Keep Your Pencils Sharp — Lessons from My Grandfather, Part 1

Lessons from my grandfather

 

My grandfather kept a wooden cup of perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk. They were Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencils, waiting with military-style readiness next to his leather-bordered desk blotter. Every morning, he sat down at this desk and he wrote. Over the course of roughly 20,000 days — that’s about 50 years — he wrote more than 120 published books.

He was almost 40 when he turned to writing full-time. He had been an actor, a teacher and a journalist, but he was determined to have the independence and sense of accomplishment that he got from writing books. Sometime in the ’60s, he decided it was time to leave his day job at the local newspaper. He went to my grandmother and said, “Rose, give me a year to make this work.” She did, and he went on to become one of America’s most prolific authors of nonfiction books for young readers.

When I was younger, I always appreciated that my grandfather was a working writer, but I had no idea what it took to achieve what he did. From the time I was a teenager, I wanted to be a poet. I wrote obsessively in my journal and stared out the window all moody and musing, waiting for great writing to happen. I got some things done that way, but not that much, and mostly not that great. All along, I had the snobbish impression the kind of writing my grandfather did was easy.

Now that I’m approaching 50 and my ivory tower fantasies have been weatherworn to something much earthier, now that I’ve written a few basic nonfiction books and taken a wide variety of writers’ odd jobs, I am thoroughly humbled by my grandfather’s work life. I take lessons from him every day.

He wrote at his desk from 9 to 5 on weekdays, alone in the house while my grandmother went out to work. He would break for a sandwich at lunch, sitting at the dining table with a crossword puzzle at his elbow. Then he would get right back to it until she came home. There was an unshakable order to his routine. At the end of every day, he cleared his desk of papers and files. He never left a mess behind, so each morning felt like a clean, clear-headed start.

After he died, I discovered that my grandfather also kept a meticulous work log. He used his #2 pencils to record, in tiny perfect handwriting, every single writing-related task that he carried out each day for those 20,000 days. For example, on a Monday in 1983:

  • Researched and outlined Chapter 5 (Musicals), History of Movies
  • Wrote revised draft copy Chapter 5, History of Movies
  • Worked on Filmography Chapter 8 (Westerns), History of Movies
  • Mailed typescript Chapter 4 (Horror), History of Movies, to T. Aylesworth at Bison
  • Mailed contract, Sports Q and A Book, to Simon & Schuster via E. Jacobson

He always noted the total word count for the day. (I believe he had a daily goal of 1,500 words.) On that day it was 1,579.

When I first found these records, I combed them to see if I could find anything personal, perhaps his sense of humor — because my grandpa was, in fact, a deeply sensitive and pretty funny guy. But there’s none of that here. When it came to moving his writing career forward, he was purely serious, day after day, for decades on end.

There’s no way I can match what my grandfather accomplished, but I have slowly created my own dedication to work. Lately, I’ve been getting up early — by about 5am — to claim a couple of quiet hours for personal writing. Technical writing happens later in the day. Unlike my grandfather, I don’t have a wife to do all the shopping and cooking. (My grandmother did all that and had a full-time career, too. She is a real hero in his story.) My partner and I both work at home and we keep house together, so there are plenty of domestic things to do. And I’m still more muse-y than my grandfather ever was. There has to be time in my day for meandering walks, time to discuss the day’s questions with the neighborhood birds.

Still, I’ve now started my own work log, modeled almost exactly on the records my grandfather kept. At the end of every day, I take a few minutes to note my writing accomplishments: finishing a freelance article, drafting a blog post, inquiring with an editor, even writing in my journal. I’m not a word counter, so I replaced that column of the log with a notation about any income earned. There’s no doubt that doing this provides a sense of direction and satisfaction; it helps me follow through.

My grandfather’s pencil cup sits on my own desk now, filled with a dozen not-quite-so-sharp Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencils. I chew on them, but I believe my grandpa would forgive me that. He would understand that I use his pencil cup and work logs to harness some of his endurance and commitment to writing, and I know he would be proud.

Many years before my grandfather died, he told me it would be my job to write his obituary. If you’d like to learn a little more about him, I’ll share that obituary here.

 

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About Shae Irving

Shae Irving’s first story was about a bird. Her second-grade teacher, Mrs. Purkey, made slick, blue copies on the ditto machine and handed it out for the class to read. Now, Shae writes a lot about fruit. In between, there’s been plenty of time to get a law degree, write and edit legal how-to books, work on poems and essays, keep a hundred journals, and get addicted to Instagram. Shae also helps nonprofits tell their stories and find their voice for social media. You can find her at shaeirving.com.

4 Comments

  1. Karl Saupe on March 1, 2013 at 10:21 am

    This was fantastic! I look forward to part 2.

  2. ingrid on March 1, 2013 at 10:41 am

    What an inspirational portrayal. This post cuts through the superfluous, and hits at the unglamorous heart of what it takes to be an effective writer: consistent hard work. I’m feeling sentimental just thinking about the #2 pencils I haven’t picked up in a while. There’s definitely a work log in my near future.

  3. Ellie on March 6, 2013 at 2:04 pm

    What an extraordinary and inspiring story. I look forward to reading the obituary (that sounds all wrong but I’m sure you understand) and learning more about your grandfather.

  4. […] I mentioned in my last post, my grandfather wrote more than 120 published books during a 50-year career. After he died, I found […]

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