I write for a living. On the surface, that’s a pretty neat thing. But it’s not as glamorous as you might presume.
My working hours are spent researching the latest news and trends within the supermarket and hospitality industries, writing up stories for websites and magazines circulated amongst businesses within these sectors. It’s not groundbreaking stuff, but I’m paying the bills by writing all day, and that in itself is enough for me to stick with it.
But there’s a hidden benefit to the work I do: I spend all day reading and writing material which, fundamentally, I’m not that interested in.
Occasionally I’ll do a piece about a subject I care about. Usually, this involves writing about coffee. But mostly I’m writing about business trends, new products, food festivals. Local and international industry news, to be short.
This might sound like your idea of hell. And don’t get me wrong: it isn’t fun, exactly. I’m no more interested than the next guy in who the latest CEO of Pizza Hut is. But, considering how rare true inspiration really is, there’s a valuable lesson to be learned in writing bored.
People have this idea about writing, and all kinds of art. They think that somehow it’s about being expressive, pouring your heart out onto the page. And, sometimes, it is. But mostly it’s a craft. A skill. A muscle.
Just as a pianist must spend years practising scales and arpeggios before they can be expected to perform a piece of Chopin with any degree of sophistication, so too should a writer be familiar with the basic, technical components of writing before he can be expected to create anything truly great.
What are these elements? Fundamentally, sentences. Sentences are the building blocks of great writing. They’re units of thought, ideas laid out and neatly prepared for reabsorption by another mind. A novel of 1000 pages begins with a single sentence, and if you can’t write them in your sleep, sooner or later you’re going to run out of words. Trust me: I’ve written a lot of sentences in my sleep.
When it’s 4:45 on a Friday afternoon and you’re writing a story about the new McDonald’s in Times Square, you can’t rely on inspiration to get you through. All you have is your craft. A wood-carver with customers to sell to and deadlines to meet doesn’t wait around for inspiration, and neither should you. If writing is your business, sentences are your product.
This is nothing to get precious about. The kind of writing I spend most of my time doing is not the kind of writing that needs to dance off the page (or screen.) It doesn’t need to sing, or evoke a sense of place, or develop a character arc. All it needs to do is what all good writing needs to do — make sense. Communicate an idea, clearly and crisply, sentence by sentence.
There’s an art to this, to writing bored. It really is analogous to a musician churning out his scales. He could be daydreaming, or half-asleep, or sick with the flu. But, so long as he’s practised, he can still sit down and churn out a scale that, to anyone listening, sounds just fine. It’s not that scales are music, it’s that without them, music is impossible.
Very often I find myself writing in the midst of a brain-fog. I don’t remember the sentence I’ve just written, and I don’t know what the next sentence will be. In moments like this, I focus on the sentence I’m writing. That’s it. I try my hardest to ensure that it’s easy to read, that it’s clear and comprehensible. If I’m feeling good, maybe I’ll try and imbue it with a touch of musicality. A drizzle of rhythm or a sprinkle of pitter-patter alliteration. But, mostly, it just has to make sense.
And here’s the beautiful thing. After doing this for ten, fifteen, thirty minutes, I can step back and look at a paragraph that, despite my almost complete lack of engagement, stands up and makes sense. It’s writing. It might not be Tolstoy, but it’s not drivel. And sometimes ‘not drivel’ is the best you can hope for.
Here’s an exercise for you to try: set a timer for half an hour, and use that time to write three sentences. Only three. Spend ten minutes on each, and try and make it the best version of the sentence that it can be. When you do, two things will happen. First, you will get bored. Ten minutes is far too long to spend on a single sentence. But you must persevere, because when the time is up, you can wander off and do something else for a few hours before returning to look at your work with fresh eyes. If you’ve engaged sincerely with the exercise, you’ll find three sentences that, despite the circumstances of their birth, flow like delicate little streams of meaning.