Whistle while you work: Thoughts on music and writing

People, and writers especially, tend to have quirks. Some of us find it hard to work unless the conditions are just right. When it comes to writing, sometimes extra attention paid to little details in our environment can make the process a little easier. It might seem bizarre to somebody who hasn’t spent their time authoring a story or poem, or even a song, that sometimes a room can be too quiet to work in.

For me, listening to music doesn’t seem to help all that much. I’m too easily distracted, and perhaps that comes from being a musician myself. I can’t help but be drawn in by lyrics and my own thoughts get put on pause. Instrumental music is better – acoustic arrangements, classical or jazz guitar for me – but it still tends to draw me out of the creative process, rather than ease me into it.

What I have found to be helpful – especially for longer projects – is noise. Not radio, not music, but straight-up background noise. People talking. Wind. Rain. Cars driving. Crowds. Busy places. It’s something about being alone in a coffee house, park, or library that I really find inspiring. It can also be distracting, but in an entirely different way. Sometimes I catch snippets of people’s conversations, or even them talking to themselves. Other times the smells of food or dusty books or a warm breeze will put me in the scene I’m writing. There’s something about the noise in those places that helps me to concentrate, even though I feel like it should have opposite effect. If I can’t put myself in those situations physically, I’ll load up a Youtube video of ambient noise that varies depending on the mood I’m in or the piece I’m writing. Anything to break the silence and put me in that environment.

For me, it’s the music of everyday life that helps the most. Being around people while still being in my own little world. Maybe it’s simply that sitting with a laptop in a library or cafe makes me want to look busy, and if that truly is the case – what the hell? It’s working.


Tim Winton’s “Dirt Music” (a review)

71quu9mnv5lI’m a lover of many things, but music is special.

Music is immediate. Direct. It doesn’t take study to feel music. There is something instinctive about the rhythms and melodies that, even if you can’t sing it, you get it, somehow. That’s what reading Tim Winton’s “Dirt Music” is like.

The story follows Georgie (a former nurse living with her tough guy fisherman boyfriend and his sons) and Lu (a silent musician making a simple living poaching) in Western Australia. The two have a chance meeting and, of course, become involved.

Except it’s not that simple. When I tell people about the novel and they ask “what genre is it?” I always struggle. In its most basic form “Dirt Music” is a love story, but it’s unique because for the majority of the story, Georgie and Lu aren’t even in touch. Instead, we are faced with the personal journeys of each character, and how love and connection with each other changes them in different ways.

The way this book is written is just as important as what is written. Chapters trade off between Georgie and Lu, ranging from weeks worth of time to sparse pages that capture, beautifully, a single moment in shocking detail. Opposing tenses launch us immediately into the mindset of each character, with Georgie’s chapters in past tense and Lu’s in present. It works so well that, on my first read, I didn’t even notice until about a third of the way through.

There’s a real sense of space in “Dirt Music” that permeates both the story and the writing style. We cover hundreds of kilometers, passing through country that is so open it makes you feel small. Brief chapters and short, realistic dialogue result in white space that sometimes engulfs the written word. Like the moments of silence between beats in a song. There’s quite a lot of emptiness in these pages, and that emptiness is important. Like the land, it divides and makes the scope of the novel’s setting all the more real.

And the prose is wonderful. Stark impressions of the landscape. Sensations that thrill and frighten and disturb. At times the writing becomes almost surreal, forgoing concrete reality for something more poetic, more musical. Winton uses the sounds and shapes of words to convey what’s happening and, like all great music, you just get it.

Love. Death. Music. It’s all there, and it’s worth a read. Cheers.