Friday, October 28, 2016

A Man and His Shed—A Permit in Hand

A few years ago, The Daily Telegraph published a story about men and their sheds. Not necessarily writers and their sheds. Just men of any stripe with a desire for a sort of outdoorsy man-cave, a place to escape, to hide from family, kids, life, or to watch football on a Sunday afternoon.  

I read that story with irritation. Not annoyance with the men who wanted such a retreat, but for those who would think my plan for a shed had a similar motivation.

My shed is not what these men desire. It is a writer’s shed, a place the author Michael Pollan has called, “the space of a daydream.” Pollan wrote a wonderful book — A Place of My Own — about his own journey designing and building his writer’s shed in Connecticut. Like his shed, I would like to think that my writer’s shack would also be, as his was, “built with words.” I will not build it. I’m leaving that up to the experts. But its essence, the metaphoric foundation will be constructed with single words, one-by-one.

I am keenly aware of this now, and only now that I finally have the building permit in my hand. With this, I can’t help but consider move-in day—the carrying of books, the arrangement of a desk, the position of my chair. Before this, however, I will paint the ceiling frame white, like the ceiling in Dylan Thomas’ shed, and cover the walls in barn wood or similar like the beautifully clean writing space of E.B. White.

The permit will soon be tacked to a tree in the yard and the men in boots will maneuver gravel and lumber, they will measure twice and cut once, and they will shingle the roof and pound nails with heavy hammers. And in the end I will have a place to fill with words. It will not be Thomas’ boathouse, or Thoreau’s cabin, or George Bernard Shaw’s tiny shack. It will not be designed to what they had. It will surely hold the spirit of those wonderful spaces, but this shed will be mine. Only one hundred feet from the back door of the house, I will have my own uncomplicated “hut in the woods.”

More to come on the development and construction as the days move on. 

                                                    E.B. White's writing shed

                                             Dylan Thomas' boathouse in Wales

                                          George Bernard Shaw's writing hut

                                         Henry David Thoreau's cabin at Walden

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Being Fearless

I walk into a coffee shop this morning and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” is playing on the audio system.

“How are you today?” the barista asks.

“Can’t be bad if I’m starting my day with the Man in Black,” I say.

She smiles.

“He was such a badass,” I continue. “Like Dylan.”

She smiles again. But I’m not sure if it’s a smile of agreement or she’s simply trying to sell me a latte. Maybe she’s appeasing an old man who has been thinking a lot lately about the art of being fearless, and how I somehow missed that important ingredient when I was building my early creative self.

Cash, Dylan, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and countless others of my generation and today have and are creatively without the slightest apprehension. They throw their guitars on their backs, their notebooks in their canvas suitcases, their laptops under their arms and get after it. They go sing their songs, write their words without constraint.

When I was young and playing guitar, writing some songs of my own, I did it the safe way. Sure, I did it, but I didn’t hitchhike to Greenwich Village, I played at the student union on my campus steps away from my dorm. Not so fearless. And my songs, the ones I wrote, had a formula, a tempo, an aesthetic that could be found readily on the radio. Boring. Oh, I was decent enough, people clapped, I was even praised sometimes, but I was far from being creatively fearless.

A few years after those halcyon days, I put on a tie, some cotton khaki pants, and played the part. I was a journalist and I liked the role. I won some awards, did some good work, but was I fearless like a Woodward and Berstein? No. I did my job and I did it well, but I was pedestrian.

Today, I’m thinking about that. What makes the greats fearless, even from the beginning? What makes them take the big and bold chances with their work, their life, their creative self?

At nearly sixty years old, I’m more fearless now than I have ever been. But it is no longer combined with the promise of youth; a young man’s belief that he is immortal and his work—his songs, his writing, his poems—are the most important thing in the world. Like many who work creatively, I find I must do it. I’m compelled to write and from time to time create music, but the fire that rages when one is young is not there. It burns, but not as brightly.

