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← Neil Gaiman Addresses the University of the Arts Class of 2012

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Showing Revision 11 created 05/22/2012 by Alessandro Morandi.

  1. Thank you
  2. [laughter]
  3. I never really expected to find myself giving advice
  4. to people graduating from an establishment of higher education.
  5. I never graduated from any such establishment.
  6. I never even started at one.
  7. I escaped from school as soon as I could,
  8. when the prospect of 4 more years of enforced learning,
  9. before I could become the writer who I wanted to be, seemed stifling.
  10. I got out into the world, I wrote
  11. and I became a better writer the more I wrote.
  12. And I wrote some more
  13. and nobody ever seemed to mind
  14. that I was making it all up as I went along.
  15. They just read what I wrote and they paid me for it,
  16. or they didn't.
  17. [laughter]
  18. And often they commissioned me
  19. to write something else for them, which has left me
  20. with a healhty respect and fondness for higher education,
  21. that those of my friends and family who attended universities
  22. were cured of long ago.
  23. Looking back I've had a remarkable ride.
  24. I'm not sure I can call it a career,
  25. because a career implies that I had some kind of career plan,
  26. and I never did.
  27. The nearest thing I had was a list I made when I was about 15,
  28. of everything I wanted to do.
  29. I wanted to write an adult novel,
  30. a children's book,
  31. a comic, a movie,
  32. record an audiobook,
  33. write an episode of Dr. Who, and so on.
  34. I didn't have a career,
  35. I just did the next thing on the list.
  36. So I thought I'd tell you everything I wished I'd known starting out
  37. and a few things that looking back on it
  38. I suppose I did know.
  39. And I'll also give you the best piece of advice I'd ever got
  40. which I completely failed to follow.
  41. First of all,
  42. when you start out on a career in the arts,
  43. you have no idea what you're doing.
  44. This is great.
  45. People who know what they are doing know the rules
  46. and they know what is possible and what is impossible.
  47. You do not, and you should not.
  48. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made
  49. by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible
  50. by going beyond them.
  51. And you can.
  52. If you don't know it's impossible,
  53. it's easier to do.
  54. And because nobody's done it before,
  55. they haven't made up rules
  56. to stop anyone doing that particular thing again.
  57. [applause]
  58. Secondly, if you have an idea of what you want to make,
  59. what you were put here to do,
  60. they just go and do that.
  61. And that's much harder than it's sounds
  62. and sometimes in the end so much easier than you might imagine.
  63. Because normally there are things you have to do
  64. before you can get to the place you want to be.
  65. I wanted to write comics and novels and stories and films,
  66. so I became a journalist,
  67. because journalists are allowed to ask questions
  68. and to simply go and find out how the world works.
  69. And, besides, to do those things I needed to write
  70. and to write well.
  71. And I was being paid to learn how to write
  72. economically, crisply, sometimes under adverse conditions
  73. and on deadline.
  74. Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear-cut.
  75. And sometimes it would be almost impossible
  76. to decide whether or not you're doing the correct thing,
  77. because you'll have to balance your goals and hopes
  78. with feeding yourself
  79. paying debts, finding work
  80. settling for what you can get.
  81. Something that worked for me
  82. was imagining where I wanted to be
  83. - which was an author, primarily of fiction,
  84. making good books, making good comics,
  85. making good drama
  86. and supporting myself through my words -
  87. imagining that was a mountain,
  88. a distant mountain, my goal.
  89. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain
  90. I'd be alright.
  91. And when I truly was not sure what to do,
  92. I could stop and think about
  93. whether it was taking me towards or away from it
  94. - the mountain.
  95. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines
  96. - proper jobs that would have paid proper money -
  97. bcause I kew that, attractive though they were, for me
  98. they would have been walking away from the mountain.
  99. And if those job offers had come earlier
  100. I might have taken them,
  101. because they still would have been closer to the mountain
  102. than I was at that time.
  103. I learned to write by writing.
  104. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure
  105. and to stop when it felt like work,
  106. which meant that life did not feel like work.
  107. Thirdly, when you start out you have to deal with the problems of failure.
  108. You need to be thick skinned,
  109. to learn that not every project will survive.
  110. A freelance life, a life in the arts,
  111. is sometimes like putting messages in bottles on a desert island
  112. and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles
  113. and open it and read it
  114. and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you
  115. - appreciation or a commission or money or love.
  116. And you have to accept that you may put out hundreds of things
  117. for every bottle that winds up coming back.
  118. The problems of failure, the problems of discouragement,
  119. of hopelessness, of hunger.
  120. You want everything to happen, and you want it now
  121. and things go wrong.
  122. My first book, a piece of journalism I'd done only for the money
  123. and which had already bought me an electric typewriter
  124. from the advance, should have been a best seller.
  125. It should have paid me a lot of money,
  126. if the publisher hadn't gone into involuntary liquidation
  127. between the first print run selling out
  128. and the second print run never happening
  129. and before any royalties could be paid.
  130. It would have done.
  131. And I shrugged
  132. and I still had my electric typewriter
  133. and enough money to pay the rent for a couple of months.
  134. And I decided that I'd do my best in the future
  135. not to write books just for the money.
  136. If you didn't get the money then you didn't have anything.
  137. And if I did work I was proud of, and I didn't get the money,
  138. at least I'd have the work.
  139. Every now and then
  140. I forget that rule
  141. and whenever I do, the universe kicks me hard
  142. and reminds me.
  143. I don't know that it's an issue for anybody but me
  144. but it's true that nothing I did
  145. where the only reason for doing it was the money
  146. was ever worth it,
  147. except as bitter experience.
  148. Usually I didn't wind up getting the money either.
  149. [laughter]
  150. The things I did because I was excited
  151. and wanted to see them exist in reality
  152. have never let me down, and I've never regretted
  153. the time I spent on any of them.
  154. The problems of faillure are hard.
  155. The problems of success can be harder,
  156. because nobody warns you about them.
  157. The first problem of any kind of even limited success
  158. is the unshakeable conviction that you're getting away with something
  159. and that any moment now they will discover you.
  160. [laughter]
  161. It's Imposter's Syndrome,
  162. something my wife Amanda christened "The Fraud Police".
  163. In my case I was convinced there would be a knock on the door
  164. and a man with a clipboard
  165. - I don't know why he had a clipboard
  166. but in my head he always had a clipboard -
  167. would be there to tell me it was all over
  168. and they caught up with me
  169. and now I would have to go and get a real job
  170. one that didn't consist of making things up and writing them down
  171. and reading books I wanted to read.
  172. And then I would go away quietly
  173. and get the kind of job
  174. I would have to get up early in the morning
  175. and wear a tie
  176. and not make things up anymore.
  177. The problems of success, they're real
  178. and with luck, you'll experience them.
  179. The point where you stop saying yes to everything
  180. because now the bottles you throw in the ocean are all coming back
  181. and you have to learn to say "no".
  182. I watched my peers and my friends and the ones who are older than me
  183. and I watched how miserable some of them were.
  184. I'd listen to them telling they couldn't envisage a world
  185. where they did what they've always wanted to do anymore,
  186. because now they had to earn a certain amount every month
  187. just to keep where they were.
  188. They couldn't go and do the things that mattered
  189. and that they had really wanted to do
  190. and that seemed as big a tragedy as any problem of failure.
  191. And after that, the biggest problem of success
  192. is that the world conspires
  193. to stop you doing the thing that you do
  194. because you're successful.
  195. There was a day when I looked up and realized
  196. that I had become someone
  197. who professionally replied to email
  198. and he wrote as a hobby.
  199. I started answering fewer emails
  200. and was relieved to find, I was writing much more.
  201. Forthly, I hope you'll make mistakes.
  202. If you make mistakes, it means you're out there doing something
  203. and the mistakes in themselves can be very useful.
