(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)
Listen to music while you write? Today’s musical inspiration comes from Tara Altebrando:
Whenever I latch onto a new project I start with a concept, sure, but the idea or premise must immediately link to a feeling—often something I felt long ago, maybe just once, and never again. Then I inevitably end up finding or seeking out a song that captures that feeling, that moment; ultimately my desire to create that same feeling for the reader drives me to write.
All of which sounds sort of heady or something but what it boils down to is this:
It really does qualify as… let’s call it research for me to play a video of a live performance of INXS singing “Don’t Change” one hundred times a day. Or why listening to “Beds Are Burning” by Midnight Oil—and nothing else—for two weeks straight is, well, work. Sometimes I dig up songs that relate only to a specific scene or chapter, but there is usually one song that helps me to tap into the mood I am trying to create in the work as a whole. Dreamland Social Club was very much driven by “The Whole of the Moon” by the Waterboys and my next book, The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by those burning beds. There are no real literal connections between the content of the work and the songs and it’s possible my readers have never even heard the songs. It doesn’t matter. It only matters that the feelings those songs inspire in me give me a goal. A wildly intangible one, but still. A goal.
As a result, I’m eternally grateful for music and musicians. Because when I am feeling, in the day-to-day, less than inspired, songs do the inspiring by reminding me of what I’m striving for.
I feel like I should note that my inspiration is not always ’80s music. I swear! While it’s true that I was a teenager during the ’80s and find much of the era’s music particularly evocative and useful to my process, especially when working on a young adult project, I am an equal-opportunity employer of music from other eras. And I seem to be branching out with something new I’m working on; instead of a song I’m using an image as my inspiration. Recent visitors to my home office have balked at the rather strange picture posted up in front of my desk—of three cheerleaders throwing a fourth up in the air such that her little cheer-skirt crotch and thighs are rather unattractively exposed—but trust me, having it there is just part of the job.
A friend of mine recently told me that he heard a song by Pulp (a band I adore) and felt certain that I must have listened to it nonstop when writing my novel What Happens Here, and I thought that was the coolest thing. I didn’t know the song, but I loved that he, as a reader, felt that a novel could capture the mood of a song so very specifically. I believe it, too. That the stories we love best, like the songs we can’t get enough of, should make us want to dance or weep or sing, and that my job is to try to make it so in my own work.
Tara Altebrando is the author of the young adult novels Dreamland Social Club, What Happens Here, and The Pursuit of Happiness, in addition to several books for adults. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Queens, New York, with her husband and two young daughters.
Visit Tara at taraaltebrando.com.
Follow @TaraAltebrando on Twitter.