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Writer’s Block Isn’t Real—and Other Lessons from Neil Gaiman

POSTED BY doug ON November 17, 2015

Writer's Block Isn't Real - And Other Lessons From Neil Gaiman by Elena Meredith

Last Friday night I went to see the rock star of the literary world, Neil Gaiman himself, speak at the Long Center in Austin, TX. This was his antepenultimate appearance before he retires from public life to focus on writing. Gaiman and his wife, Amanda Palmer, have an 8-week-old son, Anthony (“Ash” for short), so Gaiman will be taking the year off to change diapers (“which I’m very good at”) and to write, which he’s also very good at.

Though Neil Gaiman’s career is a pipe dream for most of us writers, it is people like him who inspired me to work in books, and why I continue to evangelize books as a means of spreading ideas. His writings always remind me to believe in magic.

He answered questions from the audience, and in doing so, shared some tips, witty advice, and life stories.

Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, how do you work past it?

Gaiman said, “I think we’re smart people . . . who invented writer’s block. Because if you say that you’re ‘stuck’ it seems like it’s your fault.” So we blame writer’s block.

He pointed out that this is a problem unique to writers, stating, “Shoe salesmen do not get shoe salesmen block.”

He said he admits when he’s stuck. His solution? He writes something else. You can always write a short story, or a different story—anything that seems more interesting to you at the moment to get your writing juices flowing once again.

I’m 11 years old and I want to be a writer when I grow up—any advice?

Part one: READ EVERYTHING. And not just the stuff that you like. Read from places that might seem boring to you, but that you might be able to get ideas from.

When Gaiman and Terry Pratchett wrote together, they got most of their ideas from reading nonfiction. For example, Feeding Nelson’s Navy prompted a heady discussion with Pratchett on how you would feed hundreds of people out at sea for months.

Gaiman said, “Nonfiction is great because you can steal all you like from nonfiction and no one ever minds.”

Part two: WRITE—and FINISH THINGS. He said, “You learn more from finishing something (finishing anything!) than from anything—no matter how brilliant—that’s left unfinished.”

How do you write?

Gaiman referenced a quote from George R.R. Martin: “I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.”

Gaiman is a gardener. He lets the story lead him to the end, because he has fun just making things up. Most novelists write because they love the joy of invention.

He said he gets some of his ideas from dreams. He used to have terrible nightmares, waking up in fear, sweating. Then one morning upon waking he realized, “I could use this.” That particular nightmare led to Sandman.

In an ironic twist, perhaps orchestrated by the Sandman himself, Gaiman said that once he starting using his dreams as story ideas, the dreams stopped. So now, when he has nightmares, “I treasure them.”

How has being a parent affected your creativity?

Gaiman also looks to his children for story ideas.

He said, “All of my great ideas have come from my kids (at least the ones that made it into children’s books.)”

He wrote The Graveyard Book for his son Michael. Coraline was written for Holly, and finished for Maddie, his two daughters from his previous marriage. He said 8-week-old Ash will someday earn his keep.

What’s the average time it takes you to write a novel?

In school, Gaiman loved his writing classes—math was much harder. (Meaning, while writing flows out of him, calculating averages does not.)

The longest amount of time it took him to write a book was 23 years, for The Graveyard Book. Gaiman had the idea at the age of 24, living in England, as he watched his 2-year-old son ride his tricycle through the headstones in the churchyard across the road.

He thought, “Why not write a story about a child who is adopted by dead people? It would be like The Jungle Book, but called The Graveyard Book!” He wrote a page, then decided “this is a better idea than I am a writer.”

He went back to it over the years, and in 2004, realized, “I’m not actually getting any better—I just need to write this thing!”

He said his quickest book was The Ocean at the End of the Lane. He sat down in February to write a short story and looked up (in Dallas) at the end of April, and he’d finished it.

So the average time it takes him to write a book is somewhere between two and a half months and 23 years—you do the math.

Do you finish every book that you read?

Gaiman said that for most of his life, yes, he finished every single book he started. That was, until he ended up as a judge for a fiction award. He had to read 600 books in a year. He read the first three books through to the end—then realized he still needed to have a life. So, he would read through the first chapter or two, or for however long it held his interest, then toss it across the room.

“Then, I’d walk over, pick it up and put it on the shelf, because I’m not a barbarian,” Gaiman said.

What inspires or motivates you to stick with or finish one of your stories?

“Guilt.”

Gaiman’s biggest motivation for writing a story until the end was the discovery that no one else is going to finish it for you. He sadly realized that there are no tiny elves who creep in and write chapter 9 while he’s sleeping.

On his writing schedule (read: shed-ule), he squeezes in writing whenever he can. He’d had a flight delay getting to Austin, and while he waited, he finished and turned in a book. (A nonfiction collection of writings releasing in May 2016, called The View From the Cheap Seats).

Do you believe you’ve already done your greatest accomplishment? If not, how will you know when you have?

When asked what keeps him going, Gaiman said one of his friends had seen a film about a jazz musician who kept playing his horn, believing that “somewhere out there is the note. Maybe today I’ll finally reach it.”

It’s a matter of mindset—if you believe your life’s greatest accomplishment is behind you, it probably is.

So when given a choice of what to believe, he said, “I want to be that horn player. I want to play the note. If my greatest accomplishment is behind me—if it was American Gods or Coraline or Sandman or The Graveyard Book—don’t tell me.”

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