Can Books Be Like Music?
This time of year in Santa Fe, we can get gorgeously warm days. On Tuesday we ate lunch on the patio in shirtsleeves and the kitties stalked the restless gophers. Good times were had by all. Of course, today it’s cold, stormy and overcast, but I’m ensconced in my cozy chair with a teapot on the warmer and life is still good.
A funny thing – I use Tweetdeck to sort my Twitter feeds, to help manage the flow of information. I also have columns devote to searches for mentions of my name or of my book titles, so I can see when people are talking about them. A couple of my titles overlap with album titles – particularly THE TALON OF THE HAWK and COVENANT OF THORNS. I think this is kind of cool, that I title musically, in a way.
The upshot is I see conversations – and fan enthusing – about these, especially Talon of the Hawk by The Front Bottoms. I’d never heard of this band, but I impulsively bought the album so I could listen, since we have this serendipitous artistic overlap. I like it. And wow – do other people love, love, love this album! People tweet about it all the time, say how he listened to it over and over, sang all the song with her sister on a road trip and expressing all the love. They discuss how awesome this album is. And tons of them want to get tattoos of the knife on the album cover.
It just makes me think.
Readers do this to an extent, but not nearly so many and not to the same extreme. I think there are a few reasons for this. A lot more people listen to music than read books. In 2013, 76% of American adults had read at least one book during the year and the typical American reads five books a year. Compare that to the stat that the average American listens to four hours of music a DAY. An enormous difference, huh?
Also music is social in a way that books tend not to be. Listening to music can be a gregarious event, from singing while road-tripping with your sister to attending a massive stadium rock concert. Books, even if we discuss them at length, tend to be a fairly solitary experience with a huge internal involvement.
I clipped this quote from Kurt Cobain once, which I have not been able to find. It’s probably floating aimlessly around in some forsaken file folder. At any rate, it’s amazing because he’s talking to an author about how he imagines readings are like rock concerts, with screaming fans and a mosh pit. It’s kind of adorable, how mistaken he is – and also enlightening. I read it and thought, why CAN’T it be like that? Wouldn’t it be great if it was?
I dunno – maybe I’m dreaming. What do you guys think?
Playlists – Does Anyone *Really* Care?
I’m over at Word Whores this very rainy Sunday morning, talking about writing playlists…and wondering if anyone cares.
Jeffe – The Soundtrack
It’s Sunday, so I’m over at Word Whores today, spinning some discs and talking writing soundtracks.
Got It for a Song
I did lower body weights at the gym this morning.
Usually when I weight-lift, I don’t listen to music. The treadmill absolutely requires my aerobic track to keep me distracted. For weight-lifting, though, I’m counting and not fighting the certain despair that I’ll never catch my breath again.
Today though, Air Force Guy had the TV up really loud with awful news about Libya. Since I have a strict policy about not depressing myself with news about events I can’t affect, I jumped up from the adductor machine and grabbed the headphones.
Since I was mid-count, rather than searching out my weights playlist (why do I have one if I never use it? Hmm) I just clicked play. This one song that my long-time friend, Kev, sent me came on.
Because I could, I played that one song over and over. I love to do this. I can listen to the same song probably 50 times in a row. Something, I’ve discovered, the people around me don’t enjoy so much.
Its an emotional song that strikes me on many levels. As some songs do, this one makes me want to write a story about it. I’ve never actually written a story from a song, but I think I might this time. As I kept clicking the back button to hear it just one more time (there’s a way to put it on repeat, right? one day I should learn to maximize my iPod use), the story played out in my head, snippets of conversation. I could see the opening line, the penultimate scene.
It could be a great book.
Yesterday, I worked on two projects. If you follow this blog, you’ll know I’ve been musing over whether I can move two writing projects forward at the same time. I’m a monogamous gal by nature, mainly because I’m simply not inclined to cheat. The thing I’m in love with is fine by me. It occurs to me now that this is the same aspect of my character that likes to listen to the same song over and over and over. Apple pie for the rest of my life? Sure! Still, with writing, I’d like to get more going.
So, yesterday, I clocked off the Internet for my usual two hours. (Yes, I’m weak and cannot stop myself from clicking if it’s there to be clicked.) I wrote my 1K on the new novel, The Middle Princess. For the remaining 45 minutes, I worked on Sapphire revisions, from the editorial notes that came in this weekend.
And it worked!
Normally I’m not allowed to deviate from a current project, but since that experiment worked, I might try writing up a little of this morning’s story – just enough to keep it alive and kicking.
More than a Feeling
David loves Pandora. You know, it’s internet “radio.” You plug in a song or a favorite band and Pandora creates a “station” for you of similar music. He hooks his laptop up to the stereo and listens for hours that way.
Yesterday, Boston’s More than a Feeling came on and, like music can, it took me back.
No, I’m not old enough for that song to have been a current, hot hit for me. I was ten when the album was released. I don’t know that I had ever heard of Boston or that song – what got me was the cover. Somewhere around the time I was 13 or 14, I found that record at a garage sale for something like 50 cents. Heavy into sci fi at the time – which had the additional bonus of often including quite steamy sex not discernible from the appearance of the books – I bought the record for the spaceships.
When I played it, though, the opening chords of More than a Feeling sucked me right in.
Something about it transported me, gave me that more-than-a-feeling feeling. It’s added layers now that the lyrics say “when I hear that old song play.”
Around that time I joined the Multi-cultural Club. Oh yeah, possibly the geekiest club in school. It was like I couldn’t help myself – I irresistibly drawn to those social groups who doomed your chances of ever being cool if you went to even one meeting.
Of course, I didn’t think that way.
At any rate, we wanted to do a fundraiser and it was to be a fashion show. I don’t know why. I think to showcase the different national costumes or some such. The club sponsor was a young woman. Early 20s, I realize now. And she was of some kind of Latino or Hispanic extraction. Maybe South American? I didn’t really register it then, but she spoke with a heavy accent and was shy. I said we needed music and she said okay, I was in charge of music.
We did this during lunch, to maximize the audience. How this was a fundraiser, I have no idea.
As we gathered together, this gaggle of geeks, with our various outfits to change into, I eyed the busy lunchroom with trepidation.
This was a really bad idea.
Nobody is cruel like high-schoolers trying to each lunch. Even in my hopeful naivete, I knew this. But we were committed. Our club sponsor happily started the record and I readied myself to step out onto the platform catwalk we’d set up around the room.
Those sweet opening chords filled the room, propelled me forward. I became that girl walking away. Not a geek, but a model on the catwalk.
It was spectacular. They even applauded.
More than a feeling, indeed.
Cracks in the Glass
I have this tendency to drop my right shoulder.
It’s the scoliosus, I suspect. I was diagnosed with the sideways spinal curve when I was 12. Girls develop it then quite a bit, I understand, a result of the emotional and phsyical spurts of adolescence. I am now the height I was at 12 and managed to avoid the back surgery by doing a lot of exercises and wearing a Milwaukee brace (think Judy Blume’s Deenie). My back is pretty good now, which I attribute mainly to years of Tai Chi. But I still tend to drop my right shoulder, so many of my photographs come out with a slight downward slide. I often correct them, to make the horizon level. I nearly did on this one, but decided to leave it. A stamp of who I am, flaws and all, in this photograph.
We watched The Soloist last night. At one point, Nathaniel Ayers, a mentally ill musician who bombed out of Juliard and now wanders the streets of Los Angeles with a shopping cart of precious garbage, asks the reporter, Steve Lopez, who champions him if he sees writers. Nathaniel sees Beethoven and Mozart hovering in the air, embodying the music that drives him. Steve says that he writes for a living, so it’s not like that.
I really wonder if it ever is for writers.
Where are the Shine, August Rush and The Soloist movies about writers? Are we just not crazy interesting enough?
I’ve written about this before. The difference between being an artist like a musician and being a writer. With music, there’s a vast learning curve involved in being able to read, play and eventually create music. With writing, we all learn to create a sentence in school. After that, anyone can write and it becomes a matter of opinion, to some extent, whether or not you’re good enough. I suppose that can be also true for the garage-band approach to music. Strum a few chords and see if anyone will pay to listen.
Maybe this is the same for all artists: it’s so hard to know when you’ve done enough.
