Music to Write By: 10 Top Authors Share Their Secrets for Summoning the Muse

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J.S. Bach

Bach: “I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.” (Image used with permission of Dave Grossman: http://www.jsbach.net/bass )

 

Writing is a hell of a way to make a living. It only seems easy to those who haven’t tried it. I’ve somehow managed to survive that way for the past 20 years or so — for richer and for poorer — and still don’t know how my favorite authors, journalists, and bloggers manage to pull it off with such verve and panache. Sometimes, being a writer feels like getting paid to pull a rabbit out of a hat over and over again — but each time it has to be a new breed of rabbit, “miraculously” emerging from a different style of hat.

Days under the spotlight that I reach into the fraying dark with sweaty fingers, and feel warm fur, are good days. Other days, it’s nothing but hat in there; but I say “Voilà!” with a practiced flourish anyway and hope the audience doesn’t notice that the alleged rabbit is just a tattered old stuffed thing, a patchwork made to twitch by sleight-of-hand.

But writers have their secrets and rituals for courting the fickle favor of the Muse. For some, it’s sitting in a certain chair at the right time of day — or getting out of familiar surroundings to type busily away in a café filled with people that might someday be readers. For others, it’s a brisk walk in the open air. Or it’s potions; woe to the poet who finally decides to undertake her epic sestina sequence only to discover that her cupboard is bare of aged Sumatra.

And for many writers, one way to evoke that elusive flow-state of inspiration is music.

Not, mind you, just any music. I love me some Elvis Costello, but trying to eke out an apt phrase while being throttled with the thesaurus of his post-coital tristesse would be impossible. A writer needs a soundtrack that arouses the desire for articulation while denying its consummation by anyone else’s genius.

In my own search for the perfect music to write by, I’ve been through many phases. For a while, Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way did the job. Recorded just before Bitches Brew established voodoo funk as the tenor of the times, In A Silent Way was the freshly electrified Miles band with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, and others swinging madly — but in a magisterially laid-back groove. It strikes just the right mood and tempo for my work: both meditative and locomotive, as if the music is always going on somewhere, even after the album ends.

Miles Davis

Miles Davis: “Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.”

These days, while I’m confined to my glorious prison-cum-monastery for months working on my book NeuroTribes: Thinking Smarter About People Who Think Differently, Steve Reich’s astonishing Music for 18 Musicians is helping me stay on track. I still remember the first time I heard 18, walking into Recycled Records on Haight Street in San Francisco in 1979 and asking the cute music geek behind the counter (who is now my friend on Facebook — life is wonderfully strange) “What is this music?”

It sounded like electronic music, but was played on all acoustic instruments. By way of Balinese gamelan and African drumming, Reich found a way to do with marimbas, pianos, and human voices what Bach did with lutes, flutes, and chamber orchestras: use math and precision (in this case, pulses of strict time cycling in and out of phase) to reveal the source code of the Universe as blissful symmetry, “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations,” as the Vulcans say. Voilà!

If you ever get the rare chance to see 18 performed live, don’t miss it. It’s one of the great experiences available on the planet. And Reich’s “Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ” is similarly radiant, but only about a quarter as long.

Like anxious stage magicians, writers are constantly peering into each others’ hats to try to learn each others’ tricks. Here, I make that process explicit by asking some of the best writers in the business — in genres ranging from non-fiction, to long-form journalism, to poetry, to science blogging — to tell my readers about the musical wiles they employ to seduce their Muse. By hearing great writers talk about what they listen to while they do their work, we learn a lot about how they feel about the craft of writing itself. I’m grateful that master craftsmen and craftswomen like David Quammen, David Dobbs, and Carl Zimmer (three of my favorite science writers), August Kleinzahler and Jane Hirshfield (two of the greatest poets in America, whose work couldn’t be less alike), and ace science bloggers like Ed Yong were generous enough to share their secrets with my readers.

To my fellow writers: May your dapper old hat be filled with a clamoring of rabbits, leaping through your fingers as your readers gasp, grateful to be amazed one more time.

 

John Schwartz

Photo by Steve Boxall (http://www.steveboxall.com), used with permission.

John Schwartz

John is a reporter for the New York Times and the author of a new book about raising his gay son, Oddly Normal.

Asking about my taste in music is scary; like the playwright in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, who agonizes over his choices for “Desert Island Discs,” knowing that it could kill his reputation if people knew that his musical tastes ran to The Monkees singing “I’m a Believer” and the Crystals singing “Da Doo Ron Ron.”

