Last night was a dream. A fairy tale. A once-in-a-lifetime experience. Last night I experienced a spectacular two-and-a-half hours of reading and q&a with Neil Gaiman – a god among writers of speculative fiction.
Several months ago, the Hall Center for Humanities located in Lawrence, Kansas, announced a free event with the masterful Neil Gaiman. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that he was going to come to the Midwest!
If you wanted to go to the event, you had to take off work and drive up to Lawrence in the middle of a Monday and hope you were close enough to the front that they wouldn’t run out before you got your two tickets. I was all set to go, but then backed out at the last minute, worried about using a precious PTO day and then coming away empty-handed. Tickets were clearly tough to get. Somehow, through pure luck, a friend had an extra and invited me to tag along at almost the last minute!
The Lied Center was filled with fellow nerds – 2,000 of us! And it was awesome to be in a space where I felt so connected to everyone else around me. It was like going to a concert or a sporting event when you embrace that heady crowd (mob?) mentality. We were all in this together, 2,000 book nerds. I’ve been to many author events over the years, but nothing quite like this.
You might be wondering what Mr. Gaiman read for the crowd. Neil is a fantastic reader and it was fascinating watching him transition from himself into the person giving a speech or telling a story. It was like watching an actor on stage as he or she steps out of themselves and into their role. When he would answer questions, he would be very quiet and dry (and really funny in a British sort of way). But, when he gave his importance of libraries speech or read passages from his other works, he would do voices and gesture. It was fun and such a unique experience! We were treated to a passage from Norse Mythology, Good Omens, a poem he wrote for his wife that is unpublished, a short story called October, and, of course, the libraries speech for which he is so well-known.
As a writer, one of the best things you can do for yourself is listen to what other writers have to say about their own experiences, their struggles and their triumphs in this crazy world of publishing. Here are some of the wonderful writing lessons I learned from Mr. Gaiman last night.
- The book in your head is the best because it is still perfect. Even people like Neil Gaiman can’t get the vision they have in their heads to come out on paper. The lesson? I am not alone in this struggle.
- Stephen King may say you need to complete a project in a season. But not so for Neil. He fluctuates between paced writing and frenzied binge-writing. But, a solid 2,000 words a day and he’s satisfied. The lesson? I don’t have to kill myself for word count. It’s okay if a project takes months or even years to complete.
- “If you write something and you’re the only one who likes it, perhaps you are right and it’s just not the right time for it.” Neil talked about how he wrote a short story twenty-five years ago and gave it to an editor friend who didn’t like it. He put it in a box and it sat in his attic for nearly three decades. Then, someone contacted him asking for a piece for an anthology and he pulled the story out of the box and re-read it for the first time. He decided it wasn’t too bad, made some tweaks and sent it off….that story became an award winner! The lesson here? Accept critique, but don’t let it dissuade you. There may be a place for it somewhere else.
- “Make yourself time to make art. Do a deal with yourself. You can do absolutely nothing or you can do whatever the work is, but you can’t do something else. Can’t go into your phone, read a book. Your choices are doing nothing or making something. Very often the joy of doing nothing fades and the making of art seems preferable.” This is how you get writing done. You have to make time for it and you can’t let anything else invade that precious time. Eventually the writing will win out over the nothing.
- “You’re allowed to do anything.” I was surprised and pleased to hear Mr. Gaiman talk about how he didn’t want to be held to a single genre or story. This is something that I also worry about. We both want to be able to tell whatever story comes to us, to put any character we wish out into the world. Gaiman is big-time enough that he can do this. But, hearing this gives me hope. One of the reasons I self publish is so that I can tell whatever story I want, no matter whether it’s Fantasy or historical fiction!
- “Fiction is a gateway drug.” Neil talked about how he read voraciously as a child and through his importance of libraries speech, he also talked about the importance of reading for a child and how it inspires creativity and imagination and how reading brings people up in the world. My little book nerd heart was so full. Fiction has been my constant companion throughout my life. I read to escape and live grand adventures and I write to do the same thing. This craft we have chosen as our lifelong passion and pursuit is special and also a great responsibility because we are forging new paths and guiding readers down them into new worlds and new ways of thinking. What a beautiful thought.
I am so grateful to have had such an amazing experience. If you ever get the opportunity to see Neil Gaiman in person, take it! You will not be disappointed.