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Happy Birthday Tom Robbins! Time to revisit your advice to writers

I’ve never known a great author to be more generous with useful advice about the craft of writing than Tom Robbins.

If you’ve yet to discover this fabulous author, Robbins has written many bestselling novels including Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Jitterbug Perfume, Skinny Legs and All and others.

His funny, surprising and masterful prose is lyrical and rhythmic, with a kind of musical style that disguises his underlying irony and serious intentions.

So on the occasion of his birthday July 22nd*, we’re honoring Tom with a collection of his inspiring words for writers, culled from earlier interviews and conversations in my role as his one-time editor and ongoing pal.

* Scroll down for an exclusive revelation just in from Tom, aka Dr. Rotten

On the power of language

“Remember that language is not the frosting, it’s the cake. Rhythmical language and vivid imagery possess a power of effect that is independent from content.

Metaphors have the capacity to heat up a scene and eternalize an image, to lift a line of prose out of the mundane mire of mere fictional reportage and lodge it in the luminous honeycomb of the collective psyche.”

On sticking with it until it’s right

“Challenge every single sentence for lucidity, accuracy, originality, and cadence. If it doesn’t meet the challenge, work on it until it does.”

While I was editing Jitterbug Perfume, Tom would read me a passage aloud to see how it sounded. Sometimes I’d comment, sometimes I wouldn’t. But each time I heard it again, it had changed.  I saw how many times he would rewrite a passage and how much he relished doing it.

“Sometimes 40 times,” he told me.

He took the process of conception, research, trial and error very seriously, moving things around, changing voices and pitch. He wrote slowly and carefully, revised constantly, refining and evolving the novel over the course of about two years.

On getting better

“Never be afraid to make a fool of yourself. The furthest out you can go is the best place to be, but pushing the envelope has to come naturally, you can’t force it.

Always compare yourself to the best. Even if you never measure up, it can’t help but make you better. I look for a pitch next to madness.

A talented writer can, with practice, patience and intense focus, always improve.”

On choosing a life of writing

“Focus on the work itself and not on what may or may not eventually happen to it. If the work is good enough, it’ll take care of itself.

Write every day without fail, even if it’s only for half an hour, even if you’re savagely hung over and your grandmother has just fallen out of a third-story window.

Don’t talk about it – you’ll talk it away. Let the ideas flow from your mind to the page without exposing them to air. Especially hot air.

Above all, have a good time. If you aren’t enjoying writing it, you can hardly expect someone else to enjoy reading it.

If you don’t actually like to write, love to write, feel driven and compelled to write — then you’re probably better off abandoning your ambition in favor of a more legitimate career.”

On writing dialogue

“There was a time in my early so-called career when I would snare in my mental net witty lines that I overheard at parties or gallery openings, inserting them at appropriate places in my manuscripts — only to discover later, much to my embarrassment, that the line had not been original with the speaker but rather lifted verbatim from some television comedy show.

I aborted that practice decades ago. But years later, I rode city buses in New Orleans to get a feel for the conversations of the black riders. It was their manner of speech rather than exact expressions that I was after, and this experiment proved quite helpful in assuring that the dialogue in Jitterbug Perfume was authentic.”

I can vouch for the dialogue he created for his unforgettable characters in that book, in particular the sly and conniving Pan, the Goat God, who appears memorably.

On the requirements of social networking for authors today

“When I hear how difficult it’s become for a young novelist who isn’t a Twitter diva or Facebook star to get published these days, I thank the gods that I came of age before barbaric electrons ate the printing press.

Look at that woman who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey. She’s no more adept at writing than a cat is at swimming, but she’s purring and doing the backstroke all the way to the bank.”

On grand finales

“At the conclusion of my novels, the careful reader will note that every loose thread has been picked up and tied together in a culminative bow. At the same time, however, I want to leave the reader with the impression that the narrative is continuing off-stage, that the story and its characters are moving forward into the future.

It’s akin to the end of a rafting trip. You take your raft out of the water and pack up your gear to go home, but in the distance you can hear another rapid downstream or around the bend and you know that while you are done with it for now, the river itself flows on and on. It’s a conclusion with a forward projection.”

