by Mark Ury

Blogging always seems to include sharing some sad truth about yourself, whether it’s your obsession with trash TV or one too many trips to the freezer for more mint chocolate chip ice cream (P.S. these are examples and any resemblance to my life is coincidental). So here’s my share: I can’t draw.

Admitting you can’t draw isn’t much of anything, really. Over 90% of the world can’t draw. But context is everything. Admitting I can’t draw to my bowling friends isn’t worth a second glance (P.S. I don’t bowl), whereas sharing it with picture book writers and illustrators is like asking your bowling friends to switch to five-pin balls since your wrist is to weak to use the grown-up sizes (P.S. this has never happened). It’s kinda sad and wimpy.

Now, don’t feel embarrassed for me (P.S. you are not my mother). I have at my disposal an entire platform to compensate for my lack of artistic skills. With it, I can inspire myself to great heights and pen imaginative stories that kids everywhere read and love. But, sleazily cross-promoting my venture is not what this post is about (P.S. unless you find my venture intriguing and possibly useful, in which case we should have coffee and be friends). No. This blog post is NOT about (shameful) marketing or even (sad) admissions of inferior uses of pencils. It’s about music. Or, more specifically, it’s about how music helps me get the feeling of a story long before (and sometimes after) I’ve seen the images or typed the words.

It’s quite possible you are already familiar with how music can shape your work. If so, perhaps you might be better off reading Sarah Dillard’s post—it has cute bunnies. But if you’re like me (P.S. heaven help you), you may only be modestly aware of how music can be used to give your story the tone or pitch your characters are longing for (and, eventually, if you score that deal with HarperCollins, your readers).

For the longest time, I *thought* what was inspiring the tone of my writing were the images I would paper on my walls, stash in my notebook, or hide under my pillow (P.S. the images under my pillow were not at all being hidden from my mother). Weathered photos of Sid Vicious and Marianne Faithful propelled my early poetry. An image of Kate Spade holding one of her early designs became the central figure in one of my (wretched and unfinished) screenplays, and a stark image of Vanessa Redgrave has been taunting me to start my graphic novel (P.S. yes, you read correctly that I can’t draw).

But, upon reflection (.PS. while searching for a theme for this blog post), only recently did I notice that while images were influencing *what* I was writing about, the actual tone came from the music around me.

This story, about memory and love, was shaped by This is the Kit’s Two Wooden Spoons—an earthy and lush little song that I couldn’t get off of replay on my iPod. And my story about a gruesomely self-centered girl rose from the the chill of Radiohead’s There There (P.S. This is ironic since Thom Yorke wrote the song as a kind of bedtime story for his son. P.P.S. I am glad I am not Thom Yorke’s son).

Music has shaped my copywriting and creative direction, too. Commercials, ads—even the design of products and services—have musical DNA from bouncy ABBA tunes, 80s Brit-pop, and recently, the alt-country acoustics of Kathleen Edwards. And why not? Music is this perfect mix of math and emotion, logic and passion. It’s the ideal stimulant for a tired mind and great whip to a lazy idea (P.S. my ideas need constant flogging). Mostly, it’s a great friend to writers, who need to balance structure and character with some sort of texture or flavor that they can’t quite articulate.

So here’s my suggestion: include music in your work. Better yet—let it muscle itself between your sketches and copy. Replay favorites and dig up old tunes. Drift through lyrics and free associate. Use sound to create new stories (don’t you WANT the East-End boys and West-End girls to meet?), vivid places (just what does the town in Simon & Garfunkel’s My Little Town look like?), and beguiling characters (surely Tom from Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner is worth examining?). Most of all, let music do what it’s meant to do: alter your rhythm. Great stories don’t come from staid patterns.

As for me, I’m wrapping this post feeling less insecure about my poor pencilmanship. (This is quite possibly because I’m listening to The Wild Strawberries and thinking of pie rather than having stared down my limitations (P.S. It is.).) Either way, music saved the day, again.

Mark Ury is the cofounder of Storybird, an occasional writer, and almost always nibbling chocolate.