Why I Listened to One Song on Repeat While Writing a Book about my Mother  

July 18, 2022 § 26 Comments

By Jocelyn Jane Cox

Some of us need complete silence in order to write. Others are fuelled by the ambient noise of a coffee shop. And some of us hit our groove with music. I prefer music without lyrics and have been writing with it in the background for over 25 years.

In late December of 2020, I watched Disney Pixar’s mesmerizing animated film SOUL with my family. I have trouble sitting through movies at home – I get antsy and bored easily, especially with action scenes – but this work of art and its accompanying soundtrack by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste, affected me deeply. As soon as the final credits rolled, I watched it again. It’s an uplifting movie about…death. The storyline also delves into the themes of creativity, personal goals, and the lifecycle of our souls.  

It’s not a coincidence that a few days later I started writing the book I’d been mulling over for seven years about my mother’s painful childhood and how she overcame it. I wanted to put into words how her downward spiral with dementia and her death intersected with our son’s birth. I knew I’d include party planning, my own childhood as a competitive figure skater, and how my burgeoning fascination with zebras somehow connects it all together.      


At the time I started writing it, we were deep in the Pandemic. Our son, who was a second-grader, was in the middle of what would be 1.5 years of remote school. I helped him with his schoolwork during the day and after his zooms ended, shuttled him to a circuit of outside playdates so he could at least briefly see other kids. At night, after he went to bed, I wrote. It’s not that I couldn’t write at all during the day, but to tap into this story, and collect all the pieces, I needed to be completely alone. I needed to conjure my mom and mourn her all over again. This involved some sobbing and some laughter, too.

To wake myself up for that night shift, I chugged a few inches of coffee, rode my stationary bike for 20 minutes, then I sat down to my laptop at 10 pm with the goal of writing until midnight. I put in my Airpods. 

At first, I listened to the whole soundtrack of SOUL, which is delightful, every second of it. But one song, in particular, called, “Just Us”**, gradually drew me in. It has an ethereal quality that I found hypnotic. It’s a soft composition, sad, and also laced with joy. The more I replayed it, the more I could envision my mother in her best moments and her worst. The melody and the vibe transported me to a place that was both dark and light. My heart throbbed with love. And also with pain. This song is where I met up with my mother on the page. It was just us.   

I soon discovered that someone had put “Just Us” on an hour-long loop on YouTube. Eureka! I proceeded to listen to this song, and only this song, for two hours almost every night.

Something happened after about two weeks of this: as 10 pm approached, even before I sat down to the computer, I started to hear the song in my head, the tinkling of those piano keys, that atmospheric sound, and it pulled my brain back into the story I was trying to construct. This felt part Pavlovian, part habitual, and part mystical. I continued this set of rituals, with the song on repeat, for about eight months. 

I have often experienced the writing “flow state” but never quite like this. Ten thousand words, twenty thousand, fifty. Sometimes I stayed up writing long past midnight with that song in my ears for three hours, or even four, straight. I was listening to it in a euphoric, almost altered state, at 2 am the night I typed the last sentence of that first draft. With it still playing, I wept. My mother was a big supporter of my writing. She’d been my biggest fan and had an eye for typos. However many revisions this project would still need to undergo, I’d written to an endpoint and made something out of our experience. The manuscript is a tribute to her, to our son, and also kind of to myself.

I wasn’t sure if was going to have the strength to write our story, to re-live all the regret and fear it contains. Honestly, it’s strange to admit, but I might not have, without this song. I’ve long known that music has the power to uplift and motivate. I now know that, if we let it, it can take us to an entirely new creative state.

*

Jocelyn Jane Cox is a former competitive figure skater who has been coaching for over 20 years. Her memoir-in-progress, Zebra Party, is about losing her mother on her son’s first birthday. Her essays, short fiction, and humor have appeared in Slate, Roanoke Review, Penn Review, and Belladonna Comedy.   

Find Jocelyn on Twitter, Instagram and on her website https://www.jocelynjanecox.com/
** “Just Us” from SOUL https://youtu.be/0dv8JVo8jC8

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§ 26 Responses to Why I Listened to One Song on Repeat While Writing a Book about my Mother  

  • Nancy Brown says:

    Beautiful. I fell under the spell with you. John Batiste has what it takes ot open us up.

  • Margaret says:

    Thank you Jocelyn for sharing this beautiful post and for the ‘Just Us’ link from SOUL.
    I see lots of similarities with my own experience in your post and you have given me a much needed prompt to revisit my memoir partly draft written.

