LISTEN WHILE YOU WORK…
Are all writers divas?
If you’ve ever spent much time around one with a rapidly approaching deadline, then you could be forgiven for thinking so. And if – even worse – you live with one, well I can’t imagine how you’d reach any other conclusion.
But look, it’s not our fault.
We’ve been trained to think that all great writers have to have a routine. An incontrovertible ritual without which we couldn’t possibly produce even a single sentence. Susan Sonntag told people not to call her house. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up. Murakami is at his desk by 4 AM, Morrison started before dawn. Wodehouse churned out 2,500 words a day. Maya Angelou even made a tradition out of battling with her editor:
“I’ve had the same editor since 1967. Many times he has said to me over the years or asked me, ‘Why would you use a semicolon instead of a colon?’ And many times over the years I have said to him things like: I will never speak to you again. Forever. Goodbye. That is it. Thank you very much. And I leave. Then I read the piece and I think of his suggestions. I send him a telegram that says, OK, so you’re right. So what? Don’t ever mention this to me again. If you do, I will never speak to you again.”
The thing with diva demands, though, is that even the most extravagant of them usually has a purpose.
The ‘D’ word might cause your mind to snap straight to megagroups with crazy backstage rider requests. You might think of Van Halen, demanding a bowl of M&Ms with all the brown ones removed backstage. But did you know that, far from an unreasonable power trip, this demand was actually a test of how thoroughly a venue’s staff had read their staging instructions? The M&M clause was embedded deep within their extensive list of production requirements, which dictated their wiring, lighting and stage safety stipulations. If they walked into the dressing room and saw even a single brown M&M, they knew that the instructions hadn’t been followed closely, and they would need to check everything. Before one gig in Santa Fe, line checks made following the discovery of brown M&Ms revealed a serious risk of stage collapse, had the band performed.
And all of those writers whose quirks I mentioned were prolific publishers who cemented their place in literary history. A couple of them are Nobel laureates. Routines, rituals, superstitions: whatever you want to call them, they clearly afforded these writers a sense of discipline that allowed them to create unbelievable work.
So maybe it’s no surprise that anyone who strings words together for a living feels the urge to impose some routine on their process. There’s one element of many writing routines I see frequently, and it’s one of the only things writers have in common with trappist monks:
“I MUST HAVE SILENCE.”
And, look, I get it. Writing requires focus, and noises are disruptive.
But where does that leave a writer who loves music? I listen to music almost constantly while doing all the other aspects of being freelance: replying to emails, research, prospecting and networking. But while actually writing? That’s a different matter.
The act of writing sometimes feels a little bit like transcribing a voice in your head. I first learned this in my past life as a translator, which already feels like dealing with two voices in two languages. Adding another into the mix is just asking for trouble. When a song is playing while you’re trying to accurately record that voice, eventually they begin overlapping. You may even find yourself typing out some of the lyrics. The singing worms its way from your ears into your brain, then out through your fingers. And from the fingers to the page is a tiny jump… Might as well jump.
So other voices are a no-no. But that doesn’t mean I have to have stony silence, either. The right soundtrack can provide the perfect inspiration, or even just a rhythm to work to. I sometimes even listen to music with words in languages I don’t understand. But I can’t deal with English lyrics. Not when I’m writing.
So instrumental music: that’s my writing routine. And Ikebe Shakedown (who haven’t really gotten a mention in this post) are one of my favourites. Modern soul grooves with sublime instrumentation. It’s fantastic music to write to.
Are writers divas? Maybe. But, as long as it works, who cares?
Instrumental goodness to soundtrack your masterpiece