Neil Gaiman Addresses the University of the Arts Class of 2012 from The University of the Arts (Phl) on Vimeo.
The first issue of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman I picked up was #8. I’d recently gotten back into comic books and it just looked cool. (It was!)
I’ve had the chance of meeting him in passing at comic book conventions and he’s every bit as nice as people say he is. Hell, probably nicer.
Gaiman’s not my favorite writer, but he might be my favorite person who happens to write.
So it was nice stumbling upon this video yesterday, showing why he’s such a badass among badasses…
I Just Did the Next Thing on the List
I won’t go on and on about every point made in this speech…just a few. Right now I’m back to a point of looking at several things to tackle with my own writing. It’s easy to make something simple end up difficult when you think about it too much. Gaiman’s golden advice?
“I didn’t have a career — I just did the next thing on the list.”
It really is that easy, and I look forward to doing the next thing on my writing list.
I Still Had the Work
I think for me, this was the biggie in the speech — Gaiman saying:
“If I did the work I was proud of and didn’t have the money, I still had the work.”
I recently posted about my own struggles with “making it,” and coming to a sense of comfort in just doing the best writing I can regardless of what happens. (Part 2 and Part 3 of those posts, if interested.)
While the dream of writing full time is nice, even nicer is the act of writing itself. The dedication involved in waking up and hour earlier on work days to write, or staying up a little later to finish up a chapter. Those times, alone, when it all just comes together. Reaching that point where you realize you’re good. I’ve been paid for my writing, but those moments have all been better than the money.
For me, it used to be all about making it — a struggle between my day job and writing. Now, no matter what, it’s just about the writing. Worst case: nobody reads what I write, but I still have the satisfaction that comes from the work.
That’s not such a bad thing.
I’d go as far as saying that once one comes to that conclusion, the work gets even better.
When Things Get Tough…
In his speech, Gaiman says:
“When things get tough, this is what you do: make good art.”
Good art can carry a person through tough times. I’ve written while watching a sibling die and while dealing with a health issue of my own. When I’ve been laid off and the emergency fund was about to dry up and I needed something to give me hope, I found that hope in writing. (And time with my wife.)
Some of my fondest memories are the times money was barely there and my wife and I focused on writing and art. I remember the stress of not having much, but years later, what I remember even more is the wonderful feeling of doing what we loved.
I’ve never believed that one must suffer for their art, but I will say if one can make art while suffering, there are few things in life they can’t do.
Where Would Be the Fun…?
There’s something exciting about taking chances with art — not doing what pays or what you know will be accepted. I’ve written about the importance of wandering out to the edge before, and believe in what I wrote more each year. In his commencement speech, Gaiman talks about taking chances:
“Where would be the fun in making something you knew was going to work?”
The fun matters. It’s why I shun outlines — for me, knowing where I’m going every step of the way takes the fun out of it. There really is something about the excitement of writing what you want on spec instead of writing what you know is going to work and pay.
Because he chose to write the stories that excited him, Neil Gaiman is in an enviable position: he’s a successful writer who doesn’t have to write the same thing over and over. He doesn’t have to worry about fans yelling when he breaks away from the same stories about a famous detective he created. Because he’s always written what he wanted to write, he gets to write what he wants. He’s known for doing his own thing. He has fun doing his own thing.
This week, I’ve returned to my most challenging novel to date. I could, and some would argue should, work on a paranormal mystery series I have tucked away. A series is always good: you hook people and they keep coming back. You build a following and then, hopefully, money follows. But when I put the series next to other things that are more challenging, I like the challenge…even if the challenging stories are more likely to “fail.”
I have more fun pushing myself to be the best writer I can be than playing it safe and writing what has better odds of working.
Make Good Art
It all comes down to this: make good art.
Don’t write what everyone else is writing just because it’s what’s in; take a chance on what you really want to do, even if you don’t think it will work.
I may be forever doomed to have every story I write greeted with the typical rejection I seem to receive: “Hey, this is really good, but…it’s a bit quirky and I don’t know how I’d market it, so I’m passing.”
It’s a rejection that used to bother me, but these days, I almost look forward to it.
I’m doing what I want (making good art), and that’s a fine place to be.
Paul Lamb says
I’ve always had to work for the man to pay the bills, wishing I could live off of my writing. But sometimes I wonder if I would really want that.
There was a time (a mercifully brief time) when I was a feature writer at the most regarded print magazine in my city. It was a plum job, one I’d dreamed of attaining for years.
And I found I resented it.
Not only was the pressure on me to pay my bills with the quality and quantity of my writing (which is frightening, let me tell you), but I resented that I had to use my “skill” to write for someone else. I was doing someone else’s thing; I wasn’t doing my own thing with my meager talents.
I got out of that job and was soon an office drone, which isn’t a bad thing for a writer who can keep his life in compartments. No creativity is required from my job. Therefore I can reserve it all for my writing.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m just rationalizing my situation. Someday, maybe I’ll get to find out.
Christopher Gronlund says
Making money writing is nice, but chasing money writing doesn’t appeal to me. Similar to you, when I made money writing, there became a certain pressure when I thought, “I should make a run at freelancing.” Travel writing was fun, and I branched out to some other things…enough that I hit a point of having to think about writing things just for the sake of writing things. And it didn’t appeal to me.
I’m a member of a WordPress users group in the area, and a handful of people in the group earn a nice living blogging. The mantra for many is “Monetize that blog!” and some people have asked why I haven’t tried monetizing The Juggling Writer. If I did, I’d feel compelled to write things just for the sake of writing at that point. Each day notices didn’t go out to people that there’s a new entry up (because I didn’t write one) would be a day without that bump in pay. I know it wouldn’t be long before I stooped to trying to connect anything to writing. (“They say gum health leads to heart health…and a healthy heart means a healthy writer! That’s why I use The Gummeister 5000 toothbrush! (affiliate link).”)
I agree with you that there’s something to just having a job you can leave at work. While I’m a tech writer, it doesn’t take a lot out of me or require creativity to do what I do. Aside from some periods of overtime, work stays at work and I’m free to do what I want.
I don’t think it’s rationalizing the situation. I can only speak for myself, but I find the older I get, the happier I am just writing what I want. If someone came to me and said, “We like the FBI agent in your story, Big Top. Can you turn him into a series character — we’ll pay you,” I don’t think I could do it. There was a time I could, but now…I’d rather write what challenges me and makes me happy than cranking stuff out for money.
Gaiman’s a neat writer to me because he’s one of those writers who just does what he wants. He writes what excites him. He’s not cranking out a detective novel a few times a year just to make money — he’s writing the things that stick in his head that make him happy to write.
I’m sure the money he now makes doesn’t hurt, but take that one variable out, and we can all be like him and just do what we love.
I don’t think there’s a better reason to write than that.