Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Writer's Writer, or How Neil Gaiman Saved My Essay

So I read somewhere, I don't know where, ages ago, that Neil Gaiman was a "writer's writer."

I remember crinkling my nose. What the hell is that supposed to mean? Sounds all fru-fru and hoity-toity to me. I may be a writer, but I'm also a reader. Are you telling me that I'm too stupid, as a reader, to understand and appreciate the writing of Neil Gaiman? You mean, is this going to be one of those writers who everyone nods thoughtfully at and rubs their chin and pretends like they've just read a profound statement about the human experience, or society today, or some such grand notion?

You know, the kind of deep thought-provoking artistry, where I nod and rub my chin too, trying to appear as if I've been profoundly affected by a plain blue triangle, while inside I wonder if the testing scores in grade school were mixed up, and I'm really intractably, unrepairably, and intolerably stupid?

I don't like to feel stupid. Can you see why I avoided him for years, even though one of my heroes, Stephen King, said he was the Next Best Thing?

But this fall, Neil Gaiman published a collection of short fiction, Fragile Things. You know how I am with short stories. I love short stories, like I love chocolate and candy stores and ice cream parlors. I've been nibbling at his stories all fall, with quite a bit of delight (the stories, that is, but the chocolate and the candy, too).

So yesterday I bought another book, Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, even though I've got a stack of nearly forty unread dying-to and can't-wait-to-read books.

After pulling my hair out and lecturing myself on my latest attempt at a non-fic essay, I settled into the tub for a nice read. I'd started it yesterday when I got it, but I couldn't help but start all over.

This time, I told myself, I was going to pay attention to his craft, and try to store up stuff to write another attempt at a learning-from-the-masters review.

Yes, Neil Gaiman is a master at fiction. He's earned the right to sit on my top shelf with my book-treasures, like Stephen King, John Irving, Emily Dickinson, and C.S. Lewis.

So I thought I'd try to read it in one sitting, so I could blog a quick post about Neil Gaiman's methods. Instead, as I read, I was delighted by so much in the first chapter, that I knew I'd have to do this review in parts.

See, he writes Fiction with a capital F. Like Stephen King and John Irving, he suspends disbelief. Unlike so many contemporary writers, he writes disbelief that needs suspending. It's fiction, and I love it. When did fiction become so refreshing in the fiction world?

And somehow, in the reading and analyzing and wondering why I was so engrossed and couldn't put the book down, I realized that it was the fascinating struggle between disbelief and belief that held me so entranced.

Geronimo! The disbelief! That's it! My essay suddenly clicked in my mind, a whole form shaped by proving my theorem against my disbelief.

It's probably been done before, but I whipped through half of a re-write on my essay tonight, and I got tired, and I stopped, and I didn't cry. I had that proud feeling, like I get when I know I've pushed myself and millimetered myself another notch forward on the quest to become a writer. I sighed with relief, knowing that I could turn in something that, even if rejected, I could say was the very best I could do.

You know how I don't hold much stock by talent? Well, Neil Gaiman is one of those Amazing Talents who live up to their talent and work at it, like Stephen King and John Irving are Amazing Talents.

Reading him, you know it's a thing you can't learn, and that's a little depressing. But there's a whole sea of regular writers like you and me (unless you're one of those Amazing Talents, that is), who get quite good by working hard, and even get published.

Anyway, that's how Neil Gaiman saved my essay. And this week, I'll tell you all about my experience reading Anansi Boys, and what I learn. Wanna join me?

Oh ... and you know what? Neil Gaiman may be a writer's writer, but he's also a kick-ass reader's writer. So if you haven't tried his books, then give them a chance. You'll be thrilled you did!

4 bonus scribbles:

Jonas Karlsson 11/26/2006 07:03:00 AM  

Hello,

I found this blog last week, subscribed to the feed and now I'm glad I did. I would be very interested in reading about what makes Gaiman good. It's hard work to pin down what makes an author good or interesting, so I'd be glad to let you do the work and me just read about it.

Fragile Things is on its way to me. I've ordered it a couple of days ago, but it hasn't arrived yet. I haven't read Anansi Boys, but I really enjoyed the Sandman comic book series.

JLB 11/27/2006 08:25:00 AM  

Isn't it wonderful the way artists can influence one another in the most unsuspecting ways? :)

Looking forward to hearing more about Gaiman!

writtenwyrdd 11/28/2006 05:10:00 PM  

I found him before he wrote novels. Loved the Sandman. While he can write a lovely story. The thing is, part of his creative genious for me is visual. His artistry isn't just his writing, it's how he has a three dimensional, multi-media crafting of his stories. He collaborates with artists in Mirrormask and Neverwhere (movies) just as he did with Sandman (comics) and the results are stunning.

So he's an excellent writer. But he's a masterful storyteller. I want to be that kind of storyteller.