“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....