Jordan Moore Intuition-led Designer

How to Dismantle a Creative Wall

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig is one of those books, like Self-Renewal by John Gardner, where I come away from it receiving a completely different message from the author than most of the people I talk to about the piece.

The centrepiece of the book, for me, happens around a relatively obscure passage around the halfway point of the book where Pirsig’s character, Phaedrus, grows increasingly agitated with one of his students who was struggling to complete a 500 word assignment about the United States.

She was suffering from a classic case of a creative blockage in the form of writer’s block. She didn’t know where to start and the size of the task at hand had become so daunting and that familiar feeling of imposter syndrome when faced with the empty canvas staring back at her. The subject was too broad to latch onto a good starting point.

When it came to the due date, the student still hadn’t produced a word. Her creative blockage also impeded Phaedrus when he tried to help her. He suggested narrowing the subject down from the wide topic of the United States down to the main street in Bozeman.

Still nothing.

Phaedrus became angry and shouted “You’re not looking!” at the student. The character remembered a time where he too had too much to say on a subject, and the fact that there are an infinite number of things to say in all directions. The more you look, the more you see.

“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.” The student returned to the next class looking shellshocked as she handed in a five thousand word essay.

Pirsig’s Brick

Pirsig’s Brick demonstrates the idea that depth of knowledge can lead to greater understanding at the breadth, or put another way: looking closely at the micro level can unblock you for understanding the macro level.

Another way of looking at the issue faced by the student (and any time we face similar creative blockages in our work) is that there is some unseen force getting in the way of flow. In Pirsig’s example, the impediment to flow was the sheer breadth of the topic to begin with. The book also added that:

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 had 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.

— Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Pirsig’s Brick is a tool for seeing things freshly “without primary regard for what has been said before” which creates that perfect tension of challenge and ability enabling flow. Former chess player and martial arts champion, Josh Waitzkin, is one of the few people I have noticed who has made reference to Pirsig’s Brick in his book “The Art of Learning”.

After referencing Pirsig’s Brick, he notes on understanding:

The learning principle is to plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick.

— Josh Waitzkin, “The Art of Learning”

And followed up immediately after by taking aim at the blockages of creative flow…

Our obstacle is that we live in an attention-deficit culture. We are bombarded with more and more information on television, radio, cell phones, video games, the Internet. The constant supply of stimulus has the potential to turn us into addicts, always hungering for something new and prefabricated to keep us entertained. When nothing exciting is going on, we might get bored, distracted, separated from the moment. So we look for new entertainment, surf channels, flip through magazines. If caught in these rhythms, we are like tiny current-bound surface fish, floating along a two-dimensional world without any sense for the gorgeous abyss below. When these societally induced tendencies translate into the learning process, they have devastating effect.

— Josh Waitzkin, “The Art of Learning”

I have come to learn over time that most of the art of staying in creative flow is just getting obstacles out of the way to let the process unfold on its own. Robert M. Pirsig has provided us with an incredibly effective tool for not only removing these obstacles, but one that also has the added benefit of opening up new ways of thinking and looking at things deeply in the abyss with the intention of bringing new value and insights up to the surface.