Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Music can be as good a cure for writer’s block as chocolate can be for … well, just about anything.

Last night I went with the Artist Formerly Known as Young Daniel to see the Arctic Monkeys and the Black Keys in concert. And even though we quite literally had the worst seats in Madison Square Garden, it was still a blast. I spent the entire evening wiggling to the music in my seat like some kind of epileptic worm.

When I attended my first rock concert at the age of sixteen, a sneering girl promptly informed me that I was “head-banging wrong.” I quickly had to decide if I would stand awkwardly still through the concert, or if I would head-bang extra wrong and grin at that sneering girl as I did so. I opted for the latter and have taken a special kind of joy in acting like an idiot at concerts ever since.

I’ve also sustained a few injuries, but we don’t need to talk about that.

The fact is you can’t usually see the band at concerts. Or at least I can’t. I’m a girl in her early twenties without a full-time job, living in Brooklyn.  I can’t afford seats that face the stage and General Admission is too deafening for Grandpa Dan’s fragile ears.

So what I end up getting out of concerts—what I can’t get through simply flipping through a band’s YouTube channel—is a chance to feel the music. If the music makes me want to tap my feet and dance like a fool, you’d better bet I will.

Music has been very important to me for a very long time. I was three years old the first time I sang onstage. I was auditioning for a community production of Mr. Scrooge and I sang “Side by Side” by Patsy Cline. It wasn’t a real audition; they weren’t going to cast anyone younger than five. But I apparently was desperate to audition and my mom Knows People in Wooster community theater, so she wrangled me an “honorary” audition.

I have no memory of this entire incident, but my mother says I hopped up about an octave to screech “SIDE BY SIIIIIDE” at the end. This would usually be a pretty risky way to end a performance, but I’m told it was something a three-year-old with pigtails pulled off quite well.

Considering I’ve been singing onstage literally since before I can remember, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve loved music my whole life. It’s what I used to think I wanted to do—musical theater, that is. But then I realized that the sentences I often composed in my head as I walked down the halls of my high school were evidence another kind of talent. And it was one that came much more easily to me than singing or acting ever had.

Just because the dream switched from musical theater to writing doesn’t mean I abandoned my love of music all together. In fact, now that there’s no pressure on me to excel at making music, I think I’ve grown to love it even more. I still sing in the shower and sometimes in my room when no one else is home. I get my karaoke on every so often. 

But what I love most is listening to music while I write. I was especially excited to see the Black Keys last night since many of their songs appear on my Renaissance Lab playlistWhen starting a new project, I listen to my entire iTunes Library on Shuffle. If a song distracts me from my writing, I skip it. And if it not only helps the flow of my writing but really adds to the mood of a scene, I’ll put it on my new project’s special playlist. If I’m lucky, it’s not long before I have a playlist that captures the essence of my book—or at least to me it does.

I’m so dependent on music when I write that it feels like a mini-tragedy every time I forget to bring my headphones to the coffee shop. Half the time I’ll just take my coffee to go and work from home rather than give up my precious music. Other times I’ll give whatever music they’ve chosen to play at the coffee shop a chance for an hour or two. If I notice one of the songs is having a particularly helpful effect on my writing, I Google the lyrics and later add that song (and often that band’s entire discography) to my music collection.

It’s a good thing I’m so forgetful, and often too lazy to make the walk home so soon after arriving at the coffee shop. Some of my favorite Brooklyn coffeehouses not only make a delicious cup of coffee, but play some pretty great music. I didn’t get into the Black Keys until I heard “Tighten Up” playing at the Outpost Lounge one day. Urban Vintage reminded me that I didn’t have any Nina Simone on my iTunes, and wasn’t that a damned shame?

I owe so much to music. Sometimes when I’m having a tough time connecting to a character, a certain song will bring me right back into his or her state of mind. On a day when it’s difficult to begin, I just listen to my project’s playlist for a while. Sometimes I’ll outline a bit while I do so, and sometimes I’ll do nothing but listen and think about my story. Music has pulled me out of more bouts of writer’s block and outline-induced freakouts than I can count.

Outline-induced freakouts are those times when I worry that I bet too big on myself in the outline. I’ll read over an outline, furrowing my brow, and think, “How in the hell did I expect me to pull this off?” Luckily, after some quality Music Time, I often come to the conclusion that Past Jillian is smarter than I tend to give her credit for.

I’ll close today with a few of the tracks that I truly think helped to make Renaissance Lab a better book.

“In the Backseat” by Arcade Fire

What I most admire about Arcade Fire is the band’s ability to start a song in one place, and take it somewhere else entirely by the end. This was a particular favorite while I worked on outlining the book as a whole. It just feels like Baine to me—partly due to the beautiful violin parts.

“The Little Things” by Danny Elfman

This song is wonderful for writing action scenes. It has a great guitar line and particularly badass lyrics. Added bonus: The singer is Danny Elfman, a gifted composer and the singing-half of Jack Skellington’s voice in The Nightmare Before Christmas.

“Stuff We Did” by Michael Giacchino

I am very big on movie scores when I write, and Up has one of the best. “Married Life” is another favorite track, but something about “Stuff We Did” puts me in just the right place to write an emotionally heavy scene.

“Whistle for the Choir” by the Fratellis

This is a song that gets a specific mention in Renaissance Lab—Baine practices playing it on guitar at one point. I listened to this song a lot while working on Baine and Roth scenes. Don’t read too much into the lyrics, though, guys. I love the song more for its general mood.

“Howlin’ for You” by the Black Keys

And here we are back at the Black Keys. They opened with this toe-tapping tune last night, and it’s not hard to see why. This was a soundtrack song for me, which means I thought it belonged in the background of a particular scene in Renaissance Lab. So I listened to the song on obsessive repeat until I finished writing the scene. I should hate it by now, but I don’t, and that is a true testament to how good this song really is.


  1. Totally a fun blog. Made me want to expand my music collection, by a lot. Y'know, I really should make a 'soundtrack' for my writing.

    1. Thanks! You definitely should. Listening to my playlists really helps me to get in the right mindset to work on a particular project or scene. Plus music tends to just put a person in a creative mood, I think.

    2. Well... making my playlist thus far has been an adventure. In art, of all things. I ended up drawing the main character of my novel, and then came across the theme song for the main guy (very unexpected song for that) so I drew him too. Who'da thunk? So thanks for the bit of inspiration :)

    3. Nice! I would probably use drawing way more in my writing if I were as good at it as you. That drawing you did of Charlie and Zander still makes me so happy ever time I look at it :)