Bill Roorbach: Finding Time to Write


Finding Time to Write
is a great bit of advice from Bill Roorbach. While it applies most directly to writers, it’s fitting for any art who keeps looking for that magical big block of time.

I had the pleasure of having Bill as an instructor, while I was getting my creative writing MFA at Ohio State University. I was focusing on poetry at the time, but I took a workshop with him (Creative Non-Fiction) and it dramatically changed how I viewed my writing process.

Like a lot of people, I always tried to arrange some large window of time – a block of multiple hours where I’d pour myself a drink, have the right music going and lose myself to the work. In some ways, it was like the idea of a vacation: a set amount of time where you could forget about the rest of the world, and just get to doing the thing you really want to do.

Here’s the problem. For as much as I kept wanting and waiting for that chunk of time, it rarely ever came. I kept thinking about writing, but never actually sat down to do it. Other things always seemed to be in the way: prep work for classes I was teaching, grading student papers, reading requirements for the classes I was taking, writing papers for the classes I was taking, part-time jobs, household errands. You name it, there was always something that stood between me and that magical time at my desk.

After hearing about how Bill handled his writing, it clicked for me. Make your writing more important. Make it a priority and give it the same attention and gravity you give to other things. Make it first, and all the other stuff will somehow get done, in the time remaining. In Bill’s words:

The big shift I made was starting to call my writing work. First to myself, then to family, finally to everyone else. And not just call it work, but make it my work. And not just work, but my job. My number-one task. I had to respect my writing time if I expected anyone else to.

I remember in his workshop he’d show us his weekly planner. He had a section each day that he had highlighted, indicating the time he scheduled for himself to write. His wife and family knew about this time, his colleagues at school knew it. He didn’t schedule anything else, and made it a point to stick to his timeline. Work is work, after all.

In class, Bill told us about how he used to stress out about faculty meetings. How he’d do a ton of work and focused a great deal of his energies on committes and presentations and that sort of thing. And he talked about how others would give him praise by telling him how great a presentation he made. To this day, I can hear him pretending to be another professor, saying Hey Bill, great… just a great job. And then he’d faux-clap his hands by lightly dragging his fingers over his palm.

He cites his friend Wesley McNair as being the guy who set him straight about his time. McNair said to him: “We’re not going to be remembered for going to meetings. We’re going to be remembered for what we write.”

In addition to treating your writing (or whatever artistic approach you have) like work, Bill also was a strong advocate of doing something every day. Some days are busier than others, and sometimes there’s simply not a free hour for you to sit down to write. But how about 30 minutes? How about 10?

For Bill, so long as you did a little work each day, that was better than nothing. If all you’ve got time to do is look over the writing you did yesterday, do that. Whatever you can manage, doing it every day is a huge part.

While I’ve not done much creating writing in the past few years, I think that this blog is a manifestation of Bill’s philosophy. I don’t think what I do here really counts as writing, because it’s oftentimes fast and sloppy and loose. But it’s practice, and it’s something I try to do each morning.

I still long for those magical blocks of time, those windows where the world disappears and I’m free to just create. The difference for me, though, is that I no longer rely exclusively on those moments.

The danger in waiting only for those large blocks of time is that you treat all travel like a marathon. To get from Point A to Point B is usually not one big 10K run – it’s comprised of smaller increments. You walk to your car. You drive or take the bus. You walk to your destination. You tackle a little at a time, and before you know it a great distance has transpired.

It’s been over ten years since I first heard Bill’s advice, and it still rings true to me today. Make your art your work, and give it the importance and priority it deserves. Your normal tasks and obligations won’t step aside out of kindness, or of their own accord. You have to push them aside.

[CC-licensed photo via tj.blackwell]

Related:
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Bill Roorbach’s Video Memoir: I Used To Play In Bands

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Yes, a thousand times yes. People don’t understand how important it is to lose the world and write. They think a five minute distraction in the middle is the same as a five minute distraction at the end. That two half-hour blocks are equal to one hour-long block (by the same reasoning, two magnitude 5.0 earthquakes would equal a magnitude 10.0 earthquake…)I’ve never done the whole youtube video production thing, but one of these days I’d like to, and one of the videos I’d like to produce would show a person working at their desk, along with a realtime graph showing their productivity. The productivity graph is nice and full, then the girlfriend sticks her head in the room “hey honey, can you take the trash out when you get a chance” Bang, productivity graph flatlines. It slowly takes time to build back up, then the phone rings and it’s a colleague asking something. Graph instantly flatlines again, and so on. I think a video like this might help illustrate the idea to people who don’t realize how important our “writing trance time” is.

    Xamuel Reply


  2. I hear you about the “trance” state, though I’ve not been actively trying to pursue it. It’s nice when it happens.What I like about Bill’s advice is that it treats a creative process more like a discipline. When I was first starting off writing, I believed it was akin to magic: inspiration would take over, the muses would descend… and I’d have a poem.I know now that those moments are incredibly rare, they’re few and far between. You still have to lift weights at the gym, you still have to practice your free throws.What you mention reminds me a lot of Peopleware. Specifically, the point you bring up regarding interruption and the time it takes to return your focus/attention after being interrupted. In that book, I think they cite telephones as being one of the worst offenders, in terms of stealing attention.If you haven’t heard it yet, I highly recommend Merlin Mann’s Re-Negotiation And The *Ding*. Hearing that totally changed how I use email, and it was eye-opening how much the default 5-minute “New Email Check” was screwing with my workflow. Based on your comments, I think you’d dig it a lot.

    avoision Reply


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