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What Would Tom Waits Do?

Dear smart, beautiful, savvy members of the Powell's literati:

How are you today? I'm hoping that we can all agree that Tom Waits is a badass.I'm hoping that we can all agree that Tom Waits is a badass. I mean, how many amazing songs has he written? How many times has he reinvented himself over the years? I admire his seemingly fearless ability to shatter our expectations.

Sometimes I pretend that Waits gives me pep talks on days when I'm writing predictable blasé sentences. That's probably not something that I should admit in public, but we're all friends here, right? Well, aren't we? Here's how it normally plays out between Waits and me:

"Why don't you try something you've never done before?" Tom asks. "Blow our minds with something unexpected."

I shrug my shoulders, hem and haw, crippled with obviousness. "It's not that easy. Stop making it sound so simple."

"Seriously," he says, "if this is the best work you can do, why not make balloon animals instead?"

I guess I'm so interested in defying expectations because I'm trying to write a comedy. So far, I've written three very dark, very macabre novels, and I want to flex some different narrative muscles with the next project. But I'm also really scared about it. What if I get outside my comfort zone and I can't do it? What if all I have is my comfort zone? I think I'll go cry now...

I guess the bottom line is that, as an artist, you have to be willing to failI guess the bottom line is that, as an artist, you have to be willing to fail. You have to be brazen enough to challenge yourself, knowing that it might not work. Tom Waits consistently does this, and I hope to grow into that kind of artist myself: one who pushes himself to learn and grow, despite the fact I might fall on my face.

How about you? What kind of writers do you admire? Ones who tread the same material or ones who excavate new parts of their imaginations? If you write, is this something you're conscious of?

Here's the fourth installment of the short story I've been posting in segments this week. The ending will go live tomorrow. Enjoy!!

"paris, 2009" (part 4)

"Have we landed in Paris?" the girl with the black eye asked.

"I'm doing my best," the street artist said, which was what he'd been telling people for years. He drew Tyler's face snarling and beads of sweat collecting and leaking from his forehead and his right hand was knotted into a fist, scars across his knuckles, and his left hand had the girl with the black eye by the hair and there was a conversation bubble coming from Tyler's mouth that said "Abort that baby!" and the street artist hadn't drawn the Eiffel Tower behind them because he didn't want to take them anywhere. He wanted them to remain here, with him, with her black eye and their baby's bruised face and Tyler's rollicking demons: he wanted them stuck in their own lives the way he was soldered to his.

"I think I'm finished," the street artist said and he turned the portrait around for them to see, and their faces were astonished, and no one said anything for about 10 seconds and finally Tyler stood up and said, "What the fuck?" and the street artist said, "It looks just like you, huh?" and Tyler said, "What's your problem?" and he knocked over the easel, and the street artist kept holding up the picture and said, "Do you see yourself?" and the girl with the black eye sat there speechless, and the street artist said it again, "Do you see yourself?" and Tyler ripped the portrait from the street artist's hand and, much like the actual picture, knotted his right hand into a fist and punched the street artist in the jaw, who fell backward onto the sidewalk, and Tyler crumpled the portrait up into his right hand and punched the street artist with it in his fist and said, "Who do you think you are?" and a couple people walking by pulled Tyler off of the street artist and he and the girl with the black eye walked away, arm in arm, Tyler consoling her with each step they took in the opposite direction.

÷ ÷ ÷

Joshua Mohr is the author of the novels Termite Parade (a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice selection), Some Things That Meant the World to Me (one of O Magazine's Top 10 reads of 2009 and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller), Damascus, and Fight Song, all published to much critical acclaim. All This Life is his latest book. Mohr teaches in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Termite Parade
    Sale Trade Paper $11.50
  2. Some Things That Meant the World to Me
    Used Trade Paper $10.95
  3. Damascus
    Used Trade Paper $10.95
  4. Fight Song
    Used Trade Paper $10.95
  5. All This Life
    Sale Hardcover $17.50

Joshua Mohr is the author of Damascus

2 Responses to "What Would Tom Waits Do?"

    Jess October 14th, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    I am also inspired by the illustrious Mr. Waits. After my first viewing of Big Time, I felt I had been given permission to be myself, authentically, and to trust my choices. Nothing he does ever smacks of bullshit, something that is rarer than hen's teeth in this world that is seemingly chock full of uncomfortably self-conscious poseurs dripping in affectation. You've set for yourself a pretty high bar and I applaud your choice. I, myself, have a lifelong friend in mind when I write, someone who would know in a heartbeat if I were putting on airs, taking the easy way out, or 'acting all high-tadiddling'. Plus, she's a taskmaster when it comes to syntax. Best of luck in your endeavors.

    Joshua Mohr October 17th, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Thanks, Jess!! I hope your taskmaster keeps you generating lots of yummy prose.

    All the best,

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