Sunday, July 3, 2011

Dylan on Writing

Recently it's occurred to me how many of my friends really like the music of Bob Dylan. Actually, "like" is too weak a word for some. "Obsessed with" would be more like it.

For example, my former pastor and current friend, Mark, writes regularly and eloquently about Dylan's music on his blog, called "Dylan on a Sunday." (You can check it out at One of my colleagues in the English Department at George Fox University recently took the time to post on Facebook her favorite lines from each of the top 70 Dylan songs selected by The Rolling Stone. These types of time-consuming endeavors, both by people who do other things in life besides write, are examples of uncommon devotion to this singer/songwriter.

And this devotion to Dylan is not just among those who happen to be, like me, children of the 60s and 70s, who grew up on Dylan tunes. I frequently come across Dylan fans among the college students I teach. If I'm performing for college students, a Dylan cover is almost sure to be warmly received. My son, who's 24, spent a good part of a summer in Alaska, as he said, "listening to some Robert Zimmerman." Since he has much better musical taste than I, his opinion carries weight with me.

My purpose here is not to offer explanations for Dylan's enduring popularity but to share some insights gained from reading through Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews (New York: Wenner Books, 2006), edited by Jonathan Cott. Dylan fans will find many fascinating revelations here, for example, his remarks about religion and Christ during his "Christian phase": "Well, religion is repressive to a certain degree. Religion is another form of bondage which man invents to get himself to God. But that's why Christ came. Christ didn't preach religion. He preached the Truth, the Way and the Life. He said He'd come to give life and life more abundantly. He talked about life, not necessarily religion."

I spend a good deal of my time as a teacher trying to help university students become better writers and produce better writing. So, as I read through Dylan's interview comments, I was especially tuned in to what he had to say about his own creative process. Throughout his career, Dylan has been praised for the artistic quality of his music, perhaps especially for the poetic quality of his lyrics. I wondered if such an accomplished songwriter might have some interesting things to say about why he writes, how he writes, and where his ideas come from. Turns out he does.

On why he became a songwriter . . .
Question: Was writing something that you'd always wanted to do?
Dylans' answer: No, not really. It wasn't a thing I wanted to do ever. I wanted just a song to sing, there came a certain point where I couldn't sing 'cause nobody else was writing what I wanted to sing. I couldn't find it anywhere. If I could, I probably would have never started writing.

Dylan's comment made me think immediately of a similar statement made by C. S. Lewis about the fantasy literature written by him and Tolkien. I'm paraphrasing here, but basically Lewis said that Tolkien had to write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and he had to write The Chronicles of Narnia and the space trilogy because no one was writing the kind of books they liked to read. Dylan's comment also reveals that he perhaps saw himself, first, not as a writer, but as a performer, and his incessant touring and consistent live performances through so many years would tend to support that. Of course, Lewis and Dylan's comments also speak to the need for writers to have an original vision that adds something unique to the world of literature or music.

On artistic imagination and the creative process . . .
Well, what a songwriter does, is just connect the ends. The ends that he sees are the ones that are given to him and he connects them.
Question: It seems that people are bombarded all the time with random thoughts and outside impulses, and it takes the songwriter to pick something out and create a song out of them.
Dylan's answer: It's like the painter who lives around here--he paints the area in a radius of twenty miles, he paints bright strong pictures. He might take a barn from twenty miles away, and with the sky on some certain day, and the light on the trees from another certain day. A person passing by will be painted alongside someone ten miles away. And in the end he'll have this composite picture of something which you can't say exists in his mind. It's not that he started off willfully painting this picture from all his experience . . . That's more or less what I do.

Sounds easy, huh?  I would love to "more or less" be able to write like that! I do love the "connect the ends" comment and the painting analogy.

On where ideas for songs come from . . .
Buddy Holly's songs were much more simplified, but what I got out of Buddy was that you can take influences from anywhere. Like his "That'll Be the Day."  I read somewhere that it was a line he heard in a movie, and I started realizing you can take things from everyday life that you hear people say. That I still find true. You can go anywhere in daily life and have your ears open and hear something, either something someone says to you or something you hear across a room. If it has resonance, you can use it in a song.

Sort of Dylan's version of the common advice given in creative writing texts: keep a writer's journal with you at all times to record scenes and dialogue that can be used in your writing.

On not trying to repeat or duplicate past successful songs . . .
There was one thing I tried to do which wasn't a good idea for me. I tried to write another "Mr. Tambourine Man." It's the only song I tried to write "another one." But after enough going at it, it just began bothering me, so I dropped it.  I don't do that anymore.

Not bad advice for writers--or movie producers who attempt one too many sequels!

