What is your favourite writing stimulus? Maybe you respond best to images: a real life scene of a busy street, or a nature panorama. Perhaps you’re tactile, finding a starting point birth from the sensation of crushing a dry leaf in your hand. Does an intriguing sentence fragment or combination of words have you running for your blank notebook? Or would an evocative scent open worlds for you? I’ve had great writing experiences from all of these. But of all stimuli I would have to say the most reactive for me is music.
When I taught creative writing to high school students I brought songs to play, both to set the overall theme, and to write to. I was hoping to challenge comfortable starting points. I was intrigued to see the violent responses many of the boys had to music that, while current, was not to their individual tastes. I suspected this was an anomaly, that these were identity-sensitive teenagers needing to assert themselves. Later I was surprised to find a similar revulsion response to music from many adults in writing groups.
It seems that music has a powerful ability to stimulate and stifle creativity. I wonder if this is because music is reaching deep into emotion centres, “pushing buttons.” And just because I’m contrary, this makes me think music can be a great resource. Imagine writing a villain to music that makes you want to scream. Or penning a death scene to some tragic classical score. Or reverse the expected soundtrack, and see what happens.
I’ve often found it most helpful to write to music that isn’t my own taste. Recently I wrote a story to xylophone music that automatically downloaded onto my Ipod from Itunes. I never would have listened to this music recreationally. No offense to the xylophone musicians of the world, but this music usually depresses me, or even makes me want to cut off my ears. However, one day I found myself having a couple of disconnected words I wanted to write from, but couldn’t seem to make a start. Suddenly xylophone bobbed up on my playlist. Sure enough, it was just right. One quirky and urbane tune initiated the whole process, mysteriously weaving threads I can’t begin to understand. What emerged from the odd mood was a living character in a world I could not have generated intentionally.
When writing, anything that takes us out of our comfortable, familiar worlds is an automatic win. The sense of discomfort, if you can get past it, seems to force a disjunction. Something interesting often comes out of it. So here is a stimulus idea. Go to Youtube. Search a random word combination, and “song,” or “band,” or “music.” And then write to whatever strange new thing you find. It might be some dude in his underpants, sitting on the edge of the bathtub while playing the ukelele. But hopefully not. Unless he’s the broken hero of your next novel.