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"What Beautiful Music They Make"

In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury makes a case for the intuitive mind as home for some of our best creative ideas. His problem was reaching that part within himself, so he could harness it to improve his storytelling. So Bradbury started making lists. Almost like automatic writing, he would use the words he wrote down as “provocations” to help him feel his way “toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.”

He found patterns in these lists, locating the central idea his subconscious was circling around. The human mind’s a tricky thing, making it too easy to forget some of our most crucial, character building moments. By using the lists, Bradbury was able mine his greatest fears and most wondrous aspirations, finding inspiration for Something Wicked This Way Comes and his many other classics.

By the way, I recently heard someone refer to Bradbury as “some old professor guy” after they saw this video and I just about lost my mind.

(Concept art for DEEP RED THREAD by Kelly Williams)

I tried using similar lists (which I like to call “Bradberries”) on the long form comic DEEP RED THREAD that I’ve been working on with Kelly Williams. Each chapter in that story begins with a song, performed by a band that acts like a Greek chorus. The lyrics to these songs comment on the story and foreshadow events to come. Experimenting like this helped me realize that while Bradbury read his tea leaves through lists, my premonitions come through the music I listen to while writing.

I’ve always made playlists to accompany writing projects. But for DRT I tried something new. Starting with a broad palette I put together a playlist of twelve albums that I associated with the tone of the story. While I was outlining and building the story’s world, I listened to those records on constant shuffle. Occasionally I’d land on a song that especially clicked, as if it were written for the unofficial soundtrack to this story that so far only existed in my head. I’d set those songs aside, eventually putting them together into a thematic mixtape, one song for each chapter. I went full circle from composing imaginary songs to using real songs as anchors for the story’s beats. Each song provided a picture that helped me with the plot, pacing, characterization and dialogue.

I just wrapped the first draft phase on a new short story I’m calling “Nothing Left But Things.” Given its shorter length and the nature of its plot, I tried something a little different and used a single album as the tether to my subconscious. I chose the collaborative album between Boris and Sunn 0))) called Altar. When my streaming service didn’t include the 28 minute song “Her Lips Were Wet With Venom (SatanOscillateMyMetallicSonatas)” I paid five dollars for the single track. While in Seattle last month I found the whole thing on vinyl and agonized over its fifty dollar price point before finally splurging on it. It was worth every penny as the perfect soundtrack for writing in hour-and-a-half bursts. Between the guitar feedback, the ringing gongs and the submerged vocals from guests like Joe Preston and Jesse Sykes, I was able to tap into a deeply personal story about family, memory and home. Of course I disguised all that under a veneer of toxic mold and malevolent, otherworldly fungi.

(Concept art for DEADLAST by Brandon Daniels)

It doesn’t always work however... at least in how well the music channels my ideas into concrete stories for other people to enjoy. I used the playlist method on a recent project with Brandon Daniels I’m calling DEADLAST. This one’s more science-fiction, focused on grave robbers in a far flung future. It called for louder associations, with guttural vocals, blast beats of static and walls of instrumental drone. Maybe the alienation that kind of music heralds translated into the story I wrote, because it was rejected by two separate anthologies in less than a month.

All I can testify to is that it works for me. So when I started my next prose piece this week I went back to the music library. Instead of choosing songs I’m already deeply familiar with, I’m shuffling between albums of which I’m only half aware. The ones just adjacent to the usual patterns I associate with shadows, smoke and piercing piano keys. The songs are always playing, whether I’m driving through Portland, soaking in the bath or tinkering at the library. A picture’s starting to form and the deep connections between sound and memory are scratching at the scars in my brain. There’s a story somewhere in there. Probably under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.

(A hint to what I'm working on next.)

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