Make magic from mistakes

By Belinda Wan   bwan@sph.com.sg

          The Straits Times June 20, 2015

 

Neil Gaiman, the prolific author of short stories, novels, comic books and graphic novels, spoke about failure, art and mistakes in the commencement address he delivered at Philadelphia's The University of the Arts in 2012.

 

"First of all: When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing.

People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and 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.

 

Secondly, if you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that.

And that's much harder than it sounds and, sometimes in the end, so much easier than you might imagine. Because normally, there are things you have to do before you can get to the place you want to be. I wanted to write comics and novels and stories and films, so I became a journalist, because journalists are allowed to ask questions, and to simply go and find out how the world works.

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 are 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 - an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words - was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. 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 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.

 

Thirdly, when you start off, you have to deal with the problems of failure. You need to be thick-skinned, to learn that not every project will survive.

The problems of failure are problems of discouragement, of hopelessness, of hunger. You want everything to happen and you want it now, and things go wrong.

The problems of failure are hard. The problems of success can be harder, because nobody warns you about them.

They're real, and with luck you'll experience them. The point where you stop saying yes to everything, because now the bottles you threw in the ocean are all coming back, and have to learn to say no.

The biggest problem of success is that the world conspires to stop you doing the thing that you do, because you are successful. There was a day when I looked up and realised that I had become someone who professionally replied to e-mail, and who wrote as a hobby. I started answering fewer e-mails, and was relieved to find I was writing much more.

 

Fourthly, I hope you'll make mistakes. If you're making mistakes, it means you're out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful. I once misspelled Caroline, in a letter, transposing the A and the 0, and I thought, "Coraline looks like a real name..."

Remember that whatever discipline you are in, whether you are a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a designer, you have one thing that's unique. You have the ability to make art.

Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.

Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Do what only you do best.

 

Fifthly, while you are at it, make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do.

The urge, starting out, is to copy. 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, you're walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind... that's the moment you may be starting to get it right.

The things I've done that worked the best were the things I was the least certain about. And sometimes the things I did really didn't work. But I learned as much from them as I did from the things that worked.

 

Sixthly. I will pass on some secret freelancer knowledge:

People get hired because, somehow, they get hired. You get work however you get work.

People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today's world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don't even need all three. Two out of three is fine.

When I agreed to give this address, I started trying to think what the best advice I'd been given over the years was.

It came from Stephen King twenty years ago, at the height of the success of Sandman. I was writing a comic that people loved and were taking seriously. King had liked Sandman and my novel with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, and he saw the madness, the long signing lines, all that, and his advice was this:

"This is really great. You should enjoy it:'

And I didn't. 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.

We're in a transitional world right now, if you're in any kind of artistic field, because the nature of distribution is changing.

Which is, on one hand, intimidating, and on the other, immensely liberating. So make up your own rules.

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.