To do your best writing, sometimes you have to put down your pen. Step away from the laptop. Lift your head and look up. There’s a whole world of creativity – and here are some ways The Prime Writers feed their writing.
What is it about music and writing? Here The Prime Writers reflect on how one can help to enrich the other.
There are so many obvious reasons why they go together. At the most superficial level, they both generate in us a profound emotional reaction, which takes dedication and skill to elicit. To read a piece of beautiful writing is to experience a similar pleasure as from listening to great music, for similar reasons. Both take years of study and practice to achieve. On a practical level, music can help the text to evoke a period or place, or just ground the writer in their setting while they work.
If we look deeper, however, we discover nothing short of a parallel universe shared by these two art forms, where many of the structures and techniques bear startling, thought-provoking similarities. The Prime Writers membership includes several musicians and singers, from enthusiastic amateurs to highly trained classical performers. Other members simply understand how much the appreciation of music can inform their writing.
Pianist Rebecca Mascull draws on an insight from her piano teacher, who told her to look at a piece of music from a distance to reveal its structure. She says, ‘I’ve learnt to see each book as I write as a piece of architecture, with words like notes like bricks, building up into something that will hold itself upright at the very least, and at the very most, will be a glorious cathedral of soaring spires.’
Flute player Sarah Vaughan likens the redrafting of a novel to music practice, where the effort goes into making the lines work together. ‘I’ve worked relentlessly on the bass line – the past plot – and now it’s the turn of the treble – or the present – to sing just as sweetly but with more melancholy, more light and shade, than before.’ Read more.
For acapella vocalist Vanessa Lafaye, performing for an audience requires similar skills to writing a successful scene. ‘It’s about engagement: you have to capture the audience’s attention and hold it for a sustained period, using skills of pace and rhythm and tone and pitch, to create in them the desired emotional connection. And you must leave them satisfied with the experience.’
Dominic Utton is looking for the same thing when he writes to a soundtrack. ‘I’m constantly striving to create with words that same gut emotional punch that a three-minute pop song can give you. That something so short, so immediate, so simple can hit you with such force, that in 200 seconds or so can reduce you to tears or make you want to jump about like a lunatic… that’s a breathtaking achievement. That a sentence or two of exactly the right words in exactly the right order can do the same… that, to my mind, is what makes good or competent writing transcend into really great writing.
For trained opera singer Sarah Todd Taylor, performing is part of the process of getting to know her characters. ‘Singing in character helps me get into the emotions of different characters. ‘Acting the part’ helps me to imagine how a character feels and makes it easier when I’m writing to access those feelings and express them. I like to find a song that fits a character in my own writing and imagine how I would stand and move as I sung it.’
Classical violinist Louisa Treger made writing her focus after a debilitating virus forced her to set the bow aside. She says, ‘Music was fantastic training for being an author, not least because it taught me the discipline to glue my bottom to a chair and spend hours alone every day, honing my craft. Also, music training is all about precision. It sharpens the perception of minute acoustic differences that distinguish sounds, and this heightens one’s attention to the nuances of language.’ Read more.
Jason Hewitt likens the creation of his first novel, ‘The Dynamite Room’, to the writing of a symphony—quite literally. ‘Like a symphony, my novel is split into movements (or five days in this case); backstories, plotlines, and recurring motifs thread in and out like returning musical themes, ever word placed like a note. I even plotted out the crescendos on a piece of paper, marking them on my literary score along with where each character (my instruments) swept in and then left.’ Read more.
For Louise Beech, there are also similarities in the creative phase. ‘Some music writers say the melody comes to them first – perhaps heard in the clatter of footsteps on tiles or in birdsong – and some say it’s the words. For me, writing stories is very similar. I often sense the rhythm of a story before the actual plot follows. I’ll wake from a dream with a curious ‘feel’ for a story.’ Read more.
As a writer, whether you sing, play, or just enjoy music, it can help to unlock and unblock, show you new ways of looking at structure, immerse you in your setting, or just give you some welcome relaxation.
Look up from the laptop, yes, and open your ears.