Writing, Composition and Deliberate Living

Lately I’ve been re-reading an old favorite I first read midway through college, right when I was just beginning to locate myself as a writer: Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  The book raises a number of issues I won’t even begin to detail in this post, but I wanted to pay some renewed, closer attention to a few points about writing, thought and expression the book raises, and then attempts to answer.

First, and I’ll get back to more theoretical and philosophical issues later, I’d like to examine the distinction within the activity of mountain climbing made between what Pirsig terms ego climbing and another form, this one labelled deliberately-mindful climbing.  Put quite simply, “ego goals” do not fulfill.  When you climb a mountain to reach the top, you will oftentimes find it is a dull, monotonous task that is empty of much personal attainment, void of further meaning. Climbing a mountain becomes a hollow victory: it’s rendered obsolete whenever the next goal hovers into mental focus.  Climbing a mountain makes you feel good for a few minutes and then the feeling disappears, and it’s the same way with other things.  Ego-masturbation is not going to fulfill you, but rather tends to make a mess everywhere (okay, we’re done with this metaphor), and doesn’t really impress anyone else in the right ways either, I’d argue.  It’s great you’ve got a high-paying job, but how are you as climbing companion? How are you on road trips? How are you to sit cross-legged on a living-room floor with, just talking?

Deliberately-mindful climbing is an approach to mountain climbing (and, you guessed it, other things) that affirms attention to here-ness, now-ness, in-the-moment-ness.  It’s climbing that refuses to believe the goal is elsewhere, and recognizes that it’s right here. The goal for this type of mountain climbing isn’t to reach the top, but rather to have a nice trip getting there. It’s not about speed, height, distance or heart rate.  It’s about enjoying it.  It’s about being happy now, really living Walt Whitman’s quotation “happiness, not in another place but in this place… not in another hour, but this hour…” It’s something I bring to the table when I think about how I live my own life.  I’ll talk more about that later in this post.  But for now, let’s focus on ego climbing against deliberately-mindful climbing, and how they might inform our goals, thoughts, writings and values.

They’re simply two different ways of looking at things, and I consider them to be cousins rather than being diametrically opposed to one another.  I take a “meandering” approach with my composition-writing classes.  We spend a lot of time discussing questions of underlying form: what is good writing? What makes for sound thinking? What’s an appropriate way to say whatever it is we’re trying to say? What does it mean to “persuade,” or even to “persuade effectively?”  We work a lot on things like unity, flow and emphasis in our writing.  I’ve yet to be indoctrinated too heavily into composition theory, and there’s still a lot to learn, but when I was handed a blank syllabus the weekend before classes started I knew I needed to start thinking deliberately about how I was going to approach the long-term purpose this semester would play in my students’ lives.

I began the semester believing my early goals for the class, namely to teach strong essay organization and strong argumentative skills, were the main “endgoal.” They still are, in many senses; we try to achieve coherence in our persuasive writing, and to examine issues other writers talk about, perhaps.  But many of the students I’ve encountered in my (young) academic career, whether during my time as a student or now as a junior faculty member, refuse to even entertain the notion that their contribution is an adequate one, with equal status and merit to anything published so long as their points are as rationally thought-out and are expressed as clearly as the “professional” ones. I’d like for them to move past imitation and think originally, and to pursue whatever it is that tickles them. I tell them about what bothers me- digital camouflaging, environmental irresponsibility, class exploitation- and show them posts on this very blog detailing what I’ve written and thought-out on those topics.

I write in long sentences sometimes, I know.

I want to impart in my students a seed that might blossom now or that might not blossom until later: that their statements matter.  I want them to put themselves in the shoes of someone working to change the world, because they can change the world.  Change the conversation, and not in the sense of moving to something new.  Add a new perspective; narrate a new story; define something differently; reimagine, reupholster, redecorate.

Pirsig divides the hypothetical university into two distinct entities: the “concrete university” and the “church of reason.” School administration, deans, provosts, presidents, non-teaching staff, sidewalks, desks, hallways, athletics, clubs/activities, etc. are counted as the “concrete university,”  while the lectures, class notes, essays, collected datasets, learned skills, mastered concepts, chapters read and discussions occurring make up the “church of reason,” which I might simplify for our purposes here as the “actual education” encountered on campus.  Now, my positions on contemporary university priorities are pretty typical of the underpaid, overworked adjunct-faculty member: college athletics are great, but not when you’re building million-dollar stadiums and I can’t pay my water bill; university administration seems to care more about appearances and student enrollment than actual education; and regardless, we’re still dedicated to learning first-and-foremost, right? How much of my class, ie. the material I choose to impart to my students, should be up to me? What do we define “professor” as in 2016?