Here, as a fitting finale for this birthday celebration, are the last lines of Jitterbug Perfume:

The lesson of the beet, then, is this: hold on to your divine blush, your innate rosy magic, or end up brown. Once you’re brown, you’ll find that you’re blue. As blue as indigo. And you know what that means: Indigo. Indigoing. Indigone.

*Breaking revelation just in from Tom

“Thanks for honoring me in such an effulgent manner, and for remembering my birthday.

And speaking of birthdays, do you have any friends at the Library of Congress, someone to whom I could mail a copy of my birth certificate? You see I was actually born in 1932, not ’36, and turned 81, not 77, on Monday. Neither Wikipedia nor my foreign publishers will correct the date at my request, because the Library of Congress has the date differently and — obviously — the Library of Congress is God.  If you have any ideas how I might persuade the LOC to correct my birthdate, please advise. I didn’t know the water in the Fountain of Youth had become so polluted.

Thanks again to you and your electrons for honoring the anniversary of that day when I stepped from womb much as a ham actor steps from the wings.”

Dr. Rotten

What about you?

Does Tom speak to you? We’d love to hear what you think, so spill it here in comments.


  1. Tabitha Maine says

    Wonderful article.

    Sticking with it until it’s right is what spoke to me.

    It’s so easy for people to quickly upload their manuscript before they’re ready. It’s a hard temptation to resist but if the book isn’t ready, then it’s not ready.

    I imagine many writers feel a self-imposed urgency and pressure to get it done. Ultimately, I feel, we do more harm than good to ourselves when we prematurely upload our book.

    I’m struggling to resist the temptation. Even now, I don’t know how much longer I can stand waiting.

  2. Michael C. Donnelly says

    With Robbins, there’s always a lot of pasta and cheese under the red-eye gravy.

    My favorite Robbins quote, one I use to scrape the plaque off my dendrites, regards the theme that interests him most. He says, “Our great human adventure is the evolution of consciousness. We are in this life to enlarge the soul, liberate the spirit, and light up the brain.”

    Tom, may your 82nd trip around the sun bring you many moments of joy.

  3. says

    I’m loving “language is not the frosting” – exemplified so perfectly by “She’s no more adept at writing than a cat is at swimming, but she’s purring and doing the backstroke all the way to the bank”.
    Thanks so much for this whole article – and many many more happy birthdays to Tom!

  4. says

    It’s amazing the influence Tom Robbins had on a generation. Backpacking through Europe, you could always tell the cool kids by the ones who had a copy of Robbins out while sprawled on a railway platform in the Gard du Nord or on the ferry to Santorini. (Somewhat harder was telling the posers also carrying his books — but they revealed themselves quick enough…) He was cool like Kim Deal, even before Deal hit the scene.

    If language was everything, he would have succeeded, but his characters and imagery and story lines are also strong and unique in themselves, and only add rich layers. Reading a Robbins’ novel is unlike reading anything else.

    Happy birthday to Tom Robbins. He’s still the voice of a generation — those of the generation that matter, anyway — and a true writer’s writer.


  5. says

    Happy birthday to Tom Robbins! I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know his work but intend to rectify hat immediately. The titles alone intrigue me.

    I work hard on language but feel I don’t do we’ll enough with it. So, I love the quotes, “language is not the frosting, it’s the cake. “, challenge every single sentence” and “don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself” .

    For many of us new writers, it’s common to feel we should be better t this writing thing than we are…even though we’ve only just begun. One of my favorite lines that I keep in plan view as I write is, ” don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle”. I try to remember its okay to be new and just learning and practicing.

    Wonderful article! Off to purchase one of Tom Robbins’ books!

  6. Alex Bjorn says

    i grew up just a few doors down from Mr. Robbins domestic cave outside seattle. i never met him or got to know any of work during that time, i did however help his wife pick some weeds in the yard once. from what i remember she paid well. his books were on my mothers bookshelves and his name came up at some of the dinner parties we had at home, but it wasn’t until a couple years after i had left that small town and moved into the great suburban unknown of north seattle that i picked up Another Roadside Attraction. it spoke of love and lust, god, satan, shamanry, travel, emotion and objectivity like i had never heard before. sure other people had touched it with a poetic bent or a funky flow, but no set of words had tackled with such clarity and pizazz so much of what i thought was wrong with the world. only a few weeks after ripping through Another Roadside Attraction like a cooped up pitbull to a stuffed pig, i was watching a surf-travel documentary, Thicker Than Water, while doing english homework. the world as i was being sold was looking less and less attractive. the mummy of jesus was in my backyard with a flea circus and wild gypsy love going around. surfers on the other side of the world were living in vans and making homes away from home on fertile, lonely beaches. i was off and running.

