jessie cole

novelist/writer

Tag: creative process

Words and Music

When pondering inspiration and where it is found, the cross-pollination that occurs amongst artistic genres always comes to mind. Art works that inspire writers, novels that inspire plays, plays that inspire films … the list goes on. Think of novelist Tracy Chevalier and her meditative take on Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. But one of the least talked about of these artist-muse relationships is the interaction between music and writing.

A couple of years ago I read Paul Kelly’s mongrel memoir How to Make Gravy, and what struck me most forcibly about it was the breadth and depth of Kelly’s reading life. At seventeen Kelly was reading Herman Hesse, Arthur Rimbaud, Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller, by nineteen it was Walt Whitman and Jean Paul Sartre, with a bit of Nietzsche on the side. He spent large chunks of his twenty-fourth year lying on his bed reading Marcel Proust.

The opening line of the memoir alludes to Homer’s Odyssey, and the references to literature just keep coming. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Henry James, Sir Walter Scott, Emile Zola, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Philip Roth, Raymond Carver,as well as more contemporary writers like Nick Hornby, Tim Winton, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Ondantje, Robert Drewe, Peter Carey, Jeffery Euguenides and Gao Xingjian. Don’t even get me started on the poets! It seemed to me that Kelly’s book was, among other things, a meditation on the place of reading in an artist’s life. In this case, a songwriter.

Paul Kelly

Paul Kelly talks about the way songwriters continuously ‘borrow’ from one another – “Ever since Homer’s repeated use of ‘rosy-fingered dawn’, ‘ wine dark sea’, and other formulas in The Odyssey, songwriters have been drawing on the communal pool of phrases and images available to anyone with ears.” He follows this up with – “Some people continue to be surprised by this – those who have notions of the artist as some kind of self-dredger, dragging pieces of originality up from the depths of their soul.” And then the somewhat cheeky – “Self expression is overrated, though. There’s so much of it around these days …”

Reading Kelly’s memoir, it was interesting to imagine the young Paul devouring all those literary classics, and how they must have swirled about in his subconscious, coming to light – sometimes years later – in mysterious ways. He wrote the song ‘Everything’s Turning to White’ – a retelling of the Raymond Carver short story ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ – five years after reading it. When he got back to checking the story, he was startled by how exactly the details of story and song matched up. Kelly explains how some of the time this borrowing is subconscious – “Writing, though it may involve a lot of thinking, is never entirely under our conscious control.”

As with ‘Everything’s Turning to White,’ sometimes these cross-genre inspirations can bear wonderful fruit. Singer songwriter Gyan’s musical interpretation of the poems of Michael Leunig – Billy the Rabbit – is another tantalising example. In this case, Gyan turned to the work of Michael Leunig as solace when she was feeling burnt out. She spent twelve months putting a host of his poems to music. Eventually a friend who had worked with Leunig encouraged her to send the songs to him. She did, and Leunig loved them. And there began an unusual mixed-media collaboration, with the two of them giving performances involving Gyan singing while Leunig drew.

But what about how songs influence other art forms? A fan of the 1999 film by Paul Thomas Anderson – Magnolia, years ago I bought the movie soundtrack, and discovered within the liner notes a rather unusual dedication. It seems the whole movie was inspired by the songs of Aimee Mann. As Anderson explains – “Like one would adapt a book for the screen, I had the concept of adapting Aimee’s songs into a screenplay.” He gives details of how the process worked – “For instance, in my original motion picture screenplay, Claudia says ‘Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?’ I must come clean. I did not write that line. Aimee Mann wrote that line as the opening of her song, ‘Deathly,’ and I wrote backwards from that line. It equals the story of Claudia. It equals the heart of Magnolia. All stories from the movie were written branching off from Claudia, so one could do the math and realise that all stories come from Aimee’s brain, not mine.” Thomas ends the CD liner notes with: “So here it is, the perfect memento to remember the movie – or you can look at the movie as the perfect memento to remember the songs that Aimee has made.”

When I first read this dedication I was a few years out of high school, crazy about music but not a musician, interested in writing but managing nothing more than a few occasional scribbles in my diary. It struck me as wondrous that someone could hear one line of a song and a whole movie might spring from the earth like a blossoming tree. I’d never heard of Aimee Mann, but I was dazzled by the potential in this kind of relationship.

