I’m Steve Adams, a writer, writing coach, and a freelance editor who’s studied a wide range of artistic forms before landing, quite late, on prose. As I’ve always been fascinated by the artistic process, I decided to start working my ideas out on the page, using a quote from a writer or other kind of artist as a prompt. I hope my column, “About Your Writing,” is useful to you.
“I like sitting at the piano. I like the idea that there are things coming in through the window and through you and then down to the piano and out the window on the other side. If you want to catch songs you gotta start thinking like one, and making yourself an interesting place for them to land like birds or insects. Once you get two or three tunes together, wherever three or more are gathered, then others come. It’s like a line for a hot dog place, you know? And when there’s four people lined up on the sidewalk, some people will stop and get in line just ‘cause there’s a line.”—Tom Waits
This month I’m quoting one of my personal heroes—Tom Waits. So now I get to tell my Tom Waits story. I’d been a fan for years before I moved to New York in the early 80’s, and I got a job that beat me up beyond all recognition in a wine store on Astor Place. This move to the city had failed on multiple levels, and I knew my days were numbered, but one night Tom Waits came walking down the aisle toward me, dressed like a bum, rocking back and forth like a tugboat in a strong wind. So like a fool I announced, “Mr. Tom Waits!” He rolled with it, thankfully, and we talked music for several minutes. When I tried to provide him a graceful exit and asked him what was he looking for, he told me he’d heard Portuguese wines were both good as well as a good value. I told him that indeed this was true. So I, on the edge of the Lower East Side in New York City, proceeded to sell Mr. Tom Waits a bottle of Portuguese wine.
Now this may not have a lot to do with the amazing quote above, but I think it’s useful to realize such notions do come from flesh-and-blood artists just trying their best to somehow get their art into the world, and plenty of them appreciate good value in wine because they aren’t as rich as we imagine. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert has a related quote where she says, “Ideas of every kind are constantly galloping towards us, constantly passing through us, constantly trying to get our attention. Let them know you’re available.” And maybe you don’t like Tom Waits. And maybe you don’t like Elizabeth Gilbert. That’s fine, but they are hardly the only two artists out there who have a sense of creative ideas in the ethers with their own agendas and wishes, entirely separate from the artists who channel them into the world.
If one decides to take this imaginative step, what its psychological ju-jitsu does, besides creating a sense of delight and play and magic, is it separates out the artist’s ego from the equation. After all, if the artist, instead of seeing themselves as some profound and visionary genius, instead sees themselves as more of a landing spot for ideas, a medium, then they’re off the hook as far as taking credit. And taking credit and getting a big head can quickly get in the way, trust me. Also there’s suddenly less pressure on having to be so smart, so it’s easier to just get down to the work.
What? Me smart? Aw shucks, I’m just good at catching ideas.
The other thing that happens is this move opens up and sensitizes the artist to what is going on around them, outside of their heads, outside of themselves. So to repeat: 1) the ego is appropriately pushed out of the way, 2) the artist is opened up to what’s in the air around them, and 3) And I do believe this: ideas actually appreciate this and are more likely to visit if you’re open to what makes them unique and special instead of you. And maybe this idea sounds crackers, but c’mon, we create entire worlds from nothing but black marks against a white background. So if we don’t get to do some magical thinking now and then, who does?
If this doesn’t sound irredeemably nuts to you, if it doesn’t scramble your sense of the rational universe to the point you can hardly walk across the room, try this perspective on and see if it opens up anything, and if anything comes in when you do, welcome it. Say thank you.
Here’s another way of thinking about this that’s not quite as woo-woo. It’s a fact that stories do find some people more than others, and I’m convinced they find writers more than anyone. A rational way of looking at it may be that writers are more open to story material and so notice potential stories around them, like a painter is more likely to notice a patch of sky at night that is indigo instead of black, where the eyes of the civilian might not notice the difference. I have no doubt that this is true, but it sure is more fun to think that stories are out there wanting to find me so that I might write them, and “fun” makes my juices flow more freely. And let’s face it, there simply are people who have more and better stories. I’ve always been told this, that I seem to stumble across good stories.
An example from last night. I was sitting at a bar looking at my laptop in Memphis when a skinny wound-up skateboarder on the stool next to me told the woman on the other side of him, a tough and well-traveled woman, that he was thinking about going to rehab. Of course he had a beer in front of him, as is often the case when this subject comes up in bars. Well, the woman, with a dismissive wave of her hand replied, “Honey, I been to rehab four times.” I mean, in my imagination I could just follow her home (or him, or them) and the story would start telling itself.
Stories are everywhere. Do what you can to open yourself to their possibilities.
Steve Adams’s writing has won a Pushcart Prize and Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s award, been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays, and anthologized. His prose is widely published, and his plays have been produced in New York City. His debut novel, Remember This, will be published by The University of Wisconsin Press in Fall 2022. He’s a writing coach and freelance editor at www.steveadamswriting.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @iamsteveadams.