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Music, Math and Words

In Writing Tips for a Disorganized Mind I describe how I get out of my own way and let my brain do its thing when I write. This is not only because it works for me, but also because I am so very—on a deeply fundamental level, which, I assure you, shames me only a little—very, horribly lazy. I don’t much care for work or trying hard. In school, I only got A’s in subjects I enjoyed, which I enjoyed because I was good at them.

I did well in music performance, for instance. I tried playing several instruments–most of them, poorly–but piano was my favorite, and I play with great emotion. I also use music to help me write. There’s a scientific reason many writers do. Brainwaves will try to sync with soundwaves. While writing my parts of Animal Instincts, by M.J. Ortmeier, I listened to two albums: Days Gone By by Bob Moses to evoke alpha waves of emotion; Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, for beta waves of agitation. (By the way, you should only listen to Downward Spiral with headphones. It’s meant to be inside your head). Eventually, I didn’t really even hear the music as I worked, I just felt it.

On the other hand—again, placing the blame where it obviously belongs, on my brain—I am really bad at math. As opposed to my nearly effortless ability to focus and translate mental images to words, there is a physical dysfunction that I can feel inside my head when I try to do math or think in mathematical ways. The neural pathways simply don’t exist. The greatest irony of my life is that I have no problem with words, yet a crippling inability to do word problems. Straight C’s, all through school.

Yet there is a similarity between words and numbers. They are, after all, merely symbols, parts of language, a means by which we describe and understand…everything, though in different ways and to varying degrees. You know, the difference between describing a tree, exploring the wider meaning of a tree, and stating that there are nn−2 trees on n labeled vertices. Yeah, that’s gibberish, but it rhymed, which makes it poetry.

Speaking of poetry, if you went to school, you undoubtedly wrote a poem. And if you’re like me, you received an A for plagiarizing* one that your brother wrote years ago at another school (thanks, Ed). Did I stoop so low because I’m lazy? Yes, and I’ve never been able to write poetry, except for the epic that’s in a box in the basement which once filled me with pride, but is actually trite.

“But poems are made of words, right? You’re good with words, you said.” I’m also apparently inconsistent, because life is complicated and full of seeming contradictions. Besides, math is made of lots of words, but I can’t do that, either. “Hang on,” I hear you say, rudely interrupting yet again. “Math is numbers, not words.” Good point, now shut up.

Math—if I’m not talking completely out of my butt—is about structure. It describes spatial relationships such as size and distance; physical realities, such as molecular bonds, etc.—things that exist on the physical plane. And I’ll bet those who can understand such formulas are often overwhelmed by the intricate and complex dance of numbers that give a glimpse of a vast, wonderful and beautiful universe.

With words, however, we can just make up shit with the purpose of stirring up shit. One might argue that there is a universal formula for manipulating human emotions through the use of imagery and metaphors. Why, then, do I hate inspirational sports stories? They have the opposite effect on me!

Poetry—using the classical definition—is a hybrid language, a fusing of math and words. You make up shit, but within a structure. As is plainly proven in this blog post, structure is my enemy. Rhythm and meter can kiss my ass. I hate writing poetry. So imagine my surprise when this happened one day:

Running running running forward
Stopping for a while to remember
Around you, with you, nearer tomorrow
Nothing goes backward
And time can’t stay forever like flies in amber

Open open up the window
Love, for a lie, powerfully borne in
Who are you? Who am I? Given or borrowed
Disparate, hollow
But time won’t lie on its bed late in the morning

Waiting waiting is not willing
Spin in circles, bronco not broken
Flying apart, from sad joy to glad sorrow
Illusions of stilling
For time is long gone before your eyes are open

Keep yourself
For me
Keep yourself
For you

What the heck was that? I think it’s lyrics to a song. That’s what it’s meant to be. Whether anyone thinks it’s crap or brilliant, it still happened. And I’m baffled. I couldn’t plan such a thing if I tried. I don’t do structure!

But here’s the process. M.J. Ortmeier’s novel, Animal Instincts, is so called because it’s about the eternal vigilance we need to overcome our baser natures and the paramount role of communication and awareness. Use your words, human!

One of the characters has a secret love of music and another character says: “I know you don’t like hearing the ‘L-word’ yet, but the emotion is powerful and sneaky. As good as you look with your new hair and clothes, and as happy as you want to make a potential mate, be sure to keep yourself. You know what I mean? All those disparate things you like that don’t seem to go together? They all meet and blend perfectly in a wonderfully unique” you.

I thought, “that would have a poetic impact on someone prone to introspection and lyricism.” I extracted some words I might use, like sneak, unique, keep yourself, powerful, disparate. That, and the nature of the meeting and relationship of these two people, hummed in the background of my mind for months. I didn’t work on it in all that time.

Then I downloaded another Bob Moses album, All in All, and found Hands to Hold (Acoustic). It was the last element needed for a Perfect Storm of Creativity, of crashing alpha waves and buffeted structures. Literally, within half an hour of downloading the album and repeatedly playing that song, I had written the first draft of the above poem. Another night of sleep and ten more minutes, I had the completed version.


*In answer to the accusation of plagiarism which has been lodged here today: we used pseudonyms in class so we could anonymously critique each other’s work. My pseudonym was Mr. Davis, my brother’s name. So I didn’t so much “plagiarize” as “quote” with attribution.

Categories: blog Julie Ortmeier

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Michael and Julie write separately, but when they write together they are...M.J. Ortmeier!

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