Author Graeme Simsion on the Journey that Changed Him

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Apr 20, 2017

Seeing Bob Dylan woo a tough crowd in Idaho cemented the tech CEO’s decision to take up a creative life.

I didn't see it as a midlife crisis. I was just a 43-year-old CEO who had sold his business to become a screenwriter. At least, that was my declared intention. My education and work had been in technology and management and I hadn’t written fiction since high school. Nor did I have a sense of what a creative life might entail. What would I seek in place of win-win deals, customer satisfaction and professional development?

I was coping with the gap between ambition and reality by ignoring it. Until the new owners took over the company, it was business as usual – which, in 2000, meant a trip to Washington, DC, to speak at a data-management conference.

A colleague pulled me up as I vacillated about which tutorial to attend on the first day. She may have sensed that I was undergoing a personal reinvention: the previous day, I’d shaved my head to support leukaemia research after growing a goatee in anticipation. And there was the earring. “What’s the point of learning about stuff you’re not going to use?” she asked.

“Go to a concert or something.”

It had been a long time since I had wagged school (27 years since I’d hung out at Charlie’s place listening to Bob Dylan LPs). I put aside the conference program, changed my flights to include a stopover in Pocatello, Idaho, and bought a ticket to a Dylan concert.

En route, my makeover had disconcerting effects. I’d never been asked for ID in the airline club before and immigration offcials had a few questions about the conference I was claiming to be attending. When a local offered me a ride from the airport to my motel, I wasn’t sure if it was because – or in spite – of the earring. But I was beginning to enjoy being in my new skin.

The arena was more used to football and rodeo and I guessed the audience was, too. There were enough vacant seats that I didn’t feel guilty about grabbing one in the front row. Dylan opened with a crowd-pleasing bluegrass number, forgot the words to Mr Tambourine Man then turned it around by nailing It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding). Hard to tell what the punters made of it.

The sun had gone down when he came forward with his acoustic guitar and sang a new song about growing old. For ve minutes, he held that small-town audience spellbound. There’s not always a lot of logic to moments of revelation and I’d have been hard-pressed to explain why, during that song, I signed up emotionally to the journey I’d committed to. Part of it was the power of art to move us, to connect. Part of it was seeing someone 15 years older than me still doing original work. And part of it was being at Holt Arena, Pocatello, rather than the [UK’s] Royal Albert Hall: seeing that artistic success is not always about numbers or even critical reception.

In years to come, I would adopt Dylan as a role model and cop my share of derision for following a rock star instead of a literary luminary. Fortunately, his Nobel Prize has sorted that one out for me.