I'VE KNOWN ONLY A HANDFUL OF WRITERS who can listen to music when they write. They begin their days at the keyboard by cuing up 80s hair metal on their iTunes or spinning Bach concertos on the turntable near their desk. It doesn’t get in the way of their work. The music gets their juices flowing and, I assume, somehow informs what they do on the page.
But most writers will tell you the opposite: they need silence while writing. For most of us, music is out of the question, especially songs with vocals—we’re so focused on the gut-wrenching task of arranging our own words that we can’t abide word-competition from a singer on the stereo.
I’m somewhere in the middle, a silence-needing music lover.
I tried writing with earplugs once. The silence it produced was really loud, if that makes any sense. All I could hear was my heartbeat (and those unpleasant saliva sounds you never realize your mouth is making all the time). When I read my work out loud, my voice was the only voice on Earth, vibrating my skull. I was getting used to it, until one afternoon, when my girlfriend walked into the room to tell me something. She stood behind me for a moment, watching me read (loudly) to my ear-plugged self, not sure how to interrupt without startling me. Finally, sweetly, she tapped me on the shoulder. It scared the life out of me. I thought I was being murdered. I jumped out of my seat, screaming, and karate chopped her in the throat. At dinner that night, she swallowed her food painfully, and we agreed the earplug thing was done.
So, I tried writing to music. I selected albums that fit the vibe of whatever I was working on, hoping the sounds would float in the background, somewhat unnoticed. But I inevitably start singing along, not focusing on my own words. I turned down the volume to an almost inaudible level, but that didn’t help—it only made my ears search harder for the lyrics, the faint melodies and rhythms.
I’ve played guitar in a mediocre fashion since high school, and I grew up with a drum set in the garage, so I can’t listen to hardly any music without visualizing the drummer’s movements or wondering what the guitarist’s fingers are doing. It’s this way for all musicians, pros and amateurs. Once you learn an instrument, you can’t go back. You’ve seen the internal workings of the thing, and now your capacity for pure, naïve enjoyment of a song is spoiled.
But then a friend got me started on jazz. I don’t know those instruments, never held them with my own hands. He recommended a couple Bill Evans records. A few weeks later, it was Mingus and Dizzy. Then came Coltrane. I’m forever grateful. I play those records every day at my desk, and I’m able to work. I can listen to them and hear myself at the same time.
So much of it is foreign to me. Those rhythms and melodies—I feel them, know they’re working correctly, but I can’t point at them and name them. How does one go about writing this stuff? Others can map out the design, but I can’t even pretend. For me, it’s enough to know it’s deliberate, to feel its work working. To be moved.
So, why go on so much about jazz here? This issue of Iron Horse is supposed to be all about poetry, front to back. It’s because I don’t know how to talk about poetry. Poets scare me, and they’re the only people who’ll be reading this issue. But jazz and poetry hit me the same way. Reread the paragraph above this one. I’m talking about poetry there, not jazz.
On my desk, I keep just as many books of poems as I do prose. When I’m stuck, I reach for poems. It gets the juices flowing, makes my heart beat faster, strikes the middle point between silence and music. A lot of my favorite prose writers are poets; this does not surprise me.
I prefer short poems, no more than two pages, ones that get in and get out quickly, punch me in the throat, then throw me back to the keyboard. Just don’t tell me how they work. Don’t explain Nick Flynn or Tony Hoagland to me. Don’t dissect why I love Franz Wright. Let me stay naïve.
As I write this, I’m listening to Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley, and Miles Davis. Look at me, namedropping like I know something. But I don’t. In my headphones, men are blowing into curvy metal things. The piano player controls a hundred tiny hammers with his fingertips. The drummer’s playing stuff so crazy-different from anything I ever learned on my own kit. I can’t get my head around it.
And that’s why I love it.
THIS COLUMN ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN IRON HORSE