‘Make Good Art’: Writerly Advice from Neil Gaiman

Are you an artist (aspiring, working, ‘working’ or otherwise) in need of a little inspiration? Well, you might like to go back to school, to hear Neil Gaiman’s recent address to students at the Philadelphia School of Arts.

Neil Gaiman Addresses the University of the Arts Class of 2012

The whole address is well worth watching, but we’d like to share some selected highlights from his speech. (The headings are ours.)

1. The benefits of having no idea what you’re doing

When you start 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. And you can. If you don’t know it’s impossible, it’s easier to do.

2. Learn by doing it

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

I wanted to write comics and novels and stories and films, so I became a journalist, because journalists are allowed to ask questions and simply go out and find out how the world works.

And besides, to do those things I needed to learn how to write, and how to write well. I was being paid to learn how to write economically, crisply, sometimes under adverse conditions, and on deadline.

I learned to write by writing.

3. Accept you might fail, and do it anyway

You need to learn to be thick-skinned, to learn that not every project will survive.

A freelance life in the arts is sometimes like putting messages in bottles on a desert island and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission, or money or love.

And you have to accept that you may put out hundreds of things for every bottle that winds up coming back.

If you make mistakes, you’re out there doing something.

4. Make good art: no matter what

Sometimes life is hard. Things go wrong. In life, in love, in business and in friendship, in health … and in all the other ways life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: make good art.

Husband runs off with a politician? make good art … IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art.

Make it on the bad days; make it on the good days too.

5. Uncertainty is a good sign

The moment where 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 where you may be starting to get it right.

The things I’ve done that have worked the best were the ones I was least certain about.

What would be the fun in making something you knew would work?

6. Secret freelancer business

People get hired because, somehow, they get hired.

People keep working in a freelance world because the work is good, because they’re easy to get along with and because they deliver it on time.

And you don’t even need to do all three. Two out of three is fine.

7. Do what you love

Nothing I did where the only reason I did it was for the money was ever worth it, except as bitter experience.

The things I did because I was excited and wanted to see them become a reality have never let me down and I’ve never regretted the time I’ve spent on any of them.

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