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Music and Writing

November 6, 2016 Leave a comment

Music is something I need like air. It feeds my soul. I was never without a book and some kind of portable music player (Walkman, Discman, and once I could afford it, the original iPod shuffle). I developed some mad mix-tape skills. Even through college, I struggled to fall asleep without something playing in the background, something that drove my roommate nuts. Well, nuttier. I used music to create a soundtrack to my life, to orchestrate my moods and to manipulate emotions. I learned to do it so well, I had my own little “therapy” sessions with one friend conducted through the intense power of music. With history like that, it’s not surprising that music is a part of my writing process. Sometimes, it’s the inspiration for an idea, sometimes it’s fuel for creativity while working, but most often, it’s both.

Everyone’s process is different, of course, but what I’ve discovered works for me lately is keeping a playlist of songs for each story I’m working on. Sometimes, I slap it together quickly with the story dictating exactly what it needs, and other times it’s as much a work in progress as the story it’s attached to.

But why is this a valuable use of my time?

  • Inspiration: Songs come to me for a reason. Either it’s the tone or mood of the song, the lyrics, or something about the story the song tells. When I’m not sure where the story needs to go, these songs tap into the lizard brain and help me pull forth that core of the story that might be hard to express in rational thought. Music helps the words flow.
  • Continuity: I write slow and I write in bursts because life. Keeping a playlist is a way of preserving a headspace for the story. I listen to it even while doing other tasks (working, shopping, driving, laundry) because it keeps the creative world churning and fresh. It helps me prime my creativity so that when ass meets chair, words happen efficiently.
  • Focus: I suck at focus almost as much as I suck at discipline. The meme about having 2,857 browser tabs open in my brain is a pretty accurate description. Add to it, though that they alternately demand attention by playing some kind of audio that makes me click over to them. It adds up to getting next to nothing done in one sitting. For me, music distracts the noisy parts of my brain. Song lyrics give the chatty, interrupt-y part of my brain something to gnaw on while the rest of me can work on writing and creating worlds with words.
  • Portability: I don’t always write at home, and I don’t always write on my computer or laptop. Having a palylist of songs, especially a private playlist saved on the internet somewhere means that even if I don’t have the physical elements that tell my brain it’s time to write, I can use the auditory clues of a playlist to make the shift. (Behavioral psychology FTW, yo.)
  • Enjoyment: My musical memory associations are as strong as scent associations. Maybe stronger. I have music that reminds me of people, of events. I have bought albums not because the music is particularly good, but because it connects me to someone or some time. The summer I painted my bedroom walls a beautiful shade of red, “Inside Out” by Eve6 was my jam and I danced almost as much as I painted. The Moody Blues make me think about my dad. There are about 4 albums that define my college experience, and one that introduced me to a part of myself I never knew existed. After writing the story, those songs are the soundtrack to that story, and it makes me smile. And I want to share that with you.

Recently, in response to the heinous HB2 legislation in North Carolina, Falstaff Books published We Are Not This: Carolina Writers for Equality, a charity anthology benefiting Time Out Youth, Equality NC and the Queen City Theater Company. My story “Trapped” is included, and I want to share the playlist for that story with you. I have engineered the list a bit to make it flow. I cut a few songs (because they didn’t have a logical place in the playlist and because I recognize that most people can only handle so much Amanda Palmer/The Dresden Dolls.)

So, talk a walk through the weirdness of my brain. Download We Are Not This and read “Trapped.” Use this as a soundtrack as you listen, or just a companion piece to enjoy:

“Trapped” playlist – YouTube

And, if you’re interested in seeing a sliver of what I cut, here are a few bonus tracks I just couldn’t let go:

“Trapped” Bonus Tracks playlist – YouTube

Let me know what you think!

Be sure to leave a review of We Are Not This on Amazon or Goodreads, or on your own blog. Reviews help authors!

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Something Like a Review – The Mussorgsky Riddle by Darin Kennedy

Disclaimer: I know this author personally, though I did purchase this on my own. My decision to review it to share my discovery with others is my own and not influenced or requested by the author.

Music has played a big part of my life since I was young. I stalked the radio with blank cassettes to make mix tapes of my favorite songs – which I considered the soundtrack of my life. I got addicted to the stories in all kinds of music and listened as much for the lyrics as the melody. Chasing stories brought me to dabble in opera. I lost myself in the stories from those as simple as Peter and the Wolf to my favorite opera, Pagliacci. But I’ve never had a love for an operatic story like Anthony, and his love for the Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky. And while I’ve found stories that use music as a key part of the story, I’ve never encountered a story quite like The Mussorgsky Riddle by Darin Kennedy.

