From Neil Gaiman's MasterClass

Sources of Inspiration

Neil believes that even old stories can be approached from new angles. Learn how to create your own “compost heap” of inspiration and how to draw from your experiences to make a story uniquely your own.

Topics include: Subvert the Familiar · Imagine Stories About People Around You · Ideas Come From Confluence


Neil believes that even old stories can be approached from new angles. Learn how to create your own “compost heap” of inspiration and how to draw from your experiences to make a story uniquely your own.

Topics include: Subvert the Familiar · Imagine Stories About People Around You · Ideas Come From Confluence

Neil Gaiman

Teaches the Art of Storytelling

Learn More


You know, for all writers, you kind of have a compost heap. And if any of you are not gardeners, kitchen people, the compost heap is where you throw all of the garden and the kitchen rubbish, the food scraps-- you throw it all on the compost heap. And then it rots down. And a year or so later, you look around. And you just have this lovely brown stuff that you can put on the garden, out of which flowers and vegetables will grow. And I think it's really important for a writer to have a compost heap. Everything you read, things that you write, the things that you listen to, people you encounter-- they can all go on the compost heap. And they will rot down. And out of them grow beautiful stories. I think the thing that you don't understand, especially as a young writer, when people talk about your influences is the tendency is simply to go and look at the things like the thing that you do and point to them. So it's easier for me probably to point to Tolkien and Dunsany and James Branch Cabell, to Ursula Guin or PL Travers and say, well, I do stuff like this. And I can point to those people. And what you don't necessarily point to is the stuff that does what you do but is in a different kind of field or a different kind of area entirely. My wife writes songs. She makes music. She performs. And what's important to her is emotional honesty, is truth. And she was probably in her late 30s before she realized that in all of the lists of influences that she would give-- when people would say, well, what are your influences? And she'd talk about The Cure or Leonard Cohen. She'd talk about punk bands. She'd talk about all of these things that she loved. She'd never talk about Judy Blume because Judy Blume was an author who she read when she was 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and an author who changed her and went in really deep and talked about honesty and gave Amanda the things that she wanted. For me, I never talk about Lou Reed. And Lou was huge for me. And one of the reasons he was huge for me is he would write these songs that were like three-minute novels. There was a story in there even if you weren't quite sure what it was. And it was compressed. And it was very, very heightened because anything that happens with music is always incredibly heightened. And the choice of words in a song is so important because you don't have very many. So watching how Lou wouldn't tell you what to feel, wouldn't tell you how he felt, that the emotion would actually be almost pulled out of the song, but it will be there for you to interpret yourself was probably huge. It's something that I still love doing when I write-- is I would much rather not tell you how to feel about something. I would rather you just felt it. I will tell you what happens. And if I leave you crying because I just killed a unicorn, I'm not going to tell you how sad the death of the unicorn was. I'm going to kill that unicorn. And I'm going to break your heart. That was something I ...

Unleash your imagination

Award-winning author Neil Gaiman has spent more than a quarter of a century crafting vivid, absorbing fiction. Now, the author of Stardust, Coraline, and The Sandman teaches his approach to imaginative storytelling in his online writing class. Learn how to find your unique voice, develop original ideas, and breathe life into your characters. Discover Neil’s philosophy on what drives a story—and open new windows to the stories inside you.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Neil Gaiman has a way that speaks directly to my sensitivities as a writer. After four novels I am now working on an entirely new voice and fictional genre and these class segments have answered questions about how to go about it. I plan to revisit each class as I work through my concept.

Excellent! Genuine insight from a genuine author.

Have been reading his books for years. When I saw he was teaching a class here I jumped right in.

I've only watched through the videos. I usually watch through once, then go back to the exercises, but so far it's great. Very inspiring! I love Neil's down to earth manner and his accent. :) Can't wait to go through again and do the workbooks.


Lea P.

