Saturday, November 24, 2007

Neil Gaiman: Imagination and Creativity in the Contemporary World

Last Thursday, Neil Gaiman showed up at the Ad Congress and gave a talk on Imagination and Creativity in the Contemporary World. It was followed by a brief Q&A portion. Unfortunately, the audio quality isn't as good as I'd hope making a transcript of the event a bit difficult.

Audio Recording:

Imagination and Creativity in the Contemporary World (50:27, 24 MB)
Q&A (26:59 13 MB)


Good morning!

I was telling the Ad Congress that I haven’t prepared anything so nothing can possibly go wrong...

This is my second visit to the Philippines and one of the main reasons why I came back was I was so impressed on my first visit to the Philippines. I was really impressed with the quality of the minds out here, the incredible creativity, the artists, the young writers are ---, just how smart and literate people are. And I love that. By the same token I found myself very frustrated with how cut off the young writers and artists I was meeting seemed to be from the world, from the giant global things out there and it bugged me. So while at London, I thought about it and contacted Jaime Diaz of Fully Booked and I said look, we must do something about this. I wanted to do something to encourage these guys, I want to do something to get them involved, I want to get them to raise their sights. All of this ---. And together we cooked up a plan. It was a competition. We have science fiction or old science fiction, ..., we have science fiction and fantasy writers, the creators of comics, and I will put up the prize money while you organize the competition. And this weekend the first collection is being published of the winners of the finalists of last year's competition and they're inaugurating this year's and really the reason why I awoke in this, the reason why I came back here at all, was I was fascinated by the incredible potential that we have here. And the talent and the smarts. And frustrated by seeing people who don't seem to be doing anything. In Africa, in ---, they used to go fishing using shirts. And they would get rods and stretch out the rods. And the sun would be down. They would go fishing on the right time of day. They would use the rods to herd the fish and the fish thought something solid was approaching and they eventually encircled. It was all space. And the fish never seemed to realize that they could swim though the shadows, that there wasn't anything solid there. And in circuses, elephant trainers know that a fully grown elephant can very very easily pull up its chains. What they do is that they chain baby elephants and stake them to the ground and they chain them up and the baby elephant is grown up unable to break its chains. And they ... and they pay off and they don't try again. So as they get bigger, as they get stronger, they don't actually pull on their chains, they don't --- and they don't find everything very very easily to pull up. You wind up with people restricted like shadows, like elephant chains, like imaginary wanderers. And that was why I started to worry about out here in the Philippines. I wanted to try to push people if I could through imaginary barriers. A lot about caged from being a --- reading comic books, because comics that I was reading, the American comics were drawn by Filipinos. And all these amazing talent, people like Alex Nino, Alfredo Alcala, Redondo, Tony de Zuniga--these people whose loads more. I'm pretty sure.

This week, I have a peculiar experience. For the first time in my life and possibly the last time in my life, of having the number one film in both America and the world. And my love and fascination with Beowulf began as reading the Beowulf comic. Drawn--terrible comic--but it definitely inspired me to find to g out the original material Very badly written by --- and drawn by ---. So I got frustrated that the Filipinos I talked to, people were seeing the Philippines as a backwater. And it's not. Nowhere is it anymore. Everything is global and I'm an English writer living mostly in the US, with my work read all over the world and every thing so, write so. That's my little speech on the competition. And any of you who fancies yourself writers or artists should take the gauntlet.

