Writing Pareidolia

I’m fascinated by pareidolia. The way we are primed for spotting the familiar in the alien, the meaning in the senseless, the pattern in the random. The way we may or may not see the same things, like faces in froth or ponies in clouds, depending on our subjective experiences and values. Nature’s Rorschach test.

I made a whole series of paintings with this in mind a couple of years ago. Few would argue that there are human figures in those paintings, but once you’ve identified those, where does the eye – the assumption – go next? People have told me that they spot more and more figures, or that they start to interpret what the figures might be doing and what their relationship to one another might be. Clues in the composition. Broad strokes first, then detail. Obvious distinctions, then fragmented uncertainties.

It occurred to me yesterday that I am doing the same thing with my current writing project Streams (so far made up of Journal Sequence, Cut-Up Sequence, Automatic Fiction and Travelogue). Within those flash pieces, there are short paragraphs upon which you can hang your hat. You recognise a human experience, be the narrator fictional or real. But things start to fragment. They become choppier, more subjective, more reliant on hidden context. The relationship between one sentence and the next becomes less clear, and any linearity you thought you saw is obscured.

And yet, I like to think, there is still familiarity there. If you take each stanza in isolation, you can get something from it (I know this because I have tweeted many of them without context). The more you focus on a stanza, the more potential links or hints at meaning you see with the others around it. There is repetition, slight rewording of phrases, and reference to words’ less obvious definitions. There is imagery just a step or two away from what was mentioned prior.

In some cases this effect has been created purely by accident, by allowing thoughts and associations to pour out on the page. But even in these cases, the wording and its placement is actually very precise. This was also the case with my paintings.

Elisa Gabbert once described poetry as the literary equivalent to Magic Eye posters from the 90s. “You must enter a state where you come to understand meaning-resistant arrangements of language as having their own kind of meaning. If you haven’t figured out how to look at them, you can’t believe that anyone really sees a dolphin.” She goes on to admit the metaphor is limited; the difference in poetry being that not everyone sees the same thing.

Poetry, then, is perhaps closer to what I am writing. Prose Poetry? It certainly isn’t ordinary flash fiction. Streams of Consciousness written in vignettes, that do not explicitly reference the outer world, require a subjective interpreter. They take the reader away from the comfort zone of easy terminology and linearity of our shared world and into the unstructured realm of the unconscious. In such spaces, it fascinates me that you may not see the same things I do in my vague literary shapes. And it fascinates me that some of you do.


The painting in the header is my own, entitled The Shifting of the Muse. Below the article is my largest Pareidolia painting to date: The Manifestation of Myth.

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