Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Turning down the volume

with 2 comments


For years, I listened to music while I wrote. When I was working on my first few novels, I went so far as to put together playlists of songs that embodied the atmosphere or mood I wanted to evoke, or simply songs that seemed conductive to creating the proper state of mind, and there’s no question that a lot of other writers do the same. (If you spend any time on the writing forums on Reddit, you’ll see some variation of the question “What’s your writing playlist?” posted once every couple of days.) This may have been due to the fact that my first serious attempts at writing coincided with a period in my twenties when most of us are listening to a lot of music anyway. And it resulted in some unexpected pleasures, in the form of highly personal associations between certain songs and the stories I was writing at the time. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to Eternal Youth by Future Bible Heroes without thinking of my novelette “The Boneless One,” since it provided the backdrop to the wonderful weeks I spent researching and writing that story, and much of the tone and feel of my novel Eternal Empire is deliberately indebted to the song “If I Survive” by Hybrid, which I’ve always felt was a gorgeous soundtrack waiting for a plot to come along and do it justice.

Yet here’s the thing: I don’t think that this information is of any interest of all to anyone but me. It might be interesting to someone who has read the stories and also knows the songs—which I’m guessing is a category that consists of exactly one person—but even then, I don’t know if the connection has any real meaning. Aside from novels that incorporate certain songs explicitly into the text, as we see in writers as different as Nick Hornby and Stephen King, a writer’s recollection of a song that was playing while a story was written is no different from his memory of the view from his writing desk: it’s something that the author himself may treasure, but it has negligible impact on the reader’s experience. If anything, it may be a liability, since it lulls the writer into believing that there’s a resonance to the story that isn’t there at all. Movies can, and do, trade on the emotional associations that famous songs evoke, sometimes brilliantly, but novels don’t work in quite the same way. Even if you go so far as to use the lyrics as an epigraph, or even as the title itself, the result is only the faintest of echoes, which doesn’t stop writers from trying. (It’s no accident that if you search for a song like Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” on, you’ll find hundreds of stories.)

Pet Shop Boys

This is part of the reason why I prefer to write in silence these days. This isn’t an unbreakable rule: during the rewrite, I’ll often cue up a playlist of songs that I’ve come to think of as my revision music, if only because they take me back to the many long hours I spent as a teenager rewriting stories late into the night. (As it happens, they’re mostly songs from the B-sides collection Alternative by the Pet Shop Boys, the release of which coincided almost exactly with my first extended forays into fiction. Nostalgia, here as everywhere else, can be a powerful force.) During my first drafts, though, I’ve found that it’s better to keep things quiet. Even for Eternal Empire, which was the last of my novels to have a soundtrack of its own, I ended up turning the volume so low that I could barely hear it, and I finally switched it off altogether. There’s something to be said for silence as a means of encouraging words to come and fill that empty space, and this is as true when you’re seated at your desk as when you’re taking a walk. Music offers an illusion of intellectual and emotional engagement when we’re really just passively soaking up someone else’s feelings, and the gap between song and story is so wide that I no longer believe that the connection is a useful one.

This doesn’t mean that music doesn’t have a place in a writer’s life, or that you shouldn’t keep playing it if that’s the routine you’ve established. But I think it’s worth restoring it to its proper role, which is that of a stimulus for feelings that ought to be explored when the music stops. The best art, as I’ve noted elsewhere, serves as a kind of exercise room for the emotions, a chance for us to feel and remember things that we’ve never felt or tried to forgotten. Like everyone else, I’ll often hear a song on the radio or randomly on old playlist, like “Two-Headed Boy Part 2” by Neutral Milk Hotel, that reminds me of a period in my life I’ve neglected, or a whole continent of emotional space that I’ve failed to properly navigate. That’s a useful tool, and it’s one that every writer should utilize. The best way to draw on it, though, isn’t to play the song on an endless loop, but to listen to it once, turn it off, and then try to recapture those feelings in the ensuing quiet. If poetry, as Wordsworth said, is emotion recollected in tranquility, then perhaps fiction is music recollected—or reconstructed—in silence. If you’ve done it right, the music will be there. But it only comes after you’ve turned the volume down.

Written by nevalalee

February 25, 2014 at 9:47 am

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. “…a stimulus for feelings that ought to be explored when the music stops.” So true. I often find when listening to a song I have an emotional connection with that it will stimulate all kinds of ideas and thoughts. Alas, this usually happens when I’m driving in the car and can’t stop to make a note about it! Thanks for the reminder about the famous Wordsworth quote, too.


    February 25, 2014 at 11:41 am

  2. Thanks so much—glad you liked it!


    March 1, 2014 at 4:25 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: