Writing in Silence

I don’t think I know any two writers with the same process. I don’t know any two writers with the same process. Music is one of those areas where writers differ. Some can’t write without music and others need silence. For most of my life, I was firmly in the camp that could only write to music, but I’m jumping ship. One of the most important aspects of my process used to be finding the right soundtrack for the writing session. I’d thumb through my records trying to find just the right album or song that would give my muse steroids—as if finding the right song, the right background music would be the difference between a good and a great draft. Yet, I’ve found myself increasingly writing in silence because music for the following reasons has become a liability.

  1. Writing Disruptions
    Creativity is fickle, and recapturing a state of mind that was interrupted sometimes seems impossible. Listening to music while writing implicitly comes with the guarantee that at some point there will be some sort of disruption to the writing session. Personally, I’m a vinyl dork, which is as inconvenient as it gets. Every 18 minutes I flipped a record. Yet even a seemingly infinite iTunes or Spotify playlist on shuffle will eventually throw you a song that kills the vibe–a jump from the chilled out instrumental song your were enjoying to the Napalm Death album your old roommate made you download–and inevitably you will start skipping around trying to find a new song that recaptures what you just lost.
  2. Good Music isn’t Background Music
    Good songs are supposed to get stuck in your head. Great songs make you air guitar or head bang (hopefully both). The best songs send you down a rabbit hole of Wikipedia articles and Youtube clips until you emerge out the other end having listened to three side projects and have an online cart full of albums and t-shirts you can’t afford. Writing time is so hard to come by; I have enough distractions that try to take up that time and adding to that load isn’t something I’m interested in.
  3. Lyrics on the Page
    This might just be me, but lyrics seep into my writing through osmosis. My undergraduate workshops were plagued with comments about lines that conflicted tonally, and every time I traced it back to some song lyric. When I’m struggling to find the right word while pummeled with someone else’s words, I inevitably latch onto a word or a phrase because… well, it’s easy.
  4. The Music of Language
    I tend to write with an emphasis on sentence level rhythms regardless of genre. Of course the music of language is much more important within poetry, but I think fiction writers can learn a great deal from our poet friends by paying more attention during sentence construction. However, when listening to music, I intuitively shift from the music of the sentence to the music in my headphones. My rhythms flounder, my word sounds are smothered, and my word choice gets lazy.

Silence isn’t necessarily a wonder cure for writer’s block and doesn’t make it more likely to churn out a first draft that is submittable—silence is more subtle than that. But it’s in that silence, the lack of distractions and emphasis on focus, that my own words pile together and allow my favorite phrases to take grip.

Personal PicBrendan Stephens is a fiction candidate from Maryland. His works have appeared in the Little Patuxent Review, Clash by Night Anthology, and Backbone Mountain Review where he won the Prose of the Year Award. He owns over 800 records and used to be in a bunch of bands.

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