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Advice on Living the Creative Life from Neil Gaiman

“Someone on the internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid, or evil, or it’s all been done before? Make good art.”

On the heels of last week’s timeless commencement addresses by icons like David Foster Wallace, Ellen DeGeneres, and Ray Bradbury comes this fantastic speech by Neil Gaiman, addressing the 2012 graduating class of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. (Which happens to be the technical birthplace of Brain Pickings as we know it today — it’s there that I took my first web design night class in the early 1800s and transformed what began as a tiny email newsletter into a tiny website.) Gaiman himself never graduated from college — in fact, he never even enrolled in college — yet he earned his place in literary culture as one of the most celebrated and prolific writers working today. Here, he imparts several pieces of life-wisdom on young people beginning a career in the arts, summarized below.

  1. Say “no” to projects that take you further from rather than closer to your own creative goals, however flattering or lucrative. (Hugh MacLeod put it beautifully: “The most important thing a creative per­son can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you are willing to do, and what you are not.”)
  2. Approach your creative labor with joy, or else it becomes work. (As Ray Bradbury said, “Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it.”)
  3. I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work — which meant that life did not feel like work.

  4. Embrace your fear of failure. Make peace with the impostor syndrome that comes with success. Don’t be afraid of being wrong.
  5. When things get tough, make good art.
  6. Sometimes life is hard. Things go wrong — and in life, and in love, and in business, and in friendship, and in health, and in all the other ways in which life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a 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.

  7. Make your art, tell your story, find your voice — even if you begin by copying others.
  8. You can get work because of the story you tell about yourself, even if it means embellishing, but you keep working because you’re good.
  9. Enjoy your work and your small victories; don’t get swept up into the next thing before being fully present with the joys of this one.
  10. This is an era in which the creative landscape is in constant flux. The rules are being broken down, the gatekeepers are being replaced and displaced. Now is the time to make up your own rules.

Gaiman sums it all up thusly:

Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make. Good. Art.

Open Culture; top image by Kimberly Butler

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William Gibson on Cultivating a “Personal Micro-Culture”

On the building blocks of creativity and acquiring a sense of what feels right.

I’ve been reading Distrust That Particular Flavor, the fantastic collection of nonfiction essays, including some never-before-printed ones, by the great novelist William Gibson. In the introduction, in discussing what makes great fiction, Gibson articulates one of the most fundamental principles of creativity — and, like all great insight on writing, at the heart of it is a truth that applies to the creative process in just about any domain, well beyond literature:

We [are] shaped as writers, I believe, not much by who our favorite writers are as by our general experience of fiction. Learning to write fiction, we learn to listen for our own acquired sense of what feels right, based on the totality of the pleasure (or its lack) that fiction has provided us. Not direct emulation, but rather a matter of a personal micro-culture.

I love this concept of “a personal micro-culture” — what an eloquent way to capture the most important aspect of who we become, as creators in any medium and as human beings. Design legend Paula Scher knows that. (“[A design is] done in a second and every experience, and every movie, and every thing in my life that’s in my head,” she said.) Artist Austin Kleon knows that. (“You are a mashup of what you let into your life,” he said.) The blossoming of our combinatorial creativity hinges on a cultivation of our personal micro-culture. How are you cultivating yours?

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