And now 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. – Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman addressed the Class of 2012 at the 134th Commencement of University of the Arts. His message was clear: Make good art. Watch this inspiring speech and a Q&A with the UArts community.
Thank you. I never really expected to find myself giving advice to people graduating from an establishment of higher education. I never graduated from any such establishment. I never even started at one. I escaped from school as soon as I could when the prospect of four more years of enforced learning before I could become the writer I wanted to be seemed stifling. I got out into the world, I wrote and I became a better writer the more I wrote, and I wrote some more and nobody ever seemed to mind that I was making it all up as I went along. They just read what I wrote and they paid me for it or they didn’t.
And often they commissioned me to write something else for them, which has left me with a healthy respect and fondness for higher education that those of my friends and family who attended universities were cured of long ago. Looking back, I’ve had a remarkable ride. I’m not sure I can call it a career, because a career implies that I had some kind of career plan and I never did. The nearest thing I had was a list I made when I was about 15 of everything I wanted to do.
I wanted to write an adult novel, a children’s book, a comic, a movie, record an audio book, write an episode of Dr. Who and so on. I didn’t have a career. I just did the next thing on the list.
I thought I’d tell you everything I wish I had known starting out and a few things that, looking back on it, I suppose I did know. And that I'll also give you the best piece of advice I'd ever got, which I completely failed to follow.
First of all, when you start out on a career in the arts, you have no idea what you’re doing. This is great. People who know what they’re doing know the rules, and they know what is possible and what is impossible. You do not and you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them, and you can. If you don’t know it’s impossible, it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that particular thing again.
Secondly, if you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that. And that’s much harder than it sounds. And sometimes in the end so much easier than you might imagine. Because normally there are things you have to do before you can get to the place you want to be. I wanted write comics and novels and stories and films, so I became a journalist because journalists are allowed to ask questions and to simply go and find out how the world works. And besides, to do those things, I needed to write and to write well. And I was being paid to learn how to write economically, crisply, sometimes under adverse conditions and on deadline.
Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear-cut, and sometimes it’ll be almost impossible to decide whether or not you’re doing the correct thing, because you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.
And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain, I’d be all right.
Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be, which was an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics, making good drama and supporting myself through my words. Imagining that was a mountain, a distant mountain, my goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain, I’d 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.
I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that attractive though they were for me, they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come earlier, I might’ve taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at that time. 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.
Thirdly, when you start out, you have to deal with the problems of failure. You need to be thick-skinned to learn that not every project will survive. A freelance life, a life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles on a desert island and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you. Appreciation or a commission or money or love and you have to accept that you may put out hundreds of things for every bottle that winds up coming back.
The problems of failure or problems of discouragement, of hopelessness, of hunger. You want everything to happen and you want it now when things go wrong. My first book, a piece of journalism I’d done only for the money and which had already bought me an electric typewriter from the advance should have been a bestseller. It should have paid me a lot of money. If the publisher hadn’t gone into involuntary liquidation between the first print run selling out and the second print run never happening, and before any royalties could be paid, it would’ve done.
The things I did because I was excited and wanted to see them exist in reality, have never let me down and I’ve never regretted the time I spent on any of them.
And I shrugged and I still had my electric typewriter and enough money to pay the rent for a couple of months and I decided that I do my best in future not to write books just for the money. If you didn’t get the money, then you didn’t have anything. And if I did work I was proud of and I didn’t get the money, at least I’d have the work.
Every now and then I forget that rule. And whenever I do, the universe kicks me hard and reminds me. I don’t know that it’s an issue for anybody but me. But it’s true that nothing I did where the only reason for doing it was the money was ever worth it except as bitter experience. Usually I didn’t wind up getting the money, either.
The things I did because I was excited and wanted to see them exist in reality, have never let me down and I've never regretted the time I spent on any of them. The problems of failure are hard. The problems of success can be harder because nobody warns you about them. The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you're getting away with something and that any moment now they will discover you.
It’s imposter syndrome. Something my wife Amanda christened the fraud police. In my case, I was convinced there would be a knock on the door and a man with a clipboard—I don’t know why he had a clipboard, but in my head, he always had a clipboard—would be there to tell me it was all over and they’d caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job. One that didn’t consist of making things up and writing them down and reading books I wanted to read, and then I would go away quietly and get the kind of job where I would have to get up early in the morning and wear a tie and not make things up anymore.
The problems of success, they’re real. And with luck, you’ll experience them. The point where you stop saying yes to everything, because now the bottles you throw in the ocean all coming back and you have to learn to say no.
I watched my peers and my friends and the ones who were older than me, and I’d watch how miserable some of them were. I’d listen to them telling me they couldn’t envisage a world where they did what they always wanted to do anymore, because now they had to earn a certain amount every month just to keep where they were. They couldn’t go and do the things that mattered and that they’d really wanted to do, and that seemed as big a tragedy as any problem of failure.