But I can’t resist. Music is one of the sustaining parts of my life; when I think no one can hear, I’ll sing along with “I’m a Believer” — which is, after all, a wonderful song! — and with everyone from James McMurtry to Moxy Fruvous, the Austin Lounge Lizards to Joe “King” Carrasco. Much of my playlist reflects my Texas roots, but I love anyone whose lyrics inspire me to write more vividly, to pack more in, to be smarter.

But I don’t write with music on. I’m too easily distracted. I wrote my latest book, Oddly Normal, from an Adirondack chair in my living room, mostly in the silence of the house after the rest of the family went to bed. If I could type in a sensory deprivation floatation tank, I would, except I always fell asleep in those. Music is for the sidewalks and the car, at least when I’m not listening to audiobooks. It all keeps me a little sharper than I otherwise would be. It keeps the muse amused.

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield

A current chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Jane also uses a great deal of science (biology, physics, paleontology, geology) in her seven books of poems, most recently Come, Thief.

When I was young, I always wrote with music on. This probably had something to do with growing up in New York City: there was a lot of background distraction I wanted to block, and I had to make some privacy for my ears in that crowded existence. What I listened to was all over the map, Judy Collins, classical Spanish guitar, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. Then a few years of living without any music at all (I was in a monastery deep in the wilderness, without electricity or heat) ended that habit. Now I write only in silence, and want for the background of my writing awareness a John Cage-like sound-space that governs itself. But some number of my recent poems take household tasks as a starting metaphor–they mop the floor, clean mushrooms, cook soup, wash doorknobs–so I offer some of the music I put on these days when housecleaning: David Byrne’s Look Into the Eyeball, anything by Habib Koite & Bamada, Bob Dylan’s Modern Times, Gillian Welch’s The Harrow and the Harvest.

David Quammen and Tasmanian devil

David Quammen

David is the author of a new book on the next human pandemic, Spillover.

Music to write by?  I’d love to give you some juicy personal choices but the fact is: I write in silence.  Closed in my cave of an office, lined with books, very little window, no distraction by the beautiful mountains of Montana, no background music.

But I always turn on the CD player, or my Pandora app played through decent speaks, for cocktail hour.  Sit down in a chair with a martini, my wife and dogs nearby (she has red wine, they go it dry), and for about an hour each evening we read together…and listen to music, if it’s not backyard season.  What’s our background music for reading and thinking and chatting?  1) Gregorian chant 2) Chopin 3) Andres Segovia 4) Gregorian chant.  You get the idea.  I love other sorts of music too — my Pandora list includes the Gram Parsons station, the David Bromberg station, the Chopin station. etc… My favorite of all musicians is Louis Armstrong, and he makes for great foreground listening, also background for dinner parties…but too distracting for reading.  Oh, Chet Baker instrumental albums: also good for reading.

Carl Zimmer

Photo by Tai Shimizu (http://www.taishimizu.com), used with permission.

Carl Zimmer

Carl writes frequently for the New York Times and blogs at The Loom and Download the Universe.

Music doesn’t mean much to me when I’m doing the dreary chores involved in assembling a story–reading papers, playing email tag, going through transcripts while sitting in a grubby airport. But there comes a time when everything’s in place–the outline is in good shape, the information is all ready to be deployed, the introduction is taking shape in my mind–and then I open up a new document and hit some music. If I am trying to explain something complicated and want to get across the beauty of science’s complexity, I may put on some Bach or Thomas Tallis. But when writing is working out, it brings me as much pleasure as reading can, and I want music that speaks to some other part of me–I think that fifteen-year old who got a mix-tape from a friend and discovered the greatness of a band for the first time, or who had his heart broken for the first time, or who actually got something right for once.

iTunes, it turns out, lets you create a PDF of a playlist. This is NOT an authoritative, complete list of my work music. It only reflects a month or so when I’d listen to music and say, this is something I want to work to. [Click list to embiggen].

Carl Zimmer's playlist

Carl Zimmer’s writing playlist (click to embiggen!)

David Wolman

David Wolman

David is a contributing editor at Wired and the author, most recently, of The End of Money.

A writer friend of mine–a real talent–once told me he only listens to classical music when he’s writing. Songs with lyrics tend to interfere with his inner voice. I remember thinking: Damn, that’s a real literary guy kind of answer. I want that answer.

But as my neighbors can attest, that is not my answer. I need to get pumped up to write, which means I listen to some decidedly un-relaxing tunes, often the same ones over and over again. And who knows? Maybe loud music helps my writing because the prose has to compete. Without tempo and sharp diction, the words will be overwhelmed. It’s as if the music provides both a challenge and a warning: DO NOT BE BORING. With that, I give you the most recent iteration of my playlist entitled “Write The Book!”