Ranger Ray Ranger Ray is standing in that spot. He's leaning against the bar in the back corner of the club, looking all suave and fine. Cookie cutter romance novel Ray: tall, dark and handsome. Something about that spot…. Just last week, I got burned there by a Michael York look-alike. Dartagnon was wearing polo boots. He came up from Southern Pines horse country to visit thee Doll House in Raleigh. I know there is no polo down there. It's hunt country and dressage - but the leather and soles were so perfectly worn in the right spots. His tasteful silver buckle on his thick belt was slung low on his dusty jeans. “Money up front girls.” That's the stripper’s mantra, especially if you're working someone attractive. Promised to pay me, he did, at the end of the night. Sucked up my time instead and left me stranded with a couple of twenties. He had those clear dark eyes and Eastern European features that always suck me in. Somehow I think there's more truth in the numinosity of darkness, than in blinding white light. Ray's got those eyes. Dark. Ray is much taller and even more of my fantasy. His hands match mine - square with long fingers, delicate and strong. So, caution is calling. Red flags are flapping. "Hi, I'm Ananda." I lock eyes with him and wiggle up on the stool next to him so we’re on the same level. "What have you been up to today?" I ask. He hesitates, wondering, I guess, if some plebeian bimbo could possibly understand the depths and heights of his endeavors. "I've been doing healing energy work sessions, and I came in to get away from spirit for a while." “Well you came to the wrong place. Welcome to my temple,” I respond. “Where were you working?" Again with the pause. I wiggle in just the right ways to keep his attention on my body. "Most of the time I’m a park ranger down south of here. But, I usually do a lot of my healing work at the Dancing Moon, it’s a new age book store." As if I didn’t know. His dialect is country southern, central North Carolina but not redneck. Just slow and velvety. "I'm exploring working in a place called the Sanctuary," he tells me. I don't tell him that I am on the board of directors there as therapists’ liaison. Not if I want to get paid. Customers come in, sometimes, saying they want to know your “real name,” “the real you,” stripped your soul. I think they want instant intimacy, the kind that can only grow through time and trust. Really, they want their fantasy. They want the fantasy and want to believe it’s real, but when it is real, when they get it, the real fantasy, they can't handle it and they either chase you away or flee. Here I am, Mr. Ranger Ray, your Goddess incarnate and if you let yourself see the real me in full flower you’ll run like an antelope. So instead I’ll close my deal real quick because who I am, really, will make you cower. I know what danger I’m flirting with. I just got burned in this corner last week. So I’m determined to manage my time here closely. Two-song maximum for chit-chat. First song is over. Second song, focus the questions on him. Act like you’re interested (I am) but don't let them see it's not an act. Emotional management. (Honestly, chile’, pretty boys you need to avoid. They'll try and make you pay to spend time with them.) "What kind of energy work do you do?" He's rather vague as he blathers on about his shamanism and gets really excited talking about his tour company. He takes people on spiritual adventures in Africa to meet with native Shamans. “By blood I’m…” (part Cherokee or Lumbe, I forget by now what he said) “but I’m an honorary Massai,” he tells me. He tries to sell me on a trip, thinking, "Strippers make lots of money," but not from a pretty boy trying to work the power into his play. Not here. Not now. Pretty boys act even more entitled than the rest, always trying to get something from you, never responding in that free flow of mutual emotional generosity that you get in a good relation with a woman. “The souls of conquered people often end up inhabiting the children of the oppressors,” I say. Some poor fool caught a Massai a few hundred years back. Towards the end of the second song I know I am going to have to move to get what I want from him, otherwise he will take what he wants from me and leave me with nothing. It’s not easy to think this way. It goes against “good girl” conditioning. I know that what I really want from him I can only get as a grace. But these men have taught me to be strategic in order to get what I need. I do my connection thing; hook up to the rhythm of the music and where he's feeling it in his body. I get up to move, body language for, ‘I’m dancing or leaving.’ "Would you like me to dance for you?" I ask, holding his eyes in mine as I nod. We go to a lower seat to do this thing. He’s right. He’s just about 3% open to my doing energy work with him. Yep. Avoiding spirit. Scared. Big scary Massai warrior is afraid of loving and being loved afraid of letting go. End of the song he gives me a twenty. I don't ask if he wants change. I know he's going to suck a lot more than that twenty bucks worth from me. "Would you like me to come back later?" I ask. Trying to make him say it, that he wants me, I know I won't be dancing for him again. I can feel it. Experience has taught me this. He nods or tells me, “yes” and smiles. He's more handsome when he doesn't. It looks like it hurts. He squints his eyes so you can't see if his joy is for real. And I go back to work the room, careful to come back only when there's no more work for me elsewhere. I don't remember the exact sequence of things, the romance lasted only a month or two, was our first date the comedy club? Where I dressed sexy glamorous for him, like I never do outside the club, wearing a black tank dress, stripper conservative and 4 in. heels? I've been doing the Ashtanga series regularly and my body has never looked better. Or was it the good Chinese restaurant where he “read” the energy of the food and told me stories about the boy who cut the vegetables? I make him pay for dinner, like I never do when it’s for real, because I know he’ll suck a lot more than that out of me. Gorgeous Ranger Ray, for 20 years has been ranging about thousands of acres of park with his long thighs, his upper arms swinging like his long dark hair, breathing in mother-nature. His black eyes reek of quiet pines and lure me back to his lair, to his home in the park he manages in Elizabethtown. What a name, an awkward hick town mouthful. Elizabeth City is already taken. Why not Elizabethville, or Elizabethton even? The grounds and his house are impeccable. He builds his own furniture and he has to tell you that because it looks so good and you can’t believe a man this fine and tidy and clean isn't gay. He'll tell you that, too, that he isn't gay. But (like my father. Shit.) he likes the attention from gay men and likes to flirt with them. And he used to model for free clothes (DAMN! There's trouble when a man knows he’s fine and trades on it. I know I’m working the double standard back. My smile opens doors and wallets and pays my rent. What can I say? It’s not the same? He’ll use me and discard me after only giving me part of what I need.) We are supposed to watch endless videos of Krsna Murti. I am supposed sleep in the guest room. “First I have to show you something magical,” he says. He takes me past his office with the black leather couch and the dominatrix pinned on his computer (his muse, he says), to his king size bed made from stripped white pine, to show me the glow-in-the-dark stars he's put on a ceiling there in real constellations. I can name most of them but they’re not in the right places or proportions. It’s not so magical, but his kiss is. And we make out and he fucks me too soon, too easy, no challenge for him. But he didn’t really score with me - fucking is easy. He never tamed me the way Saint Exupery’s Little Prince tamed the Fox and the Rose. That can only occur through time, care and earning trust, through old school courting. His kiss was perfect but the sex didn't live up to its promise. We canoe the next day at the lake where the public is not allowed to go. I feel him watching me from behind as I meticulously place each stroke, matching his effort, making no bubbles as I place my oar delicately in, stroking just so, with perfect efficiency and minimum ripples on the flat water. Remembering the promise of the kiss, only. We swim off an island dock he commanded be built on his fiefdom. He entices a small alligator to come and scare me. I pretend to be frightened to satisfy the desire in him to see me squeal. I do it in such a way that he knows I am pretending, knowing he is watching to test my girlish machismo, which is strong, but not tough. We talk of ourselves, swapping stories of our youth and previous relations. I reveal my own perspective of the energy work I do in the clubs and my spiritual heritage. We feel each other out and like it. We connect through the flow of the water and air and unity with the earth. "I was watching the way you placed your oars, thinking about traveling together,” he says. “I'll commit to you right now," he tells you that day from his sofa or was it the next? Glamour hides the unspoken condition of the future tense. You will hear only the promise. "I'll" "I will" "Right now." You will hear the "right now," and in your desperate indoctrination and craving for your archetypal Prince Charming, when he comes, in the form of romance novel Ray, you will be foolish enough to believe it, before the necessary courtship, before he's done his work, his penance. I mean, he worked so hard to be generally charming, wasn't that enough? No. But will you buy it