1. Choose your theme. For years, I made an Autumn Mix (melancholy, good for driving down country roads just before dusk) and a Spring Mix (poppy, good for spring cleaning & dance parties) every year. Road Trips require their own mixes. So do best friends.
2. Get a yellow legal pad and a good pen. Flip through your music collection & jot down any song that matches your theme. If you’re not satisfied, go raid your friends’ music collections (this is why college is the best time for mix-tape making). Anchor with classics and introduce new songs slowly.
3. Make a tentative running order. Remember to save some good songs for the second side. Start strong — the first song on each side sets the tone for the whole album.
4. Start taping. Change your mind as you go. Choose songs off your list according to your instinct in the moment. Think twice before adding gag songs — are you really prepared to hear the theme song from “Mork & Mindy” every. single. time. you listen to this tape? (On the other hand, guilty pleasure songs? Always a plus.)
5. Find weird little snippets of things to fill up the space at the end of the tape. I recommend “Sounds I Hear at Night” from the United States of Poetry, “Spider” by They Might Be Giants, and “Her Majesty,” by The Beatles.
6. When you’re finished, make copies for your friends. These you can dub on high speed, but listen to the whole thing if you have time. Appreciate your own art.
7. Design a cover for your tape.
8. In the tiniest handwriting possible, cram all the songs & artists onto the paper sleeve.
9. Add a secret message inside the fold.
10. Listen on constant repeat for the next six weeks or until your roommates start yelling at you.
11. Keep your tape in a safe place. Find it again every six months or so, whenever you’re feeling melancholy enough for an autumn tape, or cheerful enough for spring. Pull out the roadtrip tapes next time you go on a roadtrip.
12. Stubbornly refuse to throw your mix tapes away. When you pack everything you own into the back of your pickup truck, selling everything leftover to your best friend for a hundred bucks, bring the tapes. Listen to them as you’re falling asleep at night, lying on your deflating air mattress with your old dog muttering in his sleep beside you. Listen to them as you teach yourself to write short stories, and as you learn to kill cockroaches without flinching. Listen to them when your best friends call you from a bar on the other side of the country, drunkenly asking why you’re not there playing darts and drinking pitchers of cheap beer with the people who love you the best.
13. Listen to your mix tapes when you start your first novel, alone in your small mountain house with no TV, nointernet, and no radio except a clock radio that inexplicably only gets the Delilah station. Let the loneliness of your mix tapes seep into your story. Let your characters sing along to songs only you know.
14. Keep them long after your last tape player breaks. Pull them out of a box, dust them off, and use your painstakingly written liner notes to reconstruct a playlist on grooveshark or youtube. Spend an evening listening to your twenties and writing a love letter to mix tapes.