A Natural History: Joan Menefee


A Natural History of My Writer’s Callus

By Joan Menefee

The pencils I use are slim, wooden and hexagonal; at least to begin with, they are longer than most fingers, and pointed at one end.  I push them around and along, back and forth, creating a conversation not merely between myself and some mythical audience, but also among my right hand (mostly my ring finger, pointer and thumb, and the heel of my palm), my eyes, the pencil, the paper, and inevitably the table, which stabilizes arm and paper, providing enough resistance to take advantage of the pencil’s special irony: long after its hard shell is shaved away, its soft center endures on the page.

Pencils conduct forces; cognitive impulses, sure, but also the masses of bones and soft tissues, heightened or diminished by the friction coefficients of graphite, wood, paper and flesh.  Progressing from long to short, from sharp to dull, pencils yield lines and circles as we apply pressure to them.  Without sufficient pressure, the marks we envision fail to sink into the page.  So we push, willing our thoughts into physical existence. Following ideas heedlessly through inner space, sometimes we lose sense of the tools we are using to render our ideas visible and tangible, or even of the fact that we have bodies at all.  But our bodies do not forget.

In his history of the pencil, Henry Petroski observes that Henry David Thoreau’s catalog of the contents of his house at Walden Pond omits the very instrument with which he was writing his account. Petroski finds this omission doubly odd since the pencils Thoreau used almost certainly came from his family’s own factory.

Though my family owned no pencil company, I did have pencils engraved with my name – first and last— in grade school. My mother ordered these pencils from the Lillian Vernon catalog each Christmas; along with a tangerine, peppermint chews, and lip balm, a pack of personalized pencils gave vertical structure to my stocking. A fussy child, I disliked sharpening into the letters of my name, as if such an eclipse portended an injury I was soon to suffer, so I often abandoned these fancy pencils before they had been much used.

Never mind that my pencils were always experiencing rapid, steady decline, for I was and am a fierce, sloppy writer.  I love the first ten minutes of a newly sharpened point and, if I can get away with it, I will keep jamming the pencil in the sharpener half-hourly, ruthlessly seeking perfection of form.  The number of pencils sacrificed to my quest for knowledge, skill, and renown will remain mysterious.  What can be measured is the bump on my right ring finger, which I did not notice until I was nine or ten years old.

I was in the kitchen; we still had yellow vinyl chairs with a matching yellow table; my mother was frying something.

There it was: a tender red bump below the nail bed of my right ring finger, protruding on the left, like a pack falling off the back of a horse.  When I explored it with my thumb nail, the callus received the impression eagerly and remembered it for half a minute. Rightly placed, the mark of my thumbnail was like a grave mouth on a blushing little face.

I walked over to the stove and installed myself below my mother’s elbow, the better to show her my discovery.

“Is it a mosquito bite that doesn’t itch?” I asked.  “Or cancer?”

“It’s a writer’s callus,” she said.

Still perplexed, I raised the afflicted finger higher.

“It’s the place the pencil rubs against your hand when you write,” she said. “It scars up.  The skin gets harder.”

“Do you have one? Let me see yours.”

“After I finish cooking dinner.”

I don’t remember examining my mother’s callus, nor do I have any idea what hers looks like now.  I suspect that I was most impressed with my “civilized wound” because it was large in relation to my soft, small, unblemished finger, because I had noticed it all by myself, and because I had devised my own theories about it.  Since that day I have been aware of this protuberance, this place where my pencils pushed back.

As my finger grew, the callus stayed the same size, but it grew harder.  It has evolved from a single bump to a flattened pink disc with the remnants of a blister forming a pale circle inside it. Now, on the fewer occasions I take up a pencil, everything seems to lock into place. The callus is not the linchpin, but the vital ridge against which the linchpin rests.

It seems right that those legions of pencils should have left a hill on my body. My callus is a reminder that while grand traumatic events like compound fractures easily capture our attention, it is the complex of small forces and repetitive motions that author most of our surroundings, and indeed our own bodies. Everywhere abrasions and incisions form an impromptu braille, a story of bodies expressing knowledge, as they amass other aspects of their vicinity.  In this fine, deliberate sense, my callus is the sum of what I know.

Callus is as callus does. (Detail from “HI.Hieronymous bein Schreiben” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1605-1606; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).


Joan Menefee sharpens her pencils with a Boston Model #18 manufactured in Statesville, North Carolina.



“A Natural History of My Writer’s Callus” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>


One comment

  1. I am speechless! it must be in our Geno! I can’t sleep tonight knowing another Menefee is pushing her pencil wood in such a cruel way and chipping away on the wood creating a traumatic event for that once living tree. which had a life of its own giving shade and producing food and shelter for the wildlife is being enslaved and abused by a writer. Please use more ink!

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