Bad Advice Wednesday: Try it Without Words

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Shell beach at Haystack, with mermaid Elysia


I have often been jealous of painters and crafters and bus drivers, who can do their work while thinking of other things, or listening (really listening) to music, or even books on tape.  Also cartoonists.  When I worked construction, conversation was the balm that sped the day, always a parade of other tradesmen from around the world, and music, often serious, a new Charles Mingus collection, say, with commentary by the plasterer, who had a doctorate in music history, a German guy who’d had to leave home under mysterious circumstance.  We’d listen to the same solo fifty times in a morning, everyone tuned in, me sweating pipe, the electricians dropping cable, the carpenters priming baseboards so as not to make a lot of hammer noise, NYC, 1979.

Gooseberries on Deer Isle

But writing, you have to write.  You can’t listen to a book on tape and also write a book on paper.  I can barely listen to music–it just takes a little too much mind, especially if there are lyrics. Shakuhachi flute, maybe, something meditative, quite, with plenty of space between notes.  And I really can’t brook any conversation, none. To stop in the middle of a paragraph and answer the phone doesn’t mean hanging up and getting back to the sentence at hand, it means starting back at the beginning of a train of thought that might have been an hour long.

I mean writing fiction, an essay, a poem, not email.  And not even this post, which is accompanied by music on the radio, and Suzanne Nance describing Mendelssohn’s creative process.  Also Super Thursday, which is MPBN’s one day fund drive, tomorrow.

Oops–I’ve been pulled off topic. I have to turn it off.  There.  Blessed silence.

Anyway, at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Deer Isle, Maine, where I was visiting artist the last couple of weeks (and missing from Bill and Dave’s, apologies),  I noticed the personalities of all the various studios, some a party, some a seminar, some a sweat shop, some monastic, but all including conversation and often music, sometimes the whole gang singing as they worked.  I was able to sit in on the painting/drawing workshop, really take part.  Robert Johnson, a painter from North Carolina, taught.  He also attended my writing talks every

Study for a cliche.

afternoon, a kind of two-way street, the ideal learning situation.  His class was about painting from nature, and specifically about ways to bring notes and drawings back from nature to the studio.  He keeps a journal using visual art.  Don’t use your camera, he said, Just stop and draw for a minute.  A snapshot.

Home again, and late the last few nights (a time during which in life before this round at Haystack I might have been watching MSNBC or HBO), I’ve found pleasing YouTube videos of favorite music (Joni Mitchell on a BBC special circa 1972, for one example), and painted touch me nots and Joe Pye weed seen and sketched that morning.  Last night, I even watched an episode of Breaking Bad (this is narrative homework, by the way), DVD on my laptop, my watercolors set up on the kitchen table.  No problem.  Can’t do that while writing without the TV meth madness seeping into my work.

So that’s my bad advice.  Paint.  Or draw.  And call it writing.



Milton Avery I’m not


Hawkweed and notes


Cadillac Mountain at Acadia


How many mussels do you think have been painted at Haystack in its 50 year history?


Bill Roorbach is trying to get caught up in time for fall travels, but the work is never fucking done.

  1. Ryder Ziebarth writes:

    I come from a family of serious artists. RISD, Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts, Pratt,etc.I studied Art History at U. London, tried Studio Art at UNH; decided I stank at it and took up writing (which I am only slightly better at, but stuck with it anyway) I remember 2-3am nights in deserted studio space of standing on one leg, my foot hitched high on the side of my other knee-pallet in hand, wetting my watercolor paper, humming. I loved the quiet, the feeling of being alone with my work. I write in the same way. I still sketch, take a tiny water color set to the beach and use salt water-I thinks it totally relaxing, because I don’t have to be good anymore.I sweat when I write because I have an inner audience to please (and sometimes an outer one.)
    Anyway, your essay was lovely. Art is art, and it must have been a cathartic break. Watercolor is hard and I liked your efforts on the page, despite your own inner critic.

  2. Yo, Bill! Wonderful stuff. Philip and I have been here in Florence teaching a class called Journal and Sketchbook that we originally developed for writing students but since have adapted it to students of all things and ages. I am going to share your insight here with everyone I know. xo-Patty