I just finished reading a piece by Margaret Atwood, in which she says that by “listening to the stories of others, we learn to tell our own.”
I suspect this idea is what’s at the heart of the music I listen to while I’m writing, planning, jotting, or blogging. In this music is always some really pure sort of story-telling; something linear and narrative; and something which gets to the reasons that I write.
There’s study music, but that’s muted. It’s Howard Shore, it’s Michael Nyman – it’s anything with uplifting violins and some fast-fingered key work. There’s never, ever any lyrics – my academic essay-writing brain needs near silence. Sometimes total silence. Study music exists, but I don’t know that it has any real impact on what I write. Unless my philosophy essay starts raising questions about women having their fingers chopped off with axes, and then I turn Michael Nyman off.
The actual soundtrack for my writing is a different matter. It has words, and this somehow helps my own words come. At certain times, usually when I make the move from planning to writing, I need silence. But after I’ve got that really hard bit down and the cursor’s done some work munching up the page, then I can introduce music.
They say that smell is our most powerful memory motivator. I think that sound – in the form of music – is a close second. Certain songs or albums (yes, albums – don’t you dare accuse me of belonging to a generation for whom albums are dead!) can bring back whole seasons or time periods for me. Summer 2003, Good Charlotte. Summer 2006, Johnny Cash and The Hives. And it’s not just that I can pinpoint the time, it can actually bring back feelings from the time that I listened to it. I can no longer listen to a lot of the music that I really clung to during periods of depression, because I find myself feeling it all over again.
Likewise, songs and albums attach to short stories and poems. Pieces of work acquire their own soundtracks. And those soundtracks always have something in common – they’re lyrical (for want of a better word – no pun intended), and they’re narrative. By listening to these stories, I’m learning how to tell my own.
Right now I’m listening to a lot of Wil Wagner. His lyrics focus on the heady feeling of rushing through life, and the tiny details we hold onto. He’s a natural story-teller. I’ve also just started listening to Bright Eyes again, particularly the “Cassadaga” album – it still holds the memory of some summer in its sound, but it’s bringing a really important lightness into my work. Josh Pyke is another favourite for story-telling abilities. His song are artful, tiny stories. Narratives that can be consumed in around three minutes. If I could write such full, rounded stories which could be consumed in that time frame, I’d be happy.
Listening to this kind of music keeps my prose lyrical, and it also reminds me that while I can string together a pretty sentence or two, they need to go somewhere. They’re part of a story.
Even beneath this is the fact that these song-writers, through their stories, are doing something important, and it’s what I’m doing too. They’re trying to communicate something right at the centre of themselves. In Bright Eyes’ “Bowl of Oranges”, he meets a doctor “who appeared in quite poor health / I said there’s nothing I can do for you / you can’t do for yourself / he said yes you can, just hold my hand / I think that that would help” – it’s not just the doctor, it’s not just Bright Eyes, it’s all of us. In creating things, we’re trying to connect. As David Foster Wallace said, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” and part of that is to be a bit stuck inside yourself. By creating things, we’re bridging the gap. By listening to other people’s stories while I write, I’m reminded that this gap-bridging exercise is not for nothing.