Writing is about seeing

Robert M. Pirsig's Parable of the Brick

How can we overcome writer's block and turn what we see into an interesting story? How does it help us if we narrow our view further and further to a detail? And why does it help us to show the big picture again?

Intellektueller Roadtrip der 70er

In 1987, I was given the book «Zen and the Art of Maintaining a Motorcycle - An Attempt at Values.» for my 21st birthday. Pirsig's reflections on subjective and objective quality, on romantic and classical quality, coupled with a difficult personal life story and a complex relationship with one's own son and family, gripped and seized me like many other people. 

Mathias Bröckers

And ‹ quality › is also the theme: ‹ Whole libraries are devoted to the question of how the fittest survive, but no one has ever answered the question of why. › That is the calibre of philosophical questions among which a Robert M. Pirsig simply does not make it.

Source : Bröckers, Mathias: Motorradwartung, Seelenfrieden und und und : taz. die tageszeitung vom 11.5.1993 (Translation by me)

The book made me think at a young age - 21 - about quality, quality of life and satisfying work. Moreover, the book is written as a trip, as a mental and physical movement, a literary form that makes it particularly easy for me personally to go along with the author.

Writing is about seeing - This is a photograph of author and philosopher Robert M. Pirsig taken by Ian Glendinning at Chester, England on the eve of the Liverpool conference of 7th July 2005.  Photograph by Ian Glendinning. (c) 2005 Dr Anthony McWatt , Quelle: Wikipedia, s.u.
This is a photograph of author and philosopher Robert M. Pirsig taken by Ian Glendinning at Chester, England on the eve of the Liverpool conference of 7th July 2005. Photograph by Ian Glendinning. (c) 2005 Dr Anthony McWatt , Quelle: Wikipedia, s.u.
120 rejections

5 million copies sold

Robert M. Pirsig ( 6 September 1928 - 24 April 2017 ) was an American author, teacher and philosopher. His book about a motorbike road trip from Minnesota to California, written in 1974 over a total of 4 years, and the philosophical theses and reflections accompanying the trip made him famous at a stroke. To date, the book has been translated into 27 languages and sold more than 5 million copies.  Even though 120 publishers had reservations.  

Steve Chawkins

›The book is not, as I think you now realize from your correspondence with other publishers, a marketing man’s dream,‹ the editor at William Morrow wrote in a congratulatory note before its 1974 publication.

Source: Chawkins, Steve; Robert Pirsig dies at 88; wrote counterculture classic ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’. Los Angeles Times, 24. April 2017

Pirsig was highly gifted as a child, graduated from high school at the age of 14, but was unable to integrate well into the university or school system, either as a student or later as a lecturer. His difficulties and ongoing conflicts with the university, massive overwork finally led to a massive mental illness, an admission to the Veterans Hospital in Minneapolis, where Pirsig received, among other things, 28 electric shock treatments, which, according to him, led to an erasure of his personality. The above-mentioned book was written afterwards and it was only through the book that Pirsig was able to establish a name and scientific status for himself, even though he repeatedly complained that he was seen too much as a "New Age author" or "cult author" and less as a philosopher. (Source: Wikipedia)

Yet Pirsig has a lot to offer as a philosopher, especially in a marriage of Buddhist thought and Western philosophy and in his reflections on the concept of quality, which can help us today in a new way to better evaluate and weigh events, opinions and statements.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

I regret now that I lack the expertise in philosophy to put Mr Pirsig's ideas to a real test, because this book may well be a profoundly important one - indeed a great one - full of insights into our most perplexing contemporary dilemmas. I just don't know. But whatever its true philosophical value, it is intellectual entertainment of the highest order.

Source: Christopher Lehmann-Haupt: Books of The Times. In: The New York Times. 16. April 1974 (Translation by me)

Despite the large print runs, the book did not meet the expectations of all readers; individual expectations are too different for that. Some expect a motorcycle-heavy road trip with a little philosophy, others an in-depth philosophical book with a little road trip. Neither expectation is fulfilled, because Pirsig skilfully combines everyday experiences and reviews of his life with philosophical thinking. This now leads me in a pleasant way back to the topic of this post, writing.

Making what is seen into what has happened

It's all about the view, just the view

Pirsig looks back on his time as a professor in rhetoric and tells a little incident from his life as a teacher. Basically, it's about how to start writing when you just don't know where to begin at all. 

Either the topic is too big, the information you have is too unstructured or there is just too much of it. Everyone knows it and everyone has experienced it. Either a gigantic vacuum has formed in your head - in which every spontaneous good thought fizzles out - and that tends to spread further and further in your head until you have the feeling of not knowing anything. Or the opposite is the case, we can't get started at all because the topics and ideas pop up in our heads as fast as popcorn pops up in a pot and we can't get the popping kernels under control.

