My Brush with an Old Man’s Blade

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A few weeks back I set off a minor firestorm with a story about a magic stapler.

The story and stapler were both fabricated. Completely and utterly, just to illustrate my point in the piece – but that enraged some readers who were wound up for a stapler with nowhere to blow their wad of cash.

I hope to correct that today with another story and moral, also about an office supply product – but this time, it’s 100% true.
Scout’s honor. (Okay, that pledge was a lie: I was never in the scouts, never received a badge for camping in a tent. There are bears out there, you know.)

Anyway, this is a tale about a magic pencil sharpener.


When I was in 8th grade, my algebra teacher was a cranky old man named Mr. Jones. (He used to call me “Mr. McNasty”).

Actually, by the time he was my teacher, he was actually pretty mellow, since he was just a few years from retirement.

(Legend had it that just years before, he would hurl his chair across the classroom when a student said something particularly stupid. The good old days of discipline before smartphones and youtube.)

Anyway, I had terrible handwriting as a kid. Mr. Jones hated seeing my scrawls and figured I needed a sharper pencil. So he took out a 6 inch blade, sharpened it with a whetstone with a mad glint in his eye, and slowly advanced on me as I backed into the corner …

Just kidding. Actually, he did something a lot cooler:

He ushered me to a locked door that had gone unnoticed on one wall of his classroom. He slipped the key into the lock, turned it slowly, and solemnly opened the door.

… and inside it seemed to be an ordinary supply closet: test forms, extra paper, maybe a rag or two in case a kid vomited from nerves on test day.

But there was one glittering object in the center that made this little alcove very special:

A heavy duty, nickel plated (or so it seems in my memory) pencil sharpener.

Not the ordinary plastic gray and brown pieces of crap that were standard issue in public schools. (You know the ones – with all the little holes that you can adjust for different pencil sizes – who has 6 different sizes of pencils??)

No, this baby was industrial grade, and that’s why Mr. Jones kept it under lock and key. And that day, as a special lesson to me, he allowed me to partake of all its mechanical glory.

I wish I could describe it better to you, but all I see in my memory is a sunburst of gold.

Brazilian Jesus statue pencil sharpener

Ué! Kind of like this, but with more trumpets. (Found at

I placed my pencil in its tight embrace and turned the crank. The action on the crank arm was as smooth as silk. Grind, grind, grind.

And when it would grind no more, I pulled out my yellow Dixon Ticonderoga #2 (with the tiny bands of emerald green circling the eraser holder) and lifted the pencil to my nose, inhaling deeply, savoring the scent of freshly ground cedar and graphite.

That pencil was razor sharp and it etched crisp lines of computations on my page. Suddenly, I was no longer balancing equations and solving for variables.

I was doing magic.

I felt like I had been initiated into the higher mysteries of the cult of writing implements. (And let me tell you, as a 7 year veteran sales clerk of an office supply store, there are plenty of True Believers out there.)

Mr. Jones gave me an experience that changed my math homework, if only for one day: Dull problem solving was transformed into the pleasure of wielding a powerful tool.

And that’s exactly what stories can do for marketing – work a kind of alchemical magic, elevating an ordinary experience into a legendary one.

Marketers, like the great John Carlton, have been wont to quote the American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation …”

So when we can offer an adventure, an escape — even if just briefly — to our audience, then our marketing is no longer an interruption – it’s a welcome respite from a day filled with stress and expectations and the gathering, groaning weight of a hundred tiny disappointments.

That’s why we go to the movies, right? That’s why fiction outsells nonfiction?

So anytime we place our product or service in the context of an adventure – raise it to the status of a legend – we have the opportunity to entrance and sell our customers.

The key is to find the dramatic element in what our product or service does – the “awesome sauce” that makes someone’s life glow a little brighter.

Doesn’t matter if that benefit is a thundering symphony, like a cancer cure, or a gentle sonata, like a better mousetrap — No matter the scale, if we make something that solves a need, someone’s life was changed for the better.

We find what that is and we tell that story.


Stories can work a kind of alchemy – transforming something ordinary into a legend. Take the best magic your product or service has to offer and place it inside a story.

(P.S. I did it again, didn’t I? Got you all worked up for a magic pencil sharpener and I can’t even tell you where to get it? I’m sorry. But at least this one is a true story.)

What magical experiences have you had with a product or service?

Let me know in the comments below.

Stay Tuned For Next Week …

In which an attempt at comedy ends in tears.


