9 November 2021

For when there is nothing to write about

Just get started, clean thinking and the luxury of reading books

I started this experiment of writing on Medium back in August 21', producing on average one blog post per week.

This is not a tremendous amount of output by any means, and there have been many moments during this journey of struggling with the roadblock of not having anything to write about.

Like today.

Though, the funny thing is that the simple act of writing out the title of this post has eventually led to more thoughts and ideas about the title itself.

This probably makes no sense, but I’ll try to explain.

For me, the ‘slow days’ when it comes to sitting down to write has involved a lot of time waiting and staring at a blank page, blindly hoping for some divine inspiration to catalyse the process of getting words on paper.

Over time, I have learnt that these are the wasteful moments, because it is actually through the process of writing something, not the contemplation about or preparation to write, that leads to more ideas to write about.

The slow days are characteristic of the times when I was not purposefully recollecting a certain memory or experience from the past, and instead had to create something new, yet to be fully formed. By definition, this is a difficult task, the alchemy of new ideas from a blank page.

At the same time, however, it still does not fail to surprise me just how much my mind has to say, to articulate and express through the written page — this completely flies in the face of the idea that there is ‘nothing to write about’. There is plenty, but it seems that the obstacle lies in the process of getting started.

To me, creating and writing about new ideas seems to be more about getting as many words, thoughts, reflections and stories onto the page rather than getting things ‘right’ straight out of the gates. Perhaps, there needs to be consideration also for defining what ‘good’ writing should be like and confronting the obstacle of thinking ‘there is nothing worthy of writing about’ but would it not be an impossible task to accurately gauge the value of things that have yet to be created?

To produce ‘good’ writing is the next stage of development. After all, how could one reasonably expect to be good at writing if not even a single word has been produced onto the page? It would be like a builder who only thinks about building but never actually gets his hands dirty, or the armchair philosopher who complains about the tragedies of the world while being insulated and comfortable within his own home. All talk, no action.

It seems to me, then, that it would be unreasonable to expect to be a good writer before knowing what crappy writing is in the first place. You know it when you see it, and you know it with greater clarity and insight when you are the person producing it.

Where do I stand today, with the content that I have been producing?

I think that I am neck deep in the muck, a lot of my writing to date has not come from the deliberate practice of a seasoned professional, but instead the brain dumps of a curious amateur, willing to put pen to paper, in search of the gems, the key insights, the life lessons that might be worth telling a story about.

The next question: who am I really writing for?

The professional is one who is able to hone his writing to cater for a targeted audience, he would be sufficiently versed in the art of communicating well with his readers.

Me? I write mostly for myself. To better understand what has happened for me in the past, in order to become a little bit better tomorrow than the person that I am today. Writing has been a tremendous tool for helping me unpack such things, and I try my hand at making them somewhat coherent and interesting enough to be read by others.

As I transition from my current life / career trajectory, I am also trying to build in public by documenting this whole journey. A gem I picked up from YouTuber Ali Abdaal, who speaks about one of his lessons from the book ‘Show Your Work’ by Austin Kleon.

Clean thinking

I have also come to notice, from reading the works of great authors, that clean writing is the by-product of clean thinking and not the other way around. When thoughts are murky, writing misleading and the reader confused, those are the by-default, undesirable outcomes that come by easily.

When thoughts are clean, writing clear and the reader engaged, these are the effortful outcomes that demands skill and finesse.

Effortful — full of effort.

It takes work to distill raw ideas down to a concentrated liquor that can be packaged beautifully, to sit on a shelf as an accolade and presented for consumption in its final form.

Ideas tend to emerge from the ether as a wild jungle — untamed, chaotic and merciless. The competent writer is like the explorer who enters the jungle, with the intent of making it his home. Effort is demanded of him, as the brush gets trimmed back and shelter to shield away predators established.

By the end, the explorer can look back and admire his creation, the orderliness in and amongst the surrounding chaos and to look back onto his experiences with a sense of pride, while also holding a deep respect for the work that was demanded from him to tame the jungle that was once not his.

The luxury of reading books

So, the next time you wander into a bookstore and pick up a 1000-page paperback for $20?

Just imagine being in the author’s shoes at Page 0, staring at the spaces yet to be covered by story.

The book, the final product that deserves to sit as an accolade on a shelf, deserves to be priced at multitudes more than the market price that the average person is willing to pay for.

Considering the time, energy and care that authors invest into their craft and their final products, books can be seen as creative expressions, as art.

On one hand, it is beautiful for clean thinking to be so widely accessible and available but on the other, it is the mass-market reproducibility that devalues the market price of the art. Supply and demand.

As an avid reader myself, I am grateful that the exchange of $20 grants me the ability to learn from the greatest thinkers of the past and our world today. It is unfortunate how books go underappreciated in a modern world that is bursting at the seams with fast-food information, but perhaps this is something that is to be expected for a society fueled by instant gratification.

It is not difficult to see why books are falling away from conversations and people’s hearts, since books offer slow knowledge that demands more of one’s attention in order to be grasped.

What comes easiest, quickest, cheapest and most alluring is the first that gets taken off the shelf and put into the shopping cart.

Reading, then, has become something like a luxurious activity, a slow journey in a world that is moving too quickly to even think about stopping to smell the roses.

Here’s to not having anything to write about.