Music and Talking
This piece explores how James Frey likes to write.
I spent ten years teaching myself to write. I spent ten years trying to find my voice. I spent ten years alone in front of a computer scratching my head, kicking my desk, yelling at the wall. Throughout that time, one of my goals was to remove any and all signs of obvious influence from my work. I did not want to be a clone. I did not want to be the next version of someone else. I did not want to be a copy artist. I wanted to be the first me. I wanted to write in a voice that was new and different, consistent with the voice that I felt in my heart, consistent with the voice that I heard in my head.
Two things led me to that voice. Two things influenced me more than any individual writer or book or series of books. The two things were not obvious to me at first, and were things that I took for granted. The two things are music and talking.
As I write, I work with a simple formula: where was I, who was I with, what happened, how did it make me feel. The first three parts of this formula – where was I, who was I with, what happened – are the facts. They are usually simple and inform the reader as to the basics of any given situation. The fourth part – how did it make me feel – is what is most important to me. I believe that feelings, physical or emotional, define any individual’s state of existence. Feelings are what makes us human, and they are what makes the experience of life unique and worthwhile. In my work I try to express my feelings as simply and honestly and effectively as I can, with the goal being that the reader will come to an understanding of my state of existence at any given time. If I am in pain, I want the reader to be in pain. If I feel joy, I want the reader to feel joy. If I feel sick, I want to make the reader sick.
In order to do this, I needed to feel what I was writing about as I was writing about it. If I cried in the book, I was usually crying as I sat at my computer. If I was angry in the book, I was angry as I wrote, and I pounded the keys of my keyboard and swore to myself and sometimes screamed. If I was violent in the book, I was violent at my desk, that violence usually expressing itself in the breaking of glass or smashing of plastic cups. Because the events in my book took place many years ago, I almost always needed to manipulate myself into the proper state of mind. To do that I listen to music. All sorts of music. Happy music, sad music, cheesy music, angry music. I listen to beautiful music and repulsive music, music that I don’t understand, music that confuses me. I listen to hardcore punk, gangster rap, heavy metal, love songs, the latest teenage pop hits, classical symphonies, classic rock, opera, jazz, disco, new wave from the eighties, funk from seventies. I have a two thousand song library of music on my computer and it is always on while I write. I flip from song to song as I work, always searching for the closest match to whatever it is I am trying to express. When I can’t find specific songs to help me, I listen to Bob Dylan. When Dylan doesn’t help, I usually take a break.
After music, the second most important influence on my work is talking. I don’t talk to other people, I talk myself. As I compose sentences, I talk them through before I set them down. Sometimes I only need to say something once. Sometimes twice. Sometimes five or six or ten or twenty times, I speak my sentences over and over and over, I speak them aloud until they are correct. I do this for three reasons. The first reason is because I believe that my speaking voice is my most authentic voice, and it is the closest and most accurate expression of my thoughts. Though I allow myself to refine it through repetition, the spoken word forces me to listen to what would come out of me naturally, and it helps me capture it.
The second reason I talk is rhythm. There is a rhythm to speech that is different from the rhythms of most writing. It is an easier rhythm, a more natural rhythm. It is a rhythm that is closer to the rhythm I feel inside me. Talking, and transcribing my speech allows me to capture that rhythm more easily than if I didn’t talk. It forces the natural rhythm of my speech on the page and removes what I consider a false written rhythm.
The third reason for talking to myself is so I can write realistic dialogue. In my view, most books don’t have realistic dialogue. They have clunky, writerly dialogue that is slowed down and encumbered with proper spellings and correct grammar. If read out loud, the dialogue sounds stupid and formal. I don’t use quotes and I couldn’t care less about grammar. I have conversations with myself where I put myself into the frame of the individual characters, and I literally speak for them. This allows me, I believe, to write dialogue that is accurate and realistic. It is what a person would actually say, instead of what a writer might have them say through writing. There is a difference.
If anyone were to ever watch me write, they would probably think I was either an idiot or lunatic or both. I dance, I yell, I throw shit and kick shit and break shit. Sometimes I cry and sometimes I shake and sometimes I’m sick. I talk through all of it, say the same sentences over and over and over.
While writing this essay, every single word was spoken before it was written, most of them several times. I listened to Bruce Springsteen, Anthrax, Run DMC, Taj Mahal, Queen, Journey and Debbie Gibson.