The pencil geek blog

This might be the week I write two blogs. There are a number of news items that I have been linking together in my head, taking me from Goebbels to a warped concept of religious freedom to drivers treating the city centre as a rally course to students being punished for telling their university they have been raped.

That is, however, something I need to write when the emotion from today’s writing session has abated. Which leaves me with pencils. Pencils do not have emotions. Pencils are good today.

I started with the idea that I needed a laptop and monitor to write. And when it comes to editing, I am pretty sure I was right. But the longer I go, the less I want any technology anywhere near me. And the more I am convinced that, for me at least, there is something about the physical act of writing that is different from a keyboard. It might just be that I have spent many years writing e-mails and papers at work on a keyboard to be able to switch to using the same instruments for a very different type of writing.

I go back and forth, though, particularly to and from my Neo, but when I hit a dead end, I find myself with paper and pen again.

Except that it’s pencil and paper. And I think I have settled on a perfect combination (“a”, not “the” perfect combination. There might be more than one.)

Rhodia is the best paper I have ever found. And the fact that the covers are orange is a bonus. The paper is just ridiculously smooth. The only paper I use if I have a choice. I buy it in batches of ten pads now.

And then there is the question of the pencil. The American influence suggested Ticonderogas – the yellow ones you see in a great many films once you start looking for them. It helped that Costco started selling them by the hundred after years of only being able to get them via eBay at a somewhat inflated price. Lovely pencils. But not for extended writing time. Their softness is lovely for writing notes, not for writing pages.

When it comes to inflated prices, how about $40 a pencil?

Enter the Blackwing pencil. No, I had never heard of it either. I’m still not sure how I came across it. Fortunately it was after they started making them again and individual ones were no longer going for $40.

I’m a convert. It has nothing to do with the famous people who have allegedly used one in the past. It’s just a tool, like a typewriter, a pen or a computer. If it works for you, great. I don’t think there’s much more to it than that. It’s easy enough to try them out and see what feels right.

This one works for me. And last week, it got better.

It turns out I go through pencils at quite a rate. Even the firmer version of which I had a couple of boxes loses the sharp point relatively quickly, after a few lines. Which means constant stopping to sharpen it. And I ended up with little stubs of pencils which look quite funny.


There is a now a new version. My version, it turns out. There’s a story behind it, which is utterly irrelevant to whether it is better than what they had before. But it is quite interesting anyway, and it gave me the (now obvious) answer to that sharpening problem.

The design of the pencil was influenced by what John Steinbeck’s son thought his father would have wanted it to look like. Where the “look” is driven by its purpose. To get out of the way. So it is entirely black, even the lettering is embossed black on black. Apparently gold lettering would be a distraction. In which case, Steinbeck would have struggled to get anything written in the age of the Distractanet. But the graphite core is harder. And harder is better as long as it writes as dark.

It’s pretty perfect. Four lines before sharpening becomes more like a page at a normal, slow speed. Apparently Steinbeck (this is the geeky part) sharpened his pencils at the beginning of a writing session and had them all in a container. When one lost its sharpness, it went into a second pot and the next pencil came out. Until today, I thought that was a bit much. Then I started to get up speed. And I found that I had no time to twist the pencil slightly to keep the point sharp. And I was glad I had paid attention and had twelve sharp and ready to go. Suddenly I was going through them at a rate of knots, switching a dull one for a sharp one and just keeping going. No need to sharpen as I went along.

I recognise that this is all utterly pointless if you are writing on a laptop, when you are going to have to go for some time before you wear out the keys. Although in my defence, it is a lot cheaper to replace a pencil than a keyboard.

I liked the story, but I liked the pencils better. And I now understand why Steinbeck had a hundred pencils ready to go. At 4 or lines each, you soon run out of pencil. Good job they are still making them, otherwise my little pot would be empty.


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