Marching to the Beat of a Nonexistent Drummer

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The Twilight books were my first encounter with a trend in YA fiction–the very deliberate, even curated, intersection of stories with songs.  I often read an author’s acknowledgements first, and then again after completing a novel, mining them for clues to success.  Stephenie Meyer was the first author I’d encountered who talked at length about music in her acknowledgements, and that struck me at the time, though I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

Recently, I notice it more and more–on a blog, in an interview, in an acknowledgements page, an author will list the musical genres, songs, or bands that inspired her work.  This happens in a wide variety of ways, some more subtle or more intrinsic to the story than others.  In Revolution, Jennifer Donnelly incorporates the music into the story, and it helps to expand the plot in interesting directions, in sort of the same way that hypertext can enrich a document online.  On her Fingerprints of You website, Kristen-Paige Madonia includes a playlist for her main character, Lemon.  I’m sure writers have always been inspired by music–all those allusive guys like T. S. Eliot and Pound reference it all over the place–but this extremely explicit recognition of influence is different.

I found myself reading Meyer’s acknowledgements and thinking, “Huh.  If I were going to thank a band, which one would it be?  Which songs?  What genres?”  Then I started thinking about the stuff I wrote in eighth grade, for which the acknowledgement would go something like this:

“Of course, this story would never have come to be in its present form without the Top Gun soundtrack.  Not that I listened to it while I wrote, but it was pretty awesome and it wasn’t a big stretch from flying aircraft to flying dragons.  All that ‘Take My Breath Away’ stuff I could have done without, but hey, I just pressed ‘skip’ since I don’t write that kind of story.  But all that rockin’ guitar?  That was pretty great, guys.”

Which is a terrible acknowledgement, and underscores one of the reasons why musical acknowledgements in novels fascinate me–because I don’t listen to music while I write.  (GASP!!  Insecurity!!  All the other kids are doing it!!  AM I A REAL WRITER??)

The topic surfaces time and time again in writerly circles–what music do you write to?  And I, feeling like the Grinch, have to admit that I write to the sound of complete and utter silence.  This admission makes me self-conscious.  I mean, I’m a creative-type, and we creative-types are supposed to adore all things creative.  We’re supposed to write to music, or so the richness of the discussion would have me believe.  And if I’m writing YA, I should be writing to a certain kind of music.  Cool music.  Youthful music.  Edgy music. Not the Irish folk music that’s my favorite, or the U2 and REM and Tori Amos of my own young adulthood, and definitely not the Top Gun soundtrack (yeah, now you know how old I am, I know).

But here’s the thing.  I don’t listen to music while I write because I love music.  I love it to the tips of my toes, and I listen to it that way, too.  I listen actively, the music permeating every fiber of my being, and stirring the depths of my mind and soul.  I can’t use it as a backdrop, because it demands too much of my attention.  If I’m listening to music, then that’s what I’m doing, and nothing else.  When I’m listening to great music, I want to give myself over to it entirely, because a song is like a story–it creates its own universe, and within its boundaries, magic happens.  I want to be present for the magic, for all of it, every last note.

My other problem, and I know I’m not alone here, is that I’m such a word-nerd that words always have my full attention.  And so, if I’m listening to songs with words, inevitably I will stop typing my own through the fire, to the wire, when the night out of control is breaking your heart…..

That’s a problem.

I’m sort of envious of the writers who write to music.  I wonder if it adds a depth, a complexity, an immediacy to their writing that maybe mine doesn’t have.  I wonder if they’re more focused, if their brains somehow work more efficiently, capable of processing multiple creative things at once.  I don’t know.  All I know is that I can’t write to music.  But I love thinking about this, because it raises other issues, too–issues of influence and collaboration and collectivity.  Though I don’t listen to music while I write, I’m still influenced by it.  I imagine scenes to songs, and some of my favorite scenes have developed this way.  I wonder, then, to what extent my writing is my own, and how much of my eventual royalty check should go to Michael Stipe (sorry, Berlin, you’re not getting any).  For that matter, I should probably sign over my income in perpetuity to a bunch of dead poets’ estates.

It’s fascinating, the web of influences that work on our creativity, whether we create with words, music, or other media.  And ultimately, it reminds me that we’re all connected, that I don’t write in a vacuum, that even as I sit here at the kitchen table, alone with my laptop, a dog, and seven chickens (who think they should be allowed in the house and are staring at me through the sliding-glass door–seriously, chickens, it’s kinda creepy)–I am not alone.  Because Tori Amos and William Butler Yeats are whispering in my ears, and in the end, we’re all part of the same story.

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5 thoughts on “Marching to the Beat of a Nonexistent Drummer

  1. I can’t read or write with music on for the very same reason. When I’m editing pictures or working on framing projects I do like to have music on, and frequently sing along and I feel like it helps me in the process because it makes me feel more relaxed and less self-conscious about what I am doing at the time.

    1. Ahhh….thank you! I was starting to think I was the only one. I wonder if that would be true for others–no music for writing or reading, but it helps with more visual projects. Hmm…..

      1. Same here! I actually do create character/story playlists, but they’re just because it helps me capture the feel of the story. I don’t listen to music while I write.

        1. I think I’m going to have to try this. That’s what Kristen-Paige Madonia does, too, and I think it’s a great creative idea. If only my characters weren’t mostly medieval…..does that mean I have to make playlists of Gregorian chants? 😀

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