A reader writes:
I find that iTunes and writing coexist uneasily here on my laptop. I often use iTunes while I am writing to set a mood or to block out ambient sound and focus my mind. But just as often the music becomes a distraction. I listen too much, write too little, and unproductive hours slip away before I catch myself.
I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the subject of music and writing. How do you use music in your actual writing process, if at all? Do you listen to music while you write, or are you the type who requires absolute silence? Do you program your music to suit the subject you are writing about? More abstractly, do you think that the growing popularity of iTunes and digitized music generally somehow changes the writing atmosphere, i.e. now that our music resides on the same hard drive as our work, do we listen differently, does music penetrate the workspace more than it used to?
Having at one time spent the better part of a decade working in a cubicle at the New York Daily News, I no longer need silence in order to write–which isn’t to say that I’d enjoy living across the street from a construction site! Fortunately, the windows of my apartment look down on a quiet, leafy side street, and the walls of the building are thick enough to screen out virtually all of the modest amounts of noise generated by my upstairs and downstairs neighbors.
As for music, I used to listen to it fairly regularly while writing, and on occasion I used it to set a mood. (I wrote parts of City Limits: Memories of a Small-Town Boy, for example, while listening to Aaron Copland’s Letter from Home and Dave Frishberg’s Sweet Kentucky Ham.) But I always had to be careful about what pieces I chose, and I learned over time that there were certain kinds of music that interfered with the writing of first drafts. Songs sung in English tended to throw me off the track, as did any recording conducted by Arturo Toscanini, whose interpretations of the classics were simply too intense for me to relegate to the background of my consciousness.
Perhaps my powers of concentration have been diminished by advancing age, or maybe I’ve simply become more sensitive to the emotion-evoking power of music. (I cry more easily now than I did a decade ago.) Whatever the reason, I now find music more distracting than I used to, and I no longer listen to any kind of music while working on first drafts. Editing is different, and unless I’m doing battle with a tight deadline, in which case I prefer to struggle in silence, I sometimes listen to music when I’m polishing a piece, though I don’t really hear it. Sometimes I’ll put on a symphony or concerto, start chipping away at an unpolished draft, and emerge from a deep trough of concentration to realize–always with surprise–that the piece of music to which I was “listening” is almost over.
I suspect that my correspondent is right to think that the increased availability of digitized music is changing the atmosphere of the workplace, but I see iTunes less as a unique and separate source of distraction than as one of the myriad ways in which Web-enabled computers are capable of diverting us from the task at hand, whatever it may be. I’m a chronic procrastinator–if it weren’t for deadlines, I wouldn’t get anything done–and my iBook places an infinite number of distractions at my fingertips. I’m far more likely to waste time by surfing the Web than by playing with iTunes, though, possibly because it’s easier for me to pretend that I’m searching for some fact that’s relevant to the task at hand.
More generally, I’ve come to look upon my DSL-equipped iBook as an enemy of leisure, a malevolent magnet that pulls me out of the Teachout Museum and seduces me into working when I ought to be playing. It is this realization that finally taught me a lesson the rest of the world figured out long ago, which is that it is good to get out of town from time to time. The great danger of the digital workplace, of course, is that you can take it wherever you go, which is why I never, ever take my computer with me to the secure undisclosed location where I sit by the Hudson River and watch the sun set, nor do I bring it along when I review out-of-town plays. That way lies…well, maybe not madness, but definitely obsession. I may be a workaholic, but at least I’m not a degenerate workaholic.