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Neil Gaiman: one of this year's best commencement speakers (+ video)

Neil Gaiman told students at the University of the Arts: 'Old rules are crumbling and nobody knows what the new rules are, so make up your own rules.'

By Husna Haq / May 21, 2012

'American Gods' author Neil Gaiman spoke at the commencement held by the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Jayson Wold/HarperCollins

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It’s being called one of the best commencement speeches of the year in the arts and it is everything a good commencement speech should be – heartfelt, upbeat, funny.

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Beloved award-winning author and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman delivered the keynote address and received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts at Philadelphia’s the University of the Arts’ 134th Commencement. It was, Gaiman confessed, the first commencement address he delivered – or attended (in a moment of sweet irony, he noted that he never attended college).

The British author who transformed the graphic novel into a work of high literary art with his epic 75-part comic book series “The Sandman” retraced his career (or non-career, as he explains) with warmth, insight, and wisdom.

He learned to navigate life and writing (which he called an adventure, not work) on his own, mastering an impressive range of subjects without any formal education along the way.

“I learned to write by writing,” he told the graduates. “I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure and stopped when it felt like work, which meant life did not feel like work.”

In many ways, he said, the art world, including publishing, is in flux, giving those who work in the arts incredible opportunities.

“The distribution systems are in flux. That’s intimidating and immensely liberating,” he said. “Rules are breaking down, gatekeepers are leaving their gates. Old rules are crumbling and nobody knows what the new rules are, so make up your own rules.

“The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts are made by people who have not tested the bounds by going beyond them, and you can,” he counseled the grads.

In a speech perfectly crafted for a class of 526 newly-minted arts grads, Gaiman encouraged his audience to make mistakes and make art.

“I hope you’ll make mistakes,” he said. “If you make mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something.

“The one thing you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and dance and build and play and dance and live as only you can. The moment that you feel that just possibly you are walking down the street naked … that's the moment you may be starting to get it right."

He also shared some “secret freelancer knowledge” useful for freelance work of all kinds.

“You get work however you get work, but people keep working in a freelance world (and more and more of today’s world is freelance) because their work is good, because they are easy to get along with and because they deliver the work on time,” Gaiman said. “And you don’t even need all three! Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. People will forgive the lateness of your work if it is good and they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as everyone else if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.”

The best piece of advice he was ever given, Gaiman said, was from Stephen King, about the success of Gaiman’s “The Sandman.” It was also the one piece of advice he failed to follow in the early years of his success.

“[Stephen King said] ‘This is really great, you should enjoy it.’ It was the best advice I ever got, and I ignored it,” Gaiman said. “I wish I’d enjoyed it more – it was an amazing ride, but there were parts of the ride I missed because I was too worried… Let go and enjoy the ride, because the ride takes you to some amazing and unexpected places.”

Don't miss it – here's Gaiman’s commencement address on Vimeo.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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