An Artisanal Author Confronts His Pencils

by John J. Kochevar

I WROTE MY DISSERTATION with a wooden pencil. Or, rather, many wooden pencils. We rented a summer cottage in Effort, Pennsylvania where, every morning, I carefully sharpened every pencil in my collection before sitting down to write. I think I read somewhere it was Ernest Hemingway’s custom each morning to sharpen all his pencils before writing his 500 words. Or maybe it was just a warm-up exercise.

The smell of cedar shavings still reminds me of Effort and writing in the morning those high summer days. My father used a knife to sharpen his pencils, even his drawing pencils, but I did not have the patience. I had a tiny plastic box sharpener. Twisting the pencil created shavings like scabs and lopsided leads. When I left my research job on East 28th street I stole a box of pencils, a ream of yellow foolscap pads, and a mechanical pencil sharpener. My desk was a piece of plywood laid on two saw horses. After a month or so I screwed the mechanical pencil sharpener to the corner of the desk. I pitched the hand sharpener and progress was more rapid. Pencils in a row, equally sharp, no more excuses….

Elegant Dunhill lighter

While I wrote, I painstakingly erased my errors, much as I correct my mistakes while I type now. Eraser crumbs piled up at my wrist and elbow. Pencils were ground down to eraserless stubs. I had the occasional satisfaction of emptying a sharpener full of cedar shavings and graphite. A soft eraser does not give as much pleasure as a sharp #2. I thought sometimes about how much better writing would be if the pencils were precisely sharp. It would be like smoking a Sherman lit by a Dunhill. It would be like having a specialist roll your joints, always tight and the same size.

So when I read the review of David Rees’s pencil sharpening book, I was drawn to the fancy. Does he use fine sandpaper for the finish? What happens if you do two? How do you ensure they are both the same size? I think about David Rees and his custom sharpened pencils. Do I want a really fine sharp pencil? Could it be used to write one, really fine haiku? Or, would I find myself like Calvino’s Mr. Palomar in front of the cheese counter, unable to make up my mind about goat cheeses?

There is a fine line between love of craft and obsession.

John J. Kochevar, PhD, is a guest contributor to Brooklyn Artisan. 

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