Eisenbud's Odyssey: Waiting for Dylan

Mystery, magic and misconception about the creative process.

Bob Dylan  (photo credit: Dennis Balough/ MCT)
Bob Dylan
(photo credit: Dennis Balough/ MCT)
There is undeniably a tremendous amount of intrigue and mystery surrounding artists who produce exceptional work – be they painters, writers, musicians or actors. But perhaps even more intriguing than the final product is the creative process itself.
Indeed, from the creation of paintings by cave-dwellers, to Shakespeare’s unmatched mastery of storytelling, Bob Dylan’s densely brilliant song-writing, Itzhak Perlman’s virtuosity on the violin or Marlon Brando’s captivatingly emotive theatrics, millions continue to marvel at the creative process, frequently likening it to magic, or some other otherworldly phenomenon.
However, nothing could be farther from the truth.
While the more narcissistic artists would like nothing more than to be elevated to the transcendental, rarefied heights of a deity, generally speaking they are all too human, which is why they could create such art in the first place.
To be sure, it is not a supernatural conduit that drives these people’s talents, rather their hyper-sensitive mortal thoughts and insecurities, which all too often also lead to their self-destruction. Vincent van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, James Dean and Kurt Cobain are just a few of the elite names on this tragic list.
While there’s no question that artistic men and women such as these luminaries are blessed with great talent, and are frequently brilliant, first and foremost they are mortal. They don’t call it the humanities for nothing.
The category is rooted in the word “human,” and only the best artists create an enduring and powerful human connection with their audience by working tirelessly to master their chosen vocation.
This is the true root of all art. To think otherwise is a mistake.
BEFORE I understood this, I remember being consumed with jealousy and frustration during my 20s when I was getting my master’s degree in journalism and was assigned by a professor to watch the 1967 documentary about Bob Dylan’s meteoric, and much-deserved, rise to fame, called Don’t Look Back.
Filmed during his 1965 tour of Britain, Dylan essentially toys with adoring journalists and fans alike who attempt to qualify and quantify his immeasurable talent, like an apathetic cat pawing at immobilized mice high on laughing gas.
In the film, Dylan, all of 24, goes to great lengths to dispel any notion that he is anything other than a “guitar player.” He was simply a regular guy, he stressed, who happened to effortlessly mine some of the richest lyrical gold ever composed.
During a particularly telling and angry exchange with a Time magazine reporter charged with interviewing him about his talents, Dylan barks: “I got nothing to say about these things that I write! I mean I just write them. I don’t have anything to say about them. I don’t write them for any reason. There ain’t no great message. I mean if you want to go ahead and tell people that, then tell ’em. But I’m not going to have to answer to it!”
Dylan says this as if he is being accused doing something wrong – as if he was scared about the consequences of the power of what he had to say in his music.
I, in return, concluded that there was absolutely no point in attempting to become a writer, because unlike Dylan, I worked very hard at my writing and actually had a message, and thought that if he could create masterpieces without even trying, then there was no hope for me.
I have since changed my thinking.
AS I rapidly approach 40, and continue to contemplate the true constructs behind Dylan’s great work, my contention is that he wasn’t pulling rabbits out of hats after all, as he clearly wanted people to believe. Rather, he was – and still is – acutely psychologically absorbed by the societal milieus he wrote about (and continues to write about), but couldn’t stand anyone knowing just how sensitive he really was.
It’s either that, or he’s a warlock.
Either way, no one other than Dylan will ever truly know why he so determinedly denied being much more that a “guitar player,” and maybe it’s best left that way. Indeed, his mysterious aura is part of what makes him an international treasure.
However, in my humble opinion, the greatest fallacy about creating exceptional work is the dispiriting notion that it is predicated on some divine intervention, like a bolt of lightning sent by the God of Creativity.
The boring truth is that divinity has nothing to do with it, and there is no magic bullet. Rather, it’s all about hard, uncompromised work.
Sweat equity, if you will.
I have met and known hundreds of men and women who are dying to express themselves – with words, paintings, music or acting – but don’t pursue it because they believe success will only come if it is preordained, as Dylan tacitly purported in Don’t Look Back.
Tragically, I have also known a number of gifted aspiring artists who attempt to expedite their breakthroughs by abusing drugs and alcohol, frequently to their detriment. However, I can tell you unequivocally that this is a rookie mistake, as there are no shortcuts to creativity.
Yes, there are undeniably artists like Dylan and Shakespeare who create unrivaled art as if it was streaming out of them – but they could not have gotten to that point unless they felt the waters first. And while men like Dylan and Shakespeare may create at exponentially faster and easier rates than the multitude, first and foremost they are human, and had to extrapolate from their shared and hard-felt humanity to reach such great heights.
Attempting to create art any other way is akin to an architect who cuts corners to build a breathtaking structure, only to watch it come crumbling down at the ribbon-cutting ceremony because the foundation was faulty and devoid of the hard work necessary to ensure its soundness.
THERE ARE countless would-be artists in the world who give up on their quest to make their mark because they think it’s supposed to happen overnight, if it’s “meant” to happen at all. But imagine if J.K. Rowling, and others like her, who persevered while nearly homeless, gave up on their brilliant visions because it didn’t happen overnight.
Even more damaging may be the instant-gratification mentality engendered in the Western world that is creating a generational epidemic of inflated self images – millions of young people who believe that success is indeed preordained due to their parents’ sycophantic adoration. Of course, most of them at some point are in for a profoundly rude awakening.
However, those who work with humility, determination and humanity have as good a chance as any to leave a meaningful mark on the world – perhaps not as indelible as Dylan’s – but a mark just the same. That is, as long as they don’t wait for his purported magic.
To paraphrase Thomas Edison: “Success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”
So, what are you waiting for? Get started – and break a sweat!
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