Tom Waits Chimes In - Permission

Big magic: creative living beyond fear - Elizabeth Gilbert 2015

Tom Waits Chimes In

Years ago, I interviewed the musician Tom Waits for a profile in GQ magazine. I’ve spoken about this interview before and I will probably speak about it forever, because I’ve never met anyone who was so articulate and wise about creative living.

In the course of our interview, Waits went on a whimsical rant about all the different forms that song ideas will take when they’re trying to be born. Some songs, he said, will come to him with an almost absurd ease, “like dreams taken through a straw.” Other songs, though, he has to work hard for, “like digging potatoes out of the ground.” Still other songs are sticky and weird, “like gum found under an old table,” while some songs are like wild birds that he must come at sideways, sneaking up on them gently so as not to scare them into flight.

The most difficult and petulant songs, though, will only respond to a firm hand and an authoritative voice. There are songs, Waits says, that simply will not allow themselves to be born, and that will hold up the recording of an entire album. Waits has, at such moments, cleared the studio of all the other musicians and technicians so he can have a stern talking-to with a particularly obstinate song. He’ll pace the studio alone, saying aloud, “Listen, you! We’re all going for a ride together! The whole family’s already in the van! You have five minutes to get on board, or else this album is leaving without you!”

Sometimes it works.

Sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes you have to let it go. Some songs just aren’t serious about wanting to be born yet, Waits said. They only want to annoy you, and waste your time, and hog your attention—perhaps while they’re waiting for a different artist to come along. He has become philosophical about such things. He used to suffer and anguish over losing songs, he said, but now he trusts. If a song is serious about being born, he trusts that it will come to him in the right manner, at the right time. If not, he will send it along its way, with no hard feelings.

“Go bother someone else,” he’ll tell the annoying song-that-doesn’t-want-to-be-a-song. “Go bother Leonard Cohen.”

Over the years, Tom Waits finally found his sense of permission to deal with his creativity more lightly—without so much drama, without so much fear. A lot of this lightness, Waits said, came from watching his children grow up and seeing their total freedom of creative expression. He noticed that his children felt fully entitled to make up songs all the time, and when they were done with them, they would toss them out “like little origami things, or paper airplanes.” Then they would sing the next song that came through the channel. They never seemed to worry that the flow of ideas would dry up. They never stressed about their creativity, and they never competed against themselves; they merely lived within their inspiration, comfortably and unquestioningly.

Waits had once been the opposite of that as a creator. He told me that he’d struggled deeply with his creativity in his youth because—like many serious young men—he wanted to be regarded as important, meaningful, heavy. He wanted his work to be better than other people’s work. He wanted to be complex and intense. There was anguish, there was torment, there was drinking, there were dark nights of the soul. He was lost in the cult of artistic suffering, but he called that suffering by another name: dedication.

But through watching his children create so freely, Waits had an epiphany: It wasn’t actually that big a deal. He told me, “I realized that, as a songwriter, the only thing I really do is make jewelry for the inside of other people’s minds.” Music is nothing more than decoration for the imagination. That’s all it is. That realization, Waits said, seemed to open things up for him. Songwriting became less painful after that.

Intracranial jewelry-making! What a cool job!

That’s basically what we all do—all of us who spend our days making and doing interesting things for no particularly rational reason. As a creator, you can design any sort of jewelry that you like for the inside of other people’s minds (or simply for the inside of your own mind). You can make work that’s provocative, aggressive, sacred, edgy, traditional, earnest, devastating, entertaining, brutal, fanciful . . . but when all is said and done, it’s still just intracranial jewelry-making. It’s still just decoration. And that’s glorious. But it’s seriously not something that anybody needs to hurt themselves over, okay?

So relax a bit, is what I’m saying.

Please try to relax.

Otherwise, what’s the point of having all these wonderful senses in the first place?