because he thinks it is. And after he makes promises he won’t fulfill, when you go back to striptease to your soul in the club where the Devils deem to define themselves in opposition to your divinity - fantasy and reality contrast in desire and desperation. Their derision makes hell of heaven. The tears just flow, off and from within the whore-ific ocean of sorrow. Swimming at the surface of doing what you don't want to do because you have needs to meet, when you know what you want is just a ride down south near the city with a name that sticks in your mouth. And you leave work early to go back there, back to day-glo heaven, to cry the tears of your prostitute sisters in slavery, to speak to the divine of their unspoken sorrow. And he can't hear it, will not hear it. Because he doesn’t love you, but only loves the glamour and the illusion, the fantasy. And he doesn't really know that he, too, is divine, but only pretends to believe it, because he knows that the glamour is not real. And the next day he will want you to wear make-up around the house, just for him "even though you are beautiful without it," he says. He "needs it to feel loved," and you won’t really mind (or will you?) because make-up is fun sometimes, but not always when you HAVE to. Hey, it’s the price of acceptance. He will try to disturb your sadhana with his raucous guitar, but you won't notice because you feel a connection and it feeds you. And when he yells at you when you are crying and you tell him to stop he will tell you (like your father) "I'll yell in my own damn house if I want to!" But it's not really his house, ‘cause taxpayers own it. And you will go to pack your things and think about how you ran away from your father too and maybe you need to try something different to stop this pattern and he is so close to your dream that you will go to talk to him and he will pretend there was a misunderstanding and you will believe that because of the glamour and the kiss and you will stay the night because he has you pegged. He will fuck you too hard and turn you over to hammer again, then push you to the far side of the bed. You’ll try to end it there. But dreams die hard and fantasies are worth fighting for and you know it's not over even though he says it is because he told you only last week he’ll commit to you right now and you can feel it in the most perfect of kisses before he fucks you too hard and turns you over to hammer again, and pushes you away because he will not love you but only loves the glamour. And you walk away with your head held high because you won't repeat what happened with Marty when you went to the hospital because God put himself in your arms and gave you hours of orgasms, but he couldn't be your friend, couldn't be your man because he wasn't a man enough for himself. Well Ray is a man. He's the best kisser, but not such a good lover and friends with no one near him. So I walk away with my head held high, my hauteur and confidence overwhelming the insecurity in arrogance and I won't cry for him. I’ll cry for my sisters, but not for him. But I steal the blue bead Massai necklace I was restringing for him and I try to forget the most perfect of kisses, because I know it means only what I decide it means – nothing - in and of itself. And when he comes back from the Yucatan where he was giving a weeklong healing energy workshop I am at the airport watching him come up the escalator. He's wearing white and his skin is copper. He's breath-takingly beautiful because he’s glowing with love for a little boy walking with him but I’m hoping it’s from my gift and love letter. (Are you sure he’s not gay?) With the ticket agent I have left a single exotic white flower and a card. Enchanted with the romance, she has the pilot notify Ray, that he needs to see the ticket agent, so that he will feel special, while he’s waiting on the plane outside the gate. I'm watching him walking, while I pose, leaning against the wall, knee bent, foot cocked under my chic slacks, until he sees me. I inhale as our eyes lock and I turn to strut, ever so sultry and casually down the hall. I need to make him chase me. I feel his eyes on my ass the whole way, even around the corner. I know he likes to watch my britches twitch. I turn back to check on him a few times, over my shoulder. And way down the hall, he should have called out to me, he falters. I feel his gaze shift. I glance back again and see he is looking into a store's window. I sigh and keep going. I turn left and go to the top of the stairs. I look back to see that he turns right and goes down to collect his baggage. I inhale and determine to go to a yoga class to work out my feelings. He made his choice to follow through with his commitment to his baggage, and not me. Sometimes Godde's threads, leading out, merely unravel the web of fantasy and dreams.