  204. I once misspelled Caroline in a letter,
  205. transposing the A and the O,
  206. and I thought "Coraline
  207. looks almost like a real name".
  208. Remember, whatever discipline you're in,
  209. whether you're a musician of a photographer,
  210. a fine artist or a cartoonist,
  211. a writer, a dancer, a singer, a designer,
  212. whatever you do, you have one thing that's unique:
  213. you have the ability to make art.
  214. And for me, and for so many of the people I've known
  215. that's been a lifesaver.
  216. The ultimate lifesaver.
  217. It gets you though good times, and it gets you
  218. through the other ones.
  219. Sometimes life is hard, things go wrong
  220. in life, and in love, and in business and in friendship
  221. and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong.
  222. And when things get though, this is what you should do.
  223. Make good art.
  224. I'm serious.
  225. [laughter]
  226. Husband runs off with a politician?
  227. Make good art.
  228. [laughter]
  229. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor?
  230. Make good art.
  231. IRS on your trail? Make good art.
  232. Cat exploded? Make good art.
  233. Someone on the internet thinks what you're doing
  234. is stupid or evil or it's all been done before?
  235. Make good art.
  236. Probably things will work out somehow,
  237. eventually time will take the sting away
  238. and that doesn't even matter.
  239. Do what only you can do best.
  240. Make good art.
  241. Make it on the bad days.
  242. Make it on the good days too.
  243. And fifthly, while you're at it,
  244. make your art.
  245. Do the stuff that only you can do.
  246. The urge, starting out, is to copy
  247. and that is not a bad thing.
  248. Most of us only find our own voices
  249. after we've sounded like a lot of other people.
  250. [laughter]
  251. But one thing that you have, that nobody else has
  252. is you, your voice, your mind, your story, your vision.
  253. So write and draw and build and play
  254. and dance and live as only you can.
  255. The moment that you feel that just possibly
  256. you're walking down the street naked
  257. exposing too much of your heart and your mind
  258. and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself,
  259. that's the moment you may be starting to get it right.
  260. The things I've done that work the best
  261. were the things I was the least certain about.
  262. The stories where I was sure they would either work
  263. or, more likely, be the kind of embarrassing failures
  264. that people would gather together and discuss until the end of time.
  265. They always had that in common: looking back at them
  266. people explain why they were inevitable successes
  267. and when I was doing them I had no idea.
  268. I still don't.
  269. And where would be the fun in making something
  270. you knew was going to work?
  271. And sometimes the things I did really didn't work.
  272. There are stories of mine that have never been reprinted.
  273. Some of them have never even left the house.
  274. But I learned as much from them as I did from the things that worked.
  275. Ok, sixthly, I'm gonna pass on some secret freelancer knowledge.
  276. Secret knowledge is always good and it's useful
  277. for anyone who ever plans to create art for other people,
  278. to enter a freelance world of any kind.
  279. I learned it in comics
  280. but it applies to other fields too, and it's this.
  281. People get hired because, somehow, they get hired.
  282. [laughter]
  283. In my case, I did something which these days would be easy to check
  284. and would get me into a lot of trouble
  285. and when I started out in those pre-internet days
  286. seemed like a sensible career strategy.
  287. When I was asked by editors who I'd written for,
  288. I lied.
  289. [laughter]
  290. I listed a handful of magazines that sounded likely
  291. and I sounded confident and I got jobs.
  292. [cheering]
  293. I then made it a point of honour to have written
  294. something for each of the magazines I'd listed
  295. to get that first job.
  296. So that I hadn't actually lied,
  297. I had just been chronologically challenged.
  298. [laughter]
  299. But you get work however you get work.
  300. But people keep working, in a freelance world
  301. - and more and more of today's world is freelance -
  302. because the work is good
  303. and because they're easy to get along with
  304. and because they deliver the work on time.
  305. And you don't even need all three.
  306. Two out of three is fine.
  307. [laughter]
  308. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are
  309. if your work is good and you deliver it on time.
