The Pencil Intrudes

My dog, an ineffably cute West Highland Terrier, brought the pencil to me in her mouth. I took it from her mouth and wondered, Just how smart are you?

The previous night I had watched the somewhat slow, but lovingly photographed retrotech documentary, No.2: Story of the Pencil. I discussed with my wife a difficulty with writing long, extended passages that I did not have during my youthful make-the-deadline days.

I was too indecisive. Instead of letting the words flow (with or without caffeinated inspiration) and then cleaning up whatever seemed yucky later, I agonized over far too much for far too long. This agony drove me to do too much research on the Internet, or to cool my anxiety by rounds of solitaire. The result was predictable: not much was written, less was finished.

I recalled from biographies that many of those whose work I admired began their creative day with a pen or pencil. Though some writers graduated to fancy pens or snazzy typewriters (I, too, owned an Olivetti electric portable and tried for a brief time to write with a Mont Blanc fountain pen), John Steinbeck preferred pencils. He would sit down most mornings and start writing something, a letter to a friend, or a passage of description. This may, or may not have lead to useful work: he burned almost all his early drafts. But it coalesced, sooner and later, into finished work that he then sent to a agents and publishers who stood by him when his work was incredibly controversial (California farmers vigorously denigrated him for The Grapes of Wrath),  turned into a play (he refused to have anything to do with Of Mice and Men‘s theatrical adaptation and even bragged of not having seen it) and, finally, won the Nobel prize–a distinction so overwhelming that it turned him into an indecisive writer who had difficulty finishing anything.

Throughout his life, his writing began with pencil and paper.

The next day I was on my word processor, preparing a piece for this blog, when my dog, or rather, the pencil intruded.

As I held the pencil in my hand, I wondered if my dog could understand English. Could she sense my emotional turmoil?

Pets, like children, will do things that we can’t explain. Some of what we can explain (or, at best, we believe we can explain) are so astonishing.

I turned off my word processor, went downstairs, sat in a comfy chair, pulled out a pad I used to bring to places that served coffee so, among the intense lap toppers, parents chatting about children, business folk who can’t or won’t spring for a meal and teenagers on a tentative first date, I could build worlds, move stories forward, invent marvelous characters and polish a gleaming turn of phrase.

I began writing. I didn’t finish anything but I liked immediately how easy it was. I didn’t have a keyboard in an awkward position on my lap. My wabi sloppy handwriting was easy to read, without perfectly legible letters appearing on a screen. I had no urge to switch screens and check the news, check e-mail or run down a fact. Having lost my deck of cards, I could not resort to solitaire.

If I didn’t like a passage, I drew a line through it, or I flipped the pencil and rubbed it away. As one of the talking heads in the pencil documentary observed: you hold creation and negation in one object, two opposing characteristics at opposite ends.

The limitation of choices, the inflexibility of narrative flow, the feeling that what you’re doing must go somewhere because a pencil is a thing with a point and a point does not merely indication direction: a point creates it.

So I’m off and scrawling. The current strategy is to let things happen with pencil and a pad (NOT a yellow legal pad–I associate that with my father’s law office) and then revise as transfer text to digital form.


Maybe I’ll find editors, publishers and more readers who just may stay with me for a while.



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