The Life of the Writer/Musician
Alicia Jo Rabins Asks a Dozen Creative Multitaskers How They Do It
I’ve been a writer and a musician for almost all my life.
I grew up playing classical violin and writing poetry. Both emanated from some inner need to create beauty, to make things, and, yes, to “express myself.”
Why didn’t I just choose one? Perhaps because they met these needs in such distinct ways.
Music gave me community, structure, a guild of artists to join. There were lessons, performances, quartet rehearsals, orchestra rehearsals, auditions, tours. There was also the relief of communion and expression without words.
Writing, on the other hand, was solitary, boundless, somewhat lonely but infinitely portable. Plus, articulating my own thoughts helped me understand my inner life in a way music could not.
For decades I maintained these concurrent practices. I loved artists like Joy Harjo and Laurie Anderson who integrated the disciplines, but it never occurred to me to combine my two artistic practices. For me, writing and music remained separate even as they intertwined. I brought my violin to my Warren Wilson MFA residencies and writing conferences, but only played at bonfires and late-night hangouts after the day of workshops and readings was done. On tour with folk-punk bands, I scribbled in notebooks during the many hours of down-time in vans and green rooms—but when it was time to go onstage, I put down my notebook and picked up my instrument.
Then, in my 30th year, these practices began to coalesce. I began to write songs, to explore that mysterious place where music and words intersect: the curve of a line of lyrics and how it rubs its back against the chords, leaning into them with a little resistance, or rides it high into the sky.
Recently, I have begun integrating poetry and music even more explicitly, composing a live soundtrack on violin and electronic pedals to perform beneath the poems when I go on book tour for my second poetry book, Fruit Geode. It’s been fascinating to explore how a line of poetry opens up with a low chord throbbing beneath it, or sharp little pizzicato notes like pinpricks sprinkled throughout.
As I’ve been working on this poetry soundtrack, I’ve been thinking about my fellow writer-musicians and what we might have to offer. What has music taught us about writing, and vice versa?
It’s not that unusual to work in multiple disciplines, but sometimes I feel a bit lonely about it. For so many of us, there’s no single word to describe our practice, no easy answer to the question “what do you do?” I invited the few writer-musician friends to discuss being writers and musicians. For me, reading these answers served as a powerful reminder that the essential work is creating, risking, opening, failing, trying again, remaining open to the mystery, and keeping a spirit of gratitude about the whole endeavor. I hope these answers also gesture towards the many writers who work in other disciplines as well. How do we balance these practices, and how does this reflect the balancing of multiple identities and practices we all negotiate by virtue of being human?
–Alicia Jo Rabins
“The Tender Qualities of Language.” How Music and Writing Inform Each Other
Abe Streep: I don’t think anyone who has trained in music—especially at a young age—ever lets that language go. Rhythm and cadence matter on page, as they do in a song; so does space; so do endings. . . I often know when a story will end when I see a certain event happen. Maybe that comes from music. I try to pay attention to the spaces between the words, just as musicians need to let songs breathe.
Shayla Lawson: It was my writing practice that led me back into making music. Some of the things I wanted to accomplish with poetry couldn’t happen if I relied solely on the page. Music became the missing piece I was looking for. Conversely, music teaches me to be more patient with myself when it comes to writing. Music encourages me to find more joy in collaboration, improvisation, discovery and making mistakes.
Laura Gibson: Probably the most important thing I brought with me from music into fiction is the ability to remain comfortable not knowing where I’m going, to stay in a project and let it remain messy for a while. . . good work takes time, and a lot of staring at the wall, and going for walks.
Chris Tarry: Before I took writing seriously, I wasn’t much for revision when it came to music composition. . . good enough was often good enough because I was playing with some of the best musicians in the world. When I started to take writing more seriously, it taught me that the first few paragraphs often come easily, it’s the rest that’s hard, and greatness is often found in the depths of pulling everything apart and evaluating what’s working and what’s not.
Tanaya Winder: Singing and playing guitar have taught me patience and the importance of practice. Learning how to play guitar I always messed up, my fingers hurt, and if I took more than one day off from practicing I could tell the difference. But, all of that taught me to be kind with myself—growth doesn’t happen in a day, it takes time, dedication, and commitment. . . Once I saw the difference in practicing music every day, I told myself I needed to apply that same practice to writing.
Ed Skoog: From music I learned to enrich my writing with improvisation, collaboration, attention to beginnings and endings.
Dao Strom: I like to say that music taught me how to trust my left hand, which is also to say my right (intuitive) brain, because this is one of the things playing guitar taught me. In writing, I can tend to get lost in my head, and believe I can name and capture everything with language. . . Music has helped me engage with the nonverbal, embodied, emotional—I might even say the tender—qualities of language.
“I Like to Run Scales While Revising a Poem.” Balancing Multiple Practices
Alexandria Hall: I tend to oscillate between one practice and the other. Poetry will dominate for a while until I reach a point of boredom or frustration, and then I find myself picking up a guitar or sitting down at the keyboard more often. And it moves back and forth like that. I never really abandon either practice completely though. I could be focusing on music for a time, but I’ll still be reading poetry, thinking, and gathering images for later poems. Likewise, if I’m focusing more on writing, even if I haven’t really played music for a while, I’m always bouncing around my apartment making up weird songs about snacks or dogs.
