Eight months ago, I bought tickets to see the rock star of the literary world.
I was first introduced to Neil Gaiman’s writing by my older brother. It was one of many gifts he passed on to me during childhood: a love of story and character-driven computer games, an introduction into the fantastical world of anime, and a single volume of comics. That volume was The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes.
I opened it oblivious to the danger within. If I had been in a horror movie, I would have been the teenager innocently wandering into the attic at midnight to check out who was playing that hauntingly beautiful music. In real life, I turned a page and fell into the world of Dream and his Endless siblings – a world teeming with gods and monsters that I recognised and spirits and serial killers that I didn’t. Not that it mattered which was which: by the last page the stories had grown hooks and lodged themselves in me, past muscle and bone. And if I had to put my finger on Gaiman’s magic, that’s where I’d place it. Beyond the trope-twisting and humour, Gaiman’s strongest pieces haunt you.
Which is why, over a decade later, I found myself sitting at the back of a theatre waiting for Neil to gift me with new ghosts.
If understatement was a crime, I’d be guilty if I said the theatre was crowded. I still remember it took me a good six minutes to manoeuvre the short distance from the front doors through the red-carpeted hallway and then to the back row where I’d managed to book a seat. It was impossible to miss the heady excitement hanging in the air on the way. Everywhere I looked, smiles beamed from different faces. Old women with pink streaks in their hair. Young skinny guys clutching the hands of their girlfriends or sisters. White, brown, black, yellow. All of us drawn into the centre of the web where a master awaited with his stories.
I sunk into my chair and waited impatiently. When the lights finally dimmed there was a single moment of stillness, and then music began to whisper through the hall. Voices hushed. I craned my neck and saw four shapes in the corner of the stage. The notes spilled from their bows and crept over the air to fill the hall: eerie, breathtaking and evocative. There was something in that music that felt like it was blurring the edges of the world. The theatre existed in a suspended space. When the last notes trailed off and the applause sounded, they’d done their job. Magic was in the air. We were ready to believe in the grotesque, and the beautiful, and the beautifully grotesque.
It was into this charged and quivering atmosphere that a man dressed in black stepped nonchalantly onto the stage. That was enough. The crowd went insane.
And that’s how Neil Gaiman’s show The Truth is a Cave in the Dark Mountains began.
Like many well-known writers before him, Gaiman started off as a journalist. His writing came in standard journalistic forms: interviews, book reviews, a biography, a book of quotes. After he became disillusioned with the way British newspapers regularly passed off made-up fantasy as fact, he threw himself merrily into the business of passing off facts (of life, humanity, the world) as made-up fantasy. And he didn’t just stop at comic books. Since then, he’s written award-winning graphic novels, children’s books, screenplays, poetry, songs, television episodes and more. And that night in a hushed theatre at the bottom of the world, he didn’t disappoint with his range.
Firstly, he introduced us to the musicians who’d so beautifully set the scene for the night: the quartet Fourplay. Then he started off with a story that was real: the Charlie Hebdo massacre. He soaked us in poetry and shared a short story from his new collection Trigger Warning, a heartwrenching ode to his friend Ray Bradbury. He read stories born from Twitter challenges about gambling ducks and a man mad with grief building a sanctuary made of books. Finally, he even sang: a jaunty tune about a psychopathic young boy that had us both laughing and smoothing down goosebumps.
When the first half was over, the mad rush began to get back outside – not to get refreshments or seek relief like in most shows, but to buy the limited stack of signed books sitting outside and a copy of Fourplay’s music. And then run back just in time for the second half, not wanting to miss a second.
Which was fortuitous, because when he started reading his illustrated novella The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, everything changed.