Before I start talking about the imagination, a little bit of background on me for any of you who have no idea who this person is standing in front of you all you like, talking ---, you're so lonely over there. Hello. I'm Neil Gaiman, I am 47 and I think I must be on my 3rd or 4th career. Often more or less accidental. And all of them united by the fact that what I like doing and I liked doing ever since I was a kid is making stuff up. I love it. When you're kids, when I was little i would make stuff up and people would tell me off. They would say don't make stuff up or you're making stuff up again. Or how many times do I have to tell you don't make stuff up? And sometimes they even say do you know what happens to people who make things up? And I didn't and they wouldn't tell me. You get lots and lots of money, you'll fly all over the world, you'll win awards, and unless you agree to give a talk first thing in the morning you don't even have to get up early. I started out, I started out --- to write so I started up writing, I sent short stories, even children's books out to publishers. They all came back. I thought either I have no talent which I do not choose to believe or I'm doing this all wrong. So I got up one morning and decided I was a journalist which was getting up and going I'm a journalist. I didn't even know if there were lots of rules to becoming a journalist and because I didn't know that I --- it. So I got up and I was a journalist and I bought a copy of the English People Writer/Artist Yearbook and I started phoning editors and pitching them stories. And some of them bought and I had to write. This was back in the day when there were typewriters, I had a manual typewriter at the time and I wound up typing up a quote from Muddy Waters and ---, taking it to my typewriter. It said don't let your mouth write no check that your tail can't cash. Which seemed very important to me at the point when I realized that i just sold two books and have never written a book and now I had to find out if I could write two nonfiction books by writing them. And I did and I quite enjoyed it and I spent up four fine years being a journalist that got really wanting to be a journalist. I loved meeting people, I loved finding out how the world worked. That was really cool, that was really important and it's a great thing about being a journalist is that no one minds if you ask stupid questions. Because they kind of expect it from journalists so you get to ask things and you get to meet all kinds of people and in my case, particularly go to find out how the world of publishing worked. And then I stumbled almost accidentally into the world of comics. I always wanted to do comics, as a kid I always wanted to do comics. So I was at fifteen when I met the school outside Korea's consultant. They brought, Korean had this test coming out and then I went in and we met with Korea's people and Korea's guy, I waited in the long line to show me to the end where I sat down looked at my test results and he said what do you want to do? And I said I wanted to write American comics. There was a very very long pause and then he said have you ever thought about accountancy? I said no. I was honest that night and then we stared at each other for awhile and then eventually I said shall I show the next person in and he said you may as well and that was my careers advice which left me with the big question that you couldn't get there from here which was wrong. I wound up stumbling happily into comics. I wound up stumbling into more happily into writing Sandman. And I wrote Sandman for about nine years.

The last few years's turnout has seen many things that I really wanted to do so then I got to do a few of the things that I wanted to do but couldn't not including writing a script for Beowulf which the first draft was in 1997. Doing things like writing novels, Neverwhere, adapting a TV series for BBC which I wasn't terribly happy with. And Stardust, a fantasy tale which became recently a film. And I wrote a very good novel called American Gods which won a gazillion awards. That's a ---. Actually it's about nine.... Anansi Boys and then somewhere in there I turned around and discovered I shall become a children's author which was a book that I wrote for my children called Coraline, which had taken me about ten years to write but finally got finished and got published and books like The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and Wolves in the Walls. So things that I was doing kept ticking and so far this year I have Stardust coming out as a movie which I co-produced and ---, and Beowulf which I technically produced and wrote several drafts of. Next year we got Coraline. And it's being made by Harry Selick and Henry is a marvelous film maker. He cctually directed--he was the person behind Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. Lots of people think that just because it has the words Tim Burton in the title that Tim directed it. It wasn't him but it was Harry. And Harry is shooting this in 3D which is what filmmakers are doing a lot these days and it's wonderful. It's gorgeous. Dakota Fanning, there's Teri Hatcher, all these people doing voices and these scary, squeaky wonderful little art. So that's what's going on right now with me and the horrible thing about it, I was trying to explain this recently to my daughter who was asking me about careers. She's 22, just starting out and she's going to London to start working as a film producer. She's doing production assistant stuff right now and she's saying how do you know if you're doing the right thing. You've got all of this stuff and your career has somehow built up into everything you ever wanted to do but there is no logic to it. How do you do that and I thought about it for a minute and I said I think probably it's because mostly I have a really clear idea of the kinds of things I want to make in the world. And I thought about it as if I was walking towards a mountain. The stuff I wanted to do was a mountain and then I got to walk towards them. And it was always a fairly little test whether or not it was in the right direction of... I was a journalist, knowing that I wanted to create fiction, knowing that I wanted to create fantasy, knowing that I wanted to do comics and films and that kind of thing. I got a phone call one day offering me a features editor job on a major English magazine with good money, much better than what I was getting as a young freelance journalist. I was a young man and I had two very small children and I thought about it and I remember at the time realizing that I couldn't do it because it would be walking away from the mountain. That you have to walk towards it. You know what you want and then you have to sort of keep your eye towards it and that idea that you can keep the hugeness of the things that you want to do and measure it all up and be gone.

