Prompt 208. Midnight Paintings & Melancholy Playlists
& a prompt on sad songs by Carmen Radley
When I was very young, I was obsessed with saving strays. Despite my parents’ no-pet policy, I adopted a guinea pig from a neighbor without telling them and later two stray barn cats, making a home for them in the garage until I wore my parents down and they let me bring them inside. When dogs were still a no-go, I volunteered at a vet’s office after school, and on the weekends, I’d go to a shelter in the Adirondacks and walk the pups.
It wasn’t just animals I was drawn to, but lost causes and misfits. When my parents finally agreed to get a dog, I didn’t choose a sweet little purebred, but a pit bull-shar pei mix who looked war torn, with missing patches of fur and scars in the folds around his face. His name was Zazou, and he ended up being my great dog love.
Looking back, it comes across as a little emo, a little dramatic—which this picture of me at eight years old cradling my pet jawbone doesn’t really undercut. But as a child, I had a lot of feelings, which included deep empathy. (Also a bit of a temper; once, when my mom put me in time out, I hacked off all my hair with a pair of blunt scissors in a fit of rage.) At night, these feelings would bubble up and keep me from sleeping.
And so I began asking my mom to play music for me at night as a lullaby. In our house, the piano was in the entryway and beside the staircase. When she played, you could hear it throughout the house but especially in my room, which was just above it. She would start to play something gentle by Bach or maybe Chopin, and I would lie in bed with my door cracked. I remember relaxing into my pillow, listening, and being moved to tears. Then I would fall asleep.
I still love a sad song—in fact, I began a sad song playlist back in January. In the weeks leading up to my second bone marrow transplant, I began waking up in the middle of the night full of worry. One of the first nights it happened, I put on Billie Eilish and began to paint. Immediately I felt calm; somehow listening to her music while painting helped me both contain and release what I was feeling.
Since then, the playlist has grown, and listening to it while painting has become my regular practice. I find the songs strangely uplifting and also creatively inspiring—maybe because a song itself is the manifestation of someone else’s strong feeling that’s been alchemized into art, into something universal. And though I can’t sing, I can write a couple of pages or pick up a brush and try to make something beautiful.
And with that, onto the prompt: On this anniversary of 9/11, a weighty event for so many, we have an essay and prompt on sad songs from my Isolation Journals comrade Carmen Radley. I hope it’ll spur you to think of your favorite sad songs, and that you’ll share them in the comments, so we can all create and cry along.
Still trolling Petfinder for the scruffiest strays,
Some Items of Note—
Earlier this week, I sent out the latest installment of Dear Susu, my advice column for paid subscribers. This time I answered a question from “A Concerned Dad,” who wonders how to deal with his son’s resistance to unsolicited advice. Read it here!
In the last few weeks, we’ve had some incredible discussions on Threads, our new community offering. We’ve gathered book recs (both text and audiobook), created a Spotify playlist, and started a new Friday tradition: a collective gratitude list of small joys. I hope you’ll get the app and join us!
Prompt 208. Sad Songs and Waltzes by Carmen Radley
I’m going to talk about sad songs, but first I’m going to talk about the legendary Texas singer and songwriter Willie Nelson. I was born and raised in Texas and grew up hearing his greatest hits and a fair bit of Willie lore, but back then, I wasn’t anything close to being a serious student of his music—or anyone else’s for that matter. In fact, one of the handful of albums I owned in high school was Cake’s Fashion Nugget, and one of my favorite tracks was a song called “Sad Songs and Waltzes.” Until about a month ago, I had no idea it was a Willie cover.
But recently I began listening to a podcast called One by Willie, where John Spong of Texas Monthly magazine talks to notable Willie Nelson fans about one of his songs they really love. I spent two weeks in New York in August, and while I was there there, I listened to every episode and every album mentioned too. As I meandered the city streets, I felt melancholy and wistful, partly a longing for home, partly a response to the songs themselves. Yet I wasn’t actually sad. Quite the opposite: After even the saddest songs, I felt somehow expanded and open and connected to the wider world.
It was something that more than one guest on the podcast mentioned—for example, Charley Crockett said it of “Face of a Fighter,” which uses a boxing match as a metaphor for having your heart broken. As the steel guitar whines mournfully, Willie sings, “These lines in my face caused from worry/ Grow deeper as you walk out of sight./ Mine is the face of a fighter/ But my heart has just lost the fight.” It’s such a sad song, Crockett says, but it’s somehow comforting—and I agreed with him. At the end, I felt like I’d been sitting with a friend, commiserating over heartache, feeling less alone.
Of course, this isn’t limited to Willie Nelson’s music. The paradox of sad songs making you feel good is so well known that if you type the words “why do sad songs” into a Google search bar, it autofills with phrases like “make me happy” and “make me feel better.” Musicologists have developed a range of theories about this, including brain chemistry and evolutionary advantage. The musicologist David Huron argues that since the human auditory system is primed toward hypervigilance as a means of survival, this spills over into music. We listen on a knife’s edge, working to identify patterns and deviations, making meaning from abstract sounds as a way to protect ourselves. When we hear tales of woe set to minor chords, even if we know cognitively that nothing’s wrong, we can’t help but be fooled into feeling it. Then when we cry, our bodies release the hormone prolactin, which has a soothing effect.
Explanations like these make logical sense to me, but they also seem so reductive, so flat. Maybe it’s human frailty for me to want my response to Willie’s “Too Sick to Pray”—a song that has me welling with tears now, just typing the title of it—to be more than brain chemistry or evolutionary destiny. Maybe it’s sentimental to want the sad song effect to speak to the human capacity for empathy and compassion and connection, to want it to point toward something divine in humanity.
But that is what I want it to be. I want it to mean that even when Willie is going through his absolute worst, I’d rather be with him than on my own.
Your prompt for this week:
In “The Critic as Artist,” Oscar Wilde writes, “After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.”
Think of a sad song you love—one you go to wallow in, one that brings tears to your eyes. Listen to it, then write about whatever comes up.
For more paid subscriber benefits see—
Making Art from Hard Things, a video replay of our Studio Visit with the award-winning novelist and essayist Esmé Weijun Wang
Love in the Time of Cancer (Part 2), an installment of Dear Susu where Suleika and her beloved mom Anne Francey talk about art as solace
On Failure, an interview with Jon Batiste on the productive power of rejection