Tuesday, June 14, 2016

How To Write Like Bob Dylan

Every once in a while you need to organize your files so you can find documents when you want them, otherwise you'll be overwhelmed by the clutter. It takes time we usually don't have, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. While sorting files from my desktop this weekend I came across a document titled how to write like an expert. I wasn't sure if these were notes of my own making or notes scribbled down from another source, so I was hesitant to post them. It did, however, stir in me a desire to tackle the challenge of creating a blog post on how to write like Bob Dylan.

First, though, I thought I'd check to see if the topic had already been covered, by Googling it. Lo and behold, ScribblePreach has a post on this very theme, and after I read it the case was closed. I didn't think I'd top it, so I've decided to share it.

The blog's creator is Nicholas McDonald, author of the book Faker. What he's done is assemble quotes about writing from various Dylan interviews or writings. In short, it's a selection of observations drawn from Dylan's own words. The examples (comments in blue) are my additions to Mr. McDonald's 2013 post.

Bob Dylan: 11 Writing Tips

1. “It is only natural to pattern yourself after someone. If I wanted to be a painter, I might think about trying to be like Van Gogh, or if I was an actor, act like Laurence Olivier. If I was an architect, there’s Frank Gehry. But you can’t just copy someone. If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to. Anyone who wants to be a songwriter should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years.”
eg.: "Farewell Angelina."

2. “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 the room. If it has resonance, you can use it in a song.”
e.g.: "The judge is comin' in, everybody rise" from Nettie Moore.

3. “That’s another way of writing a song, of course. Just talking to somebody who ain’t there. That’s the best way. That’s the truest way.”
e.g.: "Blowin' in the Wind"

4. “Creativity is like a freight train going down the tracks. It’s something that has to be caressed and treated with a great deal of respect… you’ve got to program your brain not to think too much.”
e.g.; "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry."

5. “Let’s face it. You’re either serious about what you’re doing or you’re not serious about what you’re doing. And you can’t mix the two.”
e.g.: "Million Dollar Bash"

6. “The environment to write the song is extremely important. It has to bring something out in me that wants to be brought out. It’s a contemplative, reflective thing.”
e.g. "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

7. “It’s not a good idea and it’s bad luck to look for life’s guidance to popular entertainers. It’s bad luck to do that. No one should do that. Popular entertainers are fine, there’s nothing the matter with that but as long as you know where you’re standing and what ground you’re on, many of them, they don’t know what they’re doing either.”
Examples abound.

8. “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.”
Some good stuff in this Bob Dylan Song Talk Interview.

9. “In my mind it’s never really been seriously a profession… It’s been more confessional than professional.”
e.g.: "Every Grain Of Sand."

10. “It is the first line that gives the inspiration and then it’s like riding a bull. Either you just stick with it, or you don’t.”
e.g.: Simple Twist of Fate; Where Are You Tonight? -- This is similar to the advice Paul Simon gave about song writing on the documentary about making Graceland. Begin with one true statement and follow it forward.

11. I couldn’t find the quote, but my writing professor in Oxford once told me Dylan always tried to take a classical story and add something totally unexpected to it. For example, in his song “As I went out one morning” Dylan takes the “Damsel in Distress” tale and adds his own twist – the Damsel is a prostitute. I’ll give 10 cents to whoever can track that quote down.
e.g.: "Seven Curses."

Source: Scribble Preach.

The best advice is found in the first admonition. Find your own voice. Don't try to write like Dylan. If you were to succeed, you'll be known as "the guy who can write like Dylan." Wouldn't you rather be known as you? Picasso could paint like Rembrandt as a teen, but had he only painted like Rembrandt, would he have broken the new terrain that liberated art from its moorings?

Study, listen, learn... and discover what you're capable of by doing it.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Celebrate it while you can. 


mike johnson said...

Great quotes, but you got one wrong! he says creativity is not like a freight train....

Ed Newman said...

If what you say is true, then this is proof once again that one should not believe everything one reads on the internet.
I just did a quick search and found the confirm here: https://books.google.com/books?id=JaOqtb977hQC&pg=PA184&lpg=PA184&dq=creativity+is+not+like+a+freight+train+dylan&source=bl&ots=TCiEQMt4be&sig=C-OoEBX6wlyHu9KGhujZMsjqDnY&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjZtJTU76nNAhXLaD4KHekLA20Q6AEIHDAA#v=onepage&q=creativity%20is%20not%20like%20a%20freight%20train%20dylan&f=false

Thanks for helping set the record straight.