There’s a lot of music in my stories. Contemporary music, the stuff I listen to when I’m writing now like Josh Pyke and the sweet-edged dark bands of my teenaged years like Fall Out Boy, has certainly had an effect on my writing, and if you read closely you might even find some echoes of song lyrics in a few of my metaphors. Perhaps a lighthouse or two, because ever since I listened to ‘Chimney’s Afire’, the idea of moving to a lighthouse has been the most romantic idea I could think of, even though I’ve read The Light Between Oceans since, and even though I’m afraid of heights.
But the music that had the biggest impact on my writing this year was written before I was born.
In moments of writers block and self-doubt, it was only David Bowie who could coax me back to the desk, only the versatility of his greatest hits that could show me what a collection of short stories was supposed to be. Where the writer fades into the background like an invisible puppeteer and the different characters come to life one by one, a parade of the fantastic. In the story ‘A Moveable Farce’, my character Michael is at a party celebrating the metaphorical end of the world. ‘Young Americans’ plays on the crackling gramophone. I began writing that story in 2016, while I was doing my Graduate Diploma. Bowie had died in January of that year. People had been making jokes online about the annus horribilus that was that year in general. My relationship with the music of David Bowie had been almost tentative up until that point—I knew my Dad liked him, I knew the song ‘Space Oddity’ had always made me feel somehow afraid, and that Veruca Salt’s 1997 song ‘With David Bowie’ was a total bop. His final album, Blackstar, was released on his birthday, January 8, two days before his death, and I devoured it, and then I went back and I devoured several of his other major albums. I hated that I had fed into that old cliché, that everybody loves you when you’re dead, but there I was, grieving for a musical artist whose music I hadn’t really connected with while he was alive, and finding a connection to it—and a connection with my writing—as the world mourned him.
I didn’t really understand or acknolwedge my own literary responses to Bowie until this year. It’s been a year of thinking deeply about what inspires me, and about under what conditions I do my best work. Bowie, then, is a cure for Writers’ Block in nine out of ten situations. You heard it here first.
But when I was struggling with a particularly tough story ending, it wasn’t Bowie, but another band that offered me the answers, courtesy of a random Spotify playlist. The song was ‘Dreams’ by Fleetwood Mac, and as I listened to Stevie Nicks singing through my headphones, I could also hear another woman’s voice in my head—my mother’s. Suddenly, I was in primary school again, sitting in the backseat of a car that smelled like chlorine, on the way home from swimming on a Tuesday night, my brother and sister beside me and my Mum singing in the front seat.
Some writers can’t write with music playing, but I can’t often write without it (or first drafts at least.) Why? It’s because music is a trigger to my memory, and therefore, to the deep emotions that memories can bring. It seems right to me that there are music traces of both my parents throughout my work.
Emily Paull is a former-bookseller and future-librarian from Perth who writes short stories and historical fiction. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies as well as Westerly journal. When she’s not writing, she can often be found with her nose in a book.