Friday, December 01, 2006

A Question For Writers

I've noticed, now that I'm working on a third novel, that something that happens each time I'm writing a novel is I find myself reading or watching or listening to very particular kinds of books or movies or music. When I was writing One for Sorrow, I gravitated to watching a lot of alienated smart kid rebel coming of age films, and read a lot of voice-oriented novels. When I was writing The Love We Share Without Knowing, I was reading a lot of novels by Japanese authors, and Japanese poetry and manga as well, and listening to both contemporary and traditional Japanese music, and watching a lot of contemporary Japanese film including tons of anime, along with books written by expatriate authors. I also was reading a lot of Japanese mythology and Buddhist thought. Now that I'm writing this third novel, which I'm tentatively calling, Yesterday's Child, I find myself reading a lot of philosophy and watching a lot of political documentaries. The fiction I'm reading also tends, like the books I read while writing One for Sorrow, to be voice-oriented and wide-reaching, all-encompassing narrative voices, the sort that widen and expand then narrow to ribbons like the course of a river. The philosopher whose work I'm most caught up with at the moment is Hannah Arendt. I've read "Between Past and Future", and "The Human Condition" and am now beginning, "The Life of the Mind". I can't get enough of her ideas as well as the way she expresses them in language almost like a poet most of the time. There's a sort of mathematical or musical precision to the way she guides a reader's mind through her narrative thought experiments that almost convinces you in and of itself that whatever she says is the truth. Her mind is seething, bubbling like a cauldron with life. It's so invigorating to read work of this nature that tells a story of the life of what it means to be human in a language that is neither fiction nor poetry, math nor scientific formula. At this juncture of my life, philosophical texts seem to go straight to my gut, which they haven't always done in the past to be honest. I wonder sometimes what it means when suddenly a particular form of writing becomes a direction to walk in for learning and growing in some way. What does it signify when particular kinds of engagements with language and thought shift to a different code, like from fiction to poetry, or poetry to algebra, or chaos theory to essay, or from journalism to philosophy, etc.? Isn't what we're most receptive to as a mode of communication and narrative engagement at any given time indicative or something about us at that moment? Maybe I'm overthinking things, but I'd rather overthink than underthink, so I'm not going to feel bad if that's the case.

Anyway, my main question for those of you who write: Do you find yourself reading/watching/listening to any particular kinds of media while writing a book? What sorts of things? Any ideas why? Answers both public in this blog or private in an email to me are welcome. I'm interested to know more about this question from those of you who are out there reading the words I'm putting down in this space.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


For me, it is an opposite effect. I find the media I'm reading/watching/playing worming its way into my writing. While writing my first book, I was reading "The Deerslayer" by James Fenimore Cooper. During that time I was also writing a scene where one of my characters was captured by a nomadic tribe of centaurs and subjected to tests of courage and fortitude inspired by a scene in Deerslayer.

Other times I choose media to match the mood I'm trying to create, such as listening to instrumental soundtracks from certain films.

Either way, it is interesting to see how this can consciously and subconsciously shape one's writing.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

I find that sometimes I listen to certain pieces of music obsessively while I'm writing. Sometimes they even dictate the pacing of certain scenes.

But I've never found the kind of thing you're talking about, Chris. I'd like something that would focus me on philosophy...

8:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometimes it's conscious and obvious. For From The Files of the Time Rangers, which dealt with time travel and ancient gods in mid and late 20th century America, I reread and much enjoyed the Fitzgerald Odyssey and Iliad and the Williams translation of the Eurpides the Bacchae and Livy's Punic Wars and Caesar's Gallic Wars. But I didn't read much of anything on recent American history, because I'd already lived through that.

For the current project which is a mosaic novel made up of stories set in and around Downtown Manhattan and tentatively called, "Dust Devil On A Quiet Street", I haven't read much because I just walk out the door and there it is. But I found myself listening more and more to the music that got played here on MacDougal Street in the Sixties - Dylan, of course, but folk artists like Tim Hardin and Fred Neil who did not make it big or ones like McGuinn and Phillips who founded rock groups. I found myself looking at artifacts: the Morgan Library currently has a Dylan exhibition. What fascinated me wasn't the Dylan pictures etc. but the handbills for concerts, the notices in the windows of long gone clubs, the thin kids in their square haircuts and leotards playing guitars in Washington Square. As I've done this the stories I've written have begun to slip back in time, to give a background to the present. Here's a site

for a photographer who did hundreds of pictures of the Village from the late fifties to the early seventies. Not only has that world disappeared but the one that succeeded it has pretty much disappeared.

And like that.

Rick Bowes

12:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sort of like Tori Amos in this regard--really spacey. The first draft is almost all images, derived from (instrumental) music. Then, I do the Rorschachs ink blot test, find what's most resonant, and do research/read about appropriate subjects and let the information gestate before writing the second draft. Fascinating topic, dude.

3:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Chris! *wave*

I'm about 25k in to my 3rd novel and while books I'm currently reading don't make a blip, older things I've read years ago do. As for music, it seems that a particular album or band will grab and obssess me. Right now it's Muse's 2 most recent albums. 24 hour Muse, and it's been that way for months. When I listen to it in the car I go slightly catatonic and start seeing visions of my characters as if I were watching a movie trailer. Er, I suppose it's a good thing I commute to work.

-The fabulous disappearing reappearing disappearing reappearing disappearing reappearing Amy F.

10:04 AM  

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