Since my youth, and yes, I know that’s going back a bit, I’ve always preferred a bit of background noise when trying to concentrate. And when I say noise, I mean music.
Music has always helped my brain get, and remain, focussed on any task requiring the use of what passes for my intellect. I don’t always hear every note or lyric. Indeed a whole album can play out and all I’ve consciously heard is the first few bars of the first track. But just having it playing away in the background has maintained my concentration. I know if there’d been complete silence while I worked, my mind would have wandered.
When I was studying for exams, both as a high school pupil, and as a university student, my *portable record player would be belting out my latest *LP. By the time my final exams loomed, my *hi-fi-stereo-cassette player would be doing the job. It would play *compilation tapes consisting of favourite tracks from several LPs (or from Radio 1’s Sunday night Top Twenty in the *Hit Parade show) as I tried to commit to memory the names, facts and figures I’d be required to regurgitate in the exams. Thank you Beatles, Stones, Bowie, Pink Floyd, 10cc, Carole King, Janis Ian, Simon & Garfunkel – to name only a few.
And then, around twenty years after that, whilst studying for my Masters, it was my *CD-Walkman that provided the background music. Yes, it was mainly The Verve and The Lighthouse Family who got me through the writing of my thesis on Early Literacy and How Children Learn to Read.
*if the asterisked terms mean nothing to you, ask your parents or grandparents for an explanation. They refer to music related artefacts from the electronic Stone Age of the twentieth century, many years B.I.(Before Internet).
The present day
And nowadays, music still has an important role in getting me started and keeping me on task when at my writing desk. Now of course it’s played from the music folder on my PC. And I have playlists dedicated to my writing.
Unlike in the past when music aided my learning and studying, it now gets me in the writing zone and keeps me there––and it also inspires me.
For each of the three novels I’ve written to date and for the one I’m currently working on there’s a specific set of tunes.
So no matter how heavily procrastination, self-doubt, or lack of inspiration are weighing on me, just those first few notes of the first track of the relevant playlist gets me started. It transports me instantly into the atmosphere of the story or the head of a particular character. And although, just as it was when I was studying, I don’t consciously hear every note or track the music in the background keeps me in the writing zone. Indeed, at times when my concentration lapses and attention strays, it is focussing on the music that gets me back to composing those sentences. And even more than that it can be a part of a lyric or a musical theme that actually provides inspiration. For example it might clarify for me what motivates a particular character, or how they might be feeling. It might also help me set the tone or describe the mood or setting for a particular scene.
How I think it works for me
The background music isn’t acting like a tone poem or movie soundtrack in reverse; that is where the music is written in direct response to a story or a movie in order to enhance it or reinforce its depiction.
It’s not that I hear a character and their story in a song and then write a longer novel version about that character. And neither am I transcribing and interpreting an entire instrumental piece into a chapter or novel. (The copyright issues alone would put me off, quite apart from it being quite beyond me and it not being what I’m using the music for).
No, it’s more subtle than that – or maybe subtle isn’t the right word. It’s probably, at least partly, something as simple as a Pavlovian response. It’s about how the music makes me feel, it’s about the psychological effect, a sort of conditioning almost. So when I hear that song, I really can’t help but be transported right into the heart of the work-in-progress. And then maybe we’re into more subtle psychological territory with the background melodies, harmonies, cadences and rhythms keeping the brainwaves synced––or something–– and maintaining the concentration.
Do you find music helps or hinders you when you’re working?
My Musical Muses
Below I’ve included a few examples of the many tracks that have helped me to get my three novels written and to maintain progress on the new one.
Change of Life
My first novel had a fifteen track playlist and included:
In this post I’m interviewing writer, Andy Harrod. Andy can be found at http://decodingstatic.blogspot.com Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed, Andy. I’m sure people who read my review of your book, ‘Living Room Stories’ will be keen to know more about you.
Anne: When did you become a writer? And what drives you to keep writing?
