An Evening with Neil Gaiman — and 1,200 other people

Neil Gaiman, UW, HUB, Seattle, Trigger Warning, reading
My completely blown out shot of Neil Gaiman speaking at the University of Washington HUB Ballroom last night. You can tell it’s him by the black clothes and the hair.

Some authors are more gifted with sentences than voices and when they speak, their words sound wrong because they don’t sound the way they do when you’re reading their words in your own head.

Despite having heard Neil Gaiman on YouTube, I was a little worried before I went to his reading last night.

Sure, he comes with a British accent and a lovely voice, but what if his rhythm sounded all wrong when he was just talking?

What if he said or did something that wiped away the magic?

Ironically, Neil Gaiman talked about the very same thing last night, mentioning that he now avoids certain famous people because he wants to hold the image he has of them in his head.

And that’s the thing about Neil Gaiman, he has this uncanny ability to bring up the thing that you’re thinking about at the moment, like he’s been thinking about it, too. The only thing is that being a master storyteller, he’s quite a bit better with the words — he tells you the story you didn’t recognize in your own heart.

The substance of the reading was surprisingly simple. Neil asked attendants to distribute index cards through the crowd. It seemed like three out of four of the 1,200 people at the sold-out event wrote questions. During the reading, he shuffled through them in a bit, but he took them more or less as they came and fashioned the night into a story just for us.

Some questions were simple like “Where did you get the idea for ‘Fortunately, the Milk,’ and some more complicated, like the reader who mentioned that she’d been dealing with a lot of death lately and wondered what Neil had to say about death and mourning.

Neil spoke about the death of his good friend and fellow writer Terry Pratchett. They wrote “Good Omens” together a long while back. He talked about how even when you knew death was coming it could “take you by surprise.” And then he read an excerpt from “Good Omens” — a bit he remembers as being written mostly by Terry.

The scene where the demon tries to convince the angel to thwart Armageddon sounds very much like two old friends getting drunk together and the sense that Neil would have liked to drink with Terry one last time was palpable, especially when he referenced the scene and talked about death drawing a “bottom line” on thirty years of friendship.

Neil also worked in two stories from his new short story collection “Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances.” The one about the uninventor and “Click-Clack the Rattlebag.” The later is a classic horror tale written with the kind of clear story that leaves grown ups afraid to wander into the dark.

Towards the end of the evening, Neil addressed how he chooses what to write.

Apparently, back in 2001, when “American Gods” came out (which is currently being made into TV series), he had an editor claim she could make him a “proper successful writer” if he would agree to write only books like “American Gods,” “but a little different.”

Fortunately, Neil has no intention of doing that. “What I really like doing is whatever the fuck I want to,” he says.

And while we were still thinking about the courage it takes to do what you really want to do, he went on with an analogy about writing, getting quite particular about the difference between an old English sweet shop and a candy store. The jars make all the difference. As he says, “because in a sweet shop, everything comes in huge jars. All these jars, more strange or peculiar than anyone can eat. I will never, if I live to 100, get to know what’s in every jar.” But he imagines writing is a like being locked in that shop over night, “desperate to get my hands in as many jars as I can before they open it up and catch me and drag me out.”

Makes you want to run off with the shop owner’s keys, doesn’t it?

This isn’t even close to what it’s like to hear Neil in person. If he comes to town, go. If comes within a three-hour drive and you don’t have a car, rent one.

Places where inspiration finds me

Seattle alley, Pioneer Square, J.C. O'Brien, Night Shift
While I’ve witnessed some racy things happening in Seattle alleys, I have, fortunately, not run into any of the scenes that happen in my novels.

I find my inspiration in Seattle’s dark alleys.

Seattle burned to the ground in 1889. 32 blocks of the city were rebuilt to new fire standards and so far (fingers crossed), they’ve done OK with quakes (with a few exceptions).

Seattle’s rain is no myth. Like New Orleans, downtown’s streets end up with puddles of “mystery” liquid that sometimes develops an oily sheen. Mix in some moss and subtract some sunlight and it doesn’t take much to imagine something dark and lovely hunting through Pioneer Square’s streets.

I also like to include real locations in my stories. Bars like the Alibi Room or restaurants like the Crumpet Shop show up in my work because I want readers to be able to taste what it’s like to live in Seattle.

But while I might go out in the streets at night hunting inspiration, when it comes time to express it in a story, I turn to locations I visit almost on a daily basis.

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[soliloquy slug="green-lake-inspiration"]

My favorite place is probably Green Lake. Designed by the Olmsted brothers, who’d been hired by Seattle in 1903 to oversee park planning, this manmade lake includes a nearly three-mile track that I walk five to six days a week with my husband and dog.

