I finally made time yesterday to see the commencement speech Neil Gaiman gave at the University of the Arts in Philly. It’s been blowing up all over the interwebz for the past few weeks, with over 300,000 views on Vimeo, captions translated by fans into ten languages, and a number of homages. All of this is with very good reason. It’s rare to find a speech about the creative life that is short and to the point, charming yet not overly sweet, honest without being brutal. And this is that sort of speech.
I’ve been struggling with the revisions for Man Made Boy, trying to balance feedback of various types from multiple places. Everything with this book feels different. More complicated. More intense. Maybe it’s being at my new publisher Penguin, or maybe it’s how much this story has cost me to write, or maybe it’s always like this and, like having a baby, I must forget it each time or I’d never do it again. But whatever the reason, this revision process has been really hard.
This is where the doubt sets in. Where it gets its hooks into you and starts undermining everything you’ve done. Where you begin to say, “Maybe I was wrong about…” What if your initial inspiration or ideas were flawed and you’ve just lost perspective? It’s impossible to know for sure. You have these feelings of course, but it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish which is your writer ego not wanting to accept a critique and which is your gut saying, “No, this is the truth of this story, like it or not.” This, my friends, is what Douglas Adams would probably have called “the long dark teatime of the soul.” And it sucks.
There’s always something magical about the serendipity of coming across the right inspiration at the right time. This video had been in my Vimeo “Watch Later” queue since Gaiman posted it on Tumblr. But it wasn’t until now, when I had reached the apex of my doubt, that I reached for it and watched it.
“Make good art.”
That’s what he says over and over again in the speech. And when I heard that, it felt like an injunction that I could not refuse. Of course, one could say, “What does that mean? What is good? What is art? It’s so vague! So subjective!” And even put in the context of the rest of the speech, you could look at it like that. But I didn’t. I knew exactly what he was talking about. For me. For this story. And I promise you that whatever the cost, I will do everything I can to make this story good art. Not for you, though. No, this one is for me. So that no matter what “The Market” makes of this strange monster of a book, I will be able to look back on it and know that I wrote the story the way that it needed to be written. That I made good art.
I’ve never met Neil Gaiman and it’s highly unlikely he will read this post, but on the off chance, Mr. Gaiman, I totally owe you dinner sometime. In fact, if I were to count how many times you’ve unknowingly pulled my sorry, doubting ass out of the muck, I’d probably owe you a week’s worth of dinners.
I’ve been fortunate enough to befriend some incredible writers and other individuals in the past few years who have inspired and encouraged me in ways I feel I will never be able to repay or even sufficiently express gratitude for. But this is how it is. We take our strength from those generous enough to give it. And we hope that we can do the same in turn. Neil Gaiman doesn’t need my strength (probably not my dinners either). But maybe someone out there does. For that person, I just want to say:
It’s okay to doubt. It’s actually healthy to do so. Forgive yourself for the indecision. Be kind to yourself and acknowledge that its a normal part of the process. But then pat it on the head and shove it out the door to go play, and get back to doing the thing that only you know how to do. Listen to Gaiman, gather your reserves, go forth, and make good art.