What is the soundtrack of success(ful writing)?


I should, I suspect, be playing music that bursts with joyous rhythms and dancing round the room. As far as writing goes, it’s been a period of the very pleasantly unexpected. Despite what our tutors instilled in me, surprises can sometimes trump suspense. I now have an MA, and the memory of getting a handshake from Joan Bakewell as I was awarded it. (She looked better in the garb than I did, too, although dressing up as a Harry Potter extra for the day was kinda fun. And no, I won’t be publishing the pictures.)

My story, Laughter Lines, was published in Issue 8 of Glitterwolf – whose cover model also beats me hands down in the visual presentation stakes. Another story, Still, will appear in the next issue of Ambit, a magazine that I used to read when I worked in what was then the Arts Council Poetry Library, 33 years ago. I didn’t even dream of being a writer then: if you’d wrung a confession of dreaming out of me, it would have been about music rather than words. (Fittingly, the story is narrated by a musician.) And in September, I will have another story – Sisters – in Issue 12 of The Mechanics’ Institute Review. Happy? I’m delighted!

The influence of music is still present, however. Songs are things that emotionally move or evoke memories in several of the protagonists of these stories, as well as their feelings about the relationship between performer and audience – the nagging doubt that they may not be listening as the musician might hope, that only part of their intent is being received. (A variation of the difficulty of human communication that continues to fascinate me.)

guitarraMusic is there in the writing process too. I’m not dancing round the room, not just because I’m English and well… I just couldn’t, but because the room is brimming with guitars, mandolins, guitarras (Portuguese variety – hybrid of a cittern and a lace-making loom: see right) and tidal drifts of CDs. I write in the kitchen, a few seconds’ away from the kettle, the door into the garden and the CD player. Music is one of my life’s constants. Change the CD, make another brew, and back to the keyboard.

Trying, as I suspect people tend to, to identify a ‘successful working process’, I’ve tried to think of anything that the writing of these stories had in common. Looking at the laptop, I notice oddly that the first complete draft of each of them was written in February. Perhaps I should take 11 months off most years, or just reserve them for editing (where ‘the real writing is’, if Will Self is right – and I think he might be)? It appeals to the fundamental idler in me, but it’s not terribly practical – even if I can hear my partner’s voice chucklingly enquiring as to when that ever stopped me as I type those words.

I know there would have been music playing while I wrote them too, but what? Shortage isn’t the problem: there are, at last count, about 4,000 CDs in the house. You try remembering which one you decided set the mood perfectly for the fledgling draft. From now on, I’m tempted to keep a note. First draft, for example, written to contemporary fado – Ana Moura, Custodio Castelo, Misia; second to a selection of choro and flamenco; wholesale edit undertaken to thunderous post-surf; copy-edited to nu-tango?

I’d not be the first person to attempt it, as Steve Silberman noted in his blog:

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.

The Goodfolk of Goodreads have had a stab too, although they didn’t seem to reach a conclusion. Far easier to identify what to listen to as you read

I’m fairly sure that Still, which takes place at a music festival at the ramshackle end of the gatherings market, was written to a mixture of CDs from bands I’ve seen at (rather better) festivals – Hot Water, Rachid Taha, The Soothsayers, Bombay Royale – and a Spotify selection of bands I don’t much like but might well have been booked to play at the kind of event I was describing. (No names, no pack drill.) There would, as it gets mentioned, have been some 70s reggae in there too.

Another recent story, Candy, is set in a shopping mall, where the middle-aged narrator has been temporarily left in charge of his previously estranged teenaged daughter. The entire location is a technicolour migraine for him, and I remember following a couple of suitable Spotify playlists as I jotted ideas and moved sketchy paragraphs around – and I also remember thinking “**** me, I can’t concentrate with this crap going on” and then putting on some Bill Frissell to get a first draft out without going postal. Matching the mood, tone, tempo – and temper – of the background music to the prose you want to appear is harder than it looks.

Having just loaded a new iPod Touch with 25Gb of music (ear-buds are a terrific method of immersion and hey, the phones take messages, right?), I thought I’d check to see what the Most Played list told me that might shed light. It seems the perfect soundtrack to write to – for me – is Portuguese trip-hop electronica. I shall obviously write a story about a melancholic Lisboan web developer any day now …


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