“Paper Planes” by M.I.A.
“The Funeral” by Band of Horses
“Sleepyhead” by Passion Pit
“Time to Pretend” by MGMT
“Helena Beat” by Foster the People
“In This World” by Moby
“Bad (live)” by U2
“Amsterdam” by Peter Bjorn and John
“Free Your Soul” by Supercar
“Next Exit” by Interpol
“A Little Soul” by Pulp
“Rez” by Underworld
“Fix You” by Coldplay
“Janglin” by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
“Number 1″ by Goldfrapp
“Atmosphere” by Joy Division
“The Bends” by Radiohead (or anything from that album)
“Torn & Frayed” by The Rolling Stones
“I Will Follow” by U2
“Temptation” by New Order
“All These Things” That I’ve Done by The Killers
“Universal” by Blur
“Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve
“Girls” by Death in Vegas

Ed Yong

Ed Yong

Ed is a vagrant scribe, Web miscreant, and science writer for Discover at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Lux Aeterna — the movie remix.

I need something with no lyrics, that’s dramatic but not too fast. Like the auditory equivalent of fourth gear.

David Shenk

David Shenk

David’s most recent book is The Genius in All of Us.

For reasons that no one wants to hear about, I spend an awful lot of time obsessing on this question: The perfect music for just the right mindset to create just the right paragraph. For every twenty minutes of music that I actually listen to, there may be four or five hours collecting it, pruning it, backing it up, setting up a streaming server, choosing the right headphones…

Most of the 8000 hours on my hard disk is useless (or actively harmful) to writing. I can’t listen to Bruce or Elvis or the other Elvis and come up with any worthwhile sentences. I can’t listen to Aimee Mann or Wilco or Martha Argerich or Richard Thompson or The Frames. I can’t listen to the very best-crafted songs or the most resonant voices or the sweetest melodies or the most blistering guitar solos. Way too distracting.

But I can listen to some of my very favorite stuff, including:

- Keith Jarrett, solo or trio, preferably the longer pieces that wander off in search of something genuinely new.

- Yo La Tengo, the louder, completely unapologetic pieces

- Philip Glass, the hypnotic pieces (i.e., all of them)

- Grateful Dead, usually everything in a ’73-’82 second set, up through Space and the ensuing Jerry ballad. (When “Sugar Magnolia” comes on, I’m done for the day. No good sentence has ever been written to “saw my baby down by the river, knew she’d have to come up soon for air.”)

What does Yo La Tengo’s “Pass the Hatchet I Think I’m Goodkind” have in common with a 43-minute “Dark Star” from Cleveland 1973? There’s something entraining, even hypnotic, in all this stuff. I think it usually has either an overwhelming percussive quality or an improvisational humility and powerful openness, or both.

If I’m being honest (which I feel compelled to be in Steve’s presence), there’s also an exception to all this: a guilty pleasure that is slick, melodic, and embarrassingly thin. For some reason that I still cannot fathom, but I’m sure speaks ill of me, I am often able to do quite well with Pink Floyd’s 1994 album The Division Bell. I know — it’s not really Pink Floyd. Roger Waters is long gone. I don’t argue that it begins to touch Animals or Meddle as a creative work, but somehow I can write to it. Inscrutability is a good thing.

Priscilla Gilman

Priscilla Gilman

Priscilla’s memoir, The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story Of Unexpected Joy, was chosen as a Best Book of 2011 by the Chicago Tribune and The Leonard Lopate Show.

While writing The Anti-Romantic Child, I created an extensive playlist that I wrote about here for Poets & Writers magazine.

Recently I’ve been finding great writing inspiration in the British composer William Alwyn’s “Lyra Angelica,” a concerto for harp and string orchestra. It has many moods and tones, and both wrenches and uplifts me, soothes and galvanizes me in ways that I’m grateful for.

A few more songs/pieces that invariably help me to get my writing groove on:

“Franklin’s Tower,” the Grateful Dead — to free my mind.

“Sodom, South Georgia,” Iron & Wine — to help me delve deep.

“Blue Ridge Mountains, ” Fleet Foxes — to help me distill inchoate and confusing emotions into precise words.

“Very Slowly” from Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland — we had my new husband’s parents come in and Benj walk my Mom down the aisle to this at our recent wedding and it somehow epitomizes family to me.

“Here Comes the Sun,” The Beatles — when I need to cry!

August Kleinzahler

August Kleinzahler

August was born in a cross-eyed hurricane and is the author of Music: I-LXXIV, published by Pressed Wafer. He was the winner of the 2008 Lannan Literary Award for Poetry.

I don’t play music in conjunction with my writing, for which I require silence to hear the music in my own head and in the word-sounds and cadences, etc.

