As writers of fiction (or as creators in general, regardless of the medium¹) we sometimes invest our hours in maginations and discussions most ephemeral and transient: What are the ideal weights of storm clouds? What becomes of distant cheese? Will this or that amount of caffeine kill me? How might I bind the Pleiades? Etc. etc. etc.
We become at times so lost and disembodied in our work, that time ceases to exist (we enter a state called Other Time²) and we are eventually shocked at resurfacing into Ordinary Time to find that we yet remain embodied beings dwelling in a physical space, wherein practical concerns such as sustenance and visits to the necessary room are indeed more of an obligation than we had accounted for in our other less corporeal forms and modes of being.
That, however, is not what this essay is about. This essay presumes that all readers will agree that such a state as Other Time does exist. And further, that achieving the passage to Other Time is a necessity for writers of fiction. And further still, that at times this state is reached as effortlessly as stepping through a magic mirror but that, at other times (no pun intended), the surface of that same mirror behaves badly, being hard and unyielding and so painfully ordinary that the writer dashes himself repeatedly against it like some territorial songbird doing battle with his own reflection and soon begins to question whether the other world behind the mirror ever existed at all or was only childish illusion.
Writers routinely begin to drink when they have too long been barred from that passage and have begun to despair of the belief that Other Time still exists for them and is reachable by them. But the correlation between these two things—the exile and the drinking—is also not the subject of this essay—[Though if those last lines describe your current state, WRITER TAKE HEART! There are remedies at hand. There are METHODS & MECHANISMS whereby one might prise those locked gates and slip into that other country as if one were a naturalized citizen. And chief among these methods is the knowledgeable application of various musical compositions which work in much the same manner as old school enchantments. And that, finally, IS what this essay is about!]
Music, it will be seen (or rather heard) then, is both a transport, and a key into that other kingdom. Or, to put it more literally, music (the right music, mind you) is a secret tunnel that the guardians at the gates of Other Time are unaware of. The enchantment of music will sometimes allow one to bypass the gates and the guardians altogether, and so, simply to arrive at one’s destination (like an electron jumping orbitals with no detectable movement between one and the other).
Now we shall move beyond the theoretical and to the more practical focus of our discussion: What sorts of songs do, and what sorts of songs do not, serve this end? When writing fiction, one requires music that will easily carry one out of the pressing and the daily. One requires music that is capable of stirring emotions and opening new folds of imagination, but that is consistently able to do so without announcing itself too boldly or clamoring too cleverly for attention.
That is the foremost key. If you look at the music, it immediately stops working and you find yourself pulled back into Ordinary Time. DON’T look at the music. If you find yourself intermittently aware of the songs, in a way that competes with the story for your attention, you have probably chosen music OF THE WRONG SORT. Choose again.
A writer must select music then, that can meld into the backdrop of thought, that can become the air of that other world. The writer is in need of a sort of songs that radio DJs will not play and that college kids on spring break spinning in their convertibles to sunnier climes will not blast as an ode to some impending notion of a secularized carnevale indulgence³. One is not likely, after all, to write a substantive and moral novel while under the repeated influence of Van Halen’s “Panama.” (However, I would enjoy being proven wrong on this count.) Writers, we can agree, are generally in need of a more serious and substantive fare.
In the end what you really need (if we may speak bluntly as friends) are songs that will play you. You are in search of those musics built of movements that will strike softly the various keys of your own emotions and memories and imaginative constructs, so that as those hammers strike the taut strings, their vibrations seek out those things which already vibrate at the same resonant frequency within your own heart and mind and soul and memory and modes of thinking and feeling and reacting and conjecturing and imagining. The melody plays you in this way, and so opens the way into Other Time. The songs you seek will not be the sort of songs that are ends in themselves. They are instead (as we have already established), tunnels and tickets and gateways into Other Time. Therefore we seek the sort of music that is a means, and not an end.
It is a dead certainty that songs with vocals will not do, except in very specific circumstances. At least not unless the words are smooth and flowing and in a foreign language so that they register no literal meaning in your consciousness. If one does not speak a lick of French, one could perhaps “break on through to the other side” with the aid of songs artfully emoted in French. I do not think one could do the same with German.
In general, as a first principle, we must rule out vocals, though I have in the past managed to write productively while listening to Lord Huron’s Lonesome Dreams LP, and have had some success with Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, and also with Radiohead’s In Rainbows. At most times and on most days even these singularly evocative mood-weaves register too prominently in my awareness to be of much use though, when I am needing to be in another world and thinking other thoughts. All three of them are albums that are more a whole movement than they are a collection of individual songs, but my batting average with them is spotty at best. I did try Lord Huron again briefly a few weeks ago, but it got me nowhere.
The project I am currently locked in mortal combat with is a beast that has been a year now in the making. It is a science-fiction novel that sprawls expansively in its history and backstory. Early on in the writing process, I set out to identify and choose several soundscapes for my long journey, music that would spur the rapid transition to left brain thinking and usher me into that timeless placeless place where good writing can consistently happen for hours at a stretch, uninterrupted.
