Some writers cannot write except in silence. Some, actually, need specific kinds of silence: crickets, white noise, one of those nature-sound machines, wind in the trees. But silence all the same.
I am not one of those writers.
Sure, if I fall into a story and lose all track of my physical surroundings, I can enter silence and not even realize it. But to start out, sitting down for the first time and trying to do the work of writing — the uninspired, slavish end of the craft, which has very little to do with art — I must have sound. More specifically, I must have music. And, to work most effectively, I must have specific kinds of music — often, specific artists.
In fact, much of my fiction is directly tied to individual songs. For example, my story “Horror Vacuui,” about a man both obsessed with and terrified of his own feces, began when I mentally connected a few key lines from Tool’s “Stinkfist” with a few key lines from Tool’s “AEnima.” My story “Barefoot in the Guadalupe” involves an eccentric pianist from the Texas Hill Country, and I spent a lot of time listening to local musician C. Ridge Floyd while writing it. I have a whole series of stories based on lyrics from a single song (people who know me know the song and the project, but I’m hesitant to give it away here in the blog — sorry for the lame mystery).
Then there are my longer works, my novella and all my various novel projects, which merit not songs but whole soundtracks. The novella borrows heavily from the Butthole Surfers, Tool, Metallica, and early Ministry — which works great, since it’s about the kind of confused and angry teens that I hung out with in high school. My ever-evolving “vampire” novel includes songs by those same bands as well as stuff by NIN, White Zombie, and Type-O Negative, but it also draws on stuff by Sarah McLachlin, Tori Amos, and Evanescence. My first “finished” novel (I’m still editing it), Stew Pit, makes explicit references to Louis Armstrong, Lenny Kravitz, the Beatles, Bob Marley, even Tchaikovski.
I also use music to set tone and drive the feel of the language in my fiction. My most recent novel (still in progress), for instance, is set deep in the South, and even though this particular music isn’t period-accurate, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to gritty southern rock and new blues by bands like Drive-By Truckers, Lucero, and William Elliot Whitmore. Music is also a strong emotional memory trigger: a long short story I’m currently working on is set in 1988, so I’ve created a playlist on my computer of nothing but albums from 1986-1988, just to send me back into that era.
But I use music for more generic purposes too, listening to playlists solely for their mood, or their lyrical content, or their effect as background noise. I think it’s because I’m so in love with music but am not a musician at all, so I’m always trying to recreate the music in prose. I’m certainly not the first to do something like this. I once had a student, who was majoring in jazz, turn in an essay on how Toni Morrison used music composition theory to construct her novel Jazz. Stephenie Meyer — for better or worse — has made much of her love for the band Muse, which served as her primary musical inspiration while writing the Twilight saga and whose music now turns up in the Twilight films.
For my dissertation novel, I combined all these reasons for musical inspiration, and even went so far as to compile a chapter-by-chapter “soundtrack” for the novel. It includes pieces for their lyrical content (Tool’s “Lateralus,” Muse’s “City of Delusion,” Slayer’s “Reign in Blood” and Tori Amos’ cover version, “Raining Blood”), pieces I value for their tone or rhythm (Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “Hung Over As The Oven In Maida,” Ministry’s “Dream Song,” Dum Dum & the Smarties’ “Merrily,” Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia”), and long moody pieces I listen to primarily as appropriate background sounds (Om’s “At Giza,” Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”). Each is connected to a specific scene, or a specific character, and informed the way I went about writing the book. This might, actually, be one reason it still feels a bit disjointed, and perhaps I should revise the book in silence, in order to smooth out all the discordant rhythms and tones of the narrative. But then, discord and displacement are major themes in the book, so maybe it works just fine as it is. . . .
One of the most common pieces of writing advice is to find a writing place and not only make it yours, but also make it habitual — make it a place that reminds you to write. I still like to think I’m able to write whenever and wherever, if I have to, and the truth is, my writing place isn’t a place at all: my writing place is music.
* If you don’t recognize the title of this post, it’s a variation of a line from Modest Mouse’s song “Blame It on the Tetons.” The actual line is “Language is the liquid that we’re all dissolved in,” and it’s one of my favorite single lines in any song.