Andrew Kaufman vs. Cathy Marie Buchanan: Is it better to write with or without music?
We've teamed up with The Next Chapter to present The Canada Writes Literary Smackdowns, an essay series in which authors sound off on various writing topics. No writers were injured in the making of this series.
Battle Ten: Does music inspire you while you write? Do you listen to a specific playlist depending on what you are writing? Or do you need the openness of silence to write by? What do you think—are you on Team Andrew or Team Cathy?
Is it better to write with or without music?Hear Andrew Kaufman and Cathy Marie Buchanan go head to head on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers.
Andrew Kaufman: With music! VS Cathy Marie Buchanan: Without!
Andrew Kaufman: With music! VS Cathy Marie Buchanan: Without!
Of course I play music while I write. What important things don’t I do with music playing? I’ve never planned any sort of party, whether it’s supposed to be a quiet dinner party or a raging all-nighter, without planning the soundtrack first. Cooking pasta, folding the laundry, hanging out with my kids — all these things are vastly improved by doing them to music. That goes for writing as well. It just has to be the right music. This is the hard part.
Finding the right music for a party is easy. It needs to have energy. It needs to be fun. If it’s either of those things, it’ll work. The opposite is true for a dinner party. It can’t call too much attention to itself and it has to make it room feel calm. Let’s not say too much about bedroom music, but I know what I like. You probably do too. But finding the right music to write to is complicated. There aren’t any obvious cues, no single choice, no consistent guidelines. Rock ‘n roll works, but only on occasion. Rock works as often as Jazz, Classical, Country, Dub and Techno. The only thing I know for sure is that none of them work every time.
Sometimes I can’t have words. Sometimes I have to have words, but only sad ones. Sometimes those sad words have to come with a steel guitar and sometimes only strings will do. Sometimes it takes robotic blips and beeps. And in my experience it’s quite possible, in fact likely, that the record that worked yesterday won’t work today. The only consistent thing about finding music to write to, is that the tone and feeling of the song has to match the tone and feeling of what I’m writing.
But even knowing this doesn’t really make song selection any simpler. The frantic chaos of Mingus can also be supplied by Pavement. But there are very few days when Three Or Four Shades of Blue gets played on the same day as Slanted and Enchanted. There have been long stretches where only Hawaiian music will do. For a while I played the same Death Cab for Cutie album over and over again. Right now I’m playing Jr. Walker and The All-Stars. Who knows why? It just fits. All I know is that it’s setting a tone, and that tone’s creeping into this piece, it’s right there, sitting between each and every word.
Andrew Kaufman was born in the town of Wingham, Ontario, the same town that Alice Munro was born in, making him the second best writer from a town of 3000. Descending from a long line of librarians and accountants, his first published work was All My Friends Are Superheroes. He has since published The Waterproof Bible, The Tiny Wife, Selected Business Correspondence and, Born Weird. He lives in the East Oz district of downtown Toronto with his wife, the film editor Marlo Miazga and their two children, Phoenix and Frida.
Photo credit: Karrie North
This writer prefers to work without music. I might be able to block out the garbage truck rumbling down the street or the smoke alarm chirping its low battery, even my sons clobbering each other in the hall, but not music. As a wordsmith, my tendency is to try to make out the lyrics, to discern their meaning, to grasp the arc of the song being sung. And if it’s a wordless tune? Throughout my teenage years I spent four, sometimes five, nights a week in a ballet studio, training my body to soak up music, to become an instrument, a visual representation of tempo and rhythm and mood. At a minimum my toes would be tapping, my chin bobbing. I might even get up from the computer and dance, altogether abandoning the words I am supposed to be committing to the page.
I know the argument about music whisking a writer to another time and place. For me, the problem is that the conjured setting is not necessarily the time and place where I need my head to be. I might listen to a waltz from a French ballet of the belle époque, hoping to evoke the Paris Opera dance school of the late 19th century, where much of my most recent novel unfolds. But likely as not, what would come into my mind is a teenage version of myself leaping and pirouetting to that same music in the basement of the old bank where I studied ballet. Yes, music is deeply evocative and for that very reason, often tightly coupled to a host of memories, memories that can rattle concentration and interfere with the task at hand.
I did listen to music of the period as I contemplated The Painted Girls. I wanted to hear what the novel’s narrators had heard. Or sometimes I was merely working out the description for a chain of ballet steps or reminding myself of how it felt to dance. Never once, though, were my fingers anywhere near a keyboard at the same time. No, for this writer, listening to music is an all-consuming act.
I shut the two doors between the desk where I write and the laptop pulsing hip hop or the stereo blaring rock. It’s hard enough to corral words into sentences and sentences into prose without a bunch of extraneous gibberish and irrelevant notes dive-bombing my thoughts, enticing me to dance, and calling up memories unrelated to the plot.
Cathy Marie Buchanan is the author of The Painted Girls and The Day the Falls Stood Still. An instant bestseller in Canada, The Painted Girls has received enthusiastic reviews in both Canada’s national newspapers and has garnered notices in Vanity Fair, Good Housekeeping, Vogue, Entertainment Weekly, People, USA Today, Chatelaine and Costco Connection. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, she now lives in Toronto.
Photo credit: Ania Szado