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!”
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.