Posts Tagged music for writing
My guest this week specialises in YA novels set in war zones. With just two novels under her belt, she’s already much-decorated with awards and award nominations. Her music selection is small in number, but it helped her keep the intensity of the environments she was writing about, and connect with the characters’ emotions. Indeed, she has scored a first among Undercover Soundtrackers, because one of her choices was to help her decompress after working with such harrowing material. She is Kerry Drewery and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s guest is fiction editor and creative writing teacher Tawnysha Greene @TawnyshaGreene
Soundtrack by Harold Arlen, EY Harburg, Yann Tiersen, Ludovico Einaudi, Michael Nyman, Alexandre Desplat, Hans Zimmer
My narrator is hard of hearing like myself, so many of the scenes including music in A House Made of Stars are ones in which the music is felt rather than heard. For example, the narrator’s cousin earns a part in The Wizard of Oz, and as she practises her songs in her room, the narrator and her deaf sister watch, hands placed on the stereo to feel the rise and fall of the music.
Similarly, as I wrote these scenes, I played Over the Rainbow by Harold Arlen and EY Harburg on my laptop and turned the music up loud, so that I could close my eyes and listen with my hands to feel the same notes the characters in my novel did. This way, I could be closer to my narrator, a girl who struggles through poverty and abuse and who wishes for a better life for her and her family.
While writing the majority of A House Made of Stars, the music I listened to was usually instrumental. One of my favorite musical collections was The Most Beautiful Soundtracks (No. 2), and guided by these songs, my novel began to take shape. The following individual songs from this compilation were especially helpful — Comptine d’un autre été by Yann Tiersen, I Giorni by Ludovico Einaudi, and The Promise by Michael Nyman. The quickness of these pieces, especially The Promise and the way the notes would domino into one another helped me with the pacing of my novel, because I wanted each scene to tumble into the next so that the story’s momentum would be constantly moving forward as the narrator and her family’s situation become more and more dire.
However, in some cases, it was necessary for me to slow down the scene and concentrate on smaller details. My narrator is very observant and what she lacks in hearing, she compensates in what she sees and understands. The song Childhood by Alexandre Desplat played on repeat while I wrote these scenes, and the way the song is composed is appropriate for the realisations the narrator makes during these instances — Childhood is slow with distinct piano keys forcefully played one at a time in a way that causes each note to be almost jarring. Similarly, during the moments in which I chose to listen to this song, the narrator makes discoveries about her family — read in a diary hidden underneath the stairs and glimpsed through the wooden slats of a bedroom closet — moments that are jarring for her as well.
Regardless of the scene, music served as a catalyst for the general mood of A House Made of Stars, and towards the end when I wrote the last act in which the narrator and her family are homeless and starving, I listened to Hans Zimmer’s To Zucchabar. The duduk’s haunting melody is accompanied by isolated drum beats in the background, an interesting progression from the pronounced notes of Childhood, because these notes are more subdued and allow the duduk’s voice-like melody to take center stage. The music is appropriate for this final leg of my narrator’s journey, because she, too, is finally finding her voice and speaking for herself and her family against all odds.
When I wrote the last scene, I did not play just a single song. I played all of them. The compilation of The Most Beautiful Soundtracks (No. 2) sounded in the background as I wrapped up the story with my narrator looking up into the night sky. By then, she was all those songs. She was the drum beats, the piano notes, and the duduk’s melody as she reached for the stars and made them her own.
Tawnysha Greene received her PhD from the University of Tennessee where she currently teaches fiction and poetry writing. She also serves as an assistant fiction editor for Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts and is a regular reader for the Wigleaf Top 50 series. Her work has appeared in PANK Magazine, Bellingham Review, and Necessary Fiction among others. A House Made of Stars is her first novel. Find her on Twitter @TawnyshaGreene, on her website and on Facebook.
GIVEAWAY Tawnysha is excited to sponsor a giveaway of A House Full of Stars. To enter, simply share this post – and then comment here to let us know. The more platforms you share on, the more entries.
