A Simple Twist of Fate
Tuesdays and Thursdays are my favorite days of the week, (and not just because I get to blog for you). I also have my playwriting class, two hours of the most intellectually-stimulating discussion you can imagine, about my favorite topic on earth (writing). But this week, I found myself hit with a bit of writers’ block.
For the class, I’m writing a semi-autobiographical play about the collapse of a friendship over the course of a decade, and the way it affects two people. It had been going well for a while, but things seemed to be stalling this week. So the other night, I took a walk to clear my head, and listened to one of my all-time favorite albums, Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.
Anyone who knows me can tell you that my obsession with Bob Dylan knows no bounds. Whether its his 40+ studio albums or the thousands of concert bootlegs currently circulating, you name it and I’ve probably heard it. He has been an inspiration to me for a multitude of reasons. His beautiful lyrics that manage to be literary and complex while relying exclusively on simple words that everyone knows. His dry sense of humor that permeates all of his work. But most of all, his willingness to change. He reinvented himself so many times, from a radical folk singer to a 60s rock & roller to an androgynous makeup-wearing rockstar in the 70s. Then he became a hardcore Christian musician in the 80s, and a grizzled old bluesman in the 90s. You don’t have to like all of these iterations of him, but the fact that he is so comfortable following his instincts and taking risks has always been something I admire.
But for all of his great works (and believe me, there are many), Blood on the Tracks has to be his masterpiece. Released in 1974 as he was in the midst of a brutal divorce, the album reduced his complicated emotions to 10 raw, poignant songs. Each one of them is great on its own, but the album’s brilliance comes from its ability to capture him at every point during the breakup. “Idiot Wind” is a brutal portrait of his anger towards his wife, while “If You See Her, Say Hello” portrays his deep pain and desire to win his wife back. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” is about his reluctant acceptance, when he realizes that he desperately wants the marriage to continue, but understands he can’t stop it from ending. Together, all of these songs paint a picture of a complicated situation that exists in a million shades of gray. And in one final stroke of genius, Dylan placed the songs out of chronological order. Listeners find themselves skipping from regret to anger to heartbreak to love and back again, resulting in a nonlinear storyline. This serves as a reminder that nothing is as simple as it seems, and the isolation of emotions make the songs that much stronger.
I’ve heard the album a thousand times, but on Tuesday night, it was exactly what I needed. It made me realize that the best way to write my play was to tell the story out of chronological order, to achieve the “Blood on the Tracks effect.” This is far from the first time I have taken something from an album and applied it to my non-musical writing, but it still amazes me when it happens. In the first screenplay I ever wrote, I tried to combine the content of Hunter S. Thompson novels with the tone of early Green Day albums, shooting for short scenes full of comically over-the-top anger. Last year, I wrote an adaptation of a classic French farce that borrowed its title and storyline from Dylan’s Positively 4th Street, after realizing their tonal similarities.
As I mature as an artist, one of the things for which I find myself most grateful is the way different artistic mediums can influence one another. The way theatre directors can borrow from poets, filmmakers from painters, and everything in between. On the surface, a Bob Dylan album has nothing in common with the writing I am doing. But a deeper dive into the choices he makes regarding tone, structure, and concept reveals Blood on the Tracks to be an album that anyone can find inspiration in.
Moments like that are part of what makes life so wonderful. When we keep our minds open to finding advice in places we wouldn’t expect, the results are often spectacular.