Tag Archives: Neil gaiman

Make good art

Neil Gaiman’s answer to everything is, I gather: Make Good Art. An apparently simple instruction that has a lot of complex layers to it. Make good art… but how do you decide what’s good? Most creative people I know struggle with the tension between wanting to make what comes from your soul, and needing to do something that pays the bills. So often the things we could do for money are not the things we want to be doing, and the things we want to do are not always easily sold.

“Good art is entertaining” Ursula Le Guinn says. Good art reaches out to someone. I have no problem with anyone who wants to climb the ivory tower and make things purely for love, but if you go that way, there are consequences and there’s no point fretting over them. The accolades and respect we might feel we deserve does not always flow, not least because if you’re sat in the ivory tower, there’s every chance no one will know you exist, much less care about what you’ve made. If you want people to show up with praise and chequebooks, it is necessary to get them to give a shit.

“Do this commercial thing, and then you can do what you really want to.” I won’t name the guilty, but it’s a myth. Get a name for being commercially viable and it will not magically turn into love and trust to get your soul work out into the world. It may mean you can afford to work from the heart for a while, but you won’t be delivering what people expect and know you for, and they may not appreciate this, and that in turn, can hurt like hell.

There are no magic formulae to sort this one out, but the balance between being able to eat, and doing things that inspire you enough to keep wanting to do them, is at the core of making a creative life viable. To be good, it must not starve you, or break your mind irretrievably. To be good, it must at the very least be sustainable.

I’ve banged against this one repeatedly this year. I’ve seen people who are really focused on making it pay, and I know that all other issues aside, I can’t manage the output to pull that off. For an author, it means being able to put out a book every month or two, and I do not have the energy or the ambition to make that viable. I’ve seen the high art end, too, the folk who are not concerned so much about who their market is, and really feel they should not need to concern themselves with these things. Occasionally someone pulls that off and is successful, but mostly, it doesn’t work.

Being a Druid, I look for balance. I think there’s got to be some kind of middle way, making stuff that comes from the heart but that also reaches out to other people and engages them such that it is not unreasonable to ask for a few pounds here and there. It has to be a fair exchange, and therefore the art has to be good enough to be worth your pennies.

I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m heart-sore and struggling, but Mr Gaiman is right. There is nothing else for it. Make good art.

The hero who was not a Celt

I love the work of author Lord Dunsany. He’s an interesting figure and nothing like as well known as he deserves to be, and his relationship with Celtic nationalism/revivalism is interesting to say the least. I’m rubbish at dates, but, Dunsany was writing up to and around the time of the First World War, making him contemporary with Yeats. He was an Irish Lord, at a time when Irish national identity was being constructed in part, through literature. W.B. Yeats being a fine example of this. I’ve read letters, I think, or excerpts of letters from Yeats to Dunsany in which he complains bitterly that Dunsany does not tap into the rich heritage of his nation, for the good of the nation.

So much of our modern notion of ‘Celtic’ nations owes everything to the nation building at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. But Dunsany wanted no part of it. He wrote about the Gods of Pagana, instead, who were wholly of his inventing. He’s one of the great grandfathers of the fantasy genre, with The King of Elfland’s Daugther far pre-dating the more famous Tolkien elves. With his lyrical style, dashes of humour and wild imagination, I think he’s brilliant. I wonder to what degree his lack of widespread current fame is due to him not being caught up in the political agenda of his day, though.

I can’t point at Lord Dunsany and claim him as a proto-Druid in the way that we like to claim Yeats retrospectively, and all those other folk working with mediaeval ‘Celtic’ myth at the time. But read his work and the love of landscape, the sense of magic, and the biting religious satires are thoroughly resonant. He reads like a pagan, to me.  Bits of more personal writing give me a sense of Dunsany as rather alone and isolated in his life and his work. There’s a mournful longing to his stories that result in me picturing him staring into the middle distance from high windows, utterly and totally alone. That may of course just be me, and not him at all, but it’s what I get.

