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.
In other words, I don’t just listen to and see music, I am also moved by it. The big challenge for me in writing (and life) has been to open up, let loose. I am drawn to music that wanders, that takes me to unexpected places, that opens up or lifts off or just goes off. I look for the same effects from the stories I read and write – to be immersed, to be carried away, to be surprised.
On my continued journey to understand the relationship between music and writing I have contacted four more writers to see what they think on the subject. Below we talk about writing in quiet, daydreaming, and being transported by what we are listening to.
In what ways do you or have you used music to enhance your writing and creativity?
Scott Loring Sanders: I’m one of those writers who has to have absolute quiet. I’ve tried listening to music but it never worked for me. If there were lyrics, forget it, I was useless. And even classical seemed to throw me off. So I went back to total isolation and total quiet. However, I do play guitar, and what I often find myself doing is heading to my guitar stand and picking up my acoustic after I’ve just finished an intense writing section. I’ll pick and strum without thinking about what I’m playing as I review the section in my mind, looking for plot holes or plot points, trying to work out the kinks. The guitar playing seems to act as a “cool down” period for me, where my brain is resting from creative thoughts, yet the arts are still as close as my fingertips, quite literally.
J. T. Dutton: I listened to bands before (and after) the Grateful Dead that triggered daydreams, but the Dead became the soundtrack of my happiest, most intense summer days. The few shows I was lucky enough to see were mind blowing. I made friends with strangers. I danced. I sang. I didn’t get tired and best of all the hours were real, not imagined. They were something I lived, not hoped to live. I learned that music can be an experience you take with you when you travel to new places. Pop a Dead tape in now and I’m transported, every synapse kicks into memory-mode. I’ve lost most of my hearing since I went to my first show, but I haven’t lost the recollection of how the band moved me–the moment of that time.
I wrote my first novel, Freaked, about a fifteen year old boy who sneaks out of his boarding school to see the Grateful Dead at an imagined venue in Long Island during the early 1990s. The manuscript started with the voice of one friend or another who had told me about a show. I realized as I began developing Scotty Douglas’s way of speaking, that the lyrical qualities of the Dead influenced his choice of expression and ways of seeing the world. The music made him poetic. He bent language and reached into metaphor to describe himself and his activities.
Quite a few Grateful Dead songs are narrative. I don’t know if this has to do with the bands bluegrass roots or what. Most of the sets that I saw traverse some kind of intuitive emotional arc. An advisor on my committee in graduate school suggested I title each of my chapters after a specific song and think of the entire book as a bootleg tape. It was incredibly helpful advice. It gave me a really interesting framework for creating detail and a non-traditional way of building plot.
N. K. Jemisin: I have a “writing mix”, which I routinely listen to when I really need to immerse in writing. It includes songs I’ve decided are good for certain moods — Drowning Pool’s “Bodies” for battle scenes, Jaenelle Monae’s “Tightrope” or “Many Moons” for frenetic tension, Algerian rai for city scenes, things like that.
Larry Sweazy: I always write with music on. Lyrics don’t bother me, but I usually prefer to listen to instrumentals. I have always been drawn to “roots” music; bluegrass, folk, some jazz and blues. Since I usually write stories set in the past, I really think the music helps to transport me to another time period, but I never started listening to certain genres or artists with that intent. Sometimes, I wonder how music affects one of my characters, what their tastes are. In the case of my series character, Josiah Wolfe, music never plays a role, unless it’s in the background, or being played at a saloon or by someone else—he’s more interested in stay alive. But I have written characters that are musicians or have strong ties to the music world. Music is an essential element in my everyday life, and I have no doubt that it always contributes consciously, or unconsciously, to what, and how I write.
J. T. Dutton: When I left Freaked behind and started working on a second novel, I really missed the addition of music. Given the choice, I would prefer to always write around some kind of sound. Music gives an abstract shape to feeling, creates one more avenue by which hard to communicate ideas or emotions can be described.
And/or what has music — listening to it, seeing it live, playing it, writing it, whichever — taught you about writing fiction?
J. T. Dutton: I worked for two years as a waitress in a Portland, Maine at a place that featured live music every night. I saw Phish play many, many times. Soundgarten. Eek-a-Mouse — a hundred or so different bands in a short period of time. I loved them all. Those were good times. I wasn’t a writer then by a long shot, but I was storing up some kind of writerly energy for the future. I think studying writing is important, but experiencing life first is more important. Life and good music are very intertwined. Go where people are listening, and chances are you are going to stumble on adventure.
N. K. Jemisin: I used to play violin for awhile, when I was a teenager. I practiced a lot and got okay at it, but never better than okay. I liked it, but never loved it. Yet I did love writing by that point — I was already writing novels then, though they were terrible, but I kept writing them and inflicting them on friends and family. Feeling that difference between liking something and loving it helped me understand the level of passion necessary to succeed in any artistic endeavor. So I quit the violin, and kept writing.
Larry Sweazy: I didn’t grow up in a musical household. Nobody in my family played an instrument, and singing was a talent that no one excelled at. Sure, we listened to the radio, and had some records, but no very many. One of my regrets as an adult was that I didn’t have, or take, the opportunity as a child to experience music lessons of any kind—so about five years ago I started taking guitar lessons. I thought maybe, if I was lucky, there was some musical skill, or talent, buried in the genes I didn’t know about, or that I could wake up. I was wrong. After a couple of years, the lessons didn’t take. But the lessons were incredibly valuable to my understanding of structure, theory, and of music in general. I could have never picked out chord patterns before, or known when the bridge was coming or why, not consciously anyway. I began to enjoy music on a different level. That knowledge is still growing.
Scott Loring Sanders: Like any good politician, I’m going to answer a different question entirely while pretending to answer yours. Only because it’s an interesting observation I’ve noticed over the years. I’ve been to a few artist’s colonies/fellowships, and for whatever reason, I’ve always been drawn to and befriended composers. It’s not a conscious decision but simply one that seems to happen. And inevitably, when we’ve talked about our work and the way we go about it, I’ve found that the creative process of writing a novel versus composing a score are amazingly similar. This has happened to me three different times with three different composers. Of course the process varies, but overall, things are generally very similar.
I remember one guy who said that often he’ll sit in his studio all day, literally for hours and hours, and not write a thing. He just sits and thinks. Although I don’t do it in the same way by sitting in a studio, I generally do some of my best thinking and get some of my best ideas while riding my bike, mowing the lawn, or mindlessly strumming the guitar. My body is doing one thing while my mind is in a completely different place.
Regardless, I’ve always found it interesting that the creative process seems to be similar no matter what genre an artist works in. Fiction writing, composing music, film, visual art, whatever, it boils down to the process of creating something new that never existed before, and I love that.
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.