Gaiman has mentioned before that he edits aloud. This is extremely apparent when you go to one of his readings. The words take on another element when he speaks them, so powerful that for weeks afterward, whenever I picked up one of his books I could distinctly hear an echo of his voice, reading the words over my shoulder. As he spoke, Eddie Campbell’s illustrations took a life of their own on a screen suspended above the stage, swimming out of the darkness to seize us with the stories in each line. That, in combination with Fourplay’s hushed atmospherics – the low hum of strings here, the tense sweep of chords there – completed it. It was magical. And horrifying. Not a movie. Not a play. Something different, a new art form that smelled like old campfires but had music and images to push us over the edge.
And push us over the edge they did.
I won’t spoil the award-winning novella for you if you haven’t read it, I’ll just say that its stunning conclusion is even more breathtaking when spoken by its creator. I still remember the rush in the theatre as the last line of the last page of the book was spoken, as we surged to our feet and gave a standing ovation. And I remember thinking that this was it. It had to be. After taking us through a journey dripping with mist, darkness and regret, where else could we go?
But Gaiman still had more gifts for us.
There was a joint interview with Eddie Campbell, the artist behind the haunting illustrations of The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains. Then, to our utter surprise and glee, the enormously talented Amanda Palmer graced us with a guest appearance. The night ended with a glorious mix of music and shattering applause. When the curtains finally fell, the crowd filed slowly out of the theatre and staggered home, each one of us drunk on magic.
It’s been a number of months since that night. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out myself and convey to other people why exactly I found the experience of a few hours of stories and music so transformative. After countless drafts, I’ve distilled it down to this. This, here, right now: the four life lessons I learned from Neil Gaiman.
I’ll admit it. The word ‘collaboration’ puts my teeth on edge. It reminds me of poorly engineered group projects and management buzzwords. It’s overused to the point of meaninglessness.
But actual collaboration – where different minds and strengths and talents come together to create something that transcends the sum of its parts – is marvellous. And I think it’s too often forgotten in today’s fairytales of the lone hero. We speak about Steve Jobs and Richard Branson as individuals, not as leaders of teams who had to work for years together before they began to see the fruits of their labour. We speak about Elon Musk (rightly) as a visionary revolutionising our world, but we gloss over the exceptional teams he relies upon to shape and deliver that vision.
Yet collaboration is what made The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains sing. There is no doubt that Gaiman himself was a polished, practiced and fantastic entertainer, who could have easily held us under his spell for the evening on his own. But it was the powerful combination of Gaiman, the music of Fourplay, Eddie Campbell’s illustrations, and Amanda Palmer – each an expert in their own field – that made the night truly magical.
I think this is a particularly important lesson because so often, creative and personal pursuits are seen as solitary. Writers are alone, tapping at their keyboards or scrawling in their notepads. Entrepreneurs are alone, working into the dead of night with only a laptop and a source of caffeine. Songwriters and artists are alone, their only companions their software and their instruments. Parents are alone, in a nuclear family and a nuclear society.
But we’re not alone. Or at least, we don’t have to be. And if we join forces,
Captain Planet will save us all, we will create something that transcends us.
2. APPROACH CREATION AS BOTH A CHALLENGE AND AS A JOY
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want, at some level, to create.
Whether it’s the creation of music, or words, or a business, or a new technology, or a new life… the urge to both create and consume seem to be bred into our bones. But it’s a lot easier to consume than to create. Especially in this brave new world we’re living in, where for the first time in human history we suffer from a glut of information and entertainment rather than an absolute scarcity. And over time, the more we consume uncritically, the harder it is for us to compare our fledgling efforts with the success stories we read where all the sleepless nights and failures have been either airbrushed out or summarised in an inspirational montage. Then we get terms like Writer’s Block. The Wall. Failure.
Yet the moment Gaiman appeared on stage, you could see the joy etched into him. It was layered in the timbre of his voice, the expressiveness of his reading, and the excitement in his stories. And it was clear that that was the fuel he used to keep himself going. Gaiman has written before about how he gets ideas, and there is a wonderful, joyful, open-minded inquisitiveness to the way he approaches it.
