Press Play, Write, Repeat by A. E. Ross
I have always needed music to write.
I came to prose from screenwriting, which is a very different creature. Despite having about 50% of the text per page (or less!), scripts aren’t necessarily slimmer, or shorter, or less informative than novels. And that’s because they need to be so very specific. Every single word is an individual building block in a 90 page script that tells a 90 minute story, potentially informing the interpretation of your work by multiple departments of people. A screenplay is not just a story, it’s also in and of itself a blueprint.
The importance of having music constantly blasting into my ears is that, without it, all I would be able to do was agonize over whether every single word I wrote was the correct one. But, with a packed playlist of verified bangers vibrating against my auditory ossicles, I could rip through a first draft full of imperfect words, each of them waiting to be refined time and time again after multiple workshop sessions and client note passes.
When it comes to writing, for me, music means moving forwards.
Despite finding my rhythm in screenwriting after, I used to be chronically unable to finish a piece of long-form prose. I would spend hours and hours in world-building mode, creating characters and settings and plans. I would get to somewhere between one to 10,000 words in and decide that the piece I was working on was very bad, actually, and I would find myself unable to return to it, to refine, or edit, or improve. This is partly owing to a major crisis of confidence that occurred in my first year of university during an introductory writing course. During the fiction section, I was informed that my writing was sloppy, unfocused, and that (as one character had in my piece) nobody ever throws up from emotional stress. I’ve since realized that while the first two points were worth reflecting on, the third is ableist garbage. Anyways, for years after, I continued to have ideas for prose projects bubbling up inside of me, but I lacked the confidence to see them through.
When I came up with the concept for my upcoming fantasy novel, “Run In The Blood,” I hoped desperately that it would not fall prey to the same block. It was my first chance to really face a lesson I’ve been struggling with my entire life: when your productivity and your mental health are all wrapped up in each other, being unable to complete a project feels a lot more serious than just a folder full of unfinished writing.
It feels like there is something fundamentally wrong with you.
So, determined to make sure that this time would be different, I got back on my bullshit: I picked a Sunday morning in early spring 2014, I put on my headphones, and I started to type. The album I started with was a recent discovery of mine: “Tempest in a Teacup” by anti-folk artist Mal Blum.
I had seen them perform on a weekly public access show that aired on the Manhattan Neighbourhood Network, called “The Chris Gethard Show.” Hosted by a comedian who regularly used the show to address his own struggles with mental health, it made me feel immediately seen and heard. Mal Blum’s music has a similar effect.
After that first Sunday of writing, I had produced the first few scenes of my book. Sticking to the ethos that your first draft is just a blueprint for the final product, I continued to sit down at my laptop each Sunday, putting on my headphones, and listening all the way through from the beginning of “Tempest In A Teacup,” through to the end of Mal Blum’s previous album, “Every Time You Go Somewhere,” moving through the book a few scenes at a time.
I repeated this process weekly for an entire year, until I had a full first draft.
The process evolved over time. It started to include a walk to a nearby bakery to acquire a coffee and a danish, before returning to start writing. If I had plans on the Sunday, I would write on Saturday instead. If there was a long weekend, I would try to sneak in two writing days. The one constant was that every single time I sat down to write, I would listen through the same two albums, in the same order, until I was satisfied with my work for the day.
The songs on those albums became the rhythm by which I wrote. I conditioned myself like Pavlov’s dog to start typing the second the moment the first few notes of “Overseas Now,” the first song on “Tempest in a Teacup” began to play. By the time my writing session had ended, and I had reached the last few notes of “Weary,” the appropriately-named final track on “Every Time You Go Somewhere,” I didn’t have to feel confident in what I had written, just relieved that it existed at all. Piece by piece, scene by scene, I finally created something that I didn’t feel confident I ever could. The music moved me forwards, like an ever-present but never pushy hand resting on my back as I walked up the hill of my first draft, trusting me not to look back.
As a result, there are parts in the narrative of “Run In The Blood” that I can’t think about without hearing one of Mal Blum’s songs playing in my head. When I listen to the albums now, I can’t help but feel the echoes of the emotional resonance these characters hold for me. It took writing this book to understand a few important things about myself, and it took Mal’s music to write this book.
Mal Blum released “You Look A Lot Like Me” in 2015 and they currently have a new album in the works.
I hope you’ll give them a listen.
The Chris Gethard show is currently in its third season on cable, having found a home at TruTV. You can find the public access episodes on YouTube.
I hope you’ll give it a watch.
My fantasy novel “Run In The Blood” is being released from NineStar on December 25th, and since I celebrate secular Christmas, that’s probably the best present I could ask for.
I hope you’ll give it a read.
A.E. Ross lives in Vancouver, B.C. with one very grumpy raincloud of a cat. When not writing fiction, they can be found producing and story-editing children’s cartoons, as well as producing & hosting podcasts like The XX Files Podcast. Their other works have appeared on Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and Netflix (and have been widely panned by 12-year-olds on 4Chan) but the projects they are most passionate about feature LGBTQIA+ characters across a variety genres.