Where the Stories Start: Marly Youmans on Music & Writing

Marly Youmans is the author of Val/Orson (novella) and the forthcoming The Throne of Psyche (poems) and Glimmerglass (novel), among other books.  A poet, fiction writer, and mother of three teenagers, she lives on Main Street in a historic village in a house filled with noise and constant commotion.

Below, Youmans answers the following questions about the relationship between music and her writing life.


In what ways do you or have you used music to enhance your writing and creativity?   And/or what has music — listening to it, seeing it live, playing it, writing it, whichever — taught you about writing fiction?

Marly Youmans: Surely music and all the sounds of nature inform our childhoods and give us an extraordinary freedom that we can barely understand—give us strange longings that point the way toward the sources and joy of art.  A small child dancing with abandon to Swan Lake, twirling with arms flung outward, is a child awakening.  In this way, I was shaped by music as by many another element of the world.

I can’t say, however, that I have “used music to enhance . . . writing and creativity.”  For me, that seems to diminish the luster of each activity.  Sure, I have been swept away by music and have written poems or passages of stories that sprang from that sense of being pushed into another and an unfamiliar place.  But such responses happened as a simple, natural response to one of the marvelous parts of the world:  in this case, music.

Every way of writing is different, and I don’t suppose one way is better than another since it’s not the process but the end result that can be judged.  I happen to have a fairly deep level of concentration in which everything other than the story or poem seems to move to a distant room.  Any woman with children will recognize that such a trait is valuable to a writer who is also a mother.  So I tend not to be fully aware of the noises around me, whether they are children’s shouts or music or traffic. All I have left is mother-radar:  awareness of certain kinds of sounds and silences that feel dangerous or ominous.

But my children are nearly grown and seldom need such radar any longer.  Because I have three children of various ages—the youngest having just become a teen— there’s always a lot of music in the house.  My younger son plays the drums, and my daughter plays piano and organ. If she’s at the piano downstairs, she might be playing Mozart or Erik Satie or Greta Salpeter’s “Lighthouse.”  All three are likely to have music streaming out a door, so I might be overhearing Patrick Wolf or Owen Pallett or Fleet Foxes or Andrew Bird or The Last Shadow Puppets Show or whatever singing wolf, bird, or fox is the interest of the hour.

Occasionally what the three choose to hear or play seeps into fiction. Last fall I wrote a children’s novel, a three-part adventure in which the young hero was a drummer.  He tended to drum on his enemies when they needed it.

Having performers in the house is always enlivening.  Since one of the great goals of art is to make creations that seem to have a living force of their own and do not die in time, it is good to have live music pulsing through one’s rooms. But I would say that what music and all the non-verbal arts have to “[teach] about writing fiction” is simply experience that, at its best, shows the way to the fount of things where the stories start.

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