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Some Thoughts on Story-Telling

If you want to write a book, you should read lots of books first. And one of those that you should read is Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. You should definitely read it if you are writing a novel and want to learn about concise, evocative pen portraits.

One winter day a big burly guy stepped in off the street. He looked like he’d come from the Russian embassy, shook the snow off his coat sleeves, took off his gloves and put them on the counter, asked to see a Gibson guitar that was hanging up on the brick wall. It was Dave Van Ronk. He was gruff, a mass of bristling hair, don’t give a damn attitude, a confident hunter. My mind went into a rush.

You should read it if you are writing a travel book and want to learn how the power comes as much from what you leave out as what you include. The book begins with Dylan arriving in New York as a young man, wanting to break through into music. It then moves on to Dylan aged 30 and how he tries to deal with being mega-famous. The book feels all the more powerful for not bothering with boring stories of “my mum bought me a guitar. I always wanted to play. I sang at primary school.”

One of my strongest pieces of advice, particularly for people writing tales of their cycle-touring adventures, is to leave out as much as you can.

The third aspect that struck me from Chronicles is the issue of truth. What is truth in writing? And, specifically, what is truth in non-fiction writing? Dylan writes so vividly about tiny incidents. They capture the scene perfectly. They help the reader understand how Dylan felt at that moment. They convey an accurate truth. And they are totally made up. Unless he has a freakish photographic memory, then writing like this about something that happened decades ago must be made up.

Outside the wind was blowing, straggling cloud wisps, snow whirling in the red lanterned streets, city types scuffling around, bundled up — salesmen in rabbit fur earmuffs hawking gimmicks, chestnut vendors, steam rising out of manholes.

Yet this feels “true” to me, regardless of whether it would stand up in court as an eye-witness account of that cold morning when Dylan secured his first-ever recording contract.
This idea is one I wrote about in the new Afterword to the next edition of Moods of Future Joys. It’s also fundamental to my book There Are Other Rivers. That is the most truthful book I’ve written, despite it being very far from a chronological expedition diary.

The final thing I loved about the book is this: talent plus hard work will succeed. Put in the hours, be creative, and believe in yourself. You’ll get where you deserve to be in the end.

What really set me apart in these days was my repertoire. It was more formidable than the rest of the coffeehouse players…

And by success, I do not mean fame. Dylan dedicates a fifth of the book to its pitfalls. Dylan’s success is in doing what he wanted to do, in the way he wanted to do it, and to the limit of his abilities. I was listening to the radio late one night and an artist described himself as a “working artist”. I think that is a wonderful description for most of who make our living from adventure or music or writing. We are not superstars, normal gravitational rules apply. We may not want to be a star, even, and are content with being a “working artist.” It’s a lovely description and one I’m happy to apply to myself.
Chronicles is a fine book, whether or not you are a fan of Dylan’s music.

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