My fiction-writing friend, Maureen Kilkeary, asked a deep, life-affecting question on her FaceBook page last week, involving the use of music while writing. The question, basically, was: “Do you or don’t you, and if you do, what kind?” While I tend to shy away from topics about the process of writing, I feel this question has such ethical and, possibly, theological import, that I should devote a few words.
First off, let me admit that I write all my first drafts by hand, in a notebook, with a very nice, albeit old-fashioned, ball-point pen. It’s something I’ve always done and imagine will always do. Most of this happens in coffee shops, particularly Hothouse Coffee in Bryn Mawr, but occasionally on my dining room table or front porch. When I do this, I do NOT have my cell phone with me, and chances are, I’m even wearing one of my grandfather’s old Bulova watches from the 1940s…the kind you have to wind up. Old school.
However, I do type that handwritten draft into my computer, which is not a laptop (it’s a Mac Mini, if you’re curious), and it’s at this time that I do all the online research that I intentionally neglected in the coffee shop, which can be anything from looking up the reign of the Qianlong Emperor to figuring out if I used the word “verisimilitude” correctly. And at this stage, I absolutely, positively listen to music.
The type of music is a subject I’ve reflected upon at some length, and it’s connected to my predilections for parallel parking. Because I drive into downtown Philly on a regular basis, the ability to parallel park quickly and accurately is a useful skill. I’ve had lots of experience, under lots of different conditions, and I’ve discovered that my parking skills are at their peak when I’m listening to quiet music, typically a song that I like but don’t love. Something I can bop to without losing myself in. Preferably, something I don’t know the lyrics to.
A song that I love won’t work because it’s a distraction. However, silence won’t work, because then I overthink the angles and distances and which way I’m cutting the wheel; I need some distraction. The art of the perfect parallel parking job, to me, is finding that musical sweet spot.
I do something similar when I’m typing that second draft. I enjoy soothing music that I can groove to without dancing (or head-banging) around my office. Silence is completely out of the question; I am never less productive or less attractive than when I’m overthinking something I’m writing. The specific music might change, depending upon what I’m working on or my mood that day. Letters to Cleo has been a longstanding favorite for the last two decades. Norah Jones, Sting (but not the Police), Charlie Parker, Dido, Bond. Also, for inexplicable reasons, Matchbox Twenty (it’s not something I want to listen to in the car or cooking dinner or washing dishes, but as background music for working on a novel, it’s pretty good). Right now, I’m listening to Cake while I type this, but that’s because I like to focus a little less when I’m blogging.
I’m glad Maureen brought this up. It might sound like a trivial thing to obsess over, but I assure you, writers obsess over far more bizarre and worrying things than their playlist. I like to think that if Salinger hadn’t been listening to a Glenn Miller album, the literary world would be saddled with The Orthodontist in the Rye.
Check out Maureen’s site: