Procrastination, Pencils and Plumbago


The procrastinator’s spirit animal is the crow.

Back in fourth century Armenia, as the story goes, a wicked crow looked up and wheedled a Roman centurion named Expeditus into putting off converting to Christianity, cawing what sounded like the Latin word for tomorrow, “cras.” Being a future saint and all, Expeditus procrastinated no more, stomped on the devil in black feathers at his feet, and received an expeditious baptism.

And the favorite writing utensil of writers who put the cras in procrastinate? The pencil, of course, since you can always postpone writing projects by sharpening all your pencils first. “Sharpening your pencils” has become a cliché for what people do when they perform absurdly long warm-up rituals before getting down to work.

If I’d logged all the hours I spent sharpening my pencils before writing, procrastinating would easily add up to double the time I spent putting pen to paper.

Friends marvel at how I get so many things like pencil sharpening done and still look so rested. It’s quite simple: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it’s not the work he’s supposed to be doing at that moment, as described in Robert Benchley’s groundbreaking 1930 psychological treatise “How To Get Things Done.”

But before I start this column, the cliché about pencil sharpening reminds me that Henry David Thoreau wore many hats, including pencil maker — if indeed there is such a hat. There is an entry in his 1842 Journal that begins: “I have been making pencils all day, and then at evening walked to see an old schoolmate...”

Making pencils all day?

But Thoreau did make pencils. In fact, his family made the finest pencils in America for 20 years, and when he wasn’t talking to birds or gazing at clouds or chiding us about just not getting it, he worked in the business for most of his adult life. You can see J. Thoreau and Co. pencils on display at the Smithsonian Institution, and someone bought one on eBay a couple of years ago for $1,800.

When a Harvard classmate wrote asking what Thoreau had been up to since leaving Cambridge, he listed these occupations: “I am a Schoolmaster — a Private Tutor, a Surveyor — a Gardener, a Farmer — a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a bad Poet.” Many hats, indeed. He must have been putting off deciding what he wanted to be when he grew up.

It’s not hard to imagine Thoreau here on the Key Peninsula.

He’d fit right in, probably with a cabin by Bay Lake, which is just about the size of Walden Pond. I can see him on the shoulder of the road walking toward Home since he wouldn’t care to own a car.

Our KP eccentric’s conversation out in the drizzle at the Lakebay post office parking lot would be off-beat, too, and full of cranky wisdom like, “If you don’t like my clothes, I don’t want your paycheck.” Or, “Look at those gas prices! You work a whole day every week just to buy gas to drive to work.” The same ideas, just not as pithy as the lines in Walden, “Beware of all new enterprises that require new clothes,” and “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.”

But while I’m getting set up to write, I keep going back to Thoreau making pencils. He was no slacker, some days churning out 3,000 words and gluing together the cedar halves of five dozen pencils.

Okay, call me a pencil-sharpener, not a pencil-maker.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that Henry David invented the two production processes that made the Thoreau pencils better than the competition?

Graphite is the carbon compound in pencil leads, and the Thoreau pencil business had grown out of an uncle’s accidental discovery of a New Hampshire graphite outcrop (in those days called plumbago). The plumbago (not something you get from eating too much fruit) was very pure, almost perfect for pencil leads. However, minute impurities in it made the sharpened point scratchy. H.D. invented a mill that sorted out the very smallest particles of ground graphite from everything else. When glued with a binder in split wood barrels, this superfine dust made a superior pencil lead.

After Henry discovered that by mixing fine potter’s clay with the graphite dust he could vary the hardness of the leads, the deluxe Thoreau pencil in hard, medium and soft was born.

By the end of the 1850s, the American pencil market was dominated by Faber’s even-better pencils from Germany, and the Thoreau family abandoned pencil production to concentrate on dealing bulk plumbago to city newspapers using the new electrotype printing technology.

Pencils and Thoreau. Someday I really ought to write about them.

But for now, it’s time to stop sharpening and put pencil to paper for the KP News.

First though, I need to straighten up the clutter on this desk.

Dan Clouse is an award-winning columnist. He lives in Lakebay.