Many people demand absolute silence when writing, but not Edmund White, writer of some twenty books and professor at Princeton University. In his essay “Before a Rendezvous with the Muse, First Select the Music,” he writes, “I’ve never willingly written a word without listening to music of some sort.”
White’s novel observations about the influence of music on the writing process appears as the final essay entry in Writers on Writing, Volume II: More Collected Essays from The New York Times. Here’s a remarkable excerpt from his commentary:
More often than not I experience music as a landscape unscrolling just outside the window whenever I look up, or as a human drama unfolding across the courtyard when I peek out, or as a separate but beloved presence, an intimate friend sitting in a matching chair, thinking and feeling. Music for me is a companion during the lonely (and why not admit it? the boring) hours of writing.
I’ve heard one writing “expert” after another foolishly claim without a shred of evidence that writers should listen only to music that approximates the rate of a beating human heartbeat, or that only music without lyrics would be helpful during the composing process, or that silence is an absolute necessity to maintain concentration.
All nonsense. I’ve seen people write efficiently while listening to rap on their iPods. I’ve watched others write quickly to pop love songs or dramatic operatic arias. And, no doubt, I’ve known others to require quiet when composing. Some rise early to write while the rest of the world is asleep for this very reason.
Then what works. There is no one-fits-all answer to this question. Whatever it takes for you—music, jackhammers, barking dogs, silence, whatever. Experiment to see what best works for you.
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