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Music Soothes the Savage Scribbler

You ever get a song stuck in your head? What about getting yourself stuck in a song?

Writing is a solitary profession, and while that can be a challenge when you’re deep in the trenches, wondering if the whole mess is even worth the trouble, it also means your work environment is far more personalized than the average Cubicle of Sadness™. And one of my favorite things about being queen of my modest demesne is having the freedom to choose my own music while I write.

A lot of the writers I know eschew tunes while they’re writing, dismissing them as distractions or even (gasp) NOISE. Although, to be honest, noise is underrated; one of my very best friends, Michelle Lowery, introduced me to white noise as a writing aid, and I have to admit that a few hours ensconced in the gentle hiss of sonic solitude has been incredibly helpful when I’ve been working on detailed, technical content.

For my own writing, however—fiction, poetry, blog posts, angry letters to the editor, kidnapping demands—music is the perfect accompaniment. It helps me settle my frenetic mind and cavalier heart, giving me access to the head- and heartspace I need to transfer my brain squeezins to the page successfully. I try to inhabit the songs I choose in the same way I inhabit stories I read and write. It’s all about getting a little bit closer to the heart of what I’m creating, so I can try, in some small way, to make it real for others.

The Squishy-Hearted, Square-Headed Scribbler

The biggest fish in my personal fryer at the moment is Blood Ties, and apart from showing me that hey, I can publish a novel under my own name, it’s also given me some real insight on the HOW of my writing process. Music, as it turns out, is an essential part of creation for me. It’s always been a big part of my life, even though I don’t really play an instrument and the occasional trip to the Karaoke bar is as close as I’ve gotten to the stage. I like to immerse myself in the sound and pick it apart even as I’m letting it flow through me. The structure, the arrangement, the choices made with regard to instrumentation and melody; the words matter to me, of course, but as when I’m exploring any other narrative, I want to see the BONES. I want to understand not only WHAT I’m feeling, but WHY.

Like a lot of other writers, I am blessed (or is it saddled?) with a relentlessly analytical mind, coupled with the squishy heart of a rank sentimentalist. Both are necessary, I think, to create the kind of fiction and poetry that’s sharp and real enough to cut through the tide of bullshit thrown at us every day and touch the human part of us buried underneath.

I write in a variety of genres; right now, I’m working on my serial novel, Blood Ties, as well as a kids’ book called Preposterous Rhinoceros and a poetry collection called Consider the Avocado. My taste in music, like my approach to scribbling, is (to put it kindly) all over the place. But no matter what I’m writing, I tend to listen to the same types of music in order to get myself squared away for the work at hand. My analytical brain has some input, but in general it’s my squishy, lightly-charred heart that’s calling the shots.

After consulting the shadowy chambers containing my inner workings, I’ve assembled this list of music I use to get my mojo risin’ (hey!). Your mileage, as always, may vary—also, set your player to “shuffle” and keep your finger near the “next” or “repeat” button as necessary (I don’t know about you, but when I’m riding a song, I might listen to it ten or fifteen times in a row, trying to maintain the exact emotional state it conjures within me). Like a well-loved story, these songs pull me into their world and change my view.

Drama, Melodrama, Sweeping Emotion

Daphnis et Chloé (Maurice Ravel)
Medley of James Bond Themes (John Barry and the London Symphony Orchestra) [You laugh, but it’s awesome to be inside this musical narrative when you’re putting a heroine through her paces.]
O Fortuna (from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana)
Nessun Dorma (Puccini, as performed by the inimitable Pavarotti)
U Plavu Zoru (Pink Martini)
Il Grande Duello, Parte Decima (Luis Bacalov)

Romance (especially poetry)

Tanto Tempo (Bebel Gilberto)
Ne Me Quitte Pas (as originally performed by Jacques Brunel) [If I want you to cry, I’m listening to this while I write. Because I’m freaking crying, that’s for damn sure.]
Misty (As rearranged to Grammy-winning effect by Ray Stevens, of all people)
All That Matters (Todd Snider) [One of the sweetest, most heartfelt ballads ever written.]
Hold My Hand (Jess Glynne) [Forget the Coke commercial. This song’s pop perfection.]
Code Monkey (Jonathan Coulton) [I think we’ve all been here, right, nerds? The live version is pretty great, too—slow and bittersweet.]
Skullcrusher Mountain (Also by Jonathan Coulton) [Hands down, the most romantic song of all time. Which probably says a lot about me.]

Action

No One Lives Forever (NOLF OST) [Yes, this is the theme tune to a video game. One of the best written, most creative, and thoroughly immersive video games ever created. Its creators love the genre they inhabit, and it shows.]
The Devil You Know (Todd Snider)
G String (Los Amigos Invisibles)
Ixtapa (Rodrigo y Gabriela) [This whole album is AMAZING and gets my heart pounding, but Ixtapa is my favorite, drawing the listener as it does through a soundscape fraught with tension and sudden bursts of energy.]
Avery M. Powers Memorial Beltway (Ben Folds, sans his Five) [An instrumental that can, depending on my needs, serve as a call to thunderous action, sunny exposition, or even high-stakes intrigue]
Spy (They Might Be Giants)
Don’t Stop Me Now (Queen)

I have to stop; otherwise, this blog post would just be my whole blog. Who’s on YOUR writing playlist? If you’re not a writer, do you use music in your other creative endeavors? Let me know in the comments!

Published inWriting

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this. I might be stealing from your list and adding to mine.

    I find that music is essential to the creative process. I mean, hell, one song at the right time and place can completely prime you for a work and carry you through the process. I love, love, love when that happens.

    I have a couple projects that will probably never get off the ground but that I still continue to poke at with a stick. While I am thwacking at the keyboard with said stick there will be a playlist in the background that helps get me into the emo-space of the respective work.

    There’s the Daughter of Shadows soundtrack that has the essential ingredients of darkness, sensuality and mysticism. Before I got Google Music I would just play this on random: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLcdRA7rmIWhNTywYSDfQqoW6Bq8dnIQWu If I can get it to hit me at the right angle I should be writing on the edge of heartbreak.

    And then there’s the Subject Uncooperative soundtrack which is a scrappy, joyfully defiant jaunt -kind of a frenetic happy-mad place. It’s got a lot of 90’s & Riot Grrl stuff, J-pop & a touch of Latin. Even when I’m not being creative I like coming back to this playlist. I dunno, it just helps sometimes.

    Well, now you’ve done it. I want to go and make more soundtracks!

    • THEN MY WORK HERE IS DONE.

      But seriously, thanks for commenting! I love the soundtrack idea; our mutual friend has suggested the notion that “Blood Ties” needs one. So I may be calling on you! 😀

      And yes…the right song at the right time? GOLD.

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