The Magic of the Pencil

A pencil and paper.

How many of us have actually picked up a pencil — on purpose, and not because there wasn’t a working pen around or because it was the first suitable writing utensil in the vicinity — in order to actually enjoy the art of writing?

Until yesterday, I, like many of you, hadn’t. Not since college, anyway. In fact, until recently, I for some strange reason felt that writing with pencil, instead of pen, was somehow juvenile, that it was beneath the dignity of most people to actively choose a pencil over a pen. This, of course, was a remnant of my elementary school days, when writing with a pencil was mandatory for kids, while writing with a pen was something only adults did. (I went to Catholic school, was very observant, and had an overactive imagination. This is a recipe for many unfounded childhood myths.)

All of this changed in high school. While in every school before then pens were pretty much banned from use by the studentry*, some teachers in high school went ahead and gave the OK to use pens in class. Of course, like almost every student, I ceased that opportunity to grow up a little (or pretend I just had). After all, upgrading to a pen meant that, somehow, I was now a grown up. It also made me feel better because pens were more technologically advanced than pencils. Heck, I could even go get a job! (People who use pens get jobs, right? Right?)

* Note: “Studentry” is a term coined by William Strunk, author of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, used to describe the students of a school, much in the same way “citizenry” is used to describe the citizens of a city. He used this to substitute for the much more morbid term “student body.”

The only exception to this was Math class, where apparently there was no such thing as growing up, since we were always required to use pencil. Only once was this not the case. In my 10th grade geometry class, the teacher — a morbidly obese, rotund creature who made it a habit to eat doughnuts during class, then cry when she got too stressed out (which was quite often) — didn’t particularly care about what we used for writing, so long as we wrote legibly. “Pen, pencil, crayon, blood, magic marker, eye liner, lipstick,” she would tell every class at the beginning of the year. “Use whatever you want, I don’t care. Just make it so that I can read it.”

It didn’t take long for me to figure out why I should never use pens while doing mathematics: I tend to erase a fair amount, and scribble marks all over your paper don’t do you any good when you’re trying to crunch numbers. (I was never much a fan of calculators, so I actually wrote out all my work.) I attempted to reach a compromise by using erasable ink pens. Sure, they wrote like crap, but made me feel all adulty and stuff. After all, it was ink, wasn’t it? But is (somewhat) erasable, so that was OK. It was the best of both worlds!

Not really. Eventually I went back to using pencil during math. But man, when I got to history, it was time to break out the ink! Woooo!

In college, things were somewhat different. I had to use a pencil, but it was OK, because that was what I wanted to use. After all, if you’re going to scribble notes on your music you don’t want to do it in pen.

Then, of course, there was music composition. When writing music, Dr. Reller drilled into us that we should only use pencils, and that they should be #1 pencils, which have a very very soft lead. Unfortunately, this meant that the pencils needed to be sharpened fairly often. The reason for using this type was because of their soft lead: the tip in #1 pencils can be shaped by putting a bit of pressure on it, which is important when it comes to the calligraphy of sheet music.

For the record, if this is the first time you hear of a #1 person, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Until I got to college, I didn’t know there were such things as #1 pencils. I thought the #2 was some kind of a long-lost historical reference understood only by very boring people.

By the way, here’s a little side note: Not only are there #1 and #2 pencils, there are also #3 pencils, which have especially hard lead and are used primarily by engineers and in construction sites where people need to write on various surfaces without braking or completely annihilating the tip of the thing.

Of course, we could get into all kinds of conversation here about the history of the pencil (with carbon being used by cavemen, with the modern pencil being used first during the time of Napoleon at Waterloo, and rubber erasers being invented much later on, before which little bits of bread were used to erase pencil marks) and the pen (with the ball point pen having been invented during the 1950’s, with the first ball point pen costing something like $3,000 in today’s money), but I’d rather leave that to all the sources I learned those factoids from: the History Chanel and the back of cereal boxes.

Once I got out of college, things got even stranger in the writing front: I was using highlighters and pens to write notes in books, felt-tip pens for writing on yellow paper, and permanent markers to write on CD’s and dry-erase markers to write on whiteboards. It looked as if there was little room for the pencil, which was just fine with me: by this time I hated the things, using them only sparingly, while playing Dungeons and Dragons.

Even with all these technologically advanced, grown up ways to write things, I was still considered a luddite in some quarters: I’ve worked in offices where the next technological step was used almost exclusively, and writing on paper — even with pen! — was berated and angered the boss to no end. (“He’s probably still writing stuff on that paper sh*t,” I remember him once saying.)

For some reason, lately I’ve been wanting to go back to pencils. Maybe it’s me trying to find a bit of my own past. (I don’t like to spend a lot of time there because even though I find it comfortable, I find the future much more exciting.) Whatever the reason, I wanted to use pencils.

Yesterday I stopped by one of the local CVS (They. Are. EVERYWHERE!), where I picked up a notepad with both line rule and graph paper, and a regular pencil sharpener. (I have about 3 electric ones in the house, but they’re all extremely noisy and I hate it.) As for pencils, we have almost 100 pencils left over from when The Wife was a teacher, so I’m in no short supply.

Last night I started writing on the pad and something interesting happened: I started getting ideas and writing about things which I never have with a pen. I don’t know what it is, but the feeling of the pencil in my fingers, as it glides across the page, the smell of the wood… I’m not sure whether to say that I was inspired or that a part of me woke up which had for too long been dormant.

Whatever happened was irrelevant: I instantly fell in love with writing again, and I proceeded to write a few stories almost without thinking. At one point The Wife commented that she was amazed at all the ideas that had come to me. I guess I was as well, somewhat at least. As you probably haven’t noticed (because I’ve chosen not to write too much about it) I’ve had a lot on my mind lately. Combine that with the feeling I got from writing in pencil and the sudden outpouring of thought was bound to happen.

So… does this make me a luddite, or simply someone who enjoys getting back to the basics? Whatever that makes me is inconsequential: I love pencils. And not mechanical pencils, but wooden pencils, the type you have to sharpen from time to time, the type that’s fun to bite.

Now, if you will excuse me, I’ve got to go blog write. On paper. With a pencil.

5 thoughts on “The Magic of the Pencil

  1. Hi

    i am from India and i work in Accounting. I always tend to pick up a pencil for making all sorts of notes on a paper…I find a pencil faster than a pen.

    And with a pencil I dont have to think twice about where suddenly I am writing on….coz it can always be erased….pen-holders always ask for a scrap paper and then proceed to write carefully…

  2. finally. I found somebody who loves pencils as much as I do. In collage, all the kids write in pen. But a few of us, we are too smart for that. we understand the feel and the touch it comes with a pencil. Someone once told me a long time ago that God wrote the Bible with a ticonderoga pencil. I bet He did.

Share your thoughts