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Thursday, March 17, 2011

More than words/Give up the funk

I was in a funk the other week.

George Clinton, in his BPT hat
And I’m not talking about funk in a George Clinton sense or a James Brown kind of way. I am not making a sly reference to Earth, Wind & Fire. What I am talking about is a good old-fashioned, old-school bad mood. But more than just a mood, really – moods can change like the wind. This was lasting. And when it’s lasting, a dark mood such as this one can be officially classified as a funk. I had the funk. Who (or what) gave it to me?

I tried to blame it on a lot of things, like the Oscars (not enough interesting fashion missteps, super-predictable winners, boring acceptance speeches, and James Franco…ugh. My crush on him = SO over). I tried to blame it on the weather, but that didn’t work very well because we seemed to actually be through the worst of it. I also tried to pin it on the color of the wall in my study, the position of the moon, my neighbor’s cat, my other neighbor giving me the evil eye, the combined negative energy of all the scorpios on the planet, the fact that our house is located on the north side of the street... You know what I’m saying.

The truth was that I wasn’t writing well. And that’s because in order to write well, one must be able to actually…write.

Let’s talk about what it means to write. I mean really write. It’s not that I wasn’t trying – or actually sitting at the computer typing words – but I was having trouble focusing on what I was doing. It was difficult for me to concentrate for extended periods of time. This isn’t a new issue; I can sometimes be all over the place attention-wise (I blame years of “multitasking” for work – constantly shifting from one thing to another; I think you can cultivate and develop ADD, no kidding), but during this funkified time, it was particularly bad. And when you’re a writer who can’t write, and that’s what you want – and need – to do, it can be anxiety-provoking. And anxiety is a whole other ballgame that we won’t even get into right now. The takeaway from this rambling paragraph: Writing is not typing.

Now for the good news: In the midst of (and likely because of, actually) this frustration, I made a very useful discovery: I can write to music.

I had bought the new Esperanza Spaulding album, and I thought, “Hell, I’ll just listen to this while I try to write, since I can’t write anyway.” I’ve never, ever been able to write to music – I start singing, humming along, etc. I stare at the cursor blinking there, and just…go somewhere else. [This is probably because I gravitate toward lyrics and tight song structures…and I think brains participate differently in songs like that than they do with more free-flowing, less predictable songs (like most of Esperanza’s album). Not being able to predict what was coming next with that music or consider lyrics actually helped me to write! I can’t imagine being able to do that to Lou Reed or The Clash.]

This experience reminded me of the scene in The King’s Speech when King George listens to music through headphones and is able to read clearly because he’s too distracted to stutter. I think I ended up just distracted enough to forget I was having trouble writing, which…made me just write. (And, to be clear, I wasn’t exactly churning out Pulitzer-worthy material, but at least it got me going again, broke the ice. Sometimes that is good enough.)

I will shop for a whole new category of music now – my “writing music.” Any suggestions?


  1. Two albums I keep on pretty constant rotation when I'm writing are Jonsi & Alex's album "Riceboy Sleeps" and The Books' "Lemon of Pink." I don't do so hot with music that has lyrics, and even heavy instrumentation can get distracting, but both those albums are nicely minimal; not quite electronic, not quite acoustic, but they have a good, slow burn and fade into the background. Also, anything by Penguin Cafe Orchestra.

  2. Hmmm...I'll look into those! Interestingly, someone else was telling me about the Penguin Cafe Orchestra the other day. Thanks!

  3. I create playlists depending on what I'm writing at the moment, generally either without words or with words in a language I don't speak (lately it's been Swedish and Finnish hip hop).

  4. I create little soundtracks for my plays too! I can't really listen to them while I write, but the other language thing...that's a GREAT idea. Wow!