Stephen Foster’s Sketchbook

I just found the coolest site while researching Stephen Foster for a story I’m working on. The University of Pittsburgh has one of his sketchbooks with sixty four of his songs in it. You can view the pages of the Stephen Foster Sketchbook online. There’s a Song List so you can go to the one you want, or you can browse. I went to “Hard Times Come Again No More,” a favorite, and there you have it, in four fascinating pages, the whole process of that song being born—writing, rewriting, jaunty little squiggles under the title when he finally gets it right and copies all the verses down. I got chills.
Foster died at 37 with 38 cents to his name. He made less than $20,000 in his life for the 285 songs he wrote.

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears

While we all sup sorrow with the poor;

There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears—

Oh, hard times come again no more.


Listening to music

I often listen to music while I’m writing fiction. I typically pick songs that particularly grab me and elicit some emotional/musical response: I laugh, I cry, I tap my foot. I listen repeatedly to the same tunes while working on a particular piece, as a soundtrack in a way. I used to listen only to instrumental music while writing, ages ago, but found that I like the words, the sound of the singing voices, like somebody chanting in the background. I started doing this to insulate myself from other sounds like a noisy roommate or a jack hammer. But now I do it for the trance-inducing quality of it. John Gardner talks about fiction creating a “fictional dream,” and the first dreamer is the writer. All the good stuff happens when I’m inside the story, in a sense not aware of it as words but as an alternate reality. At such moments, the writing can become almost automatic, like I’m taking dictation rather than assembling words on the page or screen. At the moment, I’ve been listening to The Be Good Tanyas.

I usually don’t listen to anything specifically connected with what I’m writing. The story I’m writing now, for example, is set in the late sixties, and tunes by the Stones and Steppenwolf are mentioned in the story, but I don’t listen to them while I write it. I guess I’m looking for a less literal connection between story and song, something that will surprise me.