Birds Breathing & the Song of Passing Cars: Writing & Music #5

First I hear the opening line, then I see the story.  The sensation resembles being awoken by voices or being carried into a dream by a lullaby.  After that first sound, the audio and visual tracks start to (or at least try to) sync up.

That first line may not be the first line in the final draft but it remains the access point into the world of the story.  It is the wedge, the lever.  It comes first, gets me in the door, but then runs away from me.  And I must chase after it, across the internal landscape.

Real world sounds – voices, traffic, sirens, birds, etc. – can yank me from the secondary world of my writing, can interrupt my pursuit.  Yet music helps me stay with the chase.

I’m still trying to figure it all out.  How and why music helps with writing offers me no end of fascination so I am still asking around to see what other writers have to say on the subject.

Below, novelists Jaleigh Johnson, Matt Mayo, Lettie Prell and Jane Yolen talk about silence, photography, and the seduction of music.


Jaleigh Johnson is the author of fantasy novels The Howling Delve, Mistshore, and the recently released Unbroken Chain.

Matthew P. Mayo writes fiction and non-fiction, including the Bootleggers, Lobstermen & Lumberjacks: Fifty of the Grittiest Moments in the History of Hardscrabble New England. According to Mayo, he “plays guitar and concertina poorly—but with great gusto!”

Lettie Prell is the author of Dragon Ring.  She served as the editor of Broadsheet, the newsletter of Broad Universe, which “promot[es] science fiction, fantasy, and horror written by women.”

Jane Yolen has written more than 300 books, most of which are for children.  She has been a folksinger and has written lyrics for Boiled in Lead, June Tabor, Cats Laughing, Lui Collins, The Folk Underground and others.


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


Matthew P. Mayo: At a basic level, music and writing and any other creative act are all the same. It’s the methods of pursuit that differ. I find it interesting that while sometimes I can listen to someone else’s creative efforts while pursuing my own, most of the time I prefer silence when I write.

Total silence is impossible, so I settle for birds, passing cars, my own breathing (difficult to avoid). Even if I’m not listening to music, I’ll still hear music in my head. More often than not, it’s the Indiana Jones theme song. Don’t know why, but it could be worse.

Sometimes I can write while listening to certain types of instrumental music (surf or jazz or slack-key guitar), but don’t do so well with sung songs. This tells me that in order to build something worth inhabiting—in order to write something worth reading—I don’t want to hear anyone else’s voice but my own. Either that or I’m just cranky.

Lettie Prell: I took up photography as a hobby at about the same time I began writing science fiction in earnest.  I loved photography as a way to go non-verbal.  I absorbed line, color, shape, and created from those elements.  There was not even a stream of self-talk in my head when I looked through a lens.  It was deliciously freeing.  Yet within that stillness, in my head, tone and atonal passages would play – the music of my own emotions.  This inner music was fueled by one of my favorite solitary activities back then.  At night I would put on music and turn out the lights, and do my own, unschooled and spontaneous version of Tai Chi.

Jane Yolen: I love music–folk, folk rock, Early Music, the Romantics, lots of jazz, R&B, 60s rock, cabaret, musical theater, some opera, very little pop, and no hip-hop at all. But when I am writing, I need absolute silence. Music is too seductive and suddenly I am writing to its beat instead of my own. And writing lyrics to it in my head as well.

Jaleigh Johnson: I usually have to have some type of music playing while I write. The only time I ever like it silent is if I’m doing a tricky bit of editing, and the song lyrics are getting stuck in my head. But the right music, whether it’s a blood-pumping rock song or a soft ballad, can really get me in the mood to write an appropriate scene. The mood of whatever piece I’m listening to gets inside me, and those feelings come out on the page. The time when I most need this effect is after a long day, when I’m tired and on deadline and I simply have to finish this scene or panic sets in. That’s when the music takes me away from everything else and shoves me fully into the scene and the setting. It fires the imagination.


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


Jaleigh Johnson: Music taught me–and it reminds me again and again–that art, at its best, can evoke emotions that carry people away from their troubles and the stresses of their daily lives. Good music and good fiction can be a breath of fresh air, pure and vital.  When I write, I strive to give that experience to people.

Matthew P. Mayo: Music has always been a large and welcome presence in my life, from listening to my mother’s record collection as a tot (Herb Alpert! Bobby Vinton!) to building my own record collection (Kiss! Ramones! ‘Mats! Husker Du!) to being in bands (Toxic Crotch, anyone?) to playing college radio-station DJ to playing acoustic instruments now. It’s always been with me, working to override the tinnitus (also always here), and has probably taught me to be adventurous, take risks, and pick a few wrong notes in order to find one that sounds good.

Lettie Prell: When my writing achieved novel-length proportions, my photography waned.  The verbal arts won out in the end.  I never play music when I write, and if I did I would probably cease to hear it after a few minutes.  My capacity to focus to the point of being unaware of my surroundings is well-known at work among my colleagues.  Yet when I pause in the writing to dream a scene – not the dialogue because that is listening to my characters talk in my head – when I see the scene, it is as if through my photographer’s eye.  I go non-verbal in those moments, and my torso sways in the chair, because the music of my emotions is playing.