On avoiding message songs . . .
I've stopped composing and singing anything that has either a reason to be written or a motive to be sung.
Question: You've said you think message songs are vulgar. Why?
Dylan's answer: Well, first of all, anybody that's got a message is going to learn from experience that they can't put it into a song. I mean it's just not going to come out the same message. After one or two of these unsuccessful attempts, one realizes that his resultant message, which is not even the same message he thought up and began with, he's now got to stick by it; because, after all, a song leaves your mouth just as soon as it leaves your hands. You've got to respect other people's right to also have a message themselves. Myself, what I'm going to do is rent Town Hall and put about 30 Western Union boys on the bill.  I mean, then there'll really be some messages. People will be able to come and hear more messages than they've ever heard before in their life.

These are forceful statements about the difference between art and propaganda. Was it Ezra Pound who said, if you want to send a message, send a telegram; don't write a poem?

On interpreting his songs . . .
I'm not good at defining things. Even if I could tell you what the song was about I wouldn't. It's up to the listener to figure out what it means to him.

I'll use this one next time one of my Introduction to Literature students asks me to "just tell me what this poem means" or wonders why there's not just one correct way to interpret a poem.

On poetic language . . .
Commenting on his song, "Just Like a Woman": This is a very broad song. A line like, "Breaks just like a little girl" is a metaphor. It's like a lot of blues-based songs. Someone may be talking about a woman, but they're not really talking about a woman at all. You can say a lot if you use metaphors.

I don't think in lateral terms as a writer. That's a fault of a lot of the old Broadway writers . . . .They are so lateral. There's no circular thing, nothing to be learned from the song, nothing to inspire you. I always try to turn a song on its head. Otherwise, I figure I'm wasting the listener's time.

On the influence of poetry and poets on his songwriting . . .
I had read a lot of poetry by the time I wrote a lot of those early songs. I was into the hard-core poets. I read them the way some people read Stephen King. I had also seen a lot of it growing up. Poe's stuff knocked me out in more ways than I could name. Bryon and Keats and all those guys. John Donne. Bryon's stuff goes on and on and on and you don't know half the things he's talking about or half the people he's addressing. But you could appreciate the language. Someone gave me a book of Francois Villon poems and he was writing about hard-core street stuff and making it rhyme. It was pretty staggering, and it made you wonder why you couldn't do the same thing in a song. I'd see Villon talking about visiting a prostitute and I would turn it around. I won't visit a prostitute, I'll talk about rescuing a prostitute. Again, it's turning stuff on its head, like "vice is salvation and virtue will lead to ruin."

On the Beat poets . . .
The idea that poetry was spoken in the streets and spoken publicly, you couldn't help but be excited by that. There would always be a poet in the clubs and you'd hear the rhymes, and Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso--those guys were highly influential.

When teaching poetry, I often ask students to think about the similarities and differences between song lyrics and poems and to share a favorite song lyric, identifying the poetic techniques used by the songwriter. In my opinion, songwriters fill the role in our day that used to be reserved for poets. For example, in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, when a significant public event happened, it would be commemorated, mourned, or celebrated by a poet (e.g., Whitman's elegy on Abraham Lincoln). Today, when a significant public event occurs, songwriters respond (see, e.g., the 9/11 inspired songs of Springsteen, Jackson, Young, etc.). But while there are many similarities between song lyrics and poems, there are also marked differences. To me, the above comments by Dylan highlight the similarities, while his comments below highlight the differences.

On sounds and words . . .
Question: It's the sound that you want.
Dylan's answer: Yeah, it's the sound and the words. Words don't interfere with it. They--they--punctuate it. You know, they give it purpose And all the ideas for my songs, all the influences, all come out of that. All the influences, all the feelings, all the ideas come from that. I'm not doing it to see how good I can sound, or how perfect the melody can be, or how intricate the details can be woven or how perfectly written something can be. I don't care about those things.
On the composing process . . .
Question: Which comes first, the words or the music?
Dylan's answer:  Well, you have to understand that I'm not a melodist. My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form.

What happens is, I'll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That's the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it's a proven fact that it'll help them relax. I don't meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song.

I'll be playing Bob Nolan's "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," for instance, in my head constantly--while I'm driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I'm talking back, but I'm not. I'm listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I'll start writing a song.

So there you have it. I resisted the urge to entitle this post, "Ten Steps to Great Songwriting" or "Songwriting Tips from Bob." Dylan would resist any such formulaic approach. In fact, his comments reveal that he respects the mysterious and intuitive nature of the songwriting process too much to present any kind of canned approach. And knowing his tendency to maintain his privacy and to make cryptic statements to interviewers, the real possibility exists that he fabricated some of the above quotes just to get an interviewer off his back.

So, want to write like Bob Dylan? Don't we all. Perhaps some of the above comments might help, but being a creative genius is also helpful. Just keep in mind that next time you thing I'm engaging in conversation with you, I may be composing "Mr. Tambourine Man, II" in my head.