The guy who sat next to me in my high school French class was one year older than me. I don’t know why, but at the time that made him really cool. I can’t even make a guess at his name, but I can picture exactly where we both sat in that classroom. I can still see him sitting to my right wearing a black t-shirt, black jeans, and black Converses. And I can still see him whipping his neck to swoop his black hair away from his face like a prepubescent Justin Bieber. That guy. He epitomized cool.
But he had more than just a look. He had this aura—this je ne sais quoi—that came directly from a trick he could do with his pencil. I’ll never forget it. Every day, I walked into class to see him slouched in his desk with his elbow up on the armrest and his pencil doing pirouettes around his hand. Attempting to explain this visual art with words is as worthless as taking a picture of a Picasso with a disposable camera. But, the basic idea is that you start by holding the pencil near the eraser end with your thumb and middle finger. Then, you softly snap your fingers and let the pencil spin precariously around the back of your thumb until you catch it between your thumb and index finger.
This trick mesmerized me. Just snap, and the pencil spun into his grip, ready to write.
Even after this guy taught me how to hold my pencil, how to properly balance the weight of each end, and how to remain completely still while it spun, I couldn’t do it. I snapped my fingers and my pencil fell anywhere but into my hand—it usually ended up under my desk, across the room, or in another student’s lap. Again and again I dropped pencil after pencil. But I kept trying.
And one day, I finally got it. I felt a little clumsy, but the pencil still spun and I still caught it in my hand. I looked up, half expecting a standing ovation from the class, but no one was looking in my direction. Except for the guy sitting next to me. He nodded his head in recognition, and I nodded back like it was no big deal. I hadn’t quite adopted his nonchalance, but I was getting there. After class that day, he tapped me on the elbow and handed me his pencil.
“Once you can spin this one,” he said, “you can spin them all.”
“Cool,” I said, not really sure how else to respond to the Mr. Miyagi vibes he was putting off. Still, it felt pretty great to receive affirmation from the guy I looked up to for no tangible reason other than his weird display of dexterity.
The pencil he gave me that day was old, wooden, and like everything else he seemed to own, black. Truthfully, I didn’t even know people still used wooden pencils. I had been working with a mechanical pencil—the type where you clicked on the eraser to get more lead to come out—so this one felt strange in my hands. I ran my fingers along its worn edges and rubbed my nail across the silver script that said Ticonderoga No. 2. I felt like a young wizard who had just received his wand from Ollivander.
As soon as I sat down in my next class, I tried to spin the new pencil. It instantly slipped out of my hand. And for a long time after that I didn’t even get close to catching it. But, I kept practicing and I kept practicing, and I got to where I could spin that pencil without even looking—sometimes without even thinking. And ever since then, I have yet to find a pen or pencil that I can’t spin around my hand.
But that was a long time ago. I’ve grown up now, and sure, I still spin my pens and pencils, but I look at these instruments differently. The pencil I hold in my hand is no longer a toy I toss about, but it’s a tool I wield. And Ticonderoga No. 2 is my Excalibur.
In fact, I’m spinning this very pencil as I write this very piece. And as I watch it move around my hand, I can’t help but wish that writing was as easy as spinning your pencil around your thumb. I want to sit here and say it only takes a snap of your fingers to get the pencil in your hand ready to write, but that almost never happens. Sometimes it does. Sometimes, you’ll sit down and a story will fall out of heaven into your lap. I don’t really know how to explain those days, but I’ve learned to never expect them because the work gets way harder when you think it might magically be relieved by someone or something other than yourself.
But on the other hand—and before you even ask, yes, I can spin a pencil with either hand—writing isn’t that hard either. I don’t want to exaggerate and say that writing is the most challenging job in the world because that’s just not true. I once heard someone say that writing is as easy as sitting in front of a typewriter until your eyes bleed. That sounds a little melodramatic if you ask me. Also, who uses a typewriter?
What I do believe is that writing, and I would venture to say any form of art, is neither hard nor easy, but somewhere in the middle. While I wish writing was as simple as snapping your fingers, in reality, I’ve found that it’s about as hard as picking up your pencil off the ground. Have you ever tried to pick up a wooden pencil off a linoleum floor? From the countless times I did this in French class, I can promise you it’s harder than you might expect. It’s like trying to pick up a single playing card off a slick wooden table. You know how you feel really dumb when the card is right there in your fingertips, but you can’t quite get a nail under any of the corners to pick it up and see the number and suit underneath? That’s how writing feels.
The pencil is right there beneath your fingertips, but it keeps wanting to slip and slide and sneak away. And it’s one thing if you’re patient, but even the most persistent person can find this experience frustrating. For example, let’s say you’re me, and let’s say you’ve gotten pretty good at spinning your proverbial pencil. Snap, and out comes a solid short story. Snap, and out comes a published article. Snap, and thousands of people read something you wrote. Naturally, you start to feel pretty good about yourself. Affirmation does that.
In fact, you feel so good that you tell a pretty girl at a bar that you’re a writer. She says that sounds hot. And instead of pointing out her entirely incorrect use of a measure of temperature, you romanticize and say something like, “Well, I’ve really started getting into poetry recently, but I don’t like talking about that side of myself it’s so embarrassing.”
You realize how repulsive this sounds, but she swoons a little bit, so you wave your hand in front of your face just enthusiastically enough to look bashful without actually changing the subject away from yourself. Meanwhile, all you’ve done is snap your fingers a few times. You haven’t earned that swoon—you will never earn that swoon—but in the moment, you convince yourself that you might actually have this writing thing down.
So, the next day, you show up to work and you snap your fingers, but the pencil hits the floor. That’s okay, you say to yourself. You’ve had this happen before. Sure, it’s been a while since you’ve dropped a pencil, but you don’t hesitate to reach back down. Only, it slips through your fingers again. You feel a little frustrated now, but you had a late night with some girl at some bar (her name was Shelly maybe? Or Sheila?). You assure yourself it’s just a little success hangover, and you bend over once more, but it slides through your fingers again. And now you’re mad. What type of writer doesn’t know how to pick up their own pencil? Then, you look down and you realize, possibly for the first time, how sharp that pencil is.
You try to remember if you’ve sharpened it between the last few uses, but you’re not sure. And you wonder about that for a second. Then, right before you reach down to try to pick it up yet again, you realize the magic. The more you write the sharper it gets. And that doesn’t make any sense, but it’s the truth. You can’t unsee it. And now, the sharpness of your pencil excites you. And you kneel down to pick it up, no longer in frustration, but in anticipation and excitement.
And that’s writing. And that’s art. It’s not hard. It’s not complex. But it’s not easy. And it’s not simple. It requires patience and repetition, and it comes with a deep level of frustration and an even deeper appreciation for the process. Occasionally, people swoon when they hear what you do, but this happens less and less as you get older and your hairline starts creeping back, and you realize there’s probably nothing you could do to make someone swoon anyway. But that’s okay. Because the more you write, the more the audience fades into the background. You finally write to write, not to be read. And you learn that it’s not about the snap of the fingers—it never was. And you become less interested in seeing the pencil spin around your hand and more excited by seeing it waiting for you on the floor. And that’s the moment you become an artist—the moment you start to enjoy the struggle of picking up your pencil.
Cover image by David Pennington.