Dylan and Stravinsky

April 23rd, 2009

No, they’re not writing songs together.  Just presenting two very different creative insights that I thought you might enjoy.

First, Dylan, in a long interview on his website, is asked a question that should properly have been addressed to him in, say, 1968, since it doesn’t have much to do with his writing style since.  The question is in italics.  What impresses me is, first, that he takes the question seriously, and second, how much his answer tells us about his creative processes.

Say you wake up in a hotel room in Wichita and look out the window. A little girl is walking along the train tracks dragging a big statue of Buddha in a wooden wagon with a three-legged dog following behind. Do you reach for your guitar or your drawing pad?

Oh wow. It would depend on a lot of things. The environment mostly; like what kind of day is it. Is it a cloudless blue-gray sky or does it look like rain? A little girl dragging a wagon with a statue in it? I’d probably put that in last. The three-legged dog – what type? A spaniel, a bulldog, a retriever? That would make a difference. I’d have to think about that. Depends what angle I’m seeing it all from. Second floor, third floor, eighth floor. I don’t know. Maybe I’d want to go down there. The train tracks too. I’d have to find a way to connect it all up. I guess I would be thinking about if this was an omen or a harbinger of something.

What I love about this answer is that, first, he goes straight to details; this picture, outlandish though it may be, has to be anchored in convincing detail.  Of course, it makes a difference what kind of three-legged dog it is.  Second, the order in which he handles the elements: he’d put the little girl with the wagon in last, after establishing the environment.  Then — what angle is he seeing it from?  What a great question.  And finally, how to “connect it all up” — the train tracks too.  Maybe the whole thing is an omen.

This is a great writing answer, I think.

And Stravinsky — regarding the relationship between gruntwork and inspiration:

Just as appetite comes by eating, so work brings inspiration, if inspiration is not discernible at the beginning.

Work brings inspiration, if inspiration is not discernible at the beginning.  Find me a better argument against skipping a writing session.  “Oh, I’m not inspired/”  Spare me.  As Anthony Trollope said, “If our bootmakers waited for inspiration, we would all be barefoot.”

5 Responses to “Dylan and Stravinsky”

  1. Dana King Says:

    I’m an admirer of Stravinsky, not so much of Dylan, but these are both great answers. I’m impressed with how Dylan immediately looks for details he can use.

    Stravinsky’s inspiration comment reminds me of a favorite quote from Stephen King, responding to writers who say they can only work when the Muse strikes them: “It’s a lot easier for the Muse to strike you if she knows where to look.” To me, ass in chair, writing, would probably be the first place she’d look.

  2. Thomas Says:

    Many people still have the idea that writing, at any level of proficiency, resembles a divine intervention more than a craft. This also appears to be the belief of some writers out there. The act of forcing oneself to create something out of nothing is akin to building a brick wall where there was previously nothing. Even a mason has to learn his craft and exercise self-discipline. If not, the wall will be flawed and without beauty.

    The topic reminded me of the latest Michael J Fox book, “Always Looking Up”, which I am currently in the process of reading. I like the guy and find him inspiring. In the early parts of the book, Fox comments on the rather elaborate process involved in just getting out of bed in the morning and how he has a hard time recognizing himself in that full body mirror out in the hallway. Controlling the trembling is exhausting, with or without medications. A bit later, Fox has a conversation with one of his kids, who asks him what his latest book is about. Fox bounces the question back again and the child answers, “Shaky Dad?”

    That short story may not have anything to do with fiction in itself but it does shine a rather humbling light on what some people, less fortunate than others, have the will-power to overcome in order to do what they want. Tim mentioned Trollope, who wrote religiously every morning, assumedly because he felt he had to. Fox doesn’t need the money yet another bestseller will bring, but he has a message, wants to use the royalty checks for his foundation, and chooses to push himself and his “shaky Dad” body to the keyboard.

    Lack of inspiration or lack of time may be for the uncommitted or independently wealthy, but although I feel the commitment and my bank account is far from independent, I have on numerous occasions been found guilty of both shortcomings. At the end of the day, the best we can hope for is to be human. The great ones were the ones that overcame the obstacles we all face.

    Gotta love the Dylan quote though. I agree with Tim. Mid-60’s Dylan was a whole different kinda guy.


  3. Sphinx Ink Says:

    Good content. Inspiring. Both quotes are exzcellent examples of great creative minds.

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, All —

    Dana, I can’t believe you’re not a Dylan fan. You and I need a week in a car heading across the states with a good sound system and a 200-song Dylan playlist I’ll compile for us. And at least a third of that time has to be in the South.

    Thomas, I think divine intervention, or at least mysterious imaginative tremors, play an essential part in writing. But writing is still 90% gruntwork. It’s just that the gruntwork brings the inspiration and the inspiration drives the gruntwork. And I admire the hell out of anyone who writes under conditions of adversity, including Michael Fox.

    Thanks, Sphinxy. By the way, I need to send you the book in which your other name appears. Will you please re-send me a physical address? I’ll get you an ARC when I get back to the States in a couple of weeks.

  5. Larissa Says:

    Label me floored. I don’t really care that much about Dylan in general (i know i know…) but I love his anwers. I love his lyrics…just not his voice. So I guess I can’t say I don’t care about Dylan. I love that answer though. There’s so much that can be inferred from what details you chose and what you don’t chose to include-and the actual subject of an environment can sometimes be almost less important than the environnment itself.

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