Music is my drug, my balm, my mood enhancer: assuaging a bad mood (though sometimes wallowing in it for a while) or extending a good one usually to the point of dancing and singing.
Music is my haka. If you’ve ever experienced New Zealand’s All Blacks perform theirs as a pre-game ritual, you know the power of it. They chant, grunt, and move as one in aggressive postures, slapping their chests and thighs while contorting their faces into grimaces pulled to intimidate their opponents.
It often works.
The right music does the same thing for me. It calls forth my warrior: who are my opponents? The blank page, my lizard brain, the weight of apathy every creator faces. And on my team? The muses, my ambition, the sheer joy of creation.
‘Listening to music while writing’ needn’t always be that. I just need it to get me to that sweet spot, what Poppy Brite calls, ‘falling through the hole in the page” and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identifies as “flow”. We all know the state: it’s the drug whose lure keeps us writing in the face of failure, rejection or the worst of them all, the blank wall of indifference. It’s the Wonderland that catches us as we fall—timeless, boundless, rich with possibility. The mundane world falls away and your only concern is the struggle to type or scribble fast enough to capture the wonders unspooling before you.
You are immersed, excited, alive in a way this vegetable world cannot match. You realise genius is not a quality, but an activity, one you have to work to earn. Music helps you get there because it bypasses the lizard, the logic and the doubt. Just dance: the trance, the movement, the beat—they all conspire to lift. Try to imagine any celebration without music. Like drinking or other mind-altering chemicals, it suppresses the inhibitions and allows us to play, but it leaves us coherent enough to remember it all. It’s joy in motion.
Trust no one who refuses to dance.
For a long-term project, music can provide the path back to the same muses who got you started. Instead of a jumble of disconnected parts, you can have a cohesive whole. The monkey mind, who leaps eagerly for the next shiny thing, can be wooed back to the path you’ve selected with the right kind of music.
We can lure the needed muse with the proper music, like a mouse to cheese. I have a double CD set of German techno music that I never listen to (or even dance to) but play whenever I have a loathsome project (which may well have begun life as a delightful assignment that has since become burdensome because of deadlines or an evaporation of inspiration or the lure of other projects). The physical effects are immediate: an increased heart rate, alertness, adrenaline. Combined with pomodoros it’s an unbeatable technique for that last sprint to the finish line.
Since turning to crime I have found that the muse muttering in my ear is usually The Fall. I don’t know why, but the lyrics of Mark E. Smith coupled with the hypnotic music has fueled so much of my writing in that genre that I have begun to suspect that I am possessed. The bard of Salford may have captured me to use as a mystical conduit for his writing ambitions. I hear a song and I know a story; I see a line of lyric and the world unfolds before me. I manufactured a drug—mandrake anthrax—but Smith had already created it, so I can take no credit except in the theft. The music provides a deep well I drink from regularly. I feel a tug of superstitious fear even writing of this—muses are notoriously shy and inclined to disappear when too much light catches their shadows—but then I have blathered on at length via social media about my obsession, so it ought not matter that much to name it now.
I will make burnt offerings just in case.
Then again, I am also promiscuous as all artists must be with their muses. I have crime stories that sprang from other bands: most recently White Rabbit but also “Losing My Religion” and “Kiss Like a Fist” (which is wrong anyway, it’s “with” but that’s not how it came out of my head as opposed to Florence’s). It’s a wide tradition. There are countless books titled from songs (Norwegian Wood, Exit Music, You Must Remember This, Crazy for You) and the favour has been returned with bands taking their names from books (The Doors, Steely Dan, The Velvet Underground, Veruca Salt, and of course, The Fall). All arts intertwine at some point.
Music: a drug, a lifeline, a cheering section, a haka. Freud hated music, but Nietzsche wrote that, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” I know without music I would still be staring at the blank page, despairing and lost. The beat goes on.
Follow along with the Sisters in Crime September Blog Hop and meet new authors.
I tag my Mavens of Mayhem colleague, Frankie Y. Bailey, who shares my love of Alice in Wonderland-themed crime: check out her novel The Red Queen Dies.
My Inspirations playlist: Songs that Spawned Stories.
[An early version of this originally appeared thanks to Frank Duffy’s invitation at the Horrifically Horrifying Horror Blog, May 2013. A longer version exists at Medium.]