Monday, 23 January 2012

Hearing Things by Penny Dolan

Last Friday I met a lovely friend who is a writer and illustrator. We spent hours in a café, talking over a coffee. Now that festivities and tax are both neatly out of the way, it was a real delight to indulge in writing chat about each others possible new ideas and work, as well as the usual moans.

At one point, she mentioned listening to music while she worked. Interestingly, she could only do this while working on some piece of art, not while she was writing.

Now I know that some people write with music constantly in their ears. Some say they select soundtracks to serve their work-in-progress, which makes me wonder.

Do gritty teen/YA novelists work with hard metal and anarchism pounding through their head-phones? Or people writing for pre-teens opt for sugar-pop and Justin Beiber? Or do the big brave souls – Mr.Pullman, I may be looking at you - tackle such large grand themes with Beethoven blasting out from their stacks? I don’t know, but it makes interesting thinking

Somewhat sadly, I can’t listen to music while I’m writing. The stuff worms into my head and ears, messing up the flow, the rhythm, the music of the words. How on earth can I hear how this or that phrase sounds if there’s an alternative sound obliterating it? How can I fix the emotion in this part of my story securely into words when there’s a different emotion hammering loudly at the door? I’m glad some people can work happily that way but – rather annoyingly – it’s not a thing that works for me.

Even writers of fiction need to be able to hear the music in their work. One thing that does restore my ears – again, though not while writing – is poetry, which I’ve recently re-discovered as an activity.

I re-shelved my random collection of old poetry books in beside an odd armchair, far more conscious of making space for a large seasonal green tree than insightful workspace planning.

Yet, ever since, I’ve found myself snatching odd moments among the anthologies, greedily grabbing several writing voices at a time. It’s an amusingly mixed experience. Some poems are boring, some dreadful, some so embarrassingly of their time the should be wearing duffle-coats and some are still as breath-taking as ever. I’d recommend it as a way of waking up your writing head or even, as I did, finding a new idea.

So, are you a muso or a muser? What’s your sound of choice while you’re working? Or are you another one who needs word-whispering silence to get the work done?

And if anyone knows the name/location of the brilliant Arts-Council-funded poetry site that I glimpsed recently on Facebook but now cannot find, please, please add it to the comment box. Thanks.

The section I saw showed a soulful John Hegley speaking "Without You."
Unfortunately, I am "Without You-Tube".

A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E, published by Bloomsbury.


Sue Purkiss said...

Was it the Poetry Station? I sometimes listen to music. It needs to be quite sort of spare, though: favourites are the theme music to The Lost Prince by Stephen Poliakoff, and the theme music to Memoirs of a Geisha. They're both sort of quite wistful; but not nothingy. But my son keeps pinching whatever I listen to music on, so usually I don't listen to anything, which is probably best, anyway.

Celia Rees said...

Interesting post, Penny! I can't listen to music, either, while I'm actually writing, but I do have a soundtrack for each book, made up of all sorts of songs, bits of music, that I find evocative in some way - either as a way into the character, or evoking period, mood, setting. It could be the Beggar's Opera, or Anarchy in the UK, depending on what I'm writing.

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks, Sue - The Poetry Station it was! Liked the visual look of the site too:

Spare & wistful is the kind I sometimes try so will watch out for those titles.

Celia, that kind of constructed soundtrack makes perfect sense - they sound like an aural version of those wonderful scrapbooks/collages you make as part of working out the plan of your story. Another thing to try?

Savita Kalhan said...

As a writer of edgy teen/YA fiction, Penny, and speaking for myself, I don't listen to hard metal or anarchism, or most other types of music while I'm working. I often have classical music on, but it's very much quietly in the background. Like Celia, I do have a soundtrack for different books, but sometimes that can amount to just a couple of songs, or even snippets of songs. A great post, Penny.

Emma Barnes said...

Don't like music when I'm writing, but I can put up with it - in cafes, say. In which case, I prefer it if the music has no lyrics. Unless they are playing Blonde on Blonde (Bob Dylan), as they often do in my local Starbucks, in which case I don't care (because I love the album).

madwippitt said...

I find it varies - there are days when I need a bit of company in the form of background noise, and others when a bit of hush is called for.
But the type of background noise goes through phases: sometimes it's the radio, sometimes music, sometimes the TV.
The idea of PP writing to a background of Beethoven amused me: my image is of scribbling to a Wagner background!

Cindy Jefferies said...

I don't usually write to music, but sometimes I do. Oddly, it can help to settle me if i'm finding it hard to get going. The music I come back to time and again when I need this sort of encouragement is Bach's solo cello music. I have the wonderful Yo Yo Ma playing, and listen on headphones with the sound low. I can't cope with singing, however much I love it. Even sung in Latin or German I find the words too distracting.

Cindy Jefferies said...

And I meant to say...fascinating post Penny!

Pauline Fisk said...

I'm astonished how many of you DO write to music. As someone who normally loves music, I have to say I can't bear to hear a sound whilst I'm writing. Like you say, Penny, it messes up the rhythm. But not just the rhythm of words, sentences and paragraph breaks - at the slightest sound of music, the rhythm of my imagination becomes shot to pieces too.

Jane Stemp said...

Secret songs was sparked by a particular recording of "The great silkie of Sule Skerry" and I wore the cassette album it was on practically to pieces while writing that book. I'm very happy to write to folk song, in fact - but only if I know it so well I don't have to stop and listen. Most classical music I find too "big" to share a room with when I'm writing...

Linda Strachan said...

Great post, Penny.
I can't write with music on but sometimes when I am reading something over, or making notes I will have it on in the background.

I like Jack Johnston sometimes and Getz/Gilberto (a jazz bossa nova CD) and antonio Carlos Jobim.

But they all go off again when I am actually writing.