Art Matters by Neil Gaiman – a review

by michaelharvey in Creativity, fear, Review

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A little book with a big punch. Neil Gaiman is obviously a household name and role model for any aspiring writer or, in fact, any creative artist. His words are worth listening to by anyone with ambitions to work in the arts. His advice is old-fashioned, principled and based on his own triumphs and mistakes.

Neil Gaiman grew in the pre-internet age and was a child of the library system. A system that is currently under threat in the UK.  Neil Gaiman has memories of how is interest in books was encouraged and nurtured by the librarians in his local library. These days we are richer in information rich but poorer in experience. To have an experience you need other people. Even if the event happened to you when you were alone, it is only in telling it to others that you can shape it into experience. I am lucky enough to have a functioning library that is walking distance from my house but the borrowing and returning of books is automatic. Instead of the chance to swap book gossip with a real live human being I just get a ‘beep’ from a machine.

arts matters

Authenticity vs Pleasing Everyone

Neil Gaiman’s central piece of advice is also Shakespeare’s. In Hamlet, the bumbling Polonius has a man-to-man chat with his son Laertes who is about to go abroad. The bit of his advice that became most quoted is ‘to thine ownself be true’. That is what Neil Gaiman is telling us too.Have a clear idea of what you want to do early on and then behave in a way that makes it more likely to happen. With any artform this means practice. Lots and lots of practice. And mistakes. Mistakes and practice go together to make the work happen.

When I started writing Pig Boy I thought about what market I was aiming for. I have done lots of work in schools as a storyteller and I know that there are many reluctant boy readers who are just looking for the right book. So I started to write for them, in a Roald Dahl kind of way. As soon as i re-read my drafts I knew that I was on the wrong track. It just wasn’t my voice.

So I took a deep breath and wrote for myself and with my own voice. We’ll see what happens when the betareaders get back to me with their comments! Yes it is scary, but that is the point. A lot of what gets pushed at us, online and elsewhere, communicates certainty. You will definitely be thinner, cleverer, have a zillion subscribers if you sign-up for this or that online package. The truth is that if you are dealing with genuine creativity you are dealing with uncertainty. And that is the point.

Scary is good!

One of my biggest creative influences is the Canadian creative writing tutor Barbara Turner-Vesselego. She quotes one of her creative mentors saying that in order to progress creatively we need to ‘go fearwards’.

The next thing to deal with is the need to pay the bills. The danger is that you get too good at the day job or get diverted along a path that is kind of what you’re interested in but not actually your ‘thing’. Neil is very clear that if you are doing anything that is not getting you closer to your goal then you are going away from it. Plaudits, prizes and praise are nice but basically distractions. The work itself is the reward, not the attention or, if you are lucky enough to earn it, the money.

I just want to mention one more bit of advice he gave because it struck such a chord with me. And that is to enjoy the ride. Neil Gaiman remembers a time when he was hurtling from one deadline to another and never gave himself time to think, “This is what I have always wanted to do. It is actually happening. And I love it!”

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Redrafting Pig Boy in Grangetown Library

Creativity – slow food for the soul

We live in a world of distraction. Shiny baubles are dangled in front of us in order to funnel us down certain decision paths. The old-school writing and drawing in this book reminds the artist in us to slow-right-down. The only thing we really have any direct control over is our attention. Our attention is precious. That is why so many people want it. Not in order to invite is into a rich and rewarding experience but to monetize us.

I have bought lots of things that have benefited me online but I have also made many clicks of regret that brought me nothing but the feeling of being duped. As Neil says, it’s okay to make mistakes, but it is also really important to come home to ourselves and slow down because, deep down, we do all really know what we are looking for.

 Chris Riddell drew the illustrations for this book. Here is something from his sketchbook. He didn’t get to be Children’s Laureate for nothing!

Screenshot_2019-12-11 Chris Riddell on Instagram “New brown paper sketchbook ”

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