Books Nonfiction Writing

Music that hasn’t yet happened

In this interview with the Guardian, Brian Eno explains the process of creating and naming “ambient” music. It reminds me a great deal of what many writers say about why they write:

My interest in making music has been to create something that does not exist that I would like to listen to, not because I wanted a job as a musician. I wanted to hear music that had not yet happened, by putting together things that suggested a new thing which did not yet exist. It’s like having a ready-made formula if you are able to read it.

I recently reread an article about Toni Morrison’s Beloved, with a rather remarkable title. This Eno interview reminded me of another statement I read by Morrison, in which she said that she writes the books she wants to read. I agree with Morrison, so far — that’s why I wrote Alcestis, and that’s what’s motivating me to write Killingly — but I know there must be authors who wouldn’t say the same thing, who would attribute their compulsion to write to other reasons entirely. I can’t imagine that Joan Didion sat down to write The Year of Magical Thinking just because she wanted to read it, for example. But I think that’s always a small part of writerly motivation. You can enjoy the the nebulous ideas that form a book, but not in the same way that you enjoy the book itself.

But then, what to do with writers who, like actors who won’t watch their own movies, insist that they never re-read their finished work? Thoughts? Is the process of completing the book enough for you, as a writer?

Edited to add: Also check Austin Kleon’s post about the same topic, with a riff from John Gardner on “writing what you like.”


  1. I very rarely re-read my published work, because it’s too jarring to see the stuff I got wrong… I never re-read it for pleasure, but mostly because I need to remember if I used a particular line already, or something like that. Of course, I occasionally stumble on old, unpublished things which instill in me a sense of wonder that I wrote it–it’s not that it’s so GOOD, but because it’s so WHAT I WANT TO READ. But apparently it takes about 20 years for that to happen–I’m finding stuff I wrote when I was 13/14 and thinking it’s kind of awesome, how little I’ve changed (while simultaneously changing very much).

    Anyway, that’s not exactly what I wanted to say. I wanted to say that when I write the stuff I like to read, I am doing it for the reading pleasure of the people who also like what I like to read. I’m aware that I’m the author, and not the audience, even though I’m trying to appeal to myself.

    It’s a tricky balance, but I do liken it to my time in youth theater–I was always very critical of myself when I fell into the tropes of acting that I hated, like trying to convey emotion by pushing my voice into that timbre that I knew other young actresses used when they were trying to convey emotion. I avoided those tones and cadences because they felt fakey to me when I heard them. I was, after all, ultimately acting for myself; I knew that if I used those tones and cadences, I’d get kudos at the end of the performance, but I would feel like I was failing myself and my own preferences. So even though I was acting for an audience, I was also acting for myself.

    The other thing I want to say is that the act of writing is much more like daydreaming (and hence acting) than it is like reading. I used to daydream elaborate scenarios over many days, fine-tuning them and building on previous imaginings (like laying down lacquer). I had different daydreams for different places: the 60-minute bus ride to and from school was perfect for really detailed, introspective pieces, like being the last girl on earth; walking my dog was for more adventurous things–typically, things with sword-fights–that could allow for more physical involvement (running from the bad guys? Okay, the dog and I will run as fast as possible down the path). The reason I equate it to acting is because of the layering–the re-daydreaming certain bits over and over is like rehearsal. And where that’s like writing, for me, is the fact that I have to immerse myself in the world in a way that is more akin to getting into character than it is like just opening a book letting the author lead me through it.

    So, no, I don’t write it because it’s what I want to read, I write it because it’s what I want to daydream–and sure, that happens to also be what I would want to read if I had the chance to read it–but I also have to be able to approach the world of the book again and again and again, and be willing to refine it and improve it and build on it.

    I would say “I write what I like to read” is a short-hand, that has to be unpacked. At least, for me.

  2. I don’t write it because it’s what I want to read, I write it because it’s what I want to daydream

    Oh my, that’s nice. And I see what you mean. Oddly enough, I think my daydreams and my writing are pretty separated at this point — but I’ve been trying to push them closer together. (Interesting to think about ‘Twilight,’ yet again, in this context, don’t you think? The best-selling daydream ever.)

    I used to have a daydream specifically for riding in cars as a passenger. It always involved being on horseback instead of in the car, though the rest would change depending on what I was reading/watching at the time.

    I also like and sympathize with your example from acting. I’ve been practicing for readings from Alcestis and running into the same problems — how do I read it so that it’s compelling but doesn’t sound like a fiction reading, with all the posing that that implies, even if the “fiction reading” style originated from techniques that are effective?

    Thank you for this awesome comment!

  3. My daydreams and my writing were very separate in the beginning of my “adult career” (or whatever you might call it when you stop horsing around and get disciplined about writing and submitting what you wrote), because I didn’t feel that my daydreams were sophisticated enough. But I realized it wasn’t fun that way. And I had a hard time sitting down and writing when it wasn’t fun. And then I learned I could sell my daydreams. So…

    I think the true art of it comes in where you can marry the daydream to craft.

    And the acting thing from my younger days was part of my determination to be authentic, and not realizing that yeah, there are tried and true techniques because they, you know, work. So. Yeah.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *