Friday, May 6, 2022

A Writer's Playlist

(I touched on this topic in 2011 in a series about writing "soundtracks.") 

I'm always interested in other people's playlists, what's on them and how they are used. There are playlists of Summer Songs, Road Trip Music, and Beach Music. I always read the Rolling Stone column, "What's on Your Playlist?" I love knowing what Bruce Springsteen or Barak Obama or Lizzo is listening to.

Long before Pandora or the Internet or even the Walkman, I had playlists. Back then they were called mixtapes. Somewhere in my office is a shoe box of Radio Shack brand (Realistic!)cassettes labeled "House Cleaning"(Scott Joplin rags) and "Cooking" (Bach piano inventions and The Brandenburg Concertos). I had "Blowing Off Steam" tapes (The 1812 Overture and Led Zepplin) and "Driving to Work" tapes (old school pop like Nat King Cole and Perry Como and Dean Martin). Right after my pregnancy test turned blue, I recorded a bunch of Gregorian chants for the delivery room. I wound up having a C-section, but that tape also worked for 2 am feedings.
I have to music around me all the time. I don't function well without it.

I grew up in a house where music played every waking hour. My dad had a deep, lifelong love of music, , all kinds of music. Classical, rock, modern, gospel, folk, international, soul, blues, tubal throat singing, he loved it all. He collected it all. The only genres you wouldn't find in Dad's collection were pop standards--Dad thought pop was "bland"--and jazz (he found it "undisciplined.") His job as an FBI agent was high stress. He would come home from work and head right to the stereo, the way some people get a beer from the fridge. It was his way of decompressing.  Mom, on the other hand, used Roger Miller and the Tijuana Brass combat her chronic depression.  I learned there was music for every mood and emotion.

Since I grew up doing homework with Mahler and Mozart in the background, my brain doesn't work without melody and rhythm. Just as music can get you "in the zone" when you're working out, it does the same thing with my head. Trying to write in silence fires up my Negative Mental Message Center. To avoid those messages, another part of my head meanders around, thinking of everything but writing. (Did I water the plants? What's the temperature outside? Is there any pizza in the fridge?)

Music smoothes the wrinkles in my soul and brain, leaving no room for stray thoughts or idle chatter. As a writing warm-up, I let the sound surround and enfold me. When I'm completely immersed in melody and meter, it's safe to think about my story. My brain takes on a certain rhythm...and the words come. The characters show up and talk to me. It's kind of magic. To paraphrase an old Coke jingle, "Things go better with music."

Don't lyrics distract me while I'm writing? They could, if I had on a streaming station, playing random music. I only play my own cultivated downloads or CD's (how Old School) of instrumentals, or songs so thoroughly familiar I don't think about the words. When I was writing Yankee Girl, which takes place in 1964-65, I wrote to the Top 40 music of those years. Music so familiar, the lyrics flow through my subconscious. Before I started Jimmy's Stars, I listened to Big Band music--Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw--and vocalists--Doris Day, the Andrews Sisters, early Sinatra--until the music became familiar. When I began writing, the sound was already a part of me and the story.
Although, I've always used my playlists for novel-writing, I've branched out into using it for shorter work. My newest picture book, Wibble Wobble Boom (out in early November from Peachtree) is about a first skating lesson, written at a skating rink, while my daughter took lessons. Revising it years later, I evoked that time by playing the music my daughter used for her competition programs--the Brian Setzer Orchestra,  The Godfather score, the Tijuana Brass (my mom's influence, for sure!)
"Soundtracking" doesn't work for everybody. But should you find yourself in a creative cul-de-sac, put on some music that speaks to you. Joyful, mournful, even that wispy kind of music massage therapists play, anything that takes you away from your Inner Critic and useless thoughts. Breathe in, breathe out and let the music find your story.

Written by Mary Ann Rodman


Carmela Martino said...

MA, I love reading about your playlists. I had one while writing Rosa, Sola that included the music I listened to during the time of the story's setting and felt it really helped me.

April Halprin Wayland said...

Mary Ann,
Isn't it interesting how different we are?

I can't listen to anything when I'm writing. Nothing with words, nothing without words. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

Silence pushes me and I tumble into my writing--total silence.

<3, April