Zen and the Art of Writing

Zen and the Art of Writing

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is an appeal to the lost value of craftsmanship, and a guide to doing meaningful, harmonious work.

This blog post discusses and expands on Pirsig’s ideas, in the context of writing, making use of a veritable army of metaphors, and frequent reference to Stephen King’s creative process (which is surprisingly ‘Zen’).

Without further ado, let us begin:

The philosophy of Quality

To do good work, says Robert Pirsig, we must work according to Quality.

But what is Quality?

It is described (abstractly) as the oneness of the universe, the source of everything; unity.

I like to see it as a secular metaphor for God; spiritual, but not religious.

But for the purposes of this article, let us shuffle by the metaphysical aspects of Quality, and instead focus on how it affects writers, and how we can become attuned to Quality.  

It is however important to establish this: Quality is a metaphor, a silly word we use as a proxy. I’m not trying to convert you to some cult. It’s not meant to be interpreted literally.

If you would like to delve into the metaphysical aspects of Quality (which I do recommend), I suggest you read my blog post on Taoism. The Tao is for life as Quality is for work.

Quality as music

The best (and only) way to describe Quality is through a metaphor.

Quality is the rhythm of the universe. We are like instruments; playing our own tunes, and creating discord.

By cultivating the right mindset we may sense the rhythm of the universe, and begin to act in harmony with it. So may our writing become an extension of the universe’s rhythm.

Writing is ultimately music, a way to orchestrate the world. Like music it must flow forth from the inner recesses of our soul, joining the perfect symphony of the universe.

Quality as water

Quality is the Way we must follow (in order to live in perfect peace and harmony).

It is a stream which carries us along. We may resist by thinking and doing, but struggle is futile, and only fatigues us.  

By yielding to the flow, giving up intellectual pursuit of a preconceived goal, it carries us forward, and writing becomes effortless.

Finding harmony

We’ve all heard of Deep Work, this state of pure focus.

But this is only a fallow imitation of Quality.

The ultimate state of work is spiritual, rather than intellectual. The best writing flows from the heart.  

This state is something we have all experienced: It is the point where everything ceases to be, and you forget about (escape) yourself for a moment. Some find it during sport. Others while daydreaming. I experience it most strongly during worship.

The following is an attempt to describe this state, and how we may enter it:

Beyond words

Quality is shapeless, formless, indescribable. To see shapes and forms is to intellectualize. Quality is independent of any such shapes and forms. The names, the shapes and forms we give Quality depend only partly on the Quality.

Robert Pirsig

We cannot really describe Quality. It is beyond mere words, which only fragment our understanding.

It is something we must feel, rather than know.  

Words may bring us closer to it; but to catch even the merest glimpse, we must experience it ourselves.

The dexterous butcher

Zhuangzi tells the parable of the dexterous butcher to demonstrate this state of work:

There was once a cook who carved an ox with such great skill that a Lord inquired to him about it. When prompted the cook conveyed his secret: he follows the natural makeup of the ox, moving not by physical perception, but by the path of the spirit. He feels rather than thinks about the way forward. His knife traces the natural way, the one of least resistance, thereby avoiding the tendons and ligaments.

We must follow the rhythm of our writing, not pushing it in a certain direction, but letting it lead us. This writing is effortless, flowing, avoiding friction.  

I am reminded of Stephen King’s description of his writing process:

Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe. Imagine, if you like, Frankenstein’s monster on its slab. Here comes lightning, not from the sky but from a humble paragraph of English words. Maybe it’s the first really good paragraph you ever wrote, something so fragile and yet full of possibility that you are frightened. You feel as Victor Frankenstein must have when the dead conglomeration of sewn-together spare parts suddenly opened its watery yellow eyes. Oh my God, it’s breathing, you realize. Maybe it’s even thinking. What in hell’s name do I do next?

I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can – I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course).

I want to put a group of characters… in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety… but to watch what happens and then write it down.

