Brain Pickings

Bob Dylan on Sacrifice, the Unconscious Mind, and How to Cultivate the Perfect Environment for Creative Work

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“People have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.”

Van Morrison once characterized Bob Dylan (b. May 24, 1941) as the greatest living poet. And since poetry, per Muriel Rukeyser’s beautiful definition, is an art that relies on the “moving relation between individual consciousness and the world,” to glimpse Dylan’s poetic prowess is to grasp at once his singular consciousness and our broader experience of the world. That’s precisely what shines through in Paul Zollo’s 1991 interview with Dylan, found in Songwriters On Songwriting (public library) — that excellent and extensive treasure trove that gave us Pete Seeger on originality and also features conversations with such celebrated musicians as Suzanne Vega, Leonard Cohen, k.d. lang, David Byrne, Carole King, and Neil Young, whose insights on songwriting extend to the broader realm of creative work in a multitude of disciplines.

Zollo captures Dylan’s singular creative footprint:

Pete Seeger said, “All songwriters are links in a chain,” yet there are few artists in this evolutionary arc whose influence is as profound as that of Bob Dylan. It’s hard to imagine the art of songwriting as we know it without him.

[…]

There’s an unmistakable elegance in Dylan’s words, an almost biblical beauty that has sustained his songs throughout the years.

One essential aspect of Dylan’s creative process that comes up again and again in the interview is the notion of the unconscious and the optimal environment for its free reign. Dylan tells Zollo:

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…

Like many creators, Dylan values that unconscious aspect of creativity far more than rational deliberation, speaking to the idea that the muse cannot be willed, only welcomed — a testament to the role of unconscious processing in the psychological stages of creative work. He tells Zollo:

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.

In order to do that, he adds, one must “stay in the unconscious frame of mind to pull it off, which is the state of mind you have to be in anyway.” Contrary to Bukowski’s punchy assertion that the ideal environment for creativity is an irrelevant delusion and E.B. White’s admonition that “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper,” Dylan believes this optimal frame of mind can be induced — or, at least, greatly aided — by the right conditions:

For me, the environment to write the song is extremely important. The environment has to bring something out in me that wants to be brought out. It’s a contemplative, reflective thing…

Environment is very important. People need peaceful, invigorating environments. Stimulating environments.

To foster such unconscious receptivity, Dylan argues that “you have to be able to get the thoughts out of your mind” and explains:

First of all, there’s two kinds of thoughts in your mind: there’s good thoughts and evil thoughts. Both come through your mind. Some people are more loaded down with one than another. Nevertheless, they come through. And you have to be able to sort them out, if you want to be a songwriter, if you want to be a song singer. You must get rid of all that baggage. You ought to be able to sort out those thoughts, because they don’t mean anything, they’re just pulling you around, too. It’s important to get rid of them thoughts.

Then you can do something from some kind of surveillance of the situation. You have some kind of place where you can see it but it can’t affect you. Where you can bring something to the matter, besides just take, take, take, take, take. As so many situations in life are today. Take, take, take, that’s all that it is. What’s in it for me? That syndrome which started in the Me Decade, whenever that was. We’re still in that. It’s still happening.

Dylan makes a seemingly controversial statement that resonates with new layers of poignancy in our present age of seemingly infinite cloud libraries of streamable music and a constant, industrialized churning out of disposable pop hits:

The world don’t need any more songs… As a matter of fact, if nobody wrote any songs from this day on, the world ain’t gonna suffer for it. Nobody cares. There’s enough songs for people to listen to, if they want to listen to songs. For every man, woman and child on earth, they could be sent, probably, each of them, a hundred songs, and never be repeated. There’s enough songs.

Unless someone’s gonna come along with a pure heart and has something to say. That’s a different story.

But as far as songwriting, any idiot could do it… Everybody writes a song just like everybody’s got that one great novel in them.

In fact, Dylan seems to regard “popular entertainers” — despite counting himself among them — with a certain degree of contempt and mistrust:

It’s not a good idea and it’s bad luck to look for life’s guidance to popular entertainers.

Dylan considers what it takes to be among the few rare exceptions worthy of true creative respect:

Madonna’s good, she’s talented, she puts all kinds of stuff together, she’s learned her thing… But it’s the kind of thing which takes years and years out of your life to be able to do. You’ve got to sacrifice a whole lot to do that. Sacrifice. If you want to make it big, you’ve got to sacrifice a whole lot.

When Zollo asks Dylan whether he sees himself the way Van Morrison famously characterized him, Dylan replies:

[Pause] Sometimes. It’s within me. It’s within me to put myself up and be a poet. But it’s a dedication. [Softly] It’s a big dedication.

[Pause] Poets don’t drive cars. [Laughs] Poets don’t go to the supermarket. Poets don’t empty the garbage. Poets aren’t on the PTA. Poets, you know, they don’t go picket the Better Housing Bureau, or whatever. Poets don’t… poets don’t even speak on the telephone. Poets don’t even talk to anybody. Poets do a lot of listening and … and usually they know why they’re poets! [Laughs]

[…]

Poets live on the land. They behave in a gentlemanly way. And live by their own gentlemanly code.

[Pause] And die broke. Or drown in lakes. Poets usually have very unhappy endings…

When the conversation veers into the question of whether Shakespeare was really Shakespeare and people’s skepticism about accepting that a single person was able to produce such a body of work, Dylan makes a remark that extends to a great many more aspects of society:

People have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.

He seems especially dismissive of public opinion and even more so, similarly to David Bowie, of artists’ preoccupation with it:

It’s not to anybody’s best interest to think about how they will be perceived tomorrow. It hurts you in the long run.

As the conversation progresses, Zollo returns to songwriting, citing Pete Seeger’s assertion that originality is a myth and all songwriters are “links in a chain,” to which Dylan responds:

The evolution of a song is like a snake, with its tail in its mouth. That’s evolution. That’s what it is. As soon as you’re there, you find your tail.

Considering his own songs, Dylan contemplates their nature, the self-transcendence necessary for writing, and the creative value of being an outcast:

My songs aren’t dreams. They’re more of a responsive nature…

To me, when you need them, they appear. Your life doesn’t have to be in turmoil to write a song like that but you need to be outside of it. That’s why a lot of people, me myself included, write songs when one form or another of society has rejected you. So that you can truly write about it from the outside. Someone who’s never been out there can only imagine it as anything, really.

Songwriters On Songwriting is a magnificent read in its hefty totality. Complement it with similar meditations on process and creativity from the world of writing, including thoughts by Anne Lamott, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, Susan Orlean, Neil Gaiman, Elmore Leonard, and Michael Lewis.

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