Thursday, January 26, 2017

How a 19th Century Opera House can Change Your Life

I've been rereading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance with a group of guys. It was recommended to me by a Southern Baptist pastor 20 years ago. The book is not for everyone, but it has some fascinating moments. There's one story that will open doors for anyone who has tried to write. In it he describes an interaction with a college student who was struggling just to complete a 500-word essay about the United States.

The task was too overwhelming. The topic was too big. So the author (also her teacher at Montana state) tried to narrow the subject for her. What follows is his account of the exchange:
"Narrow it down to the main street of Bozeman." It was a stroke of insight.
She nodded dutifully and went out. But just before her next class she came back in real distress, tears this time, distressed that had obviously been there for a long time. She still couldn't think of anything to say and couldn't understand why, if she couldn't think of anything about all of Bozeman, she should be able to think of something about just one street.
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.
He told her angrily, "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."
Her eyes, behind the thick lens glasses, opened wide.
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 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. (191-2)
He gave similar advice to his son who wanted to write a letter to his mother about their motorcycle trip across the west. When he sat down to write, he blocked. He didn't know how to get started or what to say.
Usually, 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. (283-4)
Any time I've been stuck this has worked beautifully. What is one thing I can say something about? Even if it's not the first thing? It will get used later, and even if not, it will get me going. So write to specifics and see how your writing will get rolling. And this works for everyone, not just those who are trying to write a book or article, or get published. When it comes to your personal journal - write to specifics! Because writing is thinking on paper, and capturing your thoughts will help strengthen them.

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