The Wrong End of the Pencil

PencilWhen we were kids, my brother and I turned our attic into an art studio and covered the walls with sketches.

He put his drawings up on one side, and I put mine on the other. This made it painfully clear whose work was better.

By a long shot.

It is just the way it was. He was better at everything. He still is. He is one of those rare and gifted people who are good at whatever they do, which for me was and still is a hard shadow to walk in.

One day while we were working, he said, “I know your problem.”

“What?” I asked.

“You use the wrong end of the pencil.”

He was right. I would rub the erasers off an entire pack of pencils before I dulled my first point. Sometimes, I was so overwhelmed by the urge to revise that I applied the eraser to a blank page.

“Maybe you should start with carbon paper,” he joked, “and work back from there.”

Being desperate, I tried it.. No luck. I still wore away just as many erasers rubbing holes in the carbon paper.

These days he is an artist and I write but little has changed. He still works with clean, effortless lines while I chase my muse through tangled thickets of prose.

What has changed is that I don’t worry about it any more. He has his style; I have mine and I am no longer intimidated by the grace that allows him to get by with less effort.

Back in the attic, I flipped the pencil over once I realized that the line it formed did not match the line in my imagination. Now when the same thing happens with my writing, I don’t let it stop me.

This happens to a lot of developing writers. They start to write, stop, reread what they wrote and get hung up because the words do not measure up to what is in their mind.

Sometimes they even believe the myth that great writing flows effortlessly from the fingers of great writers. The truth is, very few writers work like that.

I will never work as painlessly as my brother but I find the more I write, the more my writing mirrors what’s in my imagination.

It is all about moving forward and using the backspace or delete key, moves the writing backward. So when I compose my first drafts, or just write for practice, I use the keys that put words on the screen and avoid those that take them off.

Author: Almost Iowa

60 thoughts on “The Wrong End of the Pencil”

  1. I love this post. It makes me think of many artists I met and compared them with myself. One Chinese artist came to my watercolor class to talk about painting with Chinese ink and brushes. Then he demonstrated painting on a scroll of 2′ height and at least 20′ width. He would keep applying the strokes that first didn’t look like anything, but then he added some details here and there and the whole painting came alive with the mountain scene, waterfall, birds and flowers. He did it in less than 30 minutes. Amazing!

    I’m still learning to accept my watercolor paintings as the way they turned out. When I first learned to paint fog by using clear water to “wash” off the color of the tree or mountain, I washed way too much off.

    As for writing, I’m still learning to write the first draft as if nobody will ever read it.

  2. Good advice Greg. I know not all people agree, but I found working on a computer made my work much easier. That and writing, writing, writing. Also, I have found my journal helps. Then I am only writing for myself. No need to worry about corrections or making it pretty. Let it flow. (Even my journal is subject to corrections, however. 🙂 –Curt

  3. For better or worse, I am comfortable using “the keys that put words on the screen and [avoiding] those that take them off.”

    I was wondering how to comment on your post when I got a call from a friend. She doesn’t understand, and I feel she doesn’t “approve” of my blogging. It stings a bit, that, but here’s what I learned from that conversation and your post.

    I cycle on and off with blogging, as you know. I’m grateful that others stay with it, because it is evident to me that you and others that I follow have developed as writers – the same old personality shines through, but richer, more lovely (for lack of a better word) than before.

    This post is wonderful stuff. Thank you.

  4. I’d like to go with the flow and ignore passages I know suck until the draft is done, but I just can’t. Too many years of writing prose for computers taught me to debug on the fly, or face an ill-formed mountain of spaghetti logic with holes in every loop. When I transitioned to blogging that tendency persisted. (Especially with various interactive editing and grammar apps nagging me at every misspelling and misplaced comma.)

    Still, it’s good to avoid analysis paralysis, listen to the voice, and keep that story moving. (Although I still haven’t worked out writing a moving story.) Maybe one of these years I’ll get better at that.

  5. That is so true, and part of what I was writing about in my recent post. Writing rarely flows (when it does, it’s wonderful, though), and most of the time we do have to stop and start, rewrite, and edit until we get it the way we want. The trick is to make sure we are rewriting according to our own standards, and not according to some vague critic in our head who tells us what is and isn’t good writing. As you say, the ultimate goal is to get down on paper (or computer screen) what is in our heads. Once we do that, we are successful, I think!

  6. I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler. Sad but true. So, I am always in awe of anyone who can draw something I can recognize. 🙂 As for writing, I give it my best shot, but I sure wish autocorrect would go by the wayside because I don’t need any assistance in making errors. 🙂

    1. The only thing worse than auto-correct is the text-to-speech feature on my phone. It needs to come with an auto-apology and an auto-disclaimer.

  7. I write and I paint, and one similarity between the two is that in painting most artists embrace their ‘painterly mistakes’ – things that happen by accident and turn out just, well, excellent. I find that can happen in writing, too. It often goes somewhere I hadn’t expected, and I just need to embrace that.

