Break the Rules! A Travel Memoir with a Twist of Zen

By Jerry Waxler

In the early 1970’s, Robert Pirsig was overwhelmed by too many thoughts. To sort himself out, he took a motorcycle trip with his son and a couple of friends and wrote about the trip in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” The book wasn’t just about a motorcycle ride. It was also about his troubled relationship with his son, and also about his passionate belief in a philosophical idea he called “Quality.” The book became a cult classic, selling four million copies, and many of its followers continue to read it over and over, finding new meaning on each page. Others, like me, felt lost.

Now, decades later, I traveled Pirsig’s road again, not by rereading his book but by letting another author, Mark Richardson, take me on a tour. Richardson thoroughly researched Pirsig’s life and set off on his own motorcycle to follow the route from Minneapolis to San Francisco. Richardson’s book is more accessible than Pirsig’s, and I was able to relax while reading “Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” It was a good trip.

Because of the fame of the seventies classic, millions of people have some curiosity about the subject, and Richardson fulfills their curiosity by jumping all the way in. This is full immersion journalism. He entered the situation and reported what he saw.

Writing Prompt

Fantasize for a moment about what situation you would be willing to spend time jumping into. To keep it practical, consider a trip you’ve already taken, or take advantage of some research you’ve already accomplished. From a less constrained point of view, expand your options to things you wish you could do. Keep in mind that Richardson’s actual motorcycle trip only took a couple of weeks.

Travel is a brilliant device for a publishable memoir

According to some memoir pundits, if not the Memoir Police themselves, a publishable story is supposed to describe a fixed period of time. According to this view, it’s easiest to grip a reader and more importantly, a publisher, if you can stay within a discrete period. I’m just kidding about the Police. There’s really no such rigidly enforced code. Even if you can define the rules, most memoirs break them anyway. For example, Jeanette Walls’ block buster memoir, “Glass Castle” is supposedly about her childhood, but then it continues, trickling over into her adult years. The same is true of John Robison whose “Look me in the eye” covers most of his life, more like an autobiography than a memoir.

However, if you want to publish, it doesn’t hurt to follow as many rules as possible. And placing your story into a time-limited wrapper appears to make a book more sellable. I was recently at a writing conference (Philadelphia Stories at Rosemont College) in which Tom Coyne told about his idea for a memoir. His concept of walking through Ireland and visiting every golf course sold and became the successful memoir, “A Course Called Ireland”. Similarly, Doreen Orion proposed going for a trip with her husband in an RV around the United States. She sold it and wrote “Queen of the Road.” Another book that works this way is “Down the Nile Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff,” by Rosemary Mahoney, about the author’s fascination with the River Nile and the fulfillment of her fantasy.

Richardson broke a variety of other “rules”

At first Richardson’s book looks like it’s going to be about the motorcycle journey taken by Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” And then, Richardson veers off in a variety of directions, musing upon the meaning of his own life, including memories from long before the period being described, for example the tensions and dynamics in his own marriage, and an anecdote about the time he met President Jimmy Carter in Africa.

Regularly breaking out of chronological sequence, he jumps around going on extended flashbacks, musings, and philosophy. He includes discussions with people he meets on the road, and recounts what they say, even when it has nothing to do with Pirsig. And instead of avoiding abstract ideas, he jumps in and describes Pirsig’s philosophy. After each detour, he returns to the point in the story where he left off.

As I think more about the book by Robert Pirsig, that I read years ago, I realize it was a complex mixture of his outer motorcycle trip and the inner journey of his own mind. Now I see that Richardson’s book follows even this aspect of the earlier work. Mark Richardson’s “Zen and Now” emulates Pirsig’s rambling writing and thinking style. The resulting weave of threads is so sophisticated and yet so easy to read and understand that the best word I can think of to describe it is “Virtuoso.”

The one rule he didn’t break was to put a finite time period on his memoir. He did this precisely. Mark Richardson’s wrapper story covers the couple of weeks during which he rode his motorcycle from Minneapolis to San Francisco. It’s tight, except for the strange fact that the material actually covers decades. It’s a feat of literary legerdemain. While claiming to confine himself within the short span of his motorcycle journey, Richardson takes us on his own inner journey, allowing us to get to know him, and see the world through his eyes.

Links:

Mark Richardson’s Zen and Now Website
Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Mark Richardson
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

6 thoughts on “Break the Rules! A Travel Memoir with a Twist of Zen

  1. Jerry,

    I really enjoy your posts. They are good reviews and good guidance to other memoir writers at the same time. I remember reading Zen a long time ago and being impressed by the idea of “Quality.” I continue to think of the book from time to time.

  2. Just read your review and realized why, though I have Pirsig’s book, I never really got into it. I think I’ll try reading Richardson’s. Maybe I’ll make it through this one. You make it sound intriguing.

  3. Hi Evelyn,

    Thanks for the comment. It’s nice to see you on the blog. Yes, I have to admit I loved this book as a sort of virtuoso example of what you can do with a memoir form. His excellent writing has opened up a whole realm of possibilities for memoir writers.

    Jerry

Leave a Reply