‘Make good art’ is best advice

“So be wise, because the world needs more wisdom, and if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.” —Neil Gaiman, writer

As graduation season sneaks up, I equally fear and anticipate the day. It may be more of a 60-40 split, with the scales tipping in opposite directions as they choose. I’ll be the parent of a high school graduate, much to my dismay. But the proof is in the math and we are right on track.

Again, much to my dismay.

I have been out of high school for more than 25 years, and while the details of my own graduation still exist somewhere in my mind, the thing I remember is my dress. I sure liked my dress. I’m not sure what it says for the “big moment” when clothing trumps everything else.

Yet graduation is exciting; that I do remember. Like any major transition—not unlike being the parent of a bonafide graduate—it carries with it a hearty mix of antagonistic emotions. Exhaustion and energy. Confidence and fear. Ready and so not ready.

A good graduation speech helps. And now I love a good graduation speech. Because now, I get it. I know what the speakers mean with their bullet points of advice and poetic words of wisdom.

Every few years, maybe on graduation anniversaries, everyone should listen to a solid graduation speech. Start with Neil Gaiman from the 2012 graduation at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA. (YouTube it, you’ll be glad you did.)

Gaiman, a writer, was addressing an arts college, so his speech revolved around living as an artist. Specifically, the importance of making good art, always. In good times and in bad. In sickness and in health. In success and in failure. It’s expedient advice for fresh and energetic graduates.

But how expedient could that message sound to someone who has been out of high school or college for 20 years and forgot long ago about their “art?” Or to a 50-year-old who never quite pursued it.

“Make good art,” in my opinion, is one of the best life tips ever. For artists, whether they paint, dance, write or sing, it makes direct sense because in those fields, art is art. But it could also be whatever your passion or curiosity is—that thing is your art.

Maybe science. Or politics. Or teaching. Or cleaning. Or cooking. Or mom-ing. Or dog grooming. Or welding. All of that. If you like it, if you are drawn to it, then it’s your definitive form of art.

I understand there are phases of life where we question stuff. Graduation from high school or college is a time to question how life will unfold. What will I do? How will I do it?

It also happens later. We question at some point what we’re doing, if we’re doing enough, if we’re making the most of our time, making some kind of mark.

Enter a good motivational graduation speech.

Below I have blatantly copied and pasted a portion of Gaiman’s address to that class of 2012, giving him full credit, because it’s brilliant and worthwhile. And because I think if we do nothing more than try to make good art in specific and individual ways, the world becomes a slightly better place to be.

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“Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear cut, and sometimes will be almost impossible to decide whether or not you are doing the correct thing, because you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work…. Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be…was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking toward the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me toward or away from the mountain….

“The problems of failure are hard. The problems of success can be harder, because nobody warns you about them…. I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful. I once misspelled Caroline, in a letter, transposing the A and the O, and I thought, ‘Coraline looks like a real name….’

“Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.

“Make it on the good days too…. And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.”

Shelley Plett is a graphic designer for the Free Press and Kansas Publishing Ven­tures. She can be reached at shelley@hillsborofree­press.com.