If you’re friends with me on Facebook you’ve probably just seen the post where I remarked how every guest on this series seems to end up writing the following phrase in their emails to me: ‘reliving the heady drafting times’. That’s what this series is all about; the joy of discovery, the celebration that we can create a story out of impressions, hopes and dreams. My guest this week is no exception. She describes her two novels and how they were shaped by songs that challenged and changed her intentions for the stories. These songs suggested new time periods, characters and locations, and key story events. But most of all, she says that music makes her reach and search; hence the heading of this week’s post. She is Rebecca Mascull and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s guest is Myfanwy Collins @MyfanwyCollins
Soundtrack by Jessica Lea Mayfield
Before she was fully formed on the page, I knew who I wanted Laney to be. She would be 15, tall and gangly, with a face that would not seem immediately beautiful to the young world but an astute adult would know how she would bloom fiercely and beautifully one day. Laney would not be an obvious intellectual, but she would think long and hard in an emotional way. People would often say to her, ‘You think too much’, a sentence she would find curious and staggeringly ridiculous. Yes, she does think a lot but what’s wrong with thinking? It’s safer to live in your head than it is to live out in the world anyway. Laney knows that more than anyone. After all, she has just lost everything. Her home. Her brother. Her mother. And her sense of self.
And yet, she carries on and continues to seek connections in all things and to try to not only understand her own miserable situation but that of the human condition at large. In short, I wanted her to be a young woman like Jessica Lea Mayfield. Deep, thoughtful, emotionally advanced, quirkily beautiful. Strong but not in a way that is obvious. Rather, I wanted her to have a quiet, poignant strength born from sadness, from desire, and, ultimately, from her ability to empathise.
Mayfield embodies all of these qualities in her voice and also within the songs she writes. And the more I listened to her music, the more Laney became the sort of young woman Mayfield is. The first time I knew of Mayfield was when I listened to the Avett Brothers cover her song For Today. Like so many of her songs, this is a song of contradiction. A song about a romantic relationship in which the singer pretends she does not love this person. Maybe she feels like she is a relationship fuck-up or that the other person is or that they both are. Maybe she believes she doesn’t deserve love or that her beloved’s love is false. Regardless, she pushes this love away, eventually, because she says it has stifled her. She will accept it, though, in this one moment. She will accept it for this day.
In this song, as in so many of Mayfield’s songs, there is a keen understanding for romantic love—an understanding beyond her years (she recorded her first album, White Lies, when she was 15) and, frankly, beyond the understanding that many middle-aged people (including me) are able to access. She witnesses the world in a way that is both stunningly youthful and staggeringly aged. Like Laney, Mayfield’s eyes are wide open and innocent, but her heart has seen some serious shit and she is on this earth to share her knowledge.
It wasn’t until I saw a video of Mayfield singing an acoustic version of a new song in the kitchen of Seth Avett, that I truly saw Laney. The song, Seein* Starz, is about an overwhelming, impossible love. This is not unlike the love that Laney has for Marshall. There is something about the strength of Mayfield’s voice in the acoustic, kitchen, version and how it is unmarred by the shaky, nearly fragile quality it also possesses. It is that tenderness she exhibits, the raw woundedness of her song and singing that struck me as so akin to who I wanted Laney to be. Like Mayfield, I wanted Laney to send her voice out into the world with vulnerability and strength. Qualities that should be antithetical but which, I believe, are actually able to exist within the same person at once.
Mayfield’s voice and her songs, then, are all about containing and managing contradiction. Just as Laney is all about protecting her heart while at the same time learning how to open up to love and face her fears. Learning that even though she feels entirely weak, she is actually fully undaunted. Like Mayfield pushing back out into the waters of love again and again despite the possibility for pain, Laney pushes forward, paddling her canoe into an uncertain future. Fearless.
Myfanwy Collins is the author of three books—a collection of short fiction, a novel, and her latest, a young adult novel, The Book of Laney, published by Lacewing Books. Her work has been published in The Kenyon Review, AGNI, Cream City Review, Quick Fiction, and Potomac Review. Echolocation, her debut novel,was published by Engine Books in March 2012. A collection of her short fiction, I am Holding Your Hand, was published by PANK Little Books in August 2012. Her website is here, her blog is here, you can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter (@MyfanwyCollins), Tumblr, Instagram, Goodreads and Google+.
My guest this week brings a distinct tone of mischief. His novel is a short story cycle about a series of characters who are struggling in the male-dominated society of Dubai. Six of the stories were directly inspired by music, but not in the way you might expect. Phil Collins puts him in mind of the pretentious and overblown. Evanescence conjures up the self-obsessed, self-pitying and immature. And Celine Dion, with that film theme? I’ll leave you to imagine. His characters suffer oppression and brutality, but they don’t go down easily. Perhaps that was an unfortunate phrase. Never mind. He is Garry Craig Powell and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by supernatural historical thriller writer Gwendolyn Womack @Gwen_Womack
Soundtrack by Arvo Part, Paul Horn, Philip Glass, Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors, Reiki Tribe, John Barry
I’ve always found music to be a wonderful tool while writing. Sometimes I will search for hours to find the perfect song to write a particular scene before I can begin. After I find the right music, I will loop it for days, sometimes weeks. And I’ve found I cannot write while listening to any lyrics. It must be instrumental or else it is distracting.