Andy: I started writing after I fell in love with music. I was 17, Britpop reigned, and there in the songs, I heard myself. I saw many mirrors reflecting my experiences, feelings and thoughts. My first attempts at writing were lyrics about love. Lyrics and poetry remained my mode of writing for about five years, until I started journaling when I was intensely sad and fearful (depression). Journaling felt a need, an act of self medication which I am now reaping the benefits from. My journaling provided a base for writing fiction. A lot of my writing now has an element of the therapeutic to it.
It is only in the last few years that I have felt comfortable attaching the label of writer to my sense of self. Expression of feelings and thoughts is important to my sense of self and this is what drives my writing. I write because if I don’t, my head resounds with noise; I disconnect from the world. To write frees me.
Anne: Tell us about your blog. What sort of things do you post?
Andy:I refer to my blog, Decoding Static, in my email signature as home and it is that, it is a place for my expression. I began my blog when I started writing Deception, perhaps if I hadn’t it would be finished! But if it wasn’t for the blog I wouldn’t have met so many other writers and my blog and life would be a lot emptier. My blog has grown in many directions and encompasses my own work and others. I write music and book reviews and interview authors and bands; I enjoy sharing the music and books that speak to me. The writing I post is mainly snapshots of my fiction and posts about mental wellbeing. I also post art and photography, sometimes as a set of landscapes, but more often than not it accompanies my writing.
Anne: So, as you say, your writing is often accompanied by photography or other artwork. But why is that? Do the pictures come first?
Andy: The writing always precedes the art or photography, they are an extension of my writing. As I’ve said I got into writing via music and in an ideal world I would be in a band singing my lyrics and playing guitar. As it is my guitar collects dust, a mixture of time and low self belief. When I realised a band wouldn’t happen anytime soon, I started placing art or photography (my music) with my writing to enhance and extend the words. Much like how music and lyrics work together to speak to us and pull at our emotions.
Anne: How did ‘Living Room Stories’ come about?
Andy: The preceding summer had been a limbo for me, I had great plans for my writing especially tearing at thoughts and Deception, but found no flow, I just staggered and stalled. So on feeling this impulse to write, I ran with it and took a chance on myself. Living Room Stories is the essence of that limbo.
At the heart of Living Room Stories is music. Ólafur Arnalds’ released Living Room Songs, a song a day for seven days. For me Ólafur’s music is very emotive; there is a beautiful simplicity to it. His songs connect to my heart and on this occasion I decided to dive in, listening to each song for a few hours. As Fyrsta repeated, I pictured a couple. On watching the video Ólafur released alongside the song, I found my beginning, it was dark out, a yellow lamp reflected in the window, a window which dripped with rain and there she was, standing alone. I plugged into the sparse piano and sketched a moment of waiting. I re-read beginnings and felt my common themes of loneliness, troubled pasts and hurtful behaviour, but I also saw hope, for I saw her as part of that couple. Love is key to these stories. As such I wanted my next story (light) to be happy, however it depended on Ólafur’s music and luckily for me it worked out that way. On his next song (Near Light) his sister and mother played some synths, which I heard as applause; I proceeded to pour my hopes onto the paper and from then on I danced with the music and a life in seven moments was formed.
Anne: Music is clearly important to you – in your real life and in your writing life – are there any musicians who particularly inspire you to write – not necessarily in as direct a way as ‘Living Room Songs’?
Andy: Before Living Room Stories I had previously thought about writing to instrumental music, but Ólafur’s music was the first time I created the space to listen to an individual song on repeat for hours at a time, it also coincided with the need to release myself from my limbo of a summer.
Music is nearly always on in our home, it is a constant background to my writing and as such I don’t have particular musicians who inspire, but instead I use music to draw me into certain moods. With Deception I have found Wilco’s Spiders (kidsmoke) and Joy Division, especially She’s Lost Control, 24hours and Transmission to be especially good at plucking at my emotions and getting into particular characters’ frame of reference.
Anne: I said in the review of ‘Living Room Stories’ that you write with incredible brevity but also with amazing depth. How on earth do you do that?
