On The Glory Of The Pencil

Originally published by In Clover magazine

There is a man sitting alone at a picnic table in a public park, a sharpened Staedtler in his hand, a journal beneath the led, or beneath the graphite, to be more exact—silvery gray like smoke curling into a white sky, this cursive script written to nothing and everything all at once—and that man is me, a copywriter by trade, a scribbler of all things profound or inane, a documentarian of words whispered to myself by a deeper self. The one who stands in communion with what Dylan Thomas called “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” or what Spinoza called “Nature”. I come here to be alone, ear buds in my ears with no music playing, the phone left at home with the computer and the to-do list, and I come here to sit among strangers: the joggers in their Day Glo uniforms staring at me from their corners of their eyes, the dog walkers, the mothers and fathers of the children on the squeaky swings.

            I come with my coffee and I sit at my picnic table and I write whatever comes to mind, the pages of my journal flapping in the wind, the cars swooshing past on the distant freeway. The shadows on the grass look like the lace of a black brazier peeled from the chest of a woman with hazel-green eyes; the sky is a pink marble entryway in a French cathedral. I write about writing, as I’m doing now, or I write about the soft feeling of my wife’s toes wiggling themselves awake in the morning, the white light pouring into our bedroom window, the pigeons cooing on the windowsill. I keep my Staedtlers in a metal case that we picked up on our travels through Southeast Asia. The case is made of tarnished bronze, or of tin that is meant to look like bronze, and it opens and closes with a sharp click, calling to mind objects you might find in an antique shop: an old tobacco tin, dog tags from World War I, Chinese coins with square perforations in the middle. The case holds thirteen pencils, all of them red and black, all facing in one direction, their points like roofs of thin Dutch houses or peaks of tree tops in a dense pine grove. Each pencil, sharp or dull, is slipped into the crank-shaft pencil sharpener that my mother gave me for my twenty-ninth birthday. It chews the pencils into sharp points, and with each turn of the crank, the world fades, the whispers grow louder, and my mind sets into a state that can only be described as meditative.

            It’s time to write—and today the subject is the pencils themselves. Hard in my fingertips. Soft on the page. The pencils help me transition from a place where information moves faster than my ability to process information into a new place where the only thing that matters is the word I am currently writing. This word. This sentence. The pencil moves at my speed of thought, and it tells about its progress as we move along the page. Good, it says in its scratchy voice. Keep moving. Keep going. This is a sketch. You can edit these words later, when you type them into your computer at home. You can fill in the blank spots, erase the superfluous details, and shade these thoughts until they pop off the page like an origami crane, its wings spread wide, its beak headed south for the winter.

            “I am a little pencil,” wrote Mother Teresa, “in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.” “Just the pure luxury of long beautiful pencils,” wrote Steinbeck, “charges me with energy and invention.” “You have the sheet of blank paper,” wrote Hemingway, “the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer than things can be true.” 

            The pencil never lies. It writes what you will it to write. It clings to each word like a good friend lost in a good conversation. I am with you, it whispers. I am of the earth, as is the paper you write on, as is the hand that cradles my rigid edges. Hexagonal in shape—to kindly keep it from rolling off your desk—the pencil may grow dull or work itself into a nub, but it will never die on you without warning; it will never explode in your pocket on a long flight overseas; and it will never ask you to download software or to find a power point when you’re lost in thoughts of plots and endings, character development, love, and treachery. The pencil will never stab you in the back. It is unperturbed by sand or salt, wind or rain. It writes in fair weather as it writes on the muddy battlefield. Love letters home to a sweetheart in Oklahoma, field notes from the arctic explorer, the pencil performs when other tools balk at the challenge, as it has performed here, on this park bench down the road from my house, the kids walking past in their lopsided backpacks, the school bus waiting on the corner. There have been times when I have returned to the pencil in the middle of the day, at my office job where I work to feed my family, and in those moments, as with my time in the park, the pencils free the traffic of my mind, return me to my intuition, and turn up the volume of my inner voice. I write an email, in longhand, to a cantankerous colleague. I write copy for a client who needs my words to sell their wares. And when I am finished, I return to the computer and transcribe the thoughts composed with focused intention, as these thoughts were composed with focused intention—these thoughts, which will no doubt be typed up as soon as I rise from this bench and return to the day. These simple thoughts written for you (whoever you are) about the drag of hardened led across the slices of a shaved tree, about this moment in time, signed and decorated by these simple tools. These thoughts on the glory of the pencil.

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