The Magpie Principle: an Alternative Explanation

Neil Gaiman publicity photo, photographer unknown

Neil Gaiman is one of WC’s favorite writers, partly because you never, ever know what Gaiman’s next book or creative effort is going to be about. In a long interview (paywalled) of Gaiman in the New York Times on August 1, David Marchese asked him about fan expectations after Gaiman’s hugely popular, hugely influential Sandman comic series, which ran from 1989 to 1996, and got this answer:

“Sandman” has been huge, but it was never huge when it was coming out. Since then it has gone on to become this ridiculous steady seller because new people are always finding it when they’re 16, 18, 22 years old. They find it, and it’s their comic. It’s their story. I didn’t get to that by going, “I will please my audience.” But audiences do want more of the last thing that they liked. That’s how audiences work. They say: “Hey, I love this strawberry ice cream. Can I have more?” In response to that, I can do one of two things. I can give them more strawberry ice cream. If I do that, I am doomed to give them strawberry ice cream for as long as I do this thing, and I will hate myself. Or I can go: Nobody is clamoring for chocolate ice cream. Nobody even knows they like chocolate ice cream. However, I want to do chocolate ice cream next. So why don’t I do chocolate ice cream and keep my own interest up? It’s how the entirety of my writing career has gone. I’ll use another analogy:

Years ago, my friend Teresa Nielsen Hayden said: Some authors are dolphins, and some are otters. You can train a dolphin. Give a dolphin a fish if it does a trick, and it will do that trick again. Otters are untrainable. They’ll do something, and you give them a fish, and then they’ll do something else. Because why would they do the thing they already did? I tend to be an otter.

WC makes frequent reference to the Magpie Principle, WC’s tendency to seize on and blog about whatever bright, shiny subject has recently caught his eye. Gaiman’s answer is a better explanation of that same tendency. WC loves birds and bird photography, for example, but cannot serve up that particular strawberry ice cream with every single blog post. Readers’ praise and appreciation is wonderful and delightful, but WC is an otter, too, not a dolphin, and will not change.1

Years ago, a college counselor told WC that WC had the potential to be very, very good if he could just keep focus on a single subject. But that would have been boring. The universe is vast, endlessly deep, fascinating in its diversity and variety. How can WC possibly limit himself to a tiny part of it?

Dolphins are good. Dolphins are necessary. But WC is and will remain an otter.

1 Another, somewhat gross analogy/metaphor. If you dislike gruesome metaphors, you might want to skip the rest of this footnote. Decades ago, when WC was just a pup, at a house party he ate the best butterscotch square he had ever tasted. WC asked the hostess for the recipe, and she was kind enough to share it. WC promptly made a big old baking dish of those delicious butterscotch squares. And scarfed down the whole batch in one setting. An hour later, WC was sick as a dog, heaved up the stuff and has disliked butterscotch ever since. You can have too much of even a very good thing.

One thought on “The Magpie Principle: an Alternative Explanation

  1. This was a great blog post, WC.
    I think I must be an otter, too. I had a very frustrated college advisor, because I kept finding new courses I wanted to take in a variety of different departments at the university I attended. She asked, “Why are you enrolled in Ornithology? You are an art major!” My answer was something along the lines of – “I like learning about new things, I can draw the birds I learn about, who knows-maybe I will switch majors?”
    She was stymied. She thought I should merrily follow along the progression outlined in the course catalog & graduate asap. I did change majors. I ended up a Political Science major, with two minors – Art & Biology.
    All of my coursework led me to amazing experiences & jobs with political candidates, legislative & federal internships, the BLM & contracts with Fish & Wildlife, doing survey work.
    I would not go back & do it any differently. I may have had a scattershot of goals as a 22 year-old, but I experienced the best life a young student from Idaho could have ever dreamed about. I never made it law school, as I had intended. But that’s ok. No regrets at all & I now get to draw & paint birds all day if I want, since I am a retiree.


Comments are closed.