Neil Gaiman on Art, Writing, & Being Free

| Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Today's Tune: Is There a Ghost
So if you haven't heard yet (and if you haven't heard, I mean, like, what are you doing with your time), Neil Gaiman recently gave a lovely commencement address for the 2012 graduates of The University of the Arts. You should watch it. Because it is lovely.

While giving the aforementioned speech, Mr. Gaiman said something that struck a chord in me. Here's the gist: when he was first starting out as a writer, he didn't know what he was doing, really. And that was a good thing, because he wasn't bound by all this structure and indoctrinated education and rigid rules. He could do literally anything he wanted to do, and as long as someone hadn't made a rule against it YET, there was nothing anybody could do about his coloring outside the lines.

I love this concept, even though I am and will likely remain a firm proponent of teaching yourself about your art and knowing its rules. I've written about it a bunch of times (and I often use Neil Gaiman as a reference lolololol). I do believe there's a difference between rule-breaking and just being lazy. Not ascribing to all the preconceived notions of what supposedly makes a "good" book? Rule-breaking. Refusing to learn the basics of writing structure and grammar and claiming unintentional comma splices are your "style?" Lazy.


One of the reasons I love Neil Gaiman's work so much is because his stories often straddle multiple genres. He doesn't really work within set conventions, and as such, individual readers will often give his stories different genre specifications. Horror, fantasy, science fiction, "weird," whatever. I also love pushing the boundaries of genre. True, this sort of writing can limit you because it can't be placed into a neat little marketing box, but it's what I love to write.

I love the idea of sitting down to write and refusing to be bound to what I'm "allowed" to do. It's one of the main reasons I'm so drawn to writing for children and teens -- the pre-constructed ideas of genre, structure, prose, typesetting, and more can be thrown out of the window. Experimentation is allowed, even encouraged.

Gaiman also told a nice anecdote about how he didn't really have set career goals for his writing. He just had a list. A list that said things like "write an adult novel," "write a comic," "write a children's book." When he completed one, he went to the next thing on his list. Obviously we can't all be Neil Gaiman, but I do smile at the idea of not having this big scheme about how I'm going to be X kind of author. That's part of the rule-breaking, I think. We don't have to be limited to one specific sort of book or writing. Yes, there are legitimate marketing reasons behind building a knowable brand for your writing. Still, the little bird that lives in my ribcage really likes to idea of being able to fly whichever way she wants when I let her out.

And that's really what it's about, isn't it? Freedom. Freedom means you'll probably fail, but it also means you can soar as high as you possibly can.

Like the man says: make good art.


{ Catherine Stine } at: May 23, 2012 at 5:47 AM said...

It's always interesting to hear about how other writers see the world and their writing. I agree with you that it's good to at least KNOW the "rules" and history of the genre you want to write for. But then, yes, it's good to not be constricted by it, and to write freely.

{ Rachel } at: May 23, 2012 at 6:22 AM said...

Thanks for this post, Steph. I just graduated from college with a BA in Creative Writing (like....this weekend) and this is SO relevant. I am going to try to relax about my writing and focus on my job hunt - though my parents keep nagging me to keep at the writing thing...

{ Old Kitty } at: May 23, 2012 at 8:18 AM said...

I totally bow to this man especially after his The Doctor's Wife written episode for Dr Who. Classic, classic, classic!

p.s. love this post about him and what creative freedom truly means btw too! LOL!

Take care

{ prerna pickett } at: May 23, 2012 at 9:44 AM said...

yup, love the freedom aspect of the whole writing thing.

{ Andrew Leon } at: May 23, 2012 at 10:38 AM said...

I find the cross genre thing very humorous. I mean, American Gods got the best sci-fi award in 2002, but I don't get sci-fi from that all. Kind of fantasy but not sci-fi. But if not sci-fi, where does it go? So... um... put it in sci-fi, because it doesn't go anywhere else.

It was a good speech.

{ Dracula } at: May 23, 2012 at 2:07 PM said...

His comments are particularly relevant in an age where authors are bound to rigid genre classifications and ironclad rules that make for boxed-in, closed-up writing. I would go so far as to say that his way of writing is the only way of writing. But, to be quite honest, I don't necessarily think that the literary industry, as it stands, is in a place that allows for a new Neil Gaiman to be found and fostered. We -- and agents, and editors -- are always looking for the "next" thing, not the "new" thing. Experimentation and genre-bending are no longer encouraged, especially for someone who's just starting out. So, while this is remarkable advice, it may not pay to follow it until you're an established product.

{ M. Kassel } at: May 23, 2012 at 7:04 PM said...

Oh, you're so right about the freedom of the YA genre. I started out thinking I wanted to write paranormal romance, but became stifled by the rules (placement of sex scenes, level of explicitness, etc.). I found YA to be the genre where cross-pollination of genres was actually desired. On the other hand, some people do best when they have set guidelines. It's all about finding the place where you thrive, then doing your absolute best there.

Great post. Thank you, Stephanie! And thank you to Neil, who somehow simultaneously inspires and intimidates me.

{ Stephanie Sinkhorn } at: May 23, 2012 at 7:50 PM said...

Thank you for all the wonderful responses, dudes! :D

{ We Heart YA } at: May 24, 2012 at 6:35 AM said...

We saw this already, but it's lovely to see it spreading through the blogosphere. And your comments are so spot-on!

"I do believe there's a difference between rule-breaking and just being lazy." - Tru dat!

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