Zen and the Art of Pencil-Sharpening


I saw David Rees read once. The event was about politics; it was to introduce a political book whose title I have regrettably forgotten. (I went to support another friend.) I’d never heard of Rees before but he made an impression. His advice, if I’m remembering it correctly, is that we all ought to delete our liberal blogs, and stop wasting so much time arguing online. After a week in which I have devoted far more hours than one ought to to the consideration of a certain-unnamed HBO show, I’m inclined to believe him. In fact I think what I’d like to do is find some kind of hobby that would exhaust my nervous energy in some more fruitful direction than “critiquing” people who, to borrow a phrase from a friend, are not even pausing, mid-backstroke, in their champagne pools to consider what I think.

Rees’ own solution was to take up the art of pencil sharpening. He said this, at that reading, and I thought: really? And then, it was clear, that really, yes, David Rees enjoyed his pencil sharpening business. I went home and googled the matter, and there the website was. For only fifteen dollars he would sharpen a pencil and return it to you by mail, shavings included. I can’t say I’ve taken him up on the offer yet but I admire that he found something small and manageable. In the interview with the Millions which I link to above, Rees mentions that he actually took up pencil sharpening during the collapse of his marriage:

Because part of the point of the book is that when your whole life is collapsing, you might very well become obsessed with pencils. Or just any kind of weird, random thing that you can lose yourself in that’s just completely removed from all the emotional concerns that are whirling around your head.

I really want to find a craft that does this sort of thing for me. And often, I mean one other than writing, one that doesn’t involve words. I keep thinking of all the writers I know who are consistently blocked by their own perfectionism. They need to set down sentences that are no less than the perfect word of God (or a God-like thing) or else it’s all blank screens and looming deadlines for them. But the “craft” of writing is not a skill you can practice in quite the same way as another one – at least, in my life, it isn’t. There’s no simple standard for the good paragraph. There is, however, one for a pencil that’s been properly sharpened. Or a house that’s been properly built. Being able to comfort yourself with that feeling of actual accomplishment somewhere in your life, knowing a thing is finished and that you did it well — well, it sounds like a lifeline.

Anyway, I will buy David Rees’ book, and see if pencil-sharpening might be the thing for me.

Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →