Tuesday, 6 January 2009

In praise of pencils – Anne Rooney


The pencil is the writer’s forgotten friend. Before a word hits the screen, there’s the delicious awakening when the muse stirs and we lure her from her cave (or café). This is the time for jotting down wild ideas, odd phrases, plot points, character traits – for courting the story, learning what it’s like and what it likes. The jotting and jiggling of this story-enticing dance is not fit work for a computer. It has to be scribbled on odd bits of the page, and the page might be an old napkin, or the edge of the newspaper, or the back of the tax return, or someone’s homework, or even your hand. This is when the pencil comes into its own (eyeliner pencil if you’re using your hand).

The pencil is for contingent or experimental work, for when we’re feeling free or when we’re feeling cautious. Will I like this idea? Or might it look so embarrassingly stupid I’ll wish I had never written it down? Did I really think I might write about an octopus with tentacle-tangle? If I rub it out quickly, no-one need ever know (not even future-me).

Or perhaps you have a beautiful, pristine notebook, the creamy pages already, in your imagination, crowded with the absolutely brilliant story you’re going to write. But it’s very difficult to sully the first page with the reality (which never matches up to the elusive Platonic ideal) and squander that promise. A pencil lets you try things out, knowing nothing need be forever. A pencil is for the writer who doesn’t have the courage of his or her convictions, who wants to flirt with words but isn’t ready for commitment.

And a pencil feels nice. It’s wooden, so it’s warm when you pick it up; the graphite glides easily onto the page, especially if you have a pencil with several Bs in its name. But then again, a pencil with several Bs makes a darker mark, so you also need an HB pencil, too, for when your ideas are even more flighty. (Promiscuous, moi?) And you need a very good eraser, because the only thing worse than a horribly stupid idea staring up at you is the smeary blur that is the incarnate remains of a horribly stupid idea, inexorably reminding you of what you tried to obliterate. And reminding you that not only did you have a really stupid idea, but that you are also very bad at buying erasers (or throwing them out when they get hard). This year, I will buy lots of nice erasers, ready to rub out all my really stupid ideas. That feels like a comforting plan.

8 comments:

Brian Keaney said...

A computer does everything that a pencil can do but backwards and in high heels.

Mary Hoffman said...

I am anti-pencil, except for drawing or for annotating Italian texts.

Give me pens all the time - only they must write black. For me, crossing out is the equivalent of the pencil-user's eraser, with the added benefit that you can see first thoughts even if repented of.

But then I don't really write with anything except the laptop. Pens are for notes, family trees, plot-mapping, timelines, index cards etc.

So perhaps the delete key is my eraser?

Susan Price said...

Brian - even if the computer is wearing high heels, you can't open letters with it, or scratch inside your ear with it, or throw it at an annoying cat. It's difficult to amuse yourself with a computer by balancing it on its pointy bit and spinning it. You can't, in an emergency, stir your tea with a computer; you can't chew the end of a computer while thinking...

Lucy Coats said...

Ah. Pencils. In the early days of my writing career (equivalent to the 'fish' stage in the Guinness ad) I used to write everything longhand, and in pencil. I think, somehow, I felt that my tentative then-attempts must be written in something more ephemeral than pen in case they came back to haunt me. Pencil fades, you know. I can hardly read those early notebooks. Then I trained myself out of it and hurled myself through evolution and onto a computer. I don't write with pencils any more, but I do have a thin moleskine and a green or purple finetipped pen, which gives me huge pleasure to write ideas down with. For signings, I use my trusty gold Parker ink pen, and blot. It was the first ever fruits of my writing career (won it as a prize), so it has ritual significance.

Brian Keaney said...

Susan - you surely don't mean that you would consider throwing a pencil at Biffo! I'm surprised at you

Linda said...

I vote for the pencil too - it has nuances a computer can never have! It shows your mood as you write: press softly for wisps of ideas, press hard for brilliant ones, break the point in a splatty mess on the paper and go right through to the next page when someone else gets the same idea as you!

Linda Strachan said...

Hi Anne
Not a flippant post at all!

I am in the 'not' writing with pencil group. If not a computer I like a pen, with a rich flowing line, although I am at times tempted by a very fine point pen.

A pencil would be too distracting, leading to shading and sketches and shapes... and no writing at all...

Susan Price said...

Brian - I have thrown pencils, rolls of sellotape, cushions, rolled up socks and orange peel at Biffo. You don't know how annoying he can be! Also, I have no hope of hitting him. He doesn't seem to hold it against me. Or even to get less annoying.