Friday, May 15, 2009

My Writing Soundtrack

My husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin, an editor at Jazz Times, and the author of Got a Revolution writes about music. Our house is filled with it. In fact, when we moved from Manhattan to Hoboken, the city's unofficial 6th borough, we had to buy a brickstone that had a basement simply to keep Jeff's music collection. Any CD you want? Trust me, it's in our basement, and if it isn't there, it's in Jeff's office, our living room, the bedrooms--maybe even in the kitchen.

I have to have music when I write. It calms me down, it gives me a time frame (four or five CDs and usually I am ready to take a break) but it drives my husband crazy because when I write, my musical taste tends to be…well, bad. I admit it. When I’m not writing, I love world music and Fado and jazz. I love classical and The Fray and Green Day, and I absolutely worship Leonard Cohen and Eric Costello, but when I am writing, I listen to… the Carpenters. I listen to Billy Joel. I listen to Sonny and Cher or even Elton John. And I need to listen to the same albums over and over and over again, for months at a time.

“Why?” Jeff asks me, pained, when he hears the familiar strains coming out of my office yet again. I know why. I have to have music that has a beat, something that is background, that won’t require me to really listen or to consider it or even like it. In fact, when I am deep in my writing, I don’t even really hear the music at all, other than on some subliminal level. Like Pavlov’s dog, the music I don’t really love primes me to write.

Clea Simon, author of Probable Claws insists she can’t listen to the music she loves when she writes, either. If she does, she doesn’t write. “I need ambient music, like Gamelan or this one great Baroque violin CD, which I play over and over in the background, so it doesn’t get in the way,” she says.

But Binne Kirshenbaum, author of The Scenic Route, writes to the sounds of silence, even though music appears in her novels. “When I get to a part where the music appears, I stop writing and listen to that piece of music to see if it sounds in my ear the way I imagine it sounds in my head,” she says. “The Brandenburg Concertos figure in a lot. So does Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits, The Beatles, Blondie and Frank Sinatra.

"I need different things at different times," says M. J. Rose, author of The Memorist. "Music at a stage in the book when I want to fill in the spaces so I don't have to think, silence at the stages when I do."

Last week, I was in the elevator, when a Muzak version of one of my writing songs came on. I swore, if I had had a pen and paper, I would have sat down and started scribbling.

I can't believe this is my last entry. I've had a blast! Thank all of you for reading my blog and for commenting, and I want to thank Kepler's and the wonderful Aggie for giving me this opportunity--and for being every writer's and reader's best friend!


  1. Elton John is in your collection of bad music? Oh dear, I guess I'm hopeless then. His was the first concert I went to, back in high school (a long time ago). I still play "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" but rather than writing, I'm usually dancing around the house! But yes, I too like music to write by. Something without lyrics.

    Caroline, I hope you come back and add a guest post every once in while. And I'm looking forward to reading that anthology essay.

  2. Well, I listen to it constantly so it can't be that bad! And I do love some of his songs--as I do love some of the Carpenters! (I admit it>)

    I will come back! Thank you for asking!

  3. Hey, there's some Carpenters that can send me into a complete reverie. And Sonic Youth covered 'em, so doesn't that give them some cred?

    And I have to make an exception to what I said: When I'm writing scenes in clubs, I do listen to good/loud music. Violet Hayes' band, in particular, calls for a certain sound. In fact, I modelled them on early Sleater-Kinney, so "Dig Me Out" usually comes on for those scenes!

    Thanks for the shout out and the blogs - they've been fun!