On the morning of Dec. 4, 2007, I listened to the Postal Service album “Give Up” for the first time. I was on the commuter bus and for some reason the combination of music and movement always spurs creative activity in my head. I had, of course, already heard the first two singles (which are also the first two tracks) from the album before. In fact, I had been obsessively listening to “The District Sleeps Tonight” for several months. As I worked through the tracks I had never heard before, I got this weird feeling that the album was science fiction. And by the time I got to “Brand New Colony” I was convinced. And then I got this image stuck in my head that turned into the phrase “Up in the Aerie, the Poet’s lover.” I dismissed it, but it returned. I thought it a bit precious, but then more started showing up. And then I got this idea. Why not write a cycle of connected short short stories based on each track on the album? I wrote a few notes on my PDA (a hand-me-down from my boss that I mainly use for calendar and tasks) and a few more when I got to work.
I listened to “Give Up” again on the ride home and the idea gained some momentum. Normally, that’s where it would stop. But I ended up with a couple of free hours that night, and actually opened up Google Docs and got to work. I wrote the first two stories. Each was written while listening to the track (on repeat) that titles it. I also wrote part of the ending (which changed completely later) and one sentence notes for a couple of the other tracks. It was an interesting experience. And one that I repeated over the subsequent 8 or so weeks for each of the 10 tracks. The last track — the ending — was the most difficult one. And along the way I realized that short short stories wasn’t going to work or what I wanted to do and they ended up being more episodes than connected stories. I completed the cycle on the evening of Feb. 8. I humbly suggest that you read it before reading the rest of the post because I’m going to talk more about the writing process and there’s a chance that that may spoil your reading experience. Here it is:
Some thoughts on the experience:
I wrote most of my college papers to music. And most of those to the music of Joy Division. And it may have influenced my writing a bit, but this was a completely different beast. As I mentioned, for each episode, I listened to the track it was associated with on repeat. I made a point of not listening to the album when I was not writing. I also heavily resisted working on the story in my head while I was not actively writing and listening to the album. This was difficult to do, but I pretty much succeeded at it. The idea was to let the music inspire and guide the story. And it did. Obviously, the lyrics had a huge influence, but so did the music — both specific sounds and the overall mood. I also let the form of the songs (in a sort of muddled way) inspire the form of some of the episodes. I’d listen to the song and think about where the story was going and all of a sudden, a form would suggest itself (this is more true of the later episodes than the earlier ones).
Each episode took anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to write. I did no major rewriting on an episode after it was complete — in fact, at most I changed or added 6 lines in the total piece. And most of those were mainly to enforce continuity as the story developed. This means that the finished product is really a rough draft. Actually, that’s not entirely true because as I was working on an episode I would go back and change things — but only within the confines of that episode. I’m not sure that I’m going to rewrite it (which is something I’d normally do with a short story — I’d set it aside for weeks or months or years and then do a rewrite). And if I did do a rewrite, I’m not sure that I’d listen to the album again while I did it.
Before I wrote the ending, I took the opportunity to read the previous episodes while listening to the songs they were associated with. It was not as painful as an experience as I thought that it would be. In fact, it was quite fun. I enjoyed seeing where I had pulled from the materials the songs provided. The review also strengthened my instincts to keep episode 3 to the one line that it is. The track itself — “Sleeping In” — is the weakest on the album, imo. And the story says all that it really needs to say. A lot of what I used from the songs comes across rather obviously in the writing. But I was amazed at just how much — considering how much I felt like I diverged in terms of voice. In fact, the character named Greta wasn’t part of the original (admittedly very vague) story arc until I went to write “Nothing Better” and Jen Wood’s vocal part conjured her into existence (or is it Jenny Lewis on that track?).
I’m not sick of the album yet even though I have heard every track more than 15 times.
Endings are difficult. If I do a rewrite, I would probably focus on the ending. Then again, I’m still at the point where I don’t see how I could do it differently. I do think that the way the Greta/Poet’s lover part ends is rather lame and cliched. That I might change.
It’s not the greatest science fiction. In fact, it’s pretty weak science fiction. I’m just not that good at the hard stuff. But hopefully, it’s not incredibly oblique. Space elevators, life support systems, and VR via the use of implants. That’s pretty much it.
I’m not sure I’d recommend this same approach to writing to anyone else. It’s certainly not an experiment that I will look to repeat. But.. It was a lot of fun. The music propelled me forward and inspired bits and pieces, but I also had to push against it at times to let the story develop. Hopefully some of that energy is reflected in the final product.