“Live in service of the thing you love.”– Russell Brand
I’m not sure there’s a better example, still living, at least, of a true American artist than Bob Dylan. Have you ever seen any of those really early televised press conferences with him? The ones from the mid sixties? He was barely out of his teens and there he was, in the limelight of the cameras and the adoration of everyone, and he had the maturity and the foresight to somehow avoid getting caught up in it all. The thing that strikes me most in those old black and white pictures of him (which you can find on YouTube) is how much respect he has for the art of songwriting. Time and again he’s asked to interpret his own lyrics, and each time he bats away the question. Not because he doesn’t want to answer it,I think, but because he knows it’s unanswerable.
He’s in his eighties now, and Dylan still puts out new music. He is still serving his art of songwriting.
I guess there’s all kinds of lessons to be drawn from Bob Dylan’s body of work. There’s also plenty of ambiguity still wrapped up in it all. How on Earth did he write all those great songs at such a young age? And how did he know to avoid all those pitfalls of glamour and hubris? But the thing I’m thinking about this afternoon is the body of work, and the timeless nature of great writing.
One of my favorite Dylan records is Love and Theft. It came out at the turn of the century, in 2001, when he was sixty years old. The recording is twenty years old at this point, but it almost doesn’t matter, because the songs themselves sound like they might’ve been written a hundred years ago. They’re timeless.
I’m not really qualified to deliver a lecture on Dylan, but what I can do is offer a small handful of nuggets that I personally try to apply to my own work. Here’s a handful:
- Don’t feel like you have to explain the art. This is, I think, the big one, and perhaps it’s one that writers especially need to watch out for. Sometimes a character just does or says some strange shit that doesn’t totally make sense. That’s fine. Sometimes you like the way a certain cluster of words go together, even though the way they’re ordered stretches credibility. I say fuck it. Let that stuff stand. It’s okay if the art gets a little bit weird. In fact, maybe it’s better that way. Dylan’s songs are full of crazy shit that sounds awesome. If he can do it, you can too.
- Do the next interesting that occurs to you. Have you seen the footage of Dylan plugging in at the Newport Folk festival? The crowd hated it! And that wasn’t just a one-off experience. For a long time, audiences booed the shit out of him. The easiest thing in the world would’ve been for Dylan to just keep writing folk songs. But he went where he wanted to go. Eventually the audience caught up with him, but I get the feeling Dylan wasn’t too worried about that. He was following his interest, following the muse, following the music.
- You get better as you go. For me, this is the big one. You don’t have to have any single brilliant day. Instead, what you have to do is string together days of mediocre and even crappy writing. Literally all you have to do is continue to sit down and do the art. Even if it sucks–even if it sucks for a long time–something good will eventually come out. And anyway, what else are you gonna do? I don’t think there’s really an attractive alternative choice in the matter. At the end of your life, you’re not going to say to yourself “I wish I’d watched more YouTube videos,” or “if I’d only drank more whiskey.” On the other hand, if you can look back and be proud that you made a commitment to your art, for no other reason than because it mattered to you . . . I think that’s the mark of a life well lived.