elizabeth P.

Good Day, I enjoyed the turn over for a fairy tale and have enclosed a picture of the story. My apologies but it appears that only picture attachments are accepted and I didn't desire to copy and paste the whole story in the box but I can. Best All ERP Elizabeth Ramona Pokoly

Arjun I.

What comes to mind after this lesson is the quote from the film Ratatouille: "Not everyone can become a great artist. But a great artist can come from anywhere." The same, I see, is true for ideas/inspiration. Not all of them will make sense. In fact most of mine are nonsense. But the takeaway from this lesson is that I should look back upon that smoldering and odious collection of ideas and try to turn them into a compost heap with which I can fertilize the garden of my imagination (yes, I really shoe-horned the gardening metaphor there). Neil's lesson evokes in me a sense of wanderlust. I am rather reclusive and misanthropic, but I see now that if I have to give my writing any depth and worth, I need to learn how to observe people, and maybe interact with them. I'm not sure if I'll ever become a writer. But by the end of my lessons, I think I just might become a better person.

Kevin S.

This took me a bit of time. I began with the intention of applying the lessson to the story but instead the story took over and I am not certain I was successful. But at least I have written somethin! I guess the attachment section is not for documents but for pictures? That is odd, isn't it. Does anyone have any idea how (if possible) to attach a doc?

Anabel R.

I liked the lesson, i laught with the werewolfchair. I'm looking my chair with distrust. I'm sorry cause my english is not as good as it should be, so I can't take part of the course the way i'd like it. I'm managing with the subtittle in english. Well, thats good because I'll probably improve . Anyway I'd like to thank those who make it possible for Spanish speakers to participate and take part in these classes, thanks to the crew.

Susan C.

I had fun with the lesson about fairytales. I've done some like this before, but I didn't enjoy it. (Sorry this is in the comment--I couldn't attach.) : ( It was the first day of my new practice of treating abused women in fairy tale and nursery rhyme land. I was nervous because I wasn’t sure if I could do this alone. My training was with earth women. What if these ladies had some issues I was not familiar with? I had never been to that place, so I don’t know how the laws work there; but here, you don’t abuse people. I saw a need in this community, so I put a sign at the opening of the two worlds. Psychological Services for FT women and their counterparts on earth Specializing in emotional abuse Call Dr. Geraldine Grimm at 330-24w-omen Confidentiality Observed “Your first appointment is a Mrs. Pumpkineater, Dr. Grimm,” my assistant, Dorothy, said as she peeked through the door. “Is she here?” I asked. “No, she called and said she would be late because she had trouble leaving her house.” I thought that was odd, but I’m a psychologist; I’m not supposed to call my patients odd. “As soon as she arrives, send her in,” I said and went back to my work. Truthfully, I was a little happy that she was going to be late. I had boxes and stuff all over my office that I needed to organize. Most of it could probably be thrown out, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose anything important from my internship. As I started to open the first box, Dorothy knocked on the door. There was a small woman wearing a grey scarf and black house dress peeking around her. “Dr. Grimm, Mrs. Pumpkineater is here to see you now,” she said with a very large smile. “Yes, thank you Dorothy. Come in Mrs. Pumpkineater, or may I call you Penelope?” “No, Mrs. Pumpkineater is fine.” She stood next to the couch grasping her large, black handbag with one hand and steadying herself with the other. “Please, have a seat or a lie down, whichever you prefer.” I motioned to the couch in a Vanna White sort of way. “Oh, thank you. I believe I’ll sit,” she said. “That’s fine. Many of my patients prefer to sit. Now, how can I help you?” She looked around the room at the stacked boxes and the coat rack with my hat and coat hanging from it. Then, she looked down at her large boots. They were the type a construction worker would wear. The ones with steel toes. The soles were worn down, and there were holes in the toes. They were two sizes too big for her, and obviously men’s boots. “I’m here because of my husband,” she whispered to her lap. “Would you like to tell me about it?” I folded my hands and leaned over in my chair. I like to do that with timid patients to help them feel more comfortable. Mrs. Pumpkineater sighed and wiped her hands on her ragged dress. A corkscrew of brown curls escaped from her scarf. She tucked it back in and met my eyes. Her eyes were a dark brown, the color of tootsie rolls. She looked to be about 70, but her hands and neck didn’t show her age. She stared at me with empty eyes. “He keeps me in a pumpkin shell,” she sobbed. I was trained to not show alarm at anything my patients said, but I was stunned. I covered my mouth with my hand so she couldn’t detect anything “I’m sorry. Did I hear you right? He keeps you in a pumpkin shell?” “Yes,” she said covering her face with her hands. “There he keeps me very well.” I was happy that she had her face covered so that she didn’t see my reaction. “Do you mean that he treats you very well?” I asked with a confused look. “No, he keeps me in that shell and never lets me go anywhere. He makes me wear his shoes, so I can’t run very fast. He wants me to look ugly so no other man will look at me. Today, he left to get groceries and forgot to lock the door. He was distracted by a phone call he got from his brother telling him that their mother was sick. I saw the stream of light coming through the door and made a run for it.” “Do you feel safe?” “Not really. I mean he doesn’t beat me or anything. He just calls me names and says I’m ugly. I don’t like it. I want to live a normal life like my neighbor, Lassie. She goes this way and that. I would like to go any way. I’m not picky.” She pulled out a handkerchief from her purse and started dabbing her eyes. “I work with a women’s home that will let you stay until you get on your feet with your own shoes. Would you like to go there? I would come in every other day and check on you,” I said. “Is it safe? Will he be able to find me?” she winced. “It is completely confidential and safe. They have armed guards in the lobby at all times. No one gets in there unless they are approved.” I patted her knee and smiled. “I don’t have anything. All I own I have on me,” she said. “Well, that’s fine. They have clothes and a place to clean up, and you will even have your own bed. What do you say?” I looked directly in her eyes. “Ok,” she said in a small voice. “Wonderful,” I said. “I’ll call Jane immediately and have her get a room ready.” Mrs. Pumpkineater went to the home and did very well. She learned to sew and garden and do her taxes. She loved that so much that she became a CPA. She now has her own office with her own boxes stacked high. The black dress and boots are packed away in a closet in the basement, a reminder of where she came and where she will never go again.

