“We have an obligation to make things beautiful, to not leave the world uglier than we found it. An obligation not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not to leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.”
I have read very few non-fiction books. Those that I have read include Stephen King’s On Writing and several of Ruskin Bond’s anthologies. While King’s book gave me some lessons on writing – the technical part of it – Bond’s books made me fall in love with life and even laugh at some pages. He writes with love and humor, and he writes for everyone.
The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman is the biggest non-fiction book I’ve picked up to date, and my first experience with Gaiman’s work. I became his fan when I first saw his speech, Make Good Art. It was the very thing I needed to hear, and as is my habit, I tried to find out as much as I could about him and his works. Gaiman has written a variety of things – comics, movies, fantasy, books for children, book for adults and lots more. When he was not writing another one of his Sandman comics, he was writing introductions, essays, articles and speeches, which are collected in this book.
Go where your obsessions take you. Write the things you must. Draw the things you must.
It took me seven months to finish the book, partly because I was reading five to six books at the same time, party because at one point I wasn’t reading at all, and partly because, as I later realized, this book is more enjoyable when not read in one sitting. Whenever over the last seven months I was tired of reading my textbooks or of the people around me, I would go up to my shelf and read a random speech or introduction from the book. Even if only for ten minutes or half an hour, I enjoyed my brief meetings with Gaiman.
It is hard to describe the book in one word. It has so much to offer. The View from the Cheap Seats is a doorway to the mechanics of Gaiman’s creativity. He is what I aspire to be – a prolific writer – and going through this book, you will understand how he has been able to produce so much work over the course of his career, and why people love it so much.
Know the rules before you break them. Learn how to draw, then break the rules of drawing, learn to craft a story and show people things they’ve seen before in ways they’ve never seen.
Despite being written by a writer, the advice in Gaiman’s speeches, mainly, Make Good Art, applies to creative work of any kind. Gaiman writes with honesty. He tells you the things the way he has come to know them, and at no point do you ever doubt what he says. He writes with the simplest of words – which I have learned is the best way to write – and speaks from his heart. He’s also got a sense of humor.
The book contains a lot of things – speeches, introductions to books that have taught him how to write and books he’d read as a child, portraits of people he’s worked with and people who have inspired him, thoughts on fairy tales and comics and music and movies and science fiction. There’s something in the book for everyone. For the die-hard Gaiman fan who can never have enough of him, this book is a treasure trove.
I haven’t read any of Gaiman’s other works. The reason I admire him so much is that he knows what he’s doing and why he is doing it, and by simply being himself and sharing his thoughts with the world, he inspires me to do the same. His writing has given me confidence and made me believe in my own work and capabilities as a writer. He seems the kind of person you can always rely on for the most practical and enlightening advice. If there’s one thing that I’ve taken from this book, it’s that I am me and no one else, and that my stories will be my stories and my work will be my work. Gaiman has inspired me to embrace my individuality and to use what I’ve got to tell my stories. Someone out there will definitely listen.
Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort…that is why we write.
There are so many nuggets of wisdom throughout the book about the creative process – things every artist needs to remember by heart – that I’m tempted to write another blog post compiling all those bits. I may not be into science fiction and fantasy and superhero comics, but I want everyone to read this book, because there’s so much in it that I can relate to and that will help others too. The View from the Cheap Seats is more than a collection of Gaiman’s best non-fiction over the years. It is a self-help book, it is a guide to artistic success, it is an archive of precious writing that needs to be preserved. There’s no one like Gaiman, and will never be.
The View from the Cheap Seats is both satisfying and unsatisfying. Satisfying in that you won’t think your time and money was wasted, and unsatisfied in that you will be kept wanting more of Gaiman’s genius mind. I’m not done; I want another book of Gaiman’s non-fiction.
And the gulf that exists between us as people is that when we look at each other we might see faces, skin color, gender, race or attitudes, but we don’t see, we can’t see, the stories. And once we hear each other’s stories we realize that the things we see as dividing us are, all too often, illusions, falsehoods: that the walls between us are in truth no thicker than scenery.
Here’s list of my favorite pieces from the book, and a playlist recommended by Neil himself:
- Ghosts in the Machines: Some Hallow’en Thoughts
- On Dave McKean
- 2004 Harvey Awards Speech
- A Speech to Professionals Contemplating Alternative Employment, Given at ProCon, April 1997
- The Moth: An Introduction
- Once Upon A Time
- Several Things About Charles Vess
- So Many Ways to Di8e in Syria Now: May 2014
- A Slip of the Keyboard: Terry Pratchett