Gumption Traps

Let’s examine Scripture once again…

A couple of years ago, I was at a writers’ conference held at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. One of the staples of those events is some venue where each participant, no matter how far along they might be in their career, is given the opportunity to do a brief public reading. At Bread Loaf, there’s the Blue Parlor; at VCFA, there were pre-dinner readings in which the members of each cohort got their time at the lectern. You get three minutes, or five minutes, to show what you can do.

As a college teacher, I’d done public speaking for a long time, and I know something about how to honor a circumstance like this. So at VCFA, I read an excerpt of my very first novel, a roughly three-minute piece that I knew would hang together without backstory, a piece that had some degree of sonic music to it.

Afterward, I interacted with several of the faculty at the event who said how much they’d appreciated my piece. But one in particular stuck with me, a poet who said, “When you started, I thought, ‘this isn’t going to be a subject I’m interested in.’ But you made it interesting, you made it matter to me.” She paused for the briefest moment, and said, “Where can I read more of your work? Are you published?”

“Not in fiction, no. I’ve sent it out quite a lot, but it hasn’t gotten any traction.”

“Well, people are just stupid.”

Well, yes. Yes, they are. And that’s the Chautauqua for today.


In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig lays out a number of what he calls “gumption traps,” circumstances that can dispel one’s attempts toward Quality. He divides them into two kinds:

The first type are those in which you’re thrown off the Quality track by conditions that arise from external circumstances, and I call these “set-backs.” The second type are traps in which you’re thrown off the Quality track by conditions that are primarily within yourself. These I don’t have any generic name for—”hang-ups,” I suppose. (299)

Pirsig lays out several set-backs. There’s the out-of-sequence assembly, in which you’ve got the thing almost back together before you discover some step you should have done long before, an oversight that requires disassembling all the work you’ve done. There’s the intermittent failure, the thing that works fine when you go to examine it on the bench, so you put it to use again and discover the same problem. There’s the parts set-back, in which the part you need either isn’t available, or you forgot to get it when you went to the shop, or it wasn’t manufactured right and doesn’t actually fit where it’s supposed to go.

The hang-ups (or “traps”) also come in a three-pack, and Pirsig claims that the traps are far more damaging, and common, than the set-backs. First, there are value traps, in which your preconceived diagnosis of a problem prevents you from actually looking at what’s in front of you. Your preconceived diagnosis of the problem may also be about yourself as a problem-solver. About your ego, or your anxiety, or your impatience, or your boredom. The problem itself doesn’t change because of your anxiety or impatience, but your ability to understand it and address it absolutely does.

There are truth traps, in which we presume that we’ve framed a question in which all of the possible answers can be named, but by its very framing, leads us toward unhelpful answers. Pirsig uses the Japanese Zen teaching of mu as a useful response to that framing. The answer may be neither yes nor no, but mu, which can best be translated as “unask the question.” The best way I can explain truth traps is through the conversation we had a couple of days ago about metaphor. It may be that the very metaphor we hold for what a phenomenon is, is exactly what prevents us from asking better questions about it.

Finally, there are muscle traps. Bad tools, uncomfortable working conditions, and insufficient feel or tactile memory. The things that cause us to make physical mistakes, break parts, burn ourselves or rack our knuckles.

Pirsig drew both the setbacks and the hangups from his own long experience of mechanical work, the “motorcycle maintenance” part of his title. But I think they all apply to writers as well. The external setbacks certainly exist. We put things together in the wrong order, and have to go back and disassemble. Every writer in a workshop knows the experience of having ten radically different reactions to a story, and ten different diagnoses about the location of the flaw and the prescribed remedy.

And, as with mechanical life, the hangups are even more serious. We stop ourselves by our anxiety, we press forward with a bad idea out of ego, we truncate a scene through impatience. We use the wrong metaphor to contain our ideas, and imagine we’re writing a book about some theme instead of letting the characters tell us what themes they’re living. We write in awkward places, at bad times. (Joyce Carol Oates says that the nemesis of the writer isn’t lack of talent, it’s interruption.)

