putting the pieces together

Pieces of You was one of the soundtracks of my college experience—along with pretty much everyone else in the late 90s—but according to this article in the Wall Street Journal, Jewel's debut album was far from a smash hit out of the gate. In fact, sales were so disappointing that her record company urged her to move on to a second album. But that's when Bob Dylan's people called. Would Jewel be willing to open for Dylan for his next tour?

Jewel, a huge Dylan fan, was thrilled, despite the fact that she wasn't supposed to, you know, talk to the guy. Her job was to sing a few songs and vamoose. Eventually, however, Dylan invited Jewel to his dressing room after the show—not in a bad way!—and became a real mentor. Neil Young also provided crucial early support to the young singer, who needed all the help she could get: She'd grown up with a single dad in Alaska, with no heat or hot water, and had left to make her own way at fifteen.

“My nurture was very poor,” she told the WSJ, “and it made me curious about my nature." Talented and prolific, Jewel stuck it long enough to get her big break with Dylan. Even more interesting from my perspective, she's stuck it out long after that first flush of success.

I think about creative longevity all the time. How do you keep it going? How do you keep it interesting? With Jewel, you have someone who never came close to repeating the popular success of her debut album but decades later still tours, still crafts fresh, new work—not only songs in many genres but poetry, prose, and acting—and mentors young artists herself. Talk about a body of work.

I don't think it's a coincidence that Dylan and Young mentored Jewel, but I'd guess it's more correlation than causation. They didn't make her who she is as much as see a kindred spirit, someone who was also wildly prolific and insanely determined. The lesson Jewel really took from both men? She wasn't "entitled to comfort." Jewel had a responsibility to "follow her muse, even in directions that didn’t lead to praise or recognition."

I still remember the surprise and disappointment I felt when Jewel followed Pieces of You with a book of poetry. I'd wanted another album of catchy songs just like the first one and I didn't get it. Clearly, I didn't get it.

“I really value growth and learning, which is why I’ve always pushed myself to explore new genres,” Jewel said. “That can be a difficult thing in a really public job, because growth is awkward and it’s imperfect, but it’s really what turns me on.”

I need to go back and read that first book of poetry.

p.s. If you haven't seen Jewel doing undercover karaoke, singing her own songs in disguise, do so now.

p.p.s. My friend Maggie Langrick, founder and publisher of Wonderwell, interviewed me for her podcast, the Selfish Gift. The theme of the discussion was writing a great book, and we covered many elements of that along the way, including:

  • Why differentiation—identifying what sets your book apart from others like it—must always be your starting point.
  • How to "think like a reader" to identify your target audience.
  • Why bestselling books aren't always the best books.
  • How to build a good "hook" into your title and subtitle for a package that sells.
  • Tips on the writing process.

If any of that sounds relevant, go listen to the episode or, better yet, subscribe to the podcast. Lots of great guests so far, and Maggie's just getting started.

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