By Gillian Harrison
Strange as it seems, one of my favorite things about returning to work has been the drive. Once upon a time, sitting on the freeway used to get me frustrated and impatient but now I see the drive as twenty-five beautiful minutes to listen to the radio, to sing and to hear new songs from new-to-me bands. And sometimes, old songs from old bands.
Last week Triple J kicked off the Hottest 100 of the last 20 years, and suddenly my morning car ride became a journey in more ways than one. Like a flashback sequence in a movie, over and over, I re-lived times I thought I had forgotten. Green Day whisked me off to a friend’s party, held the minute her parents drove away on a two-week holiday. Mazzy Star’s Fade into You left me crying on my bedroom floor after a bout of unrequited teenage love. The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army transported me to a bus chugging through the South Korean countryside and Alex Lloyd’s Amazing gave me goosebumps, taking me back to a rainy day funeral.
Enter Spiderbait’s Sunshine on my window and it’s 1996 again and I’m driving down the Mitchell Freeway, in my 1972 canary yellow Datsun, smoking a cigarette and running late for a lecture. How strange that after all this time my brain has retained these frozen moments, these stored snippets?
Or is it?
In David Russell’s film adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel Silver Linings Playbook (SLP), Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a mentally ill ex teacher. For Pat, Stevie Wonder’s My Cherie Amour, the song played at his wedding – and, cruelly, the song playing when Pat discovers his wife in the shower with another man – has become his musical monster. When heard, the song triggers a disoriented rage and takes him over. And although I’ve never experienced such an extreme sensory memory, I could certainly relate.
Taking Hollywood exaggeration into account, some songs, like My Cherie Amour do take the moment for ransom, an idea great filmmakers (Scorsese and Tarantino, for example) use regularly. In SLP , Pat’s trigger song isn’t just about the soundtrack, it holds the plot up, it tells a story.
“Music is at the emotional heart of film-making”, says SLP Director, David Russell, who in the same interview goes on to speak of music’s power to steer the narrative.
Using music in another narrative (writing) doesn’t work in the same way as in film making but it can trigger emotions and memories. Because of this, exploring a song can add colour and detail to a character or storyline. I’m not talking about simply listening to music while you write, but instead using music as a way to tap into the past, using forgotten moments as a writerly resource, or a subconscious ‘ideas’ file.
Because music, like a metaphorical magic carpet, can carry us away, to light and dark places, and do it with great efficiency. For writers this is gold.
And blogging even, when used as a tool to convey personal stories is all the more powerful when combined with music. Deb, blogger and writer at Bright and Precious uses songs beautifully (and oh-so-powerfully) to steer the narrative. Many of my favorite ‘Deb’ posts have music and lyrics woven into the story.
Like Pat discovers in SLP, the trick is to not make the music a monster. But then again, if the monster insists on being, then use it. Focus on it because it’s a doorway not only to creative potential but to listening to your own narrative.