Earworms are a plague against those for whom music is an integral part of life. It’s like a skipping record in the brain and jostling the needle is nearly impossible. Imagine that your earworm is limited to 13 notes. Imagine that it has trapped you inside your own mind. Imagine that only an outside force can help you break through it, and that breaking through it is only the first step in navigating an opera in your own mind.

Anthony is nearly catatonic, stuck in a protective musical web, and Mira Tejedor and her unique ability to travel through Anthony’s mind is his only hope in resolving that which has trapped him there. Stepping into his world as Scheherazade, only she can navigate the Pictures at an Exhibition and make sense of the riddle of his mind.

One of the most unique aspects of this story is the intricate story Kennedy weaves. He skillfully and artfully weaves the narrative of the opera with mythology and layers that throughout the story of the world continuing around Anthony. Kennedy becomes our Mira Tejedor and takes us between both worlds, hinting at the mysteries, but letting us figure out what we can and leaving us to be surprised by the rest. I adore the level of complexity he’s achieved. The narrative’s richness is remarkable throughout the story, but can only really be appreciated at the end.  This is one of those books to be relished, to be consumed slowly for utmost enjoyment, but the reader is doomed to rush through it with a gluttonous impulse. I can only take comfort in knowing that Book 2 is DONE. As soon as I know more, I’ll share it with you…

Still not convinced? Try a sample here (with links to a free sample of the audiobook as well).

Medium: Audiobook from Audible.com

Other: Available in various formats from Amazon.com

Overall rating: 5 stars

Potential re-read: Definitely.

Dead-tree worthy?: Yes, but it was so well done as an audiobook, that I think I’ll stick with this format. It makes the ride to work a pleasure – except the mornings when I couldn’t leave the car because I just couldn’t stop listening. (The author takes great pride and pleasure in this, kids. Remember to leave a review on Goodreads or any other site of your choosing and tell him how lat you were to work!)

In the Zone – Headphones and Focus

I am twitchy, unfocused and probably borderline ADHD.(And if you don't know who these characters are, go do your research on classic movies, kids....)

Well, maybe not, but it’s a fantastic excuse for lacking the discipline to force myself to sit in my chair and do what it is I’m supposed to be doing. This is partly a result of the epic to-do list that has a mish-mash of “NEED to complete” and “WANT to complete” items and distraction of pretty much everything around me. Maybe I was a crow in a former life; I certainly am attracted to sparkly things.

My ideas distract me from my deadlines which distract me from my household responsibilities which distract me from my homework which distracts me from work which pulls me out of a deep sleep for no other reason than sheer panic at what I have to complete and what has not yet been done because I’ve been doing homework, housework, and still trying to pursue personal interests and goals like writing.

And you wondered what could possibly be so distracting. 😉

What seems to help, especially when I’m facing that moment of indecision where I want to stay focused on my computer and the work lying therein and demanding my attention, but something infinitely more pressing is nagging at my attention. Putting on headphones seems to help tether me, even if only by the fragile umbilical of a thin wire. The music choice is just as important. Something too bouncy like, oh I don’t know, 80’s music, and I’m going to levitate right out of my seat and wander away. Something too engaging like the Beatles or Led Zepplin or Disturbed and I’m going to be sitting at my desk singing instead of working. Something too mellow like Beethoven and, well… zzzzzzzzzzzzz. Jazz seems to work, and some of the American standards are helpful (not too much Frank, though, or it becomes my private karaoke seat – and the same for Ella). What has worked best is artists like Enigma, or even the old Pure Moods albums. Classical is a bit too relaxing and has caught me nodding off.

Another thing that’s important is the quality of the headphones. If they come off too easy, they’re not much of a deterrent and the same if they’re uncomfortable. As much of an investment as it is, the Beats headphones have been amazing. Not only is the sound quality great, the noise cancellation is very very very helpful at limiting distractions. With the music at a reasonable level, I can still hear big sounds and some of the higher pitched ones (like the sound of the washer/dryer going off), but ambient noise is significantly reduced. They are also comfortable enough to wear for hours without bothering me. They internalize so much sound that crunchy foods should be avoided unless you like listening to the sound of something like gravel being rattled around in your skull overwhelm what you’re listening to. I like that they’re bigger than the headphones most of us are used to simply because they stay on much better than lighter weight headphones and they aren’t those stupid little ear buds that always fall out of my head when I yawn, sneeze or look at my monitor cross-eyed. (Seriously, I HATE those stupid little things.) The draw back to that is, if you forget you have them on, you’re going to practically clothesline yourself when you get up. Think that scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when Nia Vardalos gets up too quick at the travel agency and lands on her ass. Yeah, that will happen to you too.

So, now that I’ve been quite disciplined for quite a length of time (measured in hours tonight, not minutes) and gotten all my “needs” accomplished for the night, I’m going to go reward myself with a good book and a hot cup of tea. Let’s see if I can make it through either or both before I doze off or get distracted. 😉

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