Thoughts on Headphones
When I began writing, I didn’t dare use headphones. Headphones were for impatiently waiting on the subway platform, they were for walking around New York when I was lonely, they were for running on the treadmill at the YMCA, they were for sitting on patches of so-called grass at parks in Brooklyn. I wore them while I rode my shitty Schwinn bike (so fucking dangerous) and during sex and while doing the dishes but I snottily dismissed my hand at the thought of using them for writing. Silence was for writing. When I dated a guy that wrote with headphones on, a guy that wouldn’t write without headphones on, a guy that greeted me at the door of his apartment with huge headphones around his neck, I was shocked. Stunned. Confused. One night when we’d known each other for a few months, we were talking on Gchat. He went missing for a few minutes and when he came back he said:
A: Sorry. I’m high and writing and my joint was burning in the ashtray after I thought I put it out and I got distracted with that and the music in my headphones.
I finally popped the question:
me: How do you write with headphones on?
A: I write with headphones on like this: sometimes the music gets me in a way that I shut it out and become all emotional and I don’t hear anything and I remember things emotionally and it just all comes out of me. I’ve never said that to anybody. I tell you things about myself that I’ve never told anybody.
Over time, I slowly began to do the same thing. I don’t think I ever made the conscious decision or anything like, I’m going to try wearing headphones while I write–it was more of a natural progression. It may have started simply because music from computer speakers sounds like shit. It used to bother me so much that I would play music from a neighboring boombox or something.
For the past year, in my opinion–I cannot draft anything of substance without headphones on my ears. I know a big part of this is psychological. Without my headphones, it’s as if I am writing with the door and the windows wide open, wearing nothing but a bra and underwear. When I put my headphones on it feels like going underwater with a life jacket: I am protected and safe and I can go into scary places and survive.
Two music-lover writer buds of mine took the time to give me their answers to the question: How do you write with headphones on? Here’s what they said.
Chloe Caldwell: What brand of headphones do you use and can you talk a little bit about them and where you got them?
Gregory Sherl: I use the headphones that came with my iPod. They are falling apart; the rubber around earpiece is basically gone. They also feel very dirty even though I clean them often. I would like a pair of big headphones that cover my entire ear. That would be rad. If someone sends me those headphones, I will send you a copy of every book I publish for the next three years.
Michael Juliani: I used to use the shitty white iPod headphones but I just switched (over the summer) to some better over-the-ear black ones. I was scared of making myself go deaf, and those little earbuds were really irritating my ears. Plus I’ve heard the quality is so bad…I’m willing to listen to music in any form but I’d prefer to hear it as close as possible to the way the artist hears it.
CC: What is your writing schedule like and do you write with the door open or closed and what percent out of 100 during your writing time are you wearing headphones?
GS: Probably 72% of the time I am wearing headphones while writing. The door is always open because I am usually in a public space (like a coffee shop or a bar that is only kind of a bar) or in my family room, and there aren’t any doors in my family room, just a couch and a chair that matches the couch and a TV and a cat and a table I sit at with a swivel chair that I sit on.
MJ: I enjoy having a sense that I’m maintaining a level of focused solitude while among other people. I write a lot in public spaces like the library reading room or in the lobby of a building or at a lunch table with music going in my headphones. I almost always have to be listening to music in order to enhance the trance, building up the tension of the energy I’m trying to press into for words. When I’m writing at home in my apartment at my desk I usually keep the door closed and I’ll listen to my headphones really loud, but I don’t usually write as well in that situation. I tend to be forcing things a bit more. I purposefully disorganize my habits in order to get more spontaneous results so that’s when I decide not to listen to headphones, trying to pick up on all the things my senses are picking up around me. I might keep the door open in that situation too. I write everyday so I have to keep tricking myself in order to stay fresh (though the best work always comes when I’m not expecting it to, like after a ride in a car with loud music and a friend or having a new thought in my head on my way home from class or the library or something).
CC: What was the last song you listened to more than a couple of times through your headphones while writing?
GS: “Airplanes” by Local Natives. This question made me nervous because I feel like you are judging this choice. Tell me not to be nervous.
CC: Don’t be nervous. The weird thing about writing, I find, with music, is that sometimes it’s songs that you wouldn’t expect, that “do it” for you while writing. You know?
GS: Is this a question? Either way I am nodding.
MJ: I think it was probably something Townes Van Zandt. Probably Rake” by Townes Van Zandt.
The songs I end up listening to repeatedly while writing have a personality that elaborates on the personality of something I want to write. Music helps me better understand what I’m trying to say about myself.
CC: What is a song that you listen to often while writing that surprises you?
MJ: At the end of the summer my life changed a lot and I felt like I needed to step away from certain things that would feel too “old-world.” I listened to my sister’s iPod (when I was listening to music) and all she has is shitty pop music. I don’t know that I was writing while listening to any of it, but I needed to clean myself out a bit by embracing a culture that I felt was bringing me some pain. “Embrace and love the things you fear.” You’ve probably heard that before, right? I guess that sometimes the music I listen to has a contradictory energy on face level to the kind of writing I’m doing with it but I don’t really notice it because my feelings are lined up all the same way during that space of time.
