Several months ago when Tim’s hard drive crashed, taking with it pages of his writing,  my thoughts went to backing up my own computer more often, as well as to something else:  Pencils. 




After all, the less complex the instrument, the fewer possibilities for malfunction.Admiring pencils put me in good company:

  • Thomas Edison had his pencils specially made by Eagle Pencil. Each pencil was three inches long, was thicker than standard pencils and had softer graphite than was normally available.
  • Vladimir Nabokov rewrote everything he had ever published, usually several times, by pencil.
  • John Steinbeck was an obsessive pencil user and is said to have used as many as 60 a day. His novel East of Eden took more than 300 pencils to write.
  • Vincent van Gogh only used Faber pencils as they were “superior to Carpenters pencils, a capital black and most agreeable”.
  • Johnny Carson regularly played with pencils at his Tonight Show desk. These pencils were specially made with erasers at both ends to avoid on-set accidents.
  • Roald Dahl only used pencils with yellow casing to write his books. He had 6 sharpened pencils ready at the beginning of each day and only when all 6 pencils became unusable did he resharpen them.

[So, here I am using Wikipedia to download info. for a piece that is in favor of pencils over computers.  I do see the irony.]


A little bit of history.  Before the modern lead pencil came the stylus, which can be thought of as its model.  Used originally in Mesopotamia, and originally made from bone, sticks, or reeds that had been plucked from marshes, under the physical pressure of a skilled hand, the stylus can accomplish this:



In contrast to the computer’s ones and zeros which could instantly vanish, leaving nothing behind —  no trace, record or history — the solidity and chiseled permanence of inscribed clay gives reassurance.  It lasts.


 The stylus also gives physicality to the writing process, as does the pencil (vs the computer keyboard’s minimal fingertip effort).  We are slowed down, in an age of hurry, perhaps even discovering more psychological depth than with the quickness of the computer.  Through slowness we descend.


 Of course, there are more, far more, ways to go about the physical act of writing, each of which carries its own culture and psychology.  I love the idea of writing with a soft brush on ancient Chinese silk.  It sounds so smooth and watery.


Consider not only some of the implements for writing, but some of the materials upon which we have written:

Leaf.  Tortoise shell.  Bones from camels, goats, sheep.  Rock surface.  Bark.  Deerskin. Gold.  Mother-of-pearl.  Writing that strolls the shopping mall, tattooed on human skin.  The choices for writing material are varied and rich.


 As are the purposes of writing itself.  In Sumer, a chief original function was that of keeping business records, but I more quickly warm to this, the churinga:


Using wood or stone, the Australian aborigines used the churinga to relate current people to their ancestors and to those mythical beings from Dream Time who were both human and animal.  These mythical Dream Time beings shaped the land as they moved across it.  They were, so to speak, writing the land, bringing the land into being.


We can think of writing and the land in other, but related, ways.  In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram says that the land is filled with “suggestive scrawls and traces, from the sinuous calligraphy of rivers winding across the land, inscribing arroyos and canyons into the parched earth of the desert.”  He goes on: “The swooping flight of  birds is a kind of cursive script written on the wind. . . .  Leaf-miner insects make strange hieroglyphic tabloids of the leaves.”  And this:  “These letters I print across the page, the scratches and scrawls you now focus upon, trailing off across the white surface, are hardly different from the footprints of prey left in the snow.”


In this movement backward I’ve been sketchily tracing — from a pencil putting graphite on paper, to stylus incising clay, to insect borer lacing patterns into a red maple leaf, to a lost wolf pressing quick prints across a snowy field as he searches for his family — writing is physical and very much in the world.


Although the computer inspired my thoughts about impermanence and the sudden loss of written ideas, even incised stone will fade.  The ephemerality of a leaf or of paw prints in snow couldn’t be more obvious. It all goes so fast.  


As for Tim, fortunately he retrieved his lost material.  But maybe Tim’s crash was also telling me about another lost material, the physical world, and that it was time to return to reading it.




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3 responses to “Pencils

  1. Louise Hawes

    I love this post, Mark. And Abram’s book is a treasure — one I keep by me. Thanks for your reminder of the ephemeral vitality all around us, and the need to make it immortal with our attention in the now!

  2. Anonymous

    Mark, Henry Petroski has a book called THE PENCIL that’s right up your alley! leda

  3. Julie Larios

    I am definitely going to find that Abrams book – thanks, Mark. And isn’t it wonderful to know that when you look at a pencil, you can see rivers, birds, and insects? Being able to do that is all about recognizing patterns – as is reading an alphabet, as you say. Making sense of what intially feels random, right?

    For a long time, I was a devotee of Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencils, but Sarah Ellis converted me to the Staedtler Norica HB 2. SUCH a wonderful pencil!!

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