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Robert Pirsig on Overcoming Writer's Block and Narrowing a Topic

"Start with the upper left-hand brick"

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Robert Pirsig on Overcoming Writer's Block and Narrowing a Topic

"Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values" by Robert Pirsig, reprinted by Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), Robert Pirsig recalls a problem shared by many of the students in his creative writing class at Montana State College in Bozeman: "They just couldn't think of anything to say."

Focusing his attention on a young woman who was trying to compose "a 500-word essay about the United States," Pirsig (or rather, his alter ego Phaedrus) suggested that she try narrowing her topic--to Bozeman, for instance.

A few days later the student returned to class empty handed and deeply frustrated. "She had tried and tried," Pirsig writes, "but just couldn't think of anything to say."

His next recommendation, to narrow the topic to the main street of Bozeman, also proved unsuccessful.

By this point Phaedrus had grown even more frustrated than the student.

He was furious. "You're not looking!" he said. A memory came back of his own dismissal from the University for having too much to say. For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses. The more you look the more you see. She really wasn't looking and yet somehow didn't understand this.
Then he revised the assignment one last time: "Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick."

And oddly enough, that proved to be the ticket:

She came in the next class with a puzzled look and handed him a five-thousand-word essay on the front of the Opera House on the main street of Bozeman, Montana. "I sat in the hamburger stand across the street," she said, "and started writing about the first brick, and the second brick, and then by the third brick it all started to come and I couldn't stop. They thought I was crazy, and they kept kidding me, but here it all is. I don't understand it."

Neither did he, but on long walks through the streets of town he thought about it and concluded she was evidently stopped with the same kind of blockage that had paralyzed him on his first day of teaching. She was blocked because she was trying to repeat, in her writing, things she had already heard, just as on the first day he had tried to repeat things he had already decided to say. She couldn't think of anything to write about Bozeman because she couldn't recall anything she had heard worth repeating. She was strangely unaware that she could look and see freshly for herself, as she wrote, without primary regard for what had been said before. The narrowing down to one brick destroyed the blockage because it was so obvious she had to do some original and direct seeing.
The next time you have trouble getting started on a writing project, consider that it may not be the words that are blocked but your vision. Try looking hard at your subject--beginning with the upper left-hand brick.


Books by Robert M. Pirsig

  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, 1974; reprinted by Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008
  • Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, Bantam, 1991

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