21 Apr

Mood Music

Posted in Creativity, DIY MFA, Music, Writing

This past week we’ve discussed how to set the mood for writing through reading, collage, color theory and writing rituals.  Today I want to talk about music.

I’ve played the violin on and off since I was four years old, and music has been a central part of my life for even longer than that.  I love music that tells a story.  Here’s a list of the essentials in my music library.

  • The Four Seasons by Vivaldi.
    This classic piece of music sets the tone for each of the four seasons.  For a different take on this piece, check out the recording by Il Giardino Armonico, where the orchestra plays entirely on period instruments but give the piece a contemporary, edgy feel. 
  • The Planets by Holst.
    In this piece, each movement represents one of the planets.  The music captures the personality and sets the mood for each planet.  
  • Such Sweet Thunder by Duke Ellington.
    This jazz suite is based on various plays by William Shakespeare.  Each track represents one play or one set of characters from Shakespeare’s plays.  My favorite is “Up and Down” where the different pairs of instruments are supposed to depict the different couple pairings in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
  • Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” by Beethoven
    In my opinion the most beautiful piece of music ever written, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony captures the mood of a day in the countryside, complete with waterfalls and streams, a country village and a thunderstorm.
  •  Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens
    A great piece–especially for introducing newcomers to classical music–the Carnival of the Animals captures the feeling of being in a carnival.  From the lion to the aquarium to the aviary, each movement of the piece represents one group of animals in the carnival.  A great recording of this is the one conducted and narrated by Bernstein where he explains each of the movements and what to listen for (a great recording for introducing kids to classical music).

If I had to limit my inspirational writing music to just five albums, these would be the ones I’d choose (and it would be a tough choice because I left off some of my absolute favorite pieces).  I chose these five because I feel like they give me the most mileage for my writing.

Homework: Today I’d like you to choose a piece of music and listen–really listen–for at least one track.  Try to hear the story being told in the music.  If you’re not sure of a piece to choose, feel free to borrow one of my selections above.  After listening, jot down a few notes so you remember the story you heard in the music.

Then tell me how it went.  What piece did you choose?  What did you hear in the music?  What story did it tell you?


07 Mar

Writing Lessons from My Violin

Posted in Music, Process, Writing

I have a love-hate relationship with my violin the same way I have a love-hate relationship with writing.  There are many similarities between my writing life and my violin life.  In fact, lot of important lessons I’ve learned about writing, came from playing the violin for so many years.

1)  Practice your scales.  Anyone who plays an instrument has spent hours (maybe even days) practicing nothing but scales, arpeggios and etudes.  Why do we bother with all that pointless stuff?  I mean, it’s not like I’d ever perform my C# melodic minor at a recital.  Doesn’t it defeat the purpose of practicing something if you’re never going to perform it?

On the contrary, it’s important to find time for scales even if it means the thing we’re practicing won’t “pan out” or “become something” later on.  In writing, I’ve learned that even if a book or story doesn’t reach the ready-to-submit stage, that doesn’t make it any less worthy than projects that have.  This is why it’s important build some time into our writing schedule for scales… er, I mean writing exercises.

2)  Do not practice in public.  As a kid, I used to hate it when I’d go to music school and the other kids would hang around before class and noodle on their violins.  I call this faux-practicing.  It isn’t real practice because real practice doesn’t look so effortless and flashy.  Faux-practice is showing off; it’s performing but making it look like practice.  How do I know this?  Because every musician knows that real practice is not something you do in public.  Real practice is embarrassing and messy and downright ugly.  And it’s best kept behind closed doors.

When it comes to writing, I often have that impulse to let people see my work when it’s still in the “practice” phase.  I suppose I let people into my practice space prematurely because otherwise they won’t believe I’m actually writing.  The violin kid inside has helped me gain the strength to tell people: “Back off.  I’ll show you when I’m ready.”

3)  Sometimes you have to suck it up and do it.  Every morning from the age of 4 on, I would spring out of bed and say to myself: “Aw yeah!  I get to practice the violin today!”  And if you believe that then I’ve got some beautiful ocean-front property in Nevada that I’d like to sell you.

Playing an instrument–much like writing–is one of the ultimate tests of delayed gratification.  After all, you spend endless hours alone in a room, practicing for a goal that could be months or years away.  The only thing that gets you through is knowing that the when you reach the prize at the end, it’s going to be worth it.  Otherwise, why would you torture yourself like this, right?  The answer lies in lesson #4.

4)  You have to love the work, even if it’s only some of the time.  If you don’t, you will be miserable.  After all, what if the end-goal turns out not to be as great as you expected?  Or what if you get on that stage and screw up so royally you can never show your face in music school again?  While it’s important to grit your teeth and practice toward a goal, you also need to love the practice in and of itself.  Sure, I was never one of those kids who practiced until her fingers bled or her parents tore her away from the instrument, but there was a certain satisfaction that always came from a productive practice session.

Same with writing.  Of course you want to have some lofty dreams or goals to keep you motivated but in the end, if writing is painful for you, then maybe you should consider something that brings you more joy.

Because it all comes down to joy.  I write for those moments when the story suddenly clicks and makes sense or when characters surprise me.  I write even in those times when it seems more like work and less like fun.  I write because sooner or later, it stops feeling like practice and starts feeling like joy.

What about you?  What is it about writing that gives you joy?


23 Jun

Writing Through the Senses: Sound

Posted in Music, Writing Exercises, Writing Through The Senses

Hello all and welcome to Writing Through the Senses!

We’ll be talking about sound today and how it can inspire a story.  Let’s start off with a short listening exercise. 

Listening Exercise:   Below you’ll find a series of links to music.  Listen to the first 1-2 minutes of each piece (but don’t watch the accompanying videos; let the music speak for itself.)  While you listen to each piece, note the imagery that comes to mind.  What mood does the music establish?  Which specific sounds inspire each given image?  If you like, post your thoughts in the comments (but don’t read other people’s posts until you’ve had a chance to listen to the music for yourself).

Saint-Saens 1
Saint-Saens 2
Holst 1

Writing Exercise:  Now that we’ve warmed up our ears, choose one of the three pieces below and listen to it all the way through (approx. 8-10 min)  As you listen, make notes again about the mood of the piece and think about what sort of story might go with this music.  If this music were a soundtrack to a story, what would the story be?

Once you’ve listened all the way through, take 10-15minutes and write a scene or story inspired by the music.  If you need to listen to the piece again, feel free to do so but don’t feel like you have to parallel the music exactly.  The music is only here to inspire the story and give you a starting point.

Holst 2

Take-Home Message:  While some writers find it challenging to write and listen to music at the same time, music can be a great writing tool.

Suggestions for Future Listening:  These pieces of music all tell a story or convey a specific mood.  If you don’t have them in your listening library, I highly recommend.

  • Beethoven – 6th (pastoral) Symphony
  • Saint-Saens – Carnival of the Animals
  • Holst – The Planets
  • Vivaldi – 4 Seasons


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