Music for Novel Writing: a NaNoWriMo Mixtape Special
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NaNoWriMo — Month of creative commitment-slash-torture! Month of antisocial weekends in stale-smelling, coffee stained pyjamas! Month of self-abnegation and self-praise! MONTH OF GENIUS! — is almost over. Here are some songs to get your blood/ink flowing, and your manuscript across the finish line.
Electric Literature + friends
Neil Young, “Old Man” — If I ever want to feel nostalgia for things I haven’t experienced, the frame of mind necessary for me to write, nothing gets me there faster than this song. Cinnamon girl for life.
A Tribe Called Quest, “Excursions” — His story makes me want to tell my own. If I have trouble telling my own, at least I can dance around to this song, pretending to be as cool as Q-Tip.
Flight of the Conchords, “Business Time” — I like to play this song when I’ve had a good writing day to support the feeling of accomplishment I get from getting the job done.
Santigold (feat. Karen O), “GO!” — When I get a fleet of rejections or a passive aggressive email, I play this to ward off the insecurity that is always there, threatening to throw all writers off their game.
Benjamin Samuel, co-editor of Electric Literature/Recommended Reading:
The Books, “The Lemon of Pink I” — There’s so much happening in this track, different sounds and a flurry of melodies crammed together to form one cohesive whole. That’s often what the process of writing is like: creating sense (and, if you’re good, beauty) from elements, ideas, and styles that might not otherwise encounter each other.
Wilco, “I am trying to break your heart” — Remember when you were going to write your title, and then realized that no title will ever be better than the title of this song? It’s sort of like when you were going to write this great novel, but then got scared because it’ll never be as good as Moby-Dick. But, then again, you don’t write just because you’re aspiring for greatness, right? You write because you have to. Because maybe you are better. You write because… Why aren’t you writing right now?
Colin Stetson, “Those Who Didn’t Run” — I tend to like wordless music when I’m writing, but really work best when the music is super receptive. A lot of minimalist stuff like Philip Glass and Steve Reich usually does the trick, but this track by Colin Stetson sounds like the inner workings of a machine powered by a saxophone. A nice combination of droning and funky.
Lichens cover of John Fahey’s “Escapisms in a Comedic Forum” — I listen to a lot of Fahey while I’m working, but the Lichens interpretation of this particular song is so warm and beautiful. Just about anything Lichens does tends to do the trick.
Mogwai, “Cody” — There’s singing in this one, but you can hardly hear it.
Paul Kelly, “From Little Things Big Things Grow” — From the first verse of this song (“Gather round people, let me tell you a story / An eight year long story of power and pride”), you know you’re in good hands. What unfolds over the next seven minutes is the complicated and inspiring history of the Indigenous Land Rights movement in Australia. But more broadly, it’s about the importance of tenacity and patience in Getting Things Done — probably the two most important qualities for any writer. (Says the procrastinating unpublished MFA.) If I could write a story half as satisfying as this song, I’d be very happy.
Philip Glass, “Opening” (from Glassworks) — This whole album makes me feel like I’m in a montage scene in the biopic of my life: me walking alone through British-y moors in a tweed coat; me typing frenziedly on a vintage typewriter (then immediately throwing the pages into a wastebasket — recycling be damned); me and a handsome bespectacled dude making love (that’s right, glasses on); me receiving the Booker in front of a rigorously applauding crowd. FIN.
Julia Jackson, Contributing Editor, The Outlet:
Ellie Goulding, “Anything Could Happen” — I have no idea what this song is about. I think maybe the fragility of life? Maybe? The lyrics are not very good. But it doesn’t matter because THIS SONG MAKES ME STUPIDLY HAPPY!!!!!! Which is important, because I suck at writing when I am depressed.
Brian Eno, “1/1” — One time I spent something like three days in front of the computer, just listening to Brian Eno’s ambient albums and not interacting with any humans. I think I may have possibly been a little insane by the end of it, but who really cares — I was writing. This is the longest song on Music for Airports, because I am a controlling dick. (It’s also a really nice song.)
Swans, “Mother of the World” — Sometimes I find it fully necessary to conjure up some demons while writing. This song helps me do that.
R.E.M., “Sad Professor” — I’ve been told that people who actually know things about music rank the 1998 album Up among the very worst albums ever made by R.E.M., but it is the only one I listen to from start-to-finish. I used to steal my college roommate’s copy and take it to work, where I listened to it for hours on a Discman whilst filing press-clippings. Maybe that addled my young brain, but I still love it and put it on while I write — especially “Sad Professor,” which begins with a caution I’d like to put in front of everything I’ve ever written: “Dear readers, I’m not sure where I’m headed / I’ve gotten lost before”
Paul Simon, “Graceland” — Recently I drove up to Vermont to see my oldest friend at his remote cabin in the woods. I’d been stuck on a story and hoping that the fresh air would unblock me a little, but nothing seemed to work. Then, on the morning I had to leave, I woke up to the sound of my friend and his father playing a honky-tonk version “Graceland” on keyboard and guitar. I’d never really listened to it before — vaguely aware it was somehow controversial… plus it sounded like a country song, which isn’t normally up my alley. But it dynamited whatever was blocking me, and they jammed out half the album while I sat scribbling. I borrowed his copy of the CD for the long drive home, and have been playing it ever since.
