About a year ago I began telling people that Neil Gaiman was the person I wanted to be when I grew up.
He’s cool, he’s witty, and he wrote one of my favourite books ever, American Gods. His wife is amazing, his home life seems happy, and all the time he spends alone with his Parkers and his laptop seems to inevitably end in a new bit of genius being released into the world.
Trouble was, I had no idea how to become Neil Gaiman.
I couldn’t do the typical follow-his-footsteps thing, because that path into journalism doesn’t exist in the same way anymore, and anyway I don’t want to be a journalist. I want to make things up. (For the moment, anyway. Essays are becoming a bit of a thing in my life.)
So I spent a few months trying to figure out how to become Neil Gaiman, and then I realised. I didn’t want to necessarily be Neil Gaiman – I just wanted to be a writing rock star. I wanted to write crazy things and have millions of people love them.
Then I remembered that I’m much more of a realist in my writing. Writing about the small moments, everyday life, not gods and ghosts and magic. (Though I do love a smattering of that as well.) So maybe Neil Gaiman wasn’t quite the mentor I was after.
Now, though, I tend to think I want to be more like JD Salinger. Much quieter, more realistic, and still churning out amazing pieces of literature. Focussing much more on the craft than the audience interaction.
I think that suits me better anyway. I’m always too nervous about becoming involved in communities. (I’ve been skulking around the outskirts of Tumblr for months now.)
Neil Gaiman once said, in that famous commencement speech that has now been turned into a beautiful book, that you start becoming a good writer by imitating other writers until you find the voice that’s your own.
Part of that is the hero-worship, the wanting to be another author so much that you write like them, endlessly drafting pieces that you think sound good (like them) until finally, finally the layers fall away and all that’s left is your drive to write, and your stories begging to be told.
I think that it’s a lifelong process for most writers. You only have to follow any writer’s career to notice that their debut novel/essay/article/collection of poems is wildly different from, much more naive and unpolished than, their latest. Heck, take a look in your own writing archives and you’ll see what I mean.
That’s progress. That’s growing. That’s the difference between wanting to be Neil Gaiman or JD Salinger, and just wanting to write so much that it doesn’t really matter who you are, so long as your work is out there for people to read.