Soundtrack to Creativity

I’m always surprised to hear that some people write in complete silence. This has always sounded a bit like sensory deprivation to me. More than perhaps anything else, I require music to write.

In a lot of ways, music is one of my greatest influences; not only do I need it when I actually sit down to draft and edit, but it’s a cornerstone to the very conception of nearly all of my stories.

One of the first projects to truly stand the test of time is the one that defied all of my usual tastes in genre and storytelling: my espionage thriller trilogy, Devil’s Own Luck, of which I am near halfway through the first book, Speak of the Devil.

In its very earliest incarnations, it started out as a strange and disjointed attempt to make sense of the tone and lyrics of Human by Goldfrapp. I always felt there was something about it that sounded like it should be in a James Bond movie. The “narrator” was (paradoxically enough, considering the title) bizarrely inhuman, and had a fixation on someone who sounded equally so, if in a different way.

So, for many years, I had this image of a strange game of cat-and-mouse between two spies so deep in their profession that they had ceased to feel truly human: for the narrator, it was that they never really understood what it meant to begin with; for their object of obsession, while more capable of navigating the world, they felt so deeply damaged that our narrator can come to the conclusion they were “not human, too.”

As much fun as an emotionally alien espionage story sounded, I had nothing else but that vague impression and a few foggy images. Not much to build a whole story off of, so it was shelved in the back of my mind for years.

That was, at least, until I lived in the middle of the desert, a stone’s throw away from the Palo Verde Nuclear Plant. Every day, I had a 90 mile trek to and from my job, where most of my trip was flying down a highway that cut through a barren and featureless wasteland. (No, seriously. Just take a quick gander at this whole lotta nothin’ for miles.)

Needless to say, my radio and CD collection were the best things that had ever happened to me in those days.

Now, out in the Phoenix area, Rise Against was considered a bit of a hometown band, as the (now-defunct) alternative station of 103.9 The Edge had a particular claim to fame. Apparently, The Edge had been one of the first stations to play them, and thus had been a cornerstone in earning some of their early exposure. Due to that, they were played rather regularly, and 103.9 was one of the few stations that would play my whole way up and back.

In short order, I ended up liking their sound, and picked up their newest album at the time, The Sufferer and the Witness. (And now I’ve dated myself.)

I have this habit of playing an album to death once I get my hands on it, and The Sufferer and the Witness was no exception. For probably a good solid four months, it was basically my only soundtrack to work and back.

During that time, I had a lot of time to get lost in thought to the music. It was there, during those hours where I was left to my own devices, that my thoughts bounced around to the tune of Worth Dying For, Drones, and Roadside. Eventually, they began to spin around each other, colliding and either bouncing off or intertwining; day by day, they began to compress into something solid, like the birth of a galaxy from chaos.

It was from that nebula of thoughts and scenes (combined with Behind Closed Doors playing in the background) that Devil’s Own Luck turned into the story I know it as today.

Of course, there were plenty of other inspirations that shaped it as well; nothing ever comes from just one source. Even so, I simply don’t believe it would have come together so cleanly or so well without that long drive and that particular album. To this day, I still play The Sufferer and the Witness to get myself into the right headspace to work on it.

That isn’t my only example, either. It seems that a great many of my tried-and-true stories began with a single, disjointed scene born from music. The Piety of Others had similar such origins: it started with a scene set to Pet by A Perfect Circle. (Well, actually, it was the remix, Counting Bodies Like Sheep to the Rhythm of the War Drums, but I grew to be more attached to the original song.)

Many years later, that very scene ended up becoming Piety‘s first chapter: a young boy wakes in the middle of the night to a horrible noise, and walks out onto a balcony that overlooks a grand army, red-and-gold banners fluttering in the light of bonfires. Unless later drafts compel me to do a huge overhaul, it will likely always remain its opening. (Even if many of my original assumptions have long since changed already, and continue to evolve.)

For me, music has always been the cornerstone to truly getting a hold of atmosphere. Finding just the right tune and tone is crucial, and once I have it, the words seem to all blend together in just the right palette of prose.

Sometimes, though, I can’t help find this a strange quirk. You might be surprised to hear after all of that, but I’m actually not a very auditory person. Yes, I love music and have a great appreciation for it, but also I have a notoriously bad auditory memory. This was never more apparent than during my years at school; I more or less ignored my teachers’ lectures, and instead read my textbooks in class. Otherwise, I simply would never have retained a lick of information.

Perhaps that fact is exactly why I am able to listen to music (particularly songs with lyrics) while I write. Although every now and again I find myself getting caught up and focusing on the words of whatever song, more often than not they merely blend into a comfortable and atmospheric sort of white noise.

Not to mention, more than once I’ve sat back in the middle of being stuck and a line of a song has managed to spark me to continue. It’s rarely the words themselves, but usually the flash of a feeling. An appreciation for their poetry, or the image they inspire. Whatever it is, it can be enough to get me moving again when nothing else could.

To this end, I simply can’t comprehend those who need silence to write. Those who prefer ambiance or instrumental soundtrack pieces are only slightly less baffling. (I’ve seen that video game music seems to be very popular with certain writers.) That has simply never worked for me; often I’ve found music made for any kind of soundtrack to be purposefully unobtrusive, so it just doesn’t have the “punch” I need to set my mood. And ambiance just seems like cluttered silence.

At the end of the day, I think the most important thing for any writer is to figure out what works best for them. What gets them into the right headspace to write a scene. Be it complete silence, music of any variety, ambient noise or anything else. What works for one might be slow torture to another.

But as long as it works for you, that’s what matters.

Whether or not you are like me or not, perhaps I was able to introduce you to some new music over the course of this post. (I always love doing that. It’s a hobby, actually.) If you’re a music-for-atmosphere writer, maybe return the favor and drop me a note about what inspires you? I’m always looking to expand my collection.

Not like that? Well, maybe let me know what works for you. Never know who’s still looking for that perfect setup. Plus, I’m always interested in how other people write.

(Oh, and if you’re curious, this was written to Hozier’s self-titled album. This line? To Foreigner’s God, specifically.)


One thought on “Soundtrack to Creativity

  1. Sarah Kay Moll says:

    That Human song is totally cool. It does sound like James Bond. I don’t know how you work with music on, dude 🙂 It would drive me nuts. For me the ideas come first, then I find songs that fit them later. Interesting how everyone’s process is different.


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