  310. [laughter]
  311. People will forgive the lateness of your work
  312. if it's good and they like you.
  313. [laughter]
  314. And you don't have to be as good as everyone else
  315. if you're on time and it's always a pleasure to hear from you.
  316. [laughter]
  317. [applause]
  318. So when I agreed to give this address
  319. I thought what is the best piece of advice I was ever given
  320. and I realized that it was actually a piece of advice
  321. that I had failed to follow
  322. and it came from Stephen King.
  323. It was 20 years ago, at the height of the success
  324. - the initial success -
  325. of Sandman, the comic I was writing.
  326. [applause] Oh thank you
  327. I was writing a comic people loved
  328. and they were taking it seriously
  329. and Stephen King liked Sandman
  330. and my novel with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens,
  331. and he saw the madness that was going on
  332. - the long signing lines, all of that stuff -
  333. and his advice to me was this.
  334. He said "this is really great
  335. you should enjoy it".
  336. And I didn't.
  337. Best advice I ever got that I ignored.
  338. Instead, I worried about it.
  339. I worried about the next deadline,
  340. the next idea,
  341. the next story.
  342. There wasn't a moment for the next 14 or 15 years
  343. that I wasn't writing something in my head
  344. or wondering about it.
  345. And I didn't stop and look around and go:
  346. "this is really fun".
  347. I wish I'd enjoyed it more.
  348. It's been an amazing ride,
  349. but there were parts of the ride that I missed,
  350. because I was too worried about things going wrong,
  351. about what came next, to enjoy the bit that I was on.
  352. That was the hardest lesson for me, I think:
  353. to let go, and enjoy the ride.
  354. Because the ride takes you to some remarkable
  355. and unexpected places.
  356. And here, on this platform, today for me
  357. is one of those places
  358. and I am enjoying myself immensely.
  359. [applause]
  360. I'd actually put that in brackets.
  361. Just in case I wasn't, I wouldn't say it.
  362. [laughter]
  363. To all today's graduates:
  364. I wish you luck, luck is useful.
  365. Often you will discover that the harder you work
  366. and the more wisely that you work
  367. the luckier you will get.
  368. But there is luck, and it helps.
  369. We're in a transitional world right now
  370. if you're in any kind of artistic field,
  371. because the nature of distribution is changing.
  372. The models by which creators got their work out into the world
  373. and got to keep a roof over their head
  374. and buy sandwhiches while they did that
  375. they're all changing.
  376. I talked to people at the top of the food chain
  377. in publishing and bookselling,
  378. in music, in all those areas
  379. and no one knows what the landscape will look like
  380. two years from now, let alone a decade away.
  381. The distribution channels that people have built
  382. over the last century or so, are in flux
  383. for print, for visual artists, for musicians,
  384. for creative people of all kinds.
  385. Which is on the one hand intimidating
  386. and on the other, immensely liberating.
  387. The rules, the assumptions, the now-we're-supposed-tos

  388. of how you get your work seen and what you do then,
  389. they're breaking down.
  390. The gatekeepers are leaving their gates.
  391. You can be as creative as you need to be, to get your work seen.
  392. YouTube and the Web and whatever comes after YouTube and the Web
  393. can give you more people watching
  394. than all television ever did.
  395. The old rules are crumbling
  396. and nobody knows what the new rules are.
  397. So make up your own rules.
  398. Someone asked me recently how to do
  399. something she thought was going to be difficult,
  400. in this case recording an audiobook.
  401. And I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it.
  402. [laughter]
  403. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could.
  404. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall
  405. and she said it helped.
  406. So be wise, because the world needs more wisdom
  407. and if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise
  408. and then just behave like they would.
  409. [applause]
  410. And now go, and make interesting mistakes,
  411. make amazing mistakes,
  412. make glorious and fantastic mistakes.
  413. Break rules.
  414. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.
  415. Make good art.
  416. Thank you.
  417. [applause]