Creativity

Virginia Woolfe And The Dictionary.

This is a transcript from an interview that Virginia Woolf gave to the BBC in 1937.

“You can catch them and sort them, put them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind. If you want proof of this consider how often in a moment of emotion when we most need words, we find none. Yet there is a dictionary at our disposal with some half a million of them all in alphabetical order.
There beyond a doubt lie plays more splendid than Anthony and Cleopatra, poems lovelier than an Ode To A Nightingale, Novels beside which Pride and Prejudice, David Copperfield are the crude bunglings of amateurs. It is only a quesion of finding the right words and putting them together in the right order. We can’t do it because they do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.”

The point she makes is that words are tools, they don’t do very much if you leave them lying on the bench. What’s more, if you aren’t skilled at using them, they’ll not do a good job for you. She makes a very interesting point in that just because you have a dictionary, it does not mean you can write. To me a dictionary is like having your tools in racks where you can find them easily – yet you still need to know which is the right one to use, and how to use it properly.

Simon Winchester’s “The Surgeon of Crowthorne” looks at the genesis of the Oxford English Dictionary. Enthusing about the ways and means by which it was brought about, makes an assertion that I found missed the point entirely. He mentioned that Shakespeare had no recourse to a dictionary. Did he need one? If he was short of a word, he’d as soon invent one, or form his thoughts around those he knew. Shakespeare was truly creative in that he used his words to describe the image in his mind’s eye. Just as Virginia Woolfe did, and just as I do. Creativity starts with mental imagery, and works out from there – you cannot construct it as easily by building it using brick-like words, just as you can’t grow a plant by cobbling atoms together.

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