I’m in the midst of this ruthless revision of my novel (which I’m sure you’re all sick of hearing about). I revised the first third, and a bit more, according to some detailed notes from an agent. Then I moved, which vaporized everything in my life not involved with moving for nearly two months. Coming back to the book, I ended up revising the beginning twice more.
I can’t seem to stop.
And yet, each time I feel closer. I feel like I’m weaving in the things I need to have there.
I told Allison that I wanted this book to be brilliant. And she didn’t laugh at me, which I appreciated. Though I suspect this may be a character flaw in myself. Another agent told me the book was a page-turner and exactly what she was looking for, but that she wasn’t quite obsessed with it, as she needed to be.
I want my readers to be obsessed.
Maybe I don’t see Jane Austen and William Shakespeare floating in the air, but I have shaken books by Ann Patchett, A.S. Byatt and Jacqueline Carey in my hands and shrieked “I want this to be MY book!”
See? We writers can make for crazy drama too.
It’s just that the soundtracks aren’t nearly so compelling.
I’ve come to think that people who get excited about having perfect pitch are assholes.
Is that too strong?
I mean all my life I’ve been hearing about perfect pitch and how those who have it are these kind of fragile nobility, both blessed with this extra faculty, but also cursed to suffer in a world of cacophony. That’s the obnoxious part. Clearly I have issues with my lack of inherent musical talent, but I don’t feel like I bear a grudge towards those who have it. Most of the time I feel grateful that they’re out there, making music for me to listen to. And to sing along with. Remorselessly off key.
But the whole perfect pitch thing seems extraneous to that.
I spent some time in my life working on auditory neurophysiology, so I know something about sound and how the brain processes it. And there are interesting studies on what is now called absolute pitch. (See? Someone besides me got annoyed with the “perfect” judgement.) The most interesting aspects of absolute pitch are that people either have it or do NOT have it — there’s very little middle ground. The graph to the right is from the study linked to above. The authors of this study indicate that the probability of scoring above the vertical line by chance alone is about one in a trillion. The middle-ground folks, they theorize, are well-trained and have taught themselves to identify tones. If you’re interested, you can take the survey and test on their site. My pure tone score? 4.5. Right in the upper left corner of that box down in the “don’t have it” end of the graph. Interestingly, my piano tone score was 10, which means my harp teacher managed to teach me something.
The reasearchers say there’s genetic predisposition — if it runs in your family, you’re likely to have it. There’s also the learning aspect. If you started music lessons by the age of seven, you’re also more likely to have it. And if you have siblings who were taking lessons while you were growing up, you’re even more likely to develop absolute pitch.
A lot of fantasy/magic stories like to tie perfect pitch to magical ability, as if there’s a certain keenness to their minds the rest of us lack. And people like to tie high IQ to absolute pitch. To me though, this is like tying IQ to spelling ability.
I’m a compulsive proofreader. I can’t help it. Misspelled words stand out on the page to me like they’re in bold type. Obviously a lot of this is learned, but I’ve also felt like this is an inherent ability. Kev commented on my words & music post the other day, saying that, as a programmer, he literally can’t read content until he’s first scanned for syntax errors. I also heard of an editor so accustomed to proofing on-screen that, when she first started reading on the Kindle, she found herself compulsively proof-reading.
The thing is, I can’t imagine the book where magic is tied to proof-reading and spelling ability. It’s frankly just not romantic enough. Though I suspect much the same mechanism is involved. Penelope Trunk at Brazen Careerist likes to rant about the tyranny of the proofing-nuts. She even hints that perfect spellers have borderline Asperger’s syndrome and cites a documentary about it. (Interestingly, the absolute pitch survey also asks about family history of Asperger’s syndrome and autism, so maybe there are links.) Certainly no one is going to go around talking about being a tormented soul, bombarded by typos in a perfect world.
Though I sometimes contemplate volunteering to edit the menu at our local Chinese place. So far I’ve resisted. Can’t figure out a way to offer without sounding like an asshole.
Seems like a good behavioral guideline to me.
Do You Hear What I Hear?
So, David made a good point this weekend.
Which he often does, being an insightful guy. I told him about my post on Saturday and how I’m thinking I might just give up on trying to have music, too. After all, I said to him, I have words and I can draw, paint and sculpt passably. I can quilt and “have an eye for color,” our real estate agent says. I have so many venues to express myself creatively, maybe I can just give music a pass.
But you already have music, he told me. Which surprised me.
You sing around the house all the time, he said. I hear you singing. You already have music.
And I realized he’s right. I have music running through my head all the time. Sometimes I sing along. Just because I don’t sing well enough for anyone to want to listen or because I don’t play an instrument (I’m just NOT counting the harp playing) doesn’t mean that music isn’t there for me. I’ve been so fixed on the idea that I needed to be able to play music, that I missed what I really love about music in the first place:
I love that space where words and music intersect. It’s fascinating to me how, when words are sung, they’re intensified by the melodies and harmonies behind them. What I would love to do is write lyrics. I wonder how one gets into that if one isn’t, say cleaning house for an aging former-80s pop icon? When I was having dinner before seeing Legally Blonde on Broadway, the guy at the table next to me turned out to be a lyricist. He was having dinner with the gal who composed the music (who’d run off to take a phone call). She’d found him, it turned out. Just like it happened for Drew Barrymore.
Where is Hugh Grant when I need him?
Words and Music By…
My friend, Linda Ceriello, asked me interesting questions about writers and creativity the other day. She’s one of my oldest friends, dating back to third grade, though we suffered a vast chasm of difference starting with seventh-grade angst that lasted twenty years. It’s funny that we were really only friends for four years, which should be negligible in the grand scheme. But the friendship was an intense meeting of like minds then and I find I enjoy the same things about her now.
I’ve been mulling her ideas since — whether writers like to analyze their artistic process so much because words are our medium. As opposed to, say, painters. She elected to leave musicians out of the equation, as a whole other kettle of fish, and I can appreciate her point. I’ve long been interested that authors will frequently choose painters as protagonists in books, usually in a transparent metaphor for the writer herself. There’s a certain two-sides-of-the-same coin aspect to writing and painting. Whereas musicians feel to me like the writer’s antipode. They seem to understand a world that has no words. Even though lyrics can be part of a song, the music part is this whole other aspect that, while it speaks to me, is also impenetrable to me.
David and I have this long-standing conversation that revolves around his hearing the music and me hearing the lyrics. The new Nickelback song, about the girl on the dance floor being so much cuter with something in her mouth, I don’t like so much. It irritates me, that whole attitude that a woman is most attractive with a piece of anatomy shoved in her mouth — and we all know it’s not the thumb. David, who used to play lead guitar in a band, likes the song, but didn’t know what it was about until I told him. And he still doesn’t care — and, no guys, not because he agrees with the sentiment — but because that’s not a relevant part of the song to him. Conversely, he gets frustrated with me when I can’t tell that a song is using the same melody played at a different rythm. I just can’t hear it, I tell him.
I have an Irish harp and I’ve been taking lessons for several years now. I did this deliberately, to learn to understand music. I have this idea that I can get to the point where I look at a sheet of music and all the notes will mean something to me in the same way words do. It’s hard for me, to both read the sheet music and watch my finger placement on the strings. I frequently lose my place on the page — something that has never happened to me at a reading. The words are there for me in a way the music isn’t. People think I’m being modest when I tell them I don’t play the harp well at all. Believe me, I don’t.
Frankly, I doubt I ever will.
A writing friend told me yesterday that she believes anyone can be a writer. That with enough study and dedication, everyone can learn to write a book. She’s also big on learning the rules of genre fiction and gave me critique on my novel based on how many words I have on a given page. And I don’t think she’s wrong. I think it’s probably good advice. But when she describes longer paragraphs as daunting mountains for a reader, it makes me think that I don’t see words on the page in the same way.
I don’t see paragraphs and lines of words, I see the images they evoke, the sounds and smells of the story. But then, I don’t hear the music when I look at a sheet of music.
I’ve often said that writing is a funny art to practice because pretty much anyone can write something down. I suppose anyone can plunk on a guitar or scribble a drawing. But in some indefinable way, it’s harder to discern when the writing achieves something more than stick figures and chopsticks. So, Linda, maybe that’s why writers spend so much time talking and writing about creativity and process. We’re trying to find how to define our art.
I feel certain (no qualifier) it’s not by the number of words on a page.