Lead on, Macduff.

[Today’s post comes from guest writer Lara Connock who lives and writes in South Africa. Many thanks to Lara for this wonderful essay about the virtues of journaling in pencil!]

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good notebook must be in want of a pen. Then, having secured the pen (by which I mean a fountain pen) he or she will want ink. And so begins the eternal – some might say infernal – quest for the perfect combination of paper, pen and ink. I have spent the majority of my writing life on such a quest and have left in my wake a brace of abandoned pens, innumerable bottles of ink and teetering piles of nearly-new notebooks in which the quick brown fox features over and over again.

鈥淎re you ever going to write anything real?鈥 my exasperated husband said one day. 鈥淚 hate seeing you wasting your time and talent like this.鈥滭br>
鈥淭hen don鈥檛 look!鈥 I snapped back. 鈥淭his is important!鈥滭br>
Although I hated to admit it, my husband had a point. My focus had always been on the form, so I鈥檇 never really got down to the function; you know, actually writing stuff (apart from that wretched fox/dog scenario). See, I鈥檓 a perfectionist with OCD, hence the search for the aforementioned combination that would ensure that my notebook would be uniform, consistent and, well, perfect. I tried to explain this to my husband but he wasn鈥檛 having any of it. 鈥淚f you really wanted to write, you鈥檇 write, and it wouldn鈥檛 matter what your notebook looked like. Imagine if Shakespeare had messed around the way you do!鈥 Naturally I ignored this.

A couple of days later I was testing a new pen, ink and paper (again). The nib was an extra-fine, the ink the driest I could get, and the paper easily ten times more absorbent than Kleenex. There was ink everywhere 鈥 on the paper, the desk, the wall, the cat, my fingers, my clothes. And. I. Was. Done. I could not, would not, waste another moment more on such an utterly pointless exercise. The pen went into the pen coffin with all the others, ditto the ink, and the notebook went into the bin.

They say that sometimes, when one gives up hope, one feels so much better. It鈥檚 true. Having crossed that particular Rubicon, I really did feel a sense of relief 鈥 but it was short-lived. You see, I still wanted to write. I just had to find something to write with. My husband鈥檚 groan of despair could be heard three provinces away. 鈥淛ust use a damn ballpoint!鈥 was his suggestion, which, though kindly meant, was patently ridiculous.

Honesty compels me to admit that I actually quailed at the thought of having to try out all those gel pens, liquid ink pens (isn鈥檛 all ink liquid?), rollerballs and fineliners. When did writing instruments get so complicated? One鈥檚 writing life in days of yore must have been so much simpler when all one had to write with was a bit of graphite and a raggedy old piece of vellum or whatever. Come to think of it, I鈥檓 pretty sure the Bard himself would have tossed his goose quill in the quill coffin, along with his iron gall ink and all its attendant issues, the moment he found out that he鈥檇 have far less hassle writing those plays of his with a stick of graphite wrapped in string. 鈥淥ut, damned quill! Is this a piece of graphite which I see before me, the sharp end toward me? Come, let me clutch thee.鈥滭br>
And there was the solution to all my problems. So simple. (My husband鈥檚 sigh of relief was deafening.) I bought a cheap notebook and an equally cheap pencil. Indeed, a pencil. Which, come to think of it, wasn鈥檛 actually that cheap. If I was going to be writing with a pencil, it had to be a good one. The art store offered two choices: locally produced pencils or imported German ones. It was the proverbial no-brainer, my thinking being that since this particular German company had been producing pencils since 1662, they had more than likely perfected their craft by now.

Pencils have, um, revolutionised my writing and journaling. They have taken away all the pain and left only the pleasure. I did get a bit sidetracked in the beginning by the myriad grades of hardness and darkness; my own fifty shades of grey, you might say. I settled on F-grade pencils, the baby-bear鈥檚-porridge grade: not too soft, not too light, just right. (FYI: an F pencil is a #2.5 in the US.)

Pencils are what an old friend of mine would call 鈥渨illing writers鈥? I know that when I put that beautifully sharpened point to paper (any paper!) it will write the first time. No skipping or hard starts because the ink isn鈥檛 flowing; no feathering or bleeding or ghosting either. I won鈥檛 be able to change my mind halfway through a journal entry about the colour of the ink or the feel of the nib or the tooth of the paper. And when the pencil has been worn down to the ferrule 鈥 having given up its life purely for my writing pleasure (cue violins) 鈥 there will be a quiver of its clones to choose from. They will all write in exactly the same way as their predecessor did, thereby ensuring that the pages of my notebook remain beautifully uniform and thus appealing to the twin gods of Perfectionism and OCD. (And did I mention the thrill of being able to erase mistakes?)