When I first began writing The Memory Painter years ago I did not think to make note of all the music I was listening to, so this is only a list of the highlights. For readers who are not familiar with the book, The Memory Painter is a supernatural historical thriller about a group of neuroscientists who have unlocked the secret to reincarnation and a love story about a two lovers who have traveled through time to remember an ancient legacy. The novel spans a lot of history and many of the chapters are devoted to specific lifetimes. Here are a few of the time periods and the music that inspired the writing…
Cremona Italy, 1700s
There is a special lifetime that deals with the famous violinmaker Guarneri ‘del Gesù’, and for this I played one song repeatedly: Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror) by Arvo Pärt. I would actually loop the YouTube video of Anne Akiko Meyers playing del Gesù’s Vieuxtemps violin. The song is incredibly poignant and it was just perfect for writing those scenes. Hearing Guarneri’s violin being played while I was trying to imagine his life was invaluable.
China 6TH century AD
Another album is 80 minutes of Reiki Music by Reiki Tribe and it’s filled with Asian flutes and Tibetan bells. I listened to it primarily while writing the Bodhidharma lifetime, the Zen master who trained the Shaolin monks. I literally plugged the search term ‘Tibetan bell music’ into iTunes and spent hours listening to sample tracks before deciding on this particular collection. Many of the songs felt very transportive and helped create the mental space to write the lifetime of a Zen Buddhist monk.
Ancient Egypt 10,000BC
Just listening to Inside The Great Pyramid by Paul Horn was the time capsule I needed to get my imagination in ancient Egypt where the climax of the novel takes place, and I wrote all of the chapters listening to it. This special album came out in the 1970s. Paul Horn went to the Great Pyramid and recorded the music inside the King’s Chamber. There have been acoustical studies on the King’s Chamber because of its incredible reverberation capability. This music really is quite something.
Present day and 1980s
Philip Glass’s album Glassworks was perfect music to write to, particularly track 1, and I played this album a lot throughout writing the entire novel. The mathematical harmonies within the songs and the heartrending melodies were a perfect backdrop.
Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors’ album Totem was another go-to album that I looped repeatedly, particularly tracks 1-3. Totem has a driving rhythm and mystical feel and in general simply helped me to focus and write. I actually went to write a letter to Ms. Roth to tell her what I fan I was of the album because I was listening to it so much, but I found she had passed away in 2012. So instead I ended up spending the afternoon reading about her life and the legacy she left behind with 5Rhythms and I bought one of her books, Maps to Ecstasy, which is a fascinating read about her journey and the power of meditative dance. So that was a surprise veer one afternoon, researching the artist I was listening to and becoming inspired in other ways.
I also played several tracks from the soundtrack to Somewhere In Time, music by John Barry. It’s a favorite movie of mine and I’ve had the soundtrack well over 20 years. Several of the songs are so lovely and again poignant (a running theme perhaps in some of the music I chose). Many scenes in the book were written with this music.
Those are the main songs behind The Memory Painter that easily come to mind. For the current novel that I’m working on, I am keeping a more detailed account because it is fun to look back at what inspired you along the way. My current playlist is numbered with some incredible music that is filling my ears at the keyboard and helping the story come to life.
Gwendolyn Womack grew up in Houston, Texas. She studied theatre at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and then moved to California to pursue an MFA in Directing Theatre, Video, and Cinema at California Institute of the Arts. She lives in Los Angeles with her family. The Memory Painter is her first novel. Find her on Twitter as @Gwen_Womack, on Facebook and on her website.
My guest this week has a novel that spans several lifetimes and puts a new spin on reincarnation stories – she blends thriller with romance and the supernatural with her story of neuroscientists who have unlocked the secret of reincarnation. She used music to conjure her kaleidoscope of time periods, from ancient China to the modern day, and some of her selections are astoundingly haunting – I’m astonished to discover the 1970s album recorded in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid. Those among you who are reincarnation aficionados will have spotted the reference in the title of this post to the 1980s movie Somewhere In Time, and that was on her Soundtrack too. She is Gwendolyn Womack and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by writing workshop facilitator and novelist Kathryn Craft @KCraftWriter
Soundtrack by A Great Big World, Christina Aguilera, LeeAnn Womack, Pentatonix, The Civil Wars
When Roz first asked me to write a post for The Undercover Soundtrack, I didn’t think I had one in me. I can only escape into story, it seems, while writing in silence. It soon dawned on me, though, that music had played a rather mystical role in the development of my newly released second novel.
