I am currently reflecting deeply on Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement speech to graduating class of the University of the Arts. I’ve listened to it twice in the last two days, and will probably listen again today. In it, he gives the graduates advice about making art, encourages them to break rules and be themselves, and gives them the best advice he ignored – which he received from Stephen King.
Go ahead. Give it a listen. You’ll thank me.
I often ask people what their secret artist’s life is. Almost everyone – no matter what their paid job is – has an answer to this. They play guitar on the weekends or keep a photography blog. They are planning to take a watercolor class this winter or they sing with the church choir. Someone recently told me that his grandmother taught him how to quilt and sew and that he has an unfinished project in his closet that he’s about to get back to. I believe the human spirit has a drive to create, even though much of the culture undervalues art because it’s hard to buy heath insurance with it.
What I love about this speech is that Mr. Gaiman is so very clear that a life in art does not have a clear path, and that we have to make things up along the way – stories, knowledge, job experience. He urges us not to be limited by own own limits, to be playful even when we don’t know exactly how to do what we want to do.
“Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped. So 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.”
Mr. Gaiman is clear that in art, as in all other areas of work life, you don’t have to be able to do everything well. Two out of three skills works.
“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. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.”
Finally, Mr. Gaiman does something that the Capricorn in me loves. He describes that as he was starting out as a writer, he imagined his goal as a mountain:
“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – 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.”
We would do well to remember, no matter what happens in life, to Make Good Art.
And, by the way, what is your secret artist’s life?