The Leaf-Mold of the Mind

Right now I’m reading a book called “Wordsmithy” which gives some nice tips on how to live like a writer. One of the major themes is that in order to be a good writer, you need to be a good reader. You have to read widely, read what you love, and let all that good stuff just simmer in your head. Tolkien called it the “leaf-mold of the mind,” the place good stories grow from.

That’s an excellent piece of advice, and I want to go one step further. Just as important as what you read is what you listen to. In today’s society we are almost continually surrounded by music. Our access is virtually unlimited, so, naturally, we exploit it. But the songs we sing and the tunes we hum shape our minds, craft our worldviews and inform our imaginations just as much as what we read.

I’m a big fan of old fantasy. Lewis, Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L’Engle, Susan Cooper, and a little bit of the crazy new stuff by guys like Robert Jordan, Eoin Colfer, J.K. Rowling, and Terry Pratchett. A little John Grisham, Wodehouse, or Flannery O’Conner for diversity. There’s also classics, like Milton, the Illiad, Beowulf, Shakespeare, Aeschylus, and all that good stuff. A fairly healthy and rich source of imaginative fodder.

But while all that certainly shaped my imagination and probably comes out in my writing, most of what spills out of my mouth when something bumps into my mind is country music or classic rock. When confronted with an interesting little situation, I don’t often think of a certain chapter of The Horse and His Boy or a character from Shakespeare. I think of something George Strait sang, or a song by Skynyrd, or maybe the Mississippi Squirrel Revival.

So when you set out to live like a writer, to create a good leaf-mold, read all sorts of good stuff. But don’t just be thoughtful about what you read. Pay attention to what you’re listening to. Make sure that soil’s just as rich, the imaginative nutrients just as diverse. Not only will it help your writing, you might just be able to dance to it.