Rhodri Marsden: In terms of my work it’s about half and half, and I think I subconsciously create that balance. If one of them dominated too much I’d feel as if I was failing at the other one, you know, that a part of me was quietly wilting or something.
Matthew Zapruder: I used to play guitar several hours a day, mostly kind of as a meditative practice or break from writing. Singing and playing and just making sounds was something I absolutely craved. Now that I’m a parent and have a full-time teaching job (plus my other editing responsibilities), I have to protect my time for writing, so I play far less. In fact, I noticed a few months ago that for the first time in probably 30 years my callouses on my fingers were gone! So I started playing more and they’re back.
Laura Gibson: I tend to work on one project at a time, whether that project takes a week or a year.
Ed Skoog: One feeds the other, creatively. I like to run scales while revising a poem. I might go a few days without picking up the instrument, or the notebook/manuscript, but no day goes by without spending some time with at least one or the other. I need both in order to have a sense of balance and perspective, or feel that I do.
Chris Tarry: It’s weird, I used to think a lot about this question [of the balance between music and writing], and I would really agonize over the amount of time I was committing to each, but at this point I’ve been doing both for long enough that most of my work now involves both. Through my connections in both areas I kind of fell into writing screenplays and stories for podcasting. . . I also do all the music for each production. In a way my life changed to incorporate both on pretty high levels, so for that I’m pretty excited. It all feels like one now, and I think maybe that happens over time, the two disciplines kind of merge if you’re able to stay with them long enough.
“Your Heartwork is Yours.” Lessons Learned Onstage
Tanaya Winder: Touring and doing workshops in a lot of different reservations, universities, and communities helped me see more of the tangible things art can do in terms of providing outlets and skills for people of all ages to process their lives.
Alexandria Hall: Two things I learned from touring that have also helped me with poetry readings: 1) If you’re nervous, take off your glasses or don’t wear your contacts. 2) It’s ok to tell the audience you’re nervous. It can be comforting to just be real with people.
Franz Nicolay: My years on the road [as a musician] led to my taking writing seriously. . . It turns out that many of the conditions for good writing practice align with the life of a touring performer: the quotidian novelty of locations; the vernacular language of bar staff, locals, and other strangers; the extended periods of downtime for reading or observation.
Ed Skoog: Performing taught me about audiences real and imagined: respect their attention by taking seriously the work you’re sharing. For real audiences: don’t wear shorts onstage, always look a little better than them, don’t get your hair cut the day of a show. For imaginary audiences (the reader): trust their intelligence, and remember they’re there. Poetry and music are both mysterious communications.
Tanaya Winder: Performing spoken word, backup vocals, and now my own music has definitely made me a stronger public speaker when it comes to promoting my books. The most important lessons I’ve learned are that you don’t always need to be the best to “make it”. . . Remember why you’re doing what you do. Your heartwork is yours. You do it because you were born to use these gifts to help yourself and others make sense of the world.
“Writing is Hell, Obviously.” Pragmatics, Perspective and Having Fun
Franz Nicolay: Writing is much more suited to my current life as a middle-aged father of two: it doesn’t require me to be away for extended periods of touring; I can reasonably allocate blocks of time at home to do it; and I don’t have to raise the pool of money it requires to record and distribute a record.
Abe Streep: On the more mercenary side of things, I have covered music, musicians, instrument makers, etc, for [my work as a reporter]. Write what you know and all that. Also, writing is hell, obviously, so I sometimes bring an instrument with me when I write, as a distraction.
Tanaya Winder: I feel freer in my music life. The MFA program and experience taught me a lot, but it also was very much an ivory tower of looking down on self-publishing and glorifying publishing in fancy places. . . Before I started music I used to worry a lot about going to AWP (like making sure I had to go to try to make connections), and where I got published. Now that music has become a part of my life, it made the writing world seem so much smaller. I definitely don’t mean that in a bad way, but more in a “don’t sweat the small stuff” way.
Laura Gibson: I do think of my career and practice as a whole, but music is my income. Writing isn’t. So music contains a different sort of pressure and necessity, at least for now.
Ed Skoog: I keep [writing and music] fairly separate. The social circles don’t much overlap; the hours don’t jibe. Whatever city I’m in, I can find some musicians to play with. You can even make a little bit of money playing music, whereas dedicating yourself to poetry is, financially, like setting your house on fire every year.
“A Vague but Urgent Feeling.” What Unifies the Practices?
Alexandria Hall: I think [writing music and poetry] come from the same place, a place that begins with a vague but urgent feeling; the feeling that I need to tell someone (or myself) something, but I’m not quite sure what or how. There’s also just the pleasure of the act of writing or the act of singing and playing an instrument.
Dao Strom: For me the unifying aspect between the two realms is: voice. And it may be that the voice, what it has to express, ultimately can’t be contained by one vessel alone. I might say this is what brought me to the hybrid aesthetic in the first place—my inability to stay contained in any one medium.
