“Who is Neil Gaiman?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to answer this question. It boggles my little nerdy mind. There seems to be a glitch in the awesomeness-to-famousness ratio matrix here. I recently answered the “Who’s Neil Gaiman?” question by saying that he’s the greatest living scifi/fantasy writer, having forgotten that Ray Bradbury and Terry Pratchett are both still with us. My sincerest apologies to those two elder statesmen, but to say that the three of them make up a triumvirate of badass is the highest form of flattery. That I can muster, anyway. I doubt there’s better company to be in amongst the living.
Here’s the thing about Neil Gaiman: the man can do anything. He writes comics, fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, kid’s books. A multifaceted ninja of the weird, this guy. Which is why it’s even more baffling that people don’t know who he is. Comic book geeks, literature geeks, movie geeks – all of these groups have a damn good reason to adore him, and in a sociological-Venn-diagram-of-normal-human-conversations kind of way, he should be a household name, right? You would think. Although to be fair, my love for Gaiman’s work mostly centers around his novels. Neverwhere blew my mind so completely when I read it. Fucking outstanding. I think I gave a copy to everyone I had to buy a birthday present for that year, which is saying a lot because I don’t normally give store-bought gifts. I could go into a lengthy, gushy review of all of his work, but it’s too much to take on. We’d be here for days.
So why bring him up, then? Well, because he made me cry the other day. (I’ve been talking about crying a lot on the blog lately. You should probably not read anything into that. I’m really ok, I promise.) He gave this year’s commencement speech at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, which was basically just some good advice for young artists from someone looking at them hopefully from the other end of a successful career. The sort of things I wish I’d been told ten or twelve years ago. You can watch and/or read the whole thing here. It’s about twenty minutes of awesome. He’s just so damn charming. One of those guys that you feel in your nerdy bones you’d like to hang out with some day, but you know you’re just not cool enough. Oh, well. One can dream.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what he said in that speech. I can’t imagine someone that talented ever struggling with the sorts of writery problems that schlubs like me deal with. The torture of syntax, the agony of the first draft, the heart palpitations when staring at a blank page. There’s a sort of hero-worshippy thing we do where we imagine those folks don’t sweat over their creations like us, the mere mortals. They just poop out perfect finished novels, don’t they? No, they don’t. Art is hard, but it should be fun. If it’s not fun, you’re not doing it right. (Or, as my mother would say, “If it feels good, do it. If it feels bad, stop.”) I grapple with the idea of being a writer. Well, that’s not entirely true. I know I’m a writer. If I’m not here to write, I don’t know why the fuck I’m here, frankly. What gets me stuck on the hamster wheel is the word “successful.” What does that even mean, in the context of art? That one becomes rich? Famous? Well-known? Happy? I’m incredibly shy and nervous around people, and I hate money. So I’d like to say that happy is enough, that I can write for writing’s sake. And I do. If I don’t feed those ideas, get them out of my head, they just scream and scream and bounce around in there like angry demon children trapped in a ball pit. On the other hand, my brain is wired for words. I think about words probably more than I think about anything else. Putting them together, their sounds and harmonies, their meanings and implications when they’re strung along in a beautiful (or horrible) line. Thinking of them as little gears, clockwork in a bigger machine, and making that machine work properly – that’s heaven.
But to what end? So I can bitch about pop culture on the interwebs? Not really. Don’t get me wrong. This is tremendously fun, and I can’t even begin to express how much it means that you guys actually read this drivel. It keeps me writing; it keeps me thinking. But I look at my novel, sitting lonely in its sad little box, and I feel like I’ve ignored my child, forgotten to pick him up after school and he’s standing in the rain, waiting, trying not to cry. Would it be “success” for me to have it published and make my millions? At this point I’d be grateful to the universe if I could even finish it and be proud of the work. Robert Frost rewrote Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood ninety-two times before he would let it be published. Am I that much of a perfectionist? I really don’t know. But I would like the damn thing to someday see the light of day. To have someone say that they enjoyed it. That it made them think about something they’d never thought about before. That it made them happy. That whole process, the after-the-work-is-finished process? That’s the part that gives me nightmares. And I think that’s the most important part of Gaiman’s speech, that last bit about how the landscape of distribution of art is changing. This is all new territory. There’s no reason to wait for someone to discover you, or tell you your work is valuable. Just do it because you love it. And if it makes even one person happy, or makes even one person think they can do the thing they want or love to do, that’s got to be worth it. Doing it all yourself? We’re allowed to think that way now, and I’m kind of in that weird generation gap where that’s something I have to learn, something I was never taught. Hard to wrap my mind around, still.
I’m glad that there are folks out there like Neil Gaiman who, while they may not be household names, mean so much to the people who do know their work and take the time and the energy to share with us what they’ve learned. There’s something tremendously laudable about not just sitting in some high castle wallowing around in a pile of money, and instead choosing to come down to tell us how to be real artists because artists are important. That we are important, and that it’s up to us as much as it is to the people we admire to create good and beautiful things. So if you don’t know who Neil Gaiman is, I’m not going to try to explain him to you. My advice? Go pick up four books right now: The Absolute Sandman Volume One, American Gods, Graveyard Book, and Blueberry Girl. It’s an expensive but comprehensive overview of Gaiman’s…what?…I don’t know, but I can’t use “awesome” any more in this blog post or I’ll make myself ill. Check out all of his stuff and his wicked (haha! I didn’t say it!) blog at neilgaiman.com.