Neil Gaiman on Being a Writer

James P. Blaylock

Last night, we sat in the audience at a super-secret appearance by Neil Gaiman, the author of American Gods, Coraline, The Sandman, and much more. He’s in Southern California for the World Fantasy Convention, so he agreed to appear at a fundraiser for Orange County High School for the Arts on the condition that he be rewarded by dining with fellow writers Tim Powers and Jim Blaylock and that no press be contacted, no public publicity be done. Jim, our colleague at Chapman University, let us in on the secret, and we gladly paid our cash to support artsy, ambitious teens.

These teens treated Neil Gaiman like a rock star, squealing at his very presence, wriggling with nerves when he spoke, wondering whether he’d see them winking at him from the back rows. Gaiman himself talked about the weirdness of fan adoration, recounting a couple of stories about tattoos. One man at a book signing showed Gaiman a tattoo of The Sandman, asked the author to sign underneath, then returned before Gaiman had wrapped up to reveal the freshly tattooed autograph still bleeding a little.

Proof of Gaiman

The reason that we’re writing about Neil Gaiman is partly because we were refreshed by the sight of that many young people, especially girls, excited about writing, particularly science fiction and other genre writing. We’re also intrigued that, after the conference, he’s touring on the West Coast with his wife, who’s a musician, so they are collaborators. Click HERE for more info about their sold-out tour and how they used Kickstarter to fund it.

But mostly, we’ve written this post as a follow-up to yesterday’s post, “The Luck and Obligation of Writing.” Neil Gaiman certainly didn’t have time to read Lofty Ambitions yesterday, but in the Q&A last night, he reiterated some of what we said.

Gaiman talked about large projects as akin to slow hunches, though he didn’t use that term. He doesn’t think writer’s block is an accurate description of what happens to writers when such a project stalls. He admits that he gets stuck, but then he writes something else. He admits he has good days and bad days at writing. In fact, echoing Leslie Pietrzyk’s discussion of whether writing is fun (see yesterday’s post), Neil Gaiman says of his bad days, “[On those days,] writing is as much fun as a particularly horrible trip to the dentist.” A writer goes back the next day and writes again, or at least reads over the draft to figure out where it went off the rails.

What fascinates Neil Gaiman is that, at the end of a writing project filled with those good and bad writing days, it’s impossible to tell the mood or difficulty behind any page or passage. He claims something very close to the following (but we’re not sure our pen kept up with every word): “You can’t tell which is which […]. It’s all much of a muchness. […] How you felt as you were writing has less to do with the final thing than you thought.” In the end, the novel is all of a piece. The bad days don’t show. The bad days helped get the novel written.

Neither does Neil Gaiman wait for inspiration. Instead, he’s a daydreamer, always thinking, always wondering in that curious way we, too, like. That invites what we call serendipity, but what Gaiman talked of as “two things coming together” for the first time or in a new way even though he’s “thought about it a hundred times.”

So, like us, Neil Gaiman suggests that curiosity invites serendipity. Often, his method is to start asking weird questions. What if? That’s how he nurtures a hunch. Knowing the crowd, Neil Gaiman posed the following weird question: “What if Jim Blaylock always kills and ritually eats one student at the end of every term?” Anyone who knows Jim Blaylock as the soft-spoken, laidback, engaged teacher begins to ponder what it might mean for the person you least suspect to do something more outrageous than you’re used to imagining. And one thought leads to another—and to more questions. Granted, Gaiman’s questions tend to be a bit creepier than our own, but writing is often a way to answer questions, solve problems, and satisfy curiosity.

Importantly, Neil Gaiman also echoes Malcom Gladwell and Diane Ackerman (see yesterday’s post), repeating someone else’s belief that a writer must write a million words to get that early, crappy stuff of his system and reach the real work of writing. (Ira Glass says something similar in a video we’ve posted below.) That’s akin to the ten-thousand hours that Gladwell asserts is necessary for expertise. It’s important to get through those many beginning hours as quickly as possible, to reach expertise while there’s still time to use that wisdom. As Gaiman said last night, “The more writing you do, the better you’ll get at it, the better you’ll get at the craft of it.”

Neil Gaiman captured our sense of obligation, too, but in a way we’d never considered. He spoke of a point in his twenties when he realized that, if he didn’t try to become a writer, he’d think on his deathbed, I could have been a writer. And he wouldn’t know whether that was true or whether he was fooling himself. So he decided to give it a serious go, to find out whether he could become a writer, to remove doubt. He doesn’t seem to have any other question about what he might have been and is comforted to know that, on his deathbed, he will say, I was a writer.

5 thoughts on “Neil Gaiman on Being a Writer

  1. I’m reminded of what Daniel Manus Pinkwater said, although this is probably a paraphrase: “We often hear of dying bank presidents who wish they had been poets, but we rarely hear of dying poets who wish they’d been bank presidents.” Last night I didn’t give a damn for being a bank president. Tomorrow… I don’t know.

  2. Great observation about writers block, that when the novel is complete neither reader nor the author can tell which scenes or chapters were written on bad days.

    Does this debunk the myth of writers waiting for inspiration?

    Writers write. Like any other profession it’s our job. We show up each day. And write.

  3. I think the key is “just keep writing, just keep writing.” Even if it’s crap, two lines of crap may open you up to something really good.

    Some of my better work has come out when I am stuck, frustrated, depressed, etc., and tossed out some “what the hell” piece of nonsense that, for whatever reason, people seem to like.

    Congrats on the score of such a prestigious writer, and it’s so cool the kids were totally into it.

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