Here, presented in the most practical of terms (being a list), and for the benefit of those readers who are also creators, are the transport pieces that I have recently discovered and employed:
Cellos are sublime, their voices so painfully human and also so transcendent of our humanity. Cello tones ache with a beauty that is like the longing and the loss all rolled into one. It was
(1) Zoë Keating: One Cello x 16: Natoma
that carried me through several of the early weeks of writing. A sparse and gorgeous aural landscape that contained everything I needed. I looped it. The entire album. Over and over and over and over, for days on end. Good stuff. Superbly good stuff. Now, towards the end of the writing of the first draft of the novel I have returned to Zoë Keating because I am now crafting the confrontation between my young protagonist and her tormentor, and that extended scene also contains the protagonist’s temptation to surrender to a sort of darkness within herself, and “One Cello x 16: Natoma” is the perfect soundscape to inhabit as I write such a scene.
Early in the writing process as well I discovered Nils Frahm and his piano arrangements with their ambient sounds that feel like memories viewed through a rainy glass. The best of his offerings, for my purposes anyway, is
I am weaving multiple story lines together in this novel, story lines that take place at different times in history, and for certain of those storylines, it is Nils Frahm’s Felt that I always return to. It sets the tone for the story of my unsung heroes who have endured long and given everything in the service of a cause that only a handful of people have ever even been aware of. If you need to conjure empty spaces and loss that still aches with the beauty that once was, try listening to Felt as you write.
A few weeks into the writing of the book, I came across a band called Caspian.
Their albums fueled several long writing sessions. I deleted a song or two from these album playlists in order to streamline the projects for my purposes, but overall these were good offerings and I find it helpful to have options. If I’m stuck at a certain point in the story, switching soundtracks can have a beneficial creative effect, prompting a new line of thinking.
I moved on from Caspian to multiple instrumental projects by three more bands:
Each of these had its useful applications and standout moments, depending on the sort of scenes I was attempting to write on a given day. If you are searching out soundtracks to write to, I would say try them, and if they work for you and fit the tone of the content you’re writing, great. If not, move on. Most of these projects (5-10) featured guitars somewhat prominently in their compositions, and for me, the voices of guitars (unless played in an atmospheric and dreamy sort of style) can tend to fight for my immediate attention, threatening to pull me out of the creative space. Still, I did get some good writing mileage out of Explosions In the Sky, Message To Bears, and This Will Destroy You.
But then . . .
Then I hit the motherload of projects. My purest find since Zoë Keating and Nils Frahm.
A band called Eluvium.
It was as if they were creating music specifically with fiction writers in mind.
Eluvium has released several emotive instrumental projects that strike just the right balance between subtle presence and conjured wonder:
All of them gorgeous soundscapes that transport the listener effortlessly into Other Time. I usually pick my music for the day, and let the album loop for hours and hours as I write—and I’m writing anywhere from 2,000 to 7,500 words per day. Except on days when I’m stuck. Like I am right now. Not because I can’t access Other Time, but because I’ve run into a story structure problem that must be sorted out before I can write the final four major scenes of the book. I guess that’s why I’m writing this essay now instead, while the oyster part of my brain is hopefully at work in the background, worrying the sand grain of my story issue into something like a pearl. Or at least into a spiffed up sand grain.
So now, at the conclusion of our practical essay, I would kindly beseech all readers who are also writers (or creators of any sort) to elucidate those albums and artists you have personally discovered over the years that have repeatedly exercised the mystical power to punch your ticket to Other Time. What are your magical mirror compositions of choice?
I shall quiet my own voice now, that yours might be heard.
¹ Though fiction writers are arguably in a more difficult position vis-á-vis the attempt to create ex nihilo worlds from intangible words than are, say, sculptors who at least have the physical lump of clay in front of them that can be touched and manipulated and which, in and of itself, acts as a kind of gateway to transport the artist into that creative space.
² A state popularly referred to as the Time Vortex—which, as any fiction writer worth his or her salt can tell you, operates according to mysterious quantum principles which have yet to be explained using current models.
³ With the burdens of collegiate scholarship replacing the deprivations of Lent.
Doug participated in the early work of Charlie Peacock’s Art House Foundation, an organization dedicated to a shared exploration of faith and the arts. In the decades since, he has worked as an author, song lyricist, scriptwriter, and video director. He has penned more than 350 lyrics recorded by a variety of artists including Switchfoot, Kenny Rogers, Sanctus Real, and Jason Gray. His newest book is Every Moment Holy (Rabbit Room Press). His other works include The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog (illustrated by Zach Franzen), The Wishes of the Fish King (illustrated by Jamin Still), Subjects with Objects (with Jonathan Richter), and Stories We Shared: A Family Book Journal (with Jamin Still).