Young Jeezy, “Get Ya Mind Right” — NaNoWriMo is an an activity that requires dedicated time, daily routine, and constant motivation. So, it’s exactly like writing at any other point in time. Either way, I recommend turning to rap’s self-proclaimed motivational speaker (“I don’t do shows, I do seminars”), Young Jeezy. Jeezy’s soaring Southern beats and wheezy drawl inspire both through direct order (“Now I command you n***as to get money!” he chants on “Hypnotize”) and, in my pick, “Get Ya Mind Right,” through example. “What it do? What the business is? / Word on the street Jeezy known to handle his.” Yes, but are you known to handle yours?
Halimah Marcus, co-editor of Electric Literature/Recommended Reading:
The Walkmen, “The Love You Love” — Reasons this song will pump you up: 1) Lyrics that say “I want the fiction,” 2) A beat that’s great for amateur air drummers (me), 3) A “yell along” chorus (you don’t even have to know the words!)
Soltero, “Communist Love Song” — This song a includes what I think is a good rule to write by: “If you’re ever less than certain about the world, please don’t let the worry make its way into your work.”
Woods, “Impossible Skies” — A song of hope and possibility.
Brute Heart’s music has a distinct avant garde bent with a string-centric and percussive vitality that will drop you in the dark center of your creative subconscious (be warned). Plus, their primarily non-narrative vocals help keep your attentions tethered to your own fictional universe — particularly “Eclipse” and “Blindfolded”.
The New Pornographers, “These Are The Fables” — When I listen to this, I feel like I’m moving through a crowd, seeing stories float above us in hundreds of balloons. I wonder what the fables of my childhood street — Jefferson Avenue in Kalamazoo, Michigan — would have been. Would they have followed the man in the brick house who made model airplanes out of pop (yes, pop) cans? The giant loner who would shout at the boys on bikes? The crab apple tree at the top of the hill?
Shakira featuring Residente Calle 13, “Gordita” — This is my get-up-and-go song of choice. Can’t manage this sentence? paragraph? day? Then it’s time to sing along to the line, “Perverso como tener sexo en una funeraria.” Nothing like [hearing about] sex in a funeral home to make the world go round.
Ryan Chang, writer/Outlet blogger:
Morrissey, “Sing Your Life” — Despite the knowledge that “all of this will end,” Morrissey advises we should all be singing from the “wasteland of [our] heads.” Also a perfect mesh of two distinct Morrissey eras — Smiths-esque and rockabilly obsessed‚where he’s still wearing sheer black deep-Vs with cuffed 501s to troubling yet startling sartorial contrast, which only encourages me to get weirder with my wasteland.
Brian Eno, “1/1” — Parents have written to Eno telling him that Ambient #1 calmed their wailing, insomniac babies — this is less white noise than a blissed out wall of white. I think this is good for you writers who usually don’t like background noise but like to break rituals every now and then; get the whole record.
[Eds note: Special commendation to Brian Eno, the only artist to receive multiple nominations!]
John Proctor, writer and teacher of writing at Manhattanville College:
In terms of music I write to, anything without words will do (I only want my own in my head). To get me writing, the No Words Principle still applies but the music also has to have a satisfying progression I can only describe as “narrative,” telling some sort of story with the notes — plot, rising tension, climax, resolution — that gets me in the frame of mind to write my own narratives. “Seventeen Years” by Ratatat and “Sligo River Blues” by John Fahey are two very different examples of this type of musical narrative (or narrative music, if you prefer).
Helen Terndrup, reviews editor, The Outlet:
Future Islands, “Inch of Dust” — This song makes me think of heartbeats, shivers, slowly sweeping wings, and inevitability. The bassline is like a gently revving motor, the beat like measured footsteps — together, they make for one tantalizing build toward the climax. At three and a half minutes, the journey is short, but evocative. That’s what we’re after, right?
Beach House, “Wishes” — Some songs inspire you to sit down to write; others keep you going through a long session at the keyboard. For me, Beach House’s music does both. “Wishes” is one of my favorites. From the very first line — “The roses on the lawn, don’t know which side you’re on” — the song addresses the tension between the places we occupy and the emotions and loyalties that occupy us. The nostalgia here is shot through with a keen awareness of the fleeting present. For me, nothing else galvanizes the creative impulse quite so effectively.
Albert Ayler, “Angels” — This song is a mess. The piano is doing too much work, the saxophone can’t decide whether to sob or scream, and nobody seems interested in keeping a beat. It’s also exuberant and wild and hard-charging — encouragement to let go of everything and just play.
Rage Against the Machine, “Testify” — When The Battle of Los Angeles came out I downloaded it from Napster and stayed up late with headphones while my freshman year roommate tried to sleep in the adjacent bunk. I swear this is a soothing album if you play it softly. Tom Morello’s guitar effects feel unnaturally slow, and Zack de la Rocha’s voice sounds like distant tires crunching on gravel.
Tame Impala, “Elephant” — This is the song that is currently stuck in my head. It’s been stuck in my head for a week. I’ve been listening to it four or five times a day for the past week. But I can’t listen to it while actually writing. I can’t listen to any music with English vocals while actually writing. I can only listen to it while preparing to write. It gives me energy, I think. It makes me want to walk around in slow-motion.
Broken Social Scene, “Swimmers” — There’s something about this song that evokes a sense of nostalgia in me. It reminds of the past or something, a better version of the past, a lost youth or something. It makes me feel sad and happy at the same time, a little wistful. It makes me miss being 19. It’s a good one to listen to as I surf the Internet or read the news or whatever before I actually get started writing. I feel like maybe this song was used on an episode of Dawson’s Creek or something? I really like it.