Recently one of my friends brought up how music influences her writing. I think it is something pretty common with writers, yet it doesn’t get discussed much. At least not in great length. Author Rick Moody once said that he writes his first drafts with headphones on with music on full blast so he can’t hear his own inner critic, and he would have to have complete silence when revising. Jack Kerouac listened to jazz as he slammed the keys of his underwood typewriter as he wrote On The Road. Richard Yates listened to classical radio as he wrote his first drafts in longhand. And I’m sure there are tons of other stories of novelists and poets going through CDs, MP3s, and vinyl as they write one word after another.
Music is a big part of my life. I played saxophone in school band, and I’ve played guitar since I was thirteen. The first albums I owned were by Charlie Parker, Billy Joel, The Beach Boys, and my first CD was Prokofiev’s score from Peter and the Wolf. I’ve gone through phases of discovering blues, rock, classic country and western, funk, doo wop, and various eras of classical music. When I write I almost need to find the perfect music, I know some might view that as a type of crutch, but if I can get the right song then everything else becomes easier to see, hear, taste—music can open up my imagination better than anything else. In fact I think a lot of my ideas come as I listen to music—almost like my brain is making up flashes of music videos.
Sometimes it isn’t so much the music that fits the mood, but the music that would be playing in the background. If I’m writing a scene where some truckers go into a cowboy bar, I might need to play some Waylon Jennings. A while back I was working on something I eventually threw away, but the one scene I liked was where a guy got his wrist broken by a bookie, and I knew there was a song playing in the background, but I wasn’t sure what it was. The trouble was I couldn’t finish writing the scene until I found the right song. I scrolled through everything on my iTunes, I searched YouTube videos, dug out my CDs. But once I realized that Sinead O’Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 You” was the song, the rest of the scene fell into place. Similarly, when I was working on my novel, I knew the characters would be listening to the oldies station most of the time—so I found myself cranking the hits of Harry Nilsson, The Left Banke, The Byrds, and Scott McKenzie. Those songs helped me make my characters and descriptions becomes true.
Some pieces of music come back to my writing again and again. The song “Criminals” by Uncle Tupelo is one that springs to mind. I think that song can sort of play with anything I’ve written. Various film scores have served as inspiration along the way, too. I used to write all the time to the Last of the Mohicans soundtrack, but I haven’t listened to that one in a long time now. These days I’ll lean toward the more ambient styles of Thomas Newman.
But then comes the struggle of starting a new story or book and there doesn’t seem to be the right music. I’ll put on some Beethoven or some James Brown. I’ll close my eyes and listen to Guns n Roses. Maybe I’ll try some Philip Glass. And after a while, I’ll realize that the piece doesn’t really fit with any music (and/or vice versa) because the bit I’m writing just isn’t very good. Bad writing doesn’t have music, just noise.
Writer living in the hill country of Texas