I would like to draw your attention to a few things here:

  1. In these three passages, there is an overarching sense of the writing becoming alive, animated by our own intuition.
  2. Real creation is spontaneous and intuitive, and our writing process must reflect this.
  3. Stephen King lets the characters lead the story, rather than orchestrating their actions (sorta creepy, but what else could you expect from the icon of the horror genre)

Stephen King follows the principle of the dexterous butcher; the material they are working with guides them, and they act instinctively.

The words do not come from any distinct source, but rather flow, through us, beyond us, and they become us.

Losing your ‘self’

To enter this state, our minds must become like a tranquil pond.

When we think, we create ripples, and obscure what is below; the deeper ideas of the unconscious mind.

I like the way Franz Kafka puts it:

You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

When your mind is empty, not even listening, the world rushes in for you to observe and record.

So stop clinging to the notion of ‘self’. Become the writing; let it become you.

When Robert Pirsig described reading as the enemy of writing, I thought him silly. But I now understand his meaning: Reading creates ripples, just as thought does, draws us back into our conscious minds.

But writing must proceed from the unconscious, or even beyond that. Only when we let go of the self, and become one with our writing, does it truly flow.

Surrender

To let go of the ‘self’ is to surrender; to the gentle lull of the universe, letting it’s idle rhythms wash over us and lead us.

But “leading” does not really capture the relationship. It is a notion born from a subject object distinction. Rather, we become one with these rhythms, changing as they change, spontaneously and effortlessly.

But neither is this state necessarily peaceful: do you think Stephen King writes peacefully? No. Writing is often frantic and frenzied, a chaotic spewing forth of ideas.  

Perhaps this ‘state of Quality’ is less like music, and more like the ocean. When you surrender, the tide siezes you in it’s grip, tossing you about, thrusting you where it may. All you can do is to stay afloat, to carry on writing.

Writing well then, is a surrender to the flow of ideas, rather than an attempt to constrain and control them.

Environmental aids

There are a few simple things we can do to prolong and intensify this experience:

  1. Music/background audio. Look for something that complements your writing: For example Stephen King writes with heavy metal blasting through speakers (explains a lot!). I like beatstrumentals. Find something that really works for you.
  2. Don’t stop writing. Ever. Keep your fingers moving, even if it’s nonsense. I like to imagine that I am being chased by something, and if I slow down, I will be caught.
  3. Assassinate distractions. I love this phrase, since it conveys the idea so nicely. Identify a distraction, and eliminate it with cold efficiency.
  4. Lose track of time. Time is a reminder of the real world, representative of productivity, obligations and the self. Entering the cocoon of writing, losing yourself, can only happen when you have lost track of time.
  5. Typing faster. Every writer should consistently train their typing speed. It allows you to write more, and more importantly keep up with your thought, making writing a more fluid, immersive process. Here’s my guide to typing faster.

The role of the unconscious

The nature of ideas

Writing seems to me a drawing up of ideas; the more we write (in a state of Quality), the more ideas we draw up, until we are draining our very soul.  

Quality is like a well of ideas, the unconscious mind a pulley apparatus, and our writing the exertion that draws Quality up into the physical world.  

But once drawn up, these ideas do not come meekly, like an obedient dog whining at our heels.

Rather, they are like butterflies. Flitting fragments, coruscating in the light of our conscious; one moment there, gone the next.

Writers are like entomologists. Once we have flushed out these ideas, we must use our net (writing) to forever trap them in the conscious world, pinning them up to our wall (the blank page) for all to admire and contemplate.

The wisdom of the heart, and the truth of myths

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Ernest Hemingway

Writing should be raw, a bleeding of the heart, rather than proceeding from the intellect.

The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of… We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.

Blaise Pascal

There is a wisdom to the ideas of the heart (the unconscious mind).

“Myths, Lewis told Tolkien, were “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”

“No,” Tolkien replied. “They are not lies.” Far from being lies they were the best way sometimes the only way of conveying truths that would otherwise remain inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily toward the true harbor, whereas materialistic “progress” leads only to the abyss and the power of evil.”

While these myths are not true in themselves, they may allow us to glimpse the truth. Often we find that truth, profound ideas, can only be expressed using paradoxes and metaphors; myths.

This is because the unconscious mind (the heart) operates in harmony with Quality and therefore the myths that arise from intuition are generated directly by Quality.

As Pablo Picasso said:

Art is a lie that allows us to see the truth

This whole concept of Quality is a myth, one of the many that attempts to express the same underlying idea. This is also why this blog post contains so many metaphors; the idea behind Quality is not something I, nor anyone, truly understands. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is itself a myth, a story used to convey the idea. As stated earlier, Quality is “inexpressible”, “beyond words”. It might not be the full truth, but there is something there, a glimpse of eternity.   

To wrap up: The heart (the unconscious) has a profound wisdom, as it is guided by Quality, and there is therefore a wisdom to myths, as these are sometimes the only way to express what we feel.  

Becoming a craftsman

So far we have not touched on an essential aspect of doing good work: To write with Quality, you must care.  

The lost value of craftsmanship

In an age rife with shallow content, meaninglessness and mass production, good work is a fading commodity.

Writers are told to sell better, rather than to write better. To care about success, rather than care for their work.

But the demand for craftsmanship is increasing. People want authenticity, real work, labors of love.

Without care, there can be no good work. Revere the blank page. Approach it, with something, whether that be joy, dread or anticipation. Be ready to pour yourself into it.

Treat your writing with respect, and it will be supple, bending easily to your will.

So write what you care about, not what others want. And write it with care.

Even if it doesn’t bring you success, it brings something far more elusive: a full life.

Holistic writing

Good work is a holistic pursuit. It is not something external to us, but an integral part of us, a manifestation of our very being.

Writing and life are inextricably intertwined. Write what you live, and live what you write. Only when this harmony exists can our writing proceed from the heart, rather than the fabrications of the intellect.

Work isn’t made for life. Neither is life made for work. Rather, good work is life itself. Real writing is not just something you can do, but a way of life you must embrace.

You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally.

Robert Pirsig

Writing what is meaningful

My favourite part of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is the epilogue. In it, we get two absolute gems:

When asked why he wrote ZMM, Pirsig replies that he felt writing it had a higher Quality than not writing it. He really had something important to say.

In the same interview he was asked why he had not written more books, considering their commercial success. He answered that he believed he had said all that was necessary. He chose silence rather than (profitable) work that wasn’t really meaningful.

This principle has guided my recent writing: Write only when you have something worthwhile to say. Silence is a virtue.

This doesn’t mean waiting for the Muse to drop a perfect idea on your lap, nor does it mean you should only write when inspiration strikes.

Rather, it means writing something unique, something only you can write. Infuse it with your personality and your experiences. Make it a part of yourself.

Write what is you, and let the right people find it.

Writing is a profoundly Zen endeavour. I have attempted to capture the gist of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance here, but of course I cannot rival a whole book written by someone with a lot more experience. I highly recommend you read it. There is one thing I would once again like to repeat: Whether you are a writer or a mathematician, a mechanic or an accountant, become a craftsmen. Show care for your work. Don’t succumb to the modern epidemic of shallowness and efficiency. Do what you do deliberately, and do it well.


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Brian Scoles
5 months ago

I am excited that you have discovered your passion. May your writing continue to be a labor of love.

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Brian Scoles
5 months ago

I came across this earlier…. “Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.” I thought that you might enjoy and appreciate Aristotle’s contention.

Lesley Mclean
Lesley Mclean
5 months ago

As Kahil Gibran said “Work is love made visible.”

The love you have for writing is visible, Louis. Keep growing, keep the ideas flowing. It is a pleasure to follow your work.

Last edited 5 months ago by LouisKruger