Every once in awhile I'm approached at some event or another by a total stranger who knows me, or knows of me, because of my blog, or because of one of my pieces posted here at Huffington Post. "You're Zaki Hasan... the writer?" Blows my mind every time. I guess I am a writer, at that. Sure didn't see that coming! During encounters such as this, I'm inevitably asked some variation of two questions: How did I become a writer, and how do I find inspiration to keep writing?
My answers to both of these is always the same: by writing. I realize that might sound glib, or even sarcastic, but it's the honest truth. You just have to do it. And once you start doing it, you have to keep doing it. Here's an interesting factoid: I didn't ever plan on being a writer. I was going to be a comic book artist. During my high school days -- an eternity ago, for all intents and purposes -- I'd built a rep as a pretty decent artist. And without tooting my horn too much, it was a deserved rep. I was good. But I wanted more. I wanted to be thought of as an artist who could write.
So I joined the school newspaper and started writing. And after that I joined the college paper and continued writing. And after I graduated I kept writing. Until finally, we get to now, where I'm clacking something out on deadline just about every day, but entire years have passed without picking up my sketchbook. Suddenly, I'm a writer who used to draw. How'd that happen? Like all skills, your abilities develop the more you do something, and atrophy the longer you're away. You want to be a writer? Write. Looking for inspiration as a writer? Write.
That process, of sitting in front of a keyboard and filling a page with something people will give a damn about is what separates the "professional" writer from the "eventual" writer. After all, the web is littered with blog sites that started with much ballyhoo but died on the vine when their authors moved on to the next shiny thing. A few years ago, that was in real danger of happening at my site, but I made a decision to nurture an audience by posting as regularly as possible (though not as regularly as I'd like!). The results: One book under my belt, and working on my second. Success begets success. Credibility builds credibility.
I bring all this up as prelude to a video e-mailed to me by a student this past weekend, which was appended with a note that read: "When I saw this I immediately thought about you. Two things you like... together! Speeches and comic books... well, a comic book author anyway." Do my students know me, or what? The vid in question is a commencement speech given by author Neil Gaiman, probably best known in nerd circles for creating DC Comics' Sandman, one of the most revered comic series of all time, and in the mainstream for works such as Coraline and American Gods.
Delivered at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, the speech covers a lot of ground in its twenty minutes, but it's primarily a reflection by Gaiman on the twisting paths he followed in his life to get him to where he is now, one of the most acclaimed and respected authors out there. He offers some reflections on the bad advice he followed, and the good advice he didn't. Needless to say, just as my ears perked up with last week's Aaron Sorkin commencement address, anything Neil Gaiman has to say about writing, I'm happy to hear. And you will be too.