There’s so much to Zen about persuasion, quality and thought itself that doesn’t belong in a post like this one but that I love to consider, challenge and test… so much that I enjoy talking about.  It’s a book that I’ll likely re-read every year or two, and I rarely re-read anything other than my own writing. It challenges everything I hold dear intellectually- reason, science, empiricism, “common sense,” politics, even analysis itself.  I’m a natural Romantic, and when I first read the book in 2013, I hated it because it disturbed a belief that I was a well-balanced person, which I looking back was exactly what I needed at the time.  It’s not that I was headed in any sort of wrong direction, but I hadn’t found a right direction.  New attention to reason, analysis, analytics, underlying form and what the ancient Greeks might term classical thinking turned my world in on itself, and I found an aspect of my thinking I’d yet to recognize: I’m actually, in a completely reason-driven way, a classical thinker rather than a purely Romantic one.  Of course, the classic-Romantic dualism Pirsig sets up is problematic and frankly quite silly, but that’s a battle to fight on another day.  The two bleed into one another and inform the other. They’re supplements, and could not exist without the other.  Why fight it? I’m both, but it’s not about identity.  It’s about thought- and being able to think in multiple ways, to splice experience and knowledge differently based on context and situation.


And finally, a point not unrelated to Zen but not directly within its realm of focus, either.  Deliberate living.  It’s something I’ve been trying to do for a few years now, with varying degrees of success.  Deliberate living takes very seriously everything Thoreau and Socrates advocate about planning out your days, nights and activities in an attempt to maximize the “productivity” of a given measure. It’s all about doing worthwhile things, and doing them well.  It’s not all about avoiding laziness and wasted time, but rather planning for them and allotting time for them, and avoiding wasting further time worrying so much about it.  It’s about prioritizing and deciding not to compromise on how you spend your time.  Do the things you consider to be of value, and maximize their impact.

In a typical day, I attempt to spend, and generally tend to reach (at least 5 days out of the 7-day week)(weekends and weekdays are the same for me): 45 minutes of getting ready in the morning, 2 hours of pen-and-paper work (which for me generally takes the form of essay grading), 45 minutes of making dinner in the evening and 30 minutes of eating it, 1 hour of serious reading (I try for much more), 45 minutes of casual, easy reading (right now, the A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series), 45 minutes of computer writing (again, I try for more, but there’s so much that interferes, not the least of which is an utter inability to end work on a project and declare it finished), 30 minutes of journal writing (this isn’t every day, but it evens out to about this much time) ,45 minutes of exercise, including dressing and showering, and 1 hour of online ESL teaching.  Spliced into this are travel times, errands, social life (!!!), relaxation (which I consider very different from watching TV shows, as I deconstruct them fairly closely and am anything but a passive viewer), social media time, internet time, maintenance of stuff (cleaning, laundry, car, etc.) and doing FUN THINGS.  Plenty of time for that. I want to be clear—I live deliberately, but I place great value on PLAY in whatever form it might take.

Texting cuts into my days quite severely: probably at least 40 minutes or so.  I don’t like this about myself, and I’ve cut it out a few times, most recently during peak points in the process of writing my MA thesis this past summer.  I’m relatively slow to get ready in the morning, and I allot for this; I spend A LOT of time on YouTube watching political talk shows, especially on my iPhone, and I listen to music in nearly all of my idle time on YouTube and Spotify (ask my roommates, friendly people who were nonetheless strangers from California un-indoctrinated to my sometimes-oddball ways). Music is always on (I listen to a lot of indie bands: Yo Le Tengo, No Vacation, Lord Huron and Joe Goodkin lately, and lots of hip-hop: Kayne, Logic and Frank Ocean in recent weeks). It’s got to be there- I can function without it, but I simply do not wish to.  And that’s what all of this “deliberate living” is about.  It maximizes happiness because I fill each day with the things that provide me happiness.  It makes me happy.

I don’t stress much if I miss something one day.  Deliberate living isn’t not meant to hold me accountable or to force productivity, but rather to maximize the quality of whatever I produce that day while ensuring I stay focused on larger goals.  It might take me a few weeks to read a novel, but it’s because I’m doing a lot else during that time.  It takes me months to finish a show, even a quick one, but it’s because I’m doing a lot of other things during that time. It’s important to be well-balanced and to vary the things you spend time on, especially if you’re like  me and have almost too-many interests, many of which don’t fit in easily with one another.

Well, I’m a bit lost in my life right now.  Everything’s jumbled up and facing the wrong direction to see clearly in front of me.  There’s not a lot of direction right now, not a strong feeling that I’ve got a definite path forward in front of me, but I suppose it’s got to be expected that a person will move laterally once in a while.  That’s fine by me, for now.


2 thoughts on “Writing, Composition and Deliberate Living

  1. JoJo says:

    Interesting how life moves so quickly that our decisions or choices seem to have to be “right now” then suddenly stop! And you have that question”Now what?” But if you just sit back and ride the wave a while, the seas will change and you will “see” the direction life is taking you. Just breathe. Keep living deliberately, but breath deliberately too. Nice job on your work here. Teaching is tough, mostly because you always want to do it better, effect and affect change, and all the things you’re doing will get you there. Keep reading daily, it is one thing the successful people do to stay on top. Reach high Jake, reach high!


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