“Now go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes, break rules, leave the world more interesting for your being here, make good art.” – Neil Gaiman
I’ve finally had the opportunity to watch Neil Gaiman’s splendid commencement address to the 2012 graduating class of The University of the Arts In Philadelphia. In his speech, Gaiman shares some of the things he wished he had known starting out and the best piece of advice he’s ever received and completely failed to follow. To the extent that [ being | becoming ] an artist is about developing one’s voice (and perhaps, most critically, the courage to share and own that voice) this is an essential talk for any individual invested in living up to their full potential. I’ve transcribed some of my favorite bits below in case you don’t have the time to watch the video just yet, but I highly recommend watching it in its entirety when you get the chance.
watch & rethink …*
[ E M B R A C E S H O S H I N ]
First of all, when you start out on a career in the Arts, you have no idea what you’re doing. This is great. People who know what they’re doing, know the rules and they know what is possible and what is impossible. You do not and you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the Arts, were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can. If you don’t know it’s impossible, it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that particular thing again.
[ K E E P W A L K I N G T O W A R D S Y O U R M O U N T A I N ]
Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear cut and sometimes it will be almost impossible to decide whether or not you’re doing the correct thing because you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get. Something that worked for me, was imagining that where I wanted to be, which was an author, primarily fiction, making good books, making good comics, making good drama and supporting myself through my words—imagining that was a mountain, a distant mountain. My goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain, I’d be alright. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money, because I knew that attractive though they were, for me, they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come earlier, I might have taken them because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at that time. I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.
[ M A K E M I S T A K E S ]
Fourthly, I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you make mistakes it means you’re out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be very useful. I once misspelled Caroline in a letter, transposing the A and the O, and I thought, “Coraline,” looks almost like a real name.
[ M A K E G O O D A R T ]
When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician–make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor—make good art. IRS on your trail—make good art. Cat exploded—make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before— make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too.
[ C R E A T E & L I V E A S O N L Y Y O U C A N ]
And fifthly, while you’re at it, make your art—do the stuff that only you can do. The urge, starting out, is to copy and that’s not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have, that nobody else has, is you—your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build, and play and dance and live as only you can. The moment that you feel that just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself, that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.
[ E M B R A C E U N C E R T A I N T Y ]
The things I’ve done that worked the best, were the things I was the least certain about. The stories where I was sure they’d either work or more likely be the kind of embarrassing failures that people would gather together and discuss until the end of time—they always had that in common. Looking back at them, people explained why they were inevitable successes and when I was doing them, I had no idea. I still don’t and where would be the fun in making something you knew was going to work? And sometimes the things I did really didn’t work. There are stories of mine that have never been reprinted, some of them never even left the house. But I learned as much from them as I did from the things that worked.
[ L E T G O & E N J O Y T H E R I D E ]
So when I agreed to give this address, I thought, “what is the best piece of advice I was ever given?” And I realized that it was actually a piece of advice that I had failed to follow. And it came from Stephen King. It was twenty years ago, at the height of the initial success of Sandman, the comic I was writing. I was writing a comic people loved and they were taking it seriously. And Stephen King liked Sandman and my novel with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, and he saw the madness that was going on, the long signing lines, all of that stuff and his advice to me was this: he said, “this is really great, you should enjoy it.” And I didn’t. Best advice I ever got that I ignored. Instead, I worried about it. I worried about the next deadline, the next idea, the next story. There wasn’t a moment for the next fourteen or fifteen years, that I wasn’t writing something in my head or wondering about it. And I didn’t stop and look around and go, “this is really fun.” I wish I’d enjoyed it more. It’s been an amazing ride but there were parts of the ride I missed because I was too worried about things going wrong, about what came next, to enjoy the bit that I was on. That was the hardest lesson for me, I think—to let go and enjoy the ride. Because the ride takes you to some remarkable and unexpected places.
[ F A K E I T T O M A K E I T, I F Y O U N E E D T O ]
Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult–in this case, recording an audio book. And I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall and she said it helped. So be wise because the world needs more wisdom. And if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise and then just behave like they would.