On Writing

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The Music in My Head

I.
I’m obsessed with music. There has rarely been a time in my life when this hasn’t been the case. Listening to music is one of the great pleasures of my life, seeing Leonard Cohen live in concert is my version of a religious experience, and discovering a new artist whose work I love makes me indescribably happy.

I’ve long been interested by the interaction between music and memory: the way certain pieces of music can become indelibly imprinted with fragments of the past. I think we all have songs like this: R.E.M.’s “How The West Was Won and Where It Got Us” snaps me back to Toronto, night, walking along Danforth Avenue in the winter of 1997; it was my first winter away from home and I liked to go for long walks after school with New Adventures in Hi-Fi on my walkman. The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” transports me to a particular party ten years ago in someone’s back yard, one of those magical long summer evenings with friends, that song playing again and again on the mix tape. I’ve been traveling fairly frequently lately, and when I arrive in a new hotel room one of the first things I do is plug in my laptop, open iTunes and fill the anonymous room with familiar music. I’m enamored with The National, but I’ve spent so much time listening to their albums with my husband that I find that I can’t listen to them when I’m traveling alone; their music makes me miss him too acutely.

Most of us get tunes stuck in our heads on occasion, for hours or days; we are at times unable to stop ourselves from tapping our feet in response to a steady rhythm, even if it’s not the sort of thing we normally listen to; our brains sometimes present us with specific memories in response to specific songs. It seems clear that we’re hardwired for music, or that music is hardwired for us. “Our auditory systems,” Oliver Sacks writes in Musicophilia, his book on the interplay between music and the brain,

our nervous systems, are exquisitely tuned for music. How much this is due to the intrinsic characteristics of music itself—its complex sonic patterns woven in time, its logic, its momentum, its unbreakable sequences, its insistent rhythms and repetitions, the mysterious way in which it embodies emotion and “will”—and how much to special resonances, synchronizations, oscillations, mutual excitations, or feedbacks in the immensely complex, multilevel neural circuitry that underlies musical perception and reply, we do not yet know.

It’s a fascinating book. Sacks recounts tale after tale of music and neurology: epileptics whose seizures are triggered by churchbells; patients suffering from dementia who return fleetingly to lucidity when classical music is played; people with Tourette’s Syndrome who are freed from their involuntary outbursts only while they’re playing the piano.

Might our neurological alignment with music be used to our advantage? This idea isn’t new—you’ve probably heard of the Mozart Effect, but decades before Dr. Frances Rauscher and her colleagues published their 1993 article in Nature describing how exposure to Mozart’s double-piano sonata K448 temporarily increased spatial-temporal reasoning in their test subjects, the Bulgarian psychotherapist Dr. Georgi Lozanov was publishing books describing a method for learning foreign languages that he dubbed “Suggestopedia,” wherein students were exposed to 60-beat-per-minute baroque music—he claimed his technique allowed students to achieve fluency in foreign languages at near-superhuman speeds.

But new or not, the idea of using music as a tool is something I’ve been thinking about lately in relation to writing. Like a great many writers in this overly wired age, I sometimes struggle with focus. I’ll pause the writing to Google something (let’s say, oh, “spatial-temporal reasoning”, for example), and half an hour later I haven’t come back to the open Word document yet; I’m Googling something else or answering emails or updating my website or checking to see if anyone’s said anything interesting on Twitter in the past hour.

A while ago I began wondering if I might use music to my advantage somehow. Because if music exerts the sway over us that I think it does, if it might trigger not just memories but changes in one’s spatial-temporal reasoning ability, if in certain cases it can cause seizures and briefly neutralize Tourette’s syndrome, then perhaps, I thought, I might use it to help me ignore the distractions of the outside world and stay the hell off the Internet while I’m writing my third book.

II.
The generalized and ever-present temptation of the Internet aside, it seems to be a universal fact among writers I know that publication makes you suddenly, exponentially busier. I’m not complaining, let me hasten to add, but there are just far more emails to respond to, more deadlines, and more vaguely career-related/shamelessly self-promotional tasks to be performed than there ever was in my pre-publication life, and it’s alarmingly easy to get caught up in the vortex. There are a lot of days when it’s easy to become so focused on working on the career that working on the next novel seems like a bit of an afterthought, as if the writing of novels weren’t kind of the whole point here.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King writes of the use of music in his workday. He listens “to loud music—hard rock stuff like AC/DC, Guns ‘n Roses, and Metallica have always been particular favorites—but for me the music is just another way of shutting the door. It surrounds me, keeps the mundane world out.”

I can’t personally imagine writing to Metallica, but I think he’s on to something here. Closing the door to my office is no longer enough for me, so I’ve been employing a new strategy over the past few months: an iTunes playlist, the songs chosen for their inobtrusiveness and steady quiet beat.

After listening to the playlist on a long endless loop through months of work on my third novel, I’ve increasingly found that I focus more easily when I’m listening to it. It’s partly that it helps to shut out the world, but I’ve come to realize that it’s also a trick of memory, an association forged between music and action. I believe this must be more or less the same function as those strange firings of neurons that make me think of a summer party when I hear “Bittersweet Symphony,” a winter night when I hear New Adventures in Hi-Fi, my husband when I listen to The National: after writing to this playlist for a while, these particular songs all make me think of my third novel.

