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A common problem is how to generate topics to write about; more broadly, this question could also be taken to include how to resolve boredom or how to pick which activity to do first in any large complex task. The answer can be found in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; and this is not surprising, since Pirsig taught writing for a living for a time—although his solution to the problem was developed by himself and had nothing to do with the actual material he was meant to teach and perhaps that explains why it worked.


Pirsig’s solution is to pick the most specific topic possible: you should pick a matchstick or the back of your hand—or even a specific hair on the back of your hand. On the subject of matches, I recently discovered a commemorative matchstick tin produced for the Queen’s silver jubilee; and it would be possible to produce thousands of words on this tin alone, on the decorations on the outside and on the matches themselves; for these matches seemed somehow more potent that the ones that you can buy today and produced an entirely different scent when lit. They had very bright red heads, as opposed to the dull black or brown heads you find today—and each match lit with remarkable ease. Doubtless, if you were so inclined, there is a reactionary point buried in this observation; something about the decline of Britain or the weakness produced by government safety legislation—or just the general tendency towards entropy.


Pirsig’s lesson is another example of Goethe’s rule of creative limitation, the idea that constraint always improves; in other words, the more you bind yourself—the more you submit to a particular yoke—the more excellent everything becomes. To relate this back to the essay I produced on Freud a few days ago, everything worthwhile is produced by repression—a certain kind of repression, for there most be pathological repression as well, but repression and restriction nonetheless.


Although Pirsig suggested that people become quite specific in order to write, he is not the master of the skill; his most famous work is quite broad, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a travelogue, a remembrance of mental illness, a family drama, a meditation on technology and art, and a discourse on how all of the above relate to motorcycle maintenance. The true master of a single, specific topic is Nicholson Baker. His first work, The Mezzanine, is nothing more than a detailed description of a man who takes a lunch break at an office. Nothing more, nothing less.


Baker’s loyalty to specificity includes a long discourse on straws, on the physics and hydrodynamics that allow us to drop a straw into a can of fizzy soda and the engineering challenges met in order that the straw would, for the most part, not keel over in the drink and render itself inaccessible to the mouth. All Baker’s works exhibit a similar specificity and, to return to an earlier theme, he even produced a later work called A Box of Matches—although that is not just about matches.


Baker’s stance is essentially on the right, being quasi-religious; he opposes state-funded schools and has expressed doubts about the virtue of fighting World War II—indeed he produced a whole book on the topic, Human Smoke. The connection to a religious sensibility in this approach is that it is a discipline, rather as with meditation, that expands consciousness, not in the sloppy way we find with drugs and alcohol but rather through minute examination and intense concentration on part of reality until it seems to stand for the whole. A similar sensation can be obtained if you stare at a white wall for hours at a time; and this seems like an exercise that will induce boredom, but you will be surprised by the curious images the mind eventually generates and the realisations that the soul reaches in this state.

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