    my english journal became just MY journal, and my eyes were opened wider, a few extra hairs popped out of my chest and i questioned the authority around me with a bit more conviction after reading Villa Incognito. Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates was the store of gems that i fished my senior quote out of- ‘women love fierce invalids home from hot climates’. i was beginning to understand that my entire high school experience was a battle of cool and that to step outside of the race and seek my own mystery was what would really satisfy my hunger for whatever it was we all seemed to be fighting for.

    after high school, my journey down the rabbit hole deepened with experiences among the world and within myself. through accompaniment on travels for work and pleasure, downtime at home, adventures in the forest, as gifts for those i cherish, Tom Robbins has played a vital role in the expanding of myself and those around me. a number of different times, dear friends have written or spoke to me of how thankful they were for whatever book i passed on to them and of its influence on their life. every lover of any consequence has received either Jitterbug Perfume or Still Life With Woodpecker. of the many tools available for the soul evolvement we all came here for, a well understood and applied Robbins novel has proven to be right up there with a strong dose of something divine with people i trust or a spell of time in connection as the birds and bees see it. Still Life With Woodpecker helped cement a soft spot for red heads that may continue on with me until the day i die. i think they really are from another place in the stars… Jitterbug Perfume, and the red head i was in love with at the time, were turning points for me in my understanding of what it looks like to be in love. Wild Ducks Flying backwards has been with me on a majority of outdoor adventures as entertainment while bumbling down the trail, clearing felled trees from abandoned trails, eating dinner on mountain top camps over sunset and many another beautiful moment i cherish. Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas sold me on the mystery to be sought out in the cities i hadn’t given a fair chance. Even Cow Girls Get The Blues was the most satisfying play i’d ever seen, almost as good as the book itself. most recently, i read skinny legs and all. it hooked me like a trout who has developed a taste for power bait at a catch and release lake. as i step into creating what i will, a book that tackles concepts of art and global perspective with such candor and wit was just the medicine this human was asking for. My own unveiling is going on. a global unveiling is going on. when an artist tunes in and channels the shifting tides of the universe through macro and micro perspectives, it becomes timeless. i dont know that that great art is always timeless, but i feel all timeless art is great. no matter where you are in the timeline of history, herstory or anystory, speaking of what is around you from the truest and farthest off depths you can soar or sink to is of massive importance to the human game.

    thanks, Tom, for inspiring so many of us with a shot of much needed swift air up our fear puckered butt holes and an alive slap of reality across our veiled eyes to dive into the steaming pile of Life in front of you with gusto in one hand and a few good questions in the other. happiest day of bodily birth to you. may your days be as sweet and real as a beet shake.

    and to say goodbye, a quote, with a couple changed words, from lyrics out of Wild Ducks Flying Backwards. see y’all on the other side of the veil!

    ‘now some people say i’m a leftover hippie, a loser, a drifter, or worse. but i’m a loner from the north end of aurora, the center of the known universe’

  7. says

    Thanks for posting this. I especially enjoyed the comment, “Never be afraid to make a fool of yourself.” I think too many authors and people learning foreign languages never share their thoughts because they’re afraid of making mistakes.

  8. says

    Within the four and a half seconds of agonizing remembrance and tantric appreciation I felt at the revelation of Mr. Robbins anniversary coinciding with that of a great love from my life, nay, life in general, I also recalled that it was taco night at The Coyote Moon here in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. The accompanying cold beer will be for you and the rest, sir.

  9. says

    Thank you for these inspiring quotes.They left me with more questions than answers.
    For example: “Focus on the work itself and not on what may or may not eventually happen to it. If the work is good enough, it’ll take care of itself.”
    I wish I could be that optimist. The fact is another quote contradicts this one, “When I hear how difficult it’s become for a young novelist who isn’t a Twitter diva or Facebook star to get published these days, I thank the gods that I came of age before barbaric electrons ate the printing press.”
    Marketing your novel is often referred to as the back bone of success.
    Pitching a novel after all is not the art of showing an agent how well you understand today’s market and what you can do to publicize your book?
    Because of the competition, a writer has become more of a salesperson than a writer. So, focus only on your book sounds like the voice of another generation, long gone.