It keeps me on track, even though in periods of intense writing I no longer hear it: I’ll put it on and begin writing, and then a while later I’ll come to and realize that an hour’s gone by and I’ve missed my favorite song. It’s mostly subdued electronica with a little classical music thrown in here and there, Underworld and Vivaldi and Radiohead. The earlier business of the day, the emails and research and promotion, can be performed to any particular music happens to strike my fancy; but when I hear the soft opening notes of Underworld’s “Glam Bucket,” I start falling back into the world of the new novel again.

[Image credit: elisasizzle]

The Art of Rejection

I’ve been submitting my fiction to magazines big and small for six years, since I was a senior in college. It took two years to receive my first acceptance, and another two years to receive my second. Since then, my record has improved: I had a story published last year, and two more are forthcoming. Still, the rejections come. My first year at Iowa, I took a seminar with Cole Swensen called Poetics of the Book. Our first assignment was to make a book out of unconventional materials. One student wrote a poem on gingersnap cookies; another student silkscreened words onto panes of glass. I took my big pile of rejection slips and sewed them together with some ugly brown thread. The stitching was poor (I can’t even replace a button), and because I hadn’t done much planning, the book unfolded in many different directions and was difficult to puzzle back together. Still, my work was impressive (Wow, look how many times I’ve been turned down!), and also pathetic (Wow, look how many times I’ve been turned down!). At the very least, it was proof of my tenacity. I’ll admit, the process was therapeutic. Those slips, some small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, now had an artistic function, and if my stories weren’t going to be bound, at least something could be. I continued to sew new rejections to the collection, and it didn’t take long for the thing to grow unwieldy. Finally, I put it aside. Now I’ve got a drawer stuffed with new rejections. What should I do with them? Sometimes I imagine having a dress made out of the slips, a shift maybe, or some slinky thing with an open back, to wear on a future book tour. Or I consider building a mobile to hang above my desk – as a threat, perhaps? I’ve heard that Amy Tan wallpapered her home’s bathroom with past rejections, and in his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about the spike on which he impaled his rejections. And there’s always this idea. But why I am keeping the damn things anyway? On author M.J. Rose’s blog, Dr. Susan O’Doherty explains: It is the childish, hypersensitive, irrational aspects of our psyche that connect us with the deep, primal themes and images that drive our most powerful writing. That primitive self is woven into the manuscripts we have the highest hopes for–and that self experiences every rejection as a blood wound, no matter what we know intellectually. I suspect that it’s this self that doesn’t want to let the slips go.Dr. Sue suggests a ritual of letting this pain go, perhaps by lighting a fire and burning each rejection, bidding goodbye or a fuck you to each one. I found Dr. Sue’s advice via Literary Rejections on Display, a blog devoted to the anger, pain and frustration that follows every “Good luck with placing your work elsewhere” from an agent or editor. This blog is itself an answer to what to do with your rejections: throw them away, but first, complain about them on the internet! The posts, penned anonymously, are sometimes funny, but the bitterness and wrath sadden me, especially when they’re aimed at small literary journals. Stop blaming them, and start subscribing. As much as I fret about my rejection slips, and get pissed off when I get a new one, or wonder when such-and-such magazine will get back to me, I try my hardest not to encourage the fixation. Too much attention on publication means less attention on the work itself: to the sentences, the images, the characters. Whenever I get frustrated by a rejection, I remember something my teacher Lan Samantha Chang once told me. “Publishing a story won’t change your life,” she said, “but revising it until it’s the best it can be, will.” Let’s all remember that the next time the mail comes.

Stephen King in the Paris Review

Stephen King, once a favorite target of critics, has been embraced by at least some in the literary elite in recent years. He was awarded the National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, his fiction and non-fiction have appeared in the New Yorker, and now he is the subject of an “Art of Fiction” interview in the fall 2006 issue of the Paris Review, a distinction that might as well elevate him to canonical status.I’m a big fan of Stephen King’s books because they’re unflaggingly entertaining, but I also enjoy King’s work because of his close connection with his readers and his unwillingness to put himself on a pedestal. King’s exuberance can be found in his book On Writing. Part of the book is a common sense writing guide, but On Writing is worth a read for the funny little autobiography that the guide is paired with. He casts aside the notion of the writer as tortured soul and replaces it with the idea of the writer as a showman, serving his audience.What interests me, though, is how King has graduated from the bestseller list and moved into literary limbo. In the Paris Review interview, King talks about writers like John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel, and James Patterson. While King has some kind words for Grisham, he recognizes that he’s not really in competition with these perennial bestselling scribes any more, nor does his ego need the lavish advances that they receive. At the same time, he is reluctant to embrace the literary elite, because, I think, he believes that doing so would break his contract with his readers. Now, though, he seems less orthodox on this point. It’s not that he is embracing the literary world, far from it. It’s more like, coming back from an accident that nearly killed him – he was struck by a van near his home in 1999 – he has turned inward, and is writing mostly for himself, having previously done it for fame, money, and his love of entertaining. Of his forthcoming book, Lisey’s Story, which PW calls “a disturbing and sorrowful love story,” King tells the Paris Review:To me it feels like a very special book. To the point where I don’t want to let it out into the world. This is the only book I’ve ever written where I don’t want to read the reviews, because there will be some people who are going to be ugly to this book. I couldn’t stand that, the way you would hate people to be ugly to someone you love. And I love this book.The interview ends with King wondering aloud if he can “do something that’s even better.”Links on King: Only a small snippet of the King interview is available online, but, if you’re interested in King, it’s worth picking up this issue of the Paris Review to read the whole thing; King’s National Book Award speech; King’s account of his accident from the New Yorker.

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