If there’s one thing I can be geeky about besides writing (and comic books. . . and video games. . . ), it’s music. I’m one of those writers who has to put together playlists for every story he writes (and you can bet I will post some of these from time to time). I’m a firm believer that narrative is more than just a collection of characters, plot, setting, and other things. It’s a quality, a rise and fall, a tension and release where the movement of something can suggest the build-up and execution of something significant. And, when you expose yourself to something that conveys a quality of narrative itself, regardless of the medium, it’s contagious.
I regularly did an exercise with my students back when I taught creative writing classes (I would love to do this again, but I work at a junior college that consistently can’t meet required enrollment on anything but the most necessary transfer-level classes). I would choose five songs beforehand and make multiple slips of paper with the songs on them. Then, the students would draw a song for themselves. Their goal was to write a short scene, ideally no more than two pages in length, where they tried to match the event and style of the scene to the mood they felt the song evoked. They could be as literal or as figurative as they wanted, as long as they tried to mirror the song’s mood.
(What did I call this exercise? “Mood Music.” Yeah, I know. Very creative.)
And you know what? It freaking worked. The students, by and large, experienced much success with this exercise. I was amazed at how many of them grasped the assignment. One of the students that drew the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” wrote a tense, gritty scene of a young boy crawling through city streets torn apart by bombs and gunfire to try and find out whether his best friend was still alive. Another student who drew U2’s “One” wrote a genuinely tender scene with two estranged sisters reuniting and putting aside their differences to help their dying mother. Great stuff, definitely not what you might expect from students taking a creative writing class for the first time ever.
(You might ask, as one of my fellow graduate teaching assistants did at the time: why not let them choose their own song to use? My answer: I didn’t want fifteen exercises written about “My Humps.”)
I actually owe A Perfect Circle – I used to listen to them a lot – a huge favor. They wrote the song that inspired what eventually became my first serious attempt at a complete piece of writing, back when I was a freshman in college. The song? “Pet.”
It’s a remarkably menacing song. Very dramatic, with a strong sense of tension and release built by the dynamics of the song as it plays out. The song sounds like darkness itself was used as a contributing instrument. It even has lines like “lay your head down child/I won’t let the boogeymen come.” Not surprisingly, it inspired a horror story, easily the scariest thing I’ve ever written (it involves comas, sleep deprivation, ghostly visitors dressed in black, insane asylums, worms that melt the flesh off bone, TV sets that speak to the main character, zombies in church, repressed memories, and the Jungian notion of the Shadow Self; suffice it to say, it’s also one of the craziest, most warped things I’ve ever written).
Now, this story hasn’t been published anywhere, and I don’t have plans to revise it and publish it anywhere anytime soon. It’s also fairly different from a lot of what I’ve written since then, namely because back then I only wanted to write horror stories and now I write a wide variety of nonrealistic, speculative fiction. It falls squarely into that category of writer juvenalia, that trunk of stories usually compiled by writers while they’re still trying to figure themselves out. I would love to publish it someday in a combination craft book/short story collection, where I can pick apart my own writing for the benefit of aspiring writers (I’m still fond of the story, but there are parts of it I can’t read without wincing now). The thing is, though, that story set me on the path that led me to where I am now. Would I have still written the story if I hadn’t heard “Pet” and been entranced into writing a story of boogeymen that melted through walls and invaded your consciousness? I genuinely don’t think so.
So, if you ever find yourself stuck for ideas, or you want to jog the imaginations of your students, use the “Mood Music” exercise. Stockpile songs that have such a contagious sense of narrative, they transmit their virus to anyone in the vicinity, with such severity that you can’t help but respond with a narrative of your own. I’ll do my part by posting snippets of my writing playlist from time to time or posting links to music that gives me some kind of spark, however large or small. If you have suggestions of your own, lay them on me. There’s no telling where the next story will come from.