Friend of the World
Did you know that at the height of his creative powers, at a time when he was writing the music that would most-influence a generation of songwriters, Bob Dylan was booed regularly? True story. The audience was generally unhappy that he had stopped writing acoustic protest songs in favor of more poetic, and now electric, rock & roll. In “Don’t Look Back,” Martin Scorsese’s documentary about that time in Dylan’s career, we see Dylan turn to a friend in a limo ride home from a concert, and, wondering aloud about all the booing, ask, “So why do they keep buying all the tickets?”
And did you know that Johnny Carson loved to sing? You probably didn’t. Yet I heard once—once, mind you—that he had taken lessons for years. I watched a lot of Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” when I was young, but I can’t remember a single instance of hearing him sing so much as a jingle.
Artists’ lives are divided distinctly in two. The first half is about the artist and their work. This is a solitary pursuit, and is meant, for the most part, to be so. At some point, the artist must ask themselves what it is they and they alone wish to see, hear, read, feel, and then endeavor to render it. The solitary nature of work is a part of the gift not only to the artist—to hear themselves more clearly—but also, should they choose to share, to the rest of the world as well, for only then does the audience receive the gift of that unique voice.
The operative word here, however, is choose, for no one is actually required to share what they make. Dylan chose to sing his songs live—he could have followed The Beatles and retreated to the studio—and so accepted the terms as they came: to be booed and cheered in equal parts. Johnny Carson, no stranger to the vagaries of an audience’s taste (as perhaps only a stand up comic must become), opted not to share his singing voice with the public, unlike, say, another ‘70s talk show icon, Merv Griffin.
For the writer, of course, the second half of your creative life is publication, or the pursuit of it. There is no shortage of articles to be found, many in this very magazine, about how best to go about this, and there is always advice aplenty about ignoring rejection, and toughening your skin, and believing in yourself—all of which is worthy and true.
But it is important to remember that, in the end, what is required to publish a book is exactly what is required to write it. You do not get to know, at the moment you decide to write a book, what it will actually look like when it is done. This you must discover, chapter by chapter, scene by scene, word by word. In fact, particularly if you have never written one before, you probably aren’t even sure if the book will ever be finished. All you can do is trust that you will follow what most interests you, to the best of your ability, and that what results is your very best effort possible at that time.
This is also true of sharing your work with the public. You do not get to control who will like or dislike that book anymore than Bob Dylan could control who booed and who cheered. All you can do is trust—but trust everyone, every last person, to do what is absolutely best for them. For if you do, then you will allow the book, in its own course, to find its way to the people for whom it had been written, the people who had been asking for it in their own quiet fashion. In this way, through seeking publication you can make a friend of the world, rather than merely a series of connections to be made or walls to be climbed or doors to be squeezed past. The world is always delighted when you allow it be itself, and, in my experience, is always happy to return the favor.