Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Music for Writing

I recently watched an episode of The Writing Life which featured crime novelist Peter Robinson. I’m a fan of Robinson’s Inspector Banks series and I found the program most interesting. There was one facet that particularly caught my attention. While speaking about his writing process, Robinson clicked on his computer to display an iPod playlist of the songs he listened to while working on his most recent novel (the soon to be released Piece of My Heart). He explained that since part of the novel is set in 1969 he’d put together a compilation of songs that were popular that year and listened to them while he wrote. It wasn’t that he intended to explicitly reference the songs in the novel (though I imagine at least a few will garner mention), but that listening to the songs helped him to better capture the spirit of that time.

On reflection, I realized that I similarly use music to enhance my writing. For example, when I was working on a series of stories featuring teenage narrators, I listened to a compilation of the songs that I had listened to as a teenager. The songs themselves weren’t necessarily relevant to the stories given that my narrators didn’t all grow up in the same decade that I did. Yet it invariably helped to listen to those songs. I think that because those songs so viscerally evoke for me what it felt like to be that age, I was better able to write in a teenage voice after listening to them. More recently, while working on a long piece that is essentially a Scottish ghost story, I listened to the excellent CD Folk ’n’ Hell: Fiery New Music From Scotland over and over again. Somehow that blend of contemporary and traditional Scottish music matched up perfectly with the mood and sense of place that I was striving to create in the story.

All of this was rolling around in my head when I had the happy task of interviewing authors Jason Anderson and Alexandra Leggat at the most recent instalment of The Fictitious Reading Series. It was a natural to ask the two of them about connections between music and writing given that they both write songs and play in bands, and that Anderson has spent a good part of his journalism career as a music critic. Both were quick to say that music is an important inspiration for their fiction, but they were polar opposites when it came to the question of how music figures in their writing process. While there are several explicit references to music and to bands in Anderson’s novel Showbiz, he said that he generally writes in silence. Music with lyrics is a particular distraction -- he can’t listen to it while writing without being pulled out of the story he’s writing and into the story of the song. Leggat said that she can’t write without music, and that so far each of her books has had particular CDs connected to it that she listened to over and over again during the writing. The music seeps into the atmosphere of the stories. I was gratified to hear that Steve Earle and Johnny Dowd figured heavily in the writing of her most recent collection of short stories, Meet Me in the Parking Lot, as I’d definitely pegged that one as a collection of dark country ballads.

If this theme of the connections between music and literature intrigues you as much as it does me, you will want to check out the book notes section of the excellent music blog largehearted boy in which authors have created playlists for their recent books. February entries so far include playlists compiled by Lisa Carver for her post-punk memoir Drugs are Nice, Ander Monson for his collection of stories Other Electricities, and the various contributors for The Best American Erotica 2006 edited by Susie Bright. The book notes project is a fascinating and illuminating enterprise.

And now I come full circle. When I went digging around for the appropriate links to include in this post, I stumbled on a playlist for Peter Robinson’s forthcoming novel -- those 1969 songs that he was referring to in the episode of The Writing Life that started me off on this whole train of thought.

How does music figure in your writing or your reading?


Booklad said...

Yes,another reason why I like your blog so much - fascinating subjects and great ideas! I just love the connection between music and creativity (in this case, writing). I've had most of my creative experience as a professional actor and have used music extensively during personal rehearsals at home (to learn lines and to do scene-work). But I've also used music as a way of warming up for the show. When I played Beethoven in a production about his life, I listened to Von Karajan's recording of the 7th Symphony just before my first entrance - never failed to put me right in the frame of mind I needeed to start with.

Oddly, I also use music for certain novels as well. I've often purchased a new book and a new CD at the same time and listen to the music over and over again until the story and images from the novel become associated with the music. To this day, Saunder's "The Family" will be forever associated with Santana's first album. Don't ask me why, I just like it that way.

You should write a longer essay about this subject. It would make for fascinating reading.

martha said...

I use music when I'm painting. I'm not a writer, but I've tried my hand at it and when I did, I found I needed it to be quiet. It's as though that kind of thinking engages a particular part of my brain that is too easily distracted by music, while painting uses an entirely different part that is inspired by it. Even so, I often find I prefer music without lyrics, or with lyrics in another language.

Ella said...

I have to have really familiar music on when I write, or I can't concentrate. I listen to Chris Isaak albums over and over and over, to the point where I really can't consciously hear it anymore. I hate writing when it's quiet, but I can't read with music playing. Odd what habits we fall into.

Mindy said...

Great blog! Thanks for the list of small presses--I'm looking forward to checking them out.

To weigh in on this post, I'm the opposite of Ella. I can listen to almost any kind of music when I'm reading, but to write, I need absolute silence. So I do my best work in the library or in my office with the door shut.