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


About Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog

The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is an international professional organization of scholars interested in the study of a wide range of social issues with an emphasis on identity, everyday practice, and language.
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1 Response to Writing Fuel

  1. I always found it odd that I put music on a loop and listen to the same material over and over again while writing, It looks like I am not the only one! I wonder about the systematics in writing and content of the music. I guess I would have to film myself at work to find out

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