The Far End of Happy is the story of three women who must make tough choices and face shameful secrets while awaiting the outcome of a loved one’s daylong suicide standoff. Sadly, the novel is based on true events. Frustrated by my husband’s insistence that I stay in a marriage he was unwilling to contribute anything toward saving, I felt I had no choice but to break my marriage vow to save our young sons. In 1997 I determined to divorce; he pre-empted that action with a more desperate move.
I waited a good long time to gain the perspective I needed to tell the story, and got the book deal in the fall of 2013 after turning in the manuscript for my debut novel, The Art of Falling.
Music first entered the story in 2014—or so I thought—when I was driving a few hours to Harrisburg, PA to do a TV taping to talk about my debut. Surfing the radio to find something new, I came upon the kind of expectant airspace that can only mean a song is about to begin.
The odds against tuning in at that exact moment are great enough to make you think that the Universe is about to speak.
It brought to mind another time that had happened—the day I woke up for my husband’s funeral.
I woke up at 5:30 am habitually on our small Pennsylvania farm, but due to the deviling notion that I may have been able to prevent my husband’s horrific act, sleep had eluded me. It was a morning service, so to be safe, I set the radio alarm. My eyes opened as I heard a soft pop from the clock. A simple opening of the airwaves. A connection to something greater. Again, that expectant silence.
I listened to the new-to-me song—Leeann Womack’s You’ve Got to Talk to Me. The futility it evoked rang through loud and clear, as if in absolution: you can chase someone with your hand extended all you want, but if he never turns back to take it, there’s nothing you can do.
Little did I know that in 2014, after the expectant silence on my drive to Harrisburg, I was about to hear that message reiterated.
Cue music, take two
The song was so quiet, at first: plaintive piano, small breathy voice, strings that added a wealth of emotion. Its difference from most of the songs you hear on popular radio grabbed me right away. Sad yet determined harmonies that built to the point they demanded to be heard.
Later that day, on the station’s website, I looked up the title: Say Something by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera. The similarity to You’ve Got to Talk to Me struck. Only this time, the point of view was not of one who is chasing or begging: it was of one who is walking away. By bookending the painful arc of my decision to end the marriage, these two songs anchored me to the inner conflict from which I needed to write. A conflict without end, thanks to my husband’s unforgettable act, so perfectly evoked by the haunting refrain of yet another tune I discovered at that time, Poison & Wine by the Civil Wars.
A few months later, in the final throes of the novel’s development, I stumbled upon a Pentatonix cover of Say Something that I loved even more. This time the sombre mood took on an anxious edge through the plucking of a cello.
In the video, the singers stand together yet facing forward. Parallel grief. When the others add on to Kirstin’s initial solo statement, they seem to say that vocalising pain is so crucial to our human connectedness that even the sound of ‘oo’ releases sadness that cannot be kept at bay. Switching to the mournful resonance of bowed cello, Kevin vocalises the pulse of the breaking human heart. Avi’s lament on the vowel ‘oh’ at 2:25 is enough to break me to pieces. One imagines that each of them sings from their own pain, but together, they make something beautiful.
Because our emotions are beautiful, and important, and should be shared. They are the heartbeat of story and music and life. They are our bridge to shared experience, and my husband’s final, silent downturn shows that emotions left unexpressed will rot us from within. We see this message inherent in the end of the Pentatonix performance: the one person who has vocalised but not yet sung, Kevin, is offered the final plea.
In the Pentatonix arrangement the song ends without resolution. The same is true with my novel, because one of the great legacies of suicide is the plethora of unanswered questions. To be true to my experience, this 12-hour story could not be tied up neatly and put away. Healing for my family would extend on as we shared our sadness and fear. But the unresolved song, like my story, ends on a rising note, because we also shared our hope.
For those of us who choose life this day: may the expression of your innermost self go on and on—whether through the arts or the glorious intimacy of the human voice—in all its pain and beauty.
Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads writing workshops and retreats, and is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. Her Twitter campaign, #choosethisday, is designed to empower others with the notion that each day we get up and go about our business we are choosing life. What will you do with yours? www.kathryncraft.com. Find Kathryn on Facebook and on Twitter @KCraftWriter