A Writer’s Notebook: Music and freewriting

I’ll explain the exercise more fully below, but, as I did with the “1,000 words” exercise, I need to mention this up front:  I’m writing while listening to Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt, Suite No. 1, Op. 46: Aase’s Death.”  I can’t upload an audio clip of the piece without violating copyright, but you can hear a decent preview of it at Last.FM.  The version I’m listening to is performed by the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, from the collection Meditation: Classical Relaxation Vol. 5.

Give it a listen, and then read on.  To try this exercise yourself, see below.

The sun had not yet risen, and the predawn sky was watery , the thin clouds mauve against the amethyst sky.  Inside, the room was darker, murky, the curtains heavy over the one small window.  He thought he heard her breathing but it was only the rhythmic whir of the vaporizer.  The air tasted cold, like rubbing alcohol evaporating on the skin.  Her thick quilt was up high around her neck.  She lay on her back, propped against a mass of floral pillows ruffled with shams; her shoulders tilted askew because of the curve in her brittle spine.  A small light sifted in from the little nightlight in the hallway bathroom, and when he moved over her so his shadow fell away from her face, one milky eye glimmered yellow in the dark.  Her mouth hung open, the lips dry and drawn up like the opening of a pouch, the wrinkles from her lips fanning out.  She looked like a fish, like a desiccated eel.  He remembered the time his two goldfish had died and his mother had helped him scoop them from the bowl, the warm luster gone and their scales faded like watercolors in the rain, the gold dilute, their little mouths agape.  His grandmother was still wearing her clip-on earrings, gold filigree badges pinching each lobe.  Her hair crested and waved in steely strings, oily and thin.

The room was very still.  Even with the swirl of mist issuing from the vaporizer.  He pulls his arms around himself, but he felt even he was motionless–he could not feel his own heartbeat, he could not hear his own breath.  He inhaled deeply, his narrow chest expanding against his arms; in the back of his throat, he tasted stale flowers and expired medicine.

He bent to shake her.  The quilt was more substantial than she was, and when he pushed against her, it slid across her collarbones with a sound like paper.  The wattle of her neck moved with it, and he jumped backward, staring.  But she didn’t stir, so he eased closer and took her bony shoulder and shook her again.  Her whole body moved at once, like a cornhusk doll.  She was cold like the room.  He thought she needed warming—he thought she needed the tea she loved so much.  It was nearly morning now, and she would be asking for it soon enough.  So her left her there in the dark and went to the kitchen to find her old mug, her teabags, the kettle.  Whatever it took to wake her up.

I love writing to music.  I used do an exercise with my freshman composition students for which we listened to a piece of instrumental music and wrote whatever came into our heads based on that music (for a long time, I had fun playing them Metallica’s early instrumental “Call of Ktulu,” which none of them ever recognized, because afterward I could explain that the song was itself inspired by prose–H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “Call of Cthulu”).  In yesterday’s post, I wrote about how I use music in my own fiction, but I mentioned only briefly how much I like instrumental music, especially classical music, for setting mood or finding an emotional tone, and today I wanted to deal with that in more detail.

This week I’m working on a story in which a 12-year-old boy finds his grandmother dead in her bed, though he doesn’t at first realize it.  So I decided to work on that scene.  What appears here probably won’t make it into the story–this is primarily for my own reference, so when the boy mentions this moment to others I’ll have an idea of what he experienced; besides, the perspective here is (a little) too reflective, too adult for the kid I have in mind, though he is fairly mature for his age.  But I wanted to get these moments down anyway.

To try this on your own, simply select a piece of music that suits the mood you’re looking for.  (I selected this movement from Peer Gynt precisely because it was written to accompany a death in an Ibsen play, and because the movement of it, rising and falling like quiet ocean, felt so somber and meditative.)  Then find a place to listen to your music without distractions–not in the living room with the TV on, not on your iPod while out walking around the neighborhood.  Someplace isolated and quiet.  Listen to it once without writing.  Close your eyes if necessary.  Don’t think about the music, don’t try to start drafting in your head.  Just sit, and listen.  Focus on experiencing the music.  Then, when the song has finished playing, listen to it again, but this time do a freewriting exercise.  Let the music guide your thoughts, but don’t try to control your thoughts–just write whatever occurs to you, any thoughts that come to mind.  You can write for the duration of the song or, if the song is relatively short, you can put it on a loop and write to a set time limit–ten minutes, twenty, a half hour, whatever gets the job done.

For more on writing to music–any music at all–check out author Meg Cabot’s blog entry on her musical writing habits.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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