Music is a landscape inside which I write.
Some songs serve as high hills from where I can look back at life in elation and then there are those that assist in the deep valleys where I accept all that was never in my control.
When I am “lost” while writing, I listen to a lot of jazz. Jazz is something that a person feels his or her way around. Yes, there is a lot of technical language when it comes to that genre, but in the end you just feel jazz. Sometimes I feel Nina Simone in my eyes; occasionally I feel Ella Fitzgerald in my knees. Other times I need Sarah Vaughn to swallow my own words. And of course, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie are the cosmic canvas.
Music is the shivelight. It cuts through the forest of memories, illuminating rubble to come together like magnetic pieces and revive my understanding.
When I connect to a particular beat that pulls me out of the physical location where I am writing—train, plane, my writing room, our living room, some coffee shop—then I just tie it to my left index finger as I write and listen to that song on repeat. Sometimes I do this until a whole paragraph is done, other times that song is the only way I can “enter” back into the excerpt I left. iTunes confirms this is true. Some songs I have listened to on repeat over 100 times.
My tastes are eclectic. Here are some examples of “on repeat”:
• “Something in my heart” by Röyksopp
• “Happy Ending” by Alex Cameron
• “Fake Empire” by The National
• “Still” by The Mary Onettes
• “Mute” by Little Black Dress
• “Destination” by The Church
• “Cover Me” by Depeche Mode
• “A Little Piece” by The Jezabels
• “Hip Hop Saved My Life” by Lupe Fiasco
• “Sugar for the Pill” and “Star Roving” by Slowdive
• “Neele Neele Ambar Par” by Kishore Kumar
That being said, I need complete silence—even leaves rustling outside can feel like something is in my way—when revising or editing, a puzzle that’s at once familiar and new, and sometimes one that I wish to abandon.
David Jauss has a wonderful chapter in his book, On Writing Fiction: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About the Craft, titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow.” Jauss begins the chapter by explaining that the word "flow," as it comes up in writers' workshops and feedback circles, is one of his biggest pet peeves. After he proceeds to explain why, he gives various examples of writing that "flows" because there is a conscious and unconscious cadence in the syntax of sentences and paragraphs. This very full (for a lack of better word) chapter has numerous examples, counter-examples, and quotations, from D.H. Lawrence to E.M. Forester to Stuart Dybek. The wealth of literary examples and their context is unparalleled not just in that chapter but the entire book. Somewhere in that chapter, Jauss states, “Ultimately, I believe, what we talk about when we talk about flow is music” and that “writing is indeed the act of translating an innate unconscious language of thought into a learned, conscious one.” Jauss quotes from Virgina Woof’s letter to Vita Sackville-West: “…A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing…one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit in.”
My poem, “First Language,” published in The Bangor Literary Journal (April 2018), was about how English is not my first language, but the poem wasn’t about how it literally isn’t my first language (although true). Visual artists and musicians are familiar with this "wave," which is experienced in this innate universal language. But a writer must first lose the map, create her own compass, and then navigate that "wave" into something tangible: words.
Language helps us shape our sense of place. It seems in my writing I am—or through a character if writing fiction—always trying to enter some landscape, a way to ground my perpetual sense of never belonging. Music helps me with that. And for all that’s without words, there’s music.
Annie Q. Syed is a reader, writer, and teacher. Her stories, Collection of Auguries, were published in 2013. Her work has appeared in Fictive Dream, Tahoma Literary Review, Ellipses Zine, and others. You can find more at www.anniesyed.com