In the realm of art, including the writing of stories that reach into people’s hearts and minds to leave an indelible mark – or, depending on your genre, perhaps a scar – we are very much alone with our muse. And too often that muse doesn’t know any more about how to pull it off than you do.
It feels as if we are on our own to elevate our game to a form in which the parts – all those fundamental elements and executional skills you read about here and are sweating bullets to understand and apply to your work – exceed the sum of their parts.
Because that’s precisely what it takes.
It is the very definition of art itself.
And so we dwell on those parts, we practice until our foreheads bleed, we obsess, we commiserate, we read blogs and books — some of us write them — and occasionally, in rare moments we later wish we could duplicate at will, we feel as if we are in touch with something larger than ourselves.
And from that moment we draw hope.
There is only one sure way to get there: we must go deep.
We must find and then immerse ourselves in The Zone, a place where genius gels, clarity reigns, and the gates of possibility part to reveal a side of you that has heretofore only whispered its existence.
Here’s a way to do just that.
In my Tips ebook, I advocate the use of music to tap into a level of perception, appreciation and creative energy that seems otherwise inaccessible. One way to write scenes with greater depth and emotional resonance is to select music – I suggest movie themes – that matches the contextual mission of the scene itself.
Another way is to simply lose yourself in a masterful composition and feel yourself go somewhere you can’t explain, and do it as a way to get yourself ready to engage with your story.
All artists and athletes prepare for performance. They stretch, they mediate, they run the vocal scale. They warm up whatever muscles are required, and they do it religiously and with great focus.
They wouldn’t think of going to work without this preparation. Because it takes them to where they need to be – their zone, their sweet spot – to perform.
As writers, our muscles are emotion, depth, perception, courage and wonder. In other words, the inherent power and potential of the human heart and soul.
That is the currency, the zone, in which we deal as writers. And sometimes we need to warm up to get there.
What I’m about to recommend is an exercise in how to go to that place.
I’m going to ask you listen to three different songs. To close your eyes and completely lose yourself in them.
It’s something you have to experience to explain or understand, and let me say this: if it doesn’t work for you, I’ve either picked the wrong songs or you’ve picked the wrong avocation.
Because the three songs I’m going to recommend should awaken something in you that sends you running straight for your computer to write. They certainly do in me.
Music is very much like the storytelling we novelists and screenwriters undertake. It is structurally driven, thematically dependent and artfully rendered. It has both form and function, both heart and soul.
It also has words.
But the words – lyrics in their case, narrative in ours – only go so far. It is the music that ignites them and makes them soar, that propels them into your conscious mind to summon the subconscious essence of your very humanity.
That connects the artist to the listener/reader in a way that defies definition.
Crazy as it sounds, we need to write that music into our stories, using nothing other than more words. And you can’t do that until you hear the music of your story in your head… and feel it in your heart and soul.
These three songs are pure genius.
And they will call forth the genius within you if you open yourself to it. Because these songs, and your intentions, seek the very same thing.
Trust the process. Listen with a depth and openness you’ve never applied to music before. And when you do, you will begin to sense how you, using your words to color a framework of human experience, can elicit the same dramatic response.
Go on iTunes to find them, Google them, try Youtube, do what you have to do. You can easily find the lyrics online, but that won’t do it, any more than reading a screenplay can deliver the experience of the film made from it.
Don’t cut that corner. Listen to these songs, and be humbled by the power of art. Be amazed.
Then go and be amazing.
Hallelujah, written by Leonard Cohen and preformed by Jeff Buckley.
Written in 1984 and covered by dozens of major artists, the Buckley version is arguably the most successful and moving (though Jon Bon Jovi does a killer version in his live show). It’s a dark love story with a structure very much like that of a novel, and themes that are so poignant you’d think Shakespeare himself phoned in a consult.
Lose yourself in the words, they’re off-the-charts brilliant. Feel the power of the melody take you to a place of shock and awe, and know that merely by feeling this, by acknowledging the power and magic of what you are hearing, you have it in you to summon those same emotions to the pages of your manuscript.
You can’t write it if you don’t feel it. And if you don’t feel it while listening to this song, switch genres. Because it doesn’t get deeper or more honest than this.
Waiting in the Weeds, written and performed by Don Henley.
Two years ago The Eagles released a long-awaited album of new music. One of the cuts, Waiting in the Weeds, is a tragic love story come to life, a masterpiece of lyric power. Don Henley has long been considered the poet-laureate of contemporary songwriters, and this song demonstrates why. The use of allegory and analogy is stunning, and the switching between that context and a painfully vulnerable first-person voice is as good as writing gets in any form of the craft.
Again, if you can hear it at that level, you will be empowered to take your writing to another level, too – perhaps deeper than you imagined you could ever go.
100 Years, written and performed by Five For Fighting.
If you like books that span generations and bring a life story alive, this song will fascinate you while it makes you feel your own mortality. Where the first two are somber and dripping with poetic angst, this song is a soft celebration of life.
As your story can be, too.
Immerse yourself in this exercise and it just might change who you are as a writer.
Everything we do in our lives as writers serves to inform and unleash our ability to infuse our stories with poignance. These songs do that with orders of magnitude more power, and in a mysterious yet infallible way, than any other experience, writing or otherwise, that I can recommend to you.
Even the process of listening at this level of focus is itself analogous of the writing life. Because we, as writers, must live differently than others if we are to succeed in our craft.
It’s there in these songs. All the subtlety and context and nuance of life itself, poetically rendered. Can you hear it? Can you feel it? Of course you can… you’re a writer.
We must notice the details, recognize the meaning, capture the nuance, beauty and pain and joy of the human experience. Even if you are writing a whacy romantic comedy or a fantasy or a dark horror story. Because none of it, in any genre, will work unless you bring life to your pages.
If you wait for it to happen to you, it may or it may not. But if you study your craft as well as practice it – and this exercise is a way to do both – you may find that your craft transcends its parts to become art itself.