Benjamin Johncock

novelist, writer

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Pencils and process

I love pencils. I wrote each draft of BURNING, BLUE 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.

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. 

I came across a great piece on pencils on Kottke this morning: 

People love pencils. They love them. It’s 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.

Spot on. He also says this:

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. He quotes Pencil Revolution’s founder Johnny Gamber:

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 BURNING, BLUE. 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.

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