Neil Gaiman has a voice of honey and every uttered syllable belongs to the highest plane of elocution and style. You could listen to his easy tones for hours, but in this case, ninety minutes would have to do.
Neil Gaiman is also a polymath in the creative realm. His poetry, comics, short stories, novels and screen projects attest to this fact. He advocates for public libraries and the power of stories. He speaks of the importance of reading and for all those reasons, I went along to listen on a sultry Tuesday evening.
The Capitol Theatre on Swanston Street shines anew after a recent redevelopment by RMIT. Two black chairs on a white background, his name projected thirty feet high on the screen, set the mood. Outside, as we queued, a band of hare krishnas chanted and danced, offering a surreal and perhaps maddening element to the waiting.
There are always reasons not to do this kind of thing- go and listen in person. Too tired, too stressed, too busy. Increasingly, these are the decisions we take that leave us feeling like we are missing out in our modern, hyper-connected time.
Though with Gaiman at the peak of his powers, conquering the TV world with American Gods and also his Terry Pratchett collaboration – Good Omens, not to mention the well received adaptation of The Ocean at the End of the Lane for the National Theatre in London, I resisted the urge to put him into the too hard basket.
I was excited to see him because his infectious love of words and stories both intrigued and inspired me. On the one hand, he was able to clarify so many ideas that I, the teacher, was thinking and feeling about the importance of reading and writing stories in an age where so many argue it is old technology.
Richard Watts as convenor did a great job of getting out of his way. Thoughtful, erudite and considered, Gaiman wasted few words while covering a wide array of topics from the politics of rewriting the origin story for Poison Ivy, wading knee deep in the nerd sea, to the thorny issue of how you enjoy writers once you know they are horrible racists, like H.P Lovecraft.
And all those things were not the reason I went, though plenty of deep nerd fanboys and girls filled the theatre, testifying to the origin and extent of his popularity. I went to hear the writer and storyteller talk about that. Here are some takeaway snippets.
‘We tell stories to convey information to people who don’t exist yet’
And in the opening, as he spoke of the power of stories for passing information on, I came to know and feel why there was so much power in them. Gaiman has a way of using simple words to reveal the, ahem, ineffable nature of things. The compulsion to storytelling and passing it on that allow human beings to share information and knowledge beyond the limitations of our lifespans. Stories help human beings connect and empathise and solve problems.
Your memory… go there and start writing and all sorts of other things will turn up
His tale of how the Ocean at the End of the Lane appeared also spoke to me. There was humour in the end point, when he called his publishers and admitted that he feared he might accidentally have written a novel. Though it started with a person in mind, and an emotion, that of missing his wife, and the memory of a house he lived in, demolished in the early 1970s. So much of the stuff out there is about how writers construct their habits and routines and pens and paper and software and all that crap. Gaiman’s advice is simple and effective – go back and start writing about your life and see what else turns up.
Do something by doing it. Go off and learn. Don’t do a course.
This also cut through. Learning and courses, the life of perpetual study, can be a powerful form of procrastination. At this point, he was talking about everything from punk rock bands to adapting for television and film. There is a power in taking action and the naivety of not knowing is not a barrier in a world where, as Gaiman admits, there are no longer the gatekeepers and indeed, sometimes not even the gates. There was something very encouraging and reassuring in this message to just go off and do it.
Find the things you love and dive deep into them
And perhaps this was the most reassuring takeaway. That when you find the things you care about and disappear into them, the outcome does not really matter. And this links so well with his mantra to ‘make good art’. In the hurly burly of the modern world, where busyness is the ultimate brag and we spend so long distracted, led away from our interests and dreams, force fed fear and loathing by all the bad stories, this feels like really good advice.
After a reading of his soon to be published children’s book, Pirate Stew, he ended humbly, with good humour and gratitude – thanking the audience and Richard Watts for the occasion. In essence, it was a valuable exercise in eavesdropping on a man at the top of his mountain, reminding us that perhaps the antidote for the darkness of our times lies in a very old thing – the art of good storytelling.