No Art Without Craft

Reading & Writing


I’m still asked on a regular basis if I have advice for writers. Yes, and I think the advice is changing a little.

If you believe a poll that ran in the Independent and the Guardian this week, British productivity is the lowest in Europe. We’re all working from home now, having decided that being a butcher isn’t as fulfilling as taking meetings at Soho House.

The problem with work is that it strikes a hard bargain. If you surrender around 40 years of your life, after which you end up remembering very little of what happened, you can get to the top of your profession. It’s a concept the children of certain friends of mine seem to struggle with.

People working in the creative industries are so regularly called ‘lucky’ that I suspect they think it’s a matter of me accidentally stumbling across the right job like tripping over a corpse in the dark, rather than straining with every fibre of my being to become a writer from the age of seven.

It’s like being a tennis player or a pianist; you start young and practice all day every day for years, then you struggle to keep up until the day you quit. Before I published anything I wrote radio shows, trade shows, comedy scripts for other comedians, in-house scripts for company videos – anything to try and hone my craft. Virtually all of my salary went into research.

The industry has mutated, but in many ways it has raised the game for everyone, making us leaner, more profit-conscious and determined. New opportunities have opened; video games, app development, social media. The sturdiest creative careers are equally an art and a craft, and anyone who feels unconfident should try working in collaboration for a while. I love working with others and try to do it whenever I can.

If I had not spent so many years churning out horrible scripts for boiler companies I wouldn’t have learned the technicalities of the job, but to be honest I still don’t understand how inspiration works. I’ve read the self-help books and find them too generic. Last week I spent three days staring at a blank screen without an idea in my head, then woke at 3:30am with my mind sparkling. Jumping out of bed, I spent the remainder of the night writing it all down. Why couldn’t I have done that during the day?

I now find myself in the bizarre position of having a greater workload than I’ve had at any point in my life (eight books planned) and I love it. My revised nuggets of advice would include the following;

Make up your mind as soon as you can about what you want to do.

Narrow your field of interest.

Find ways around problems by teaming with others (not online but for real).

And remember that nobody wants a good all-rounder.

7 comments on “No Art Without Craft”

  1. Peter Tromans says:

    ‘nobody wants an all-rounder’ resonates with the slightly enigmatic advice about the secret of life from Jack Palance in City Slickers: ‘just one thing’.

    It’s too true, especially in creative activities, but difficult to follow. Doing lots of different things can be so much fun. That may be the secret of my lack of success.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    Alfred Hitchcock used to say don’t try and please everyone, as you’ll end up pleasing no-one.

  3. brooke says:

    “…Why couldn’t I have done that during the day?”
    Sorry, but the brain doesn’t work that way. According to neuroscientists, the brain needs you to shut down at bit so it can incorporate and synthesize and create. “Sleep on it” is really good advice for problem solving, skill mastery and other work that needs time to gel.

    Advice 1, 2 and 4 –not so good in today’s environment and contradict the third. To have a really good work life, we’re finding that you need to think of pi (the scientific notation). The top stroke is an overarching interest, industry or theme for your life and the two vertical strokes represent areas where you develop your skill sets. And if you want to work with highly productive teams, you’d better have a third set of the so-called soft skills, especially if the teams you want to work with are diverse –in any of the word’s meanings.

    I know–outlier. But I can provide documentation longer than the Queen’s “My government will…” speech for my comments.

  4. Steveb says:

    Hi Chris
    Really good article today with much truth in my opinion.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I like the image of pi, Brooke. That overarching stroke is like a wave so you can shift somewhat as you form your area and a tripod is a strong structure on which to base things so there you go.
    The only tricky part about sleeping on it is to shut the conscious, reasoning mind down so you can sleep. I really believe in that process as I’ve so often just shut down for the night and found as answer soon after getting up. Your unconscious mind can really work hard as long as you give it a chance to work alone.

  6. Jan says:

    Here O sparkling one why do you reckon you have to narrow your field of interest? Don’t really get that Chris please explain?

  7. brooke says:

    @Jan. I too was found that puzzling coming from Mr. Fowler whose interests seem to be very broad and who tries out everything except RompHims.

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