Tag: Writing Inspiration

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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Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.75]

MuseOfFire-Medium350x550And for a 90-day supply of inspirational and motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $2.99. [Trade paperback edition $14.95]

Discover how to conquer the eight most common writing fears. Read cover-1writefearlesslyjdWrite Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.99.]

These books are designed to motivate you, get you writing with confidence and enthusiasm, and propel you toward your goals and dreams.

Dangerous Visions, Excellent Advice

A number of years ago, I taught a couple of writer’s workshops at the William Saroyan Writer’s Conference, and Harlan Ellison was Guest of Honor. Harlan is one of the three writers I point to as the reason I’m a writer today (the other two are Ray Bradbury and Madeleine L’Engle). I was glad for the opportunity to tell him how much his work has meant to me over the years. Here’s a photo of Harlan and me (I’m the shoulder for Harlan to lean on):

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I was recently rereading Dangerous Visions, the ground-breaking science fiction story collection Harlan edited. I first read the book in 1967, when I was fourteen. The book came out just months after one of Harlan’s most powerful stories appeared on newsstands in the March 1967 issue of Worlds of IF. That story was called “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” and it detonated in my brain like a nuclear warhead (and that’s a good thing).

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While reading through Dangerous Visions again, I came across Harlan’s introduction to a short story by Howard Rodman (page 171). Embedded in that intro is some excellent advice to writers. The advice didn’t mean much to me when I was fourteen. Today, I know it is  wisdom for the ages for all who write—especially in these times of upheaval in the publishing industry. So I scanned the page and highlighted the advice, and I present it to you here:

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If you write, heed those words. Whatever the obstacles in your path, keep writing. A writer always writes. That’s what you and I are here for—to write fearlessly. That’s our holy chore.

Conquer your fears! Read:cover-1writefearlesslyjd

Write Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney (Kindle edition)

Write Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney (trade paperback)

Here’s to all your dangerous visions!

Dip Up the Fire!

“The writer of originality, unless dead, is always shocking, scandalous; novelty disturbs and repels.”
— Simone de Beauvoir

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Why did you become a writer?

My own reasons for writing have evolved over the years. I knew I wanted to write stories from the time I was nine years old. A writer, it is said, is a reader moved to emulation. That was me. I wanted to write the kinds of stories I liked to read, and to entertain others the way those stories entertained me.

There’s nothing wrong with writing purely to entertain. But somewhere along the way to adulthood, I discovered that stories do so much more than merely entertain. As Harlan Ellison observed in Slippage:

“Entertain, yes! That goes without saying. But a good writer does that automatically, it’s built into the machine. Telling a thumpingly good, mesmerizing story is what one does without question. But beyond that, any writer worth his/her hire knows that all writing, one way or another, is subversive. It is guerrilla warfare against the status quo.”

Ellison expanded on the idea of writing as guerilla warfare in his story collection Shatterday,

“I don’t know how you perceive my mission as a writer, but for me it is not a responsibility to reaffirm your concretized myths and provincial prejudices. It is not my job to lull you with a false sense of the rightness of the universe. This wonderful and terrible occupation of recreating the world in a different way, each time fresh and strange, is an act of revolutionary guerrilla warfare. I stir the soup. I inconvenience you. I make your nose run and your eyeballs water. I spend my life and of miles of visceral material in a glorious and painful series of midnight raids against complacency. It is my lot to wake up with anger every morning, to lie down at night even angrier.”

When you write, do you inconvenience anyone? Is your writing an act of guerrilla warfare? I’m not saying you should intentionally preach sermons through your fiction. A story should be a story, not propaganda. If you pollute your fiction with heavy-handed preaching, you obliterate its artistic and moral integrity. “The theme must be deeply submerged in the story,” novelist Elizabeth Bowen warned. “If a theme or idea is too near the surface, the novel becomes simply a tract illustrating an idea.”

The unconscious mind does not lie. If you draw upon the power of your unconscious mind to write your story, if you dig deep within yourself and write about characters and situations that engage your emotions and passions, your story will be honest — and it will possess layers of meaning that you may not even realize. Your story will come alive as literature, verging on myth.

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The writer’s unconscious mind always reveals more truth than the writer suspects. As Madeleine L’Engle reflected in Walking on Water, “It is a humbling and exciting thing to know that my work knows more than I do. … Sometimes it is years after a book is published that I discover what some of it meant.”

When you write from the unconscious mind, you write stories that entertain — and that resonate deep within the reader. You write honestly. You write about things that matter. You write about universal truths — deep truths you share with your readers. Again, Harlan Ellison:

“I talk about the things people have always talked about in stories: pain, hate, truth, courage, destiny, friendship, responsibility, growing old, growing up, falling in love, all of these things. What I try to write about are the darkest things in the soul, the mortal dreads. I try to go into those places in me that contain the cauldrous. I want to dip up the fire, and I want to put it on paper. The closer I get to the burning core of my being, the things which are most painful to me, the better is my work.”

Write to entertain. Tell a story, don’t preach. But summon your stories from the volcanic core of your being. Reach down into the cauldrous unconscious, dip up the fire, and put it on paper. You’ll find that the truth within you burns brighter than the sun.

“It’s not worth doing something unless you are doing something that someone, somewhere, would much rather you weren’t doing.”
— Terry Pratchett

Jim Denney has written more than 100 books for a variety of publishers including Simon & Schuster, St. Martin’s Press, McGraw-Hill, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Baker Books, Humanix, and many more. He is the author of the four-book Timebenders science fantasy series for young readers, and is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). For more writing insight and inspiration, read:

Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney

Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney

Write Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney 

Copyright 2016 by Jim Denney.