“If you wait for inspiration, you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter.” Dan Poynter
Bob Dylan was once asked where his songs came from. “No idea,” he replied. Mozart told Antonio Salieri the same thing, which irritated Salieri to no end. The movie “Amadeus” was based on the idea that Salieri inadvertently killed Mozart out of jealousy.
I’ve been jealous of Dylan for over fifty years. I’m sure thousands of writers and musicians feel the same way. You’d think at least one of us would snap, but nobody’s inadvertently killed Dylan so far (he’s a tough guy to find at the best of times).
When The Band was working on “Music From Big Pink,” they rehearsed in the basement of a pink house near Bethel, New York. It’s rumoured Dylan owned the house, and liked writing upstairs while The Band practised downstairs. Robbie Robertson sometimes sat with Dylan. He observed how Dylan wrote in a continuous flow, allowing words to take shape on their own.
Most of us worry more about being a hack than we do about writing.
“I realized Bob was never saying to himself, ‘What should I write?’” Robertson said. “Everything seemed organic with him. I started doing the same thing. Just let the words and notes come at their own pace.”
So much of what stops our inspiration is us. We keep thinking our brains have a creative on/off switch. We say things like “I’m gonna write something really good today,” or “I’d better be brilliant now or I’m a hack.” Most of us worry more about being a hack than we do about writing.
When an interviewer pressed Dylan on where his inspiration came from, Dylan said, “It could come from God. I’m not all that spiritual, but it must come from somewhere. Maybe you should ask him.”
Neil Young once told Dylan that he couldn’t keep “Like a Rolling Stone.” As Young put it, “The song’s not yours anymore, Bob. It’s too good. You can’t own something that good.”
Even Michelangelo wondered where his inspiration came from. Sometimes he felt “outside himself,” like his hands were doing another’s bidding.
That same interviewer asked Dylan if he could write anything better than “Like a Rolling Stone.” “Probably not,” Dylan said. “To be honest, I’m not even sure I wrote it. If you told me someone else did, I’d believe you.”
At least we know it wasn’t Neil Young.
Even Michelangelo wondered where his inspiration came from. Sometimes he felt “outside himself,” like his hands were doing another’s bidding. He tried explaining this to Pope Julius II which, back then, wasn’t the best idea.
Pope Julius beat him with a stick. If Michelangelo had just said it was God, everything would have been okay. Popes like you crediting God. You don’t get hit with sticks for that, anyway. Most popes of that era had sticks.
Guitarist, Robert Johnson, could never explain his innate talent. Like Dylan, he “allowed” the song to come to him. He “opened up” rather than forced his creativity. People said he sold his soul to the devil at the “crossroads.” The devil gets credit for a lot of stuff—sometimes more than God.
In boxing, there’s a term called “letting your hands go.” It means, don’t be tentative, don’t pause. Let your reflexes decide.” Famous fighters like Muhammad Ali did just that. When he fought George Foreman in Zaire, Foreman relied on strength, Ali relied on reflexes. Ali regained his title, Foreman named all his sons “George” and sold grills.
Watch any great boxer and you’ll see what I’m talking about. In the early rounds, they’re getting to know their opponent. It’s all information, how the feet move, whether they lean to the left or to the right. By the third round, you can hear the trainers telling them to let the hands go. It’s like the gates opening in a horse race. There’s a rhythm that takes over, a sudden release. Every great boxer knows when to let their hands go. Those that don’t end up naming their sons “George” and selling grills.
When Hemingway said, “You learn to write by writing,” he meant we’re the same as boxers. The time spent developing endurance, skill, rhythm, and speed represent the fundamentals. From there, we have to stop thinking mechanically and start thinking reflexively—or even spiritually.
Writers aren’t necessarily fearless. Even Bukowski was scared. He claimed that was the reason he drank.
Jimmy Page was accused of being a spiritualist. He even bought famous occultist Aleister Crowley’s house. Page had Crowley’s “Do what thou wilt” inscribed in the run-off groove of Led Zeppelin IV. John Bonham might have taken that quote a bit too far. He smashed up a lot of hotel rooms. So did Page, for that matter. “Do what thou wilt” was hell on hotel rooms.
Whenever we read something we like, we think it’s a thought. Actually, it’s the rhythm, the sense of fearlessness. Writers aren’t necessarily fearless. Even Bukowski was scared. He claimed that was the reason he drank. Hemingway drank a lot, too. At least both these men knew how to sound fearless.
Fear isn’t something you overcome or ignore. “Soldiers who don’t know fear are usually dead,” Eisenhower once said. Great artists — like great boxers — realize fear is something you use.
Dylan is a great example of how artists use fear. At the Newport Folk Festival in ’63, he risked everything by doing an electric set. For him, it was part of the exploration. He wanted to know if his words and music would translate into electric form.
When some folkies screamed at him to get off the stage, Dylan replied “I don’t believe you.” You can hear Robertson in the background, saying, “Shut up, Bob.” Folkies can get ugly and sometimes petty. Pete Seeger pulled Dylan’s plug. Dylan finished with an acoustic set. You don’t mess with purists.
Which brings us back to the original question: “Why Can’t I Write?” All too often, it’s because we’re not “channeling” fear. Worrying about what you write isn’t the issue. Neither is “Should I write in the first or third person?” You’re paralyzing yourself. More importantly, you’re paralyzing inspiration.
Good writers are good because they’ve solved so many problems over the years.
When I say that inspiration is something you “allow,” it’s no different from a boxer letting his hands go. You move from a mechanical process to a reflexive one. Writers who don’t trust their reflexes sound mechanical and forced. They become Dan Rather.
William Zinsser said that every piece of writing is a “problem waiting to be solved.” Good writers are good because they’ve solved so many problems over the years. Along the way, sentence structure and character development stop being planned. Reflexes and faith take over.
Can you learn this from courses or books? To some degree, perhaps. Reading Stanislavski’s “An Actor Prepares” or “Building a Character” is probably the best place to start. Same with William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well.”
But, again, it’s like boxing. Boxers watch films. They study their opponent’s every move. Knowing your combinations, like knowing your words, is where you begin to find what to write and how to write.
The rest is letting your hands go.