As much as I recommend avoiding the romanticism of the writer’s life, I do find myself fascinated by famous authors’ creative processes.
And what better way of fuelling this fascination than by gawking over their tools of creation?
To be honest, the only reason why I have a LAMY 2000 sitting in my drawer is because Neil Gaiman uses one to draft his stories. I’ve also written on Vim to emulate George Martin’s preference for Wordstar.
But now that I’ve decided to stop blindly going down the path of tool-collecting, I’ve found myself gravitating towards simpler and cheaper options.
Learning about pencils—or more specifically, John Steinbeck’s fascination of them—quickly turned into an exploration of Hemingway, Atwood, and Nabokov’s preferences for it.
And like a kid being peer-pressured into his first drag of a cigarette, I found myself wanting to write with pencils so I too could be cool like the authors I looked up to.
The quirk that caught my attention
John Steinbeck’s creative process was thus: sharpen 24 pencils and stick them point up in a container. Start writing. Once a pencil is worked to a dull point—generally after four to five sentences—it would be stored point down in a separate container.
After all 24 pencils are blunt, they’ll be sharpened once more before the process is repeated.
Now, I wouldn’t say that I followed Steinbeck’s footsteps and ordered four boxes of Blackwing pencils, but I did try out a few lead grades to see which I liked best.
And while those of you in the United States may be used to the #2 (HB) pencil, I found myself actually disliking the light lines, and so I’ve defaulted to 4B, and I have to say that I’ve been hooked ever since.
So why write with a pencil?
Like many of you, I could count the number of times I used a pencil since primary school. But now that I’ve spent some time with it, I can see how it fits into my writing life, and because of that, I’ve decided to regal you with the benefits of using pencils.
I’ve been using pencils almost exclusively for a couple months now, including for morning pages and journalling, and I have to say, at about MYR 1.50 (USD 0.30) per pop, they’re pretty much the most affordable writing tool out there.
This is especially true if you factor in mechanical pencil refills, which cost only MYR 5 (USD 1.20) for a pack of 40 lead refills. You know what’s cool about cheap writing tools? You get to focus on the writing.
They write anywhere
I never knew that writing upside down was a problem until I got into fountain pens. Then I realised that ballpoint pens faced the same problem. It’s not like I routinely write while in the cobra pose, but I sometimes use tilted easels, and that’s enough of an angle to cause skips with my fountain pens. With pencils though? I’m fine as long as the tip touches the paper.
I have to admit that I haven’t really put this to the test, but I do have journals from 20 years back that still have my pencil scrawls as dark as the day I had written them. Sure, they can be erased, but it won’t be me doing said erasing. Oh, and graphite is waterproof too.
They last forever
I mean, a pencil gets shorter as you use it, yes, but if you leave it stored in a cupboard for decades, it’ll still work just as it would today. The same goes with a mechanical pencil. Try that with a fountain pen filled with ink. Heck, try that with any pen, gel or ballpoint.
Unexpected lessons from writing with pencils
Look, a tool’s a tool, and a pen should do the same job as a pencil when it comes to writing, right?
Weirdly enough, I’ve found a different cadence when writing with pencils, almost more mindful of the skritch-skritch on paper and the way my letters look once the point turns into a chisel.
Thanks to graphite, I’ve also discovered a few unexpected lessons in general. And you all know how much I enjoy connecting the mundane with faux-enlightenment.
So here are a few things pencils have taught me about life.
Everything is temporary
Nothing reminds you of that fact better than a wooden pencil. Not only does it get shorter as you use it, but the balance changes too, and you’ll find that the same pencil will seem like a totally different one even throughout the day.
Couple that with the fact that graphite is erasable and you’ll realise just how temporary life is. It makes you appreciate the moment more, because right here, right now, is what really matters.
Who knows what’ll happen tomorrow? Your life will have shortened, just like the pencil, and your efforts will be recorded down somewhere, but one day they’ll disappear, just like you.
So get to writing, while you’re still filled with life, because tomorrow could be a very different day.
You can always fix yourself
I’m pretty light-handed, so I don’t break lead all that much, but there have been times when my cheap sharpener would chip the tip just enough so that it’d break at certain angles, and I’ll end up with two points, which feels like writing with a fruit fork.
That’s life for you though. Sometimes you break, and sometimes you grow duller from work. But you’re always a couple of turns away from returning to your old self, sharp and useful as before.
And that’s what we need to remember when life gets us down sometimes, that we can always get back in shape.
Do your job and do it well
The pencil doesn’t call any attention to itself. In fact, it’s so modest that we’ve probably forgotten all about it since our teachers introduced pens to us.
But what we take for granted is that the pencil does its job fantastically well. It’s dependable, and it writes even on wood, glass, concrete, or steel.
You know what that’s taught me? That you don’t need to be a remarkable person to do great work. As renowned chef Marco Pierre White likes to say: “Keep it simple. Perfection is lots of little things done well.”
Life is not a zero-sum game
This is more personal than anything. Pencils have taught me that I don’t need to abandon ink just because I’ve recently found joy in graphite, nor do I need to be a pencil zealot.
I like to think of myself as a minimalist, so the tools in my life need to cover as many bases as they can. That was my life with fountain pens, and boy did I write everything with the pens, even if the situation didn’t call for it like, say, filling in immigration cards where the ink’s easily wiped off.
I’ve since learned that it’s okay to have phases, and that I don’t need to Marie Kondo my other hobbies just because I don’t have enough time for all of them.
And while it’s great having less clutter in my life, it’s also awesome to be reminded that I have diverse interests and a rich life.
In the end, it’s all about you
Here’s a TL;DR for you: Pencils really change the way I write, but sometimes, I feel it’s all just in my head.
Because in the end, it doesn’t matter whether your fingers are resting on a keyboard or curled around a pencil because it’s you who will be doing the writing. And as we’ve learned from one of the points above, the you today might be totally different from the you tomorrow, everything being temporary and all.
Your preferences for words will change, and so too will your constitution against the blank page. You’ll approach the same story with a different lens, or you won’t feel like approaching it at all.
Steinbeck wrote: “For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good ones but never the perfect one. And all the time it was not the pencils but me.”
Even though he meant that in the context of pencils, it applies so well to writing in general. Because our magic lies not in the instruments we use, but in our very selves. And maybe it takes exploring all these different tools to learn that.