What you’re supposed to do in most freshman-rhetoric courses is to read a little essay or short story, discuss how the writer has done certain little things to achieve certain little effects, and then have the students write an imitative little essay or short story to see if they can do the same little things. He tried this over and over again but it never jelled. The students seldom achieved anything, as a result of this calculated mimicry, that was remotely close to the model he’d given them. More often their writing got worse. It seemed as if every rule he honestly tried to discover with them was so full of exceptions and contradictions and qualifications and confusions that he wished he’d never come across the rule in the first place…A student would always ask how the rule would apply in a certain special circumstance. Phaedrus would then have the choice of trying to fake through a made-up explanation of how it worked, or follow the selfless route and say what he really thought. And what he really thought was that the rule was pasted on to work the writing was all done. It was post hoc, after the fact, instead of prior to the fact. And he became convinced that all the writers the students were supposed to mimic wrote without rules, putting down whatever sounded right, then going back to see if it sounded right, and changing it if it didn’t. There were some who apparently wrote with calculation, because that the way their product looked. But that seemed to him to be a very poor way to look. It had certain syrup, as Gertrude Stein once said, but it didn’t pour. But how’re you supposed to teach something that’s not premeditated? It was a seemingly impossible requirement. He just took the text and commented on it in an unpremeditated way and hoped the students would get something from that. It wasn’t satisfactory (156).
Another thing that depressed him was prescriptive rhetoric, which had supposedly been done away with but was still around. This was the old slap-on-the-fingers-if your-modifiers-were-caught-dangling stuff. Correct spelling, correct punctuation, correct grammar. Hundreds of itsy-bitsy rules for itsy-bitsy people. No one could remember all that stuff and concentrate on what he was trying to write about. It was all table manners, not derived from any sense of kindness or decency or humanity, but originally from an egotistic desire to look like gentlemen and ladies…In Montana, however, it didn’t have this effect at all. It identified one, instead, as a stuck-up Eastern ass (162).
Pirsig and Prescriptivism
In my Craft of Fiction class last week we were discussing the prescriptivism of textbooks in general, and of our textbook in particular, and what the implications of prescriptivism are for us as learners and writers. And I thought back to Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
How do you avoid being a “stuck-up Eastern ass” and still be coherent? How do you “teach something that’s not premeditated?” I think we’ll be discussing this more as the course progresses….
The 22-Minute Draft
Last Tuesday I conducted a 22-Minute Draft in my general literature classes, as a warm-up for the upcoming midterm exam. I commented about my class on Facebook (you all need to friend me, you know? Then you'd know about this already), and several people asked what a 22-Minute Draft was/is…
So. The 22-Minute Draft is an exercise I came up with the first semester I taught composition at Texas A&M. I later wrote about it in an essay I wrote for a grad-school pedagogy class….
…The students I identified as resentful (and, really, I kind of identified with those students, too) seemed to be all hanging in there, and the more-willing participants actually seemed to be having fun, but still there was stress and anxiety over the upcoming major assignments. Students asked about them in class, and a few even came by my office, and the questions were all pretty much the same: “What should I write about? How should I get started?” Our required text had an elaborate series of steps students should take, a complicated process of pre-writing and outlining that to me seemed nothing more than absurd and obsessive. I couldn’t in good conscience tell them to look to the book. Nobody sane writes like that.
Robert Pirsig writes:
… (H)e became convinced that all the writers the students were supposed to mimic wrote without rules, putting down whatever sounded right, then going back to see if it still sounded right and changing it if it didn’t. There were some who apparently wrote with calculating premeditation, because that’s the way their product looked. But that seemed to him to be a very poor way to look (156).
On a Sunday night I came up with an idea…I went into class the next day and told the students that they were going to write their paper in class-- right then. I told them to get out six sheets of paper. I had them ponder their topics for a couple of minutes. Then I set them to writing for twenty minutes straight. Every three or four minutes I had them turn the page and continue writing on a fresh, empty sheet of paper. The object was to get six pages of writing done in twenty minutes. I yelled at them if they slowed down. I told them to go faster, and faster. I told them that the object for them was not to think but to write.
The results of this were—and always have been—positive. About two-thirds of the students use what they produce in class as an elaborate outline for their formal papers. The other third seem to lose interest in their topics, and that’s a positive thing, too, I think: the students realize that their topic won’t hold up as the basis for a decent paper, and so they have to go looking for another, stronger topic. As this exercise evolved, I’ve expanded it from the original and totally arbitrary 20 minutes, to 22 minutes. I break it down to 5 minutes for the first and last pages—for the introduction and conclusion, and 3 minutes for each of the middle pages. (We take extra time later to go over citations and quotes and other necessities.) The basic thing this exercise stresses is to get words down on the page, words and ideas that can be happily jumbled and confused and completely ephemeral. Once there, the words can be mulled over and revised, and turned into something worthwhile.
My method has changed a little since I wrote that essay. I now run the exercise in 22 minutes and four pages--6 minutes for first and last, and 5 minutes for second and third.
And the thing is, it works. I’ve even started using it in my own nonfiction writing—I write for 20 or so minutes straight, then take a break for the rest of the hour, then write again. It works. The words come--still, often happily jumbled and confused. But still they come. The words won't desert you.
During a break a student came up and asked for help with his novel. He was stuck. Of course. I’ve been expecting people to get stuck in their extended narratives. It’s a long semester, and I’m asking the students to do a lot of work. Everyone’s bound to get stuck at some point.
