Writing, Music and the Places Where they Overlap

West_Seattle_Easy_Street_02So many things have me revisiting my musical past as of late. It’s really kind of odd how so many things converged at once. Sometimes I feel like, for whatever reason, I just really let music slip away for awhile, and over the last month, a switch has flipped and all of a sudden, I’m back.

I think I’m a little too embarrassed to admit one of the things that started all this. I’ll just say this: it was a TV show. And it wasn’t that I loved the music on the show so much as one of the characters reminded me of how I used to feel about music, and that got me listening to CDs again, and trying to rebuild my old music collection by buying a bunch of used CDs, and looking into concerts and shows again. Okay, I’ll give a hint, since it sort of relates to the remainder of the post, this TV show I don’t quite want to name is named after a song.

You know, though? I think what really kicked it off was AWP, when in the middle of a panel, while a writer was talking about how he looked at his work (which had something to do with baseball, can’t remember all the details now) to find the topics that come up over and over again, the things he can’t not write about, and uses that as a guide to what he really wants to say, that I had the epiphany that for me that was music. Some people have told me to take some of the music out of my manuscript–it can be alienating, I think, for those who aren’t into music, or the same kind of music–and I can see that point of view.

But that’s my thing, music, my life obsession that I write about all the time. Even nowadays, with more current writing, I’m always, always, always writing about music. I may do this long-form project about a horrible relationship I had, and even though it was awhile ago, the writing is really raw but it’s all about music. We met because of music (TOOL). Every moment, good or bad, somehow relates to music in some way. I even thought at one point about naming every section after girlie songs, which he’d probably hate. And my original title for the project (which I may or may not use) was that of a Joni Mitchell song.

Sometimes I think of my writing in terms of music. What do I mean by that? The project I’m currently revising and working on intensely, called Moonchild, well, each chapter starts with a song lyric quote. so for the table of contents, I listed the songs and now my table of contents that looks more like the track listing on an album. It’s all subject to change but for now, this is where it’s at:

“Ribbons Undone” – Tori Amos
“Until the Ocean…” – Malfunkshun
“Down in a Hole” – Alice in Chains
“Moonchild” – Chris Cornell
“Miss World” – Hole
“Paper Bag” – Fiona Apple
“Call Me a Dog” – Temple of the Dog
“Coming Down” – Eleven
“Zero Chance” – Soundgarden
“Moonchild” – Chris Cornell
“Moonchild” – Chris Cornell
“A Murder of One” – Counting Crows
“Jimmy” – Tool
“Unforgiving Hours” – Drain S.T.H.
“Colorblind” – Counting Crows
“I Wish I Was Here” – Dog’s Eye View
“Sunshower” – Chris Cornell
“Crazy Baby” – Joan Osborn
“Now Is Mine” – K’s Choice
“Prison Sex” – Tool
“Hallelujah” – Jeff Buckley
“Toast” – Tori Amos
“Rain King” – Counting Crows
“Moonchild” – Chris Cornell

Like a soundtrack. And the chapters that don’t make it into the final version? I think of them as B-sides. Maybe all the stories and early work I’ve posted here are my early demos, my version of “Fecal Matter” (Nirvana) or “Y Can’t Tori Read?” (Tori Amos). And all the things that have never made it, and probably never will, like the chapters of Summer of Dreams (discussed below) are the rare, unreleased demos. And the stories and chapters of Sugar Coma (discussed below) are the lost songs. That’s how I think of writing without meaning to, as music.

I was originally planning to go through and write a post to explain the lyrical heading for each chapter of Moonchild, but I only ever did the first chapter. I’ve been thinking a lot about going back and restarting that, especially as I’m revising the manuscript.

This whole thing about naming writing pieces after songs is not new. In fact, I think the first time I ever thought of doing something like that was when I was in ninth grade. I was working on this story. I honestly don’t remember much of the details of the story, except that it was a love story and I was going to name it Sugar Coma after a song on Hole Unplugged and it was going to explore the illusions of love. I’m not really sure where I came up with that or what I thought I knew about love based on, you know, infatuations with dead rock stars, unrequited crushes, playing rollerblade hockey with my hot neighbor in seventh grade and kissing boys at summer camp. I mean, seriously! But, I had this detailed story idea, and it would end up with a happy ending, but not until the two characters broke out of the “sugar coma” of new love. Literally, I had the whole story arc completely planned out. Wish I could remember all the details.

I named the characters Violet and Chris, and I don’t remember much else other than that all the important turning points in their relationship were going to revolve around music. In fact, I remember knowing two songs would factor in prominently and having it really sketched out, which chapters these would happen in, how it would change the story, and so on. I don’t remember what the song at the end was, but somewhere in the middle, I was going to put “Always” by Bon Jovi. LMAO, well, it was 1995 in New Jersey, so, yeah. And much as I was a teenage cynic about love, I was at the same time, a sucker for epic songs about undying love. Go figure.

I only actually wrote about three chapters and they’re probably in some box in my parents’ place. If I’m lucky. They may just be nowhere. Oh and I remember I set it in the fictional town of Alexandria, MA (why, I have no idea) and while working on this book, somehow heard of the town in VA of the same name. I remember worrying if it was okay to use a real town name in a false state in my story.

Later, in high school, I wanted to write about this one dramatic summer and early fall, and I imagined it in book form, called Summer of Dreams with each chapter covering a week or so. Like with Sugar Coma, this project also ended up with about three finished chapters, which I have (and kinda wish I didn’t, they’re pretty horrible), and worked out extensive outlines. And, every chapter was going to be named after a song. There was even some lyrics I was going to use from songs I didn’t like, I think it was something from “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind or something like that that I didn’t really like but the words still fit the feeling. BTW, I recently learned that that song is about a couple on a meth binge.

Holy shit! I didn’t think I still had that table of contents (a lot of my old files were .cwk files which used to be hard to convert, but I actually was able to find this one, and convert it almost effortlessly into a readable format). Now, this is a trip!

The file just has the lyrics, so I’m filling in the artist and song. Probably a similar case with the Sugar Ray song as with Third Eye Blind, wasn’t crazy about them either, but for whatever reason, it fit. I can only vaguely remember what these were actually supposed to be about. I’m skimming through the outline and honestly, most of it is nonsense to me. Not surprisingly, there are lots of notes about buying CDs and listening to music. Anyway, here was my list of tentative chapter titles:

Week #       Title (Lyric)

Prologue       You can never ever leave without leaving a piece of youth (Smashing Pumpkins – “Tonight, Tonight”)
1.                One who doesn’t care is one who shouldn’t be (Alice in Chains – “Dirt”)
2.                Sleep delays my life. . . dreams they complicate my life (R.E.M. – “Get Up”)
3.                If only I could be as cool as you (Silverchair – “Freak”)
4.                I want something else to get me through this semi-charmed
kind of life (Third Eye Blind – “Semi-Charmed Life”)
5.                Put your arms around me baby (Sugar Ray – “Fly”)
6.                I live in a Cemetery (Silverchair – “Cemetery”)
7.                One more thing, before we go (Local H – “Fritz’s Corner”)
8.                Violet with the Ultraviolet (311 – Ultraviolet)
9.                You think you know where I’m coming from (Local H – “Fritz’s Corner”)
10.              Sand Rains down and here I sit, holding rare flowers in a tomb (Alice in Chains – “Down in a Hole”)
11.              Just want to start this over (Tool – “Sober”)
12.              Into this sea of waking dreams, I follow without pride (Sarah McLachlan – “Possession”)
13.              I know that pain, and I won’t run away, like I used to do (Alice in Chains – “Brother”)
14.              I can’t forget you, but I can’t remember (Live – “Turn My Head”)
15.              I do not mind if all I am is just a friend to you (Green Day – “Paper Lanterns”)
16.              I take all the blame. Aqua seafoam shame (Nirvana – “All Apologies”)
17.              You’re happy ‘cause you smile, but how much can you fake? (Our Lady Peace – “Superman’s Dead”)

 

And even now, I’m still doing the lyrical thing. “Lights in the Distance,” that piece that’s being considered at Creative Nonfiction has 13 sections and one’s named after an album, two are named after song titles and four are named after lyrics. And, separate from the section titles, in the actual text there’s talk of a poster of Layne Staley from Alice in Chains, listening to From the Choirgirl Hotel by Tori Amos, writing lyrics to a few songs into a scrapbook, exchanging CDs and mixtapes, and so on. Even with a piece that at the outset, isn’t about music at all, there’s music all over it.

Another recent(ish) piece is named after a Jeff Buckley lyric from “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.” My essay about organic chemistry, which again would seem to have nothing to do with music and isn’t named after any song or lyric, does feature discussions of “This is War” by Ingrid Michaelson and “Red, Red, Red” by Fiona Apple.

I’ve mentioned a few times that I’m working on a totally fucking weird hybrid piece that’s part fiction and non-fiction and has alternating points of view. Well, there are TONS of mentions of music all over it. It’s divided into seven sections, and I think one of them is going to be fully focused on discussing songs and memories. And the seven sections? Of course they’re named after songs. The whole thing might be too. And for some reason I feel very compelled to have the song “Somebody That I Used to Know” play a prominent role in the story. Oh yeah, and since it has seven sections and would be (hopefully) a lot, lot, lot shorter than a full-length book manuscript, you’d think I’d think of it like a novella, right? But to me, it’s an EP. That’s always how I’ve conceived it in my head.

So, I guess I’ve decided not to fight it. Music is what I’m drawn to in writing. And if it turns some people off to my work? I think I’ll live. Deciding to go with it might mean making sure to provide context, to deeply explore why it’s there and what it means. Whatever I need to do to make the music in the manuscript really work, and matter, I’ll do it. Because it does matter.

It’s just a little interesting, all this timing. I shuffled the order of Moonchild a bit, and I’m going through them in the new order, and I’m up to this chapter, which is mostly about being fourteen and all about music. It got me reliving my old music days, pulling out memorabilia and such that I forgot I had, but that’s a topic for another day.

For today, I’ll give you the version of “Somebody That I Used to Know” that I lovelovelove and have been playing to death for almost six months now.

If there’s a point to this whole post, it’s that if you’re writing, or painting or making music or pursuing science or whatever it is you’re doing creatively, if there’s a topic that speaks to you, that you come back to over and over and over and over, ride that wave. It can be baseball for some. For me, it’s music. Don’t fight who you are, you know?

Rock on.

~EJ

P.S. And now for an overdose of adorable:

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