I don’t use music “to get in the mood” for writing. That said, music, most assuredly percolates into the writing, but in ways that are somewhat mysterious to me, or, at least, unconscious.

Months go by where I can’t listen to jazz, only to, say, early Baroque chamber ensembles or Bach keyboard. I listen to Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” a great deal, and I especially enjoy the recordings where the artist employs several keyboard instruments, i.e. piano, harpsichord, fortepiano and organ. (I am an unrepentant timbre queen). Robert Hill on the Hanssler label, who employs all four instruments, and Pascal Vigneron & Co., I forget which label, and only available on MP3, which omits with fortepiano.

Then, one day, as recently happened to me one morning at the Weehawken Sheraton, I turn on the radio and hear Bud Powell playing a trio version of “Reets and I,” a late career date, perhaps in Stockholm, early 60s, and it was as though those ivories he was banging were situated in a vertical row up and down my sternum. This is a kind of joy within me approaching ecstasy. I am a great believer that what one pours, as if through a funnel, into one’s head — eyes, ears, etc. — works either as a nutrient or a toxin, at least with regard to one’s “soul” or “spirit” or “art.” I am as fastidious and strict as an ultra-Orthodox Jew or a Salafist Muslim about just what goes down that funnel, and how, under what circumstances, and when.

David Dobbs

David Dobbs

David is working on his fourth book, The Orchid and the Dandelion, which is about how genes and culture shape temperament, behavior, and evolution.

I listen to music only about a third of the time that I’m actually writing, usually just to get in the right mood — and so I’m not distracted, in that first hour, by the silent sound of me trying to write. So I might listen for 20 to 80 minutes, then quit once I’m enough into the story that the music becomes distraction rather than muse. If I’m really going well, the music dies and I don’t realize it.

What to listen to? Usually it’s from the list below. The choice at the time depends on my mood, how well I’m working, and/or whether I seem to need calming or stimulation.

My playlists:

Bach’s English Suites, the recordings by Wolfsam Rubsam on Naxos. These suites are wonderfully orderly, like all Bach, and driven with an especially clean melodic energy. Just what you need to keep a roll going; not so good if you have to climb a fresh hill. I like listening to them when revising, or when, as Hemingway advises, I have left my writing the day before in a state of clear motion so that it is easy to pick up.

Bach’s Lute Suites, recorded by Sharon Isbin on guitar. Other than a few Neil Young albums, Sticky Fingers, and “Kashmir,” I don’t think I have a recording I’ve listened to more often. It opens with a lovely cascade of notes that can chute you down a wonderful Zenlike channel. I confess that once I’m going, I often turn this off after a half hour or so, when it starts to seem jangly and intrude. That’s a good sign; it means I’ve got enough going on the page that I don’t need more stim.

At that point — or when I need to just color the aural landscape, rather than drive myself through it — I’ll go to some gentler stuff. Most commonly I’ll play one of two iTunes “genius” playlists, 100 songs each, that iTunes’ Genius algorithm pulled together from tunes I named. The first builds from “The Man I Love,” a gorgeous jazz standard, a ballad, recorded in this case by the trumpeter Enrico Rava with drummer Paul Motian and pianist Stefano Bollani. The other playlist is built around a recording of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, and, again, drummer Paul Motian, who’s a genius. Motian plays his kit so gently he could put babies to sleep.

I also listen to a lot of slow Charlie Haden, especially his album Heartplay, with the guitarist Antonio Forcione, and Jasmine, with Keith Jarrett.

Another rung down the distraction/stimulation ladder and I’m into background/ambient terrain. Here also I rely on two staples:

First, a shuffled play of Brian Eno’s ambient albums, such as Music for Airports; second, an ingenious iPod app Eno made called Trope. You tap and rub the screen for a moment, fingerpaint-style, to set the texture for a Music for Airports-like ambient soundscape that will play indefinitely. I’ve done some great planning and some of my better writing lately with that going. The one danger is that the fine ambience and healthy relaxed Zenlike state it produces can convince you you’re getting good work done when it turns out … well, you’re not. A couple times I fell asleep.

When that happens, I get up, turn the volume up to 11, and put on some Led Zeppelin: “In The Evening,” for its hunger; “Fool in the Rain,” for the triumph of Jimmy Page’s solo; “The Ocean,” because it’s in 15/16, reminding me of the power of structure; “Kashmir,” for like reasons; or, if I’ve actually done especially good work done and feel like the king of the world and figure maybe it’s time to go downstairs and visit my wife, “I’m Gonna Crawl.” Because it works.

Brian Eno

Brian Eno: “Set up a situation that presents you with something slightly beyond your reach.”

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