A writer’s guide to creative courage

So last Tuesday evening I had the pleasure of interviewing Australian children’s and YA fantasy author Garth Nix for an event at Manchester’s Waterstones bookstore. Which, I’ll be honest, was a lot of fun.

Nix is one of the most celebrated and prolific authors of the last 30 years — he’s written over 40 books, been translated into as many languages, had his work adapted to screen; and is the winner of some of the most prestigious accolades in genre fiction, including the Aurealis Award (multiple times), Ditmar Award, Booktrust Teenage Prize, Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, Grand Prix de L’imaginaire, and many others.

But most appealing, at least to me, was the opportunity to investigate Nix’s obvious elasticity as a creative, and how eclectic and storied his work history has been as a result. He’s been a traveller, editor, soldier, bookseller, entrepreneur, sales rep, literary agent, publicist, and marketing consultant, to name just a few.

Not only that, even before the huge success of his books, and the many world tours he’s since been on, Nix had travelled extensively, venturing from his then home of Canberra, Australia in his twenties to explore the UK, middle east, much of eastern Europe, and various parts of Asia.

In short, he’s a guy with about as diverse an assortment of experiences as there is.

All of which made for an especially enriching and memorable hour-long conversation before a live audience, as we discussed everything from his inspirations to his approach to creativity as a whole.

Of all the topics we covered — and there were a fair few — I found Nix’s simple summarising of what impels his writing the most intriguing. As he himself put it…

In the end, you’ve got to write what you like.

He was talking about his 2019 sci-fi novel, Angel Mage — a book that is, in some ways, a departure from his impressively deep and diverse catalogue, and yet remains, despite being one of his less popular titles, a personal favourite for him.

As Nix explained his reasons for writing it I couldn’t help thinking of author Neil Gaiman’s words when addressing the graduating class of the University of Arts, Philadelphia some years ago.

“The one thing you have that nobody else has, is you – your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. The moment that you feel that just possibly you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside and showing too much of yourself, that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right… The things I’ve done that worked the best were the things I was least certain about… looking back on them, people explain why they were inevitable successes, but when I was doing them I had no idea what I was doing. I still don’t.”

It’s a great speech, and one that offers insight into what makes creatives like Gaiman and Nix so special. Because their truest talent is seldom propelled by their artistic mastery alone, extraordinary though it may be, but rather something far rarer — a reverence, of sorts, for that most sacred of creative tenets: the simple choice to be, and remain, unerringly themselves.

Individuation, as Jung once called it — the unthinking home of both infant and elderly alike, the mark of the auteur, the throne of freedom, and, often, of our very best work.

In a world replete with the jockeying clamour of the market and its cacophony of opinions, I’ve found, both in my own work and with those I coach, a special value to being reminded of this first and most fundamental law of all creative pursuits: the need, as Hemingway once so eloquently put it, “to acquire the courage to do what children did when they knew nothing.”

So… here’s to becoming more childlike; forgoing validation, eschewing expectations, and choosing — with neither inhibition nor shame — to be exactly who we are. In the words of one modern day genius…

“You have to stick to your guns. You have to find something that you can do, that maybe other people couldn’t do. And even if that seems different, or doesn’t fit in with people’s expectations, that’s what’s going to distinguish it, if you can do it successfully.”

Christopher Nolan


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