Recently I had the chance to attend a live talk with Neil Gaiman.
“Digression is the sunshine of narrative,” he said with a laugh, politely reassuring the speaker that no one should ever apologize for digressing.
They talked about books; how a young child drew something for Neil Gaiman, and when he received it Neil was so touched that he chose to send back a reply, and later learned that the child had been so enamored of Neil’s reply that he chose to eat it.
Neil smiled and said it was one of the more flattering responses he’d ever gotten. Even as some choose to cherish and protect their books, others bring him dog-eared, rain stained books, with muddy covers, and when they sheepishly apologize he gently replies that “No, this is what it’s about.”
The speaker referenced that old adage, “You can’t eat your cake and have it too,” and Neil agreed, holding an imagined book in his hands as he talked about how “It’s all about the eating, not preserving it in a case,” this idea that stories change us, and in turn should be changed by us.
“Part of the magic of reading is that no 2 people read the same book. Everyone imagines a different ‘Thor’. I’m giving you the raw materials, but you’re the one building your own world. You can’t tell someone they’re reading it wrong, even if they are.” He laughed softly.
He talked about how books change as we age, how we go back to old favorites only to find they’re not as we remember them, for better or for worse.
This gradually led to discussing one of his books (I can’t recall the name), where a young protagonist felt that adults needed to be protected from the harsh realities of their childhood.
“Adulthood,” he said, “The thing I’m still waiting for.” This mythical manual that children assume adults must have, when the reality is “I’m just making it up as I go along.”
He talked about a longstanding fear that he struggled with, the fear that someday someone might unmask him as a fraud.
“I always feared that someday someone would come along with a clipboard, confirm that I was Neil Gaiman, that I just make it up as I go along, and tell me ‘That’s over now. You have to go get a real job,’ and that would be the end of me.”
He talked about a social event he went to, full of scientists and artists from all over, and he struck up a conversation with another person named Neil. He told Neil Gaiman how He felt like a fraud, which prompted Neil to say “You went to the moon. I think that counts for something.”
“If anyone thinks they know what they’re doing, don’t trust them.”
They talked about revision, and how “Art is never completed, only abandoned.”
“At a certain point you accept and let it go. You’ll get it right next time.”
“What keeps me going? The next page.”
Then they turned to hobbies. Neil’s is bee keeping.
“Everyone should have a hobby that could kill them,” he said with a laugh.
Then they swung back to writing, specifically bad writing.
Neil suggested that the author put it aside for a time before trying to fix it.
“Wolves in the walls started out as a nightmare.” His son woke up full of fear, so Neil decided to turn it into a story, and gradually he made the story sillier and sillier, to take away the fear.
But when it came time to write the story, he waited months before trying again, until he stumbled upon a certain phrase (apologies, I did not manage to get it down), which became the touchstone of the piece, a clear example of the tone and voice.
“You have to put it away, for a month or more, long enough to create some distance, so that you can read it for the first time.” Note anything that bothers you as a reader.
On the subject of writer’s block Neil said “Getting stuck is real. I’ve gotten stuck for 20 years. Sometimes you don’t know,” but he doesn’t believe in writer’s block. Writers made that up. “Writer’s block is entirely outside of your control, sent by the writing gods. The truth is you got stuck. True writer’s block would mean you couldn’t write anything.”
“If you’re stuck, work on another story.”
“Coraline took 10 years to write, and 6 of those years were spent in the middle, right after the parents are stolen.” He didn’t know what happened next, so he stopped.
“It’s all about what happens next.”
He talked about “telling stories”, how they feel alive, passed on from one person to the next, slowly changing along the way.
He talked about how “The deeper I am in a book, the more useless I am,” referencing how he’d look for his phone while using it to talk to someone.
“Trust your obsessions,” he said, “That’s where your ideas come from.”
Sometimes he would suddenly find himself reading nothing but books on the working poor, and realize that one of the characters would fit right in with a story he was working on.
“Sometimes you don’t use them, you let them sink into the compost at the back of your mind.”
“Without obsessions, life is nothing.”
“You don’t spend years researching or doing something for a story; you do it because you love it, and then you find a way to use it.”
“Obsessions creep up on us.”
“The more interests we have the more interesting we are.”
He talked about ideas as “the collision of two unrelated things”.
“Don’t dismiss the weird or absurd, follow it, follow the chain of thought.”
He spoke with a quiet humor, an earnest desire to clear away the mysticism that sometimes gathers around successful writers. There is no secret, but there is plenty of magic.
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