Soundtracking Your Writing Life

At some point in middle or high school, all of us took some sort of test to determine what kind of learner we were. Some of us ended up being aural learners–the kids who listen to lectures and regurgitate information after one go-around. Some of us were visual–the ones who most hoped that the teacher would stop talking and play a video. Still others would be classified as “hands-on” learners–the nice term for the kids who would tear the room to pieces the minute the teacher left.

If you, like me, found yourself among the former group–the aural learners–then your writing process may often find itself supplemented by your music library, if only ever to serve as white noise. While many of us work best in absolute silence, many of us prefer to work over the latest jams, the classic tunes, and everything in between. This is a good thing. We can pull inspiration from any number of texts, and music is no different. It can serve the poet in the same way that film can serve the fiction writer–as another manifestation of the same principles.

It’s often easy to ignore texts outside of our own medium, but chosing to tune in (*ba dum tish*) to things outside our spheres can improve our own art by degrees. There are some things to remember when building your writer’s playlist, though.

1. Music can stimulate more than just pleasure. So, you’re writing an angsty, post-modern diatribe-turned-plot-turned-actually-pretty-solid-piece about subjugation, objectification, and some other -ation. You don’t think Nicki’s The Pink Print or Coldplay’s Whatever Album Coldplay Put Out This Year is quite going to give you the moody vibe you’re looking for. Why not try something else? Something bizarre? Something haunted and unpleasant? Maybe someone like Sigur Rós (below) or Jenny Hval is for you right now.

Perfect for that piece featuring gas masks, made-up languages, and existential terror that you’re writing right now.

Are you writing a fantastical short story about a Barbarella-esque warrior woman and her journeys through some strange, pastoral landscape? Maybe consider listening to something that fills your head with those sorts of images (I would suggest Sleater-Kinney if you’re heavier on the warrior woman aspect, or Joanna Newsom if you’re looking to capture the idea of strange, foreign lands).

The point is this: sound can do so much more than lift our spirits. A great song can fill you with awe, dread, or even revulsion. Consider your own piece before attempting to complement your process with that new Bruno Mars track featuring that one guy.

2. Lyrics are important. It’s easy to forget that–just like literary poetry–musical lyrics can come in two (basic) flavors: lyrical and narrative. Are you looking to meander through the human psyche for a while, or are you looking to propel a group of characters through a sweeping narrative?

Figure out where you are going with your work, and demand the same of your playlist. Maybe Bowie’s story of Major Tom mirrors your own. Maybe listening to Fiona Apple ramble roughly about heartbreak and abuse will send new life through your own lyrical essay about the time your Siamese fighting fish died.

3. Lyrics are not that important. One advantage that music holds over traditional writing is the (you guessed it) audio component. It’s a medium filled with hundreds of elements: tone, tempo, progression, lyrics, structure, timbre, arrangement, technique, ability, technology, and volume, just to name a few.

Consider these elements. They drive music in the same way that the elements of writing drive our own work. If you can’t find any music that speaks to who you are thematically, then you may be able to track down something that speak to you on a baser, stylistic plane.

4. Know when to turn it all off. Even the most auditory learners need to find silence every once in a while. There is a reason why communications experts call extra input “noise”–our media consumption can easily overwhelm us, or worse, color our writing until it becomes something we did not intend.

Just like that one time you got lost in in downtown Savannah looking for that place you were supposed to be at for that thing you planned to go to, every once in a while, it’s time to turn down your radio so you can squint at the roadsigns around you and determine where you’re even going with yourself, even if it’s not totally apparent to you why you’re even turning the radio down.

Map of Savannah City Map, Georgia, United States 1885

You’ve been so very lost here so many times. Admit it.

Other mediums are great to dive into, but make sure you don’t drown in the glory of it all.

5. Completely ignore everything I’ve just said. We’re artists, after all. We have that freedom. Your process is your own, and no amount of suggestions from me or any other hoity-toity pseudo-critic like me will change that. If listening to German death metal helps you write your nature poem more effectively, then more power to you. Pursue the mediums and the genres that make you a more effective creator. discover what makes your creative metronome tick.

Jane Fonda as Barbarella Still 5

Just remember my advice when your Barbarella spin-off novel based on extended progressive rock listening sessions hits it big.