Laura Gibson: Both practices tend to be fueled by curiosity. . . Both (at least for me) require a combination of rigorous thought and raw emotion, though songs tend to wear that raw emotion more visibly. Both seem to work better when the tracks of that rigorous thought are concealed a bit.
Chris Tarry: I’m always thinking compositionally. It doesn’t really matter if that’s writing music for film, TV, and podcasting, or developing a new short story or sitting in a writers’ room with a team of writers, it’s all about the shape of the art, and telling a great story.
Ed Skoog: I feel an affinity between creating a melody and writing a line of a poem—these seem to be coming from the same place, the same daemon, which has limited authority and has to meet the demands and limitations of the medium, like where Robert Duncan says, “I don’t use language, I cooperate with language.”
VI. Magic, Patience, & Gratitude: “I Try to Trust”
Shayla Lawson: Rediscovering music through poetry has introduced me to new ways of understanding what I want to express and how to reach an audience with my voice. Combining the two makes me feel at home and gives me an immense amount of peace.
Matthew Zapruder: A band is really basically a magical living unit, and the reasons it works are shrouded. From the first time the four of us [in The Figments] played together, it completely worked, and that has always been the case. But I can’t easily apply [my] loneliness to the music of others. Which I guess is just another way of saying that I am a writer.
Dao Strom: By now I’ve recognized there are songs I’ve been playing for years, same with literary material I’ve wrestled with, and that time is actually a crucial part of my process. In short: I try to work at both practices continually, I try to live and pay attention to other parts of my life, and I try to trust that in the long run all things will find their way.
Ed Skoog: I’m grateful that I get to play music and write poems in the same lifetime.
Alicia Jo Rabins is a poet, composer, performer and Torah teacher based in Portland, OR. She is the author of Fruit Geode (Augury Books, 2018) and Divinity School (APR/Honickman First Book Prize, 2015). Alicia has released five albums and tours internationally as a violinist and singer-songwriter. www.aliciajo.com
Laura Gibson’s “gorgeous, whispery voice inspired the first Tiny Desk concert” (NPR). She has released five solo albums to popular and critical acclaim. In 2016, Gibson completed a MFA in Fiction Writing at Hunter College in New York City. Her sixth album, Goners, will be released in late October 2018 by Barsuk Records.
Poet, musician, and educator Alexandria Hall received her MFA from NYU. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative, BOAAT, The Bennington Review, and elsewhere. She has toured nationally as a songwriter, singer, and multi-instrumentalist. www.sadacid.com.
Shayla Lawson’s work has appeared in print & online at Tin House, GRAMMA, ESPN, Salon, The Offing, Guernica, and Colorado Review. She is the author of A Speed Education in Human Being, PANTONE & I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean. She works on The Tenderness Project. She is a 2017 Oregon Literary & MacDowell Colony Fellow, a 2018 Yaddo fellowship and RACC Grant recipient & a member of The Affrilachian Poets.
London-based writer and musician Rhodri Marsden has been a columnist for The Independent for a decade and has written five books. He studied music at university and performs with Scritti Politti and many other bands.
Franz Nicolay is a musician and writer living in California’s East Bay. He studied music at New York University and writing at Columbia University, and has performed with dozens of bands including World/Inferno Friendship Society, Guignol, and the Hold Steady. He is the author of The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar (The New Press, 2016) and a forthcoming novel. www.franznicolay.com
Journalist and bluegrass fiddler Abe Streep writes for Outside, The New York Times Magazine, the California Sunday Magazine, Harper’s, WIRED, and other publications. He has performed and recorded with bar bands and singer-songwriters in Vermont, Montana, New Mexico and New York.
Dao Strom is a writer, artist, and musician. She was born in Vietnam and grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California. She has published two books of fiction, a bilingual poetry/art book, and an experimental memoir, We Were Meant To Be a Gentle People (Press Otherwise, 2015), accompanied by song-cycle album East/West.
Ed Skoog is a poet and musician based in Portland, OR. His poetry books include Run the Red Lights, Rough Day, and Mister Skylight. He currently plays banjo with a traditional/Old and In the Way-inspired bluegrass band called The Hillwilliams.
Bassist Chris Tarry is a five-time Juno award-winning musician based in NYC. His book of short stories, How To Carry Bigfoot Home (Red Hen Press, March 2015), won the IndieFab book of the year for short fiction.
Tanaya Winder is a poet, vocalist, writer, educator, and motivational speaker from the Southern Ute, Duckwater Shoshone, and Pyramid Lake Paiute Nations. She is the author of the poetry collection Words Like Love (2015) and chapbook Why Storms are Named After People and Bullets Remain Nameless (2017), and has performed at Grand Performances LA, the Lincoln Center La Casita Out of Doors, and SXSW.
Matthew Zapruder is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Come On All You Ghosts, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other awards, and is Editor at Large at Wave Books. From 1994 to the present, he has been lead guitarist for the western Massachusetts based band The Figments, and his poetry was the libretto for Vespers for a New Dark Age, a piece by composer Missy Mazzoli which was commissioned by Carnegie Hall. He lives in Oakland, CA.