So, how do you grow and maintain your tribe? I would point to a couple of people who’ve done this very successfully. They happen to be married to each other. Today, I will focus on the one I’ve known about the longest, Neil Gaiman.
It’s all my brother John’s fault really. Back in the early 1990s, I think, my brother, John Jacobsmeyer, a painter and print maker, found out that my son, John Clendenen (only 7 or 9 at the time) had picked up the same love of the macabre that Gaiman and Kieth seemed to be expressing in their graphic novel, Sandman (go here to Indiebound for links to all the books in this post). So, my brother (has no children!) says, “this would be great for John to read.” (See the picture to the left!)
So, I look, I see gothic-y darkness, weird violence, strange immortalities, human dilemmas (I kind of like happy endings). I see traces of mythology (Ah, this I get, loved all those deity stories since my own age 10 when I memorized D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths—I still remember exactly which shelf it was in in my school library). Along with my dear brother, I had admired the superheroes of DC comics since the same age (similarities in their stories with that mythology stuff). But this wasn’t anything like my 1960s–1970s Batman, for example. Much darker. Could son John handle this, I asked myself, knowing his older-than-he-looks deep thinking mind? I let him read it. I read most of it, as well (don’t know if I got all the issues). The Endless were fascinating, as were the clever twists and turns of this new myth. Terrifying in its postmodern horror, comforting in its archetypes. As far as I know, John sustained no discernible life-long nightmares…
Well, that was it for a few years, I think. Until Good Omens (Gaiman and Terry Pratchett), recommended by someone (could have been my stepson). Oh, great take on the end of world mythology thing and a good jab at our silly human dogmas and ego fears. Missed American Gods when it came out, though. Busy starting second marriage, I think. I’m hanging out with that one right now, having fun with the “guess which deity this is” game. I think I’ve got about 90% so far. Very clever (again that word), but I sense it will get much deeper as I go in (this is where we go with Gaiman’s cleverness—like the Pied Piper of your darkest dreams, he is).
So, more than a few years went by, until Twitter in about 2010, I think. In the meantime, John (my son) grew up, became a photographer and digital photo tech/retoucher in NYC. Not sure where the Sandmans ended up. Something triggered me to follow Mr. Gaiman on Twitter in 2010 (I was following some celebrities back when I first signed up and perhaps he just ended up being one of them). And Coraline was coming out as a film around that time, I think. Writing children’s books now? Hmmm. I could see that. Gee, I’d given my son Sandman to read when he was a boy. Certain children do love to be scared. Not me, though, so much. But Gaiman still seemed a really great storyteller. Saw the movie. Read the Graveyard Book after. Wonderful!
Following, following on Twitter, wondering how Mr. Gaiman had time to keep up with feeding his fans all this information about himself and his interests in that wry, nice-but-emotionally suppresssed-Englishman sort of way. And retweeting other people’s causes and pictures, etc. My, he worked hard! Perhaps he had this team that kept up with social media for him, but no, it seemed like he was doing most of it himself. Clever way of feeding the fan base (tribe). It did all seem very natural, though. Hmmm. He often claimed on stage to be this uptight British fellow who had trouble expressing his feelings, but who wrote clever stories where he could hide safely behind other characters.
And then, after meeting, romancing, and marrying the lovely and wildly talented and transparent Amanda Palmer, he “accidentally wrote a novel,” as he put it. The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I haven’t read the reviews so as to avoid spoilers, but I read Ms. Palmer’s blog on the writing thereof, on the idea of Mr. Gaiman cracking open his real heart to her and to the world in this new story. Not just like the other clever, riveting tales with all sorts of magic and reality, but more autobiographical, more intimate, as she wrote.
What fascinates me most right now about this writer’s new book is not the story itself but the way Gaiman promotes his new creations. He works hard both at “making good art” (if you haven’t seen and heard this 20 min. speech, go here) as he says, and being there to connect with fans. And I don’t mean the retweeting of stuff or even the going on exhausting tours or wearing out his writing hand signing books.
I saw this one picture. It said everything. It’s where you can find Mr. Gaiman’s heart any time he’s around people, I think. Adina Ciment, who was helping with one of his signings in Coral Gables, Florida in late June, wrote a wonderful blog, here, about her experience. But it was this picture that got me:
He’s sitting there, looking at the person who’s giving him the book. Looking that person in the eye with a gentle face that shows real interest (despite what must be miles of fatigue) in that person, whoever they are. Real interest. He’s not just distractedly signing books for fans. He really wants to connect with them.
This isn’t just a transactional relationship as the marketers call it. Yes, he wants to sell books (and I know he’s decided not to do these long signing tours anymore), but right now, he wants to know about you; he wants to give you a chance to express your feelings, and in doing so, he gives you the gift of his loving attention. And then later, he’ll back that up with tidbits of his life that you want to know about on the Twitter feed. And the good energy is shared. He said on his Tumblr blog after seeing pictures of another young lady walking away from his signing table with big smiles that he often misses people’s reactions after they walk away, so he was very glad to see those pics. And you know what; I think he’s really genuine about that. That’s the thing. Genuineness.
I’m sure Mr. Gaiman gets frustrated and grumpy (I think I can see him grumpy) like we all do (and then there’s his understanding of our terrors), but I think the kindness is genuine, and that makes such a difference.
Folks who are building their tribes, whether they are writers or visual artists or woodworkers or inspirational speakers, need to study that face in that picture. It’s not just about relationships; it’s about genuine ones (30 seconds, 50 years—makes no difference). It’s about cracking open a little of your heart whenever you look someone in the eye.
So, write like you’re looking ’em in the eye.
That’ll grow your tribe.