Music to Inspire Writers

A Haven-prompted playlist

Laura Munson, Queen of Haven Writing Retreats, asked me to create a playlist for writers. I’ve trekked to Montana three times for Laura’s writing retreat/workshop, and each experience transformed my writer self, and we got a song out of it, too!

This playlist is a hodgepodge of Laura’s Haven favs, songs from my Haven retreats, and others that feed my writing life. Read more about music and memory in my column Music on the Brain from the St. Louis Post Dispatch. I hope this playlist inspires writers and artists of all kinds.

ABC by the Jackson 5

A great kickoff for the playlist. Where else do writers start but with the basics—A-B-C—to form the words which make the sentences that become our stories? Just get started, the song seems to say, and the rest will be easy as 1-2-3. I dare you not to dance to the infectious Jackson 5 sound.

Favorite line:
“Teacher’s gonna show you/How to get an “A”/ How to spell “me”, “you”—add the two/ Listen to me, baby/ That’s all you got to do.”

Best Day of My Life by American Authors

“I had a dream so big and loud…” This song launches us into a galaxy of creativity. It fires up a writer at the keyboard, and sets the best intention for the day. Plus, what’s not to like about the band’s name? If I were a big-league ballplayer, this’d be my walk-up song.

Favorite lines:
“…all the possibilities/no limits, just epiphanies…. This is gonna be the best day of my life.”

(I go to) Extremes by Billy Joel

With his trademark, street-smart bravado, Billy pounds out an anthem to the sometimes volatile interior life of creative personalities. (Actually, we’re all creative types, making it up as we go, but that’s another post.) This song is a roller coaster ride. By the end we’re leaning into every curve with both hands way up. It celebrates that rush of inspiration, the thrill of having written, and the joy of the ride in between.

Favorite line:
“Tell me how much do you think you can take/ Until the heart in you’s starting to break/ Sometimes it feels like it will.”

Breathe (2 a.m.) by Anna Nalick

YouTube video

Oh, here’s a taste of the beautiful, tortured artist, facing her mortality…yet, with an eye for the loveliness hidden in the pain. She reminds us to breathe—when the words aren’t coming so easily, or resistance has blocked us from the page again, or that project that was going well stalls suddenly. Despair not, dear writer: the muse will return, though at an inconvenient time, like 2 a.m.

Favorite lines:
“It’s so beautiful when the boy smiles”, and “If I get it all down on paper it’s no longer inside of me/ Threatening the life it belongs to.”

Brave by Sarah Bareilles

This song is Laura’s tsunami of nurturing support for all Haven writers. When I hear it, I’m back in Montana, swimming in the deep pool of Laura’s eyes, and I hear her voice saying, “You can do this!” You want Laura on your side.

Favorite line:
“Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live/ Maybe one of these days you can let the light in/ Show us how big your brave is.”

Defying Gravity from the Wicked Studio Sessions

The musical Wicked tells the story of a woman discovering her power and, with this song, she chooses her path, though the cost of it stings her eyes. The call to the creative life includes tough choices, too. The original Broadway version is a vibrant, show-stopping Act One closer. This tender acoustic version highlights her longing to move forward after an internal shift she can no longer deny.

Favorite line: “I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game.”

What Makes You Beautiful by One Direction

This little ditty of pop froth wormed its way into my first Haven retreat during a poetry sharing Laura led on our first night together. A book of short, haiku-style poems passed through the group, and Laura asked us to read our randomly selected verses twice, and follow them with a couple of original lines. On the spot and a little nervous, my “original” lines were: “You don’t know you’re beautiful/ That’s what makes you beautiful.” The sing-along that followed inked this song as our retreat theme. And, it carries a hidden message for aspiring writers: You don’t know how beautiful you, and your words, really are.

Favorite line:
“If only you saw what I can see/ You’ll understand why I want you so desperately.”

Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars

This song’s on the list ‘cause it’s one of my guilty pleasures, along with What Makes You Beautiful. Like Defying Gravity, the singer challenges the nay-sayers who wonder if we can pull off this writing gig. Well, Bruno pulls off that pink suit coat with all kinds of moxie, and don’t we want that for our writing ‘tude? “Don’t believe me? Just watch!” Start the playlist here if you wanna jump right to the soul of the muse.

Favorite line: “Gotta kiss myself, I’m so pretty.”

Love is Alive by Joan Osbourne

Speaking of funk, Joan Osbourne’s cover of an old Gary Wright hit is funky and bad-ass and perfect in every way. The opening acapella ooo-WHO-hoo is a freaky gem, spilling into a cymbal crash and distorted guitar hook that deliver the song’s best line:

“Well, I think it’s time to get ready/ To realize just what I have found/ I have been only half of what I am/ It’s all clear to me now.”

Joan takes us to church, laying down the truth about the love and light in each of us. Writers find their way to this at the page, where our vibrant souls open “like a wheel that’s turning.” When we put pen to paper, our love comes alive.

