What Reading Robert Pirsig Taught Me About Writing (And Life)
Lessons From Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Motorcycle riding follows certain rules of physics that I don’t pretend to understand intellectually but that my body, at some instinctual level far ahead of my cognitive functions, has learned to trust. For example: it’s significantly easier to maintain balance when going fast because a motorcycle functions as a kind of gyroscope. To feel balanced and poised on a bike, riders have to be willing to release the illusion of control.
Another counterintuitive lesson: when turning, riders have to lean into the turn, suppressing their instincts and surrendering to gravity in order to execute a controlled arc. Then there’s the concept of counter-steering—turning counter to the desired direction, as in steer left to go right. When it comes to motorcycles and physics, everything feels contradictory and nonsensical.
I learned these rules of physical science not in a lecture hall but literally by the seat of my pants. It could also be said I learned them originally, at least in theory, from Robert M. Pirsig, author of the iconic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance who died on April 24th at the age of 88. In fact, much of my growth as a writer can be traced to ideas I drew from his illuminating meditation on exterior velocity and internal peace.
I first encountered his classic book as a teen in the 70s, sneaking into my older brother’s bedroom, looking for clues about how to be cool. The pink paperback cover was torn and creased, the pages dog-eared and greased from use. I adored and wanted to be like my brother, so I read the book as an instruction manual on sophistication. I was too young at the time for the text to make much of an impression, but the concepts Pirsig explored must have embedded themselves deep in my subconscious.
A lifetime later, after leaving a constrained life as a suburban wife and mother of three and learning to ride a motorcycle at age 48, I took off on a two-wheeled, cross-country trek and revisited Pirsig’s book. In his chapters, I discovered abiding lessons that had been stealthily shaping my worldview. I see now that his meditation on the “Metaphysics of Quality” contained some of the same counterintuitive lessons required to balance on a motorcycle, but also applied to writing—and life in general.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig tells readers from the get-go that contrary to its title, the book should “in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles either.” At its heart, Z.M.M. (as he abbreviated the work) is a philosophical argument seeking to reconcile humanity and technology. Likewise, Zen and the Art of Archery, published long before Pirsig’s work, and The Art of War, which dates back to the fifth century, are not, contrary to their muscular titles, simply manuals for combat or battlefield domination. Most of the best stories we tell and read are about something other than their purported subject. Moby-Dick is not just about a whale. A Thousand Acres is about much more than a farm. We read and write stories to understand the human condition, to delve into other perspectives on life, and to have intimate, visceral knowledge of things we will never actually experience.
Like a mother hiding spinach in the lasagna to get her kids to eat their veggies, Pirsig lures readers into exploring philosophical or intellectual terrain within a tale of day-to-day life. In Z.M.M., the reader is drawn in by the narrator’s 17-day cross-country motorcycle trek and his relationship with his 11-year old son, Christopher. That human connection is what makes his flights into the theoretical realm not only palatable but organically necessary. He intrigues readers with the long interior monologues he calls “Chautauquas,” in which he elucidates a detailed and scholarly philosophical theory, ranging across Eastern and Western thought, and includes discursive lectures on the elements of the counterculture movement of late 1960s and early 1970s. When foregrounded against his personal struggle with schizophrenia and his efforts to make sense of things as he rides across the country, these intellectual exercises become necessary to understand his interior skirmishes; the reader wants to know more about what the narrator is going through and is willing to do the heavy lifting of sifting through his theories to get to his larger revelations. If the narrative had omitted the human cross-country trek, the remaining account would have risked becoming a dry, esoteric polemic rather than the touchstone of a generation. People care about people. Summoning from readers the hard work necessary to unpack complicated ideas springs from this well of human connection.
I applied his lessons in my recent book, Harley and Me, using the memoir elements of a midlife crisis and my own motorcycle journey to take a deep dive into the neuroscience of risk-taking, examining how biology and psychology shape our experience and undertaking all kinds of adventures—ice and rock climbing, SCUBA diving, open-water paddling—to consider the role novel experiences play in creating an expansive life, especially for women. I had my blood taken before and after riding the motorcycle to explore how my brain chemistry changed as the result of that experience—an undertaking that might have been self indulgent if not cloaked in very real and urgent personal question.
My research into neuroscience, psychology, and biology explained to me, on an empirical level, how my lived experiences manifest within my own body. But more significantly, I learned a great deal about myself. I came to realize that I am not limited by my biology, that I’m stronger than I think I am, that my ability to summon courage surpasses what I would have expected from myself, and that at heart, I’m someone who’s more willing to put it all on the line than I would have previously supposed—important lessons for women at midlife. And I hope that these lessons, supplemented by my research, translate to anyone who picks up my book.
As Z.M.M. puts it, “The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.” And during the process of writing Harley and Me, I realized that’s what it all boils down to: writing, motorcycling, parenting, reading, and exploring the philosophic, scientific, theological, and metaphysical aspects of life. As a professor of creative writing, I’m sometimes stumped working with a student who has a near-perfect grasp of craft and yet has not dug deeply enough the contradictions of human existence. The craft of writing can be taught. The craft of living and becoming, however, cannot. Pirsig speaks of this:
You’ve got to live right, too. It’s the way you live that predisposes you to avoid the traps and see the right facts. You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That’s the way all the experts do it. The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle isn’t separate from the rest of your existence.
Of all the ideas I learned from Pirsig, this is the one that sticks with me the most. To live a fully imagined life as a writer and human, the job never ends. We must continue to question assumptions, explore contradictions, and learn the often painful yet essential lesson I first gleaned on a motorcycle: It’s vitally necessary to lean into what scares us instead of pulling back.