Time to let Pirsig have his say:

He often had trouble with students who didn't know what to say. At first he thought it was just laziness, but then it turned out to be something else. They just couldn't think of anything to write down. (...) One student, a girl with thick glasses, wanted to write a five hundred word essay on the United States. As always with such announcements, he had a sinking feeling and suggested to her without mockery that she limit herself to Bozeman.

Source : Pirsig, Robert M.: Zen und die Kunst, ein Motorrad zu warten: ein Versuch über Werte, Page 194 (Translation by me)

Could you write 500 words about Germany? Where would you start? Where does your image crystallise in a textual beginning? Where to start? With our individual experiences of this country? Geographically? Politically? Socially? Would I be better off with the narrowed topic of Wuppertal? I could write about the strange nature of Wuppertalers to make unobtrusive everyday objects obtrusive, like telephone switch boxes with kitschy naïve painting, or about clichés, like the suspension railway, Marx or Engels, the Gründerzeit, the zoo, but it's not hard to notice that my view has already narrowed. Write something general about Wuppertal. No.

The book continues. A little later in the chapter, the student came back failed:

When the delivery day came, she didn't have the essay and was dead unhappy about it. She had tried again and again, but nothing had come to her. (...) She didn't fool him, she really didn't know what to write and found it terrible that she was unable to do what was expected of her.

He was at a loss. Now he didn't know what to say. A pause occurred, and then came a remarkable reply »Narrow it down to the main street of Bozeman.« It was a sudden insight.

She nodded dutifully and walked out. 

Source : ebd. (Translation by me)

A narrowing down. Narrowing the gaze and not grasping it so broadly. Thomas. Write 500 words about the suspension railway. The suspension railway is big, it is long, it winds through the valley for more than 13 kilometres, it was invented by Eugen Langen at the beginning of the 20th century, the Kaiser rode the suspension railway, an elephant supposedly jumped out of it, how many rivets hold the framework together? Are there still original parts, why didn't it become a monument? Why doesn't it go faster than 50 km/h? How many carriages are there, how many stations and why? Where would I start? With how regrettable it is that most of the original stations, the monuments, have been thrown on the rubbish with a flick of the wrist, depriving Wuppertal of part of its body, of a genuine original organ? Oh dear, I can't see the wood for the trees, is probably the appropriate expression now, isn't it? 

Let's see how the book continues with the student? 

But shortly before the next lesson she came back, completely depressed and in tears, and it was obvious that the grief had been bothering her for a long time. (...)

He was furious. ›ou just don't open your eyes!‹ he said. He thought of how he himself had been thrown out of the university because he had had too much to say. For every fact there are an infinite number of hypotheses. The closer you look, the more you see. This student really wasn't looking, but for some reason she didn't understand. Annoyed, he told her: ›Narrow it down to the façade of a single building on Bozeman's main street. The opera house, for all I care. Start with the first brick at the top left.‹ 

Quelle : ebd. (Translation by me)

Look closely. It's a kind of art! The one rivet in the framework of the suspension railway. Which was no longer struck on site. Because the new scaffolding was no longer riveted on site, it came ready-made like a Fischertechnik construction kit and was only screwed together. Otherwise I could perhaps tell you something about the two workers who loved the riveting, the throwing from the riveting furnace to the riveter, the catching with the riveting trowel, the hammering blow when the rivet head slowly rounded and, as it cooled, inexorably pulled the two steel parts together until all the play came out of the joint and thus this unshakably flexible iron worm was created, from which we float through Wuppertal hanging.

Take a close look at the brick! Take a look at it! Where is it? What does it look like? Reddish or more ochre? Hard or soft fired? Was it made in a ring kiln or a long kiln? Maybe even a field-fired stone? What format does it have? The Dutch know more brick formats than the Germans. What does that say about the building culture, the set of letters of the architectural alphabet? Is it a simple brick, or a shaped brick?  How does it relate to its neighbouring bricks? Can you see the side or the front? I could write a lot about bricks, and the reason for this blog post is that it is precisely because of the brick that this book post has stayed with me since 1987, as it has always helped me to find a grain of salt as a point of crystallisation in the salty solution of my knowledge, of my seeing. A single grain at which the whole solution crystallises into a beautiful crystal mountain, the finished text that takes a broad view but begins with a special focus. Our object of desire, what we look at has connections, in a salty saturated solution they are chemical and atomic, in the text they are the objects, events, figures and happenings considered; and in writing we can profit from these attractions, let them guide us.