Feeling Good by Nina Simone

YouTube video

This selection comes with a nod to Adam Lambert and his amazing performance of this song on American Idol in ’09. On my umpteenth rewind, an epiphany: The singer’s singing to nature, not the listener: “Stars when you shine—You know how I feel/ Scent of the pine—You know how I feel.” The singer (writer) and creation are sympatico. Feeling Good is that soul moment of nature’s wordless beauty. Nina Simone’s original recording captures this and so much more, in a powerful, essential, and fierce feminine voice. She’s one with creation, doin’ what she was born to do.

Favorite line:

“Freedom is mine–you know how I feel/ It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me/ And I’m feelin’ good.”

Dancing Queen by ABBA

This song wormed its way to my second Haven Retreat after dinner on day two. Hours of writing, yoga, hiking, and equine therapy built to a spontaneous dance party crescendo. I became the DJ when I cracked the code to the Walking Lightly Ranch stereo and discovered the settings to play mp3’s from my phone. I chose this song because it’s fun. Yet, in the four minutes of this disco-era anthem, our Haven Ladies transformed into Dancing Queens—and a vintage tune morphed into a rally cry for our Haven Sisterhood. You can do this writing thing, and I believe in you, it seemed to say, and have the time of your life while doing it. This song takes me back to that twilight evening when we knew, for sure, we could do anything.

Favorite line: “See that girl? Watch that scene!”

Just Do You by India.Arie

India.Arie implores us to do our thing for all the right reasons—not for money or fame, but to be our fabulous selves. This song plays the “Why Not?” Card against our inner critic, over a bouncy beat, totally confident it holds the winning hand. It’ll get your butt back in the chair to write.

Favorite line:
“There’s a story waiting for you to write it…there’s a picture waiting for you to paint it…”

Put Your Records On by Corinne Bailey Rae

This song gives me all the feels of sitting fireside with Laura and the girls. Corrine’s gentle voice over the easy rock arrangement creates a safe space to “let your hair down.” As the page (and dear friends) will do, she’s calmly waiting for you to return from the valley of self-doubt, or the purgatory of writer’s block. She knows who you are, and will help you remember, too.

Favorite line: “Girl, put your records on/ Tell me your favorite song…You’re gonna find yourself somewhere, somehow.”

Unwritten by Natasha Bedingfield

This song’s lyrics are so obvious in this context that it’s almost cliché to include it. True confession: I dabble in clichés occasionally, ‘cause life has trouble getting my attention sometimes. Unwritten was all over the airwaves in ’04, when my muse refused to be ignored any longer. Until then, I’d dismissed my writing aspirations as fantasy. I’d pick up a journal only to put it down again–I was overwhelmed thinking I had to “catch up” since the last entry. Natasha’s manifesto gave me a do-over—the permission to start again. Each day is a new opportunity, each blank page is a gift: “Today is where your book begins.”

Favorite line:
“Feel the rain on your skin/ No one else can feel it for you/ Only you can let it in…”

Say by John Mayer

This one is a Laura favorite, infused with the carpe diem spirit that runs through her Haven Retreats. That simple ukelele riff clears the head and brings us back to what’s important. Heard in the context of the movie soundtrack to The Bucket List, this song is a heart-grabber. From the writer’s perspective, it sums up our creative intention: Don’t hold back—say what you need to say. The page is a safe place to say it.

Favorite line:
“…know that in the end/It’s better to say too much/ Than never to say what you need to say again…”

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough by Diana Ross & the Supremes

This song showed up in a “put your records on” moment on my Haven II retreat. At the end of an intense work day, we cut loose with a Motown sing-along. Our own Diana emerged, and the rest of us became her giggling Supremes, complete with over-the-top choreography. It was a great release, and a pledge: “Ain’t no mountain high enough” to keep us from finishing our books!

Favorite line:
“No wind, (no wind)/ No rain, (no rain)/ Can stop me, babe.”

You Get What You Give by the New Radicals

There’s an epidemic of the “dreamer’s disease” among writers. But when the realization of those dreams is slow to come, the singer encourages us: “You feel your dreams are dying—hold tight.” The song’s title alludes to the Golden Rule: may the good we put out in the world, through our writing, come back to us, somehow. “You’ve got the music [muse…get it? *rim-shot*] in you” for a reason: send your words out for the good of us all.

Favorite lines:
“You only get what you give…Just don’t be afraid to live.”

You Fckn Did It by Jason Mraz

When you need an Olympic-size pat on the back, put this song on. Crank it and sing it to that awesome one in the mirror. The lyrics are so amazing, this video includes the words. I truly can’t pick a single favorite line from this song, but I’ll pull this one out for my writing companions:

“You’re quick to be so quotable, damn/ You got a way with words…you are so awesome it hurts.”

With that, our music fades, for now. Thanks for listening!

Dear Readers: Creating this list was a blast! Tell me your favorite songs in the comments below. What music inspires you? What lines from the playlist inspire you? Have you written lyrics, poetry, music? Tell us your story!