Nov 27, 2012

What can Bob Dylan teach you about writing?

"There is nothing so stable as change."
-- Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan (b. 1941) is an American musician, poet and artist.

Born Robert Allan Zimmerman (and named Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham in Hebrew), he legally changed his name to Bob Dylan in 1962. Dylan's native town is Duluth, Minnesota, a city named after French explorer Daniel Greysolon, sieur du Lhut, a broker of peace treaties who sailed down the St. Croix in search of the Vermilion Sea.

Emerging from the American Folk Revival and the Dinkytown[1] scene, Dylan set all the cultural watchdogs barking when he abandoned the obviously pure, perennial values of folk music and cut a record with an electric band. That record was Bringing it All Back Home, Dylan's first Top 10 break on the Billboard charts. Writing for the Rolling Stone Record Guide in 1979, critic Dave Marsh claimed that it created a new kind of rock 'n' roll, combining the new, urgent rhythms of the sixties with the left-leaning themes of the American Folk Revival.[2]

Although the media have made much of his religious life, and an impression may linger in the noosphere that Bob Dylan changes religions every couple of months, he's clearly stated that songs give him all the spirituality he needs -- music teaches him more than any religious organization or entity ever could. Dylan's famously declared that this world is not "the real one." For the past 20 years he's supported the Chabad Lubavitch movement, a school of thought in Judaism that emphasizes mind over emotion. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founding father of Chabad Lubavitch, writes in the Tanya that the heart is useless without the mind.

Dylan changes. Once, you might say, he defined the times. Now he resists definition, but still writes the kind of music that makes the heart a vessel for the mind.

Who is the man they once dubbed the voice of a generation? What does his mind run to? What can Bob Dylan teach you about writing a novel, story or play?

"A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom."

In fiction, as in life, a hero realizes that staying put is not the answer. Refuse to act, and people will get hurt or deceived.

So the hero finds him- or herself in the wrong place at the right time and must make a decisive gesture. Heroic actions are either reactive or proactive. Carl, who runs into a burning building to save a little child trapped by the fire has reacted. Zora, who opens a free clinic in an unfamiliar deprived neighborhood, of her own initiative, is proactive.  

At first these two examples don't seem to have much in common. Carl's deed played out in five minutes, while Zora clearly has long-term plans. Both Carl and Zora believe they can take on the challenge at hand. A hero looks at the chaos around him and decides to believe in something, no matter how trivial.

I can hit a home run.
I can stop that mugging.
I can make a difference.

Everything we do, and by extension everything a character does, is grounded in belief. Now, belief isn't magic. It won't give you wings or X-ray vision. But the self-determined path of a hero demands that you own your choices. As Dylan said, "People seldom do what they believe in. They do what is convenient, then repent."

"I define nothing. Not beauty, not patriotism. I take each thing as it is, without prior rules about what it should be."

When Roland Barthes wrote his seminal essay, "The Death of the Author" (1967) critics were used to sticking their noses in writers' sock drawers, looking for biographical clues that might help explain the text.

It felt like a great interpretive method. Tidy. Convenient. Was anything but.
If Lady Edna Mészöly-Farnsworth[3] wrote exclusively about blind gerbils, must one surmise that she liked gerbils and abhorred blindness, or liked blindness and abhorred gerbils? Perhaps she detested both with equal passion? Who knows.   

As W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley wrote in "The Intentional Fallacy" (1946), "the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art."

We look at the world, not just at fiction, through the dirty glasses of the intentional fallacy more often than we realize. We want this carousel to mean something, we want order. People complain about predictability, but in truth everybody loves it. I love it. So do you. I expect that my computer will boot every morning without so much as a digital hiccup, and also that the street will be relatively zombie-free. We assume that reality is maintained by an outside force, a cosmic janitor that sweeps chaos under the rug and keeps the sky from raining frogs (most of the time).

That janitor, we hired him. He doesn't really exist except in our minds; I call him Consensus. It takes quite an effort to look past Consensus -- he's big, so big that some people don't even realize he exists -- but you can punch these little holes in the Cosmic Janitor and take a peek at the Other Side.  

How do you do it? The answer is simple; ask questions like

  • What does patriotism look like to a stateless individual?
  • How does it feel to be the last living speaker of an old language?
  • What do persons of color think about people who claim they "don't see race"?
  • How do you explain color to a blind person?

Received ideas and expectations are attractive, compelling, easy to work with, but they're molds somebody else made for you. Are you going to make some of your own, or let the entire contents of your head be dictated from the outside?

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez

[1] Dinkytown is home to the narrowest restaurant in Minneapolis, Al's Breakfast, established 1950. It's 10 ft. wide (3 meters) and seats 14. The building where Dylan lived now houses Loring's Pasta Bar.

[2] This from the man who called Journey "a dead end for San Francisco area rock" and said  Queen "[might] be the first truly fascist rock band."
[3] Not a real person.

1. "I paint mostly from real life. It has to start with that. Real people, real street scenes, behind the curtain scenes, live models, paintings, photographs, staged setups, architecture, grids, graphic design. Whatever it takes to make it work."

2. "You learn from a conglomeration of the incredible past - whatever experience gotten in any way whatsoever."


Like a Rolling Stone, the song that Columbia Records didn't want to release

Lay Down Your Weary Tune

Song for Woody

Joan Baez on Bob Dylan - clip from No Direction Home (2005)

The Great Baez-Dylan Love Affair

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times. In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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