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