Writing Fuel

A few years ago, I had a nice conversation about writing habits with a colleague who cares very little for music except when she is writing. While she almost never listened to music at any other time, she noted how her writing process is intimately tied to the types of music – mostly jazz from the 70’s and 80’s – she plays while she works on this or that paper. As we were talking that day, another person sitting nearby admitted surprise that we could write while music was playing. This other person loved music, but could not concentrate on writing if it was playing nearby, and noted that the times where they were working on this or that composition were generally the quietest times in their home. As someone who generally has music playing at all times – or as much as possible – and has not – that I can recall – ever written anything without a soundtrack playing in the background, I found the variation in our three experiences fascinating and have often thought about them over the years.

In my own case, I’ve often referred to music as my writing fuel, or a source of energy, inspiration, and ideas I draw upon whenever I’m writing in any way. Though I’m relatively certain few other people would guess this, I can actually look at each of the articles, chapters, essays, short stories, books, newspaper pieces, and other published works throughout my career and remember exactly what songs or artists were dominating my stereos at the time of their composition, editing, and submissions. At present, for example, I’m writing this post while Brandi Carlile’s Give Up the Ghost plays on repeat from my laptop, and my part of my most recent co-authored journal article (forthcoming in Symbolic Interaction) was written almost entirely to the sounds of Amanda Shires Down Fell the Doves. I’ve never tried to pinpoint what, if any, explicit role these soundtracks play in my compositions, but at this point I honestly can’t imagine what writing without music playing would be like. However it actually works inside my head, music seems to be an integral part of my own experience of and ability to write.

I’ve found myself returning to the above conversation more and more this year as I expanded my writing efforts to the composition of sociologically informed novels. As I recently noted elsewhere, I decided to begin working in research-based fiction both in hopes of fulfilling a lifelong dream of publishing a novel, and as an attempt to translate sociological insights – and especially insights concerning marginalized groups often left out of mainstream scientific studies and data sets – for broader academic, student, and public audiences. In the process, however, I kept running into elements of the conversation above as I found myself arranging the stories I composed around particular songs that caught my attention, spoke to some element of the social issues contained within the work, and / or provided an organizing theme or feeling for the work. Even more so than the non-fiction writing I’ve done throughout my career, the music in each case served as an inspirational and organizational fuel for turning complex findings from various academic literatures into useful characters, plots and narrative arcs. As I completed my first four novels, and the contract for publishing the first one as part of the Social Fictions Series edited by Dr. Patricia Leavy, I found myself thinking about two questions I have been wondering about ever since that conversation years ago.

First, in what ways do other people use music as fuel for their writing, thinking, and other creative and academic endeavors? I automatically think about my life partner situating autoethnographic experiences within the contexts of storylines from some of their favorite bands and analyzing the emotions the combination of these data points reflect in their writing, analysis, and conceptualization. I also think about my colleague that writes to music, but only music without lyrics – even though he also likes music with lyrics outside of writing time – because while instrumental flourishes inspire his thought processes, lyrics will distract him from the same processes. I also think about the colleague that completes every writing project by dancing around to their favorite records whether or not they listen to those records while writing in the first place. I think about these and other examples, compare them to my own experience, and compare them to the people I met years ago. In so doing, I wonder about all the different ways music informs and / or becomes relevant in writing processes and rituals.

Second, and admittedly a curiosity I cannot really speak to myself, I wonder what other things serve as writing fuel for people. I wonder what other people draw on – consciously or unconsciously – when fashioning their own ideas. If not music, what is in the background of their writings, arguments, creations, and conceptualizations? I know, for example, friends who go to art galleries in search of ideas, and others who pull heavily from day-to-day interactions and conversations. I admit I pull from these arenas as well, but music is my primary background component in writing and that makes me wonder what, if anything, plays the same role for other writers. I have no clue what the answers might be, or even if people would be aware of the answers without reflecting on their writing habits for a bit, but I bet the question alone could tell each of us a lot about our writing selves and the influences that find voice within our own words.

J. Sumerau

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Start Again

As I noted in a previous post, my life partner and I went to once again feed my never ending desire to see the Counting Crows live as many times as possible back in July. During that particular show under the moonlight of a Tampa summer night, the band played a soft, haunting version of Start Again (a song they released on an album full of songs they covered by artists – like Teenage Fanclub, the band that originally did Start Again – they enjoyed). As I was listening to this version again a couple days ago when the recording of the show we ordered from the Counting Crows website arrived in the mail, it reminded me of the enthusiasm and joy I experience every time I come into contact with new music and especially newly acquired albums regardless of their ultimate quality in the long run.

