I listen to music while I write. Over the years, I’ve collected an odd mixture of alternative, pop, country, and rock from iTunes. I find I gravitate toward folk songs (whatever the tempo) because they tell a story. You learn a little bit about the human experience from them.
One of the things I’ve been trying to understand as a writer and a word artist, is how a song can completely alter my mood. Just switch it a 180 degrees. I can be happy or bouncing around in a cheerful mood, then listen to a sad song, and boom! I’ve dipped into an introspective mood.
Hallmark commercials have the same effect on me. In the space of thirty seconds or three minutes, I jump to a different place in my spirit. Commercials have the additional tool of visual images to trigger that reaction in me. But songs have only music and lyrics.
As a novelist, my job is to have readers to experience the emotions of the characters in my story. Which is why I’m particularly interested in how a three minute song can cause me to experience what it might take me, as an author, an entire chapter to achieve in a reader.
I think it comes down to what I call the Void. That space between where we are and where we want to be (or where the character is and wants to be). It isn’t so much the presence of something sad. It’s the absence of something happy. Sure, it’s sad to hear about a child who comes to school with bruises for half the school year, then simply stops coming to school, because--as her young friend discovers--the kid died of the abuse. That’s terribly sad. And yes it had me teary after hearing it. But that’s an easy one. It’s obviously sad. It’s universally sad.
The harder stuff is in that void. It’s what we gave up or screwed up. It’s our regrets. They’re in the past. They’re done. They can never be changed or undone. And that’s what makes Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Reno” from his Devils and Dust album, the saddest song I’ve ever heard.
Here are the lyrics:
And here The Boss is performing the song:
"Reno" makes me sigh. You feel you know the man Springsteen is singing about. He had everything, had it all, and he walked away from it. Now the best he can experience is a cheap imitation of what he lost. It’s sexy and gritty and oh so sad. If you ever wanted to know what regret feels like in someone else’s skin, just listen to this song.
It’s the void brought to life.