“… I had an idea for a book and I knew it was a real one.
I tried writing it, and realized that it was a better idea than I was a writer. So I kept writing, but I wrote other things, learning my craft. I wrote for twenty years until I thought that I could write The Graveyard Book—or at least, that I was getting no better…
I wrote it as best I could. That’s the only way I know how to write something. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good. It just means you try. And, most of all, I wrote the story that I wanted to read.”
Neil Gaiman, 2009 Newbery Medal Speech
The Graveyard Book was the first Neil Gaiman novel I pre-ordered. As soon as it arrived, I read it aloud to my two sons. They were 13 and 8 at the time. I was 34. We regularly read together as a family, but the tale of Bod and his friends in the cemetery captured our attention like no other before it. We laughed. We waited in suspense. We cried. We skipped bedtime in order to finish because we couldn’t bear going through another full day without knowing the ending. To this day, it is one of my favorite books.
At the age of 25, Neil Gaiman knew—absolutely knew—he had a splendid idea for a novel. He chose not to write it because he determined the idea was stronger than his writing.
I have always surmised that Gaiman is the unpretentious, down-to-earth sort. He seems genuinely grateful that he gets to tell tales for a living, but it takes a special sort of person to admit to himself that his talent does not yet muster up to his idea. What would have happened if he had pursued his idea for The Graveyard Book twenty years ago? Would it have been a success? Perhaps. But, it certainly would not be the same as it is today.
Everything Gaiman learned while penning novels and comics and essays and poetry and non-fiction went into The Graveyard Book. He poured the knowledge and experience of a generation into 312 perfect pages. It was a decision that earned him awards and accolades. It was a decision that gave us, the readers, a better book.
I feel it is safe to say that most of us, as humans, have blindly barreled into something we feel is our destiny to do without pausing to think if it is the right time. “If I don’t do this right now,” we think, “someone will come along and do it before me. I will miss my chance.” This is especially true in the arts. Someone else will compose this hit song. Paint this landscape. Make this movie. Write this bestseller. Someone will do it. I must get there first.
Competitive machinations are creative kryptonite.
You simply cannot challenge the unknown entity that is “someone.” If Gaiman has taught us anything through this revelation, it is this: Create for others, on the timeline of the establishment, and the generic will likely follow. Make art for yourself, when the moment is right, and — sometimes — masterpieces happen.