In his colossal bestseller The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey spends a lot of time discussing what he calls “sharpening the saw.” As if it’s important or something.
Abe Lincoln put it this way:
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
Sharpening the saw — or axe — is basically what you think it is. Investing in your craft. Investing in yourself. Working on your, uhh, chops. But there’s a whole lot more to it than that.
Anyone who knows about knives will tell you about it. A dull blade is dangerous. You’re more likely to slip and chop off fingers. Also consider this: They tell me it’s a whole lot more painful to chop off your fingers with a dull blade than with a sharp one. That’s what I’m told, though I am not going to check on it myself. There are limits to good journalism.
Okay. At first glance this whole saw-sharpening thing runs counter to the whole just-do-it emphasis of this blog. At least until you take it within the context of creativity.
You might have noticed I oppose the thought of sitting around waiting for inspiration. That just doesn’t happen. And I resist the idea of making sure you have the right tools to do your work. For writers, I mean not waiting around until I have the latest whiz-bang writing program, a computer that does everything including making your coffee, the right brand of pen and a Moleskine note pad.
I’m not talking about acquiring new tools. I’m talking about taking care of the tools I already have.
Sharpening the saw is like an athlete’s training. A guy’s not gonna get up from the couch, throw away the empties and through-hike the Appalachian Trail. Not without logging some serious time on some other trail with 35 pounds on his back, anyway.
For a musician, the saw-sharpening means a lot of practice. Developing the muscle memory and speed on his instrument. But most of it is in listening, and not just to music. Time to listen to the sounds around you, musical or not — a train, birds tweeting, conversation, even traffic.
For my writing it’s things like getting out and hanging with people, listening to good music, taking a long walk with my dog, getting into some good reading even if it’s not in my genre, and drinking strong coffee. Basically living life.
I guess you could say I spend a certain number of hours hammering out my work. All the rest of my waking hours are spent with the whetstone.
All of this off-hours saw-sharpening activity clears the way for inspiration, even though it looks like it has nothing to do with my at-the-keyboard time.
But it does.
If my saw is sharp enough to shave with, then I’m right where I need to be. I’m ready for The Muse, if and when she does pay a visit.
And if she doesn’t, fickle little wench that she is, it doesn’t matter. I’m in position, using my sharpened and oiled tools, getting stuff down.
Again, though, there’s that right balance. I could spend so much time sharpening that saw that I don’t have time to actually do anything with it. I can only read so many books, listen to so many podcasts, listen to so much music that I never get around to doing some of that myself. Overpreparation is nothing but procrastination that sounds good.
That’s why I assign myself daily word counts and make actual dates with the keyboard. At least that crazy lady knows where to find me should she arrive with the Muse dust.
But I still need to spend serious time honing my tools. That saw must be sharp.
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Disclaimer: This link is through my affiliate account, so I get a commission for any sales. That said, I still recommend the book. I’m reading it now, in fact.