But in between the jokes and readings, he made casual asides about how hard the work was. And about how he kept pushing himself harder. At one point, he told us how he’d planned to write a story an hour based on Twitter challenges. After numerous people told him he was crazy, he relented and shifted the milestones to a story every 2-3 days. In another story, he mentioned how a meeting of like minds led to him collaborating with a group of artists to record 8 songs in 8 hours, recording live and posting to Twitter. They ended up creating 6 songs in 12 hours. You could say that both times, he failed. But considering what he ended up creating (collaboratively!) as a result of those challenges, I think that would be pretty short-sighted.
In the end, I think what I glimpsed from these stories was an insight into how he constantly keeps producing such quality work. Simply put, Gaiman always challenges himself to do more, testing his own limits and creating new boundaries. And most importantly, he approaches this backbreaking work with a joy that shines through his writing and makes it magic.
3. EMBRACE MULTIPLICITY
Here is Gaiman’s short autobiography from Amazon:
I make things up and write them down. Which takes us from comics (like SANDMAN) to novels (like ANANSI BOYS and AMERICAN GODS) to short stories (some are collected in SMOKE AND MIRRORS) and to occasionally movies (like Dave McKean’s MIRROR MASK or the NEVERWHERE TV series, or my own short film A SHORT FILM ABOUT JOHN BOLTON). In my spare time I read and sleep and eat and try to keep the blog at www.neilgaiman.com more or less up to date.” Please note that the range of creative works listed here fails to include the fact that he’s written television episodes for Dr. Who, several hilarious songs and gorgeous poems, and that his work with Terry Pratchett has been turned into a radio show.
I love this, because our brains are biologically wired to categorise ourselves and the world. Sometimes those categories are great; I don’t exactly want someone who specialises in patisserie deciding overnight (without any other background) that their skill with a piping set means they can perform emergency cardiac surgery. But other times, those categories limit us by drawing boundaries around our identity that we think we can’t cross.
But Gaiman’s catalogue merrily tears down these boundaries and sets them on fire. One can see from the myriad of titles and forms that his drive is to just keep creating, in any format: whatever suits the story best or will let it see the light of day.
And that’s enough to make me want to try harder as well. To push out of my comfort zone of short stories into novellas. To hopefully push out of the zone of novellas into novels. To try learning new instruments and new skills and to keep breaking boundaries.
To master what Gaiman is a master of: fear.
4. FEAR SHOULD NOT BE IGNORED – IT SHOULD BE ALCHEMISED.
Gaiman writes horror. It’s an integral part of most of his stories. He writes about witches who eat the hearts of stars to become young again. A twisted god living in a small American town who sacrifices his favourite children every year to keep it prosperous. A monster called the ‘Other Mother’ who just wants to love us to death and replace our eyes with buttons.
And as horrifying as it all is – Gaiman doesn’t flinch away. He takes things that we know to be true – the consequences of greed, the fallout of arrogance and selfishness – and shapes them into monsters that deep down are frightening because we recognise them in our everyday lives.
What sort of monsters? Well, I don’t know what you’re afraid of, but I know you’re afraid of something. After all, I’m afraid. I’m afraid that a nuclear holocaust is even more likely now than it ever was in the Cold War. I’m afraid of my loved ones walking out the door and into a car crash, gone in a second that I have no control over. I’m afraid of dying without achieving my dreams. I’m afraid of climate change and the rise of artificial intelligence. I’m afraid because governments and political groups alike are engaging in terrorism because people blinded with fear and anger tend not to ask questions. And I’m afraid of ourselves – because I know that both mass rage and mass indifference kills, and right now I’m seeing both playing out on the global stage.
So I’m afraid. And to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, in a world like this it is fiercely comforting to have a writer who takes our hand, walks us through the darkness, shows us the monster, and says: “Look, this can be beaten. Here’s the sword.”
So slay your fear, or make friends with it. Create with joy and without limitations. Collaborate. These are the life lessons I’ve learned from Neil Gaiman. And I can’t wait to read his next work and learn more.