And after that, the biggest problem of success is that the world conspires to stop you doing the thing that you do because you’re successful. There was a day when I looked up and realized that I had become someone who professionally replied to email and who wrote as a hobby. I started answering fewer emails and was relieved to find I was writing much more.
Fourthly, I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you make mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be very useful. I once misspelled Caroline in a letter, transposing the A and the O, and I thought, “Coraline looks almost like a real name.”
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 good times and it gets you through the other ones. Sometimes life is hard. Things go wrong in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong.
I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you make mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something.
And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with the 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 and eventually time will take the sting away and that 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. And fifthly, while you’re at it, make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do.
The urge starting out is to copy. And that’s not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you, your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. The moment that you feel that just possibly you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself, that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.
But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you, your voice, your mind, your story, your vision.
The things I’ve done that worked the best were the things I was the least certain about. The stories where I was sure they’d either work or more likely be the kind of embarrassing failures that people would gather together and discuss until the end of time. They always have that in common. Looking back at them, people explain why they were inevitable successes, and when I was doing them I had no idea. I still don’t. And where would be the fun in making something you knew was going to work?
And sometimes the things I did really didn’t work. There are stories of mine that have never been reprinted. Some of them never even left the house, but I learned as much from them as I did from the things that worked.
Okay. Sixthly, I’m going to pass on some secret freelancer knowledge. Secret knowledge is always good, and it’s useful for anyone who ever plans to create art for other people, to enter a freelance world of any kind. I learned it in comics, but it applies to other fields too and it’s this: People get hired because somehow they get hired. In my case, I did something which these days would be easy to check and will get me into lots of trouble, and when I started out in those pre-internet days, seemed like a sensible career strategy.
When I was asked by editors who I’d written for, I lied. I listed a handful of magazines that sounded likely, and I sounded confident and I got jobs.
I then made it a point of honor to have written something for each of the magazines I’d listed to get that first job, so that I hadn’t actually lied, I’d just been chronologically challenged.
But 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 the 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 it 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.
When I agreed to give this address, I thought, “What is the best piece of advice I was ever given?” And I realized that it was actually a piece of advice that I had failed to follow. And it came from Stephen King. It was 20 years ago at the height of the success, the initial success of Sandman, the comic I was writing. I was—oh, thank you. I was writing a comic people loved, and they were taking it seriously, and Stephen King liked Sandman and my novel with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, and he saw the madness that was going on. The long signing lines, all of that stuff.
And his advice to me was this: He said, “This is really great. You should enjoy it.” And I didn’t. Best advice I ever got that I ignored. Instead, I worried about it. I worried about the next deadline, the next idea, the next story. There wasn’t a moment for the next 14 or 15 years that I wasn’t writing something in my head, or wondering about it, and I didn’t stop and look around and go, “This is really fun.” I wish I’d enjoyed it more. It’s been an amazing ride. But there were parts of the ride I missed, because I was too worried about things going wrong, about what came next to enjoy the bit that I was on.
That was the hardest lesson for me, I think, to let go and enjoy the ride. Because the ride takes you to some remarkable and unexpected places. And here on this platform today for me is one of those places, and I am enjoying myself immensely.
I’d actually put that in brackets just in case I wasn’t, I wouldn’t say [it].
To all today’s graduates, I wish you luck. Luck is useful. Often you will discover that the harder you work and the more wisely that you work, the luckier you will get. But there is luck, and it helps.
We’re in a transitional world right now if you’re in any kind of artistic field, because the nature of distribution is changing. The models by which creators got their work out into the world and got to keep a roof over their heads and buy sandwiches while they did that, they’re all changing. I’ve talked to people at the top of the food chain in publishing and bookselling, in music, in all those areas, and no one knows what the landscape will look like two years from now, let alone a decade away.
The distribution channels that people had built over the last century or so are in flux for print, for visual artists, for musicians, the creative people of all kinds, which is on the one hand intimidating and on the other immensely liberating. The rules, the assumptions, the now-we’re-supposed-to’s of how you get your work seen and what you do then, they’re breaking down. The gatekeepers are leaving their gates. You can be as creative as you need to be to get your work seen. YouTube and the web and whatever comes after YouTube and the web can give you more people-watching than old television ever did. The old rules are crumbling, and nobody knows what the new rules are, so make up your own rules.
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.
And now 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.
#uartist is a celebration of the boundless creativity of the UArts community. Students, faculty, staff and alumni are welcome to share their work with us via Instagram by including #uartist. #uartist works are featured below.
Discover a welcoming community of artists, designers and writers in the heart of one of the nation’s most exciting cultural centers.
See UArts For Yourself
The best way to get to know UArts is by visiting our campus in person. Come see a show, visit a gallery, and get to know the neighborhood, or take a virtual tour.
With a unique environment that encourages risk-taking and exploration, visual artists, dancers, designers, actors, writers, filmmakers and musicians collaborate and find their creative paths in their desired areas of study.