In July, 2012, I turned the corner to the back area of Crush Bar after paying my tab. Burnt, Tongue, the reading series dedicated to Tom Spanbauer and his infamous Dangerous Writers writing group had just wrapped for the evening. I had just videod the event, and read a piece that I wrote.
I was expecting someone who wanted to tell me that they didn’t want their reading to be in the final show on YouTube, but when I turned the corner, there was my writing teacher Tom Spanbauer leaning on a wall, his arm up over his head, talking to my father, who was in town for the week.
My two worlds came together in a conversation that was not meant for me.
“You should be proud of your son,” Tom said to my Dad, “he’s a great writer.”
And this memory, the one of Tom speaking to my Dad has everything to do with this song that I can’t seem to get away from.
It’s a song that connects my present, my past, and is already a part of my future. When I hear it, I move through time, from a young guy in his twenties to now.
The song is Tom Petty’s “Walls”
Some days are diamonds
Some days are rocks
Some doors are open
Some roads are blocked
Writing, at the center of things is an act of love. An expression of who we are, of digging down beyond the surface of things. When it’s done right it can be one of life’s great joys.
But it wasn’t always that way. For a time, writing was me not being satisfied with myself, I was a draft that I couldn’t get right no matter how many times I tried.
Which is why turning the corner that day, and seeing Tom telling my father I was all right meant so much to me. Approval was everything to me back then, and it’s still a thing with me, now. Because even though I’m 46 next week, I still need someone to tell me I’m doing a good job.
And this scene was too good to be true, like someone had broken into my dreams and taken the two male dominant father figures in my life and made up a scene where the two of them were talking. Those two together in the same room just didn’t feel real.
I’ve had more than one Tom as my teacher.
Tom, my other Tom, the one who died last year. Tom Petty, was the one I could always depend on to musically walk me through to the next phase of my life.
In “Walls” the thing Tom Petty is talking about is what you do when something that was important to you for years is now over.
Because back in 2016, after 10 years, of meeting Tom, and the whole Dangerous Writing Group thing was no longer a thing. What was once a five hour a week writing workshop with some of the greatest minds I’d ever met was now over.
Burnt Tongue was where we got together, and read our own words inspired by Tom. It was a way to honor him and put our own words out into the world. We’d been doing it like it was the most normal thing in the world, videotaping readers, reading their words aloud, on stage to a room full of strangers. We’d been doing this four times a year for six years. And now, it was time to celebrate the end.
The end, not just of six years of Burnt Tongue, but thirty years of Dangerous Writers gathered for one final night. And what a night it was. This thing I’d been doing. Videotaping readers and occasionally going up there myself. The last few years had been rough after Tom got ill, but on the last night of Burnt Tongue he was aware just how much people loved him.
And now that this whole thing was over, Dangerous Writers, Burnt Tongue, and Tom no longer my teacher, and now I had to pick up the the pieces and walk through this life on my own.
Some things are over,
Some things go on,
Part of me you carry,
Part of me is gone
That last line, that’s the one I was singing to myself on that last of Burnt Tongue, when I was taking down my tripod, and putting the camera away, and people came up to me, for hugs and blessings, for the last time we do this thing. Was how I was going to hold onto this feeling, that even though we are not the group we used to be, there is still limitless possibility.
I was still a student when I first became a teacher. Tom Spanbauer showed me how to take a situation a student might be going through and try to experience it with them. Open up your heart and mind to the struggles of what they are going through, hold their art up to the light and examine its skeleton. The hurt, sore broken places we write from will tell you about how that person needs to be cared for.
Tom taught me to write from the sore places, he taught me that pain can light up our darkest nights.
And while Tom Spanbauer taught me how to write with a minimalist bent, it was another Tom who first introduced me to saying the biggest thing with the fewest amount of words. Because in his songs, Tom Petty reached up to the sky and pulled down universal truths and put them into words as simple and plain spoken as anything.
And all around your island
There’s a barricade
It keeps out the danger
Pulls in the pain.
Sometimes your happy
Sometimes you cry
Half of me is ocean, half of me is sky.
And that’s why Petty’s songs mean so much to so many people. Songs like Walls say the things that most songs cannot. They talk about life in a such a universal way, we can all get something out of his words. Even though the songs are made up of words and notes, we lean on them like people.
Walls is about standing at the crossroads of who you are and who you are going to be. It’s how things that meant a lot to me are not here and the people left don’t remember. It’s seeing who you are through the eyes of your children. Walls is the sound of one thing ending and a new thing beginning.
Walls is Tom Spanbauer and Dangerous Writers, and a pin I used to stare at at that mythical table in that mythical basement of his. That pin was in the same place where I sat each week, before I’d get that jump in my stomach when it was my turn to read.
The pin had a typewriter with a skull and flames all around it. And in embossed gold letters it said.
Write Hard. Die Free.
Walls is about owning your hard stuff, and finding your voice in muscle and bone.
You got a heart so big
you could crush this town
and I can’t hold out, forever
even walls fall down.
Tom visited me twice while I wrote this. The first time was after a day of jury duty. The bus stop at the end of the first day, I’d been writing about Tom all day. Walked down the bus mall and there he was, on a bench waiting for the Number 12 to Morrison.
I had to stop to see if Tom was some sort of a mirage conjured by the words I’d written. I had to see if Tom was really there, to see if he was 3 dimensional.
But it was him.
“Just wandering around downtown.” He said. He had his shirt buttoned up to the top button. He said it to the ground like these days he was always wandering.
The second time was a few days later at the opening of the fine art flash fiction book The Untold Gaze at the Froelick Gallery.Tom was behind me in the 3rd row.
I got up to read. I held onto the book, with it’s rubbery fit into your hands dust jacket. This book, this collection had a piece of my writing in it.
I stood up there and read the piece loud and strong and clear. The next day I got this message online from Stephen, one of the creators of the book.
“I wanted you to know that Tom,” the little bit of white writing in the blue bubble told me, “when you read, he was smiling.”
Walls is getting approval when you don’t need it anymore.
Walls is from one Tom to another, Tom Petty, who taught me the strength in few words and Tom Spanbauer, who taught me not only how to write but how to teach and how to love by writing about the things that scare me.
And maybe, most important, just how important it is to listen to your ghosts, for they are the ones that give you perspective, the ones that knew who you were, and through their dead voices, if you listen close enough, they’ll tell you how only you can make this world your own, but to do it, you’ll have to stand on your own, with and without your teachers.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Adam Strong is the author of the novel, Bella Vista, and the founder of the Songbook PDX reading series. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Atticus Review, Nailed Magazine, Gravity of the Thing and in the anthologies City of Weird, The Untold Gaze, and How Anything can Grow from this, a benefit for RAICES. He writes and loves in Portland, OR.