Martha Thomases: Neil Gaiman – And Failure
If you haven’t already seen this video, rush right over here and listen to Neil Gaiman give a commencement address at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia last week. In his inimitably charming manner, Neil advises the new graduates on how to approach a life in the arts.
He is wise and he is insightful, and he inspires me to riff on a few of his tenets. And, because I’m me, I’m going to quibble with another.
The best thing he says is the scariest: Fail. You can’t be an artist if you don’t fail, frequently and spectacularly. You have to make mistakes, and you have to make them in public, or it least in front of an editor or a curator or a choreographer or a director who will be a witness. If you don’t make mistakes and fail, you don’t test your limits, you don’t discover who you are and what kind of art you are capable of creating.
It’s not enough to just make mistakes, or we would all be successful artists. You also have to learn from the mistakes you’ve made. Sometimes the lesson isn’t obvious – Neil describes how he misspelled the name “Caroline” as “Coraline” and thus was born a brilliant story – but if you don’t learn, you’ll keep making the same mistake, expecting it to suddenly produce success. And then you are an executive in the DC marketing department, not an artist.
He also talks about not taking jobs just to make money, which is a fearless thing for a young artist to attempt. Money is important, especially when you don’t have any. It pays for rent and food. It allows you to clothe yourself so you are presentable and can get other jobs. Sometimes the artist has children at home, and a hungry baby really doesn’t understand why artistic integrity is a thing. Like making mistakes, this is where the true nature of the artist is revealed. You can make the sacrifices for your art, and learn from them, as you learned from your failures. Maybe you’ll learn that the life of the artist isn’t for you.
That’s no disgrace. That’s real life.
And now, here’s my quibble. Neil tells the kids in the audience that, whatever happens to them, they should “make good art.” If the cat dies, “make good art.” If you lose a leg, “make good art.” If you can do it in the bad times, you can do it in the good times.
I’m in favor of good art. There should be more of it. However, one of my personal demons, when I sit down to write, is the fear that my work isn’t good enough. I’m much better off attempting to make art, without sweating whether or not it meets anyone’s standard of “good.” A writer writes because she has to write. An artist makes art because she has to make art.
“Good” comes with luck, practice, inspiration and skill.
SATURDAY: Marc Alan Fishman
Good column, Martha, and Neil’s advice mirrors the best advice I got from any teacher, one Harold Land (also an Englishman; I wonder if that has something to do with it?): You have a right to fail. You have a right to try something and have it not work so long as it is an honest try and (as Neil and you pointed out) so long as you LEARN from it. You have to aim higher than you think you can do. You’re trying for excellence. You may not hit it but you’ll do better than if you were aiming at “good enough”. All you’re likely to hit then is “mediocre”.
I don’t think kids are told they can fail. They are told to excel, to win, and then trying becomes a really scary prospect. Or they’re taught that anything they do is really great — which is another way of avoiding failure.
I slightly disagree about not taking jobs for money. Not every job I’ve taken has been because I was burning to do it. I took some fill-in jobs on AQUAMAN because I needed the money. BUT I always found something in the assignment that COULD excite me other than the money. As a result, I’m proud of those Aquaman fill-ins I did and really got to like the character.
Like i said, good column and you and Neil both said things that a wider audience needs to hear.
Oops. I shouls have written Harold LANG, not Land. I really need to proff read these things better.
And I should’ve written “should” instead of “shouls”. I’m stopping now.
And proof instead of proff. Jeez, you wanna make Gold think editors are needed or something?
That’s actually my little joke — I usually write proff reading for proof reading. Of course, no one gets it but me but that’s alright.
I didn’t say “Don’t take jobs just to make money”. I worked as a journalist, and had two small children to support.
I said “Nothing I did, where the only reason for doing it was the money, was ever worth it except as bitter experience. Usually I didn’t end up getting the money either. 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’ve spent on any of them.”
And it’s true. There had to be a reason that was more than just the money.
Absolutely agree with that, Neil. If i was given an assignment I always tried to find something that i loved about it. Sometimes I failed, of course — we all do. And your failures get printed and, someti8mes, remain in print.
I was once asked on a panel at a convention what was my “least favorite” story that ever saw print. I named it and some poor fan in the front row looked stricken. “But…but that was my favorite story!” said the fan. I will NEVER name a “least favorite story” again. Every story is somebody’s favorite.
Neil Gaiman is still an active Scientologist, giving $35,000 to the Scientology Super Powers Center in Minnesota in 2009 and named a Cornerstone Club member by Scientology. Gaiman contributed another $500,000.00 to the same Org in 2010, through his business partner Mary Gaiman. Listed as patrons of Scientology, the Gaiman family owns G&G Vitamins which reaps 6 million a year from selling The Purification Rundown to cult members. Gaiman’s two sisters, Claire Edwards and Lizzie Calciole are not just high-ranking Scientologists, they are the Head of Recruiting and the Head of Wealden House ( the Scientology stronghold in East Grinstead where Gaiman has been photographed). These two high-ranking Scientologists cannot associate with Neil unless he is in good standing.
The short answer to your long post is \”So what?\” And since your post was so long and off topic, I decided to shorten it by removing the vowels. Ta ta.