Jane Yolen: Certainly music has taught me how important (and seductive) rhythm is. It has taught me something about voice: how each character’s tone, timbre, rhythm, speech patterns is a distinguishing characteristic. Someone may be an oboe, a basso, a tenor, or a fife. It has also stretched me. When I was younger, I only liked folk and classic. My husband opened me to opera and jazz. My son Adam made me appreciate folk rock. My friend Babbie showed me cabaret. And while I’d loved the great musicals of my childhood and adolescence and can still sing many of the songs (though only in the shower these days or alone in the car) it took Stephen Sondheim to reacquaint me with the form. And so I have learned over the years to love different styles and kinds of writing–and tried many of them myself.

I think any time one starts to understand structure of any kind, since it plays such an important role in storytelling that it is of great benefit. I don’t think it’s happenstance that I published my first novel not long after I started taking music lessons. I think my writing improved in a way I could not have predicted–or forced.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor.  Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magazine.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

Rebecca: Marly Youmans on Writing & Her Daughter

Before I met Marly Youmans I thought of her as a Southern novelist who also writes poetry.  Last month I heard her read her poems at a public reading at Shared Worlds 2010 and I started thinking of her as a poet who writes novels.  Now, with the essay below, I think of Marly as a writer who tells stories in whatever form they require.

Marly Youmans is the author of Val/Orson (novella) and the forthcoming The Throne of Psyche (poems) and Glimmerglass (novel), among other books.  She wrote the following piece the day after dropping her daughter off at her first day of college.





by Marly Youmans

Once upon a time I was a little girl belonging to a family that suffered a great loss.  One consequence of this loss was that I used to say that someday I would have a daughter with beautiful curly blonde hair, and that I would name her Rebecca.

Eventually I grew up and married and became pregnant. I knew in my bones that the child inside me was a boy, and he was. Then I became pregnant again, and I was sure from the start that the child was, this time, my Rebecca.  And so she was.  As a baby, Rebecca was lovely and mostly bald, with a glistening down on her head. Slowly the golden curls came on, and she and her brother with the long blond hair (“I want big hair!”) were show-stoppers in the stroller set. Another brother came along some years later, and so Rebecca was—as she always seemed—right in the middle of things.

Like me, Rebecca liked stories. Aspects of her have appeared in my stories and poems and novels in various guises, and her requests led to two young adult fantasies set in the Southern backcountry, The Curse of the Raven Mocker and Ingledove. The first of these was written in an unusual manner. Since I had no time to write with a toddler in the house, I made a pact with Rebecca.  If she would amuse her busy little brother every afternoon, I would write. The draft of that book went scorchingly fast:  I had it in sixteen days.  An eager audience is the finest sort of inebriant!

When she was little, Rebecca liked to sit on my lap and narrate stories that I typed. In the fall of first grade, she won the Stone Academy “Written in Stone” prize three times. After that, they instituted a “Hall of Fame” and put her in it to keep her from winning any more prizes. As she grew, she tried out other pursuits–dance and theatre, piano and organ and voice, drawing and pastels and painting. She was still best at writing, but drawing followed close behind.

Yesterday we took Rebecca to Bard College, where she plans to fold her many interests into a film major. Letting go of a child who I knew would exist decades before she was born is bittersweet.  Just as I knew she would be, I knew this day would come—that her golden life would stream on, apart from us.  She walked away from the car, alone, toward the peaked white tents where she would meet other freshmen.  The late afternoon sun shot slanting through the trees as she grew smaller with distance.  Light ran through her hair and turned it into a burning halo.

8 August 2010

Paint Your Fork: Writing Advice from Children

In April, I asked 15 writers from across the genres to share some of the best and worst writing advice they’d received.  The result was “Turning Loose the Tiger” and a few other posts.  Last month, John DeNardo and the kind folks at SFSignal conducted a Mind Meld in which they asked speculative fiction authors to share the best writing advice they’d received.

Both of these projects were intended to benefit younger writers in general and the students at Shared Worlds 2010 in particular, but each contains material that experienced writers could benefit from, too.

This week, my daughter Molly turned seven.  She is my inspiration and my co-conspirator in many artistic adventures.  Each day, she models the creative life with bouts of extreme pretend, lavishly colored paintings, and character-driven stories so complex that they require a compendium.

Molly also loves to give me advice – lots and lots of advice.  Her advice is often practical, such as “Daddy, stories should be interesting!”  And sometimes her wisdom is downright surreal.  For instance, yesterday I was editing at the kitchen table and Molly said, “You may want to paint that fork.” There were no forks on the table or in the article I was revising. Molly nodded her head sagely.  I’m still trying to figure out what she meant.

So, I’m asking that readers answer the following question:

What writing advice have you received from a child?  And how did you use the advice in your writing?

Use the comment section below.  Answer as briefly or extensively as you like.  Be as serious or as playful as you like.  And be sure to let us know a little something about you and the child giving you the advice, too.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magazine.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

Stumbling Upon Adventure: Music & Writing #4

I don’t just listen to music.  I see it, too.

Though I filter the world (and my emotional response to it) through my eyes, I can’t seem to go very long without listening to music, without using my ears.  Sight is my primary sense, but music is my constant companion.  If music isn’t playing outside, then I am imagining it inside my head, hearing it from within.

Music is a nearly synesthesic experience for me – streams of color and geometric patterns, whirling, twisting, illuminating my mind’s eye.  I watch songs unfold, see them spark and flash.  Instantly, even instrumental songs take on a narrative line and paint images in the space between my ears. 

Sounds occupy space in my brain, large swathes of (endless) geography mapped out by the notes and colorful lines of light.  As the songs move through time, I move through the internal landscape, adventuring, discovering, stumbling around.
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