Simultaneously Present and Completely Gone: Music & Writing #1

On the day after Shared Worlds, I will be teaching a class on music and writing at the Writing in Place Conference in Spartanburg, SC.  The topic is so huge that I had no idea where to begin in narrowing it down. 

Music plays almost constantly in my life—while I am writing, driving, reading, you name it.  I take music like medicine.  Classical sharpens my thinking.  Jazz clarifies.  The Grateful Dead opens the flow.  Bob Dylan awakens mischief.  While I prefer long, exploratory instrumentals from guitarists like Jerry Garcia and Carlos Santana, the lyrics of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark open the parts of me that have to stay closed in order to prevent spontaneous weeping at inappropriate times.

While I do not play an instrument – I’ve tried just about everything at one time or another, it seems – I do like to improvise nonsense songs as I go through the day.  If I try to write those songs down, they skitter away and hide from my pen.

At times, I wonder about the complex relationship between my love of music and my inability to make real music.

The blurb for the Writing in Place Conference class reads as follows:

In what ways can music enhance your writing and creativity?  What can music — listening to it, seeing it live, playing it, writing it, etc. — teach you about writing?  Focusing on a variety of musical genres and drawing on commentary from a wide-range of writers, you will explore the many ways to intertwine your two loves: music and writing. 

Ambitious, no?  In a desperate attempt to get a handle on the topic, I’ve been asking other writers about their relationship with music. 

Here’s what Steven K. Brust, Thomas Cobb, Peter Conners, Stephen Leigh, and Sheri Reynolds have to say on the subject.


Steven K. Brust is the author of 19 novels, including the Dragaeron series.  In Brokedown Palace, Brust blends lyrics of Grateful Dead songs with Hungarian folklore.  Brust is also a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter.


Thomas Cobb is the author of Acts of Contrition, Crazy Heart, and Shavetail.  Donald Barthelme called Crazy Heart “a bitter, witty psychological profile of genius that is also a wonderful celebration of country music.”   Before his success as a fiction writer, Cobb was a music journalist.


Peter Conners is the author of Of Whiskey and Winter (poetry),  Emily Ate the Wind (novella), and  Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead (memoir), as well as the forthcoming  White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg.  Conners is a Deadhead and a musician.


Stephen Leigh writes under his own name, Matthew Farrell and S. L. Farrell.  As S. L. Farrell he wrote the Cloudmages trilogy and the the Nessantico Cycle, which continues with the recent A Magic a Dawn.  Leigh is a professor, martial artist, and musician.


Sheri Reynolds is the author of Bitterroot Landing, The Rapture of Canaan, A Gracious Plenty, and The Firefly Cloak. She is also a playwright, professor, and a musician.



In what ways do you or have you used music to enhance your writing and creativity?

Steven K. Brust:  This question is tough, because the answers are either too prosaic to be interesting or too esoteric to be useful.  For example, I type a lot, and play guitar, and drum.  Three things that can lead to carpal tunnel, but because I switch off, among them so far I’ve avoided it.  I suppose I have used music and musicians in my stories, but that’s because music is like food:  a part of life that matters to almost everyone to one degree or another, and can be used to provide insight into character.  

I know many people listen to music when they write; I do not.  I cannot.  If there is music on, it demands attention.  Voices I can filter out, music I want to listen to.

Stephen Leigh:  I’m always listening to music when I’m writing unless I’m in a public space with my laptop and without headphones. Otherwise, iTunes is always on, usually set to random play. Sometimes, for specific scenes, I’ll put on a particular tune or genre of music. For instance, while writing the Cloudmages series (which was Celtic fantasy), I was playing a lot of traditional Irish music. For the Nessantico Cycle, I would occasionally play medieval/renaissance music to put me in the right mood. Otherwise, I just let iTunes surprise me. I have very eclectic tastes in music. My library has some 14,000 pieces in it, and comprises everything from classical to jazz to rock to indie to world to folk to country to the various hard-to-classify pieces.

Thomas Cobb:  I used to listen to music while I wrote.  I don’t anymore.  I don’t know why.  It wasn’t a conscious decision as I remember.  It’s important to me.  There is always some sort of soundtrack running through my head, no matter what I’m doing.  How that influences me, I’m not sure.  I suspect it has something to do with the rhythm and cadences of what I do. 

Sheri Reynolds:  Music is usually a break for me from writing. Whenever I get stuck, I crank up the music and sing while I clean the kitchen or cook. Sometimes when I’m struggling with my writing, I’ll make myself work for an hour with the promise that afterwards, I can play my guitar until my fingers get tired. I often move between my laptop and my guitar during the work day.

Peter Conners:  Well, I’m always listening to music and a lot of the time it’s the Grateful Dead. When I’m writing, I listen to things that either won’t distract my mind or contribute to the spirit of my work. For example, during my last writing session on White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg, I listened to Blind Faith. That worked both ways because I didn’t have to focus too hard on it, and it was also very 60s sounding. The Dead are perfect to me because they’re like breathing. I can pick whatever era fits my mood and just let it roll. And then when I’m done, I can crank it up and enjoy it on an entirely different level.

And/or what has music — listening to it, seeing it live, playing it, writing it, whichever — taught you about writing fiction?

Peter Conners:  Fluidity, experimentation, freedom, not worrying so much about what other people think, finding beauty even in ugly places (next to garbage cans in a coliseum hallway), valuing individual expression – my own and other people’s – and seeing what stifling that expression can do to people, how to find joy, the importance of release, the value of repetition (you become a better dancer by dancing… and so too with writing), and the importance of being simultaneously present and completely gone when creating.

Sheri Reynolds:  One important lesson I’ve learned from music is to pay attention to what’s happening in the background. Naturally my ear first hears the melody, the lyrics. Then I begin to notice all the nuances, the off-beats, the different instruments and how they play with and against one another. As a writer, I want a similar complexity and richness in my work. A first draft is rarely more than the melody.

Thomas Cobb:  Writing about music, which I did in the 70’s and 80’s, taught me how to write.  Music and writing are very different forms of art and don’t, I think, go naturally together.  When you write about music, you learn to write around it more than directly at it.  That was an important lesson.  It pertains to a lot of things in writing.

Steven K. Brust:  I don’t know what music has taught me about creativity in general, or writing in particular.  Something, probably, but I can’t say what.  The other way around is easier to describe: because I’ve had a certain amount of success at writing, it made me cocky enough to think I could learn to be a passable musician.  More specifically, when I was teaching myself to write songs, my knowledge of and interest in the processes of writing led to take a very methodical approach: I’m going to write a song that focuses on characterization revealed by a few significant details; now I’m going to write a song that tells the story in the negative space; now I’m going to write a song that explores a single character in some depth, and so on.

But I suppose it’s cheating to talk about songwriting–because the basis of songwriting is still the sentence, and that’s the basis of fiction too.  I’m flailing around here because the question fascinates me, but I have no insight into it.   Certainly the moments of inspiration in music and those in writing involve the same euphoria, but so do a million other things for other people.  That leads me to consider the similarities between music and writing, but that goes nowhere, because the similarities are so vague and general as to have essentially no content.  The difference between music and writing is much easier to express: when I’m writing, I never use drugs.

Stephen Leigh:  Playing music has taught me more than listening. From being a gigging musician, I learned that no matter how you’re actually feeling, you still have to give it your all when you step on the stage. It’s the same with writing: you can’t wait to feel inspired, and you can’t wait until you’re in the perfect mood to write: you have to sit down at the computer every day and you have to write, no matter what how you’re feeling otherwise.

Likewise, I’ve learned that the more you practice, the better you get. You don’t get better by thinking about playing, you become a better musician by actually playing music. You don’t become a better writer by thinking about writing; you become a better writer by actually writing.

And finally, you can’t ever be satisfied with where you are. It’s always possible for you to learn some new technique, some new way of approaching your instrument, if you’re open to that. I play bass most often, and I’m still learning the various techniques. I’ve also started playing guitar again in a duo setting, and I’m both re-learning stuff I’ve forgotten on that instrument and at the same time learning techniques that I never knew in the first place. Writing should be the same way: there are always new places to explore, new techniques to try, new ways to approach voice and structure — and I try to do that as well with each new work.

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