CC: Do you use headphones for anything else, like when you are walking/exercising/cooking?
GS: My only form of exercise is walking late at night, and I always have my headphones on when I do it. Everything I cook myself goes in the microwave so that would only be like what, 1.6 songs a meal? When I walk, I walk for a long time though — like two hours, so I get through a lot of songs. Usually I have an album or two of the week, and I just listen to those two albums throughout the week.
CC: Can you talk a little bit about the difference in mood when you decide to listen to music while writing vs. silence? Is this something you think about? Is this a big difference to you? Can you ever not decide what music to listen to and not been able to write until you figured it out? Do you use music as a tool when writing, to become sad for a sad piece and to feel joy for others?
GS: Oh I never write in complete silence. I used to only write in public because I hated silence so much. I liked to listen to rhythm of people talking; I used to say it helped with dialogue. That’s probably bullshit but it sounded good to say when I was twenty. But no, never no music unless I am watching X-Files on Netflix. Sometimes Dana Scully’s voice is greater than music.
There are days when I can’t start a sentence until I have picked a song and sometimes it takes longer than I’d like to admit to pick a song.
The music I listen to during a writing session acts as a catalyst for what I’m writing. That might not be true but it feels that way. It’s probably a subconscious thing; I most likely pick the music based on what I’m feeling, which is what I’m about to write anyway, instead of the other way around.
MJ: I don’t always need music in order to write, and sometimes I deliberately avoid it because I feel too cramped and focused on what the song is saying rather than what my subconscious is unfolding. When I’m working really well I won’t consciously be hearing the song that’s playing in my headphones. It’s almost like I’m not listening to anything but my own thoughts, and that the music is helping me to carry on that kind of mood. A song will end and I wouldn’t have noticed anything since it began. Or I’ll be listening to a whole album and when I come out of my trance I’ll have gone through 3/4 of it without noticing. When I get too obsessed with the music, though, I’m not able to write well and I get really frustrated. I try to stay away from those situations but I listen to so much music all the time (when I’m walking, driving, sitting around, thinking, etc.) that it gets to be too much at a certain point and I can’t even think straight. That’s the worst writer’s block. Music does a lot of things to me emotionally that it’s bound to go haywire once in awhile. For instance, now I’m listening to much less music because I’m trying to learn more about the music of poetry, really focusing on how I manage line breaks and listening to the subtleties in other poets’ work, speaking it out loud and seeing how it flows so well. In short, when music is doing good things for me it helps with my meditation, but when I’m feeling overwrought with it I have to take it away in order to achieve meditation.
CC: Okay–being so interested in words and writing them and simultaneously listening to them, I always thought the song lyrics would distract me but they almost never do. You?
GS: No, the lyrics never distract me. If anything, they make me work harder. I hear a killer lyric, and it just makes me want to write something better than that lyric. That doesn’t happen, but it’s nice to have something to work towards. Football is on TV, and my dad just said, It’s snowing in Buffalo. That would be a good lyric. It made me want to write something better than that. Or maybe I’ll just steal it, because my dad isn’t famous.
MJ: Only in the sense that I’d view certain lyricists as poets, or that I view their words with the same appreciation and level of inspiration as I would a writer’s words. Bob Dylan’s obviously one of those people whose words are like that. Cobain, Van Zandt, Eminem…they all have lyrical power that informs my writing. Other music just creates moods and landscapes that I appreciate and adapt to my own use. For awhile I was writing things that satisfied the feelings I had listening to my favorite music. The Mars Volta write songs based on how closely they can match the feelings they get from their favorite movie scenes. I tried to apply that to poems and even essays.
GS: I went through a heavy Das Racist phase. I am trying to think during which book that phase was. You can usually find lyrics littered through my books. I always say “A song goes…” and then there are some lyrics, and it’s usually from a song I am listening to at the moment. Actually, the Das Racist might be from Monogamy Songs, which you didn’t actually ask about. Shit. You are asking me about too many books. I listen to a lot of Modest Mouse always, and I know I went through a lot of Building Nothing Out of Something while writing I Have Touched You. I am currently expanding I Have Touched You into a novel length collection of linked stories, and I’ve been listening to Yuck on repeat through that. And The National. Kanye West, too. I am always listening to some Kanye West, too. He is a great person to quote.
CC: I agree. I used to work at the Gap and so did Kanye and while I folded jeans I would quote “Spaceship”
to myself and in my head I would sing:
In the mall till twelve, when my schedule said nine, puttin’ them pants on shelves very patiently I ask myself, where I wanna go, where I wanna be, life is much more than running in the streets.
Thank you for your time.
GS: Thank you for asking me.
MJ: Loved doing this.
Gregory Sherl is the author of Heavy Petting (YesYes Books, 2011), The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail (MLP, 2012), the chapbook Last Night Was Worth Talking About (NAP, 2012), and Monogamy Songs (Future Tense Books, 2012). He blogs/reviews/interviews athttp://gregorysherlisgregorysherl.com/ and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Juliani was born and raised by Greeks in Pasadena, California. He turns 21 in May. His column, “From Young Rooms,” runs on Neon Tommy. He’s a junior at USC’s journalism school. Email him here: email@example.com. Read him here: michaeljuliani.wordpress.com.
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