But my history with Green Lake goes back to when I moved here from Detroit in 1987. I’ve walked that same track for nearly thirty years, oddly enough, almost always in the same direction. I’ve watched the seasons change, rabbits, eagles, hawks and red-winged blackbirds appear and disappear and had the opportunity to watch my own child and others grow into teenagers.

In other words, the lake provides a familiar place where I can go and observe change — a sort of laboratory of human expression, storytelling and condition combined with my absolute favorite source of inspiration — movement.

There is something to be said for knowing a large swathe of land with great intimacy and knowing that you share that space with people having a similar experience.

The Olmsteds created their parks with this kind of sensation in mind. If you’re lucky enough to live near one of the spaces that they created across the U.S. or in Canada, it’s worth exploring. But the same feeling can be had anywhere that you call home, because it’s going back to that same space day in and day out and looking really closely sometimes and not so closely the next that layers experiences in your brain. I believe an activity like walking or running allows you to coax those experiences onto the keyboard and combine your knowledge of daily existence with any dark, magical thing that strikes your fancy.

This piece was written as part of a blog carnival with six other others. FindĀ out where they find their inspiration.

How to train your mind and body to let creativity find you


For me, the secret to staying inspired is movement.

Whether it means that I move my fingers across the keyboard from the moment I sit in my writing chair until I leave, or that I get up for regular dance or tea breaks, it’s shifting my body that shakes ideas loose.

I think ideas are sticky. They’re the product of all kinds of processes and I think they get stuck in our heads and it can be hard to pry them out.

This is why movement works.

Instead of concentrating on the outcome or the absence of an idea, you shift your focus and move.

Much of day we shorten our gaze to the width of a screen. Whether it’s on a phone, a computer or a television, that flat screen defines the span of what we encounter. Despite the knowledge literally at our fingertips, creativity can flatten and shrink during the hunt for small pieces of information if we don’t expand our gaze.

There are moments when you need to narrow your focus. Instances when the ability to zero on your quarry is what allows you to push through a deadline with the requisite number of words.

But to create those moments when the work feeds itself, I need to allow it to come to me. Instead of hunting creativity, I need to let it find its way into my story.

I do some of that by removing doubt.

After I walk the dog, unless there’s blood or fire, I’m going to eat breakfast and write for two hours. Whether or not I feel like it or am inspired is irrelevant. It’s what I do at that time of the day.

Once I’m in my writing room, I follow a set pattern of turning on the electric fireplace, the weird dolphin light I got at Good Will and lighting my candles. My dog gets off his bed and stretches out on the cool basement floor and I make my fingers move. I don’t stop to think if what I’m writing is good or if I like the scene I’m working on because I might not like the answer. And more importantly, when I get to the editing process, I might find out that “writing me” was wrong.

Thanks to NanoWrimo training, I write through to the end of the story and when it’s done, I start the next one, because it’s easier to keep going than it is to get started.

Momentum works.

And movement, done with intention, can keep the momentum going.

Instead of zeroing in on your screen or book or task at hand, softening your gaze allows you to notice things out of the corner of your eye. Lulling your brain with rhythmic movements allows it to relax and make connections between a random comment on Facebook, the music playing through your speakers and the trouble with the pacing your last chapter.

Movement done in a relaxed, steady manner, whether it’s walking, dancing or loading the dishwasher replaces chasing after the story with an invitation for it to come to you.

This is easier if you pay attention to your breath. Allowing your in breath to descend into your diaphragm to spread your ribs like wings and following the breath through a complete exhale can help you relax enough to let your story find you.

If all of this sounds like yoga or meditation, you’re close.

For me, creativity comes when I achieve a state of trance. I can get there through rhythmic movement or immersing in a task, but it’s the product of relaxed action.

This doesn’t come easily.

It’s not like you can go sit wherever you write, snatch a couple of breaths and tell yourself to relax and it will work. Especially when faced with multiple demands on your time, the state can be hard if you haven’t laid the groundwork. This takes practice. You have to train both your mind and your body.

Figure out when you do your best work by trying to write at different times of the day. See if that time meshes with your schedule, which may take some rearranging. (My best time doesn’t work for mine or I’d have written this at three in the morning when the only sound is the world breathing.) If you have too much to do, get your writing done first. Even that shift in priority can provide the perspective to receive other ideas throughout the day.

Because you’re in a story mind, co-workers may offer bits of dialogue or plot points. You might encounter colors or situations that suit your plot.

Putting your story first sets you up to receive inspiration instead of chase it.

Because inspiration is a little like love — it finds you best when you’re doing something else.

Need more inspiration? This post was written as part of a Blog Carnival of Inspiration with several of my fellow writers.