Being creative: abstraction: the personal and the public

I read and watch a lot of online content from other writers about their creative lives, and sometimes a piece of footage resonates. I’ve been writing for a while, and I’ve written several novels, some of which, on reflection, I would never show to anyone else as they form part of my learning curve, some on them I have shown to others. I always pause before I send my work out because somehow it feels so personal.

I’ve described this feeling as another person ‘reading the inside of my mind’ when they read my work, but Neil Gaiman describes it perfectly in this video of him addressing The University of the Arts as ‘feeling like you are walking down the street naked’. I know from my extensive study of storytelling from a psychological perspective that stories do affect us, from childhood stories to novels we read as adults. We internalize all stories as experience, which is why we sometimes feel like we ‘know’ characters in novels or on TV, and their lives. Stories fire our imagination and invite us to find a commonality (often described as genre) to our own lives and personalities, or what we would like them to be (or not to be). So, when we write for ourselves and other people read it, the personal becomes public.

Neil Gaiman’s honesty in this footage is inspirational, particularly about feeling like an impostor, that being able to imagine and tell a story, through any medium, feels so good that surely it can’t be work? We inevitably to tell stories as this is how we make our own identities, and we do it every day of our lives, by expressing ourselves in the world, and creating memories, whether consciously or unconsciously. Maybe, when we get that story onto the page, or paint it, or build it, we are extending ourselves and our identities and this is just another part of living.

Many stories are triggered by culture or by a particular event, sometimes by people they have met. The anchor of people’s lives in their writing, the experiences they have had or they have dreamed or imagined, is often seen as the actual real life experiences of the author or the painter, or something they have directly experienced. This is a basic misunderstanding of abstraction. Creativity is the focusing in of consciousness to a point where your own life experience becomes a pinprick, then spins off at a tangent whist still under the influence of your imagination.

Yoko Ono’s ‘Parts of a Lighthouse’ is currently on show at the Tate Liverpool. On approach, the installation appears to be a light shining underneath a pile of glass prisms which in turn refract light onto a wall. Very pretty and glittery, but it is her explanation of this this informs the piece. In the narrative that accompanies the sculpture she asks us to live within walls of light. The shimmering lights on the wall represent her ‘walls of light’,but I couldn’t help thinking that if this was displayed outside with nothing to reflect against, then these walls of light would be purely conceptual, and would dissolve. So, in order to know that they are walls, you need actual solid walls to reflect the light! The abstraction is the concept that hangs in the mutual understanding that the walls of light are there.

Or, to put is another way, if you create the walls of light then you know they are there, but you would have to convince another person because they are not commonly visible. This is central to creativity and abstraction, the mutual understanding of the artist and the audience, the personal and the public. Revealing your own conceptual thinking through art is scary, but Neil Gaiman urges us to have the confidence to be creative and value our unique selves, with art a a form of communication. Again, Yoko Ono expresses this as follows: ‘A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.’