Rereading Bob Dylan’s collection of autobiographical essays “Chronicles” made me reflect on how we as artists react toward other artists. The book begins in New York where Dylan is a lean, dedicated folk singer sleeping on other people’s couches and playing and singing anywhere he’s allowed to. It skips a decade or so and presents him still young but jaded after his meteoric success, hounded relentlessly by fans and unable to find peace. It skips another decade or decade and a half and describes the process of cutting one of his records song by song in New Orleans, and then it goes full circle back to New York in the early sixties, and backtracks even further to the time before New York when as a kid he was hungry to learn folk songs in Minnesota, accepting any invitation to listen to records to discover new singers and improve his repertoire.
And somehow from reading about Bob Dylan I started thinking about the modern indie writing scene. To get this you have to think of Dylan as a nobody, a poverty-stricken unknown even more hungry for musical knowledge and improvement than for recognition. He lived and breathed music; he thought of little else. He didn’t care what he ate or where he slept as long as he could play. Before he learned how to compose songs he played the songs of others and that was all right too. He was absorbed, enthralled, enchanted by folk music. He went to hear other musicians play; he listened to records; he practiced alone and with others. He didn’t know how to relate to those who didn’t think as he did. Music was his life.
As I read about Dylan’s dedication when he was a nobody, I thought of the stage on which the indie writer plays. Amazon and other distributors opened up the opportunity to sing for an audience, so to speak, at least a potential audience. For some of us, a very few who achieve early success, it’s immediately like a stage in a stadium full of fans, but for others it’s like one of those smoky coffeehouses where you play for a few diehard drunks, or perhaps sometimes for no one at all. But you’re there all the same, plying your trade, putting your stories out there. It takes guts and dedication and a crazy kind of mindset to step out and place your art before the world to get either kicked or caressed.
I read a lot on blogs in indie forums about the importance of editing and covers and so on, the outer trappings of the essential work, and these things are important, of course, in a peripheral kind of way. But they should not distract us from appreciating the author’s intent and courage in putting it out there. Let’s not get elitist on the hungry up and coming performers who might have a lot of talent and integrity. Let’s not condemn them for less than stellar covers if that’s all they can afford, but rather encourage them for doing the best they can in the face of overwhelming odds. Talent will eventually make room for itself, but in the meantime let’s be there with our support and encouragement rather than wait by the sidelines holding a hammer and some coffin nails.
A simple true story succinctly illustrates what I mean. I had made a comment on The Passive Voice, a popular indie writer blog, expressing mystification that my books were not selling, though I was convinced that they were good work. A professional artist wrote back that she had perused the covers of my books and thought that some could be improved on. She gave me some general tips on cover art, and then offered to create a cover for one of my books, completely free, to show me what she had in mind. It blows my mind to think about such generosity even now. That’s called paying it forward, folks.
I also have a relative who is a professional graphic designer who does most of my other book covers. You can blame the stark, simple short story covers on me.
The fact is, I am a single parent living on the edge of poverty, and when I read comments by some writers that their covers cost “only” $200 or $500 or $1,000 to me it’s like hearing voices from lah-lah land. I respect what they are saying and even agree in an abstract sort of way, but harsh realities are harsh realities. For me, $200 buys a certain number of meals or a certain amount of clothes or shoes for my sons. That’s how I have to look at it. But I can’t let that keep me from putting my work before readers in the best way I can given the circumstances.
So whenever I am tempted to condemn a fellow writer for a presentation that’s lacking, all I have to do is think of lean, hungry Bob Dylan carrying his guitar from nightclub to coffeehouse to bar and playing for whoever was willing to listen. You gotta start somewhere. Let’s express our magnanimity rather than our censure to our fellow artists. If they don’t have what it takes, they’ll drift away and be gone sooner or later anyway. We don’t have to knock them off the tracks.
Good post. This reminds me of Patti Smith’s autobiography, Just Kids, where she talks about her early life in New York with Robert Mapplethorpe. They lived in run-down accommodation, worked day jobs and took every opportunity to hang out and observe other artists further along the path to success.
I’m also inspired by people who manage to make a living from their art without being a household name. For me, knowing there’s a possibility of ongoing modest success is more inspiring than best-sellerdom.