And so it is:

With a puzzled look on her face, she came into the next class and handed him a five-thousand-word essay on the façade of the Opera House on Main Street in Bozeman, Montana. ›I was sitting in the snack bar across the street«, she reported, »and I started writing something about the first brick, then something about the second, and then all of a sudden on the third it just ran itself and I couldn't stop. The others thought I'd gone mad and kept teasing me, but the essay is done. I don't understand it.‹

Quelle : ebd, page 195f (Translation by me)

The most beautiful experience in writing: Having a run. The connections in content, the mental, physical, qualitative, emotional ones grab us and drive us into a fascinating momentum that we succumb to completely. It is written about Georges Simenon, the inventor of the idiosyncratic Commissaire Maigret, that he spent weeks preparing for a new book; in essence, he poured together a strong salt solution and saturated it further and further until the whole story crystallised in the author's mind at the first sentence, such as "The event itself hardly surprised Commissaire Maigret" from the novel La maison de l'inquiétude. Yet there is probably a fierce difference between writing about what we have seen and experienced and imaginatively inventing stories that are beyond our sight and experience? Perhaps - as it may be - it is easier for one or the other to write about something that one has had in view, that one has focused on, and from there to arrive at the general. 

The way one deals with bricks in architecture is called style, just like the way one deals with letters and words in literature. And that is how it is created.

Looking back, Pirsig writes about the event:

Strangely enough, it did not occur to her that she could look around while writing, that she could see with her own eyes without worrying about what others had said before her. Confining herself to the one brick removed the blockade because it finally became obvious that she could only write something she had seen with her own eyes. 

Quelle : ebd, page 195f (Translation by me)

I am not a friend of recommending rules like embroidered picture frames. Nevertheless, I didn't want to miss the opportunity to point out this little excerpt from "Zen and the Art of Maintaining a Motorcycle". 

To look around oneself before or while writing, to gain one's own view of the world, to see with one's own eyes. And seeing is more than just catching a glimpse, seeing is also understanding and recognising and ultimately comprehending and perhaps then one might find one's own words for this world, as so many others have done before us, in sensual, factual, poetic or any other textual form that tells of our own understanding of the world.

Finally, I would like to let Robert M. Pirsig have his say once again:  

On the basis of his experiments he came to the conclusion that imitation was a really pernicious habit which had to be eliminated before the actual teaching of rhetoric could begin.

He figured that by confronting the classes with his own sentences at the moment of formulation, with all their doubts and stagnations and contradictions, he was giving them a truer picture of what writing was all about than if he had spent all his time just nagging at the students' finished work or holding up the finished work of some great master as a shining example.

Quelle : ebd, page 196f (Translation by me)

To this day, imitation is probably the greatest good and bad thing that exists in schools and universities. Being forced to do so is harmful; voluntarily devoting oneself to imitation, as Dali did in his youth with the great masters, can clearly be helpful for style and technique, not only in painting, but also in writing.

Then it comes down to assembling the bricks themselves into a picture of reality, into a building made of nothing but finely considered individual parts that, even against all of Pirsig's objections to classical rhetoric, make a perfect whole. Or as Rudolf Wittkower attributed it to the Italian Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti: 

Without such an organic-geometric balance, in which all parts, like the members of a body, are harmoniously related to each other, the divine thought cannot reveal itself.

Source : Wittkower, Rudolf. Grundlagen der Architektur im Zeitalter des Humanismus, page 15 (Translation by me)

I wish you happy writing. Look at it. Write it down. Say what is.

tl, dr;

Writing, that actually means looking closely. And as in this little story by Robert M. Pirsig: also narrowing it down until you can write it with words.

Sources

  • Pirsig, Robert M.: Zen und die Kunst, ein Motorrad zu warten: ein Versuch über Werte. Übersetzt von Rudolf Hermstein. Fischer-Taschenbücher. Frankfurt am Main: FISCHER Taschenbuch, 1986.
  • Christopher Lehmann-Haupt: Books of The Times. The motorcycles of your mind. In: The New York Times. 16. April 1974,  https://www.nytimes.com/ (15.10.2022)
  • Zen und die Kunst ein Motorrad zu warten, Wikipedia (15.10.2022)
    https://de.wikipedia.org/ (15.10.2022)
  • Pirsig, Robert M., Wikipedia
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_M._Pirsig
  • Bröckers, Mathias: Motorradwartung, Seelenfrieden und und und : taz. die tageszeitung vom 11.5.1993
    https://taz.de/ (15.10.2022)
  • Wittkower, Rudolf. Grundlagen der Architektur im Zeitalter des Humanismus. 2. Aufl., 7.-12. Tsd. dtv 4412. München: Dt. Taschenbuch Verl, 1990.

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