Our Team Discusses How Music Influences Their Writing
Music. Some writers love to write to it, to have inspirational tunes playing while they pound their keyboards (computer keyboards, that is). Some writers cannot listen to music while they write, they love it so much it’s too distracting. Some writers get inspired by music, they admire the thoughtful poetic lyrics. And some writers create playlists for their books, songs that represent a scene from their novel or a feeling from their memoir.
We asked six PWN team members to tell us about their relationship between music and writing. Here are their answers.
Of course, our resident singer/songwriter, Mimi Cross, who is teaching Songwriting this summer, has some thoughts about music.
“When I write, I often listen to music, creating playlists on Spotify to help me ‘drop into’ the stories I’m working on. Some of my playlists are public, like the one I created when I was first writing my debut YA novel Before Goodbye. With over three hours of music, you’re bound to find several songs on this list that will inspire you! I couldn’t have written Before Goodbye without them. Listen to my Before Goodbye playlist here.
I also created a playlist when I was writing the book of my heart, Shining Sea. The main character is 17-year-old Arion Rush, a budding singer-songwriter. If you read Shining Sea, Arion may give you some songwriting tips! Listen to my Shining Sea playlist here.”
Thanks Mimi! We will check out your playlists.
Mimi’s books, Before Goodbye and Shining Sea, are available for purchase at Amazon or your local bookstore.
One of our new instructors, Kate Devine, who is teaching Personal Essay: Lyric & Alternative Forms this summer, uses songs to create a narrative.
“One element of powerful writing is attention to significant sensory details. I find that writing specific songs into a narrative is one way to accomplish many things quickly: build a physical world, set a mood, establish character, create tension, the list goes on. In one of my essays, I write about being 17 years old and terribly anxious about the future, but spending a Friday night baking pies with two close friends, listening to Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily album. The characters in the scene are all temporarily soothed by the meditative nature of working with their hands, by togetherness, and by the croons of Merchant’s voice.
In another story, my narrator lays wide awake in a new person’s bed, heartbroken over someone else, feeling mocked and haunted when ‘This Must Be the Place,’ by Talking Heads plays from the new person’s nearby laptop. Just the title is laden with irony for her, and if readers can hear that upbeat intro, they too may feel the narrator’s amplified distress.
Music is incredibly evocative for memory and association. Writer and poet Hanif Abdurraqib has a brilliant way of weaving songs and music history into his essays, which inspires me to continue attempting to as well.”
Zoë A. Gulliksen, PWN’s creative marketing manager and book inc founding member, also put together a list of songs to write to.
“This is my standard go-to playlist for when I’m writing. A mixture of quiet sad songs, a few angsty ones, and a handful about New York City. Some of the songs have been on this list for over 15 years!”
Read more about Zoë’s playlist and listen at Zoë’s Songs for Writing.
Lisa Hartsgrove, PWN program coordinator and instructor who leads our weekly Lunchtime Write-Ins on Fridays and teaches Just Critique, has only one song she can listen to while writing.
“When I write, I tend to prefer silence. This is strange for me because I live most of my life with noise. When I paint, I paint to music. (Current jam: ‘About Damn Time’ by Lizzo. Bonus points to anyone who knows the viral TikTok dance as I am not ashamed to say I do. Yes, I dance while painting.) When I exercise, you bet there’s a beat I’m moving to. When I drive, I’m belting the lyrics to every car that passes me. But when I write, the music tends to come from inside me, not outside. My one exception: Cloud Cult’s ‘Take Your Medicine.’ This is the only song I can recall listening to while actively writing, aside from orchestral background sounds. This song moves me every time I hear it. It stirs something deep inside of me, and so it’s the one lyrical song I’ve used to find a starting point for my own words. But most of the time, the music I listen to when writing is the sound of my own pen on the page.
Greg Phelan, book inc director and Project Write Now founding member, created a playlist for his novel The Moon and the Tower. Greg describes his playlist as:
“A mix of 60’s hits and deep tracks that comprise the soundtrack of my coming-of-age novel, The Moon and the Tower, set in 1964, in Moab, Utah.”
Read more about his playlist and listen at The Moon and the Tower Writers Playlist.
PWN instructor Kerri Sullivan, who is teaching Pitch & Present Your Nonfiction Book this summer, tells us why she can’t listen to music while writing.
“I can tune out the television, other people talking, and coffee shop ambient noise, but I’ve never been able to write with music playing. If it’s music I know, I get too caught up in thinking the lyrics to myself, and if it’s new music, I find myself listening closely to the lyrics. I would rather it just be quiet! I do have artists I love who I think are brilliant writers, and I like to listen to some of them earlier in the day when I know I’m going to write, but not while I’m actively writing.”
Kerri is the editor of the new book, New Jersey Fan Club: Artists and Writers Celebrate the Garden State (Rutgers University Press), an eclectic anthology featuring personal essays, interviews, and comics from artists who love New Jersey. Come celebrate its release with Project Write Now on Friday, June 17, at New Jersey Fan Club Book Launch at the Asbury Book Cooperative.