Tag Archives: words


My autistic sons struggle with language. What they hear enters the skull and is butter-churned to a partly-made comprehension. What they communicate is clumped together by chance and necessity. So, particularly for the less verbal boy, adolescence is an age of daily and daunting demands on a limited vocabulary. He has adopted new expletives (“bitsch” and “funk”) and he has new things to name. He recently identified the acne on his face as an “alien rash”. His erections (clothed) are simply “tight”, but in the shower he has a “penisaur”. For a teenager who can not tell you his address or even his age, these namings are purchased with the labor others might give to their best sentence, to their most clever conceit. When these geniuses are finished with their master pieces, they hope their “creativity” wins them an audience. “Creative” is a word my autistic son may never use. His “penisaur” doesn’t give a “funk” about your “creativity”. I don’t either.

What is “creativity”, anyway? A creative person, it seems, as commonly named, pursues interests of little immediate or apparent value. Visual artists are creative. Musicians, perhaps. Comedians, I guess so. Sculptors, certainly. Poets, yes. A whole host of others are “creative” in that they walk at odds with prevailing social norms. Some people dress themselves in oddities to communicate their aspirations to “creativity”. And so, a young writer might shy away from the habits of ordinary existence in hopes that the genius of the writing would likewise become obnoxious. If the costume of “creativity” ever works, it is surely by coincidence.

Most “creative” people might be better described as “arrogant”. These folk are (at least sometimes) self-persuaded that their inventive contrariness is worth of exploration and display. These writers must share their thoughts because they know themselves to be deserving of an audience. Arrogance and narcissism are not guarantors of good writing. I am arrogant enough, obviously, but my contorted prose (here) testifies to the abilities of another (hardly enviable) talent.

My autistic sons are not poets, I am not autistic, and we are not “creative”. What I write, however, is born of disability. I wield words like brooms for crutches. In the process of writing, I find a word that will do the job … the best word (given the circumstances and limitations) I can find will have to do the job, the work of communicating. Often, I fail. This reaching for the make-shift crutch is not “creative”. This is difference. This is disability and compensation, not genius. Here is where the words come in. That’s all.

Black Berries

Black raspberry

Black raspberry, watercolor 1893

Here, Indianapolis, only the last raspberries, those hidden deep in the thorny shade, remain on the cane brambles after July 4th. I found a few of these on my bicycle commute to work. The fruit hides just off the paved path topping one of the White River levees. I’ve stopped there nearly everyday for a month–decreasing my work productivity by a few minutes, daily. On one of these days, a black guy stopped his regular trek (I see him often) to ask me what I was doing. I told him that I had found some raspberries and I gave him a handful. He ate these and noted: “We call these ‘blackberries'”. I think I might have tried to explain that what I call a “blackberry” (Rubus fruticosus) is different from what I call a “raspberry” (Rubus occidentalis), but he wasn’t interested. His manner suggested that he already knows what “we” call these berries, and I (not being of his “we”) have no place to call for clarifications.

I had a similar discussion in November at church. There I made the white error of referring to the “dressing” as “stuffing”. I was told that “we” call it “dressing”. (I think I’ve heard my white, southern relatives call it “dressing” as well … so, that “we” might be more inclusive.) I will concede that “dressing” seems more sophisticated than “stuffing” … also, “stuffing” is seldom stuffed these days. However, I happen to think that life is one berry richer with (and one berry poorer without) the raspberry, but that is beside the point. Also beside the point, is the fact that one may find plenty of raspberry recipes in soul food cookbooks. (See, for example, Patty Pinner’s Sweety Pies.) Not every black person thinks “blackberries” while eating raspberries, but the above “we” do.

“We” matters far more than the names of berries. One might afford some poverty in exchange for the communal wealth of “we”. I have heard, in my limited experience, a lot of “we” in black speech. It claims the territory and recognizes a difference; it lets everyone (“we” and not-“we”) know that another cultural currency is alive, well, and perhaps beyond reach.

White people use “we” too; in reference to any group: a church, a profession, a family, or a community of people with shared interests. Do white people use “we” when talking to black people about the ways of whiteness? I cannot remember having done so, but I’m sure that “we” do that sometimes. Whiteness assumes a broader territory. Whiteness imagines itself as the norm; a norm against which any “we” might be employed for distinction. White people, therefore, do not want a “we” for whiteness. White people look for a “we” elsewhere … or they join the Klan.

Of all the “we” inclusions a white person might assume to someday achieve (political parties, team allegiances, religious affiliations, professional associations), blackness is beyond reach. In the case of my fellow commuter, “we” is worth a poverty of berries. Sadly, “blackberries” are free, but roadside raspberries are a luxury not everyone can afford.

The Arts of Language: Reading vs Word-Watching

If you want to read some old school literary criticism, try Sis. Miriam Joseph’s Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language. The book, first published in in 1947, was (for some reason, probably not a good reason) re-published in 2005. It has some devoted readers and I’m (obviously) one of it’s not very devoted readers. A very bright friend with intriguing interests recommended it recently. Apparently the catalog of “arts” provided in this text have informed a few of his writing projects. Fair enough–I can see how the many examples of linguistic forms at play in Shakespeare’s writing … especially when named … might inspire one to deliberately attempt to employ them. I have, in my own poetry, often played with the rules of grammar, so I can’t complain about the influence.

I’m bothered, however, by the book. Granted, I’m only 70 pages or so into the text, but the author doesn’t seem to have an argument–at least, not an argument that merits a book-length manuscript. The Sister was, obviously, a diligent and devoted reader of Shakespeare, but she read the “bard” as if she were bird watching. At each spotting of a linguistic device (like anastrophe) she must have jotted the quotation down on an index card. After many years these were compiled into a book–so, what we have here is a collection of favorite lines glossed by very sparse notes. Given that these lines were harvested from some of the greatest literature written in English, the reading’s not too bad. Given a choice, however, I’d prefer to do my own bard-watching. Sure, I might forget that this-or-that clever phrase from the play is actually a good example of something like zeugma, but do I really need to know these Latin diagnostics to truly digest and enjoy the writing?

As I write this, I am reminded of how much pleasure I find in knowing the names of various plants and animals … , so, I’m probably missing something here. I’ll have to revisit this question after reading another 70 pages of this text. Given my reading rate, that will be sometime next year. (May 30, 2008)