Literary Monster

Noshing on Quality Prose

On Quality

Reading The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The real University, he said, has no specific location. It owns no property, pays no salaries and receives no material dues. The real University is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been brought down to us through the centuries and which does not exist at any specific location. … [the] second university, the legal corporation, cannot teach, does not generate new knowledge or evaluate ideas. It is not the real University at all. It is just a church building, the setting, the location at which conditions have been made favorable for the real church to exist.

Confusion continually occurs in people who fail to see this difference.

I’ve been experimenting with avoiding the internet in the evening. My files still sync, I’ll stream a movie if I like, but I turn off email, browsing, and apps. No looking things up!

Why? I’m retraining my attention to a new purpose.

During my first night of internet fasting I had a sudden urge to tidy the condo. So I did that! Then I journaled for a while and my thoughts sparked vague memory of something I’d read in Pirsig’s novel. So I pulled it off the shelf, and I ended up reading for three hours, rapt, not lost in his philosophy for once but gulping it down. And the most interesting thing happened after I was done reading.

I was full of questions about what I’d just read. I had my interpretations, my feelings, my curiosity. Normally I would have gone online and searched out what others had thought – opinion checking, in other words. During an internet fast, I couldn’t do that. All I could do was sit uncomfortably with all those swirling, prickly, complex thoughts. There was no relief valve, no shortcutting by letting someone else tell me what it all meant.

More from Pirsig:

Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own natures should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. … To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow. … Mental reflection is so much more interesting than TV it’s a shame more people don’t switch over to it. They probably think what they hear is unimportant but it never is.

Pirsig had me thinking about Quality. About the nature of reality as filtered through our senses. Specifically, he had me thinking about Quality as it relates to my work: writing fiction. When I read mediocre prose (including my own) the sentences use vague descriptors, bland nouns and verbs. There’s a lack of specificity, of technical aptitude in word choice. Instead of showing a detailed fictional reality, bland prose over-relies on the use of words like beautiful and sweet. Universal but vague words that glaze over what is being shown.

In The Writer’s Portable Mentor Priscilla Long puts it this way:

First, do your lexicon work (make that chair into a ladder-back chair, make the table a Pembroke table). Then work at reducing adjectives and increasing the number of nouns and verbs. Make a list sentence, and make the list a list of nouns. Work to make the nouns more specific: not small house but cottage; not roof but mansard roof; not container, but Mason jar, flowerpot, rucksack. Work to make the verbs contain their adverbs; not slowly walk, but stroll.

Hmm. The technical aspects of quality are not separate from the aesthetic ones, are they? Like Pirsig said, they’re one and the same. So that was one connection formed during my first internet fast.

And here’s the thing: if I’d gone online to skim a few surface-level articles about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or if I’d ended my hours of reading by looking to others to explain to me what all of it meant, I wouldn’t have plucked Long’s book off my shelf and dug more deeply into my inquiry. I wouldn’t be thinking these thoughts!

Perhaps web browsing is a thought-killer. Why ponder a question for days? Why cross-reference books from different disciplines, looking for a connection that only I can find? Why think when the oracle of the skinny white box provides a million convenient responses? In sorting through the responses, in judging them, I’m relieved from the responsibility of having a mind of my own, and from the discomfort of wondering-but-not-knowing.

Instead of climbing the “sides of the mountain where things grow” sometimes I try to skip to the top! I suppose this is why I’m enjoying these little internet fasts so much They force me to go the long way around, to take my time, to form my own conclusions.

Quality arises from caring about the outcome without trying to skip to the outcome. It’s an alchemy of the technical and aesthetic concerns of the work. These concerns cannot be separated.

Specificity is a habit and a muscle. It begins by seeing clearly. By paying attention.

The nearly-empty can of fizzy water on my desk is aluminum, cylindrical, beveled, manufactured, and painted. It reflects sunlight from our condo’s picture window, the can rests upon a cork disk, it’s contents have been depleted by a writer’s thirst, the text is enticingly hyperbolic, the colors are kelly green and tea green with dry-brush strokes of pure white and urine yellow. The depressed rim round the top is dry, the pale aluminum stay-on tab is pulled back at a shallow angle.

I like the phrase cork disk. It’s more interesting than coaster. Urine yellow is an accurate descriptor, but gross. Lexicon work is about building up my words and phrases, keeping all those emotional paint-pots at the ready.

Enough journaling. My mind is clear.

Into the book I go.

This post was originally written in August 2021.