I listen to the same music, more or less, every night while I work on a book project. The same playlist, really, carefully constructed and modified over the past few years. Sometimes, new songs slip in; rarely, I take a song out. As it stands, this playlist is roughly 3.5 hours long (it's been as long as 4, I think) and since I work 2-3 hours each night (more on weekends) I tend to hear the bulk of it on a normal night.
My sense is that 'writing music' is a fairly common part of most of the routines of writers my age or younger, but I could be wrong about that. I'm also pretty sure I hear the people saying “how do you listen to the same 3 hours of music again and again, day after day, and not get tired of it?”
Well, first and foremost, I choose really excellent songs that no one would ever get tired of. Obviously. Secondly, the fact that I choose the same music over and over again is likely part of what helps me stay focused. If I was constantly changing it up, I'd probably be more easily distracted. My writing playlist hasn't become white noise by any stretch, but I am not paying attention to the music while I write. I'll get absorbed in writing a scene and then suddenly I'll catch the familiar strains of a song by The Decemberists or John Prine or The Indigo Girls and think, hey, it's that song, I love that song. I do, very seldom, change it up. I have an Emergency Album* for when I'm having a hard time and if I feel I need to crack the whip a bit, I'll put on a bunch of sea shanties. This has mostly happened
To a large extent many of the songs on my playlist either have a specific personal significance, are related in my mind to the nature of inspiration** or the act of creation, or help remind me why I write and how to stay honest about its challenges and my goals.
So I thought when this blog opened, one interesting way to generate some discussion is to run down my writing playlist, in stages, and say a bit about why each song is on it, why I chose it, and so on.
I want to offer a quick editor's note here; your comments are welcome and encouraged. I'd love to hear what you listen to while you work. What I'm not going to put up with are comments that say, essentially, “OMG YR MUSIC SUXXORS.” It's fine that you have that opinion. I probably don't enjoy most of the music you listen to, either. And that's ok; the world is a rich tapestry, and so on. It's just that comments like that are not useful or interesting, and this is my blog, not your personal forum. Remember that the philosophy here is talk about what we like and why we like it, not what we hate and why it sucks.
So, here, in order, are the first five songs of my writing playlist:
1. Ripple, The Grateful Dead – Setting the tone here. If you are not down with the occasionally noodly acoustic jam, you'd hate this playlist. So, why Ripple? Is it my favorite Dead song? No, that's probably Sugar Magnolia or Box of Rain or One More Saturday Night (I'm not AS big a Dead fan as I am of some other artists, but I will always regret never seeing a show). But this song, with its direct address of the listener;
If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?
I mean, that's what I'm trying to do as a writer, yes? Get someone else to hear my voice and, hopefully, treasure it. There's a lot of mystic stuff in there, later on (Let it be known there is a fountain/That was not made by the hands of man) that I find relevant to my experience of writing and creating. I keep coming back to the fountain and it hasn't dried up yet, and so on. I don't want to get too mystical, or write an essay about this song (Lord knows I could probably write an essay about every song on this list) so let's move on before we're both uncomfortable.
2. He Was in Heaven Before He Died, John Prine – John Prine is the greatest American songwriter since Woody Guthrie. Fight me. You'll lose.
3. January Hymn, The Decemberists – I have a sense that other fans of The Decemberists sort of look at The King is Dead as an anomaly of an album, their 'bad' album or their 'popular' album. I'm not about to play the game of 'who's been a fan since what album.' I bought The King is Dead on release day and it has never gone out of my regular listening rotation, not ever. This song is beautiful, it moves me for reasons I can't really pinpoint. To some extent it's largely responsible for making my wife a Decemberists fan as well, as she'd found their other albums hard to get into, but fell in love the moment she heard this tune.
4. In My Life, The Beatles – Some of you are probably shocked, SHOCKED to see this appear on this list, knowing how I feel that The Beatles are endlessly overrated. I still feel that way, especially about John Lennon. I'm not going into that; remember that this is for stuff we like. I'll just say that this is easily my favorite Beatles song.
5. Paradise, John Prine – Not his first appearance on this list and it won't be his last. I meant exactly what I said above. I think John Prine wrote more masterpieces by the age of 25 (seriously, go look at the track listing for his first album, do it, I'll wait, and note that came out when he was, I think, 24) than most people have any hope of writing in a productive lifetime.
There is also the fact that Paradise was one of my dad's favorite songs, if not his absolute favorite (other contenders are mostly via CCR, The Clancy Brothers, or Simon & Garfunkel, but Prine is definitely the part of that list I connect with most these days). This song has the highest play count on iTunes for me, vastly higher than any other.
Well, there you have it; the first glimpse at my writing playlist. What do you listen to while you write?
*Takk, by Sigur Rós. Been leaning on that for writing music since my MFA days. Most of my poetry thesis was written while listening to it, for which I can only offer my sincere apologies to the fine musicians of that outfit.
**Real Talk, and I cannot be dissuaded from this point; inspiration in the sense that people use it in regards to making art, and especially writing, is essentially bullshit of the highest order. Inspiration comes from the habit of doing the damn work. The muse finds you when you're already at your task.