Whistle While You Work

Andrew Bird, man of many melodies.
Andrew Bird, man of many melodies.

A friend recently posted a fascinating article called “Untamed Melody,” written by musician and songwriter Andrew Bird about his writing process. In case you’re too lazy to read the article (really, though, read it!–it’s good!), I’ll sum it up for you: from an early age Mr. Bird has lived his life with melodies. Melodies with his cereal, on the way to school, while brushing his teeth. At any given time he has several melodies filed away in his brain, which he then takes out and tinkers with until he feels they are ready. He then marries words to melody by verbalizing nonsense until “something true” slips into the babble. He teases words from his subconscious mind to “settle into the grooves of the melody.”

I really enjoyed reading this article. It is always a pleasure for me to sneak a peak into another artist’s creative process; the insight I gain by examining someone else’s process often helps me to define my own process more precisely. There were many things about Andrew Bird’s process that resonated with me as a writer, the main difference being that where he goes through life with melodies in various stages of creation, I go through life with stories.

It’s always a challenge when friends or acquaintances ask me, “What are you working on right now?” Similarly to Bird, at any given time I will have or six or seven stories tucked away in my mind. They are in various stages of invention; some are nearly complete, with named characters and clear plot points, and I may have even begun to physically write or outline them. Others are nascent ideas, hardly more than sparks of ideas that may have potential but have barely enough form to qualify as stories. I live with these stories, taking them out while I wait for a bus or in the moments before sleep. I take them out and I roll them around, tasting half-formed sentences and imagining settings; testing characters for life and pushing plots toward tension.

'Voice of Space,' by Rene Magritte
‘Voice of Space,’ by Rene Magritte

The distance between one of these stories in my mind and a finished short story or novel is nearly unfathomable. Most of these creative chrysalides will never make it past this initial stage; they will never metamorphose into fully realized writings. Some will linger, fledgling ideas that never truly take wing, until some new spark or inspiration replaces them. Others will grow slowly, gathering bulk and weight and shape until at last I take out a pen or open up my laptop and begin to¬†write. And then–then the real work begins. Then, like Bird, I must find a way to marry words to ideas, to channel the constant babble of my subconscious mind into something true and real. Something that means something–something that is important to me. Only then do these stories finally find life.

Understanding another artist’s process is interesting, but understanding your own process is far more important. I have come to understand that for me, sometimes the most important part of writing is the part that comes before I have written a single word. Sometimes sitting still and letting those stories I keep hidden away in my mind tumble about is just as essential as honing the other aspects of my craft. Because what is a writer without her stories?

What is your creative process like? Are you inspired by hearing about other artists’ processes? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

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