Monday, October 18, 2010

Whistle While You Work

It used to be that when I was writing I would almost always be also listening to music. I chose the music so that it was appropriate to my mood and the tone I wanted to set in the book, and then I would try to ride the rhythm and the melody of it into more musical prose. This didn't really work, I don't think, but it helped me get past my anxiety over writing and lay down words, which is I think the main thing beginning writers need.

For the last few years I've tended to listen to music that was the opposite of the mood and tone I wanted to set, though occasionally I will lapse back into my old ways for a little while. Often I've listened to energetic, aggressive music to help me keep my brain awake and my heart thumping -- and to remind myself that when my writing gets less engaging and absorbing than the music, I have to stop writing for a while and do something else. 

More recently I often find I need not to listen to any music because I get distracted or, in some cases, something about the combination of concentrating on writing and not concentrating on the music can put me to sleep. Often this seems to have something to do with headphones. If I can use my speakers I am usually okay to listen to music.

I also used to watch television or movies in the background while I wrote, sometimes. This was to make me feel less lonely. Now I don't need that so much.

A lot of my development as a writer seems to be about learning to think of writing as purely writing, and not through a metaphor of music or film, which can be very glamorous, tempting metaphors.

No big conclusions to make here, but I do wonder how other people feel about these things.


  1. i can't watch tv or anything while writing, but i do like to listen to music. i'm a big fan of the glenn gould goldberg variations, or some lo-fi moody bluesy slow americana, like the be good tanyas.

  2. I used to listen to music always while writing, and then I stopped. I'd say for any long project I've completed, I've started with a strong roster of music that felt appropriate (but not matched necessarily) and which then later stopped working and started working against me and then I've given it up and typed silent for a while.

    Last week I was smashing away at a novel I was excited about and caught a song by chance that totally influenced me to give up the project and return to a dropped one. It was a strange moment and one I'm happy I had and that's probably why I wanted to respond to this question.

  3. I used to never listen to music because it distracted me too much, but I wrote pretty much my whole novel listening to four or five main albums. I think it's part of why that novel is troubled, but I think it also helped me conceive of the thing, given how nervous I was about making it happen at all. Listening to those albums now, I'll hear parts that I didn't think of as directly contributing influence, but it turns out they're totally there in the book, at least as I think of it.

  4. I find still that reading makes me feel lonely. I can't listen to anything while I read because I am too distractable, so it's a book or music or tv. I can identify with music, and regular tv is being watched by millions at the same time, so I don't feel so alone, but when I read a book, I am doing so alone. Not even the companionship of my wife who is reading with me helps, and she feels the same way in that regard: "we did nothing together" is what she says about it.

  5. Tim, I actually had a similar thing with my thesis -- I started out with music that really felt appropriate and set a tone for me, particularly Tim Hecker's An Imaginary Country. Then there came a point where it was exactly the wrong stuff to listen to and I had to find new things, when I listened to anything.

  6. I usually listen to music when I'm reading or writing. When I find an album that really strikes the right chord I typically get stuck on it for months at a time. For something like five months now I have only listened to the Yanqui UXO album from Godspeed You Black Emperor while reading/writing. There was a point a few years ago where the only thing I listened to while writing was "Bittersweet Symphony" on infinite loop.

    I'm not really sure why I do it. It probably had a point early on, but now it's mostly just a ritual. I feel naked if I'm not doing it.