The Soundtrack to My Writer’s Life

As much as I love music, when it comes to playlists for my writing, I am utterly boring. I have only two songs I listen to while I write: the first is an ambient sound track called “Refreshing Rain.” It came into heavy rotation in my house when I had a baby, and needed noise cancellation sound to keep from waking her up when I would cook and clean. I still use it when I wake up around six and my daughter is asleep, but I want to make her lunch and maybe get some writing in before she wakes up. In our family, we refer to it as “the rain sound,” as in “Mom, I’m awake now, we don’t need the rain sound. I want to hear Chaka Kahn.”

I usually write without any sound, but if I’m in a cafe or co-working space, and the noise is bothering me, I might listen to “the rain sound.” The other track I listen to is an instrumental version of “The Message” by Dr. Dre. It should be noted here that I ONLY listen to instrumental tracks by Dr. Dre, because I find his lyrics totally offensive. This album came out in 2001, and I wouldn’t buy anything of his today. He is a misogynist and I am officially boycotting. But he’s also a genius, and I already own the CD and it’s loaded onto my iTunes, so there you have it. I listen in cafes when they’re playing loud music that disturbs my concentration. The rain sound doesn’t have enough bass to drown out music, so I use Dre. With either of these noise cancellation songs, I just put them on loop. They play over and over again in the background and I cease to notice the sound at all.

The most interesting playlist, however, is my anthem. Again, less is more. I use just one song: “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield. Over a decade ago, I was on a plane working on my first novel. They were showing videos and suddenly a perky British blonde was strolling across my screen singing about life through a book metaphor: “staring at the blank page before you/open up the dirty window/let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find/reaching for something in the distance/so close you can almost taste it/release your inhibitions….today is where your book begins/the rest is still unwritten.” She was singing my life to me, right there at 30,000 feet above rural Virginia. All of my aspiration and fear and longing. She was urging me to be brave and to remember that I really want this book–my deepest yearning is for this writer’s life.

I burst into tears, right there on the plane–to the absolute horror of my then boyfriend. We’re married now. He’s still a bit horrified by my emotional displays in public. But the song has that effect on me. After our trip, I went out and bought the CD. I never listened to any of the other songs on the album. I save “Unwritten” for the days when I feel blocked or stuck or just don’t want to write. These days are rare, but when they happen, I need to tap into that deep desire to be brave and write anyway. I put it on as loud as I can stand and it never fails to move me. Sometimes I have a hard, crumple-faced, wailing, sobbing cry, but other times I just tear up and have a bit of a sniffle. And then I sit up and dry my eyes and get to work.

Author: Aya de Leon

Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to