Did you catch the Bob Dylan song, written for the film Wonder Boys in 2000, titled Things Have Changed? Here’s a couple of lines from the song:
People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked in tight, I’m outta range
I used to care, but things have changed
This place ain’t doing me any good
I’m in the wrong town, I should be in Hollywood
Just for a second there I thought I saw something move
These lyrics, bemoaning the loss that change has wrought, are a contrast assuredly penned on purpose. Of course, his classic, The Times They are A-Changin’, written two generations prior, was a call to action for coming change:
Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt, will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside, and it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows, and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.
Dylan writes of a cynicism that had accompanied time. Many – all? – artists at some point lose it, him included. A life that had been an electric source of creative energy eventually became a lifeless crust of Hollywood consumption. A great Slate article quotes Dylan describing the bad place he had found himself in by the 1980s:
“There was a missing person inside of myself and I needed to find him,” he remembered in his memoir Chronicles: Volume One. “Now and again, I did try a few times, tried hard to force it. … But it was no use. I felt done for, an empty, burned-out wreck.”
Here’s how he describes his creative loss:
As a performer, he was so estranged from his own songs that playing them felt like “carrying a package of heavy rotting meat.” As a writer, he was “an old actor fumbling in garbage cans outside the theatre of past triumphs.”
It was a brutal place to be, helpless and unsure how to get out of the pit.
Real stagnation is a profound existential crisis. You lose touch with music and thus with yourself. The past taunts you and the future blanks you. You know there’s a problem but you don’t know how to fix it. As Dylan writes, “There didn’t seem to be any formula.” Stagnation can mean coasting on autopilot, living on past glories, but it can also mean desperately trying different strategies without success.
The article is a fabulous case study on the loss of creativity and I highly recommend it. It tells stories of several musicians such as Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Tom Waits, and more.
My book Think Like a Five Year Old is about what happens when you’ve got a thing in your pocket and you know you can ride the long tail for years to come but you have a nagging knowledge that if you do, it’s all downhill moving forward. Your future is gonna be rehash. (The book is launching now. Today we’re starting a three week roll-out. Get free stuff and learn more here.)
In the book, I define creativity as having fun and making stuff. The problem for many of us is that we used to do it without thinking, and now we can’t find that same spark to save our lives. As Dylan said, we’re an empty, burned out wreck. There’s perhaps no worse fear to an artist.
How did these iconic musicians rise from their discomfiture and recover their spark? Here are 5 crucial things you can do to find your missing inspiration, keep making stuff and having fun.
1. Hit Bottom.
I’ll name the obvious one first. I wouldn’t recommend this strategy, though it works for some.
For Bob Dylan, salvation came during a concert in a gale in Locarno, Switzerland on Oct. 5, 1987. He froze up. The hacky, professional tricks that had gotten him through the tour so far stopped working. He had ‘nothing to lose.’ And in that moment of panic he broke through to somewhere new.
“I just did it automatically out of thin air, cast my own spell to drive out the devil,” he writes in Chronicles. “Instantly, it was like a thoroughbred had charged through the gates. Everything came back, and it came back in multidimension. Even I came back and it left me kind of shaky.”
Dylan had to hit the bottom, when nothing worked anymore – not even the old rehash. He got to a point where he was so depressed and disconnected that he felt he had, as the cliché says, nothing left to lose. In that “moment of panic” he recovered his creativity. Ever the artist, he of course later turned his creative anguish into grist for future songs, such as the one I quoted above.
Of course, some people hit bottom and stay there. I wouldn’t recommend this approach if you can help it.
2. Find a New Collaborator.
Tom Waits had carved a successful career as a singer-songwriter but was in a rut, doing the same thing over and over, and he knew it. He was scared of the future.
He didn’t want to be a has-been, a seventies bargain-bin relic. He had to create something unique, ‘something you’d want to keep.’
In Waits’ case, it was a new romantic relationship. After he met a woman on a film he was working on and got married, he changed everything – the way he wrote songs, his singing voice, his instrumentation.
In some ways, this reinvention was a violent act. It certainly wounded some of his former bandmates, who felt cast aside. Waits’ method suggests that you cannot ease yourself out of stagnation; you need a jolt. And perhaps you need to leave yourself no way back. “It’s very hard to stop doing things you’re used to doing,” he has said.
Waits got married and his new wife became his creative partner. New collaborators and perspectives are vital to keeping yourself fresh. In Johnny Cash’s case, it was a young new producer, Rick Rubin.
3. Break the Pattern.
Rick Rubin had already achieved success as a hip-hop and rock producer in the 80s and early 90s. He was looking for something new, and had an idea.
“I thought it would be interesting to find an old legendary artist who wasn’t doing good work and maybe do the same kind of stuff we were doing with the young acts, with the same care and attention, like, ‘This is the best we can do’ with someone old. That was the whole idea. I started thinking of who to cast in that role, and the first person I thought of was Johnny Cash.”
Rick arranged to meet with Johnny. The album that the two men recorded in Cash’s living room, American Recordings (1994), restored the singer. Their working relationship continued until his death in 2003. Cash’s daughter Rosanne described Rubin’s arrival from nowhere as angelic. In describing his approach, Rubin said,
“Something that I learned through the process is that when artists have done it for a long time, a certain pattern takes over their lives. They’re on the road, and then there’s a window where they can make a record. … Not a lot of care goes into it. My job is often just breaking that pattern.
4. Shed your backlist.
In publishing, your old stuff is called the backlist. A good backlist is about 40% of what a publisher sells. When it becomes 60% or 80% you have a problem. When it becomes 90% or 100% you’re done. An artist can get a good glimpse into their creative status by just looking at their current material. If it’s mostly backlist, he or she might have a problem.
Breaking out of the rut requires shedding the list, or the half life. It’s not that you don’t like the songs anymore; you just can’t let them take over. After Dylan’s epiphany, he vowed never to do his old songs the way he’d been doing them, which was beating them into lifeless corpses.
One key decision was to break the usual touring cycle. In 1988, he embarked on what became known as The Never Ending Tour, during which his classic songs would be bent, battered, and reimagined every night, so that they would never again feel dead in his hands. Another was to secure a new producer to midwife the songs that were suddenly pouring out of him.
5. Believe greatness is still possible.
Dylan didn’t come out of his pit overnight, just as he hadn’t fallen in overnight. What many consider his comeback album, Time Out of Mind, didn’t appear for 10 years after his moment. His work in between was still weak, for the most part.
After the Locarno show, Dylan had been struck by a life-saving revelation that there was, after all, a way out of the ditch he’d been stuck in—a way to get back at least some of what he thought was gone forever. “I saw that instead of being stranded somewhere at the end of the story, I was actually in the prelude to the beginning of another one.”
Prerequisite to his comeback was a belief that such a thing was possible at all. It was a starting over, but more difficult than the first time, for he had to shed all of what came before in order to achieve great things again.
If you could benefit from creative inspiration, click here to get Think Like a Five Year Old. It’s got a few endorsements inside the front cover, but the best thing anyone has said about it so far isn’t on the endorsement page: it was a post by Abingdon Press Associate Publisher Susan Salley, recommending it to her Facebook friends by saying it was from someone who has “reimagined his creativity again and again.” Thanks, Susan; you understand what the book is about.