But although writers face the same array of gumption traps as motorcycle mechanics, we have our own special array to add on. As the poet Philip Larkin has it, They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.


So there’s a literary agent who has a blog. It was recommended in an article I once read, and as someone always on the search for the key to the castle, I went there and read it for a while, even participated in the discussions for a few months.

It was miserable. The agent herself, with decades of experience, used the blog mostly to complain about writers’ misguided aspirations, or about whatever injustices she felt burdened by that day. It was a cynical stew. And several of her regular comment participants were abrasive, confrontational, mean-spirited. (That blog, in fact, is why I decided not to enable the comments on this one. There’s always someone who wants nothing more than to pee in the pool.) So after about four months, I let it go, stopped visiting.

But here we are in Covidland, all sitting at home without even random errands to run or a restaurant to visit. We need some things to do. So I made the mistake of going back to see what this agent had been up to recently. Her most recent post began:

Lately, lots of off-the-wall submissions. Definitely feels like end of days. And as always they evoke a spectrum of feelings and reactions in me. First, self-pity. Why me? Why do I get these letters and why do I feel I have to answer. Next, annoyance. Can you not be bothered to do a a simple Google search and discover that I’m not interested in self-help, how-to, sci-fi, fantasy, new age and books on spirituality? Books on spirituality in particular enrage me. Then there’s the writing thing. Most people who get published work at their writing for YEARS. These query letters generally come from people who just turned on an Apple for the first time and believe that whatever comes out deserves to be published. 

I had my own “spectrum of feelings and emotions” about this, which I’ll spare you. But all that reactive fizz settled quickly, of no more consequence than the bitters that foamed it up in the first place. And the residue that separated out was a third form of gumption trap, perhaps unique to the creative fields, which we might call the misdirection trap. In creative fields, we’re told to work on our craft, to seek out opportunities for growth, to demonstrate our individual capability. Talent and effort, talent and effort, we om to ourselves, like dwarves off to the mines.

And then we find that the seats we’d earned through our craft and labor are already filled by the Harvard kids and the NYU kids who had enough parental money to run their own magazines for a few years without getting paid, who got into the right parties and had the right people mention their names in conversations. We discovered that our PhD or MFA from the wrong school was a counterfeit currency that couldn’t be spent, no matter how much the salespeople had touted it, no matter how much we’d learned and been published.

That’s what literary agents get paid for. To insert your name into the right conversations, to sell you a card or two from their Rolodex, to overcome your social shortcomings with outboard connections that they’ll lease to you if they feel like it. But the world of agentry is opaque. We send our materials, after hours of research, to an agent who never responds. Or who responds with a form letter about how “it’s not right for my list,” but that writing is a subjective business and someone else might LOVE your deformed offering. We have no feedback from which to learn, merely silence.

So then to discover occasionally that those people don’t merely ignore us but actively demean us—well, that just a hard fact of the world to encounter. In Pirsig’s words, it knocks you off the Quality track, it makes it difficult to find the gumption to face the story again. All of us gullible, naive children who learned the word meritocracy early on and then discovered that its definition was entirely wrong… that sad shantytown of the poorly born, discovering that we are not merely blocked from the mansion but mocked by those inside… it makes you believe bad things about yourself. Beliefs that aren’t warranted, but that have to stand in the absence of other evidence. Beliefs that make trying again just seem wrong-headed and feeble.

I’ll write again, soon, because the writing is always worth it. In the novel I’ve been working on for the past three months, Cassie is just now starting to trust me enough to show me who she is, and the growth of her story will be its own reward. But the thought of putting that story and all the others on the table for sale again is gruesome. I can’t even think about it, or it wipes all of my good will away for hours. For me, it is the biggest gumption trap of them all.

I’ll close where I began, with my colleague the poet and her elegant refrain, “Well, people are just stupid.” The question is: who among us does that best describe?