Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” commencement speech is one of my all time favorites.
To my knowledge, in 10+ years of writing here, I’ve only ever featured one other keynote.
[David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” if you’re curious.]
I recall watching Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech at Philadelphia’s University of Arts class of 2012 a few years back and thoroughly enjoying it.
And I revisited it recently because, well, I have only written 2 posts here in the last 7 months. I thought it might provide the inertia I needed to get back in the ring.
If you struggle with any of the below, like I have lately, I suspect these excerpts from his keynote will resonate.
- A (perceived) lack of time (i.e. big job, plus 2 young kids)
- A lack of momentum/feedback to keep creating
- Perfectionism, rooted in fear or otherwise, preventing you from shipping your work
Whatever the reason(s) you’re not creating and not putting your work into the world, I encourage you to spend 20 minutes watching Neil’s keynote and reading the below excerpts.
My guess is that it might help surface a few ideas, reinvigorate you and inspire you to get back in the ring.
Without further ado, some of my favorite excerpts:
First of all, when you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. This is great. People who know what they are 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 by going beyond them. And you can.
If you don’t know it’s impossible, it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that particular thing again.
I’ve long advocated for carving your own path.
If you follow the path (the rules) that everyone else follows, you’ll likely end up with similar results. Where’s the fun in that?
Remember, when you’re starting out, obscurity is a good thing.
Follow your curiosity, explore and create.
Think about any famous musician who tries to reinvent their sound or evolve beyond what their fans have grown accustomed to.
It gets harder to take risks when people start watching and especially when they start paying you for your art.
What’s Your Mountain?
Secondly, if you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that. And that’s much harder than it sounds and, sometimes in the end, so much easier than you might imagine.
Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – which was an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics, making good drama and supporting myself through my words – imagining that was a mountain, a distant mountain. My goal.
And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.
It’s important to spend time understanding who you are (at your core), what you want out of this life and the things you value most.
Once you know these things (really know them), you need to understand the importance of saying “no” so you can prune away all the distractions and keep working incrementally towards your own mountain.
Start Small and Keep Showing Up
I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.
Learn to tackle your work with a sense of play. If you do this, you’ll fall in love with the process and your creativity and optimism will soar.
Thirdly, when you start out, you have to deal with the problems of failure. You need to be thick-skinned, to learn that not every project will survive. A freelance life, a 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.
Sometimes it just takes helping one person.
Just keep showing up and try to do it for the right reasons.
You may discover that the person you’re helping is you.
Do Work You’re Proud Of
If you didn’t get the money, then you didn’t have anything. If I did work I was proud of, and I didn’t get the money, at least I’d have the work.
…it’s true that nothing I did where the only reason for doing it was the money was ever worth it, except as bitter experience.
The things I did because I was excited, and wanted to see them exist in reality have never let me down, and I’ve never regretted the time I spent on any of them.
What could I possibly add to that?
The Problems of Success
The problems of failure are hard.
The problems of success can be harder, because nobody warns you about them.
The problems of success. They’re real, and with luck you’ll experience them. The point where you stop saying yes to everything, because now the bottles you threw in the ocean are all coming back, and you have to learn to say no.
Neil talks about someone who professionally replied to e-mail and who wrote as a hobby.
When I started writing and sharing my book reviews upcoming authors started sending me their books for free to review.
At first I was excited and flattered, but then I realized I was spending time reading books and writing reviews about books that were not a priority for me.
Just remember that saying “no” allows you to say “yes” to the things that really matter.
If you want to achieve worthwhile things in this world, you have to have focus and respect for doing [your] work that matters.
Make Good Art
Fourthly, I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you make mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something.
And remember whatever discipline you are in, whether you are a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a singer, a designer, whatever you do you have one thing that’s unique. You have the ability to make art. And for me, and for so many of the people I have known, that’s been a lifesaver. The ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times and it gets you through the other ones.
Sometimes life is hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.
Make good art.
Do what only you can do best. Make good art.
Make it on the bad days. Make it on the good days too.
And fifthly, while you are at it, make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do.
The urge, starting out, is to copy. And that’s not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people.
As Teddy Roosevelt said, “It’s not the critic that counts…”
We admire the people actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…
The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind than what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself, that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.
But people keep working in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. People will forgive the lateness of your work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as everyone else if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.
This is one of the reasons I admire James Altucher even though half the internet hates him.
And if you really want to resonate, you may have to expose the most intimate part of yourself, your thoughts.
Or as Hemingway either said (or stole?), “Writing is easy, you just open a vein and bleed.”
Neil had done just that. He was having a lot of success and Stephen King gave him the following advice: “This is really great. You should enjoy it.”
Let Go and Enjoy the Ride
Best advice I ever got but I ignored. Instead I worried about it. I worried about the next deadline, the next idea, the next story. There wasn’t a moment for the next 14 or 15 years that I wasn’t writing something in my head, or wondering about it. And I didn’t stop and look around and go, this is really fun. I wish I’d enjoyed it more. It’s been an amazing ride. But there were parts of the ride I missed, because I was too worried about things going wrong, about what came next, to enjoy the bit that I was on.
That was the hardest lesson for me, I think: to let go and enjoy the ride, because the ride takes you to some remarkable and unexpected places.
Neil is ahead of the curve, but there’s no denying the way in which we work is shifting.
The old rules are crumbling and nobody knows what the new rules are. So make up your own rules.
Be wise, because the world needs more wisdom, and if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.
And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.
Make good art.
If you enjoyed this post, you should know that Neil turned the speech into a book, “Make Good Art.”
And, you might also like my favorite excerpts and takeaways from Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist.