What Kind of Art Should You Make?

Adam Westbrook
4 min readApr 25, 2024

You might be someone who has lots of ideas, but finds themselves paralysed by the choice: which story to do? What piece of art to make next?

Here’s a tale that I believe comes with some profound advice.

It concerns my dear friend and fellow creative traveller Guy Gunaratne. We found each other as two filmmakers in the exciting early days of internet video. Many a Third Something letter over the years has sprung from our late-night conversations about creative work.

Guy’s second novel, Mister Mister, hit bookstores last May and the first thing you should know about it is that it is astonishingly good: An epic modern picaresque about language and identity set against the War on Terror.

The second thing you should know is that Guy had a wild ride writing it — a five year journey that almost broke them.

The insurgent

They began with what they thought was a clear idea of who their hero was: Yahya, a misfit boy growing up in 90s London. “But then” Guy writes in this very personal letter, addressed to themselves, “something happened”:

“It was Yahya who seemed to refuse you. He resisted your attempt to shape him…He was like a kind of insurgent in his own story. The more you drove toward an edifying wholeness, the more you felt an agitated steer toward some further unravelling.”

Just as real humans are always more complex than the “edifying wholeness” we try to insist upon each other so, Guy found, was Yahya.

But, as Guy writes, the novel began to unravel — and so did they:

“…there were parts of yourself that were splitting open…Your face didn’t feel like your own. Neither did your body. There were times when you thought you were going mad drowning in that invented voice.”

Where others might have given up, overwhelmed by the task or intimidated by the fire they felt they could no longer contain, Guy wrote on. They wrote and rewrote until both they and Yahya emerged “from the guts of that ruined city.”

In an interview with The Observer last weekend, Guy explained that “Yahya writes about desire from a place that exceeds normative understandings of gender. I realised I probably had to talk to the people closest to me about my own fluidity or queerness.”

“This book rewrote parts of you. And you left them guessing on him.” — Guy Gunaratne

Guy’s experience is one I don’t think they’d choose to go through again. But in our conversations about it over the years, I was inspired to watch them courageously wrestle with this aliveness, this complexity in their story and within themselves.

The fight of our lives

If Yahya can refuse to be neatly defined by others, by his family, by his nameless interrogator — even by his own author! — so can we.

After all, doesn’t society take one look at each of us: our gender, our race, our clothes, our job, our accent; and then casually slots us into some Linnean taxonomy? Do we not do that to each other all the time?

But you and I, we are all unique, brilliant, complex: we are beyond categorisation!

I think of my own complicated sexuality which stubbornly refuses to fit neatly into any of the available categories (I say I’m bisexual but even that is not a neat fit); and how hard it is to reject the ideas, expectations and assumptions of the world around me.

In his excellent book on sexuality and identity, Go The Way Your Blood Beats, Michael Amhurst writes: “Our right to define ourselves — as we are, in our infinite variety — as opposed to how others see us, is the fight of our lives.”

“I was not born to be defined by someone else, but by myself and myself only.” — James Baldwin

So, back to the original question: What art should you make? Which story should you tell?

Here’s what I will do: I will make the thing that transforms me.

I will choose the project that tempts me into dark places I fear to tread.

I will choose the story that threatens to break me in its telling.

I will dare to write something that might rewrite me.

That, after all, is the gift art gives to the artist: the journey our work sets us upon. The journey is one of the only parts of creativity we can control, so make it epic — whatever that looks like to you!

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Adam Westbrook

Video artist working at The New York Times. I write a newsletter about visual storytelling and creativity. https://adamwestbrook.co.uk/