Writing Thoughts

The Music I Write To

Music is powerful. It sets a mood and evokes emotions. And it can be a writer’s best friend.

While there are times when I prefer to write in silence, I usually have music playing in the background. Though it has to be the right music for what I’m writing.

When I was writing The Insistence of Memory, I listened to a lot of 90s alt-rock with strong female vocals—most often that meant Poe and K’s Choice—with some breaks for Nine Inch Nail’s Downward Spiral. There was also quite a bit of moody trip-hop/electronica, like Portishead and Thievery Corporation. One standout song that I played a lot was Colour Me by Dot Allison.

My playlist for To the Left of Death was less ethereal/folk and more about young, powerful female singers/songwriters like K. Flay, Alice Merton, and Bishop Briggs. Though, hands down, Halsey’s Badlands album was my absolute go-to while working on this book. (And when boxing—Badlands is excellent for boxing!)

Now that I’m working on a young adult, adventure book, my music has shifted to classical and fantasy-instrumental music. Some of my favorites include well-known melodies like selections from The Carnival of the Animals (Saint-Saëns) and Claire de Lune (Debussy), as well as instrumental pieces from soundtracks like Harry Potter and Final Fantasy X.

I have a weakness for piano and, thanks to Pandora, I’ve discovered so many fabulous soloists/composers who inspire me to write fantasy, such as Paul Cardall, Philip Wesley, Emile Pandolfi, Michelle McLaughlin, and Van Jensen.

My musical taste is wide. What I listen to when I write may not be the same thing I would listen to when I cook dinner, practice yoga, or go on a road trip, but music often stimulates my creativity and helps me find (and keep) the mood of my writing project. In short, music is magical.

On Writing About Trauma

Trauma survival plays a part in some of my writing. That can be a difficult issue to tackle.

My main character in To the Left of Death struggles with post-traumatic stress after being unwittingly involved in murder. The novel is written in the first-person, which lets you step inside her mind and (hopefully) experience some of her feelings.

As a writer, it’s a little scary to present that kind of story—because Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an important, yet extremely sensitive issue.

When describing life with PTSD, I want to get it right. I want trauma survivors who read this book to feel like they are not alone, but I don’t want to write in a way that will be too upsetting or triggering. That’s a fine line.

Creating a realistic portrayal is also challenging because PTSD comes in many forms. One trauma survivor’s experiences may be very different than another’s, and both are equally valid.

It’s important to note that PTSD can be a result of any form of trauma. While we often association PTSD with war veterans, it can come from other experiences as well, such as physical/sexual assault, an accident, a natural disaster, or the death of a loved one.

There is no specific type of trauma, or level of trauma, that leads to developing PTSD, and PTSD is not a sign of “weakness.” Surviving trauma takes strength, and so does reaching out for help (more on that below).

In my opinion, some fictional portrayals of trauma and recovery are excellent, while others tend to sensationalize its trickier symptoms like dissociation and depersonalization.

Living with PTSD can include some scary experiences, including memory loss or “losing time.” You may have altered perceptions, where things around you feel louder, softer, brighter, dimmer, closer, farther, etc. You may feel disconnected. You may have flashbacks—images, sounds, or smells—that show up suddenly or play on a loop. You may feel emotions that seem to be out-of-context with where you are or or what you are doing.

When living with these symptoms, you may worry that you are “crazy” or “going crazy.” You’re not. Millions of people learn to live with post-traumatic symptoms while still maintaining normal, fulfilling lives.

If symptoms of trauma are affecting your life, talk to a trained professional. There are treatments that can help.

You can learn more through the PTDS Alliance (ptsdalliance.org) and the National Center for PTSD (ptsd.va.gov).

As a writer, I try to create stories that help us imagine life from another person’s point of view. In To the Left of Death, I hope I’ve been able to capture trauma survival in a helpful, compassionate light.

I Want To Be a Writer

After publishing The Insistence of Memory, I can’t count the number of people who have told me some variation of “I always wanted to be a writer.” My natural reaction to confessions like that is something like “Cool, what have you written?”

The answer to that question varies, but most often it’s along the lines of “Oh! I haven’t written anything since school.” With school being a time 15+ years in the past. And, more than I’d expect, the answer is closer to “Oh, I’ve never actually written anything, I just have great ideas.”

Now I mean this in the least judgmental, most genuinely curious way. When I hear answers like that, one follow-up question always comes to mind:

If you don’t spend time writing, why would you want to “be a writer”?

Be honest with yourself.

Do you genuinely enjoy expressing yourself through written work, even if you’ve gotten away from it over the years?

Do you love reading and have a vague sense that it would be <insert positive idea> to be the one who writes books?

Do you think being a writer is the same as being a bestselling author?

Maybe you know the answers to those questions. Maybe you aren’t sure. Either way, if you want to be a writer there is something you can do about it:

Start writing.

If you have great ideas, write them down. Shape them into a story (or a poem, essay, play, etc.). Put in the effort and see if you actually like the process of writing.

If you don’t enjoy it, you find out that writing isn’t for you. If you do, then you can keep honing your process, finish some projects, and decide where you want to go with it.*

There is more than one way to be a writer, but all of them involve spending some time actually writing.

The same is true of any dream you might have.

I want to be a _______.

How many ways can you finish that sentence? Dancer? Knitter? Actor? Yogi? Singer? Gourmet chef? Golfer? Race car driver?

Whether you’re thinking of a hobby or a career change, there are steps you can take to stop dreaming and try that activity for yourself. Take a class. Buy an instructional book or video. Audition for community theater.

Give it an honest chance. There may be a learning curve. It may take some persistence to get past the initial awkwardness of trying something new. It may take some mental effort (and the moral support of friends) to get over your fears and insecurities. But you can do it.

If there’s something you want to be, turn it into something you actually do.

What’s the worst that can happen? Maybe you discover that you don’t actually enjoy the activity as much as you thought you would. Maybe you love it and add another layer to your identity.

Whatever happens, you’ll have a deeper understanding of what you really want. And that alone can be deeply satisfying.

*Keep in mind that the odds of an unknown writer breaking into traditional publishing, let alone penning a bestseller, are slim. But slim does not mean impossible and there are many other options for self-publishing or sharing your work.