Dwight H.

What makes Bernie a Master Writer unlike Trump is that Bernie doesn't need a lie to convince people. Trump on the other hand uses numerous lies to convince people of his more mundane lies. Bernie opens himself like a flower to the bee knowing that the bee will not sting him. Because Bernie wants everyone to pollinate and become a flourishing and colorful flower in the story of life. Trump on the other wants to close himself around everyone like a Venus Fly Trap with the crisis that he manufactures. Each crisis being a set of marginal teeth that the unknowing Trump supporter triggers, hoping that what they repeat or twist around like the fly scrubbing its leg, will make them like Trump. Then when Trump has them, the trap closes up and slowly dissolves them until they are nothing more than a hand, wallet in hand, reaching through the cell bars wanting to be set free.

Katie J.

"What can I help you with today?" I asked the new patient. For patient he was most certainly not, he came crashing into my office before my secretary had a chance to stop him. "Teeth!" He booms, rattling the windows. I pondered this for a moment, this was not a dental practice so why was this issue plaguing him and why was he at a therapy appointment if he had toothache. "I see," I paused looking up briefly into that monstrous face. "Can you please elaborate, why is this the main issue in your life right now?" "There is nothing I can get my teeth into! I have been cursed and confined to a castle... To remain as a Beast for all time." I looked up again and nodding at him slowly. "It seems to me you have lost your identity and true meaning of one's self thought this enchanted infliction. You must find out what it is you enjoy doing as a human or beast. What do you want your future to be? What makes you happy and how can you change things to get to where you want to be?" He then answered me with one word, or was it a name, for the Beast's dark sunken eyes suddenly lit up in fiery recognition. "Belle" He said.

Jerry R.

I liked the part about seeing things in a different way, what if... Last night I watched all three Species movies, I, II, and III. I liked the last one best, but I remember in the first one, where the black agent is facing the "Eve" character who has just given birth, but they grow fast, so the kid is within a few minutes about three or four years old. The black guy looks at the little boy with the usual feelings we have for little kids, tenderness etc. Then the kid sticks out its forked tongue and kills a mouse. We actually feel sympathy watching for the mouse, and then the forked tongue goes out toward the detective, who now knows his feelings of tenderness are misplaced. We expect him to just shoot the "normal-looking" kid... but he doesn't. Too moral, even though he knows that underneath the surface, the cute kid is an ugly alien. And, throughout the series, none of the alien kids are hurt. It goes to show how deeply our impulse for survival is, that we have this attitude (most of us do, anyway) towards children, which can even be extended to even ugly vicious alien children. It is a fundamental truth, although in war many unfortunate children do get killed.

Sukhdev S.

Writing Exercise #1 Lesson 3 I had the old lady in the boot come to get therapy, but instead she ended up giving therapy to the therapist! Please read and comment.