Here’s yet another writer who writes with the accompaniment of background music.

I can’t do it.  Music–any music–is too distracting.  My brain tries to process it, when what I want is the enjoyment of working with words on the screen.  I do listen to music, of course.  I have a large collection of music videos I’ve downloaded that span the decades from the 1940s to the present day, and I steal a few minutes from work when I need to hear the song in my head (which reminds me, I have to listen to John Gary a little this afternoon), but I never listen to music when I’m writing.  Concentration is everything.

Do musicians listen to music when they’re composing?  I don’t know, but I tend to doubt it.  The miracle of composition is like every other miracle on the planet:  it’s sui generis.  None is exactly like any other, even when the composer is deliberately taking elements he knows already exist in a prior piece of music.  Even takes of the same composition in the studio will be different.  I once owned a take of Jay and the Americanssixties tear-jerker, “She Cried,” wherein one could hear the producer and the musicians talking to each other the instant before they actually began a brilliant performance of the song.  Somehow, I lost that version of the song, and have never been able to find it again, no matter how many versions of the song I listen to.

Concentration, as I say, is everything in art and performance; yet the best kind of concentration is relaxed, almost effortless focus.  Athletes have for generations called it being “in the zone,” a state wherein he or she isn’t even aware of what he is doing.  Everything proceeds by exquisite muscle memory, training, and even instinct.  It is said by those who favor it that music fosters the creative process, but it must also be equally true that writers who are writing well on a particular day are not even aware of the music around them, be it a tune or background noise, unless it be that splendid, soundless wave in our heads that allows us to express exactly what we sense about the music of the world.


2 thoughts on “Composure

  1. I am fascinated by the creative process, and how it varies from person to person… I’m in your camp, John; I don’t want anything in the background (or foreground) when I’m writing; I need quiet, space, and at least a tiny, wriggling inspiration… But I know people who write beautifully and who claim they must have music or television or the hum of conversation at a coffee shop to help them focus. (Could you write in a busy coffee shop? I, for sure, could not.)

    I’ve been working with a leadership program that has its participants take workplace leadership profiles; they are slotted into four categories and receive a long explanation of what their designation means. It sounds simplistic, but the results have held very true. And it makes me think that there have to be different styles of everything–work styles, personal interaction styles, and certainly creativity!

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post, John—

  2. Pam, I’ve tried both writing and reading in a coffee shop, and I can’t do either. The places I frequented were far more interested in customer turnover than they were in helping a fledgling writer. In Europe, many cafes used to make a place for the writers they knew well.

    That said, you are correct. There are dozens of ways to complete many tasks. (All of us keep trying to tell my father that, without success.) I am a fan of whatever helps a writer be productive and excellent. (Whatever you’re doing, by the way, keep doing it. You’ve had an excellent run of posts for quite a while, now.)

    My guess would be that most writers since the nineteenth century have needed a quiet space within which to compose. It may be that, since about 1995, a new generation of writers has arisen that is more accustomed to background noise than we are and can either filter it out or actually use it in their work. A lot of writers, though–even the cafe ones–simply have to get away from their e-mails before they can write.

    Some posts–like the one above–I can create amid the background noise of a conversation. Other posts–like “Confessional For A Poet,” back on April 13–demand quiet, and the relaxed concentration I have spoken of. Some tossed off posts inspire great reactions; others, upon which I have labored mightily, will provoke nary a stir. I don’t know why that is; no writer does. (“Confessional,” which was a personal post in many ways, *was* well-received, so I’m happy about it.) The same thing happened with my baseball posts. ‘Tis a mystery, but I’m content to let it remain so.

    Thanks for reading and and commenting! Take good care.

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