I'm a huge Neil Gaiman fan, have been for almost 20 years. I got to meet him once at a signing in Champaign-Urbana about ten years ago, and he was so kind as to sign every last volume of my Sandman graphic novels (I went through the line four times, the last time going back behind about two people). He could have turned me away, but he chatted amiably with me, and was so incredibly kind and gracious to my friend Ava, who'd brought him a Chinese-dragon beanie baby. (He asked if he could give her a hug!) I consider both him and his wife, Amanda Palmer, to be the two luckiest people in the world for being married to each other, and I've never read anything he wrote that I didn't love.
This is Neil giving a commencement speech recently at The University of the Arts.
He makes some great points about making mistakes and breaking rules, but I've transcribed my two favorite passages here.
Remember, whatever discipline you're in, whether you're a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a singer, a designer, whatever you do, you have one thing that's unique: you have the ability to make art. And for me, and for so many of the people I've known, that's been a lifesaver. The ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through the good times, and it gets you through the other ones. Sometimes life is hard. Things go wrong. In life, in love, in business and in friendship, and in health, and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when life gets tough, this is what you should do: MAKE GOOD ART.
Husband runs off with a politician? MAKE GOOD ART.
Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? MAKE GOOD ART.
IRS on your trail? MAKE GOOD ART.
Cat exploded? MAKE GOOD ART.
Someone on the internet thinks what you're doing is stupid or evil or it's all been done before? MAKE GOOD ART.
Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and it doesn't even matter. Do what only you can do best: MAKE GOOD ART. Make it on the bad days; make it on the good days too.
Sometimes I feel like I'm still figuring out my medium, figuring out my voice, figuring out what in the hell I want to be when I grow up and what to do with my life. I'm definitely in the stage where I make more bad or mediocre stuff than good stuff, and make mistakes by the dozen. But I figure I can't go too wrong if I just keep on creating, whether it be words, or drawings, or fashion, or fiber. I need to get out of the habit of waiting, or doubting, or self-editing too soon, and just CREATE.
Words going around in head? Write them down.
Something I want to be able to draw? Learn how to draw it and practice, practice, practice.
Something I want to have to wear? Design it and make it.
Fiber speaking to me? Get it on needles and see what it becomes.
Every day, rain or shine, happy or sad, energetic or tired, whether it becomes a piece of gold or a piece of shit, JUST CREATE.
And also, document it and get feedback. Use my dusty DeviantArt account. Blog, whether it's here or on my comparably dusty LiveJournal account, or in some other location entirely. Put pieces up for sale, on etsy or Dawanda or at Farbspiel if they'll let me. Create because I yearn to create, but share my creations with the wider world.
Neil also had some fantastic wisdom to share about making sure you can keep working:
You get work... however you get work. But 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're 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 on time. People will forgive the lateness of your work if it's good and they like you. And you don't have to be as good as everyone else if you're on time and it's always a pleasure to hear from you.
Hmmm... My stat levels aren't maxxed on any single one of these, but they're closest to full on "on time" (at least, I was usually pretty good at turning in term papers on time in uni unless I was having serious health issues) and "easy to get along with" (as long as I don't totally bowl people over with the force of my personality). I'm high up there on "good" with non-fiction writing, but in all other pursuits, I don't feel like I'm there yet. So while I work on "good", I'll do my damndest to be extremely prompt and likeable, I guess.
So, the take-home lesson of Neil's talk: MAKE GOOD ART. I'll do my best.