Every time I read his work, I come away with the desire to be able to make him a nice cup of tea and say ‘well I get it, and you’re not on your own.” He writes like a man who has glimpsed the colours of faerie, who has heard the last, drifting notes of a song from the otherworld, and who would risk life and limb to see a unicorn for himself. Or anything else otherworldly for that matter.

To the best of my knowledge, Dunsany did not associate himself much with any traditions, new or old. He satirised religion, especially the Church. He was not afraid to mock gods, but not as an atheist might, more as a man who has seen the nature of small gods, and knows their terrible limitations. Whether he would have liked it or not, Dunsany gets me as a creative descendent. He also gets Neil Gaiman, which is probably far more cheering and much less complicated.

He chose not to be an overtly Celtic, druid revivalist type at a time when to do so would probably have done his writing career an abundance of good. Instead, he kept dancing to his own tunes, and to those echoes of otherworldly tunes that were so evidently in his ears. He was true to his awen, and I love his work. Having Dunsany as an ancestor of tradition, given where I stand as an aspiring druid and author, is an interesting place to be. Of all the people I would like to sit down and talk with, he’s one at the top of my list. And like most ancestors of tradition, his opinion isn’t available and he has no scope to rein me in, tell me off or point me in the right direction. This is usually part of the nature of ancestry.

If my own passions are not in tune with the zeitgeist, and are not tapping in to the next big commercial thing, then so be it. Like Dunsany, I can’t be what I am not, and I’d rather follow my inspiration than shoehorn it into a shape that feels unnatural to me. And for all that he did that, Dunsany was, in his own time, prolific and successful and while he may not get the attention he deserves, he’s not lost in the mists of time yet, and hopefully never will be.

Nearer to the Mountain

Yesterday I read a speech Neil Gaiman made to students, about going out into the world to live and work as a creative person. It’s well worth reading. Or watching. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=plWexCID-kA He described his vision of his own work as being like a mountain that needed to be reached before it could be climbed. And the importance of balancing the creativity against the need to eat and having some kind of life. But he said that when anything came in, he would consider whether it took him towards, or away from the mountain.

There are so many things in this world that waltz into our lives announcing their own importance. You must do this, or that, you simply have to do the other. Some of these pertain to paid work. Some are about the demands our families, partners and friends may make upon us. Many things are piped into our homes via the media. But of course you want a car, and a shiny kitchen, and a bigger house, and more things, and of course you should spend more time cleaning your many things, and you need, need, need the latest fashions in this, that, and also the other or people will think you’re an idiot. Because you’re worth it. Priceless. Every little helps. Things that waltz in pretending to be helpful, and waltz out again with the contents of your bank account, having deprived you of hours of your life.

Time is the most precious thing we have. You can’t actually buy it, or replace it, and you do not know how much of it you may be going to get. Every choice we make affects the time we have and how we are able to deploy it. Now, if the ‘mountain’ in your life is all about more valuable possessions and fitting in with social expectations about what you ought to want, maybe this isn’t a problem. If the mountain you identify is the home of enlightenment, or a pinnacle of creative excellence, then everything that takes your time and wastes it, takes you away from the mountain, not towards it.

What takes me towards my own, personal mountain? Anything that inspires me, and keeps me feeling able to work. Anything that nourishes my soul and feeds my mind. Poverty is not going to do that. So do I take a regular job to make ends meet, and then try and find time for the real work, or do I stick to the real work and hope I can make it pay? That’s been an ongoing issue. And there’s no clear cut answer as to which would actually take me closer to the mountain. At the moment it suits my child far better to have me around, so working from home makes more sense, and a mountain climbed at his expense is not one I’d want to tackle.

