Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What happens in Steve Almond's class...

The man. The legend.

... stays in Steve Almond's class. (Unless I tell you about it.)

Last night's Grub Street class was Crank the Tunes, Crank the Prose: Music as the Path to Literary Improvement.
Have you ever wondered whether listening to music can improve your prose? It can. Certified Music Geek will explain how, using actual songs, by actual musicians, as his text. There will be a writing exercise, though it will not involve Steve doing his famous "Freebird" air guitar solo. (Unless the class begs).
There was music. (Not Freebird. Hey, does anyone else think instantly of The Devil's Rejects when they think of Freebird? No? Just me? Wait, you in the back, I saw you raise your hand. Genius movie ending, right? F---in' A.) And there was writing. And it was good.

Steve argued that music has the power to expand your empathetic imagination because music consistently seeks to evoke emotion in listeners in a way that not all literature seeks to do with readers... although perhaps it should. Musicians, he said, have permission to be overtly emotional, to honestly pursue feelings that are nearly unbearable. Writers do not always recognize that this same permission has been granted to them as well.

This does not mean cheap sentimental string-pulling. This means getting at the core truth of emotion. Truth lifts language into beauty and towards song. Not, Steve reminds us, the other way around. Crafting lyrical prose, in and of itself, does not bring you to truth. But if you can let music help guide you to a true and powerful emotion, then you can use that as the basis upon which you can craft something true of your own.

In some ways there was not much else that I can take from the class to pass on to you, because it's all about the music that moves you, personally. Or, about the specific ways in which the music moves you; we can listen to the same song and experience different emotions, retrieve different memories. So, Steve asked us to each think of a song that was specifically evocative to us, for whatever reason. We then wrote... not about the song itself, exactly, but about the song's place in our lives, about how it made us feel and why.

Not all writing need be cathartic... but sometimes it doesn't hurt.

Tell us in the comments which song you would pick. And, what kind of music do you usually listen to while writing, if any?

ETA: Check out the soundtrack to Steve's newest book. In particular, the song "Here Comes a Regular" by Dayna Kurtz. We did a freewriting exercise with that one playing in the background, and DAMN it's good.


  1. I occasionally listen to music when I write, but it's usually to shut out the backgrond noise. I'm already too emotional in my fiction, and I'm an SFF. Maybe I should do more fantasy.

    Ci vediamo.

  2. I'll pick Amaranth by Nightwish. I write to a variety of music depending on the mood I hope to convey in each particular scene, a lot of the the time I have particular groups that are associated with particular characters. It's just how I like to work.

  3. Usually classical and one in particular is Schubert's Piano Trio in E flat major-- I've listened to that over and over again while writing.

    One song by a rock group that might move me to write is "There Forever" by the 77s-- it's ethereal unobstrusive and beautiful--one of the few songs I could listen to repeatedly.


  4. I WISH music could slip me into a book like my friend Jeri Smith-Ready, but I can't. As a musician, it distracts me. I sing along, or I count the beat (Ok, I ALWAYS count the beat) or I figure out what key it's in, or.... yah. Distraction.

    But because of that, music moves me all the time. Especially at church, where music is worship . the Hallelujah Chorus is transcendent for me. And all of those great hymns, Be Thou My Vision, Amazing Grace, How Great is Our God, etc etc.... I cry every Easter no matter what the music is. So again, can't separate the music from everything else to do this assignment.

    But there is one song I could listen to on repeat all day. It's Terrence Mann singing "Where's the Girl?" from the musical The Scarlet Pimpernel. I have no idea WHY I connect to the music the way I do, but for some reason, every time I play it, it clicks with me.

    I have NO IDEA how that translates to writing. That's the trouble with being a musician. Your brain compartmentalizes it.

  5. Jess, I never used to listen to music while writing because to me, music is for dancing or singing along, not just passive listening... but now I think I can train myself to use it for writing as well.

    Atsiko, I used to put on a well-watched movie when writing legal briefs to help drown out background noise... OR to create background noise if it was too silent and lonely! I'd pick something I knew by heart so that my brain didn't feel compelled to listen carefully to what was being said at any point.

    Thanks for sharing your music of choice, Lee & David!

  6. Music is like a picture - worth a thousand words.

    I couldn't pick a specific song, although each MC in my series has his or her own theme song, but in general I am always listening to music when I write and prefer rock and prog rock - and it has to be powerful!

  7. Ha. I knew there was a reason I liked you. My song pick is also Ani DiFranco, but I'm going with "Both Hands." I could write about that one for a while.

    I listen to music when I write about half the time. Sometimes I am in an "absolute silence" mode -- that's most frequent when editing, because I want no noise except the sound of my voice reading passages aloud to see how they sound in the silence.

    Otherwise, I do usually have music in the background, but I pick it carefully. I don't just listen to what I'm in the mood for -- it has to fit the mood I want in my writing. Writing about a violent action scene? I have a mix for that which includes "Hysteria" by Muse, among other things. Writing about a woman who is breaking free from constraints and starting a new life? Bring on the Ani and Antje Duvekote. Romance? Well, that depends on the characters.

    So yes, I definitely use music to get me in the "write" headspace. (Okay, okay, that was a cheap joke.)

  8. To be fair, I prefer silence for *everything*: I don't like background music. So in my head, when there is music around, it is because I am doing something with/for the music.

    There are rare occasions where I'll feel like putting on my Christian station on Pandora for some encouragement while I'm about the house, and I have Lilith Saintcrow's shared Atmospheric station for when inspiration BEFORE I turn it off to start plotting.

  9. I've liked a lot of Sigur Ros while writing my current one, but some of the songs brought my mood down faster than a lead ball. That was interesting. So I used the downer songs to write the difficult chapters where lots of emotion was swirling, and then when I wanted to bounce back up and write lighter stuff, I listened to 1901 by Phoenix, some Lady Gaga, and a few other upbeat songs.

    Apart from the writing process and music, I think there's a few songs that encompass the book as a whole, for which I'd love to create an adhoc song list and post on my web site should it see publication.

  10. I wish I could write to music, but I just can't. It distracts me too much. I find myself focusing on the song rather than my writing. :-)

  11. Wonderful post, Carrie! I actually wrote an entire manuscript build around music. It was so fun and inspiring and emotionally difficult to write that I sometimes don't remember how I did it. In any case, my song would be: "Silent All These Years."

  12. Music can definitely influence me and my writing. Often times, it can help me put myself into the character's shoes for an experienced moment of the story and help me write their next move. It can be very helpful.

    For me, there's no 1 song I'd choose... There's just too many to list.

  13. I once wrote an entire post on my music choice, which I shan't bore you with. It ranges from Celtic & New Age to heavy rock, and I vary the music for the type of scene.

    My only issue with music is that my prose rhythm begins to mimic the beat of whatever I'm listening to, which is badness.