So that's all right and I thought about when I talk about those things, there's a few things that I will read to you but mostly I just wanted to talk a bit. It's about the imagination. And this sort of started for me, I mean obviously my obsession with the imagination goes all the way back but it crystalized when I was in China. And I was in Chung-Doo (?) at a science fiction conference which was co-sponsored by SF World, a Chinese science fiction publication and very much approved of by the Chinese government. Now this is a huge turnabout because science fiction for years was not approved of by the Chinese. It was hugely disapproved of. Going back to now, it was disapproved of because they didn't really like things like fiction. I asked them about crime fiction and said no crime fiction was allowed to be published because officially there was no crime in China. Science fiction wasn't quite the same place, it was hugely, enormously disapproved of and very very recently, literally the last couple of years, the Chinese government changed their minds of us. I was fascinated talking with the government representatives and people whose --- understanding why and the reason why they changed was because they started to notice that what they were good at was putting stuff together for everyone else in the world. Taking things that had been invented everywhere else in the world and doing it cheaper and more efficiently and selling it back to them. What they weren't doing was making stuff up. What they weren't doing was inventing and creating. And they caught up and looked at some of the most successful places in America that --- and created and they looked at Google. They looked at Microsoft, they looked at Apple, places like that. And I've been to all these places and one of the things they had in common is that they are staffed by people who love and loved as kids and write science fiction and fantasy. And staffed by people who liked to imagine. Who thought that the world could be different. Who liked differences, who liked creating. Who can toy with themselves and those are the people who are either inspired by science fiction and fantasy or just inspired by the idea that things could be different and started to give us this new ---. And the Chinese government having realized this decided to start encouraging the literature of the imagination. And that fascinated me. And I thought you know everything that we have is important, is imagined and we forget that. I started to explain this to the Chinese and made a speech to them for I said look, it was actually complicated by the fact that I would say a line and then a very nice Chinese guy who really didn't understand what I was saying, would translate it and then the audience would attack I'd say I wrote a book called American Gods, he would translate it and they would shout at him. He would shout at them. Somebody would say gods not dogs you idiot! He'd shout back at them so it made it very very interesting. I said look, everything you see was imagined first. It's very very easy to think of the world and it's a world according to and accept that it always existed, as in having been created and imposed upon us. But the reality is that if there hasn't always been, if it's not a wave or a rock or a naturally bearing tree that was there before people turned up. It was imagined! Before there were magnetic chairs or --- or houses or fields or mp3 players or elephant counters, somebody had to imagine them. Somebody had to daydream, somebody had to ask the big question of fantasy which is what if. That's the most important question there is whether you're a science fiction/fantasy writer or a human being. What if it doesn't have to be like this. It can be different.

I write about what I know, that's something to tell young authors. They say write what you know. And mostly authors hate that line because when you're told write what you know, they think that means you need to write about your life, changing nothing. I wrote a story about people living underground in sort of semi-imagined London because I know that. I wrote what it's like to cross a magic wall looking for a falling star because I know that. Right now I'm writing a book about what it would be like to be a kid whose family has been killed and he's wandered into a graveyard and is being raised by dead people. And taught all the things that dead people know. Because I know that!

And fantasy and the imagination is a mirror and like all mirrors it shows you the world that you know just from an angle that you haven't seen before and like a mirror it can vanish things which can ... make you reappear, show you yourself or distort it or change things. --- the English writer once said that you can see something nine hundred ninety nine times and never see it. And if you look at it that thousandth time, you're in danger of seeing it for the first time and that's what troubles us. For me, it was the thousandth time at looking at Snow White having read the story of Snow White a thousand times, or at least nine hundred and ninety nine anyway and I never really thought about it, just accepted it. For the thousandth time I ran across it, you know what kind of prince rides past on a horse, sees a girl in her coffin, and goes whoa she's a bit alright I'm taking her back to my castle. And the girl and I thought that for that matter what kind of girl gets to lie in a coffin for 6 months or whatever and they'd get up just fine with skin as white as snow and lips as red as blood. That's weird too and somehow the story called Snow's Apple's, incredibly nasty variation of Snow White from which she realized that the wicked queen wasn't wicked, she just didn't go far enough. And it's that thing about allowing yourself to go the extra moment of seeing something for the nine hundred ninety ninth time and suddenly seeing it for the first time. It's not.

The moment I was in China and I started telling these people that I thought they should daydream more, I have never seen a bunch of people so shocked. Very excitedly shocked. I mean it was as if I had said to them you ought to get more sex or something... But it was telling them to daydream. Telling them that's important, telling them that, and you'd see some of them --- but you're talking about escapism and I said well escape is really good. The only people who grumble about escape are mostly jailers. The rest of us really like it. You get to go places you haven't been before, you get to breathe new air, eat new food, get out. You gain new skills, new points of view and when you get home, the best thing about any kind of holiday, any kind of escape is the return. Because the place you get back to is not the place you left. You get to look it at new eyes, you get to take things, see things that you've taken for granted freshly and that is incredibly important. That's half of what I think being creative is all about. Looking at things and seeing them a thousand times for the first time.

