Full Transcript: Neil Gaiman Commencement Speech to the University of the Arts Class of 2012

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.

Thirdly, when you start out, you have to deal with the problems of failure. You need to be thick-skinned, 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.

The problems of failure are problems of discouragement, of hopelessness, of hunger. You want everything to happen and you want it now, and things go wrong. My first book – a piece of journalism I had done only for the money, and which had already bought me an electric typewriter from the advance – should have been a bestseller. It should have paid me a lot of money. If the publisher hadn’t gone into involuntary liquidation between the first print run selling out and the second print were never happening, and before any royalties could be paid, it would have done.

And I shrugged, and I still had my electric typewriter and enough money to pay the rent for a couple of months, and I decided that I would do my best in future not to write books just for the money. If you didn’t get the money, then you didn’t have anything. If I did work I was proud of, and I didn’t get the money, at least I’d have the work.

Every now and then, I forget that rule, and whenever I do, the universe kicks me hard and reminds me. I don’t know that it’s an issue for anybody but me, but it’s true that nothing I did where the only reason for doing it was the money was ever worth it, except as bitter experience. Usually I didn’t wind up getting the money, either. The things I did because I was excited, and wanted to see them exist in reality have never let me down, and I’ve never regretted the time I spent on any of them.

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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 Imposter Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police.

In my case, I was convinced there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard — I don’t know why he had a clipboard, but in my head, he always had a clipboard — would be there, to tell me it was all over, and they 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 I would have to get up early in the morning, aware of time, and not make things up any more.

The problems of success. They’re real, and with luck you’ll experience them. The point where you stop saying yes to everything, because now the bottles you threw in the ocean are all coming back, and you have to learn to say no.

I watched my peers, and my friends, and the ones who were older than me, I watched how miserable some of them were. I’d listen to them telling me that they couldn’t envisage a world where they did what they had always wanted to do any more, because now they had to earn a certain amount every month just to keep where they were. They couldn’t go and do the things that mattered, and that they had really wanted to do; and that seemed as a big a tragedy as any problem of failure.

And after that, the biggest problem of success is that the world conspires to stop you doing the thing that you do, because you are successful. There was a day when I looked up and realized that I had become someone who professionally replied to email, and who wrote as a hobby. I started answering fewer emails, and was relieved to find I was writing much more.

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Fourthly, I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you make mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be very useful. I once misspelled Caroline, in a letter, transposing the As and the O, and I thought, “Coraline looks almost like a real name…”

And remember whatever discipline you are in, whether you are a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a singer, a designer, whatever you do you have one thing that’s unique. You have the ability to make art. And for me, and for so many of the people I have known, that’s been a lifesaver. The ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times and it gets you through the other ones.

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