“But what can I do to get unstuck?” he asked.
“Weed!” a girl said.
“No,” I said. “Don’t tease. Be serious….”
“Jack Daniels!” she said.
“That won’t work, either,” the stuck student said. “I can’t have booze in the dorm….”
I was thinking—a laborious task for me, sometimes.
“Well,” I said, “there are several things you can try….”
And I told him a few things. Tricks, maybe.
Like having a door open and a new character come through it. What conflict will result from the new character?
Like skipping ahead in the outline to another scene, bypassing the resistance of the current stuck scene.
I’ve used both of those in my own writing. They can work. There’s no telling if they’ll work for my stuck student or not. I kept thinking. Came up with nothing immediately useful.
Then, on the way home, in a moment of academic esprit d’escalier, I thought of Robert Pirsig. He spends a lot of time discussing stuckness in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Chris brings out the paper again. "Now help me," he says.
"Okay," I say. I tell him getting stuck is the commonest trouble of all. Usually, I say, your mind gets stuck when you’re trying to do too many things at once. What you have to do is try not to force words to come. That just gets you more stuck. What you have to do now is separate out the things and do them one at a time. You’re trying to think of what to say and what to say first at the same time and that’s too hard. So separate them out. Just make a list of all the things you want to say in any old order. Then later we’ll figure out the right order.
"Like what things?" he asks.
"Well, what do you want to tell her?"
"About the trip."
"What things about the trip?"
He thinks for a while. "About the mountain we climbed."
"Okay, write that down," I say.
He does. Then I see him write down another item, then another, while I finish my cigarette and coffee. He goes through three sheets of paper, listing things he wants to say.
"Save those," I tell him, "and we’ll work on them later."
"I’ll never get all this into one letter," he says.
He sees me laugh and frowns. I say, "Just pick out the best things." Then we head outside and onto the motorcycle again.
So, basically, we’re back to the outline again—or, perhaps a new and updated outline. A list of places you might want to go—but not an itinerary, a list of places you have to be at a certain time—rather, a list of possibilities. A “list of all the things you want to say in any old order.”
And part of that, of course, could be having a new character walk in through an open door, or skipping ahead in the old outline.
The first [problem] is stuckness, a mental stuckness that accompanies the physical stuckness of whatever it is you’re working on. The same thing Chris was suffering from. A screw sticks, for example, on a side cover assembly. You check the manual to see if there might be any special cause for this screw to come off so hard, but all it says is "Remove side cover plate" in that wonderful terse technical style that never tells you what you want to know. There’s no earlier procedure left undone that might cause the cover screws to stick.
If you’re experienced you’d probably apply a penetrating liquid and an impact driver at this point. But suppose you’re inexperienced and you attach a self-locking plier wrench to the shank of your screwdriver and really twist it hard, a procedure you’ve had success with in the past, but which this time succeeds only in tearing the slot of the screw.
Your mind was already thinking ahead to what you would do when the cover plate was off, and so it takes a little time to realize that this irritating minor annoyance of a torn screw slot isn’t just irritating and minor. You’re stuck. Stopped. Terminated. It’s absolutely stopped you from fixing the motorcycle.
This isn’t a rare scene in science or technology. This is the commonest scene of all. Just plain stuck. In traditional maintenance this is the worst of all moments, so bad that you have avoided even thinking about it before you come to it.
The book’s no good to you now. Neither is scientific reason. You don’t need any scientific experiments to find out what’s wrong. It’s obvious what’s wrong. What you need is an hypothesis for how you’re going to get that slotless screw out of there and scientific method doesn’t provide any of these hypotheses. It operates only after they’re around.
This is the zero moment of consciousness. Stuck. No answer. Honked. Kaput. It’s a miserable experience emotionally. You’re losing time. You’re incompetent. You don’t know what you’re doing. You should be ashamed of yourself. You should take the machine to a real mechanic who knows how to figure these things out.
It’s normal at this point for the fear-anger syndrome to take over and make you want to hammer on that side plate with a chisel, to pound it off with a sledge if necessary. You think about it, and the more you think about it the more you’re inclined to take the whole machine to a high bridge and drop it off. It’s just outrageous that a tiny little slot of a screw can defeat you so totally.
What you’re up against is the great unknown, the void of all Western thought. You need some ideas, some hypotheses. Traditional scientific method, unfortunately, has never quite gotten around to say exactly where to pick up more of these hypotheses. Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best, 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go, unless where you ought to go is a continuation of where you were going in the past. Creativity, originality, inventiveness, intuition, imagination... "unstuckness," in other words...are completely outside its domain.
So: Don’t force yourself through the stuckness. Don’t think yourself through it, either. Instead, feel your way through it.
Feel. Okay. But—how…? And what?
Easier said than done, right?
ZMM had an incredible impact on me when I first read it as a morose 16 year-old, and then again when I was in graduate school and teaching composition for the first time (it’s often overlooked that the whole middle part of the book deals with teaching comp). I think Pirsig might have useful things to say about stuckness/unstuckness for our creative writing class, and perhaps we’ll explore that a bit next week and see what happens....
Things to look for:
Someone put all (apparently) of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance online, here.
But you know what? It's always better to read the actual book! Buy it here....
And here is a website devoted to Pirsig and his work....
Lowell Mick White
Author of the novels Normal School and Burnt House and Professed and That Demon Life and the story collections Long Time Ago Good and The Messes We Make of Our Lives.