The whole point for me of getting out and talking to people about the imagination, talking about creativity, is I worry that people think it's something special. I worry that people think it's something magical only a tiny number of people can do whether you're writing, whether you're advertising, whether you're in the arts, whether you're writing things or creating or whatever. A lot of people think that the magical created stuff is something that only the blessed can achieve. And I don't think that's true. I don't even think that's slightly true. I think the point is, one of the things, I heard somebody talking about the whole don't make things up thing, is always do it, always day dream. Writers are probably better at it, and creative people are probably better at noticing that we're doing it and noticing that has some kind of importance or value but we all do it, we all drift off. Just let our minds follow strange old paths. If you're a writer or any creative person, people are going to ask you where you get your ideas from. And if you're a writer of any kind of ---, when people ask you where do you get your ideas from, you make fun of them. And you don't answer. Not so long as you can do any number of funny or not very funny quips with writers block. Like Harlan Ellison says he get them from an idea shop in Kitsu. I know somebody who says he gets them from the idea of the month club. I have very quirky tactics, many years ago we decided that if we get asked where we get our ideas from, I would cycle off --- Atkins and he'd say he got them from me. And then the reason why writers in particular tend to come up with lots and lots of funny, lots of very silly answers when people ask us where we get our ideas from is because we don't know. It terrifies us. And when we answer is we get scared. So we come up with funny answers.

Some years ago I wound up having to go to my daughter's school. It's one of those things if you're a writer, they'll say oh can you come in and talk to the kids? And you say yes. And then it's terrifying. I don't know why this is. I don't know why I'm completely comfortable talking to 3,000 people, I think it's three or four thousand, early in the morning... Going in to talk to 11 7-year olds, absolutely terrifying. I thought I was alone in this until I started talking one day to David Gilmore of Pink Floyd who plays stadiums of 100,000 people, 150,000 people. I said man do you ever get stage fright and he said no, no, never. And his wife --- what about when you went to Joe's school to greet him a happy birthday. Well there was that. So I'm not the only person. And talking and I talk to a school and there's always 7 year olds looking up at me and I wrote about this on my website. You can read it and I'm paraphrasing. One of these kids asked me where do I get my ideas and I realized I owe them an answer. They're weren't old enough to know me any better and it's a perfectly reasonable question to ask. This is what I told them. You get ideas from day dreaming. You get your ideas from being bored. You do this all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we do it. We get ideas when we ask ourselves simple questions. The most important question is what if. What if you woke up with wings. What if your sister turned into a house. What if you all found out one of your teachers was planning to eat one of you at the end of the term and you didn't know which. I said another important question is if only. If only we all lived in Hollywood musics, if only I could shrink myself small as a button, if only elves would do my homework. And then there will be others. I wonder. I wonder what she does when she's alone. And if this goes on, if this goes on so focused, they start talking to each other and cut out them all. And wouldn't it be interesting, wouldn't it be interesting if the world used to be ruled by cats? And those of us who's not --- questions they later impose. If cats used to rule the world, why don't they anymore and how do they feel about that. And one of the places where ideas come from. An idea doesn't have to be a plot notion, just a place to begin where plots often generate themselves as we start asking ourselves questions and are prepared to discover what it is. Sometimes an idea could be a person. There's a boy who wants to know about magic. Sometimes it's a place. There's a castle at the end of time which is the only place there is. Sometimes it's an image--a woman in a dark robe cold... with empty faces. Often ideas come from two things coming together happening together at all. If a person bitten by a werewolf turns into a wolf when the moon is full, what would happen if a goldfish is bitten by a werewolf? What would happen to a chair who is bitten by a werewolf? What would happen? What if somebody is sitting there, leaning back on his chair, and the full moon is at its --- and then the leather starts getting furrier. All fiction is supposed imagining. Whether you want ... or Illiad or classic or making things up menacingly, and interestingly and new and when you get an idea which is after all something you hold on to when you begin, and then what then, what then. You have to write. One went after another until it's finished, whatever it is. And sometimes it won't work but not in the way you first imagined. And sometimes it doesn't work at all, sometimes you throw it out and start out again and sometimes it works. And that's magic.

