A robin stood resolute in the brown grass. He wore his redbreast proudly, announcing his arrival to anyone who would stop to look. He stood alone, but I knew others would follow.
On this cold January morning, I examined my goals written in December. The words mocked and chided me for thinking on such a grand scale. After only a few days, the new year started with a shout that now seemed more of a whimper.
Then I glanced at the small book by Neil Gaiman sitting on my desk, reminding me that Art Matters Because Your Imagination Can Change the World. Some days words and ideas come easily. Other days, I struggle and find a million other things to do.
Expand your imagination. Gaiman started with a list.
Armed with things he thought he wanted to do when he was 15, Gaiman describes how his career evolved from a simple list. He included writing a novel, a children’s book, a comic, a movie, and writing an episode of Doctor Who.
Did a career evolve? Apparently so, and one that has entertained millions.
In this small treatise, Gaiman shares his Credo, the importance of reading, his own struggles with putting words on paper, and his advice on making art and why it matters. He gives us a reason to supercharge our imaginations.
Art takes in more than paint on canvas or words on paper. Art unfolds when you expand your imagination. Consider inventions, new ideas, and of course, music. His words encourage me and push me to focus on enjoying the process of making art, any art.
The world always seems brighter when you just made something that wasn’t there before.
Make good art.
First of all
When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. This is great.
I become entrenched in “the rules” of art and life. My childlike curiosity crawls into the dark spaces of my mind, and fear binds possibility. Breaking free from these limitations also frees what can be because “if you don’t know it’s impossible, it’s easier to do.”
If you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go do that. And that’s much harder than it sounds and, sometimes in the end, so much easier than you might imagine.
I tend to make everything much harder than it needs to be. My brain kicks into overtime, juggling what I want to do and what I need to do. These two opposing forces don’t get along.
Then, I find myself stuck in the mire of small things and endless rabbit trails.
Gaimen imagined his goals as a distant mountain. If he could keep the mountain in view and continue to walk toward the mountain, one step at a time, he knew he would be okay. When he wasn’t sure about a decision or next step, a simple question clarified his choice.
Will this step take me “towards or away from the mountain?”
When you start off, you have to deal with the problems of failure. You need to be thick-skinned, to learn that not every project will survive.”
No one likes to lose. I can beat myself up over the slightest failure. We all want success, and we want it now. But now never arrives instantaneously.
Gaiman tells the story of his first book that he expected to make him a lot of money. The advance allowed him to purchase a new typewriter, but the publisher went into involuntary liquidation.
Did he despair? No, he had a typewriter and learned a lesson. He would never write just for the money. Gaiman decided to do work that he was proud of because, as he concluded, “If I did work I was proud of, and I didn’t get the money, at least I’d have the work.”
If money is the single prize and measure of success, the work becomes a chore—sapping all the joy out of your imagination and work.
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.
I think I’ll choose to stay excited.
If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something.
Did you know that Coraline was a mistake? Gaiman misspelled the name of the main character of his book. He transposed two letters—the a and o. Would the name Caroline catch your attention? Maybe, but the name Coraline anticipates something just a little off and edgy.
Whatever your discipline, you have something that is uniquely yours. You can make art. Remember this advice, and so will I:
Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life in love in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you shoulld do . . .
Make good art.
While you’re at it, make YOUR art. Do the stuff that only YOU can do.
People get hired because, somehow, they get hired.
Gaiman identifies three critical characteristics that contribute to making it in the freelance world.
- Their work is good.
- They are easy to get along with.
- They deliver work on time.
The most important?
The work is good.
People will forgive you for lapses in social skills or even a missed deadline. But without good work…you get the idea.
The best advice to Neil Gaiman came from another writer, Stephen King, regarding the success of Sandman.
“This is really great. You should enjoy it.”
Even when things go well, I can angst over the next gig, the upcoming project, the list of ideas, or the lack of anything substantive. I forget to enjoy the moment of this art.
Gaiman admits to the same pitfall and wishes he had enjoyed it all more instead of worrying over things.
That was the hardest lesson for me,I think: To let go and enjoy the ride, because the ride takes you to some remarkable and unexpected places.
And what about that robin?
The first sign that our winter will glide into spring always comes in January, along with the stalwart robins pecking for food in the lifeless grass. They stop by on their way home, refueling on the small morsels hidden just beneath the surface.
That daring bird with the courage to strut about in the barren field recharges my imagination with hope. The hope that no matter how imperfect my plan, I have a purpose. I have my imagination. I can write stories, sing songs, take photos, even draw. Whatever I do with my imagination belongs to only me.
I’ll keep going with my eyes on the mountain—and a robin’s song in my heart.