Thursday, August 29, 2013

Neil Gaiman on Making Good Art

Friends of the Library, wall noting names of supporters, Public Library of Hamilton County, Cincinnati

"Life is sometimes hard...And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art. I'm serious. Make it on the good days, too." --Neil Gaiman

We ended up at a library again this week, this time Cincinnati's Main Library downtown. (It's been a summer of libraries, it seems.) This time we were in the city for business, walking from one location to another--and the library was located between the two. It was too enticing and we couldn't pass up the opportunity. So we stopped in.

While there, I stumbled upon a gem on the new release shelf: Neil Gaiman's Fantastic Mistakes, Make Good Art. The delightful tome was actually a keynote address he gave to the University of the Arts Class of 2012, University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Next to actually being there, this is the next best thing. Maybe even better since the layout helps make the book. The graphic design takes you through the speech in an artistic way with bold font, small font, poetic form, slants, surprises and flair. You have to see it to appreciate it.

Being in the audience to hear the speech firsthand must have been inspiring, for sure. But I was inspired just sitting there in the quiet, surrounded by books, holding the speech in my hands and taking it in. A sample from the book:

"Looking back, I've had a remarkable ride. I'm not sure I can call it a career, because a career implies that I had some kind of career plan, and I never did. The nearest thing I had was a list I made when I was 15 of everything I wanted to do: to write an adult novel...a children's book...a comic...a movie...record an audiobook...write an episode of Doctor Who...and so on. I didn't have a career. I just did the next thing on the list."

No pressure! This from a man who has accomplished all the goals of his 15-year-old self multiplied many times over.

Another tidbit: "If you're making a mistake, it means you're out there. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful. I once spelled Caroline, in a letter, transposing the A and the O, and I thought, 'Coraline looks like a real name..."

(Coraline is a favorite Neil Gaiman book.)

I can't do justice in describing this fun little book, I can only say it was neat serendipity to run across it on a random visit to the library and would encourage writers--just graduating or seasoned veterans--to take a peek at it.

You'll be inspired just like those students in that audience must have been.

Question: did you start out trying to make writing "a career," or simply attempt to do "the next thing" on your list until you realized, yes, you are a writer!? Which way is more fun? Do you see your writing as making art?


  1. Interesting post. I believe writing is absolutely "making art." Years ago, when I was getting my teaching degree, there was a big debate about whether teaching was an art or a science. The answer was "both." I think many things worth doing are like that. There is an art to it.

    I wish I had a list like Gaiman's, but I don't. I also don't know if writing will ever be a career for me. (Second career, maybe, if I'm re-e-eally lucky?)

    I am not a huge Neil Gaiman fan, though I think the first line of his Newbery award winner has one of the best "hooks" I've ever read: "There was a hand in the dark and it held a knife." (I didn't even have to look it up.) A little blood-thirsty, yes. But what middle-grade kid wouldn't want to keep reading after that? Didn't love the rest of that book (The Graveyard Book), but that first line taught me the importance of a really good hook.

  2. This book sounds incredible, and what amazing libraries you are privileged to live near. I thought about becoming an author when I was in my mid-30's. I felt woefully inadequate for the task, so went back and got my M.A. in English Literature. It didn't improve my writing, but it vastly increased my knowledge of literature. I still sometimes wonder if I'm a "real" writer. "Real" writers are published, you know. :) But it's a moot point. I am far, far more interested in creating art at this point, and watching how ideas unfold. If romance writing is anything, it is art, certainly not reality. But it is definitely an art form.

  3. Peggy, I do have a list--it's a "wish" list of ideas I'd love to explore. Time will tell how many actually come to life :-) And I agree with you that there is an art to writing. And we are often life-long learners in the class.

    As for Gaiman, my favorite quote is the one about if you make a mistake it means you're out there. It tells me to keep on trying and not give up...Also, I'm not a fan of the spooky kinds of books, either. Coraline was enough for me, an interesting character, but I passed on The Graveyard Book, too :-)

  4. Cathy, we are blessed with a great library system here, that's for sure. With the Main library downtown and several branches all around, we can go in just about any direction and visit a library...

    I started out a journalism major then switched to education, so I don't have any depth in English Lit, though I often wished I did. I began to try my hand at children's stories in my late 20s. A few short stories published but the books have been elusive. But I'm with you, our approach determines whether or not we're "real" writers. Exploring, creating, seeing how those ideas unfold makes us real to the art. Though publication would be nice, too!

  5. Great and inspiring post~ that tidbit about the name Coraline stemming from a mistake is pretty cool!

  6. Thanks for such a good share. I'd like to get that book. There was a great interview with Gaiman in a recent Writer's Digest issue. He sounds like such an ebullient person. As for me, I've always scribbled stories and poems, but only settled down to write seriously when I took early retirement from teaching. I have to confess to no career plan. (Like, I didn't enter an MFA program, or anything like that.) Just workshops, and notebooks filled with story ideas that I tackle one by one.

  7. Very inspiring! You seem to take the most interesting field trips and end up making the best discoveries! :)