There’s this song I love. (A piece of 90s American indie rock if you must know.) I don’t often listen to it but every so often my life requests it, and then I am headphones on, volume at the max, gorging myself on it all day long. The emotional power of the song calls forth a physical response from my body. It also has another power over me – the lyrics and melody call forth characters, words, moments, from my imagination. This piece of music has a story to tell me, or rather I have a story that I want to tell about this music.
The problem is that I can’t quite get to it. The song is a match and the story bursts into flame. My body vibrates, my mind dances, but once the last chord has rung out, silence and stillness return. What to do? How to find out what happens next? I hit repeat, and the characters return in all their glory, only to disappear once again three minutes later.
Who are these people? What do they want? Where are they going? Try as I might, I cannot find the story. I cannot progress from single match into fully-fledged fire.
Well get to work! I hear you cry. Simply sit down and work out who they are! Apply the principles of dramatic construction to these fragments that you have and hey presto – the story shall appear!
But perhaps not. Perhaps these are not the kind of imaginary visitors who will submit to the demands of a story arc. Perhaps they demand some other form of telling which I cannot yet quite imagine.
Perhaps being conjured from a song does not equip a character with the qualities necessary to survive in a story. A story character should progress, we are always told, progress through a variety of emotional states before reaching some kind of climax. Journey, resolution, change. Songs seek more to capture a single moment and hold it still for a few minutes. There might be a key change at some point (or in story language, a shift in emotional state) but then we will return to where we started, without having progressed at all. If a play or a novel is a journey, a song is the same few steps being taken over and over again.
Stories and songs breathe different kinds of air. Maybe if I take these characters out of their musical environment, I will deprive them of their life force.
Perhaps they are not destined for a story at all, despite my desire. Perhaps I should recognise them for what they are – accompaniments to a song – and leave them be.
Perhaps I am simply not ready – or able – to tell their story.
And yet…the emotional charge that these fleeting guests bring is so powerful that I cannot quite give up on them. So how might I create an environment with words which will allow them to go on breathing?
Perhaps I need to take a big step away from the music – to thank the song for inspiring me but then to free myself from the constraints of the three-minute piece of music, so that I may explore the wider life of these characters – their past and their future as well as their familiar present.
Alternatively, perhaps I need to step away from the constraints of conventional narrative text and explore ways of bringing song structure into story. This reminds me of a writing exercise I once did with the playwright Simon Stephens. He played us a piece of music (it was, I believe, something by The Fall). We had to draw the shape of the sound, and then write a piece of drama that in turn followed that shape. All rules were flung out of the windows as we imagined textual ways of expressing the squall of guitars. It was baffling, exciting and hugely liberating.
So time to put the headphones back on, time to walk, time to imagine. Whether I wait for the answer to reveal itself, whether I set to work out an answer through the systematic application of plot points and conflict, I don’t know. To write: to explore. To listen. To wonder.