There are lots of potential mountains out there, and most of us cannot hope to scale all of them. Again, there are choices to be made. And sometimes the most obvious and direct route to the mountain turns out not to go there at all. I had a lot of advice to make a thing that would be an obvious, box ticking commercial success, after which I’d be free to do the work I really wanted to do. Only I’ve noticed that people don’t reliably buy obvious box tickers, there is no such thing as a sure fire hit, or a guaranteed publishing success. And once you’re known for putting out box tickers, are you really going to be free to follow your muse? I doubt it. I chose not to go that way.

Know what you are doing and why you are doing it. Know what you want your life to be, and how what you are actually doing is part of that. It makes as much sense for Druidry as it does for design work, or dancing. Even knowing, there will be paths that turn out not to work, and surprise short cuts, and all manner of other things.

Today, I have beaten an innocent metaphor to death. Tomorrow, I shall edit my way towards world domination. I think I know what I’m doing, but most of the time I have no idea how, or if, it’s going to work. But that’s fine. I’d lose interest, if I knew exactly what was going to happen.

Thank you Mr Gaiman. For the inspiration, and the ideas, and the possibility of mountains.

Magic, fiction and paganism

Often in fiction, magic exists as a plot device, and alternative to science and a means to get things done. Sometimes, the mechanics are laid bare. Fictional magic often lacks mystery. Spell casting wizards whose magic is reliable if they say and do the right things are commonplace in fantasy. Psychic powers and magical attributes are usually well defined, predictable, reliable, and (to borrow from Red Dwarf) other words ending in ‘ible’.

As a pagan, my whole idea of magic is completely at odds with this. For me, the very essence of magic is mystery and wonder. I don’t perceive magic as an alternative to science either. I see them in far more complex relationship. That which we do not understand, is magic. That which we have an explanation for, is science, in terms of how humans deal with things. But science can engender wonder and a sense of the miraculous.

Brendan Myers defines magic as that which inspires awe (my books are in storage, I can’t do references!) I think this is a great place to start. The fireworks and thunderclaps of fantasy magic are no different from any other pyrotechnics. They inspire excitement perhaps, but not any sense of wonder.

In fiction, magic just isn’t magical very often.

The desire to explain, to pin down and regulate seems to be on the increase. We confuse understanding, with pinning a thing to a board. To understand a butterfly is to see it in flight, watch how it sits on a flower, to marvel at its colour. Pinning it to a board will help you define and quantify it, but destroys the butterfly. All the mechanical explanations in the world cannot really give you understanding of any complex thing. There is a world of difference between theory and practice, between figures and insight, between taking a thing apart and understanding how it works.

There are some authors who offer wonderful expressions of magic – Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Charles De Lint, Robert Holdstock, Jonathan Carroll, Terry Pratchett with his witches. There’s the whole genre of magical realism, inspired by pre-colonial ways of knowing the world – I’m not a huge fan of Salaman Rushdie, but he’s a fine example. Isabelle Allende is a personal favourite.

These are authors who write experiential magic, and who embrace the numinous. Magic is not, for them, a tidy and coherent system that works like a science or a technology. Magic is wild and wonderful, unruly and full of mystery. It does not explain itself. It will not sit down and tell you where it came from, how it works, and what you can and can’t do with it. Instead, it is the magic that transforms lives and brings inspiration.

There are a lot of people out there who perceive stage magic, fantasy magic, as the aspiration of actual pagans. They imagine that we want to be Harry Potter. They watch impossible, crazy things and understand that magic is impossible and unreal and not available to them. So much magic in fiction is actually taking away from people the idea that magic exists, by turning it into high fantasy. I’ve yet to meet anyone who does Harry Potter style magic (I assume no one would admit it if they could), but if this vision of what magic means defines it in the public conscious, most people will understand it is not for them, and that only crazy people would seek for it.

Remystifying magic, re-enchanting it and bringing it back into a spiritual and meaningful context, would be an epic task. But not impossible. It’s just such a nuisance that Hollywood pyrotechnic pseudo-science goes round calling itself magic, when it’s about as unmagical as you can get.