Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The art of shaving

with 9 comments

A few days ago, I quoted the unnamed physicist who told Wolfgang Köhler that scientists in his profession speak of “the three B’s”—the bus, the bath, and the bed—as the places where ideas tend to unexpectedly emerge. In my own case, two other activities are especially conducive to serendipitous thinking. The first, as my hero Colin Fletcher knew, was walking. While I don’t often have a chance to go on long hikes of the kind Fletcher wrote about so unforgettably, even a short walk to the grocery store has a way of working out whatever story problem I’m trying to solve at the moment. (Although I’ve also found that if I have music playing on my headphones, as I usually do, it tends to drown out that inner voice, which is a reminder that it’s sometimes best to leave the iPod at home.)

My other favorite activity is shaving. I’m not quite sure what it is, but I’ve had more good ideas at the bathroom sink than at any other location in the house. And I’m not the only one. In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes writes: “A close friend of Einstein’s has told me that many of the physicist’s greatest ideas came to him so suddenly that he had to move the blade of the straight razor very carefully each morning, lest he cut himself with surprise.” And while I’ve never cut myself, at least not for that reason, I’ve certainly been startled by unexpected insights. The most stunning moment, by far, is when I realized the true identity and motive of the killer in The Icon Thief, for a murder that I had already described with an eye toward a different suspect entirely. It’s one of my favorite memories as a writer.

Not every profession lends itself to thinking while shaving. For poets, it can pose a problem, as A.E. Housman notes. I’ve quoted him on this before, but since it’s one of my favorite pieces of writing, I see no reason not to quote him again:

One of these symptoms [that poetry produces in us] was described in connexion with another object by Eliphaz the Temanite: “A spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up.” Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.

This is such an effective indicator of true poetry, by the way, that Robert Graves proposes it as the definitive test in The White Goddess, although authors seem divided on its consequences for a morning shave. In Pale Fire, Nabokov writes, in the voice of the poet John Shade:

                    …Better than any soap
Is the sensation for which poets hope
When inspiration and its icy blaze,
The sudden image, the immediate phrase
Over the skin a triple ripple send
Making the little hairs all stand on end
As in the enlarged animated scheme
Of whiskers moved when held up by Our Cream.

Later in the same novel, the mad commentator Charles Kinbote points out the inconsistency between Shade and Housman’s accounts, and notes that since Housman “certainly used an Ordinary Razor, and John Shade an ancient Gillette, the discrepancy may have been due to the use of different instruments.” Clearly, a controlled experiment is required, perhaps with a side investigation into Douglas R. Hofstadter’s self-referential number P :

P is, for each individual, the number of minutes per month that that person spends thinking about the number P. For me, the value of P seems to average out at about 2. I certainly wouldn’t want it to go much above that! I find that it crosses my mind most often when I’m shaving.

After years of experimentation, my own routine has settled, rather surprisingly, on an old-fashioned shaving brush and cake of shaving soap. I was partially inspired by Updike’s description of Harry’s shaving regimen in Rabbit is Rich (“He still uses a rusty old two-edge safety razor he bought for $1.99 about seven years ago, and lathers himself with an old imitation badger-bristle on whatever bar of soap is handy”) but mostly from simple frugality: a cake of shaving soap is cheap and lasts close to a year, at least the way I use it. My razor, at the moment, is a Gillette Sensor, the blade’s lifetime extended by occasional stropping on a pair of jeans. (It really seems to work, although reports of blades lasting for half a year or more are probably atypical. Two weeks is a good number for me.)

All in all, it’s a modest routine, but shaving, I’ve increasingly come to understand, is one of life’s joys, even with the simplest of tools. And it’s in those unassuming moments, when one’s mind is free to wander, that the best ideas often arrive. I think I’m going to try it right now.

9 Responses

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  1. I’m an advocate of the Dovo Shavette. Tutorials are on Facebook.


    June 2, 2011 at 11:11 am

  2. It looks like something you’d like! Still, I’m intrigued…


    June 2, 2011 at 11:17 am

  3. “A close friend of Einstein’s has told me that many of the physicist’s greatest ideas came to him so suddenly that he had to move the blade of the straight razor very carefully each morning, lest he cut himself with surprise.”

    I love that quote. It really reminds me of my own morning routine. It requires great focus and deft movement to avoid cutting oneself. Its a great time to think. It’s really a meditation of sorts. The time spent stropping, the making of the lather, then the careful, but balanced act of slicing the hairs away. Rinse, relather, repeat. After so many years, it has become almost routine, but I must always concentrate or else risk a cut. And then I’d have to spend an extra 30 minutes stopping the bleeding, or put a moleskin on and go forth with a bandage on my face. :P

    A Sharper Razor

    June 2, 2011 at 4:05 pm

  4. I’ve always wanted to write an essay on shaving metaphors in art and philosophy. In addition to the ones I’ve mentioned above, there’s Bertrand Russell’s barber paradox, Occam’s Razor…any others?


    June 2, 2011 at 9:44 pm

  5. You’re just too smart for me sometimes.


    I agree with the meditation part.

    It’s anything that has your mind concentrated but relaxed. You can’t be entirely awake but not asleep either.

    Hmm..that was me in elementary school come to think of it. Especially math.

    So you must be engaged but disengaged. Shaving would be perfect by golly!


    June 3, 2011 at 11:32 pm

  6. The best line is from Quine. Occam’s razor is often dulled by Plato’s beard.


    June 6, 2011 at 6:30 pm

  7. To wit, there’s one that went well and one that ended disastrously but hilariously.


    June 6, 2011 at 6:36 pm

  8. That Quine quote is pretty awesome.


    June 6, 2011 at 8:49 pm

  9. obviously like your website however you need to check the spelling on several of your posts. A number of them are rife with spelling problems and I to find it very troublesome to inform the truth however I抣l definitely come again again.


    January 2, 2021 at 12:30 pm

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