On Pencils and Process

I love pencils. I wrote every draft of The Last Pilot using Staedtler’s traditional HB; a fantastic pencil. They’re light and feel good in the hand. I got through about thirty of the things.

The process was this: write a chapter, then go back and write it out again, deconstructing, editing, condensing in the space that exists between the two. Then do it again, and again, and again, until it’s right – or as close to being right as I can get it before forcing myself to move on.

GIVEAWAY: Benjamin is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. (UPDATE: andreawrites4 won.)

 

Benjamin-johncock-author-writer the-last-pilot-book-cover

Column by Benjamin Johncock, author of debut novel
THE LAST PILOT (July 7, 2015, Picador). His short stories
have been published by The Fiction Desk and The Junket.
He is the recipient of an Arts Council England grant and the
American Literary Merit Award, and is a winner of Comma
Press’s National Short Story Day competition. He also writes
for the Guardian. He lives in Norwich, England, with his wife,
his daughter, and his son. Follow him on Twitter.

I’d end up with a massive stack of paper (I like to use lined, A4 paper, top bound, ideally 65gsm, with a narrow rule and margin) so I’d use a date stamp to identify each draft as I went, otherwise things would get very confusing. Then I’d type it up; an edit in itself.

At the end, I’d print it up single-spaced (I can’t stand reading double-spaced) and read, scribble all over it, type it up again. Then print, scribble; rinse, repeat.

There’s something unique and wonderful about writing in pencil. You feel a closer connection to the words as you put them down. Your fingers are grubby with lead; it gets in your nostrils; long furls peel from the sharpener, piling up as you write. I love the resolve that accompanies a freshly sharpened pencil; the added precision of those first hundred or so words. And the more words you write, the smaller your pencil gets. What better measure of progress? It’s strange to witness. I can’t think of other tool that vanishes as you use it. With a pen, you still have the pen when the ink has run dry. With a pencil, all that remains are the words on the page. I found myself somehow… smoking them… as I wrote. It was a bad habit.

(How NOT to start your story. Read advice from agents.)

Jason Kottke said that people’s love of pencils is “partly childhood nostalgia, partly how a craftsman comes to care for her tools, and partly the tactile experience. It’s also a blend of appreciation for both their aesthetic and functional qualities, and (especially these days, but not only these days), a soupçon of the disruptive passion that comes from willfully embracing what poses as the technologically obsolete.”

Which is pretty spot on. He also added, “I feel like there’s something powerful about pencils that I feel viscerally but don’t fully understand. There’s the manuscript part: as much as I love to type, there’s something super powerful in that alignment of the eye and the hand.”

I, too, don’t fully understand it.

Here’s Johnny Gamber, founder of Pencil Revolution:

“The first and best reason to use pencils is because you like them and enjoy writing/drawing with them. Because you feel better connected to the paper you’re writing on (or the wall, etc.) and the earth from which the clay, the graphite and the wood all came. Because they smell good. Because sharpening them can be a sort of meditative process. Because you can chew on them. Or for reasons we can’t explain.”

I love how he talks about pencils coming from, and being of, the earth. And he, too, ultimately can’t explain why we love pencils. Which is another reason why I love pencils.

I have all the pencil stubs left over from writing The Last Pilot. They’re old friends; comrades who laid down their lives for a greater cause; fallen heroes. They deserve a memorial of some kind. I may line them up, like soldiers, and frame them.

GIVEAWAY: Benjamin is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. (UPDATE: andreawrites4 won.)

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13 thoughts on “On Pencils and Process

  1. Debbie

    A time machine. That’s what the pencil portrays. Not only does it evolve from childhood with all the erasing, breaking lead, smearing lead, and sharpening – BUT, the endless hours from childhood to adulthood in thinking, drafting, calculating, and finalizing. Oh, and let’s not forget our Scantron tests…filling in all the appropriate circles. The pencil is much more than a writing instrument. Thanks for sharing your story and for taking us down memory lane.

  2. andreawrites4

    I love the green Staedtler HB with the white erasers. I just bought three boxes (along with a pack of erasers) because I love writing with them. ha! It was a great article, I definitely could relate to the experience. Thanks and keep up the great work! (I would love to read your novel!)

  3. mgewton

    Ahh pencils. I immediately remember the silver sheen of lead smeared upon my left hand as it lazily slid along every paper I wrote in school. A curse of the left handed writer. One thing I do like about writing with a pencil is leaning in close and putting all of my focus on the single word being written. Sure, typing is faster and more can be accomplished but there’s something about being able to slow down and pay attention to each and every word. That focus only becomes more intense as the pencil shrinks.