While I was taking a little break from new posts here on the SSSI music blog, I spent a lot of time becoming acquainted with new – at least to me in each case – music as the summer shifted into fall. Although not exactly planned this time, the process began when I acquired a nice little gift card that allowed me to purchase nine records by a few artists I long wanted to give a more detailed or thorough listening. I spent the entire time I was in Seattle for this year’s SSSI, ASA, and ASR meetings roaming around the city listening to and honestly falling in love with Margo Price and Courtney Barnett and American Aquarium as well as a couple other new to me artists I became acquainted with at the time. When I arrived back home after the conferences, the process continued as two of my favorite artists – Wilco and Amanda Shires – released new studio albums to welcome me to the fall semester of classes. When the official bootleg recording of the latest Counting Crows show my life partner and I attended appeared in the mail earlier this week, I again began thinking about the ways I experience newly acquired musical stories.

For me, the experience of gaining new music – especially if it turns out to be something I really like or even love over time – never fails to elevate my moods, captivate my always on the edge of getting distracted by something else attention, and feel like a brand new adventure containing an infinite number of possibilities. I find myself wondering what major moment in my life will become associated with, for example, Margo Price’s “Four Years of Chances” or Amanda Shires’ “My Love – the Storm.” I find myself imagining, or trying to, what interesting papers I might write while Wilco’s “Happiness” or K Phillips’ “Hadrian” plays in the background. I consider what new friends might emerge from the introduction of some new album, like the latest one from the Head and the Heart, to a friend of mine unfamiliar with that band before now. Since I never write without music, I try to guess on first listen which of the new songs in the collection will end up on one my writing playlists or which new vinyl records will get the most play when I’m editing manuscripts over the years. Since my artistic, creative writing and storytelling always seems to be inspired by and often named after songs, I wonder which – if any – of the songs will do this work in my head, become titles of stories or poems or other creative endeavors, and / or provide a theme to unify a given story or poem I have yet to imagine.

Even though there are many cases (so many) where none of the new songs or records will be an answer to any of these questions, I always enjoy attempting, in every case of starting to listen to something different again, to envision what – if any – role the new pieces of art ringing in my ears will play in the context of my own life course and ongoing self and narrative constructions. It is with this in mind that I wonder how other people engage fresh forms of art – musically or otherwise – for themselves, with others, and in the context of the rest of the meaning making that makes up a given individual and collective life course. What might Interactionists learn from exploring these questions systematically, and what might any one of us learning from thinking about these questions next time we pick up another new piece of art and start again the process of integrating this new element into our own world?

J. Sumerau

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Improvisation versus Familiarity

This past week, my life partner and I went to see the Counting Crows perform live. It was not the first time we saw the band live, and unless they retire, it won’t be the last. This time, however, I did something after the show I had never done before, and in so doing, noticed an interesting dichotomy. What I did was follow, read, and think about comments on social media about the show itself, and the ways people interpreted the performance. The dichotomy I noticed revolved around tensions between attendees who hoped for the familiarity of songs they had on records at home, and other attendees who enjoyed the ways the band reinvents songs on stage over time.

Similar to acts often labeled as jam bands, the Counting Crows have a long standing reputation – dating back to the earliest days of the band actually – for revising and adjusting their songs over time to the point where even someone who has seen them many times (like me) never knows exactly what to expect or which versions of the songs might pop up in a show. Sometimes they add in or delete instrumental interludes and solos into songs that sounded different or even used different instruments on their studio records. Sometimes they insert pieces of other songs – their own and those by other people – into the middle of some of their more famous songs. Sometimes, they even re-write whole songs – instrumentally or lyrically – from tour to tour, and experiment with various arrangements of different songs. In all such cases, the shows often feel like a bit of improv mixed into familiar music, and songs one may know every word to from an album can become entirely different creations in the midst of the show.

For an example, check out this live version of Round Here, and then check out the studio version of the same song.

Now, I’ll admit my own bias here. I like this approach, and I actually wish artists did it more often, and tend to love it when other artists do it as well. For me, the songs feel more alive when they change over time, and the concert feels more like its own experience when the songs don’t exactly match the studio album versions. That said, even before reading comments online following the recent show, I was well aware that other listeners do not like these things, and I see no reason to pretend my preference is any better or worse than theirs in any objective sense. Rather, what struck me as I read the comments was that the show was either “the best ever” or “completely terrible” depending on which side of this line the commenter was coming from in the first place. This interpretive variation is what caught my attention.

