilvy and Mather, a global advertising agency in Delhi, India. It was in the second half of my internship as a copywriter in the creative department where I found the answer to my initial questions.
I believe that creativity is the ability to see, perceive and experience internal, sometimes ineffable thoughts and emotions and transform them into a tangible form. For example: I might be walking toward class, and out of nowhere, an idea for a short story might hit me. Surely, that doesn’t happen to everyone and it is, as far as I’m concerned, the first sign of being a creative person. The second, more crucial aspect of creativity is acting upon such incidents by producing something that represents the epiphany you just had. This is why artists paint and draw, writers write and musicians write and sing — all these art forms are simply different manifestations of that mysterious internal processing that allows them to see things in their mind’s eye and feel things in their hearts. Creativity is a culmination of two things — the skill of getting to an idea without a process and the skill of giving a tangible form to that idea.
The first part of my dilemma was solved, but I still didn’t know why I considered creativity such an important trait. Eventually, I discovered that our personalities aren’t always composed of inherent traits; sometimes, it’s the things that you value the most that come to be a defining part of you. Not all personality traits are innate. For example, you don’t have to be born with an inherent talent for a particular sport. But if you grow up watching a sport, believing that it is important to you, it’s likely that you’ll derive a major part of your personality from the values it teaches you, even if you don’t excel in it.
I had realized that I was attached to the word because I valued it. But why did I value it?
It was the fifth grade and I had just been handed my score for a writing assessment in my English class. It was a letter-writing test and the letter was graded on a scale of one to 10. I was the last person to receive my score and I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. I had been graded a 9.5/10. I was absolutely ecstatic. We were always told in school that attaining a perfect score in any English assignment was impossible, because “there’s always room to improve what you’re saying.” The highest anyone could get in any English writing assignment was a point below the upper limit of the scale. The fact that I had been awarded an extra half point meant so much to me and I can remember feeling proud of it even a few weeks after the scores had been given out. In fact, I’m still a little proud of it. I admit that’s a little sad but I can’t help it if I’m still a fat nine-year-old boy inside, can I?
The point is, that was the first time I felt that I was genuinely good at something. I had beaten the smartest kid in the class and I was on top of the world. My teacher told me that I’d been given half a point extra, because the letter “was creatively written.” That particular feeling of discovering I was good at something has stayed with me ever since.
Yet, despite how important that feeling was to me, the truth is — I’ve never experienced it again after that day. Why? Because I don’t do many things that I feel I’m genuinely good at. Also — I rarely write. Ideas tend to hit me all the time, on the bus, while walking to class, while showering and even when I’m at a party when really all I should be thinking about is downing my drink. But, I just cannot bring myself to write. Is it because I think that everything I write will turn out to be pathetic drivel and I’ll have to come to terms with the fact that the fifth grade letter was exactly that — a fifth grade writing assignment and nothing more? Or is it just pure laziness?
While attempting to write this piece, at three in the morning, I watched an episode of “Inside the Actors Studio,” and it all came back to me. How a seemingly insignificant word and a juvenile feeling of pride meant more to me than I realized.