As I was knitting my way through the first repeat of Chart B (Row 26 in case you are interested) there is a narrator in my ears. On this iPod is a free download courtesy of the UK Guardian and still being able to sort of lay claim to a UK address: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
The narrator is Michael Karner who combines a fabulous voice with a reading style perfect for the book coming across as a person sitting across the table from you just to have chat.
I remember the original publication of the book and never got around to reading it. Motorcycles, Zen and philosophy were simply not of interest at that point in my life. Discussions of why is there air, the meaning of thought were completely overwhelmed by the reality of medical school clinical rotations. I knew about life and its effects, at least as represented by critically ill children, old men in VA hospitals and two cats complaining about why I wasn’t giving them proper attention.
Over the years I have tried various books in this genre and they drive me up the wall. Alexander McCall Smith’s series set in Scotland comes to mind. Yes, it is fiction but the characters spend so much time figuring out what things mean and what is a proper (moral) way of doing something that they never seem to either have a life or get on with theirs.
So imagine my skepticism when I started listening. Leaving out the whole issue of how depression and psychotic breaks were treated in the 1950s (prior to any meds) I hit something that resonated. At one point in a discussion of Rhetoric (the middle R of the three Rs a believed by educators from time immemorial ) he describes the believe that all those rules are developed after the fact. That, in truth, anyone who is trying to communicate through the written word is not looking at grammar and all the fancy principles taught in schools and university by erudite members of English faculties. Rather, they are putting down words in the order that seems to make sense to them. They are not writing with the intention of of using certain forms or themes; rather writing, then coming back later to see if the words in the order they are written do what they want them to do. Are they pleasing and do they convey what is intended.
This makes sense to me. The transmission of ideas from one person to another does not follow the same type of clear and simple structure as knitting a Starmore Fairisle pattern that arrived complete with charts and symbol key. Much of what is taught in English classes is an effort on the part of someone with a lot invested in the system to understand another’s thoughts complete with rules, regulations and an assumption of inner meaning.
If you want clear, sensible writing that easily transmits her thoughts and ideas – you only have to read Cat’s missives. If you want snortworthy commentary on subjects as widely varying as political candidates and cow poop (wait a minute, perhaps those are the same thing) you can read Murr.
But Pirsig is right, no matter how we look at it, we do know quality when we see it. All of us know good writing when we read it. At the end of the piece, we have an understanding of what the author meant with their words. Not what others have said the author meant, but what the author actually said.
And sometimes, “the blue curtain fluttered in the breeze of the open window” is not a metaphor for anything in particular. It simply means that the curtain which just happened to be blue was hanging in an open while it was windy outside.