Last month I did a survey of a number of writers, on the topic of what kinds of music they listen to while writing. I confess to some surprise that such a common answer—by just about half of the respondents—was that music was too distracting. No one said they disliked music or would never listen to it; more that the process of working in one area of creativity demanded more or less complete focus. This makes sense; inspiration strikes in a wealth of ways, and there are just as many methods of applying that inspiration. For example, in the survey other writers said they could happily listen to music or not, and a few required music while writing.
The two writers I will be talking to in this column, Scott Mackay and Louise Marley, were similarly split, with Mackay in the "music, sometimes" camp and Marley as an "only one or the other" person. I was interested in their responses, because I happened to know that both authors have been or currently are professional musicians. Are there similarities between writing and making music? Does an aptitude in one make the other easier? How do you get started as a writer if you are already a musician or vice versa?
I'm not sure if it's possible to get definitive answers for any of these questions. In fact, it seems to me that the relationship between music and writing is colored in by more questions than any solid set of research. This might be a function of the difficulties of music criticism, which is a notoriously tricky art, never mind trying to look at both music and writing. I don't run into much intelligent discussion about the topic—I would love to be proved wrong on this, so please contribute in the forums if you know of a good resource! What comes to mind for me are two recurring features on the MP3 blog Large Hearted Boy: Note Books, in which musicians talk about their favourite books, and Book Notes, with writers talking about what music influenced a particular book. It's worth checking out.
Broad generalizations about music and writing might be beside the point anyway. Writers or musicians have tried and tested ways of improving their technique, but in the end art of any kind is a personal thing. With that in mind, here are two examples of writers who are also involved in music in some way.
Scott Mackay writes both mystery and science fiction novels, alternating between the two, which is in itself a cross-genre project. Within science fiction, he doesn't fall into a single trend either: he's written about time travel (Outpost), genetically-based discrimination (The Meek), alternate history (Orbis), and some coolly considered body horror (Omnifix). I like The Meek the best of his books—it's a distinctive story, written in a strong, clear style. The sole music-related plot: his most recent mystery novel, Old Scores, told the story of the murder of an aging rock producer.
Louise Marley has featured music more overtly in her books. She began her writing career with a trilogy called The Singers of Nevya, appropriately enough about the musical powers of the people living on the planet of Nevya. She's written one other book that is majorly concerned with music: The Glass Harmonica, a book that collides the era of Ben Franklin with the life of a near-future musician. Marley has also written about a society with repressive rules for women (The Terrorists of Irustan), a near-future revolution (The Maquisarde), and how to balance the needs of the individual and the greater good (The Child Goddess).
It's relatively easy to find out about someone's writing career. You read a few books, read a few reviews. Musically speaking, the process is more difficult. Sure, there are musicians who have big record deals—the ones we hear about most often—or release their live shows for free online. But in the case of the majority of working musicians, unless you live nearby and can get to a concert, musical performances are lost once they've been played. That is to say, they can be described but the original experience cannot be recreated (if not recorded, and even then the experience is arguably not the same). This ephemerality of music and other types of performance art is something that I've rarely seen touched on; it was a secondary theme in Guy Gavriel Kay's The Sarantine Mosaic but I'm hard pressed to think of another example.
That paragraph's a lengthy preamble, all to say that I knew the books that Mackay or Marley had written, but I needed to ask them what kinds of music they played or sang.
Scott Mackay: "I was trained as a classical musician, flute being my instrument. I learned all the great solo works for the flute but I guess my favorites have to be the Prokofiev Sonata for Flute and Piano, and the Jacques Ibert Concerto for Flute and Orchestra. I also played recorder for a while, and so was a great fan of Bach's Brandenburg Concerti, in particular the one for recorder. These days I prefer to play baroque music, the near-greats such as Telemann and Handel. But I've also performed a great deal of Hassidic music because I often played Jewish weddings back in the old days. I also played modern Chinese music because I was affiliated with the Chinese music scene in Toronto, even though I'm Caucasian. For a while I played in a new music ensemble, and so performed a lot of avant garde works.
"I was also a jazz musician, and played in my own group, Bluetonium, for many years, all the great standards, as well as some originals. I played at private parties and in various clubs. I doubled on alto saxophone, and for a while performed with a jazz fusion rock band. In my teens, I played bass in a rock band, a lot of Credence Clearwater Revival, the Cream, Simon and Garfunkel, all the great bands of that particular period—that goes way back."
Louise Marley: "I've been singing since childhood, and my passions are folk music, spirituals, and opera. At the moment I listen mostly to kinds of music I never sang—old stuff re-recorded by lovely artists like Bette Midler, or instrumental classical pieces, lots of Mozart and Bach.
"I took a Bachelor's degree in Voice Performance at University of the Pacific, in California, and then I spent three years as a folk singer with two bands out of the Chicago area. I returned to classical music when I went to the Univ. of Washington to complete a Master's Degree in voice, and then began singing concert and opera repertoire in the Pacific Northwest. Eventually, my recitals concentrated on American repertoire, and I was able to combine my love of folk music with classical singing by presenting classical composers' settings of spirituals. Spirituals are probably my favorite music to sing, even now. They represent not only beautiful musical values, but such a rich and darkly emotional history.
"I still sing once in a while, although to maintain two full careers is simply too much. So I am more or less retired from music, and devoted now to fulltime writing and teaching writing."
How does a person become a writer? A musician? Is it a mysterious impulse? Is it as simple as "I read a lot of books" or "I constantly listened to music"? Are the motivations similar? When I asked the question—how did you get started in music and writing?—I got two very different answers.