Consistency being a big thing for me, I like the fact that a 500-year-old piece of graphite (quaintly known as plumbago in those days) will write almost as well as a Koh-I-Noor or a Blackwing produced in 2019. (But I鈥檓 basing that assumption on the online community鈥檚 reviews of them, not yet having had the opportunity to test drive them myself.)

The world is a vastly different place now than it was when farmers in Britain’s Lake District, circa 1560, used the recently-discovered, new-fangled plumbago to mark their sheep. Fast forward five centuries and there are legions of six-year-olds clutching jumbo-sized, triangular-shaped pencils and learning to write their names for the first time.

Pencils have survived world wars, industrial and technological revolutions, feasts, famines, droughts and disasters, and are still here. Of course, in our digital world, Millennials, Generation Z鈥檚 and converts from Generation X might rather take notes on their smartphones or tablets, but that doesn鈥檛 mean that pencils have become obsolete. Far from it. People apparently love the vintage, the antique, the old fashioned things of bygone eras. (I suspect we may have Downton Abbey to thank for that.) Vinyl records have made made a comeback along with manual typewriters, fountain pens and 鈥 in certain homes 鈥 afternoon high tea.

Pencils have never really gone out, and in the last decade or so they have enjoyed 鈥 and are still enjoying 鈥 an increase in popularity. The difference now is that people are buying, collecting and using pencils because they want to, not because they have to.

No pencil article would be worth its weight in graphite if there was no mention made of those literary greats who loved pencils 鈥 Hemingway, Steinbeck and Thoreau, and, before them, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci. I鈥檓 not going to repeat everything that has already been written about John Steinbeck鈥檚 passion for Blackwings because any pencil lover who doesn鈥檛 know about it must be living on a remote, nameless island or in an underground bunker previously occupied by hobbits.

Today, more than 20 billion pencils are produced worldwide every year. Currently there are upwards of 40 blogs devoted to pencils, my host鈥檚 included. Online stores are doing roaring trades, as is the now famous pencil store in New York owned and run by Caroline Weaver. (One day, when I don鈥檛 have to pay 14 South African Rand for one US dollar, I鈥檒l make my pilgrimage. Until then, I鈥檒l just skulk around the place online.)

Don鈥檛 get me wrong. Just because I鈥檓 a new convert to pencils does not mean I鈥檝e fallen out of love with fountain pens. This isn鈥檛 a rebel song about their many vagaries or a protest march against the cost and elitism of fountain pen friendly paper. And don鈥檛 think I don鈥檛 see you glowering at me from the sidelines, you Pilots and Sailors and TWSBIs, and your besties, Clairefontaine, Rhodia and Tomoe. You all still have your place; it just isn鈥檛 in any of my notebooks. I tried so hard to love and bond with you, I really did, but I just don鈥檛 feel it. Now I鈥檝e lost my heart to the product of an old German family, the House of Faber-Castell, and I鈥檓 committed for life.

Even so, it isn鈥檛 happily-ever-after just yet. I still have to find the ultimate pencil sharper and the apogee of erasers, along with pencil caps, pencil extenders and a pencil case to carry it all. So, lead on, Macduff.

6 thoughts on “Lead on, Macduff.”

  1. It鈥檚 so nice to see someone in the same place I鈥檓 in. I spent almost twenty years searching for that perfect combination of pen and ink, but pencils are so much more reliable and even. I love just being able to write without the distractions!

  2. I have a lovely pencil sharpener that my hubby gave me for Christmas- it sits in the palm of my hand and has its own leather case. Made in Germany- to go along with my favourite HB2 Mirado- classic!

  3. Great post. Thanks! I can relate with your search. I spent a lot of time with inks and paper, then writing software and even the perfect keyboard. I got into pencils and I鈥檓 content and writing more.

  4. Masterfully written! I could not agree more, fountain pens can be temperamental and finding the perfect balance is prohibitively expensive. But I can offer some suggestions for both the fountain pen and the eraser.
    Unlinke the author of the essay, I am a avid draughtsman and sketcher. I also use a very cheap notebook paper in my work, so I found a good enough pen with an extra fine nib, the chinese (I know, I know) eyedropper Moonman M2. Trust me, its needle point doesn鈥檛 bleed or scratch too much. For eraser, any dust-free eraser (like a Faber-Castell or Staedtler) will do the trick, or you could get a kneaded eraser.
    Hope that helps someone!

  5. I鈥檝e never read an essay about me before and there it is. Brilliant, I must show it to my wife, she may understand my passion now.
    Thank you.

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