Bob Dylan: Songwriter in Overdrive

by Jim Denney

I was as shocked as anyone when I heard that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on October 13, 2016:

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The Swedish Academy’s announcement of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a Bob Dylan fan. Have been since I first heard his music. For more than fifty years, he’s had more influence on American music and culture than anyone else I can think of. Songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and “When the Ship Comes In” — that’s the soundtrack of my adolescence, when I first began thinking seriously about the Bomb and Vietnam.

But the Nobel Prize for Literature? Come on!

The Swedish Academy claimed to have given Dylan the award “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” There are already enough awards for music, and Dylan has won them all. But again I ask — Literature?

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Bob Dylan at the Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963. Photo by Rowland Scherman, the National Archives (public domain).

There’s an unambiguous definition of “literature” — “a body of written works.” Literature is work that is written to be read. Music is work that is written to be listened to. One of the most essential truths of literature is that words have meaning, words are important. And the word literature shouldn’t be misused.

Music ain’t literature. The Nobel Prize has jumped the shark.

Yet there are parallels between the creative process that produces literature and the creative process that produces music. We can learn some useful principles for writing stories and novels by listening to this Nobel-winning folk-blues troubadour, Bob Dylan.

It turns out that Dylan wrote songs in very much the same way writers like John Steinbeck and Stephen King wrote novels, and the same way Ray Bradbury and Anton Chekhov wrote short stories. He silenced his inner critic, wrote from the unconscious mind, and wrote quickly, without thinking or critiquing what he wrote. When Dylan wrote songs, he was writing in overdrive. As a songwriter, he compared himself to story writer Edgar Allan Poe and poet John Keats.

He once told an interviewer, “It’s nice to be able to put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind. And block yourself off to where you can control it all, take it down. . . . Edgar Allan Poe must have done that. People who are dedicated writers.”

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How did Dylan tap into those unconscious inner workings? He says our unconscious mind contains both thoughts and memories, some good, some evil, and both the good and the evil bubble up from the unconscious as grist for the creative process. As we create, we sort through out all this unconscious raw material, and we sift out the evil thoughts (which he calls “baggage”) and we distill the good memories and ideas into the creative process. “You must get rid of all that baggage,” he said. “It’s important to get rid of all them thoughts.” [Source: Jonathan Cott, editor, Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 393.]

Once the unconscious creative mind has given up its random contents, the conscious and rational critic-editor within us conducts “some kind of surveillance” of the good thoughts that remain. The rational mind sorts through the chaos and disorder that the unconscious mind has produced, imposing an orderly structure on ideas, words, images, and symbols thrown off by the creative explosion of the unconscious mind. In Dylan’s songwriting, it all happens very quickly, just as a story is written quickly when the author is writing in overdrive.

Dylan told an interviewer, “The best songs to me — my best songs — are songs which were written very quickly. Yeah, very, very quickly. Just about as much time as it takes to write it down is about as long as it takes to write it. . . . You can still stay in the unconscious frame of mind to pull it off, which is the state of mind you have to be in anyway.” [Source: Benjamin Hedin, Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004), 213, 215.]

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John Keats, portrait by Joseph Severn (detail), National Portrait Gallery. Public domain.

He recalled that he wrote the song “Every Grain of Sand” while in a transcendent state — not a drug-induced state, but a state of being in touch with his unconscious mind, the state I call “writing in overdrive.” Dylan added, “Yeah. In that area where Keats is. Yeah. That’s a good poem set to music.”

Dylan’s reference to the English Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) is significant. Keats created from the unconscious. He summoned powerful word-pictures from his unconscious mind while in a state of overdrive. In a letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey, November 22, 1817, he wrote, “O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” And in a letter to his younger brothers George and Thomas Keats, December 22, 1817, he describe a quality “which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

This “negative capability” Keats wrote of, the ability to immerse oneself in sensations and uncertainties and mysteries, was the same creative process Bob Dylan practiced. It’s a process Ray Bradbury reminded himself of when he hung a sign next to his typewriter that read, “Don’t think!” The unconscious mind doesn’t think. The writer-in-overdrive doesn’t think. Our creative unconscious mind dreams, feels, imagines, free-associates, and throws off a brilliant shower of sparks composed of ideas and sensory impressions.

That’s what Bob Dylan is saying to you and me as writers: Stop thinking. Write unconsciously. Turn off your mind, listen to your unconscious, and write a song, a story, a novel, a play. And who knows? Maybe the next time your phone rings, it will be the Swedish Academy inviting you to Sweden to accept your Nobel Prize for Literature.

Hey, it happened to Dylan. It could happen to you.


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