Andy: First of all thank you. I have never stopped to think that is something I do – which is down to my saboteur, an internal critic, which keeps my self belief down, though it is losing a lot more battles of late. Thinking about it, it probably stems from writing lyrics and poetry and then developing a taste for fiction. When I wrote lyrics my words would tumble out in an abstract fashion; they created images that required interpretation. As such I spent time editing them as often the first words weren’t what I was looking forward but a way into the next layer which was what I was aiming for. My fiction now works in much the same way, though the more I write, the less intense the editing, as I am finding I am reaching the layers I aim for first time.
Anne: The concept of the handmade book, and the way you present the Living Room collection, is unusual. Why was it important to you to publish in this format?
Andy: I decided to publish Living Room Stories because I had a need to finish a project. It felt very important to do that. I looked into publishing it as a book via lulu, but it didn’t feel right. Then I found myself looking at my record collection and saw my 7inch singles and it fell into place. 7inch squares housed in a record sleeve. An ep in words.
I also like the idea that the cover art of a book or a record can be an extension of the words and music and then the book or record becomes more than it is. With Living Room Stories, each story is a memory, the individual sleeves encourage interaction with these memories, there is no set order, there was the blog order, and the handmade edition order, and there is the choice for the reader to develop their own order.
Anne: You’re working on a novel, ‘Deception’ – tell us a bit about it. Do you intend to publish it? If so when?
Andy: My start, stop novel! Deception is a novel about the struggle for the survival of the self. It centres around two main characters, 7892 and C6401, both of who represent aspects of me. Their respective endings reveal much of what I value and believe in and the importance of love to me. Deception is set in an unknown future, where the people live in Biomes, which hints at a certain level of damage to the earth, but also provides control for the Educators. The Educators are a group of people with set ideas and ways of living. They have created a two tier system comprising of their selves and the Workers, who have numbers for names; this is linked to ideas of the individual and a sense of self. Opposing the Educators is the Collective, a mix of Educators and Workers who vehemently dislike the Educators programmes and policy and wants change.
Deception begins in Biome 4, where 7892 slugs back another beer, while C6401 watches his reflection retreat. Alone in a society anaesthetised by work, possessions and a diet of chemicals they fizz with anger at the Educators and their programmes. Recruited by the Collective they release their desires for revenge and change. Tunnelling into the human psyche we learn that freedom comes at a cost, responsibility, and the frightening prospects if we shrug that individual responsibility.
I am planning to start Deception up again in early 2012, due to wanting to put together and release a collection of 9 years of writing, photography and art. I am hoping this will clear my head and free my mind to concentrate on Deception.
Anne: ‘Living Room Stories’ is available from your website for £5 as a limited handmade edition. Any plans to make it available in a more easily /widely distributed form?
Andy: Yes if there is interest and if any publishers are interested please get in touch! Seriously, if there is the interest I will consider a second run, though with a different cover, so to keep the first 25 copies as a limited edition, of which there are copies available!
Regarding a more widely distributed form, say via a publisher, I would still want Living Room Stories, to be released as it currently is. I think I could be a publisher’s nightmare in terms of how I would want my work presented. This is due to the presentation being very much part of the work and an idealistic streak in me where art is worth more than money. This reminds me of Spiritualized and the tale that when they released Ladies and Gentleman we are Floating in Space, for the limited edition version, all 12 songs came on individual 3inch cds in a blister pack. The cost of this meant they had to forfeit their advance.
Anne: Finally, what are your future writing plans?
Andy:tearing at thoughts, my collection of writing, art and photography from the last 9 years is my next planned released. It will contain work not previously shown on my blog or elsewhere and also essays on the writing. The writing will be grouped into themes, e.g., lost thoughts, black blues ep, a numb nothingness surrounds. It will be A5 in size, possibly landscape and bounded together with metal. Though I may have 2 editions, a limited hand made edition and then a paperback version. The version(s) will depend on the outcome of a battle between ideals and time!
Anne: I wish you well with it. It sounds like another innovative and original work of art is on its way. Good luck with it and all the best for the novel and Living Room Stories. Thanks again, Andy, for agreeing to do this interview.
And thank you Anne for the questions and the space to speak about my writing. It has been enjoyable and beneficial.