Two years ago on a muggy July evening I was sipping my second whiskey-rocks in a bar with a friend when I made a sweeping claim: every season of my life had its own soundtrack. What’s more, hearing just a few chords of certain songs could send me back to long-gone times and places.
Fair enough. But when he asked what songs were on the current soundtrack, I struggled to name any.
What season was I in?
It was hard to say.
I don’t mean that I couldn’t discern what was going on around me. I mean, quite literally, it was hard to say: I found it too difficult to declare aloud that my life was falling apart.
I was deeply unhappy in those days, in ways I won’t discuss here because it’s neither the point nor fair to others. But I will say that because I felt I couldn’t talk about my unhappiness, I was driven to other outlets, namely music and writing.
As my days slid downhill I drowned myself in song. Each night when I curled up alone in the glow of my reading lamp I turned up the volume on my headphones as a tonic. As a drug, even. Music intoxicated me: it offered pleasure as well as the sort of pain that’s pleasurable.
My unhappiness also fueled my writing. Frustration spattered across the paper like gasoline; hurt and despair sparked left and right. In a matter of months I filled several thick journals with fiery depictions of my inner world. Looking back over these books I see at a glance when I was angry—those pages are scarred with a fierce black scrawl—and when I ached with loneliness—some leaked strings of ink are even blotched by now-dry teardrops.
That season has passed. I can say, without hesitation, that I’m happier now.
One piece of evidence is my slimmed-down upbeat playlists. A more meaningful sign is my journal. Journal, singular—one leather-bound book from six months ago that’s still half blank. Frustration and loneliness are no longer driving my pen across paper at all hours like a fever.
So… now that I’m happy, I listen to less music and write less passionately.
Was misery my muse?
Two years ago, in the heat of that miserable summer, I remember speculating that if I found relief someday I’d write less hot-bloodedly. The writer Mandy Len Catron notes that she, too, “used to think [her] writing was best when it came from a state of intense emotion,” but she goes on to say she’s changed her mind:
The belief that writing in fact requires some form of suffering served me well all the years I spent either ignoring or tending to my “should I be in this relationship” anxiety. But when the relationship ended (and the anxiety ended and the sense of loss became bearable) writing suddenly came easily. I was focused.
I want to agree with Catron. I want to conclude that good writing comes not from suffering but from focus—a consistent commitment to craft. On an intellectual level I believe she’s right.
But I don’t really believe it in my bones, at least not yet—not at this stage of my young life and my younger writing career.
I recently wrote a novel that draws heavily on my personal experiences, and the truth is that most of my manuscript flooded from me in sudden months of furious typing. It was a rush. It was cathartic. The result felt raw and real to me.
In contrast, now that it’s out and I’ve turned to necessary rewrites, my progress is slow and tedious. Passion is no longer pouring straight from the source, and seemingly as a result I no longer sense what needs to be said with the same ease. I’m picking my way through the process like a construction worker with no blueprints.
I’m not saying my emotion-fueled writing was “best,” as Catron put it. But it was certainly easier.
Is it a trade-off then? A difficult life makes for easy writing while an easy one renders writing hard? I don’t want to believe so, but that’s how it feels at the moment, so I may as well admit to it.
In a fit of (re)writer’s block the other day I returned to my long-neglected music collection and happened to pick my playlist from that summer. Ah! I was right that night with the whiskey-rocks and the friend: all it took was a few chords for old scenes to flood back into my mind.
“Counting Stars” conjured the deck where I lay gazing into the abyss on warm, breezy midnights. “Hide and Seek” had me behind a café’s rain-glazed window. And “Alive With the Glory of Love” sent me straight back to that bar; I heard the ice clink, felt the cold sweat on the glass, tasted the burn on my throat and in my thoughts.
That night it was hard to say, but now I can answer that “White Blank Page” was on the soundtrack for that season of my life. (Ironic, yes…)
I’ve moved on from how I felt then. But as that summer’s songs coursed through me this week I felt the old urge to pour myself out onto my journal’s white blank pages. The ink flowed. My hand cramped. I felt revived—alive with the glory of... something.
Maybe the muse doesn’t need to be misery. Maybe someday I’ll experience what Catron did: words coming from a lack of misery. Inspiration from focus alone? Apparently it’s possible. For tonight, though, my writing is driven by music. By memories. By a touch of suffering—the sort of pain that’s pleasurable.
This is one way to fight the tide of the missed busses and the overflowing recycling bin, the empty refrigerator, and the doubt. Put on your headphones and play a song at a volume that hurts just a little, a song that shepherds the mass of feelings into a single focused thing, making the unmanageable manageable in two- or three-minute increments.
Mandy Len Catron
"How Do You Live With Doubt?"