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts on pencils; its nice to stop and think on such things.

    ~ Marcus

  4. mgewton

    Ahh pencils. I immediately remember the silver sheen of lead smeared upon my left hand as it lazily slid along every paper I wrote in school. A curse of the left handed writer. One thing I do like about writing with a pencil is leaning in close and putting all of my focus on the single word being written. Sure, typing is faster and more can be accomplished but there’s something about being able to slow down and pay attention to each and every word. That focus only becomes more intense as the pencil shrinks.

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts on pencils; its nice to stop and think on such things.

    ~ Marcus

  5. tatumrangel

    Thanks for sharing this article. It takes me back to when I first started a journal, which was when I was in the sixth grade. I wrote many entries in pencil and loved it. Occasionally, I’d use pens, but I really loved the idea of using all types of pencils. In fact, I still have a mug filled with new ones. Time for me to get out my memo pad and pencils.

  6. bluestu

    I love all kinds of writing instruments. Lately, I’ve been using fountain pens. That has taken me to also expand and try a few mechanical pencils. For just doodling, the pencils do a great job of letting me express my inner artist. It gets frustrating looking at the stationary catalogs and just wanting to try to use everything! There are so many good things to try!

  7. authormeyer

    Great article! I love the idea of writing via the pencil, or ‘Old Faithful’. I think too many years of playing video games has increased my chances of either arthritis or carpal tunnel, because my right hand tends to ache after writing a few sentences. Still, maybe I can work through it. I still face an additional barrier: my writing looks like chicken scratch!

  8. paquettegi

    This article is very enlightening. I hadn’t really thought about it before but after reading your perspective, my thought is this… The communication connection is more alive when writing with a pen or a pencil. The eye-hand-thought conjunction is strengthened when the creativity streams out of an implement directly connected to and controlled by me. I agree that the slowly disappearing pencil acts as a status update for my progress and the urgency of completing a project written in pencil keeps me on task – some part of me fears the words will disappear before I am finished. Thank you for sharing this article.

  9. Cariwitchet

    Arghh. I hate writing with pencils. When I think of pencils the first thing I remember is having the worst handwriting in first grade. I was the last one in my class to print my name perfectly so that I could keep my pencil in my own desk instead of a jar in the center of the table. The pencil was a fat, dull, red thing and it made awful smears on the paper. We weren’t allowed to have erasers, so I would try to get rid of my inevitable mistakes by spitting on my finger and rubbing the paper. The cheap newsprint always got a hole and I always got scolded. My pencil sat by itself in the jar on the center of the table day after day after day. My mother was so outraged she ended up calling the teacher a sadist and ordered her to give me the damn pencil already. I even view my eyebrow pencil with suspicion. I think you should give me a copy of your book out of pity.

  10. Yankeedoodle30

    Hi Chuck, Great topic today. It hit me right where I live.
    I make a living by sharpening pencils for other writers who only use No. 2 pencils. They mail them to me , I sharpen them and mail them back The turnaround time is 2-3 weeks. That’s because I sharpen them by hand and then test each one out by writing a short story. Less than 500 words. I get all the big important and rush jobs and then the rest of the time I train the new people in the art and science of using an electric pencil sharpener for the people who can’t afford to have their pencils hand sharpened. Some of my clients include: Stephen King, Simon Cowell, (he wants to hire me full time but I don’t want to move to England), Alice Cooper, Condy Rice, and the 5th grade kid down the block. I forget his name but his dad works for Apple. He’s a bit of a rebel I guess. I had to start this job at the bottom. Replacing worn out erasers, but with a persistence of vision and a little help from my friends, who are mostly old guys from the 70’s,(and bald) I have worked my way to the top. Next year I plan on selling my 10 shares in the No.2 pencil sharpening company and parlay the money (almost 700 dollars) into some kind of hedge or lawn cutting fund for my retirement. My dream job is becoming an assistant slip & fall litigator for K-Mart or the Big W.
    donnie

  11. Katie

    I too love using pencils!! I do like the tactile feel, but also I like them because I self-edit obsessively (bad habits…) and I hate scribbling out words in pen. Erasing is my friend 🙂

    I even keep at least three sharpened pencils at work just in case inspiration strikes!

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