It was quite a simple idea. Every week for a year, I’d set iTunes to shuffle, let it pick the next song at random, and then I’d sit down and write a story inspired by that song and publish it on the web.
In part it was a bit of fun, but in part it was also a really useful lesson about discipline, and not waiting for inspiration. I was working on a novel at the same time, plus the usual family and day job commitments, so I didn’t have much time to spare. No time for writer’s block. No time for procrastination. No time for mulling over ideas or scrapping and starting again, no time for second or third drafts. Just listen. Write. Quick scan for typos. Publish. Repeat.
There were times when it was hard, but I learned a lot about not waiting for inspiration, instead just writing and writing until something took shape, and I could discard what I didn’t need, and keep what felt right. Just start writing, and trust that something would come. It’s always a satisfying feeling to have written, but it’s even better when the writing process itself is enjoyable. I enjoyed writing the stories for 52 Songs most when the words and ideas just flowed, as if already shaped before I thought them. But exactly where was all this coming from?
Some of my favourite stories from the project are those that just seemed to appear from… somewhere. Re-reading the year of stories with a critical eye, I can’t see a difference in quality between the ideas I sweated over, and those which arrived, fully formed, almost before I knew it. I’ve always been cynical about the idea of waiting for the muse, as it’s an excellent excuse not to write and I really don’t need any more of those. Sometimes though, in those moments when the ideas just rush in from nowhere, I can at least imagine the muses gathered in a corner, nodding approvingly.
But that’s just an all-too human trait of ascribing outside agency, to what comes from within. I’ve always been fascinated by how we can better feed the subconscious, stoke up its fires and let it run riot with its tools: everything we have ever been, or thought, or known.
I’m also fascinated by how we listen to what it’s telling us. That’s the trick, and creative artists have found many ways to do it: long walks in the country with the dog, long walks inside their head with drugs, running (or in my case, cycling) long and hard, drinking long and hard, losing themselves in music, the shower or the bath, staring out of windows on trains. The endless chattering monkey mind settles for a moment or two, the subconscious seizes its chance, there’s a shuffling and a clicking, the puzzle pieces move a little further into place, and the words flow.
Of course, as soon as the hard work of revision starts, the muses and your subconscious all shrug, pretend to look busy, and mutter, ‘You’re on your own now, pal’. But for 52 Songs, 52 Stories, I learned better ways of getting that first part out, and onto the page.