Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Tools of the Trade

What is your favourite tool for your work?
I have two. One of them is paper. The other?
When Henry David Thoreau gathered together the things he needed to take with him into the woods, an expedition after which he wrote his masterpiece, Walden (1854), one of the great books of American literature, he made a list of every item. Walden describes what 'a necessary life' and a basic economy of work and leisure might be for 'freedom and a prospect of success'.
Thoreau was an inveterate maker of lists and notes. His Walden list included pins, needles, the dimensions of his tent, 'matches (some also in a small vial in the waist-coat pocket), soap, two pieces.' He even noted old newspapers (used for cleaning?), the size of his blanket, the quantity of 'soft hardbread', and the paper he would write on. Every smallest item was included. Now, there is an exhibition of those items in the Thoreau museum. But one item he took with him is missing from the list and from the exhbition. The tool he used to write with.
His notes, his measurements, the labels on his specimens, his letters home, his journal: he wrote them all with a pencil. But he didn't list it in the items he took with him, nor as something essential to the 'necessary life'. But we would not have known what he did and thought without that simple tool of his trade.
The irony is that he could only spend his time indulging in his experiment in the woods because his family had made the money he needed to live on and buy the things he needed from manufacturing the best pencils produced in the USA in the 1840s.
How could he miss his pencil from his list of necessaries? Perhaps because it had become so much part of what he was, so much a part of himself, that he didn't 'see' it as an object outside himself.
My father was a skilled woodworker. His workshop was full of the tools of his trade. Many of them he had made himself. When I was a boy I used to watch him at work for hours and marvel at how he managed his tools. They seemed to be part of his body. And he was as fiercely possessive of them as of himself. You were in bad trouble if you even touched them without permission. I cannot think of him without a tool in his hands.
For me a pencil is like that. I love the look and feel of it - though it must be the right kind. I love the smell of the wood when I sharpen it. I love the act of sharpening it with a little chromium-plated penknife bequeathed to me when an old writer-friend died. I love the feel of the pencil sliding over the paper.
For me, the problem of writing is to get the words heard in my head down through my arm and out of my fingers onto the paper. Quite often - usually - something happens on that journey down my nerves and muscles that diminishes what comes out of my fingers, as if the words lose some of their energy and their arrangement and even their sense - their fuel - on the way.
So I want the words to be written as close to my finger ends as possible so that nothing more is lost between my fingers and the page. (Quite a lot is lost, or rather another change in the words takes place, if I type rather than handwrite.) A pencil - even more than a pen - is the closest I can get to my fingertips, to my hands, and the lines of connection to my brain.
A pencil is the most visceral - of the body, of the flesh, of one's own being - of any writing implement. It is made of 'renewable' organic materials: wood and graphite. It has been refined in design over hundreds of years. How does the 'lead' get into the pencil? Why are some round, some oval, some six-sided? How and why are some made 'harder' than others? Which woods are they made of? Where are they made and why in those places? They look such a simple object, and compared with most of the things we use they are. I believe it's true to say that there are only sixteen processes in their manufacture.
If you'd like to know just about all there is to know about the pencil, its history, design and making, try to get hold of a copy of The Pencil, A History, by Henry Petroski (Knopf, USA, Faber, UK, 1989). Fascinating.
I was talking to a class of 16 year olds many years ago and telling them how I use a pencil to write the first drafts of my novels. A boy asked me how many pencils it took to write a book. I had never kept count. But I did next time, which happened to be Postcards from No man's Land. It's an eight pencil book.


Anonymous said...

"How could he miss his pencil from his list of necessaries? Perhaps because it had become so much part of what he was, so much a part of himself, that he didn't 'see' it as an object outside himself."

"When I was a boy I used to watch him at work for hours and marvel at how he managed his tools. They seemed to be part of his body."

These two sentences struck me especially in today’s blog, Aidan. I think they’re very beautiful because they describe two people – both David Thoreau and your father – who were very authentic in what they did, in their professional activities. The fact that they were ‘one with their tool(s)’ is not only a characteristic of how they looked when they were working but that ‘oneness’ is a symbol of how committed they were to what they were doing. Then work stops just being work, i.e. an actiity you perform to earn a living but it becomes more like ‘a calling’, a vocation.

Probably seeing your parent at work like that – being completely absorbed by his activities – has influenced you for life. I can imagine the boy becoming the writer just then … I think this is a very beautiful gift your father gave you because it has probably ‘shaped’ your own professional life, giving the best of yourself to your writing. The fact that your father probably didn’t realise this makes it even more beautiful because you as it were ‘clothe’ him now with the words necessary to bring to life that type of commitment in writing …


ted said...

Only eight? They must have been H9 pencils!

Anonymous said...

"What people call 'stress' is simply not having time for - or not giving time to - encounters with themselves."
Excellent: thank you for this. Much food for thought in these couple of lines.

I tend to think of my own notebook or Pippi Longstocking-stylee pickupstuffer as a 'thought catcher', the lines on the page acting as the North American Indian spider's webs you see in so many windows.

Turning to it, what can I share by return of post? Ah yes, the eminently sensible Dorothy Rowe with: "Self-help is the only help you've got...You've got to do the work. If you're not prepared to take that responsibility you're going to stay in that misery." Touche, Mrs Rowe.

Oh, and that I want to read 'This is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn'!

Mark in Bristol.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ted said...

Thank you very much

Linda Newbery said...

Aidan, have you read WILDWOOD - A JOURNEY THROUGH TREES, by Roger Deakin? I'm reading it now, slowly, because it's not the sort of book you can rush. He writes about wood in all its forms - as trees, as material - and is the most wonderful writer about the natural world. He is the author of WATERLOG, and now says that "it seemed logical to plunge into what Edward Thomas called 'the fifth element': the element of wood".

I would recomment this to Cordelia's Will, if I could.

玩偶 said...

Oh! So you actually use pencils to write drafts! Very traditional, I'd say! And, oh! So my favorite book of all was an 8pencil book, eh? You still have the stub of it left? I think it should be auctioned! And I am number one in line! :)