One of the things us writerly types like to preach is that to be a good writer, you should also be a reader. It’s sound advice. We learn by watching someone else do it. You can stand to learn a lot from good writing, like how to pace an action sequence, or how to foreshadow plot elements. Reading bad writing is also useful, because it shows by bad examples what poor character development looks like, or how angry people can get over plot holes.
And I’m going to go one step further.
You can also learn by listening to music.
Put down your glow-sticks and giant pacifier, kid. I’m not talking about all music. There are a lot of different reasons to listen to music. I tend to feel that all are valid in their own ways, and reflexively distrust people who don’t like any music. But a writer would be remiss if they didn’t consider the rich narrative tradition of story songs as a good source of inspiration.
For example, “17 and 53” by Danielle Ate the Sandwich compacts a powerful story about parents, children, and things left unsaid into a melodic few minutes.
And “American Without Tears” by Elvis Costello (originally recorded as The Costello Show on the album King of America), tells a multi-layered story about a British immigrant to the States encountering the story of British GI brides from another generation. Rich with history, loss, and hope, all in one simple song. Honestly, I could have picked several songs off this album to illustrate this point. Elvis Costello is a gifted storyteller, and songs such as “Sleep of the Just” and “Our Little Angel” are amazing micro stories in song form. If you can find King of America, I maintain it is one of the best albums front-to-back that he’s ever recorded.
It ultimately doesn’t matter too much what kind of music you like as long as there are lyrics. Spend some time with the liner notes, or pull them up online, and you might be amazed at what you can find. When I was younger, that’s just what you did. When you listened to music, you goddamned listened to it. Sure, some of it was insipid. Even some of it that I genuinely enjoy has very little to recommend it lyrically. I don’t love Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” because of the story–I love it because of how it evokes that raw 60’s garage rock sound. But for the most part, lyrics have always been a huge part of why I prefer some artist over others.
From Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” and the Barenaked Ladies “Conventioneers,” all the way back to Marty Robbins’ “Long Iron,” the story song is everywhere. Let the lyrics in, let them share their story, and see where it leads you. Hell, Coheed and Cambria, not content with a single concept album, did a four album that told a sprawling sci-fi epic over the course of four albums.
There is a reason that Manuel de la Vega is frequently wearing a Calexico tour t-shirt in the Gato Loco novels. Their music speaks to me, helps inform the character of the work in progress. I can honestly say I wouldn’t have written two Gato novels with more in planning stages if not for Calexico.
Sometimes the story that is told comes in pieces–dreamy, fragmented bits of images that haunt you like a David Lynch movie. Take for example “Star Witness” by Neko Case (as wonderfully recorded here by Ontario High School students Kate and Janelle). Here you have a series of interconnected scenes, flashes of a bigger story that stirs the imagination. What is the full story? Fill that in for yourself.
And sometimes, the song serves up a heaping epic of operatic proportions. Bruce Springsteen is great at that. He articulates a certain narrative just as surely as Cormac McCarthy does. And he rocks it. I can’t think of a better example of storytelling through song than his masterpiece “Jungleland.”
Reading is great. By all means, if you want to write, you need to read. But be on the lookout. There are stories everywhere if you know where to look…and how to listen