WikiMedia Commons / Kyle Cassidy
WikiMedia Commons / Kyle Cassidy

11 Neil Gaiman Quotes on Writing

WikiMedia Commons / Kyle Cassidy
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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Bowman Gum - Heritage Auctions, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
11 Timeless Yogi Berra Quotes
Bowman Gum - Heritage Auctions, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Bowman Gum - Heritage Auctions, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The great Yogi Berra—a 10-time World Series champion and three-time MVP—was one of baseball's best catchers, but he's remembered just as much for his wit and wisdom as his Hall of Fame career. Here are some of the quotes attributed to Yogi (who was born on May 12, 1925), even if he didn't always say them first.

1. "Always go to other people's funerals, otherwise they won't go to yours."

2. "The future ain't what it used to be." (Yogi later clarified, saying, "I just meant that times are different. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.")

3. "A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore."

4. "It ain't over 'til it's over."

5. "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." (See Quote Investigator)

6. "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." (See Quote Investigator)

7. "We have a good time together, even when we're not together."

8. "It's déjà vu all over again." (See Quote Investigator)

9. "Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical."

10. "I really didn't say everything I said."

11. "Then again, I might have said 'em, but you never know."

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Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI
13 Great Jack Nicholson Quotes
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI

Jack Nicholson turns 81 today. Let's celebrate with some of the actor's wit and wisdom.

1. ON ADVICE

"I hate advice unless I'm giving it. I hate giving advice, because people won't take it."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

2. ON REGRETS

"Not that I can think of. I’m sure there are some, but my mind doesn’t go there. When you look at life retrospectively you rarely regret anything that you did, but you might regret things that you didn’t do."

From an interview with The Talks

3. ON DEATH

"I'm Irish. I think about death all the time. Back in the days when I thought of myself as a serious academic writer, I used to think that the only real theme was a fear of death, and that all the other themes were just that same fear, translated into fear of closeness, fear of loneliness, fear of dissolving values. Then I heard old John Huston talking about death. Somebody was quizzing him about the subject, you know, and here he is with the open-heart surgery a few years ago, and the emphysema, but he's bounced back fit as a fiddle, and he's talking about theories of death, and the other fella says, 'Well, great, John, that's great ... but how am I supposed to feel about it when you pass on?' And John says, 'Just treat it as your own.' As for me, I like that line I wrote that, we used in The Border, where I said, 'I just want to do something good before I die.' Isn't that what we all want?"

From an interview with Roger Ebert

4. ON NERVES

''There's a period of time just before you start a movie when you start thinking, I don't know what in the world I'm going to do. It's free-floating anxiety. In my case, though, this is over by lunch the first day of shooting.''

From an interview with The New York Times

5. ON ACTING

"Almost anyone can give a good representative performance when you're unknown. It's just easier. The real pro game of acting is after you're known—to 'un-Jack' that character, in my case, and get the audience to reinvest in a new and specific, fictional person."

From an interview with The Age

6. ON MARRIAGE

"I never had a policy about marriage. I got married very young in life and I always think in all relationships, I've always thought that it's counterproductive to have a theory on that. It's hard enough to get to know yourself and as most of you have probably found, once you get to know two people in tandem it's even more difficult. If it's going to be successful, it's going to have to be very specific and real and immediate so the more ideas you have about it before you start, it seems to me the less likely you are to be successful."

From an interview with About.com

7. ON LYING

“You only lie to two people in your life: your girlfriend and the police. Everybody else you tell the truth to.”

From a 1994 interview with Vanity Fair

8. ON HIS SUNGLASSES

"They're prescription. That's why I wear them. A long time ago, the Middle American in me may have thought it was a bit affected maybe. But the light is very strong in southern California. And once you've experienced negative territory in public life, you begin to accept the notion of shields. I am a person who is trained to look other people in the eye. But I can't look into the eyes of everyone who wants to look into mine; I can't emotionally cope with that kind of volume. Sunglasses are part of my armor."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

9. ON MISCONCEPTIONS

"I think people think I'm more physical than I am, I suppose. I'm not really confrontational. Of course, I have a temper, but that's sort of blown out of proportion."

From an interview with ESPN

10. ON DIRECTING

"I'm a different person when suddenly it's my responsibility. I'm not very inhibited in that way. I would show up [on the set of The Two Jakes] one day, and we'd scouted an orange grove and it had been cut down. You're out in the middle of nowhere and they forget to cast an actor. These are the sort of things I kind of like about directing. Of course, at the time you blow your stack a little bit. ... I'm a Roger Corman baby. Just keep rolling, baby. You've got to get something on there. Maybe it's right. Maybe it's wrong. Maybe you can fix it later. Maybe you can't. You can't imagine the things that come up when you're making a movie where you've got to adjust on the spot."

From an interview with MTV

11. ON ROGER CORMAN

"There's nobody in there, that he didn't, in the most important way support. He was my life blood to whatever I thought I was going to be as a person. And I hope he knows that this is not all hot air. I'm going to cry now."

From the documentary Corman's World

12. ON PLAYING THE JOKER

"This would be the character, whose core—while totally determinate of the part—was the least limiting of any I would ever encounter. This is a more literary way of approaching than I might have had as a kid reading the comics, but you have to get specific. ... He's not wired up the same way. This guy has survived nuclear waste immersion here. Even in my own life, people have said, 'There's nothing sacred to you in the area of humor, Jack. Sometimes, Jack, relax with the humor.' This does not apply to the Joker, in fact, just the opposite. Things even the wildest comics might be afraid to find funny: burning somebody's face into oblivion, destroying a masterpiece in a museum—a subject as an art person even made me a little scared. Not this character. And I love that."

From The Making of Batman

13. ON BASKETBALL

"I've always thought basketball was the best sport, although it wasn't the sport I was best at. It was just the most fun to watch. ... Even as a kid it appealed to me. The basketball players were out at night. They had great overcoats. There was this certain nighttime juvenile-delinquent thing about it that got your blood going."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

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