“An artist has to be careful to never think that he’s arrived somewhere. He has to be in a constant state of becoming.” – Bob Dylan
With those words, Bob Dylan tapped into a truth that seems so pure and so simple – and yet so hard to live up to.
I have spent the first half-century of my life with my sights set on one “destination” after another. From graduations, to new jobs and promotions it seems I have always had my eye not on the here and now, but on the next milestone.
Granted, all the while I have been “becoming” in the sense that I have had moments of personal and professional growth. It’s impossible, after all, not to become something.
The challenge I see now, looking back over a few years more than half a century, isn’t to “become”. It is to actively become. To resist the easy road of letting one’s “becoming” be directed by life’s circumstances and the desires of those around you, and instead to make a conscious effort to guide one’s own “becoming” – to be the architect of one’s own custom-built self.
That takes a huge amount of courage. As much as we in America admire independence in theory and on the movie screen, in reality we like people to settle into their clearly defined roles and be predictable.
Only now as I look toward my second half century (yes, I’m an optimist), do I begin to feel the tug of Dylan’s quote in my gut and in my bones. I wonder if I have the courage to re-invent myself the way Dylan did at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when he carried an electric guitar on stage and rocked the house with an amped-up version of Maggie’s Farm.
It shocked and angered the folk music purists who had fallen in love with Dylan in 1963 and 1964. It sure wasn’t Mr. Tambourine Man or Blowin’ in the Wind. Many in the crowd reacted with boos and catcalls that so shook Dylan that he walked off the stage and didn’t return to Newport for 37 years.
But he didn’t look back, either. And, he didn’t let the crowd force him back into the mold they wanted him to fit into. The rest isn’t just history – it’s legend.
Dylan sets a high bar for the rest of us. But, he also gives us a break. He did, indeed, say “An artist has to be careful to never think that he’s arrived somewhere. He has to be in a constant state of becoming.” But, he didn’t leave it at that. He went on to say, “As long as you kind of stay in that realm you’ll be okay.”
And, that’s what I hang my hat on – just kind of staying in that realm. I go to work every day, and I go home to my old house. I pay the bills and do the yard work and make whatever repairs my old house needs.
But, I also play my guitar and try to worry less about the fact that I should have started 30 years sooner and that my voice isn’t polished. Instead I concentrate on learning new chords and new techniques now. I work on finding my own voice and on crafting words that express where I am (and who I am) today. I am acutely aware that I will never be finished. And, that’s okay.
Whenever I can, I hang out with other local singer/songwriters who also go to work every day at jobs that don’t involve guitars. We’re realists. If you ask us “what do you do?” you’ll hear things like “insurance sales” or “tech support” or “credit union marketing”.
But, we’ll all be thinking “I write songs.” And, when we’re not working, we play as often as we can for whoever will listen – sometimes just for each other – or the crickets in the basement. We’re each – in our own way – on a never-ending journey towards becoming the artist we want to be.
As long as we kind of stay in that realm, we’ll be okay.