    1. I know exactly what you are saying… but then back in the attic:

      My brother: What in the world is that?
      Me: Not sure myself, but it started out as a duck.

    1. You know what the biggest problem is with selling your soul to the devil?

      The long, long lines.

      But with that first draft, it is sometimes best to keep typing. Often I will struggle with the first paragraph, to get the tone right, but once I have that things begin to flow.

  8. I like the way your write! Which is why I don’t. I post photos. Obviously, I don’t do a good job, though. I told a blogger I liked his photo and was told: “We call them images, Lois.” Dang. Another thing I don’t do right..or write. whatever.

  9. I don’t spend much time reading or writing about writing. I’d rather be creating. But I do have one inviolable rule that I’ve followed since beginning my blog: “Write, and let go.” While working on a piece, I do everything I can to perfect it: that is, to bring it to a point where it meets my expectations. Then, I hit publish, and move on immediately to the next project. The only time I’ve ever gone back to revise a published piece is when I find an error in spelling or fact, or a typo. Otherwise — it’s on to the next thing.

    I do a lot of judging while writing, but I avoid judging my own work after the fact. The value in that is that if the work is good, I’d never stop congratulating myself. If it’s lacking, I’d never stop beating myself up. So on I go. Excelsior!

    1. “Write, and let go.”

      That is a good philosophy, but every once in a while I like to go back over the things I wrote years ago. With that much time having passed, the ticks and flaws in the writing pop out.

      1. That’s true, and there are times I’ve rewritten a piece. But going back after some time has passed is different from refusing to move on, which was a temptation for me in the beginning.

  10. I’ve never experience effortless art or writing. That sounds amazing! I wonder if brother feels like it’s effortless or if it just seems that way from your observation of it. No matter how many times I go through what I’ve written (a post I wrote today had a million unnecessary “that”s in it – thought I’d never manage to delete them all), when I go back and read it months later it seems awful. Your writing, on the other hand, always reads well and seems timeless. I think your muse must really like you.

  11. Comparing yourself to others is the kiss of death. Yeah, writing rarely flows. It’s more of a committed jail sentence… but in a good way

  12. Never has writing flowed effortlessly from me. I overthink and edit mercilessly. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? I always thought that’s how it’s supposed to be.

    1. It is the way it is supposed to be, other than that rare piece that writes itself. And with time, those rare pieces seem to become less rare.

  13. What a great description of the tangled art of writing as compared to the precise art of drawing. Completely miraculous in their own ways, and I love love love how knotty and complex our craft is, so full of nuance and ultimately a collaboration with an unknown reader. I’m an edit-as-I-go writer with the caveat that I still have to edit my a** off after completely a first draft. Lol. Great post, Greg. 🙂

    1. My muse and I editing….

      Me: OMG! That’s brilliant.
      Muse: No, it’s not.
      Me: Sure it is.
      Muse: Read it again.
      Me: It’s still brilliant.
      Muse: Then I wrote it.

  14. I write with my ears, which unlike a pencil doesn’t have a wrong end. This is a terrific reflection thanks. I must admit that I revise numerous times as I go – and when finished it’s finished. This method also brings no fame and no fortune!

  15. I dare say a little editing would vastly improve my posts, but aside from proof reading for spelling errors… I write then let it fly. Of course I am by no means a “writer”.

  16. My brother is 8 years older than me and was very good in art class at school. We had the same art teacher and I was always reminded by him how good my brother was and how I was (or wasn’t). Over the years, my brother is still a good artist and designer, but I have learned that isn’t what makes the quality of a man. Great post as always!

  17. Good one, Greg. I am always amazed at those who edit themselves right out of writing totally. I write crap and then when I have a big enough pile I go back and try to clean it up. I never stop to wonder if a line is art or not. My system works for me and I’m still writing.

  18. Hi. You know yourself well. This sentence proves that:
    “What has changed is that I don’t worry about it any more. He has his style; I have mine and I am no longer intimidated by the grace that allows him to get by with less effort.”

    Bye till next time.

    Neil Scheinin

    1. Audrey, if you ever decide to become a muse, I’d be interested in becoming a client. My muse is lazy, harsh, scatter-brained and addicted to chocolate chip ice cream.

  19. There are people who write blog posts, and publish immediately. Then there’s me. I write. I re-read. I re-write. I agonize. I sit on it for an hour, a day, a week. Even though most of it is drivel. I may publish. Or not. It depends. lol

    Like you say, we each have our own style. 🙂

  20. First draft ? ! ? Now if this were Dan’s Saturday post I would have a reference. On the other hand I am glad you did not say ONLY draft. Then I would have been truely puzzled. Just like I am by the spelling of truly. If we order a couple of drafts or three ( should Stan show up) maybe we could sort this out.

    1. There are two voices to find. The one that resonates with you and the one that resonates with everyone else.

      Hopefully, those two voices sound a lot alike.

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