There are many areas of the writing process that differ wildly from one writer to the next. I’m sure this is true for most creative endeavors, but of course my only experience is with writing. I plan to discuss a number of these areas of process variance in various blog posts, but I wanted to start with my preferred environment for writing.
I know people who need complete silence in order to write and others who could write during a dance party if they wanted. Both take the same skill, in my opinion: the ability to filter out distractions, albeit by different methods. However, I find silence distracting when I’m trying to write.
I’ve spent some time trying to figure out why this is, and I think I’ve reached a good reason: when it’s silent, every tiny noise is amplified and more noticeable, easily pulling my attention away from what I’m trying to write. If I can control the dominant noise in my environment, I can filter out the random noises. In other words, I’m someone who likes to have music playing while I write.
I avoided the word ‘listen’ in the previous sentence on purpose. Most of the time, I am not listening to the music itself. After maybe one song, it becomes white noise that serves to filter out any sudden sounds that might cut in (and with three cats, trust me that there are a lot of sudden noises happening in my home). Some songs or artists serve this purpose better for me than others, but it has nothing to do with the quality of the music. Most often it has to do with how many times I’ve already listened to a song or album: the more listens, the less likely the music will distract me with lyrics or changes in the beat.
That’s the main reason I like writing to music. I find I get more distracted in silence, either by surfing the Internet or thinking of other things I should do or having some random noise pull my attention away. Music moderates both my external and internal environment. I find my thoughts stay more focused on my stories when I write to music.
I think this might have to do with the secondary reason I write to music: the emotion. Certain songs or albums will perfectly evoke in me a specific emotion I’m hoping to achieve with a story, and when that happens I’ll often play the album on constant repeat while I work on the story. The reason this helps keep me focused is that if my attention starts to drift from the story, I can take a break to listen to the song that’s playing, which will at least keep me immersed in the feeling of my story. That, in turn, often helps me re-focus on the story instead of drifting off to waste time on the Internet.
At one point while I was working on the third draft of my novel, I hit a rough patch where everything I came up with felt boring and generic. Then I heard Florence + The Machine, and I got swept up in her creative wave. So many of the songs on both her albums reminded me of specific characters in my novel and their arcs and experiences that I found myself bursting with ideas and the desire to write. I have almost 100 plays on both of her albums because for months I sat down and edited my novel while looping Lungs and Ceremonials. Even now, after I’ve finished that draft, whenever I hear one of those songs I think of my novel. The emotions she evokes and the ones I am trying to elicit overlap, and I think she is masterful at conveying them through song. But don’t get me wrong—her album did not inspire my novel (although there would be nothing wrong with that).
Occasionally a song will inspire a story, but more often I’m using music to reinforce a pre-existing inspiration. When I don’t have a specific album or artist in mind, I’ll shuffle my entire music library when I sit down to write (especially when I’m working on a new story and might not yet have a clear idea of the emotional intricacies).
Music is a way of setting the tone for myself, of making sure my very environment is saturated with the emotions of the story I’m constructing. It’s the most effective way I’ve found to keep myself focused; my productivity tends to increase noticeably when I write to music. One of the goals of all kinds of art is to elicit specific emotions in the viewer/listener/reader, so to me it makes sense that writing to music would be beneficial to some writers.
Even though my primary reason for playing music while I write is a matter of process, I think the secondary reason is far more important. In fact I would switch them in order except that the original reason I started doing this was for the white noise factor, even though over time that purpose has become less crucial.
I understand, though, how this is not something for everyone. Songs can get stuck in people’s heads and push out everything else. There are some songs I know I can’t write to because the urge to sing along or just let myself lean back and feel the song is too strong. It’s hard to find the balance, but I think that’s true of any quirk of someone’s process. Too much or too little of something, and a whole routine can crumble.
And for those curious, I wrote this blog post while playing Janelle Monáe’s new album, The Electric Lady, which I highly recommend.
Where do you stand on this? I’d love to hear from writers as well as other types of artists!