    • I’m so glad Margaret. I was sneaking up on my memoir for about 7 years…and once I started I had several stops and starts. I think that’s a natural part of the process for me and others. So yes, turn back to it! Perhaps some good songs could help you enter that head space? 🙂

  • Jocelyn, this is lovely. I’m happy you found the key to releasing your story. Thanks for sharing it!

  • Lisa Rimmert says:

    Wow, I’m so glad to have seen this. I can relate, as I had my own “writing song” while drafting my manuscript. I wasn’t nearly as consistent as the author, though! Not with the song or with the same writing process each day. I commend you, Jocelyn!

    This is beautifully written, and I can’t wait to read your book. These two lines in particular really got me: “This song is where I met up with my mother on the page. It was just us.” and “The manuscript is a tribute to her, to our son, and also kind of to myself.” ❤

    • Thank you so much Lisa. It’s really fascinating to me how a song (or songs) can create a vibe when we work and help push us forward. Thank you for pulling out those lines. I had fun writing this. I can’t wait to read your book too!

  • Deborah Sosin says:

    Beautiful, Jocelyn. I had seen the movie when it came out but not since. Now I need to watch it again. And I’m inspired by your inspiration! I look forward to reading your memoir.

    • Thank you for your kind words Deborah! I think this one bears a re-watching. I think I’ve now watched it about four times which is NOT my thing! I suspect it will be a few years before my book is out, but I am enjoying this process so much.

  • Oh, this is so beautifully written, Jocelyn. And I would concur–music is a powerful elixir for the soul. I look forward very much to your story when it’s released into the world–however long that takes–this reader wants to hear it. (also, I need to go find that song. Thank you).

  • Judy Reeves says:

    Yes, I’ll be viewing the film again. And listening to the music, “that” song. Thank you so much for this. I am intrigued by your story–what happened to you with the story you wanted to write and how the music transported you. I found myself wondering, when I read the bio that accompanied the post, if your training as a competitive figure-skater, who must have practiced and practiced and practiced to the same music for each routine, might have had an early influence on how you reach that “flow” state. Fascinating. Thank your for this post and all good wishes for your memoir as it makes its way onto the next.

    • Thank you so much Judy. Yes you make a relevant connection: skating is indeed a sport of repetition. We repeat the moves and the choreography hundreds (thousands?) of times per season. And we do “enter” the music. And related: we (and our training mates) often end up loathing our music by the end of the season after hearing it so much! I appreciate your insight into this. Something made my brain very receptive to this particular source of inspiration and that could be related to the skating.

  • I, too, love this line: “This song is where I met up with my mother on the page. It was just us.” Thanks for this blog because it reminded me of a piece of music from Music to Disappear Into that used to help me ride the good, bad and ugly in a way that I could get it down on the page. Now I’ll go find it!

    • Yes, go find it! Dive in! And let me know what that is – because I’d love to hear it too. Thanks for pulling out that line. Writing a memoir can be so emotional and so personal and I feel honored that you and others are reading about my process. Thank you.

  • Martina Grattan says:

    What a wonderful idea for a book. I can’t wait to read it. I remember how regal your mother was. In my mind and observations but also in reality I’d say. She was so kind, observant and reserved. Beautiful and sophisticated and a master at putting others at ease. Having grown up in an emotionally hectic, never relaxed family these qualities really stood out to me in the limited times I had spent with her. Never to be forgotten. The book will be a great honor no doubt. Again, can’t wait.

    • Thank you so much Martina. I am really trying to do her justice on the page. Just taking the time to remember her and compile the details has been a powerful experience. Sharing your impressions of her means the world to me.

  • Lovely description of a very familiar process – and the joy of meaningful creativity. I’ve long used music as a portal to writing. It can hold slippery moments still, uncover emotions and bring back people. (I have an entire blog series about this!) Shared on Twitter.

  • Abby Alten Schwartz says:

    I loved this, Jocelyn. I’ve never been able to write to music except possibly to something quiet without lyrics. I never considered it as a way to induce a flow state and now I want to try it. Thank you!

  • Great writing — and reading, and apparently listening! Thank you Jocelyn. I’m a virtual/social media fan of yours, after meeting IRL at BinderCon in the before (before trump, covid, etc). Will be first in line to buy the memoir!

  • marilynkidlit says:

    Beautiful piece. Thanks for sharing it!

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