I don't believe in writers block. Most writers believe in writers block. Most writers love believing in writers block. Writers block is really good when you're a writer. Nobody else has blocks. Gardeners, they don't have gardeners block. Shoe salesmen do not have shoe salesmen block.... I do not believe that politicians have ever had politicians block. Definitely not here. But writers have writers block and writers tell you that they have writers block and writers will write 20,000 word letters telling you how awful their writers block is. And they'd say ..., they'd write all these long blog entries talking about writers block. And I don't believe in it but I believe in such a thing as getting stuck. I absolutely believe in getting stuck. But I don't believe in writers block and writers block is a lovely way, a really fancy way of saying I'm stuck and I don't know what happens next so I'm going to go off and have a bath or a cup of tea and do things that aren't writing. I think this is evident in most creative people. It's very easy to get stuck. The best thing to do is notice getting stuff. One of the things I love doing is having more than one thing that I'll be writing at any one time. Which is something I recommend to any of you who are creative, who need to imagine. It's just do more than one thing. If there really was writers block, you couldn't even write those blog entries explaining how stuck you are. I actually met somebody who said look I have writers block. I can't write. It's gone. I forgotten my alphabet. Who would believe it? But they don't. Mostly you get stuck and anyone can get stuck. So it's nice to have something else when you're stuck on and get off and do a bit of that and sometimes the thing you got stuck on will unstick when you realize where you want. It's a forking path. All fiction, all creative process is consistent hitting forking paths and either this will work or you go left or the path on the right. You don't always make the right choice and occasionally you take the path on the right, you go downhill and it peters out. You start and you go I have writers block. You don't. You have to go off for awhile and at that point sometimes it takes as little while for you to figure out but for me I put it away for a little bit and do some things and it'll work out and I'll read it through again and very often when I --- the story will show itself. I think people should be more creative by which I think I mean, people should care to imagine. I think they should day dream, they should take joy in imagining. I think you should follow the hearts in your head that nobody's followed before and I think you should enjoy that. To think that you should think huge. When I was a kid, I remember about 15, I made a list of everything I wanted to do. It wasn't a list of things I wanted to do but a list of what I wanted to make. I want to make books, I want tot make poems... I want to make films, I want to make TV, I want to make cartoons. I made a list. I have everything on there except the book of poems which is probably a good thing. It's really good. Just make it, plan and then create it and then go for it. Like I said earlier, just head for the mountain.

The best bit about creating is the sheer joy that you get when it goes right. It is magic, it is something out of nothing. One moment you know nothing at all, the next thing you do. You have a bunch of ideas. You have something really special. And that, that makes up... And I thought I would read a poem with you because one of the reasons is for me partly because I had so much fun writing it and partly it's exactly what I'm talking about, the joy of creation, that moment when something isn't there and then suddenly it's there and you see it and you sit there and it's magic. I was in a hotel in New York, I was waiting for a car to pick me up and take me to for the air port. I checked out, I had no Internet, I couldn't view my email, I couldn't even blog. Blogs are cool. I wrote in my blog. I've been blogging now since 2001 which is back before anybody knew what blogs meant. I said I'm blogging. They'd say I'm very sorry to hear that... It's this thing on your computer. It was great. There was no one blogging in 2001. We're dinosaurs. Tyrannosauruses of the world. And I was blogging for six, almost seven years. I keep promising myself one day I'd stop but it's an incredibly useful tool for just keeping in touch with the world and the world keeping in touch with me. I couldn't do it at all. I'll start so I sat down and decided to write. And this is what came out.

-reads The Day the Saucers Came-

Q&A: To follow


Jason said...

Hi Charles,

Thanks for this. If you don't mind, I'll give a copy of the text to the young writers in my agency who didn't make it to Neil's ad congress talk.

Oh, and thanks for transcribing Neil's quip about the proposal as well. :D

- Jason

Charles said...

Not a problem. =) I was actually around three people in front of you in the line. Your cousin I think was one of the organizers right?

Jason said...

I think my cousin was more involved in the Fully Booked event rather than the Ad Congress one. :D

Oh, and will you be transcribing Neil's poem? That was rather funny.

Charles said...

I'm hesitant to type out any possible copyrighted work such as his reading of the first chapter of The Graveyard Book and The Day The Sorcerers Came. They might (and will most likely) be published in the future so...

Oh and congrats. I congratulated your fiance but I haven't congratulated you yet. =)

Charles said...

Sorry, apparently the poem was already published in Fragile Things and in Spider Words. You can find a copy at