Tag: Writing Process

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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Author Interview: Jacci Turner

Infusing Reality with Hope

jacci-turner-2I like to hear writers talk about how and why they write, and how their creative process works. So from time to time, I’ll feature interviews with highly creative, highly productive writers, beginning today with Jacci Turner.

As a novelist, Jacci has written mostly middle grade and young adult fiction (her book Bending Willow was selected by Nevada Librarians to represent Nevada at the National Book Festival in Washington D.C.). Her first novel for adult readers, The Retreat: A Tale of Spiritual Awakening, will be published March 28, 2017, by Harper Legend, an imprint of HarperCollins. You may pre-order it here. Now, meet Jacci Turner:

Jim Denney: Jacci, is there a single thread or theme that runs through your books?

Jacci Turner: Yes, I’d say I’m a bit of an optimist so, even though the world can be a really difficult place, I think there’s good and hope in it. My tag line is “Infusing Reality with Hope.”

jacci-turner-the-retreatJim: You call your new novel The Retreat “a tale of spiritual awakening.” What inspired the story?

Jacci: This story is based on a real experience I had. I was sent to a monastery in Nebraska by a friend who raised the money for me to go to this retreat. The first night I was walking around, wondering what I was doing at a monastery in Nebraska and this book sort of downloaded into my brain. The exercises in the book are some that I did at the retreat, as well as some from other retreats. Of course, the characters are made up, but they’re a compilation of real people.

Jim: Do you write primarily to express what you already know, or to explore questions and find answers through the writing process?

Jacci: I think I write to clarify what I’ve gone through. I like finding words for my experience. Even if I’m writing fantasy, I’m trying to understand my world.

Jim: What have you learned about writing that no one ever told you, even in writer’s workshops or books on writing? In other words, what have you discovered about writing simply by writing?

Jacci: I’ve learned that your characters can take over a story. That was a surprise to me. And I’ve learned that a story can come to you and you can choose to ignore it until it goes away, but some are stubborn and insistent and nag at you until you break down and write them. It’s a more mystical experience than I ever knew.

Jim: It’s been said that a writer is a reader moved to emulation. Who are your literary heroes and heroines, the authors who inspired you?

Jacci: Ah, that’s like asking me to pick a favorite child. I love so many. . . . Lucy Maud Montgomery, Gail Carson Levine, Madeleine L’Engle, and of course J. K. Rowling, for a start.

Jim: What is the hardest part of writing for you? What’s the easiest?

Jacci: Writing is easy, editing is hard. I have a friend who loves to edit. I hate her.

Jim: Hah! I’ve got one of those friends, too. I hear you. I love the process of creating. I do not enjoy revising and editing. Speaking of the creative process, do you have any writing rituals or habits that help to prepare you for a writing session?

Jacci: I write on Tuesdays. It’s something I started when I began writing about eight years ago. Tuesday was my day off and it has worked for me. I’ve written thirteen books (two aren’t yet published) on Tuesdays. I get to the library about ten and write until two or three. That’s it. I think that authors telling other writers that they have to get up at four a.m. and write every day are doing us disservice. I mean what is four a.m. anyway? I’ve certainly never seen it.

Jim: That’s fascinating! I don’t think I’ve ever met a Tuesday writer before. I’m a “write every day” writer, but I’m also a “whatever works for you” writer, and everybody’s creative process is different and unique. I’m sure there are people reading this who can only write one day a week, or fifteen minutes a day, and they’re tired of hearing writing instructors telling them they’re doing it “wrong.” There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to writing, and you are proof, Jacci, that you can be amazingly productive writing one day a week — especially if you use that day to the fullest.

Now, some writers outline or “pre-write” their stories. Others — so-called “pantsers” who “write by the seat of their pants” — leap into their stories and write without an outline. Which type of writer are you? And why does that approach suit you?

Jacci: I’m a “pantser.” Maybe it’s just my personality, but I’ve never outlined a book. I do mull, though. I mull over a story line sometimes before I write, so maybe I’m just outlining in my head. Maybe I’m a closet outliner! Oh no!

Jim: How do you imagine scenes?

Jacci: I’m very visual. I see and hear it in my head, like a movie. Because of that, I have trouble writing in enough description. That’s what my editor always says: “I don’t know where we are. Where are we?” I mean, I see it. Why can’t she?

Jim: Do you experience writing “in flow”? How do you get into “flow”?

Jacci: There are only two places I’ve experienced losing time, one is while writing, the other in prayer. I love to get in the flow of a story, especially during my once or twice a year get-away-to-write weekends. I love to be alone and just have time to write and write and write. Those are the best. I have friends that let me house-sit in the summer on their little farm. It’s such a privilege to have time and just get lost in it.

Jim: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Jacci: Read. Write. Jump out of an airplane if you feel stuck. We need to live life if we are going to write about it. Join a critique group and a writing group. We need all the help and support we can get! Never stop learning.

Jim: Thanks, Jacci, for giving us a glimpse into your creative process. You’ve shown us that creativity is more than artistic expression. It’s deeply connected to our spirituality and to our uniqueness as individuals. I wonder how many other “Tuesday writers” (or some-other-day-of-the-week writers) are reading these words. You’ve given them excellent affirmation today. Keep infusing reality with hope!

Visit Jacci Turner’s website at JacciTurner.com, and pre-order her new novel The Retreat: A Tale of Spiritual Awakening, here

Oh, and by the way, I have something FREE for my readers . . .

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