In his commencement speech to the University of Arts in Philadelphia on May 17, 2012, writer Neil Gaiman urged students to “make good art .” Specifically, he was encouraging them to make art that only they can make, being original through being themselves and through creating out of what is inside their own mind and their own experiences and their own perspective. This is certainly advice that can be taken to heart because it is something that one can see from the life and times of the author himself. Notably, Neil Gaiman as an author and creator is someone who is very honest about the debt of inspiration and influence he owes to others as well as his appreciation of other creative people whose works he has enjoyed. He is willing to admit to unpopular preferences in terms of his reading (like the works of Rudyard Kipling) even as he seeks to turn others on to the somewhat obscure work that he has long enjoyed.
It is especially telling the way that Gaiman views the work of a prose writer. In his own words : “The miracle of prose is this: it begins with the words. What we, as authors, give to the reader isn’t the story. We don’t give the the people or the places or the emotions. What we give the reader is a raw code, a rough pattern, loose architectural plans that they will use to build the book themselves. No two readers an or ever will read the same book, because the reader builds the book in collaboration with the author.” This is a remarkable insight, and I would like to spend at least a little bit of time unpacking it, because this insight tells us a lot about creativity in general and the way that we appreciate art or fail to appreciate it, and how what is creative can in turn inspire others to be creative themselves.
What a writer, or any kind of artist, gives to the audience is some element of communication, be it in words or images, in sounds or smells, that allows the audience to reconstruct it based on their own understanding and their own experiences. Anything, like genre or an understanding of plot and characterization and structure and allusions, that allows the reader to better understand what the author is doing allows the reader to get more out of it. I had a grandmother who loved to bake breads and cakes and pies, and the smell of homemade bread will remind me of my grandmother’s baking. The smell of cut grass will often remind me of growing up in rural Central Florida with a grandfather who loved his riding lawnmower. The sight of hay and beef or dairy cattle will often remind me of my farming family, and so on and so forth. To the extent that we can recognize some effort on the part of an artist to communicate, we can participate in the creation of art through our understanding and filling in of the rough sketch that we are provided by the artist.
The reverse is also true. That art and literature that does not resonate with us is something that we will not appreciate. If I listen to an atonal piece of music, I will feel as if the composer (and the people playing the music) has violated the contract that a composer makes with his or her audience to produce music that is melodically pleasing. Their attempts to be creative and break the rules of the structure of major and minor keys will be viewed by me not as creativity but as a failure to uphold one side of a bargain, that someone will create good music that I can enjoy. A writer may intend for a particular character to be sympathetic to the audience, but if that character’s behavior violates the moral worldview of the audience, then that character will likely be viewed by the audience in a far more negative fashion than the author intends, because the author violated a contract that says that “good” characters will behave in a particular fashion. Creators are going to do what they do, and create what they do, but at the same time it is worthwhile for us to note that just as they do not create in a vacuum, neither do we appreciate their creations in a vacuum. We bring something to do the table, namely ourselves.
And realizing that is part of the challenge. We are often passive in our viewing of the creativity of others and do not realize our role in creativity as partners with the creations that others make. A great deal of what allows creations and innovations to catch on is the way that we respond to them. Audiences still, to this day, can appreciate the writings of Jane Austen because she writes of universal longings for love and respect with appealing characters who are not perfect but are good, and whose potential for growth and whose appreciation of authorial divine providence encourages the same qualities in ourselves. More than 3,000 years ago someone created the Phaistos Disc, and it remained a technological dead end that would not be followed up until the late Middle Ages, because the disk, which would have allowed for the printing of an ancient and unknown script did not resonate with the cultures that followed his (or her) own. Whether we are creating works of art and literature or technologies, we must be aware that we are creating something that serves as a template for someone else to fill it on. A phone is also a camera, a social media website also a place for people to share their blogs or favorite memes or to join with like-minded people in various groups. A computer is also a video game system, and a poem is also a manifesto, depending on what the audience does with it. Let us celebrate this as well as understand it.
 Neil Gaiman. The View From The Cheap Seats (New York: William Morrow, 2014) 451-459.
 ibid, 40.