Fast forward ten years or so and I was writing. The idea for my novel Darkness on the Edge of Town hit me late at night like a whack to the back of the head. It wasn’t something I pondered; all of a sudden it was just there. I was more than three quarters through writing it before I realised how distinctly (in my mind at least) it echoed the early work of Bruce Springsteen. His song ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ seemed to hold all the nuances of my main character’s voice, even though I’d never consciously thought about the song at all. At that point I began to consider the influence of songs on the work I was doing. Before I started writing Darkness on the Edge of Town I’d come out of a very bewildering love affair and was obsessively listening to the Lucinda William’s album West. It must be said that listening to the raw and heartrending Lucinda Williams after having your heart broken is not the wisest of musical choices, and in an effort to buoy myself I’d turned to Springsteen, who has the knack of imbibing his music with a kind of hard won optimism. It was as though the work of the two musicians had somehow morphed in my brain. Lucinda’s sorrow and pain with Bruce’s tentative redemption. And the result was a novel, a strange hybrid of musical influences, but somehow all my own.

I’m not the only writer who feels awed by the power of music. When asked about the musical references scattered throughout his novels, Jonathan Franzen answered – “I’m more envious of music than of any other art form – the way a song can take your head over and make you feel so intensely and so immediately. It’s like snorting powder, it goes straight to your brain.”

But I’ll leave the last words to Kelly himself. In his memoir he says – “Writing songs is a magpie business. You build your nest and fetch and carry to it the bright shiny things that catch your eye. You don’t care where they come from just so long as they fit just so … New life begins when strange things connect.”

First Published in the Northerly, July-August, 2103

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Making Sense of the Darkness

Writing fiction is the most mysterious process. It is easy to believe when you read a story in a book – the finished product – that the writer has constructed everything in a kind of conscious clever way. (If the book is working!). But it has never been like that for me.

I wrote Darkness on the Edge of Town four years ago, and when I read it now I am staggered by how it seems to run so smoothly – as though it was plotted and conceived – as though I had planned all those things I wanted to say. In fact, the process was nothing like that.

I had written a manuscript before Darkness on the Edge, a piece of fictionalised autobiography reflecting on what had been a particularly traumatic adolescence. During that time I had come to use writing to digest the parts of my experience that were difficult or unmanageable. It had become a tool for me, a way I’d developed to communicate with myself. In a sense, it had become a habit. I didn’t think of myself as a writer, and I didn’t think of the writing as a product. I saw it largely as some kind of outward, graspable expression of my inner self, as though I could hand over that first MS to a stranger and say – ‘This is where I’ve been. This is who I am.’

After I’d written that autobiographical story I was very peaceful. I had spoken the unspeakable and – metaphorically, at least – breached that gap between myself and the outside world. I wondered about publication, and made a few attempts to share my writing beyond my family, but deep down I felt the work was completed, even without a wider audience. It was out of me, and that was enough. I was free and light; unencumbered by the past. My story was on the page and not hanging heavily about my neck. I don’t think I believed I had another story in me.

But life isn’t like that, is it? A couple of years later I experienced a constellation of events that left me reeling. A short relationship with a man that was so dazzlingly confusing I was floored, and at the same time, a close friend’s baby slowly died. The two events combined seemed to break something open inside me, revealing a world of potential suffering I had stealthily kept out of view. While my friend nursed her dying baby with a warrior courage, I crumbled, as though the very ground I was standing on was suddenly giving way. And in that time Darkness on the Edge of Town was born.

The story came to me in one powerful strike. It hit me like a whack on the back of the head, the voices so strong and clear all I had to do was find the time to write them down. I didn’t think at all about what I was saying – about the deeper thematic meaning of the text – I was simply compelled by the characters and the situation they found themselves in. Four years on I can look at my work and see that I was grappling with the transience of life. That I was wondering about power relations and love, about kindness and abuse – and about how these things entwine. That I was trying to understand what responsibility we have for each other as fellow human beings, and perhaps especially what responsibility we have for those who are most fragile amongst us. But at the time I had very little awareness of these things, they sat somewhere in the periphery of my vision, always just out of reach.

On the shelves!!

Trying to make sense of how Darkness could come to light in such an intuitive way still leaves me a little confounded. And on top of that it is now a book! Something that others can read. Something that you might read. And I would like to be able to sit here and say – ‘yes, well, I had been thinking about things deeply and decided to construct a tale in which to share my thoughts …’ but this simply was not so. In truth, I was blindsided by a story that sprung with unexpected force from some invisible place inside me and now I’m sharing it with you.

And I hope – if you read it – you enjoy it. I hope that you will see that even though sometimes the terrain of Darkness on the Edge of Town is tough, at its heart there is a tenderness. There is love and there is kindness. There is the intimacy that is created when one person holds out their hand to another.

And sometimes, this is enough.

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