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Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry is a direct response copywriter who specializes in telling stories. You can contact Scott and learn more about using the power of stories in marketing at
Showing 12 comments
  • Reply

    Rude, Scott. Now I’m on a mission to find an exotic pencil sharpener.

    You’re challenging my Essentialism, bro.

    • Reply

      Oh yeah… great story!

      • Reply

        Thanks — I actually wasn’t the only one to experience that golden moment — my good friend enjoyed the glory too. (He and I still talk about it.)

    • Reply

      Hey man, challenges strengthen us! You’re just being tested 😉

      • Reply

        Yeah, but …

        Ballpoint, like a trusty 35cent bic?

        Rollerball, like a Uniball Vision with its rainbow of colors?

        A gel ink scribbler, like my smooth writin’ Pilot G2?

        Felt tip, like a Pilot V-Razor?

        Or are you ready ditch these pedestrian implements and invest in areal writing tool …

        Like a Caran d’Ache Ecridor Fountain Pen with its steel point and rhodium plated, hexagonally-shaped body?

        Rabbit holes, Marcin, rabbit holes …

        • Reply

          Ditch the fountain pens. G2’s are overrated :P, ha ha ha, prefer a Pentel Energel. Instead of the V-Razor I’d go for a Sakura Pigma Micron. Oh, but the sizes also matter, and the paper… (DoubleA, all the way – they should pay me for this slogan), oh and the color…. ehhh, alright, I give up. 😀

        • Reply

          Ballpoint… Uni-Ball Jetstream 😉

  • Bruce Wesley Chenoweth

    Scott, I will be able to die much faster because of you. Reading your stories is causing my life to flash before my eyes while I am still alive and well. There will be little need to when I am passing on.

    At my “grade school.” “Idaho City #72” (now a protected and preserved state historical site) the multi-hole pencil grinder was mounted to the middle window sill. Grades 1 through 4 were taught in one room on the first floor. 5 through 8 were on the second floor.

    The window with the pencil sharpener for the upper grades looked out over the town. Since what was going on outside was usually much more exciting that what was happening on the inside, many pencils met an early demise as students slowly ground them to death while seeking a brief visual respite from their boredom …

    … but that was not my “magical experience with a product” by any means. The one that popped into mind when I read your question involved a 1958 Oldsmobile 98, a.k.a “the blue rocket.”

    A friend had purchased the car for his teen-age daughter. Apparently he had expectations that she would be a bad driver, as his rationale was “it is big so she has a better chance of surviving a crash.” This proved prophetic. A few days after graduating to her “real driver’s license” from a learner’s permit she rear-ended a police car. It seems that she was showing off how powerful the car was to her friends when it happened.

    Dad was NOT pleased! Both the daughter and the Oldsmobile were grounded long-term.

    Although the police car was totaled, the Oldsmobile only sustained a bent bumper and crumpled right-front fender. Dad sold the Oldsmobile to me for $150.

    Another friend and I did the “body work” ourselves using a tow chain and a large stump. We wrapped the chain around the stump, hooked it to the bumper and put it in reverse to pull it away from the front wheel. Even though the dual-headlights never pointed quite right again, we deemed it roadworthy.

    I was never a “car guy.” so I don’t really know engines. I know it had the largest engine that Oldsmobile made at the time. The number “455” comes to mind. What I do know is that it would go from a dead stop to friggin’ airborne so fast that passengers were helplessly embedded in their seats during acceleration.

    One of the rural roads near our home rarely had any traffic, and it went up and down gentle hills for several miles. My children were young at the time. Their favorite entertainment was “Go fast, daddy!” on that road. We all enjoyed the weightless feeling that happened as we crested each of those hills and that monster of a car gently went airborne, then floated back down to the road.

    Unfortunately, I was addicted to all that power. Each time I put pedal to the metal and got high off the roar of the 4-barrel carb sucking in air I also watched the gas gauge take a sharp left turn. My wife, only slightly more mature than me at the time, wisely considered that expense in conjunction with the dangers of me taking our children flying down deer-infested country roads.

    Wives can be persuasive. We traded it in on a Dodge Dart.

    I LOVED that blue rocket! Had I know that my wife was going to file for divorce less than a year later, I would have traded her in instead.

    I wonder if my kids still remember “Go fast, daddy!”
    I think I will give them a call.

    • Reply

      Always a pleasure to read your stories Bruce — your first sentence up there is quite the hook.

      (and I’m always happy to dish out a “Total Recall” moment.)

      That car sounds like a beast. I’m not a car guy either, but I wouldn’t mind having that kind of power at my feet for an evening.

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