It reminded me of many other cases where I see tension between improvisation (or something new and unexpected) and familiarity (or something that fits existing expectations). I think about colleagues and I reading the same manuscript – as reviewers or more informally – and reaching completely different about what constitutes a “contribution” (for example, an addition to an existing line of argument versus a wholly new perspective).  I think of debates concerning static versus fluid ways of thinking, ways of being, ways of studying, and ways of interpreting the world (i.e., those who see an obvious truth versus those who see subjective possibilities). I think about these and so many more situations where familiarity (and the desire for that) clashes with improvisation (and the desire for something different) throughout social relations, and I wonder, as suggested in a recent SI article by Dunn and Creek, just how many social debates and conflicts stem from such clashes repetitively playing out in our world.

J. Sumerau

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The Theoretical Intersection of Science and Music – An Abstract

In this post, Dr. Joseph Kotarba shares the abstract from a recent keynote talk he gave in Bulgaria at the Seventh Annual Conference of the ESSSI and will elaborate on as well at the upcoming SSSI annual meetings.  

The Theoretical Intersection of Science and Music

Keynote Address

The Seventh Annual Conference of the ESSSI

Topola, Bulgaria

(July 2016)


Joseph A. Kotarba, Ph.D.

Department of Sociology

Texas State University

San Marcos, Texas U.S.A.


Institute for Translational Sciences

University of Texas Medical Branch

Galveston, Texas U.S.A.


The purpose of this presentation is to discuss the value of applying the interactionist concept of the self to understanding the contemporary biomedical scientist. Translational science (TS) is a growing scientific movement that aims to facilitate the efficient application of bio-medical research to clinical services design and delivery (i.e., improving the “bench-to-bedside” process). Since 2010, I have served as a member of an interdisciplinary team charged to evaluate the progress of the NIH’s Clinical and Translational Science Award received by the Institute for Translational Sciences at the University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston. The program’s administrators initially framed their interest in understanding empirical and thus measurable organizational change in terms of deliverables such as patents, external grants and publications, as well as formal rule application. I focused my research on a bit more elusive phenomenon: cultural change. Following Gary Fine, I argued that cultural activity and change occurs at the local, medical center level and do not result directly from NIH policies and dictates. I agree with Robert Dingwall and Phil Strong that organizations are the products of their members’ actions in circumstances that are not entirely of their own making, although allowing scope for manipulation and maneuver. Patrick McGinty offered a corrective that argued that interactionism allows for both social organizational analysis as well as organizational ethnography. Accordingly, my primary research design evolved to seeing the self-experience of the scientist as the media by which culture at all organizational levels impacts the work of science, while also providing a scholarly resource for understanding the impact of contemporary science on the everyday life of the individual scientist. In this presentation, I choose music as an important cultural resource that links the scientific/rational aspects of self to the aesthetic/humanistic aspects of self. Thus, cultural experiences like music reinforce the esteemed self-definition of “intellectual”; functions as an escape from overrationalized expectations of others (NIH); facilitates interface with if not return to the community through activities such as symphony board membership; provides an alternative outlet for creativity and innovation such as the “wedding mix;” and provides another outlet for orderliness such as archiving music and delving into music history. The ideal “deliverable” is the balanced self.


This study was conducted with the support of the Institute for Translational Sciences at the

University of Texas Medical Branch, supported in part by a Clinical and Translational Science Award (UT1TR000071) from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institutes of Health.

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Big Day in a Record Collection

One of the more interesting things about constantly collecting, listening to, and checking out new music is that I rarely spend much time waiting for or anticipating any given new release. Since I end up with new artists, records, and sounds to try out each month (at least), most release dates escape my notice, and I am rarely in any hurry to obtain a given record. To put this into context, despite all the new sounds I’ve fallen in love with since, the last time I anxious awaited a release before this year was when the Counting Crows announced their latest record back in 2014.

I began thinking about these patterns in my own experience with music, and the ways anticipation may play out in the music lives of others earlier this year when I read an announcement noting that Brandy Clark would be releasing the followup to her 2013 debut (12 Stories) in June of this year. For the first time in a while, I felt anticipation well up inside me like some kind of fountain, and spent the early part of the year counting down the days until I could get hold of the record and – most likely – play it on repeat for hours and days. This is exactly what I have been doing the last two weeks.

