Ring My Bell

On re-engineering my brain

My college, much like a small plates farm-to-table restaurant, “did things a little differently.” We had no sports teams to speak of and instead of keg parties, I went to feminist stand-up comedy shows and starred in multiple student films—in one, I played the door girl at a nightclub that turned out to be Hell. We had no Greek system, but I did take a history course on homosexuality in ancient Greece. It goes without saying that I had very, very short bangs.

Unsurprisingly, the school valued self-expression but not class requirements, majors, tests, or grades. So instead of taking quizzes, I wrote countless lengthy papers in my tiny room in a chilly Tudor-style building, on a desktop Dell nearly as big as a Hyundai engine. (My two primary senior theses were on female serial killers and the invention of the vibrator. #onbrand) The hardest part was always opening up a blank document and getting started, until I figured out how to unlock my mental vault. 

One excruciating paper-writing afternoon, I was playing music quietly in the background when the goofball rap anthem “Just a Friend” came on. As Biz launched into, “Have you ever met a girl that you tried to date...,” something about his jokey narration loosened up my fingers and I started furiously typing. After the song ended, I was still hundreds of words from my target, so I played it again. And again. When I had to write another paper a few days later, Biz was right alongside me. I never took a proper psychology course, but I knew I’d accidentally Pavlov’s dog-ed myself.


It’s been <cough, cough> some years since then, but I still use this music/writing gimmick whenever I’ve got a giant deadline on the horizon. Apologies to Biz, but I abandoned “Just a Friend” a while ago, in favor of a whole fleet of new songs. Certain projects are linked to certain music: Writing this feature on ex-ultra-Orthodox Jewish women demanded, for some reason, that I listen to AC/DC pretty much constantly for about 5 days, in particular this grime-rock classic:

As I wrote a story for O on weed entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, the only song that sounded good to me was “B.O.B.”:

The soundtrack to so many of the freelance pieces I’ve done recently-ish is this sparkly, kinetic Robyn song:

I’ve also Pavloved myself in non-writing contexts, too. When I’m working out and feel my legs about to give way, this forces me to keep swinging the kettlebell:

And when I was going through an Extremely Hard Time several years ago, this song got me out of the apartment and onto the train for weeks:

It’s a weird brute-force process, but if you hammer away at your brain even a handful of times, you can intentionally engineer a neural pathway between a song and an activity, no matter how horrendous that activity feels. Some days I’m a fountain of creative energy and others I’m like the trickle of a middle-school water fountain. And music—at least some strategically chosen songs—is what can turn the latter mode into the former. It’s a cheap trick, but sometimes it’s the only one I’ve got.

Which songs are making your life possible these days?