Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Music For The Muse

I promised you a more interesting/special blog post today and here it is. Ronna (aka RR Smythe, who writes YA Fantasy and then other books under other names) came up with this cool idea for a bunch of different authors to write about how music is their muse all on the same day. Obviously, I was psyched about the idea. So read on to find out about how music is my muse and then I'll be linking you to six other authors' blogs so you can find out how music inspires them.

I think music is up there with the essentials for me: food, water, shelter. I can't live without those or music either. Music has inspired my writing since I started writing angsty poetry in junior high. It all started with Nirvana. Something about seeing this scrawny, dirty-blond guy screaming his lungs out and people listened. He was a freak/weirdo/outcast/misfit like me, but people listened. And his screams felt like I felt inside. He inspired me to unleash those feelings on the page. Well he did and so did his wife, Courtney Love. If you read any of my teenage poetry (which, um, you won't unless you search super hard and find the couple of poems I submitted to what would become poetry.com as a teen), you'll see that it basically sounds like a bad version of Hole or Babes In Toyland or Sleater-Kinney lyrics.

Eventually, I realized I could never lyrically live up to the punk rock ladies who inspired me and I definitely didn't have their musical talents, so I started to explore fiction and eventually I wrote my little rock n roll fantasy--of women like Courtney and Kat and Corin totally ruling the rock world--and it became my first book, I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE.

My second book, BALLADS OF SUBURBIA, was inspired by the Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash. After a discussion in a grad school class about ballads, true ones like the one Johnny sung about life and love and our tendency to fuck up, I came up with the structure of the book--a notebook where my characters write their ballad or confession of the moment their life changed.

The two books I'm working on now are both musically-driven in some way. I can't help it. Music changed my life, so I usually find myself writing about characters who are changed by music in someway.

But lets talk about how music fits into my writing process and feeds my muse (and I'll include links to YouTube so if you are not familiar with a song or artist, you can check them out). I don't write to music, not usually, not unless I am so deep into the zone that I don't even have to think. During the first draft of BALLADS, I got to that point. I was on a ten-day writing retreat and since there were other writers in the house making some sounds, I blocked it out with my headphones. The bands I listened to then were Screaming Trees, PJ Harvey and Johnny Cash. I think the atmosphere of that music definitely makes its way into BALLADS. Both Johnny and Mark Lanegan, the singer of the Screaming Trees have these deep, throaty baritones that makes the music feel dark and moody and PJ Harvey is just... wow I don't even have words, but it fits.

Usually though I build a playlist as I'm writing and I get stuck on a few songs and always find myself listening to them to get into the mode of the book. I listen to them either while I am brainstorming or right before I write. With IWBYJR, it was all about the song "Don't Take Me For Granted" by Social Distortion. I felt like the story of Emily and her best friend Regan in a small town forming a punk band was the female version of Mike Ness's song about forming Social D with his best friend. Of course, the song the book is named after, "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" by Sleater-Kinney was also one I'd listen to. I remember playing it every night before I delved into my revisions on that book.

With BALLADS, each character had their own ballad or theme, but an overarching theme song for the book was "Bastards of Young" by the Replacements. However, I also had music for the mindsets of my characters. The book deals with heroin addiction, which was hard to write so I went to the music, listening to "Mr. Brownstone" by Guns N Roses and "Heroin" by The Velvet Underground, but also the entire Dirt album by Alice in Chains.

While I'm refining a book, I'm also refining a playlist for it. It's part procrastination tool, but it's also really part necessity. The finished playlists are posted as "soundtracks" on my website. You can find IWBYJR's here and BALLADS' here.

The book I'm working on right now was actually born from listening to a song. I was heading to the gym to work out and had my iPod on of course. "Radio" by Alkaline Trio was on as I walked up the stairs, passed the glass enclosed fire alarm. I thought about how I'd always been tempted to pull the fire alarm. Then a character came to me who would pull the fire alarm. I saw two girls, one of whom would pull it despite the other girl's pleas not to and I knew that these girls would really relate to the song I was listening to, particularly the lines "While you're taking your time with apologies, I'm planning out my revenge. Red eyes on orange horizons, if Columbus was wrong I'll go straight off the edge."

Image plus song equaled book idea... well not so much an idea but a feeling, a feeling that these girls were hurting, a feeling that pulling a fire alarm would be involved, and a feeling that the book was about revenge.

Another song would add to the book idea later. I'd already written a draft of the first fifty pages of it, but something was wrong with it. Then I was in the car on a rainy day and the song "Gone Away" by The Offspring came on. I was still raw with grief for a friend that died almost a year before and the song hurt in such a way that I needed to pull over and just let it hurt. Purging pain through a sad song is very similar to how I purge pain through writing. And I knew then that I needed to write through my grief. I knew then that the sister/best friend of the fire alarm girls was dead. This was going to be my grief book, I was going to mourn with my characters. So now I listen to "Gone Away" and also "The 59 Sound" by The Gaslight Anthem before I write because it brings up those feelings of mourning for me. They aren't good feelings, but the process is healing.

So yeah now this is my revenge/grief book, but there is one last song that is really influencing it right now and I believe a line from it is the true theme of the book. The line is "How we survive is what makes us who we are" by the band Rise Against from the song "Survive."

That's how music serves as a muse for me. It inspires my characters, my themes, the mood or atmosphere of my books. Without it, I wouldn't be writing.

Now, you should go check out these 6 blogs and see how music inspires some of my fellow writers. Also please comment away and tell me how music feeds your muse!


Kelly Polark said...

I love, love, love music. BUT I cannot write while listening to it, because I tend to sing along and then I can't concentrate! Music does inspire a lot of my poetry though. Because my own life isn't that exciting so I sometimes I use lyrics to give me ideas!
(Great post!!)

Paul Greci said...

I don't write to music, but it definitely inspires me and puts me in the right emotional frame of mind so I can better connect with my characters. If I see my writing falling flat, I'll stop and cranks some tunes. Lately, Bob Marley has been helping me get back into it when I fall off a bit. Yesterday I did a little post on Riff Writing--kind of a music performance to writing analogy as a revision method: http://paulgreci.wordpress.com/

Brittany said...

Music really can create such an inspiration in people. I am always confounded when people tell me that don't really listen to music. My jaw drops and I'm like "Really? No music?" and they tell me sometimes they turn on the radio. Music has been such a saving grace in my life that I just can't imagine a world without it. I mean no Johnny Cash?!?! NO Ramoes! No Neko Case. I shudder to think...

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Kelly and Paul, it sounds like we have a very similar pattern for using music as a muse. And Britt, I agree, when people tell me they don't really care about music, I am just dumbfounded. I can't imagine life without it!

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