Or does it?

A crazy idea: What if I grabbed my guitar and practiced hard and wrote some more songs and went out to share them? Go on a little tour? Play some bars, small festivals in dumpy towns and learn to be fearless. I play okay. I can write decently. I know how to perform in front of people without fainting. My next book—October Song—is about a songwriting contest and facing big changes in one’s life. So, I think I know how to do this. I could call it the “Fearless Tour” or the “No Regrets Tour” or “The Old Man Needs to Prove Something Tour.”

If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t start writing creatively and without restraints at a younger age, that I didn’t strap on my guitar and jump on a VW bus and play anywhere and everywhere, all over the place. I didn’t realize when I was young that I needed to be more fearless, that I needed to push the edges more often, that I needed to stretch to the point of snapping. It wasn’t that I was afraid of snapping, I just didn’t know any better.

But I do now.

Yes I do.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Why Dylan Doesn't Give a Damn...But You Should

First things first, Bob Dylan, for the most part, doesn’t give a rat’s ass about any Swedish literary prize. He’s Bob Dylan. It’s what he does—shuns the usual, rejects the norm, breaks barriers, dismisses convention.

On the other hand, Dylan loves it. He’s giving the finger to the status quo while reveling, albeit internally, that his life’s work, his body of songs is as important and relevant, compelling and significant as any writer’s writer.

Dylan loves writers—Kerouac, Ginsberg in the early going. There are rumors Dylan visits Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Massachusetts every year. He loves words, Dylan does. That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?

One of the arguments against Dylan and the Nobel Prize—song lyrics are not literature. Silly. Yes, some are and some certainly aren’t. But in a world where media entities blur the edges of disciplines, that argument doesn’t hold up anymore. Smart for the Nobel Committee to recognize this without specifically saying it. 

And for all those who question the selection of Dylan because they can’t get past the man’s voice, his chameleon-like career, or are dismissing the lesser-songs in his canon, well, you just don’t get it and probably never will. That’s okay. It doesn’t matter. Bob Dylan doesn’t care. And I don’t either.

Here’s why.

Dylan has been my personal Nobel Laureate for decades. Even when he put out music with lyrics that were, I believed, below him—even when he started doing the Tex-Mex thing, even when he got preachy about God, even when his voice got so gravelly that I could hardly make out his words, even with that shaky performance at the Grammy’s, even when he started singing Sinatra. Doesn’t matter. The lyrics, the literature he’s given us in hundreds of songs is worth these small, insignificant hurdles.

When I was a teenager, I remember hearing the song “Masters of War” played from a vinyl album in a friend’s basement family room. Dylan was pissed. He didn’t yell, he didn’t growl, he didn’t beat his chest. But he was pissed and every word in that song screamed disgust with those “masters.” I remember thinking: Who has the guts to do that? To get that pissed off in a song? To sing those words, those glorious words. Then I heard “Girl from the North Country” and I cried. I still cry when I hear that song. Again, it’s the words, those wonderful words.

Last spring I had the opportunity to sing a couple of Dylan songs with my guitar at a Dylan birthday party celebration at the Filament Theatre in Chicago. One of the songs was “Boots of Spanish Leather.” Words. Such words.

Words. These are what Dylan has given us. It’s what the Nobel Committee heard, read. It’s what moved them. It’s what moved me, moved America, moved the world. Just like all the Nobel Laureates of Literature. Dylan joins a mighty list. Just consider the American writers:

Sinclair Lewis
Eugene O'Neill
Pearl Buck
T.S. Eliot
William Faulkner
Ernest Hemingway
John Steinbeck
Saul Bellow
Issac Singer
Czeslaw Milosz
Joseph Brodsky
Derek Walcott
Toni Morrison


I do truly believe, as I first wrote, Dylan doesn’t give a damn about a Nobel Prize. But he does give a damn about words.

Thank God he did and still does.