  10. says

    I thank (and bless) the parents of Tom Robbins for giving readers of his books a chance to launch their minds into such a unique realm. As an editor and the owner of some actual Jitterbug Perfume, my experience is that this title edited my life. Thank you, Mr. Rinzler, for this tribute. I thank your parents too.

  11. April Abrams says

    Oh T.R.,
    How you’ve inspired me!! I’m surprised at your age as you seem much younger (Alobar?) since you introduced us, I’ve loved and identified with Amanda and thanks to you I know to try and stroke every leaf on every tree while driving (fast) I can say that I love you and mean it even with never having met you. Thank you for all you have shared with our world and thank you for all the work you do on your sentences. I can imagine you’d be editing into infinity w/o all of us loyal fans eagerly awaiting your next enigma. XO

  12. says

    My first Tom Robbins read was ‘Skinny Legs And All’. I read all his other novels with an insatiable and voracious hunger in the following 4 months.
    ‘Jitterbug Perfume’ stands out however as my favorite, this quote from it is something I’ve always felt a strong association to:
    “If desire causes suffering, it may be because we do not desire wisely, or that we are inexpert at obtaining what we desire. Instead of hiding our heads in a prayer cloth and building walls against temptation, why not get better at fulfilling desire? Salvation is for the feeble, that’s what I think. I don’t want salvation, I want life, all of life, the miserable as well as the superb.”

    To me this means to be your own savior by accepting what comes and adapting, but never giving in. A theme I use frequently in my poetry. I’ve named Tom Robbins in my dedication as one of many muses for my second collection of poetry ‘Energy Joins All’ which I am in the process of re-formatting for e-publication currently.

    Thank you Tom Robbins for your amazing self. I wish you a happy belated or early birthday, and that you see many, many more in good health. I hope someday to be lucky enough to pick your brain over tea and a doobie. Be Well!
    -A. Bougie

  13. says

    Not only does he speak to me, Mr Robbins actually SPOKE to me. And that’s the truth says Edith Anne (via Lily Tomlin)
    He has a delightful slow Southern drawl; but you know I have never heard him shout: that is when you hear the real voice in all of its glory.

  14. Peggy Evans says

    I have enjoyed reading Tom Robbins books for the last 30 years. A very dear friend turned me onto his books as he was suffering from aids he made me promise I would read all his books. I did and they changed my life forever. Happy Birthday Tom!

  15. Martin K Ruffner says

    From the moment I read Still life with Woodpecker i felt connected. Glad he is able to share the fun from between his ears. Very funny stuff that resonates.

  16. says

    Tom Robbins and my late, award-winning, gonzo journalist father, Darrell Bob Houston, were, essentially, brothers from a different mother. (I’m in no way comparing their unreplicable writing styles. I’m talking more of their many roadside distractions they had together.) And they had a lot of those…from Tacoma to Tokyo! One of my favorite memories about Tom, was celebrating our July birthdays together at the Seattle Public Market. When I was 10, in 1969, he bought me a huge $10 “ruby” ring. I no longer have it, but I remember exactly what it looked like. Ten dollars was a huge amount of money back that, and every time I looked at it, I felt as though, in relative terms, it was worth a million dollars (although, I don’t think I imagined that much money back then.)

    On another note, I’m one of the last people in the history of the world to join Facebook. I had to, so I could respond to readers’ comments as a contributing writer for Huffington Post. But, I’m sure glad I did, otherwise, I would have never been led to this wonderful site. Either way, I’ve had so much sorrow about becoming a writer after my dad passed away. What I would give to ask him one question about my writing! But, waking up this morning, and finding Robbins’ advice here, was yet another (significant) gift from Tom. Thank you, Tom! And to you, too, Mr. Rinzler for this website.

    I’m including my Huffington Post column here. There is a mention of time spent in Tokyo, and Robbins was part of that magical time in my family’s history, too. I have Tom’s home address, but not his email. Either way, I’d be so grateful if you’d please share this with him. All the best, ~khr

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