11 Neil Gaiman Quotes on Writing

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WikiMedia Commons / Kyle Cassidy

Neil Gaiman is a prolific author spanning genres — he has hits in the worlds of comics, young adult fiction, grownup fiction, television, film, and even nonfiction (I particularly enjoyed Don't Panic, his Douglas Adams/HHGTTG companion). Here, eleven quotes from Gaiman on writing.

1. On Nightmares

In an NPR feature, Gaiman discussed the stop-motion animated film Alice by Jan Svankmajer. In that interview, he made an important point for writers of stories for kids:

Kids are so much braver than adults, sometimes, and so much less easily disturbed. Kids will make their nightmares up out of anything, and the important thing in fiction, if you're giving them nightmares, is to demonstrate that nightmares are beatable.

Gaiman signing "Anansi Boys" / Flickr User Jutta

2. On Learning to Write as Adventure

From his now-famous 2012 commencement address at The University of the Arts:

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.

Gaiman and His Wife Amanda Palmer / Getty Images

3. On Freelancing

More from the same commencement address:

When you start off, you have to deal with the problems of failure. You need to be thickskinned, 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 a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back.

4. On "Impostor Syndrome"

One more nugget from that commencement address:

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 are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you. It's Impostor Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police.

In my case, I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard (I don't know why he carried a clipboard, in my head, but he did) would be there, to tell me it was all over, and they had 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 you don't have to make things up any more.

5. On Rejection

When asked about rejection on Tumblr, Gaiman replied:

First I got really grumpy, and then got very determined to write things that were so good that not even the stupidest most irritating gatekeeper alive could reject them.

Gaiman at the "Coraline" Premiere / Getty Images

6. On Smeagol/Gollum Slash Fiction

A fan wrote in to ask Gaiman whether he read fan fiction, what his favorite fan fiction was, and also what his opinion was on the usefulness of writing fan fiction. In other words, "Please tell me that fan fiction is good."

Gaiman's response is below, emphasis added to the portion in which he writes sample Smeagol/Gollum slash fiction. (For those who have forgotten their Lord of the Rings details, Smeagol was Gollum's Hobbit name and represents a second self in Gollum's subterranean monologues. And Wikipedia will educate you about slash fiction if you need a hand there.)

Er, no, I don't read fanfiction.

I think that all writing is useful for honing writing skills. I think you get better as a writer by writing, and whether that means that you're writing a singularly deep and moving novel about the pain or pleasure of modern existence or you're writing Smeagol-Gollum slash you're still putting one damn word after another and learning as a writer.

(I just made that up. I imagine it would go something like: "Oh, the preciouss, we takes it our handssses and we rubs it and touchess it, gollum....no, Smeagol musst not touch the preciousss, the master said only he can touch the precioussss.... bad masster, he doess not know the precious like we does, no, gollum, and we wants it, we wants it hard in our handses, yesss..." etc etc)

(Thanks to reader Cat Schaefer Pedini for pointing me to this gem.)

7. His New Year's Wish

At 10:08pm on December 31, 2012, Gaiman posted his New Year's Wish (emphasis added):

It's a New Year and with it comes a fresh opportunity to shape our world.

So this is my wish, a wish for me as much as it is a wish for you: in the world to come, let us be brave – let us walk into the dark without fear, and step into the unknown with smiles on our faces, even if we're faking them.

And whatever happens to us, whatever we make, whatever we learn, let us take joy in it. We can find joy in the world if it's joy we're looking for, we can take joy in the act of creation.

So that is my wish for you, and for me. Bravery and joy.

(Thanks to reader Joseph Palreiro for posting this one!)


Gaiman accepts the Vonnegut Award / Flickr User dtd72

8. On Public Speaking

Writers are often called upon to speak in public. Gaiman recently posted six tips for speaking in public, but I'll just give you the first:

Mean it. Whatever you have to say, mean it.

Read the rest for helpful advice, especially the second point. I like to wing it, pseudo-bravely and joyously (see above).

9. Why You Shouldn't Do Creative Work Solely for Money

In an NPR interview promoting the book adaptation of his aforementioned commencement speech, Gaiman explained why doing creative projects just for money isn't worth it:

Whenever I did something where the only reason for doing it was money — and this was a lesson that I learned beginning with being a 23-year-old author hired to write a book about Duran Duran — that whenever I did something and the only reason for doing it was the money, normally something would go terribly wrong. And I normally wouldn't get the money and then I wouldn't have anything. Whereas, whenever I did anything where what prompted my doing it was being interested, being excited, caring, thinking this is going to be fun, even if things went wrong and I didn't get the money, I had something I was proud of. ...

It's something that, you know, I forget. Sometimes somebody waves a paycheck and I go, 'I don't really have any reason for doing it, I'm not interested. But, yes, what amazing money, how can I say no?' And then I do it, and then I regret it. And you can almost feel the universe itself sighing, like, 'Why doesn't he learn this one?'

Gaiman, Claire Danes, Charlie Cox at the "Stardust" Premiere / Getty Images

10. On Kidnapping His Favorite Authors

Here's a snippet from a CNN interview in 2001.

"When you're 11, walking home from school through this strange little English landscape, running these weird, wonderful things through your head ... well, now this is one of those 'I've never told anybody this before' things," Gaiman says conspiratorially, "but here we go:

"My worst fantasy was a really cool one. I got to kidnap all of the authors whose work I liked, living and dead — I got to go 'round and round up G.K. Chesterton and Geoffrey Chaucer and all of these guys. Then I got to lock them in an enormous castle and make them collaborate on these huge-plot books. And I would tell them what the plots were.

"I was about 10 years old. And I plotted this 12-volume giant epic about these people going off to collect these rocks from all over the universe.

"As daydreams go, it says an awful lot about me as a young man: I wasn't confident enough about my ability to come up with stories. I was coming up with this huge, intricate story in order to justify in my daydreams of creating stories."

Gaiman and Palmer perform at SPIN's Liner Notes / Flickr User Zoe

11. On What Constitutes a Good Day

The original source of this one appears to be lost to history, but so it goes:

Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.

More Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has an astonishingly comprehensive online presence. To get your fix, follow his very official Tumblr, his journal, his Twitter, and if you just like quotes, the fan Twitter account @GaimanQuotes is worth a shot. I'm also impressed by the fan-maintained Neil Gaiman Visual Bibliography, a comprehensive guide to basically everything he's ever put to paper.

Gaiman also has a lot of book releases this year. Just out this month are the book Make Good Art based on his commencement speech, plus the (free) short story How to Talk to Girls at Parties. In June we can look forward to The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The man is prolific, generous, and a damn fine writer — thank you, Mr. Gaiman.

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May 28, 2013 - 5:15am
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