Zen and the Art of Prose Writing

And what is good Phaedrus, and what is not good — Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?” (Socrates, as used in the epigraph to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

Nothing has been subject to greater mystification than the notion of “quality” in writing. It is ironic, perhaps, that Robert Pirsig’s famous novel has inspired generations of writers to think that it is impossible to say what makes a text good or bad, or even, perhaps, whether there is any such thing as good and bad writing. Pirsig’s point, after all, was, not that we can’t talk about these things, but that we don’t really have to. Though the virtues of a text are many and varied, the quality of a text is obvious. We don’t need to ask anyone to tell us about it. It’s right there on the page of a well or badly written text.

Consider the art that Pirsig’s title alludes to. Though his book is arguably more famous and, for many, the original exemplar of the phrase “zen and the art of…”, it was of course derived from the title of a book that was more famous at the time: Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery. The archer either hits the target or not, or gets some measurable distance near it. There is no mystery about what it means to be a “good” archer, though there is much artistry in the process of becoming one. The spiritualism and mental illness of Pirsig’s hero notwithstanding, his message is very similar when it comes to writing. Don’t let someone else tell you whether you hit the mark. Pick a target and try to hit it. “Be the arrow”, if you must, but don’t be in doubt about what you are trying to do.

For a long time now, I’ve been engaged in trying to demystify the problem of prose writing. And I’ve come to the (not very original) conclusion that the greatest obstacle to progress is the attitude to writing that is cultivated in our schools. Students are learning to “do assignments”, not to write well. Nothing similar happens in athletics or music or art, where “quality” remains a familiar result of mastery. Even someone who is not good at playing the piano, or running 100 meters, or drawing a hand, is able to recognize a competent attempt when they encounter it. We are all able to be immediately impressed at these things.

I assert that the same is true of writing. We can evaluate the quality of piece of writing independent of context and content just as easily as we can detect a good pianist independent of whether we like the music or feel it is appropriate to the occasion. (I personally think Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a beautiful song but completely out of place in a church service, no matter how beautifully it is sung.) We can, and often do, acknowledge that a particular writer is very knowledgeable about a subject but has little control over their prose. We know how to distinguish a good gymnast from a good basketball player. We may not know much about art but we do, in fact, know what we like.

We have to return to this basic, immediate appreciation of quality in writing. We have literary sensibilities that we don’t need anyone to establish for us. But, like any other sensibility, we can certainly sharpen it. The problem should not be “What is good writing?” but “How can I write better?” There is work to be done. Pirsig was probably right to say that the real machine you’re working on is your self. But that should not make the process of gaining mastery more mysterious. It’s the most familiar thing you know.

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