by: Woody Woodger
American University held its first Visiting Writers Series on Wednesday the 29th of September featuring poet, nonfiction writer, and music critic Hanif Abdurraqib. The entire talk was enlightening. Abdurraqib’s wisdom poured out of my Zoom screen and puddled around my keys. A little Dr. Suse-esque fish even popped out from between the 9 and the I keys to scold me for sneaking a glass of Safeway Brand, yet still puckeringly dry…um…milkshake.
While the entirety of his talk inspired, one moment at the end really stuck out to me. Maybe it was that the Red Fish and I really started to enjoy our milkshakes, but when Abdurraqib was asked about what music he listens to as he writes, I was flabbergasted to hear him say, “writing is a painful process to me,” and that is why he writes in total silence. This is “to honor that pain,” he said.
And I was surprised. I, like many other writers I’ve asked, listen to something when I write. And I legitimately believed there would be no one on earth who would prefer to listen to the world’s distractions over any other option.
But I do know that every writer has their preferences. Some writers I’ve talked to say they choose their writing music so they can be in the right “mood” for the piece. This is too cumbersome to me. This way of choosing music presumes I would actually have a mood in mind before I started anything. This method sounds like the water birth of music choosing: unimaginably laborious to set up and then, once situated, far too ceremonial to be satisfying.
Then I hear the other end of the spectrum. The “yeah, put on absolutely anything and I can write to it” kind of person. These interlopers are frustrating for me because I can’t help unflurling my insecurities over the situation, like a dusty tarp over the cursed pot in the attic. As vengeance for their enviable ability, I make these “anything goes” people have an insufferable snootiness to take fault with. A simple, “Oh, I don’t care. put on anything,” might translate to, “Hey, Woody, listen, I know that you get easily distracted from the one passion and talent you have cultivated, you know, like a ferret on Ritalin… But I, myself? I actually care about my work and won’t even look up at this episode of Law and Order even though we both know I want to die by Sam Watersons bristilling eye-caterpillars crawling down my windpipe while I sleep.”
“I have the maturity to focus on a task,” these self-inflictions seem to say, “and I hope someday you graduate 3rd grade too!”
But, unfortunately, as a bangs-in-my-face-Eliot-Reid type, I’m easily sidetracked; especially if there’s a TV or a heated conversation or particularly scintillating game of Yu-Gi-OH.
And it would seem I’m not alone. I see a number of playlists on Spotify geared toward writers. Boastfully, we have “The writer’s playlist”, then of course “Writer’s Block”, and “Writers Block” without the correct apostrophe, and the cryptic “Boat, Writer’s Choice”, and unoriginally “WRITER’s Block Cure”.
What distracts me are not sounds, but specifically words. Maybe it’s my poetic tendencies, maybe it’s dyslexia, maybe it’s Maybelline brain, but I’m too porus. Words and conversations pull on me like a million sutures in my cheeks.
So I turn to music, though I do write in silence when I can. If I need music, I can’t listen to anything with lyrics. So I’ll reach for Jazz or classical or ASMR-wannabe nature sounds. If really wish to indulge in some internet self-care pseudoscience, I’ll reach for a 9 hour compilation of Binaural Beats and/or Isochronic Tones.
But what I most often seek out is Post-Rock. The genre of Post-Rock is characterized by exploring how traditional Rock instruments and sonic textures function in a jazz or classical compositions. Artist in this genes are Explosions in the Sky, toe, and Hammock. Most importantly, most Post-Rock artists eschew lyrics.
To accompany this article, I wanted to create a Spotify playlist of Post-Rock songs that I would collect while I read for my Emotions, Texts, and Subtexts class and while writing this piece. But I had no psychic patience to approach the inevitable playlist neurosis; scuttling through every song on the internet, meticulously placing each song in some cryptic order.
So I let “the algorithm” create my playlist for me. Below I go through my process and offer it to you to create your own.
First, I opened Spotify, chose an artist in the genre I wanted to sample (in my case Post-Rock), and accessed Spotify’s Artist Radio feature. I pressed play, shuffle, and then as songs appeared I would add them to the list. I had a crude formula for this: I’d not include the first song, nor every 3rd song after (so after not including the first song, the next song I skipped was the 5th song).
What I like about this approach is that my infant algorithm is an effective, but blunt tool. It doesn’t bother itself (or you) with “sample sizes” or “regression analysis”. No. I liked this approach because it is designed to be easy. I wanted to let this playlist happen to me more than I wanted to make it.
I keep thinking of why Abdurraqib writes with no sound and it sounds horrifying to me. He wants to honor the pain that writing illicits in him. To me there is something so impossible about honor. Or rather, the giving of it. To give honor is, in my mind, an act of witness. I think it’s a recognition that something exists, has power, and it deserves awe. My insecurity and anxiety over making a playlist for this article all sprang from my fear of feeling awe while I write. And perhaps, as Abdurraqib might suggest, I’m not curating songs to help me, I’m curating my distractions; distraction not from the action of writing, but distraction from the emotional plunging that writing demands.
Like making the playlist for this article, I hope writing will just happen to me. Perhaps I have harbored a naive expectation that if I write long enough and with enough careful distraction, I could slip off the curb and fall into writing expertise. Often writing demands an emotional tax I’m not willing to let tread on me, but it’s always to my writing’s detriment.
Please don’t let this graduate-level pontification suggest that I think you listening to music makes it impossible to feel the full weight and range of emotion while writing. Of course it can. But this is why Abdurraqib’s statement, that he “honors his pain,” rattled me: because to be at the point where you can honor the horrors of this world means he must have already done the work of forgiving. Forgiving pain and evil and heartache and facebook for everything they take and loving what we can learn from their blunt lessons. I want to learn, Abdurraqib. I hope to learn how to sit with my pain, me on one arm of the couch, her in the kitchen holding a spatula like a knife.