Personal,  Writing

The Blessing and Curse of Music for Writing

I’m far from the first person to curate and use playlists for writing or talk about them. There’s nothing like it when you hit a song that sets the right mood for a scene. Sometimes a song will be the inspiration for a character, scene, or setting and I’ll hold on to that, replaying the song over and over again until I’ve squeezed all the magic from it. In the best case, the song serves its purpose and I was able to capture that lighting in a bottle but in the worst case the song is ruined and I have no writing to show for it, only an idea that has yet to be typed out. But I’ve been thinking about how closely tied my productivity is with setting the right soundscape.

I’ve been unplugged from new music for a while. Lately, it feels like I’m listening to the same songs and artists over and over again and I’m at a loss for what to listen to. It’s been forever since I’ve found new and exciting music. I noticed an interesting pattern today since it’s also been forever (a few months) since I’ve been productive with creative writing. What I noticed is that the periods of time where I get the most inspiration and write the most, are also the periods where I actively seek out and hear new music.

Why didn’t I realize this before?

The seed of inspiration for my first completed novel manuscript was the song “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” by David Bowie.

At the time I was on a postmodern novel reading binge. I was devouring stories by DeLillo, P.K. Dick, Bukowsky, Burroughs, Kobo Abe, Murakami, and Jodorosky. The song and video made me daydream about a hot-pink Cadillac DeVille convertible rumbling through a desert wasteland. For some reason, it was being pursued by different groups for some reason: cultists, a washed-out pop star, a corporate-funded militia, and androgynous mobsters in drag all raced after it. Everyone was wearing bright pastels and doing drugs of course. It was not a story that came to mind, but an aesthetic and I couldn’t keep from bringing myself back to that world. Why was there a wasteland, who’s driving this convertible and why are they running? Is this the present, past, or future?

One idea led to another and soon I had a story. The emotional core of this vibrant world that I needed to explore came from a science fiction short story I had written some time before about a couple who could not afford the medical needs of pregnancy and childbirth and out of options. They attended a consultation with a corporation that would fund the baby and financially secure the family for the rest of the child’s life in exchange for the baby’s guardianship rights. The corporation would name the child and have the final say everything related to the child’s upbringing. The baby would effectively become the property of the corporation.

It seemed farfetched then, but as time went on it started to seem more plausible. More importantly, I began to wonder, what if they agreed, only to back down later? Then, what if only the dad agrees and signs the contract out of fear without the mother consenting? What if the mother runs away and now the father and the corporation work together to find her. What if, through a series of hilarious errors, the baby is somehow made out to be this cosmically important messiah figure and the mom flees to the desert in a strange re-telling of the nativity story only one where different groups all want the child for different reasons. How much more dangerous would it be for this mother and future son when the whole world is out to get them?

One idea led to another, but more importantly to this post, the course of the story demanded new music and new music also affected the course of the story. As I linked and fleshed out ideas, I created a playlist and added music to it that went in harmony with this world that was being created. It started out weird, funky, frantic, and fun. Most importantly, the through-line was that it didn’t take itself too seriously. There was a tongue in cheek sensibility to this playlist, posted below, that reminded me that at the core of this story was a sense of absurdity and playfulness that I did not want to abandon.

There were times when the story started to buckle under its own weight. Moments where the addition of a new character or threat threatened to pull the story out of that playfulness and my writing suffered for it. I’d lose my thread of inspiration and putter around for months on a chapter or sometimes my writing would become loaded down with a seriousness and self-importance that betrayed the mood of the rest of the book. But the playlist always helped me to re-center myself. When I was stuck, I’d listen to that first Bowie track and close my eyes and re-visit the story’s world. Yes, there were threats, yes, there was violence, and emotion, and serious stakes, and moments of sincerity in the story, but it was always important to remember the world all of this inhabits. It was possible to add the darkness and tense chapters, only because I remembered how to use those moments to contrast the playful nature of the story, not contradict it.

You could chart the twists and turns of my story by listening to the playlist. You could hear the changes in mood, the shifts in the story’s tone, but much like the story, I tried to keep that spark of playfulness in the overall feel of the playlist. The day after I finished the book, I took a long drive to visit my fiancee in Connecticut. I had just started to date her at that time and we took turns going back and forth between NYC and Manchester on the weekends. During this drive, I listened to that playlist and was almost able to chart the entire story chapter by chapter, as each song played. I’d remember what songs I was listening to that inspired different scenes and they were all preserved in chronological layers on that playlist, like layers of sandstone in the Grand Canyon. The story began with a song and evolved into something that far exceeded its initial inspiration, but I couldn’t help but think about how intertwined my wiring process was with the music I listened to for inspiration. I don’t think I would have been able to finish my manuscript without the music that propelled my thoughts forward.

It required not only effort as a writer, but I had to put a considerable amount of effort seeking and collecting new music as fuel to my imagination. Once I found a gold nugget of a song that captured something essential in the story I added it it the playlist.

It was great for what it was, and it helped me finish this manusctipt. But where does that leave me now?

I haven’t invested much time in discovering any new music. My playlists have been stagnant and even though I have several extincting ideas for stories I want to continue writing, my inspirational fuel seems to be gone.

My eureka moment was this realization. I wondered if that was what I was missing. But then in made me wonder if I had woven my writing process too tightly with my music listening habits. Was music too large of a crutch that now I cannot write without?

I can’t answer these questions yet, but now at least I’ve been able to meditate on the creative relationship between music and writing that worked for me in the past.

The way I see it is that I can either try to force myself to write these new stories without the aid of music to inspire me, or I can try to retrace my steps by casting out a wide net to find new songs and artists and channeling that energy into writing.

The problem with that second option is that the story I’m currently trying to dedicate my efforts to wasn’t born from music. It came about from a kernel of an idea that blossomed into an exciting series of possibilities and ideas that I am genuinely excited to tackle. But the problem is creating an audio background to this story is much harder given that it’s a fantasy adventure inspired by mesoamerican myths. There’s plenty of exciting fantasy music, but most of it seems to draw from the well of European folk music, and the mesoamerican music I have been able to find, is mostly just relaxing panflutes and drums – not exactly pulse-pounding or imagination churning stuff. The other issue is that even if I did find a great fantasy atmospheric playlist with the right mood, it’s probably not the kind of music I’d seek out and listen to on my own, so that undercuts the whole cycle of inspiration for me.

I think a good approach will be to find music that captures the heart of the story in the same way that I understood that playful energy to be essential in “Child is Prophet.” I don’t think the music I seek out will need to hearken back to the cultural inspirations of the story, but rather they will need to hit a nerve that will help propel my inspiration for this tale. I’m not talking about the inspiration for the story in general, I have that, I’m talking about the feel of it, the beat of it. I have some ideas as to what this beating heart of the story could be, but I don’t think I’ve fully uncovered it.

I’m optimistic that the right song could help me answer that question, though, and when it does, I can continue this co-dependent cycle of music exploration and writing.

A part of me wonders if I’m giving into a nasty habit. Should’t a good writer be able to find inspiration in other ways? What did authors do before Spotify, or recorded music for that matter? Could I really write a novel in silence?

I don’t know.

Maybe one day I’ll be able to break this dependency, but if I can get another finished manuscript out of it, then maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all.


  • A reader

    Inspiration comes from doing. I think finding good music can help you stay focused or get you in the mood of a scene but I wouldn’t say it’s required. I’d say find some new music you like and get writing – the ideas will flow 😉

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