This experience led me to consider two things. First, Clark’s first album was so damn good to my ears that I became an instant fan. The stories of small town life, the witty jokes blended into the stories, the classic meets modern Americana instrumentation, and the power of her voice shook me to my bones. I honestly didn’t think she could top that record, but I still wanted more no matter the quality. While I did not get that record when it first came out – instead I stumbled across it 2 years later one day at a record store where it was playing – I automatically made plans to get the next one – Big Day in a Small Town – the moment it was available. Truth be told, it is somehow even better than the first one, and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys small town storytelling, a blend of humor and tragedy in lyrics, and Americana – or even standard mainstream country – music in general.

Second, this made me wonder about the ways people experience engagement with new artists. What is it like when an artist captures a piece of you or an emotional reaction? What role does anticipation play in the experience of music and other forms of art? I feel like Interactionist and other approaches to the sociology of emotions could have a lot to learn and say about these questions. Last year, Brandy Clark was only one of about 200 artists I tried out for the first time, and yet, the reaction to her work was much different than any of the others. What makes such a difference? What emotional reactions transform an unknown artistic form into an “I gotta have it” artistic form? How might we go about studying such a thing? What might scientific studies of anticipation – in relation to music, arts, or anything else really – look like in practice, and what might they tell us about our own emotional selves, patterns, and experiences?

As is often the case, I cannot pretend to have any good answers to these questions at present, but I plan to continue thinking about them as I enjoy a Big Day in a Small Town on repeat for a little while longer.

J. Sumerau

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Genres Revisited

About a year ago, I wrote a post on this blog exploring the meanings and nuances embedded within musical genres and categorizations. After discussing examples of variations and debates concerning different types of music and the meanings people attach to musical forms, I closed the piece by asking what analyses of genre creation, maintenance and change might reveal about social interactions, society, and popular music.

As a result, I was rather intrigued when a few friends this week alerted me to a blog post about a recently published study examining genre usage and structuring via musical profiles and interactions on a social media site. Rather than a monolithic structuring of musical tastes and categorizations, the authors found musical tastes and genres structured in forms of multiple, interlocking components that effectively revealed multiple – rather than a monolithic – musical worlds experienced by site users and marketed by musicians. Specifically, they noted the existence of three overarching genres or categories (i.e., Rock, Hip Hop, and Niche genres) that were composed by a wide variety of sometimes distinct, sometimes interconnected subgenres (i.e., rap metal, country rock, etc.). Further, they noted how the overarching categories took varied shapes and dimensions within and in relation to the diversity of subgenres and interconnections between genres.

Similar to some of the anecdotal and observational examples I noted in the blog post last year, their analyses suggests genres – or other musical classifications – are both more and less relevant to the experience of contemporary music than in the past. In the former case, genres continue to provide a broad structure for musical taste, communication, and interaction often utilized by industry insiders, marketing teams, and musicians seeking to gain entrance into given fields. In the latter case, however, genres rely heavily upon the interpretation of listeners, have less influence in an age where consumers are more likely to utilize social networking and other technology than to rely on industry insiders for musical selections, and have become so specialized as to create both more distinct and more interrelated characteristics or definitions for what constitutes membership in a specific musical category. As the authors note, genres now offer an example of both symbolic boundary differentiation and the ways contemporary interactions and technological use may blur or otherwise lessen the importance of such boundaries in practice.

I was thinking about this article and genres more broadly as I looked through the bins at a few local record stores over the past week. As I picked through the stacks of records, I found myself noticing another way genres may be both relevant and irrelevant in different spaces, communities, and contexts. In the first store I went into that day, for example, there are no genres, but rather everything in the store is simply categorized alphabetically. As a result, one may flip through records of 10 different genres in one bin simply because the artist names fit together in an alphabetical scheme. For shoppers in this store, genre distinctions or concerns disappear because they serve no function in locating music. In the second and third stores I visited that day, however, genres play a powerful role in the structuring of music. Both of these stores organize their musical selections in relation to genres (i.e., rap, soul, rock, punk, etc.), but even in this case, many of the same records are sorted into different genres in one store versus the other. One may find a record in the pop section of the first store only to find it in the rock or soul section instead in the second store. Similar to the findings in the article noted above, even when genres structure musical organization, variation may arise as a result of the different ways a given piece of music may be interpreted in relation to overall categories and / or sub categories within the broader musical worlds of the organizer.

All these observations lead me back to the way I finished the post a year ago. What might be learned from systematic study of musical classifications, genres, and interpretations? What insights might we gain about music, society, listeners, musicians, and broader arts markets and industries? If the recent article noted above is any clue, there may be much useful information weighting to be unpacked through such studies.

