Writing and Music

Like good literature, music can invoke powerful emotions, imagery and even inspire spontaneous insights. A bad day can be turned around, even if only temporarily, by listening to an upbeat song or by reading an inspired piece of writing; whether that be poetry, prose or non-fiction.

Whenever a group of writers get together, there’s a series of questions and topics that inevitably come up. One such question is ‘Do you listen to music when you write?’

Authors such as Ted Hughes, Jack Kerouac, Haruki Murakami and William Faulkner have all commented on the influence music has had on their writing. Kerouac told the Paris Review that jazz influenced his poetry to such an extent that he used the size of his notebooks to govern the length of each line of poetry the way musical bars determine the structure of jazz composition. Murakami also cites music as a powerful influence, stating that the chords, melodies and rhythm of blues music help him during the writing process.

Early in his career, Stephen King stated that he always had pop music playing in the background while he wrote and that the rhythm of the music influenced the pace of the plot. In more recent interviews, he is quoted as only playing music during the re-reading and editing stage and not during the initial draft.

Jenna Moreci, a self-published author with over 100, 000 followers on YouTube, has made several videos that document the influence music has had on her most recent publication. When Moreci listened to music, she sees her characters acting out a scene as though she were watching a music video. The unfolding of certain scenes is so closely inspired by particular songs that Moreci can describe the exact moment a dramatic action or gesture links up with a line of dialogue, time signature change or crescendo.

YA authors such as Veronica Roth and Cassandra Clare make public playlists on their websites. These playlists include songs that inspired the writing of particular scenes, that have a similar mood to the book or are personal favourites of the authors. This trend is limited to YA novels and has quickly become a clever marketing strategy as it assists in the building of the authors’ online community.

When I was completing my undergraduate degree ten years ago, I used to listen to music (metal?!) while writing assignments and studying for exams. These days, I prefer the less invasive melodies of classical music or white noise (ambient-mixer.com – you’re welcome!).

In researching for this blog, I found that most literary writers prefer to work in silence. Dani Shapiro, Zadie Smith, Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Stout work at libraries (Smith) or in their home offices – preferably when no-one is home. When it comes to genre writing, especially horror, fantasy and science fiction, it was hard to find a writer that didn’t listen to music! Jay Kristoff, Deborah Harkness, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King and Terry Pratchett are all quoted as writing while listening to music.

Perhaps this trend is not all that surprising. To speak generally, literary work is concerned with exploring internal space while genre novels are concerned with story-telling. Genre narratives tend to have a more visual focus, so it is little wonder that the emotions and imagery invoked by music compliment this form of literature better. To add a small disclaimer, I read literary fiction and genre fiction and I see this division as a marketing strategy and not as a means for determining quality.

Whether or not music forms a part of an authors’ writing process is beside the point. The only thing that matter is that each author discovers for themselves a routine and process that works for them and their project. Now, over to you. Does music influence your writing process? Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what kind of music?

 

 

 

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Why You Should Reread Books

I love re-watching movies. Well…to clarify, I love re-watching movies that I love. Unsurprisingly, I also love rereading books that I love. Though, to be honest, rereading a beloved book from start to finish is a rare event. I certainly have done this – ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Heart of Darkness’ have both had three complete read-throughs –  but I am far more likely to reread a favourite scene or to follow a story thread through multiple chapters.

Similarly, I don’t always re-watch movies from start to finish, but since movies are typically 2-3 hours long whereas a novel can take 6-30 hours to read, depending on word count and complexity, the time required to watch a movie is far less.

Part of the value of re-watching a film is that you will notice things you missed the first time. Given that film is a visual medium, there is so much information contained within each and every shot. The first time you watch a movie, your attention will be on the foreground action, but by re-watching a film you can choose to pay closer attention to dialogue, character mannerism, the set, background action and so on. For example, a character may make a seemingly through-away comment and it is only through re-watching that you realise it was actually clever foreshadowing.

This is what re-watching offers, the ability to see all of the small details that the creators have both intentionally and perhaps unintentionally placed within the narrative. Of course, this same witnessing and pleasure also occurs when rereading, however, the effect is slightly different. There will inevitably be occasions when you zone out while reading or you miss a snippet of information, but when you’re reading, your attention is solely on the text itself. Of course, in the same way that film contains multiple levels of action, so do books. Beneath the foreground action and story beats lie layers of foreshadowing, theme, double meanings, concealed information and character motivations.

You don’t have to look beneath the hood, you can enjoy the trip from A to B, but it is through the process of close reading and critical thinking that a book will ignite. If you give a book the attention and consideration it deserves, then it will last you a lifetime.

You may not realise this, but books and films are time travel devices.

Temporal narratives are a genre all their own, but I would argue that all books and films are time machines. Whether you consume this content for the second, third or umpteenth time, the story remains the same. As you may be aware, time travel is not possible – yet! – but revisiting a beloved movie or book is a type of time travel.

I can never go back and re-experience the first time I met my partner, but I can read about Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s first encounter whenever I want.

I will never again pass through the chain-link fence of my high school (not that I’d want to…), but I can reread the prom scene from ‘Carrie’.

There are two ways in which movies and books act as time travel devices.

The first is that they can transport you to times and places you would otherwise not be able to access. I can cross the Tudor court while reading ‘Wolf Hall’ or dive into a WWI trench while reading ‘Fall of Giants’. Historical novels allow me to travel into the past and to access the knowledge that only comes with personally lived experience. I can travel into the far future by reading science fiction or travel to another dimension or world by reading fantasy.

Books and movies have the power to turn your couch into a time machine. They allow you to step out of linear time and into other spaces and places, but they also provide the opportunity to re-experience a moment, in real time, exactly as it first occurred.

There are a handful of days in my own life that I’d do just about anything to re-live. Yes, it’s true that you can attempt to re-experience a memory but returning to the physical place with the same people, but time has passed and you aren’t the same. You can close your eyes and recall the memory. You can pretend to feel the Californian sun, to hear the crackle of leaves and to smell the Malibu spray mingling with fresh cut chips and chardonnay, but it’s not real. You can never authentically re-experience a moment from your past, but books and movies are different. The way a character’s life unfolds, the adventures they go on and how they feel about those experiences never changes.

Though your opinion of the art may change over time, though you may sometimes feel disconnected from the story or bored by its familiarity, the story itself hasn’t changed. Sometimes though, when the stars aligned and you are in the exact right mood and the craving for a particular experience hits, you can crack back the cover of a book or hit the play button and know that the story will meet your expectations exactly. And that feeling is pretty sublime.

It is true that you can only read a book for the first time once, but you can re-experience the story again and again, whenever you want and for as long as you want. It’s a small, humble pleasure yes, but it’s a relief to know that while I cannot go back to that Californian day, I can cross the moorlands and visit Wuthering Heights, I can feel the weight of stone in Jack Builders hand, and the sting of Alma Whittaker’s heartbreak. I can experience these memories in all their authenticity, any damn time I please.