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.