J. Sumerau

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The More I Write

“Well if I have one, I’ll have thirteen” is a lyric from a Blake Shelton song called “The More I Drink” from his Pure BS album. Although I do not happen to drink much if at all for the most part, I found myself regularly thinking about this line in my academic life over the past couple years.

The reason I often think about this line is because if you change the word “have” to the word “write” it provides the best answer I have yet to come up with in response to an increasingly common question I receive from colleagues – “how do you write so much.” Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the question itself, and why people ask it so often when they run into me at this or that function. I see nothing wrong with the question, and as someone who regularly contributes to three academic blogs, publishes an at least a few academic works per year in journals and edited volumes, and regularly has a half dozen research and / or creative projects going on at once, I think the question makes a lot of sense.

The problem, however, is that I do not have an answer. I do not know “how” I write so much because it doesn’t seem like “much” to me honestly. I work at my own pace, and I’m lucky enough to have surrounded myself with collaborators who accept and affirm how I operate. I don’t try to write a lot or a little – I simply write whenever I feel like it, and do so at the pace that feels natural to me. Not surprisingly, the statements above are often not all that useful to people who ask me about writing because writing is a different type of experience for them.

As a result, I find myself more and more turning to the line noted above to explain it to people in a way that makes sense from their perspective. In the song, the singer notes another person at the bar who is not drinking, and asks the person why they do not drink with the rest of the people. The person’s response is very simple – if I drink, I will drink until I cannot drink anymore. While the song relies upon a comical portrait of a very serious issue many people face with alcohol addiction, what catches my attention is the non-drinker’s admission that they have no real control over drinking and how much they will do once they start.

This admission catches my attention because that is what writing is like for me. When my brain allows me to start writing, I just write and write and write and write until I cannot anymore. I rarely leave home when I’m able to write except to (a) do things required for my job, (b) do things required to stay alive (i.e., eat, drink, etc), (c) go other places that I like to write that are not my home, and / or (d) spend time with people who are VERY important to me because they want to see me (even though I often – as they know – spend our entire time together thinking about writing and most people in my life have gotten used to the fact that I may disappear for long periods of time once I start writing). In such cases, I don’t pay attention to how much or little I’m writing (a large percentage gets thrown away because I deem it not good enough or because an idea doesn’t work), what types of writing I am doing (fiction, non-fiction, scholarship, poetry, etc), what I will do with the writing when its done (I generally figure this out later), or any other factors – I just write. In such cases, I also don’t tend to notice much of everyday life – I forget to sleep, to eat, and to do other things that are part of ongoing existence, and I often get lost on the way to work or other places. Often, it is like I go into a separate state of being, and sometimes I will wake up to find something I don’t even remember writing. I cannot explain these patterns of activity at all, but over time I simply got used to them and embraced that these things are part of my writing experience whether I like them (I do like some of them) or not (others are terrible).

At the same time, when my brain doesn’t allow me to write, I simply do not write. I miss it, I stare at blank screens, I cry because it hurts not to write, and I feel sad or broken, but I have never found anything I can do to make it happen. I’m done, I’m turned off, I’m a non-writer, I quit cold turkey and that is it. I have written elsewhere about the fact that the absence of writing at such times is somehow painful to me (as painful as I’ve heard others describe the writing process they experience actually). Like with my writing bursts as some people close to me named them, I cannot explain these patterns nor find any way to stop them. Instead, I just accept that for days, weeks, or even months I might not be able to write no matter how much I want to. As such, I spend these times reading everything I can get my hands on, building my music collection through frequent trips to record stores (something about those places calms me), and thinking about potential ideas, writing projects, and research questions.

With all this in mind, I turn back to the line from the Blake Shelton song because the songs chorus is my best explanation for how much I write – the more I “write,” the more I “write,” the more I “write.”  I look at the character in the song, and I can relate to the lack of control the character experiences, but in my case, its tied to my experiences with writing rather than with alcohol.  Since, within existing cultural narratives, the experience is more understandable for others in relation to alcohol and other substances, it allows me to translate something I cannot really put into words into a metaphorical framework that – thus far – people are able to easily understand.

This leads me to wonder about other ways people may use song lyrics and other metaphorical forms to explain aspects of themselves that do not fit normative expectations and assumptions? How do you – or would you – utilize musical examples to explain aspects of yourself to other people? I don’t know how anyone else might answer this question, but I can come up with a lot of examples for myself off the top of my head. As such, I wonder what studies exploring such questions might find about the ways music may be used as an explanatory component of the presentation of self – or explanation of it to others – throughout the life course.

J. Sumerau

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