Mackay: "My father was a part-time jazz musician. . . I was more or less born into a musical environment. But what really grabbed my attention in the 60s was radio, the pop music station CKLG, in Vancouver, where I was living at the time. Pop music underwent a revolution in 1967. I remember hearing Cream for the first time and being blown away by it. Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix was in heavy rotation as was Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. If you were born after the sixties you can't possibly imagine what it was like. The music of that time inspired me. Then when Led Zeppelin came out with their landmark first album in 1970, I started playing bass and formed a band. I turned to classical music when the family moved to Regina. I befriended the son of the Regina Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster. I was always over at their house, and their father was always bringing these great records home, everything from Frank Zappa to Beethoven. Through my exposure to classical music I finally decided that that was the direction I wanted to go.
"As for writing, my mother's a writer, Claire Mackay, quite well known in the young adult fiction and non-fiction fields in Canada, and so our house was always filled with books. My mother was a great SF fan back in the 1960s, and even before I could read, I always pulled her SF paperbacks from the shelves and looked at the covers, inevitably with great fascination and wonderment. In grade twelve I had a wonderful English teacher, Gil Baker, and he more or less inspired me to become a writer. As I slowly exhausted the flute repertoire—how many times can you play the Mozart Concerto in G Major and not get sick of it—I realized that writing was essentially limitless in terms of its creative possibilities. I began selling short stories in my mid-twenties, had my first novel sale by the time I was thirty-one, and haven't looked back."
Marley: "I wish I could give a coherent answer to this question! I was five when I first felt the urge and the need to sing, and that was a driving force in my life for a long time. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean I can explain it. With writing, the same force surfaced about fifteen years ago, just this incredible urge that wouldn't be ignored. I cherish that drive, because it gives me energy and joy. I've always loved to work, and I've been most fortunate to have two kinds of work that I love."
That's a handy segue to another thing I was curious about: the relationship between these two creative endeavours and practice. I'm not a musician myself, so I have a naive view in my head about the enormous amount of private practice necessary to excel. The practice is behind the scenes, building up a big performance. There are ways of practicing as a writer, of course, but is there as big a dichotomy between public and private? Do we all agree that self-discipline is the key?
Mackay: "Practicing music is a lot of hard work, especially when you're playing classical music on a professional level. I was educated at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Music, and have my Bachelor's Degree in Flute Performance. I of course had to audition for admittance in front of a jury of top-flight world-class musicians, most notably Louis Moyse, who is virtually a god in the flute world, and who played under the legendary Italian conductor, Arturo Toscanini. Out of thirty-five candidates, I was one of five chosen, and the only one from Canada. I practiced up to seven hours a day to prepare for this audition. A lot of scales, arpeggios, and, because I play a woodwind, many different kinds of articulation exercises. You get so good a reading music, you don't read it note by note anymore, but in whole swatches of notes, what amounts to pattern recognition on the music staff. Practicing music involves going over the same thing hundreds of times, and requires a lot of discipline, patience, and yes, even boredom tolerance.
"What I took away from music practice and brought to my writing is discipline. I can sit for hours and write, just like I used to practice flute for hours. I realized that the only way I got good at music was through practice, and I brought this same approach to my writing. The only difference, I always write for the purpose of selling what I write, never as an exercise. That's why I've never really kept a journal. Keeping a journal I suppose would be a good way of practicing writing, but it's not for me. Here's where playing an instrument and writing fiction different—you need a lot of physical, technical prowess to play an instrument. In writing fiction you need a lot of mental creative prowess. I believe you should never write unless its with the intent publishing. A piece of fiction isn't complete until it's been published. It essentially doesn't exist if it isn't published, because who's ever going to know about it? So in a sense, I never really intentionally practice writing fiction, though I have enough unpublished stories and a number of trunk novels that more or less add up to a lot of inadvertent practice!"
Marley: Practice is essential, of course, in both! I'm impatient with folks who only want to practice when they feel like it, whether they're musicians or writers or baseball players. Discipline is the key to artistic life. That doesn't mean it comes naturally, or even easily to some, but without it, talent can be wasted. I even wrote a piece about the connection between the discipline of writing and that of singing, which was published by Speculations. If anyone wants to know the depth of my thoughts on this subject (big grin here) they can read my article Music Lessons for Writers." I was a teacher of music and voice for quite some time, and I think I'm qualified to hold forth on this topic!"
As I was discussing this with Louise Marley, she referred to an interdisciplinary workshop that she was part of. As Scott Mackay mentioned in his last reply, you need physical technique to play an instrument. There are no corresponding, physiologically-demanding requirements for writing fiction; lots of writers are two finger typists or write longhand. But might there be a physical and mental component to both?
Marley: "In connection with the Whidbey Island Writers Association MFA program, I'm developing a workshop that will emphasize the connections between disciplines. In my case, the disciplines will be writing, music, and yoga. Any eyebrows go up at the mention of yoga? It's just that I find that exercise is great for the mind as well as the body, and yoga, in particular, stimulates thought. It also, if you're open to the idea, stimulates the chakras that help us to nurture original and creative thinking. For singers, physical fitness is part of caring for their instrument; for writers, exercise can go a long way to relieving some of the problems of sitting at a desk too long. Any exercise is good, whether it's mild or intense. For me, yoga is the perfect blend of those things."
That's about as good a place as any to end this column: the investigation has not concluded, but has rather branched out into even more possible areas of inquiry! And perhaps that's as it should be.
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