Neil Gaiman’s To Do (Or Not To Do) List

Neil Gaiman Commencement speech 2012

Neil Gaiman is a creative force as an author of novels, comic books, and film. His unique creative expression has won fans from around the world. I first came across Neil in his ground breaking work in the Sandman graphic novel series.

In 2012 Neil Gaiman gave a commencement address to Philadelphia’s University of the Arts graduating class. You may have run across the central theme of his speech somewhere else on the web. It is simply and beautifully, “Make Good Art.”  That’s it. Make good art. Just three words. Simple, right? Yes and no. What is “good?” Hell, what is “art?” There are many definitions that provide insight to the artist and to those who experience the art.

I believe that art is an evolving dance of expression of personal truths between others where everyone has a chance to take the lead. Pretentious? Probably. Corny? Absolutely!

But it doesn’t matter, because while art is potentially universal, it is more importantly personal because somewhere it impacts at least an audience of one, even if that “one” is the artist himself.

Neil underscores his idea that art is in the doing; in the making. The making is the message, if you will. In the quote below, Neil humorously focuses on personal tragedy as a catalyst to “good art.”

Husband runs off with a 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.

But what really resonated with me in Neil’s speech was his thought process about making decisions about his career. It starts off with knowing yourself and your goals. Career advice 101, to be sure, but an undeniable truth for someone deciding to set upon a very long journey.  Neil describes his thought process below.

Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear cut, and sometimes  it will be almost impossible to decide whether or not you are 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.

Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would 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 along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.

To do or not to do? Ask yourself if your choice will get you closer or further away from your mountain.

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