When I was young, I assumed that everyone heard music in their head most of the time, that everyone had the same kind of running soundtrack that kept me company. Not songs of my own creation, which are what Spider hears in his head, but whatever songs were in heavy rotation on my record player. And, since this started during the days of vinyl, I usually heard entire records, start to finish, not random songs.
(Confession: I do remember composing a concept album in my head once, as I worked my way through an especially muggy summer of delivering papers. All songs about boredom! I can still remember a random chorus: “It’s just monotony/Killing you and killing me.” That couplet is my gift to anyone who wants to take this seed and grow the rest of the record.)
Thinking about it now, this private soundtrack not only kept me sane during otherwise unbearable moments, like, say, Biology or Calculus; this listening also helped me learn how to decode the drums. Another confession: I was not a natural behind the kit. I was never one of those prodigies who would now be starring in Youtube videos that go viral and cause jaws to drop, the kid who can barely reach the kick pedal but can slay “Tom Sawyer.” It was a challenge to get my body to move the way it should, and before I could train the body I had to figure out what each limb was supposed to do. Repeatedly playing back songs I loved gave me a chance to study them, focusing my brain on the drums so that I could pick the patterns apart, even when I wasn’t near a record player (or, later, my beloved Walkman).
There’s still a fairly constant soundtrack in my head, but now I have partitioned some brain space so that I can write, even when I’m not writing. Which is why I can now report that the new book is gaining a life of its own. The writing I am doing when I am not actually writing is growing louder, and involves a consistent cast of characters.
I don’t know what they’re going to do most of the time, but that’s to be expected at this stage. For me, the characters come first. I follow the ones that interest me, hoping that eventually they do something that might lead to a plot.
This writing without writing is a crucial step in the life of any project, for two big reasons. The first is simple logistics: there aren’t many hours I can devote to sitting in front of a keyboard, so it’s important for me to be able to work out a few basics of the new world in my head. Even more importantly, having the stories run in my head gives me a chance to decode these people, and the places they go, so that I can figure out what words I need to use to show them to the rest of you—not unlike the way I had to learn the way my limbs were supposed to move when I play the drums.
Which means in maybe, I don’t know, two or three years (or four), everyone else can see these people and places.